Thursday, July 19, 2018

Universal's Holmes Revisited, Part II

Basil Rathbone and Edmund Breon in DRESSED TO KILL (1946).
After Universal has guided Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson through a few WWII espionage thrillers, a few horror-tinged thrillers, and then a gothic mystery or two, some subtle changes were manifest in the series' subsequent releases. Someone in an executive position (above that of producer-director Roy William Neill) must have suggested, in the way executives tend to suggest, "Don't you think the Holmes films could stand to be... oh, I don't know... less brooding and a little more gay?" (Gay in the old-fashioned sense.) The next two films in the series, THE WOMAN IN GREEN and PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, represent a willful breaking away from the familiar tobacco-dense rooms at 221B Baker Street into the larger worlds of society, fashion and adventure.

THE WOMAN IN GREEN was, notably, the last of the films to be scripted by their most characteristic and clever scribe, Bertram Millhauser. The plot is itself a minor variation on its immediate predecessor THE HOUSE OF FEAR, as a number of murder victims - this time, women - are found around London with one of their fingers severed - "with the consummate skill of a surgeon." There is a peculiar disconnection between this "signature" aspect of the case (introduced as its principal mystery, it turns out to be nothing more than a grisly fetish applied to the murders by one of their lesser engineers) and the case that follows, which is a variation on THE SPIDER WOMAN, as a glamorous woman (Hillary Brooke) uses a form of cannabis, hypnosis and her own charms to persuade an innocent man of social prominence (Paul Cavanagh) that he is the actual perpetrator. The mystery seems more complicated than it need be even with just this much in play, but the script goes on to attach as mastermind the supposedly dead Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell, formerly one of Moriarty's stooges in SECRET WEAPON, and a high-ranking member of British government in VOICE OF TERROR), who somehow cheated the hangman in Montevideo, though we hear him perish by different means in SECRET WEAPON. Disappointingly, most of these characters are introduced and incriminated in our eyes before Holmes even has a chance to deduce anything about them, and his final unravelling of the case is ultimately due to his having been in the right place at the right time and making a guess based on a hunch. Deduction plays not much of a role, and it seems to play a lessening role in the films from here on out. The script is somewhat familiar, even doubly so (which may account for Millhauser's departure), but the overall look of the film is new, with nightclub scenes and lots of Vera West dresses and gowns modeled by the alluring Brooke. Also, for the second time in the series (after THE SCARLET CLAW), the special photographic effects services of John P. Fulton were recruited to take the viewer within the seductive spells she weaves over Fenwick and, later, Holmes himself. Derivative it may be, but THE WOMAN IN GREEN is a B-picture made in unusually high style for its period, and Daniell is the most persuasive of the Moriarty actors. Owing to Dennis Hoey's unavailability (or perhaps it was decided to go for a more sober approach), the role of Inspector Lestrade was temporarily replaced by Matthew Boulton as the more serious Inspector Gregson - a character first introduced with Lestrade in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Holmes novel, A STUDY IN SCARLET. This film also contains a shot that I found hair-raising as a child, as Holmes uses his binoculars to identify a cab passenger trailing a visitor to his digs, and sees just a sliver of the evil stranger’s eye peering around the edge of the rear window. I would include that shot on a list of the 10 scariest things I saw on TV as a kid. Brrr!


If THE WOMAN IN GREEN represents a move toward a brighter shade of escapism, PURSUIT TO ALGIERS is even brighter, taking place almost entirely aboard the S.S. Friesland as Holmes and Watson escort an endangered King, incognito, back to the safety of his home country. There is a spot of fog and footsteps in the dark, but mostly this film gives us daylit promenades on deck, sentimental songs around the piano, shuffleboard games, and a festive final night party. There are some initial suspects and the usual load of red herrings among the Neill eccentrics, but as with the previous film, the real villains are openly so from the moment they are introduced (one of them is Martin Kosleck - the screen's favorite Joseph Goebbels, as a former circus knife-thrower turned to homicide), so Holmes needs no process of concentration to identify them - and we do not share his vantage during his various escapes from death; they are presented as action set pieces and then conveniently explained later. Even so, there is a lot here to enjoy, not least of all a moving Nigel Bruce interpretation of the traditional Scottish song "Loch Lomand." 

