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Archive for September, 2015

A few readers seemed to enjoy my recent post on Diamonds Are Forever (1971), so I thought another in the same vein might not be unwelcome. Just to put these into context: now that some time has passed since I did my massive Blofeld/page-to-screen Bond analysis, I’ve been revisiting some of the films (yet again), considering them less on their own merits, or lack thereof, and more as they fit into the context of the series.  Because the Blofeld-specific films were at that time set aside to be covered in my Cinema Retro article, they never got their own BOF posts, and another such entry is You Only Live Twice (1967).

 

Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) had upped the ante considerably from Terence Young’s excellent Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), becoming the first truly blockbuster Bond, so by the time Young returned for his series swan song, Thunderball (1965), he found the game had changed significantly in the interim.  Although it has much to recommend it, and was in fact my childhood favorite Bond film (underwater photography!), one constantly gets the feeling that Thunderball is desperate to be—or, better still, outdo—Goldfinger.  So it’s not too surprising, and perhaps fortunate, that as much as it continues some of the prevailing trends (e.g., the climactic battle scene, which in Thunderball had to be amped up by taking place underwater, and in YOLT changes it up by adding ninjas), YOLT is in many ways a departure.  Let’s take a look:

 

  • First film directed by Lewis Gilbert, who later helmed entries of wildly varying quality, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
  • Although its immediate predecessors had augmented the Bond “writers’ room” with outsiders who specialized in crime/espionage scripts (the great Paul Dehn on Goldfinger and John Hopkins, later of Smiley’s People, on Thunderball), YOLT is the first film on which none of the regular writers is credited, with a screenplay by Roald Dahl (’nuff said) and “additional story material” by Harold Jack Bloom (who he?).
  • Coincidentally or not, it’s also the first film that almost completely dispensed with Ian Fleming’s source material.
  • On the first of two related notes, it’s the first entry to incorporate overtly SF elements, since SPECTRE’s space program is so conspicuously far ahead of anything even the U.S., with all of its resources, was capable of at that time.
  • Second, although every Bond film has its far-fetched elements, this seems to me the first time they really rubbed the viewer’s face in its implausibility, again mostly to do with elements of the “Space Race” plot points.
  • The first time cat-stroking SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s face is seen, courtesy (after hasty recasting) of the late, great Donald (Great Escape) Pleasence, although he actually gets very little screen time or much to do.  This, of course, ties in heavily with the fact that because YOLT and the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), adapted their sourceworks in reverse order, the novel’s raison d’etre—Bond avenging his wife’s murder by Blofeld, or at least at his behest—is completely lost in the film version.
  • Not a first, but an interesting tangent:  YOLT plays with the ideas of Bond both marrying (a sham here, and for real in OHMSS) and dying.  The latter, albeit naturally faked, seems to continue a theme found in the teasers of two previous entries, when “Bond” is killed by Grant in FRWL and when the French agent observes, in Thunderball, that the coffin of the SPECTRE agent (whose death is also faked) bears Bond’s initials.
  • First time the title tune, at least as heard over the credits, is overtly romantic.  (The Matt Monro vocal of Lionel Bart’s “From Russia with Love,” which is mercifully heard only in passing in the film, is as schmaltzy as they come, but the instrumental  main-title version is galvanizing, and segues into a zippy version of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.”)  As he did with Bart’s tune, and later with his own title songs for Goldfinger and Thunderball, the legendary John Barry uses varied arrangements to make the melody sit up, beg, play dead, and roll over, but when it comes time for 007’s pulse-raising dogfight at the controls of mini-copter Little Nellie, he does something very interesting.  Perhaps mindful of the fact that the engine noise, machine-gun fire and explosions might drown out the music, he simply scores the scene with the Bond theme—not even rescoring it, but using what sounds like a patchwork of passages from the original Dr. No recording, to which his own arrangement and performance, with the John Barry Seven, made such a huge contribution.  Call it laziness if you will, but for an aging fanboy like me, or the little kid who saw this on the big screen with his father and brother when it was re-released on a double bill with Thunderball, there’s nothing to equal the excitement of that seminal recording as the backdrop for an action scene.
  • Although scenic global locales had figured in the series right from Jamaica in Dr. No, and almost every Bond film has some sort of “travelogue” aspect to it, this is the first time the setting and especially its culture—a particularly exotic one for Western viewers—takes the forefront so prominently, and seems almost like a character in the movie.  “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.”
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Midday Cowboy

What I’ve Been Watching: Ride ’em Cowboy (1942).