Then we come to TERROR BY NIGHT, which is probably the least of all the films in this series, on a technicality, but it's nevertheless perfectly in character with the other films; it's lively, well cast, intermittently droll, and compulsively watchable. Another escort tale, this one finds Holmes and Watson aboard a train as they are hired by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) to protect her priceless gem pendant known as the Star of Rhodesia. Also aboard the train and determined to have it is none other that Col. Sebastian Moran, a former high-ranking henchman in Moriarty's mafia, traveling in disguise (though no one involved in the story has apparently ever laid eyes on him). The problem with TERROR BY NIGHT is that it shoehorns Holmes into a situation that any mystery protagonist could handle just as well, and Holmes' genius is less here about his intellect than his ability to get out of deadly traps physically. Also, virtually every scene or sequence is punctuated with cutaway shots from a much older film, which the IMDb identifies as the British production ROME EXPRESS (1932) - though some of the later stock rail footage appears to have come from a picture of German origin.  a welcome touch of the macabre, Skelton Knaggs has a small part in the last reel as an essential piece of the puzzle. He fits so effortlessly into this universe of characters, it's perplexing to me that he appeared in only one of these, and for such a short period of screen time. The femme fatale of this story is one Vivian Vedder, the subject of a simply awful portrayal by Renee Godfrey.

The series' swan song, DRESSED TO KILL, has always been one of my favorites and it's a nice return to form after the previous two. Like the previous few titles, it opens with an extended bit of backstory about what lies at heart of the crime to come - which, in this case, is three homely wooden musical boxes manufactured by a prisoner in Dartmoor Prison and sent to an auction house where they are awaited for some reason by a criminal recipient - before introducing Holmes and Watson. They get pulled into this case rather ingeniously, through an old school chum of Watson's, Julian Emery (Edmund Breon) who happens to get himself knocked-out and robbed of a lookalike box (he relates the story to them) before he is visited a second time and murdered in a grab for the real item. Emery is one of the most touching, likable characters to get knocked-off in the series, and we can feel Watson's hurt thirst for vengeance, restrained as it is. Once again, a stylish woman, Mrs. Hilda Courteney (Patricia Morison), is his chief adversary here, and Morison has opportunities to flaunt her talent for disguise, and to charm Holmes as he attempts to beard her in his den (and vice versa), again à la THE SPIDER WOMAN - and, in a twist on the Creeper's lovesickness toward Naomi in THE PEARL OF DEATH, Hilda is the object of her burly chauffeur's romantic obsession, though this feels like the remnant of a more detailed draft. (The chauffeur is played by frequent repertory players Harry Cording.) Though the script is reduced to having Holmes escape from a death trap like Clark Kent in an ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episode, Holmes' gifts of photographic memory, musical memory, and his powers of deduction are well brought to bear, but in a somewhat charming resolution of the series, he openly admits at the end that the most decisive breakthroughs in the case were brought about by the eurekas of his old friend, Watson.

As I noted previously, my revisitation of these films has been my first complete viewing of the Universal titles as included in MPI's COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES COLLECTION Blu-ray set, which followed their DVD version into release after some years. The versions included in this set were much ballyhooed as being faithfully restored at the UCLA Archives (a job said to have been partly funded by Hugh M. Hefner), and it appears they do reconstruct the films as they originally appeared in theaters - replacing the Realart reissue and TV syndication main and end titles that followed them into television in the 1950s - but this often means that inferior quality materials had to be referenced. That said, while some sequences pop with a never-before-seen lustre (the meeting scene between Rathbone and Evelyn Ankers in VOICE OF TERROR is one of the most memorably stunning improvements), there are just as many instances of such footage cutting away to other footage that looks excessively dupey. The irregularities of quality are particularly noticeable in TERROR BY NIGHT; and PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, as presented here, was evidently unable to recover its original end titles. On the positive side, these presentations include all of the original opening material leading into the stories, which to this day strikes me as odd and unfamiliar because it was snipped out of my initial viewings on local television stations, to help move things along. It's a miracle in some cases, seeing what was removed, that those broadcasts ever made sense!

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Cracking the Spine of Holmes - Electronically

I am taking advantage of my current absorption in Sherlock Holmes to finally read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A STUDY IN SCARLET.

I know, I know.

Actually, I've read a fair number of the short stories over the years, but for some reason, never delved into the novels - and I am so impressed. Conan Doyle takes brilliantly to the larger canvas. In fact, I would say this is by far the best novel I've ever read that consists of a few men and the occasional woman just talking in three or four rooms and moving from one to the other.

But the jaw-dropper is when Holmes proves the ineptitude of Scotland Yard's best by solving the case, giving us the name of the murderer, and opening himself to questions regarding his deductive reasoning. I'm reading this in an ebook, Delphi's COMPLETE WORKS OF SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, so I imagined there was maybe one chapter left, and then I turned the page to see "Part II"... and Part II commences many decades earlier, in the most barren patch of the North American desert, another continent entirely, with no immediate sign of a living soul for miles around!

This is not just great writing, it is masterful showmanship. I daresay it is probably one of the literary forebears that led to the term Kubrickian.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Universal's Holmes Revisited, My Facebook Notes - Part 1

Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
Every so often, I have to revisit Universal's Sherlock Holmes series (1942-46), just for the love of the films - and to see how well they are continuing to hold up under time and familiarity.

Naturally I began with SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON - the first of Universal's contemporary war-themed programmers about the great Baker Street detective. In some ways, what’s old is sadly new again. I'm not going to take the time to go back and copy out dialogue, but it was eerie to hear isolationist MAGA-like rhetoric coming from the mouths of Limehouse criminals. Also interesting that the villains of these two pieces turn out to be a wealthy war profiteer (Lionel Atwill as a creepily snake-eyed Professor Moriarty) and a Third Reich officer masquerading as a high-ranking member of the British government, who is attempting to dominate the empire with terrorist appropriation of the media. Same as it ever was?

The next film in the series, SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON, is more incidentally war-related, going under the surface of international relations to explore the subject of espionage. It boasts George Zucco presiding over various MUMMY props as an international spy ringleader living under the guise of an antiques store owner who just happens to be, once again,  one of the wealthiest, most respected men in town. Henry Daniell is in it too, though he’s thrown away in a bit part. The first of the series to be produced and directed by Roy William Neill (who effectively took over from this point), IN WASHINGTON introduces the series' hallmarks of droll humor, marvelous character actors, and a more successful accommodation of the Conan Doyle literary tropes within the contemporary setting.

It was followed by SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH, based on “The Musgrave Ritual.” This is one of the series’ best, a gothic mystery set in a convalescent home for shellshocked veterans (thus the contemporary element, and one critical of the emotional fallout of war), resulting in a bevy of memorably eccentric performances. Very often I remember moments from these films but cannot assign them to a particular title; this is the one in which Holmes, testing a man's reported alibi, upsets Mrs. Hudson (Mary Gordon) by firing a series of bullets into the lapels of a head and shoulders sketch of a man on his apartment wall. A very young, pre-MGM Peter Lawford appears briefly as a uniformed customer of the pub, The Rat and The Raven. We see the Raven, but are left to take the Rat on faith.

The next three films in the series - conveniently collected on one disc in MPI's Blu-ray collection - are  THE SPIDER WOMAN, THE SCARLET CLAW, and THE PEARL OF DEATH - veer away from wartime espionage to such fantastic foes they seem to filtered in from the edges of classic Universal horror. THE SPIDER WOMAN opens with a twist on "His Final Bow," with Holmes supposedly fainting and tumbling to his death near a falls. The ensuing mystery - about a series of "Pajama Suicides" - doesn't quite fit with this preamble, or explain why Holmes' death ruse was necessary; indeed, his disappearance seems to have given London's criminal element to embark on a crime spree, a story idea that is suddenly dropped with the arrival of Gale Sondergaard, a refined villainess who earns her creepy nickname by using a rare and maddeningly poisonous arachnid to drive various wealthy men to suicide, with her as their beneficiary. Child actor Teddy Infurh makes a curious impression as her fly-catching nephew, whose odd walk seems to pay tribute to Chuck Jones' Warner Bros.' Minah Bird cartoons, introduced in 1939's "The Little Lion Hunter." Angelo Rossitto pops up briefly as Obongo, the Prancing Pygmy - who himself seems inspired by Inki, the protagonist who hunted that same Minah Bird in the Warner cartoons, five in all. This one has quite a few enjoyable vignettes - both Rathbone and Sondergaard attempting to beard each other in their respective dens, a rooftop chase, and various escapes from certain death (including Holmes being tied up behind a shooting gallery target of Adolph Hitler!) - but they don't add up to a particularly cohesive story. But at an hour and change, this easily qualifies as diverting entertainment. 