Who’s Responsible: Arthur Lubin (director); Edmund L. Hartmann, Harold Shumate, True Boardman, John Grant (screenwriters); Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Dick Foran (stars).

Why I Watched It: Old times’ sake…plus I needed a good laugh.

Seen It Before? Mais oui.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 5

And? As with many of my generation, Abbott and Costello films (if not their TV show) were a staple of my misspent youth, airing Sundays from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM on what was then a humble independent station, WPIX, channel 11. I’ve occasionally re-viewed one here and there over the decades, and when they started popping up on several of my movie stations recently, I thought it might be time for a maintenance dose. I figured, “I’ll watch one, and if it’s unbearable, that’ll be it,” but since I think I probably laughed harder at it now than I did as a kid, and found it a welcome reminder of why the 1940s remains one of my favorite film decades—easily beating the ’50s—it probably won’t be the last.

 

Let’s start with the studio, Universal, for which A&C made the majority of their movies, but which for BOF-minded viewers is known first and foremost for one thing: the horror (and, to a lesser degree, science fiction) films with which the name became synonymous. A&C’s heyday coincided pretty closely with that of Universal Horror, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they shared many personnel on both sides of the camera…although I know of at least one reader heaving a heavy sigh over the fact that this and their 1943 Phantom of the Opera were both directed by Mister Ed creator Lubin. Romantic leads Foran and Anne Gwynne also appeared in the studio’s Frankenstein and Kharis the Mummy series.

 

The screenwriters, especially Grant, are mostly A&C regulars, while Shumate—credited with adapting Hartmann’s story—had solid cowboy credentials, as did fifth-billed Johnny Mack Brown. Their supporting cast is a dream team of character actors: Marx Brothers foil Douglass Dumbrille of A Day at the Races (1937) and The Big Store (1941); frequent authority figure Morris Ankrum; the briefly glimpsed Samuel S. Hinds and an uncredited Charles Lane, both of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And who should pop up in her screen debut as Ruby but Ella Fitzgerald, singing her hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” although I’d be lying if I asserted that the musical stylings of The Merry Macs were equally memorable.

 

Universal often just unleashed A&C in a specific milieu or service branch; this was shot before Pearl Harbor but—per Wikipedia—delayed to accommodate the production and/or 1941 release of In the Navy and Keep ’em Flying. Successful Western writer Bronco Bob Mitchell (Foran) doesn’t actually know one end of a horse from another yet, after costing Anne Shaw (Gwynne) her shot at a $10,000 New York rodeo prize, tries to make it up by visiting the Lazy S, an Arizona dude ranch run by her father, Sam (Hinds). Food vendors Duke (Bud) and Willoughby (Lou), on the lam due to a mishap at the rodeo, are in tow and, following the classic Marxian template, wind up helping the soon-to-be couple.

 

Upon arrival, the boys go straight from frying pan to fire when Lou unwittingly proposes to the, uh, aggressively plain daughter of Jake Rainwater (Dumbrille), whose insistence on a “bow and arrow wedding” is the other through line in what passes for the plot. For once, I can write “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and mean it literally: Bob is hoping for some quiet tutelage—and maybe more—from Anne, but reporter Martin Manning (Lane), eager to expose him as fake, enters him in the state rodeo championship, leading to some needless folderol involving a crooked gambler, Ace Anderson (Ankrum). Not only is the Lazy S’s honor at stake, but it also benefits a local children’s hospital; no pressure, Bob!