In this round of re-viewings, I skipped THE SCARLET CLAW because I had watched it recently, independently of the others, when I first acquired this Blu-ray set ; it’s probably the best film of the series and it’s the one I reach for when I’m after a quick distillation of what’s best about these films. (“Quick, Watson! THE SCARLET CLAW!”) Perhaps tellingly, it is also the only film in the entire series scripted by its producer and director, Roy William Neill.

Immediately following CLAW, and rounding out what we might call the "Holmes Meets the Monsters" trilogy, is THE PEARL OF DEATH. Here, the detective's chief adversary is the Fantômas-like master of criminal disguise, Giles Conover (played by the very capable Miles Mander). His Lady Beltham, so to speak, is the equally versatile Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers, also memorable in THE VOICE OF TERROR), who must be kept in line by Conover’s sadistic reminders of the unrequited affection felt for her by the back-breaking Oxton Creeper, played by the towering Rondo Hatton. Hatton's acromegalic face is kept off-camera until the right psychological moment, his early scenes focusing instead on his silhouette or on his hands, which are shown encased in a pair of tight-fitting surgical gloves that make them look eerily other than human. In this one, Holmes’ own inclination to flaunt his powers of deduction gives Conover the break needed to steal the priceless Borgia Pearl, which ups the ante a bit for our hero, who accepts responsibility for recovering it. This is a very fine addition to the series.


Next is THE HOUSE OF FEAR, in which a grim-looking mansion by the sea plays host to the members of an exclusive club called the Good Comrades, whose deaths begin to be announced, one by one, in mail deliveries of a diminishing number of orange pips. The house set is the same used in SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH, and nearly all the players are returning repertory faces. The fact that Holmes is recruited to solve the case by an insurance agent tips the story’s hand prematurely, as does everyone’s almost willful neglect of questioning whether or not the putative murder victims (all found suspiciously dismembered) are in fact dead. Regardless, the film is tight, well made, and the gothic, sometimes stormy, atmosphere adds to its pleasures.

More to come!

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.



Thursday, July 12, 2018

My New Book Available for Pre-Order!

I'm happy to announce that PS Publishing is now accepting pre-orders for my Electric Dreamhouse "Midnight Movies Monograph" on SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (Histoires Extraordinaires), the Edgar Allan Poe anthology directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. It is my first book in ten years, since the release of my book on VIDEODROME in 2008.

PS Publishing/Electric Dreamhouse, of course, is the partnership that recently brought you the marvelous WE ARE THE MARTIANS: THE LEGACY OF NIGEL KNEALE, in which I was pleased to be involved. This new release is nicely timed to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD's first public releases in Europe in the Summer of 1968. I'm glad to say that the film seems very much to be "in the air" - just last night in Neuchatel, Switzerland, David Cronenberg introduced a stand-alone screening of Fellini's segment "Toby Dammit," starring Terence Stamp.

The previous releases in the MMM series have been about 112-118 pages in length, but editor Neil Snowdon encouraged me to follow my heart with this one, and the final result is more than twice the usual length at 232 pages - yet the cover price remains the same! The book is fully illustrated, draws upon interviews involving each of the principals, and for easy reference, it includes the three Edgar Allan Poe tales ("Metzengerstein", "William Wilson" and "Never Bet the Devil Your Head") that formed the film's basis, annotated by me. The text is a love letter of documentation, shot-by-shot commentary, criticism, biography, videography - and autobiography. Yes, I said "shot-by-shot"; I wrote my analysis of the film using much the same technique as I apply to my audio commentaries. I must say, I wrote this book in a white-heat of sustained enthusiasm, and I believe it ranks with my best work - and it may well be my most inspired.

For my money, "Toby Dammit" is one of the greatest films I've ever seen, but I don't follow the common line of thinking that the other two segments are without merit. The more I wrote about the three distinct episodes, the more I came to see that SPIRITS OF THE DEAD really does function as a whole and rewards being viewed in that way. I also discovered that each of the three directors who contributed to this film made their episodes at what was perhaps the most decisive points in their lives and careers, and I discuss these fascinating points as well. Significant space is also given to Orson Welles' rejected script for the film, a proposed amalgam of "The Cask of Amontillado" and "Masque of the Red Death."