 

This being one of their first vehicles, the boys are in fine form and the film starts strong, but by the end it feels more than a little disjointed, which along with the brevity of Sam’s role suggests possible post-production tampering. As if the story weren’t silly enough, it pauses about an hour in for a dream sequence utilizing the hoariest of humor, down to the “Would you like your palm re[a]d?” gag. At its best, however, this picture reaffirmed my preference for A&C’s more…well, “intellectual” might not be the best word, but let’s say “verbal-intensive” style over such slapstick-heavy acts as Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges; Costello’s double takes, subversive asides, and non sequiturs had me guffawing.

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They Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

That late-summer heatwave you’ve been feeling is only partly due to the actual weather; the rest is caused by the steam that started emanating from my ears all too soon after I began reading Eliana Dockterman’s “Everyone’s a Superhero [sic]” in the current (Sept. 7/Sept. 14, 2015) double issue of TIME, about how “Marvel is winning new fans by bringing diversity to comic books.” Despite its decades-long devolution (e.g., unattractive redesigns, excerpts from books I don’t wish to read and—most damningly—failure to cover notable stories, seemingly under the assumption that I would already have read about them elsewhere, in which case why do I need them?), TIME remains one of my primary sources of news, especially since the IT guys where I work proved unequal to the task of restoring MSNBC.com as my homepage. Yet this time, they ran an article on a subject that I not only am passionate, but also know a little something, about…

 

Mind you, I’m quite sure that Marvel’s diversity du jour (not limited to, but focused primarily by Dockterman on, the gender variety) is indeed popular. And I am well aware, having volunteered to take the lead on covering several of them for the Marvel University blog, that most of their Bronze-Age efforts to launch distaff super-heroes were what my newlywed daughter would call “epic fails,” but I was wary of the implication that this was a brilliant new idea, and it only took until paragraph three. “The arrival of a female Thor—and a series of other diversity moves that include…the installation of a woman in the role of the crusader known as Captain Marvel—is the work of a team at Marvel Comics led by a former journalist named Axel Alonso,” we are told, conveniently sidestepping the fact that a female Captain Marvel was introduced in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982), presumably before 2013 Yale graduate Dockterman yet existed.

 

A popular t-shirt, noting the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma,” concludes that “Commas save lives!” They certainly might have salvaged the sentence that, as published, reads: “One of the most significant moves was transferring the mantle of Captain Marvel, a hero who first appeared in 1967 to the Carol Danvers character, who had been toiling in the understudy role of Ms. Marvel.” Without that vital comma after “1967,” it incorrectly means that Mar-Vell (the first Marvel super-hero to bear that august rank) initially manifested himself in her presence, and that she was already “toiling” at that time. As for her “understudy” status, I haven’t followed the machinations since finally rejecting new comics c. 1985, but when I last saw her, she had—in X-Men #164—been changed by nobly failed Ms. Marvel scribe Chris Claremont into Binary, who as I recall was one of the most powerful characters of either gender.

 

The highest concentration of problematic “facts” is in the “Then” and “Now” sidebars devoted to specific characters, like the one calling the Falcon “Marvel’s first African-American superhero.” That may be true if you take “African-American” literally, but since—for better or worse—it’s often used as a synonym for “black,” that honor would go to the purely African Black Panther. More troubling is the assertion that “Ms. Marvel first appeared in 1967 as an Air Force pilot,” for once again, if taken literally, that is incorrect, MM per se having debuted in the premiere of her eponymous mag a full decade later. Carol, however, was introduced in Mar-Vell’s second issue, Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (cover-dated March 1968, although I suppose it might have been on sale before New Year’s), as the head of security at a missile base, and without digging through my collection again, I believe the Air Force pilot stuff was retconned in later, maybe much later.

 

Those interested can read all about Ms. Marvel #1 in our Marvel University post for January 1977, Part 2, which I believe is currently scheduled for October 7.

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