In case you're wondering "Is there a definitive version I should watch before reading?," the answer is an emphatic YES! Buy this Blu-ray and watch the English version. (The discoffers French and Italian options, as well.) DON'T watch the French version currently circulating on Filmstruck's Criterion Channel and TCM. Well... actually, Louis Malle's "William Wilson" segment is safe to watch that way - definitive, in fact - but the other two framing episodes must be watched in English, as only this version preserves the vocal performances of Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, and most importantly, Terence Stamp. Jane and Peter did their own voice work in French, but the French version now circulating bears the original export title TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION rather than Histoires Extraordinaires - meaning that the French sound has been synced to the English visual track. Briefly stated, the results are sometimes jarring and not to the film's benefit. I explain this in more detail in the book.

As I say, it's been a full decade since my previous book, so please consider pre-ordering your copy now. If my publishers see that I have a responsive and plentiful readership, they may just decide to bring you more books by me!

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

RIP Santiago Moncada (1928-2018)



RIP to Spanish screenwriter and producer Santiago Moncada, who was credited with writing Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (pictured), Claudio Guerin's A BELL FROM HELL, Jess Franco's SUICIDE GAMES IN CASABLANCA and ALONE AGAINST THE TERROR, Juan Antonio Bardém's THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent's CUT THROATS NINE, the Spanish version of Sergio Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Manuel Cano's THE SWAMP OF THE RAVENS and much more.

Moncada was virtually alone among Spanish screenwriters specializing in the macabre who produced work that was unmistakably his own, regardless of the director. He had a wonderful, playful way with psychopaths tormented by their pasts and tormenting of their present - if you haven't seen it, THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER is particularly underrated and recommended. Undoubtedly, one of the most distinctive voices in Spanish horror, gone at the age of 90.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

RIP Steve Ditko (1927-2018)


Many of us today are mourning the loss of Steve Ditko, who died this past week at the age of 90. His  greatest and most fertile period of work was produced half a century ago - in various horror comics (THE THING, OUT OF THIS WORLD, TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER) of the 1950s, in science-fantasy and super-hero comics for Marvel (TALES OF SUSPENSE, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, DOCTOR STRANGE) and Charlton (BLUE BEETLE, CAPTAIN ATOM) in the 1960s, the remarkable black-and-white ink-wash horror stories he produced for the Warren magazines CREEPY and EERIE, and the experimental and emphatically philosophical material he contributed to WITZEND in the 1970s. However, he was active right up till the end, illustrating a series of unabashedly unique, and sometimes sketchy (uninked) comics for Robin Snyder with titles like THE HERO, THE MOCKER, DITKO PRESENTS, OH NO! AGAIN DITKO, and sometimes with just a succession of numbers, #25, #26, #27. Just a few days ago, on July 4th, the latest Ditko/Snyder fundraiser on Kickstarter ended having doubled its stated goal.

As Steve Bissette has noted on Facebook, regardless of this success, the public support of this material has actually been minimal considering how many people are now reminiscing with such reverence about Ditko's work and its impact. I understand these outpourings, and I don't doubt their sincerity. Ditko's work coincided with the pre-teen and teen years of the post-war generation, the Baby Boomers, and he and Jack Kirby largely carried the weight of Marvel Comics during its heyday years. For those of us who received that work when it was new, we were young and our mental chemistry was at its most vibrant and receptive, and it was being felt by a lot of people our own age simultaneously, so that if you met someone who knew Ditko's name, that was it: you became friends. Now that we're all a bit older, in our sixties a lot of us, we may still avail ourselves of the new material as well as the wealth of handsomely repackaged vintage work, but I don't find myself discussing it with anyone - certainly not in the depth of the old days. I think what largely constitutes the impact of this work is not only what it is or was, but how we shared it, how it enriched our lives.

A one-shot, but a great moment in comics.
Ditko was the first artist of any sort whose work I learned to recognize by its style and technique. The work made me pay attention to the name, and vice versa. This must be one of the very first steps anyone must undertake to engage in the appreciation of art. There are, and always have been, people who don't like Ditko's work; they find it stilted, disjoined, unnatural, eccentric, unrealistic. To me, this was the whole point: to break away from naturalism to create one's own world - and in his case, to break even from one's own world into universes beyond. It is true, I believe, that his work was not well-suited to every character he was asked to draw, but when he had a strong hand in inventing that character, there was no one better. He may have been the first artist to streamline Iron Man's armor, for example, but the character remained hopelessly metal-bound, as Ditko lacked the linear sensuality of that character's definitive artist, Gene Colan. Ditko wasn't a sensualist, but he more than made up for it as an expressionist.

Ditko was also essential to my education in cinema. His best work is not only proudly cinematic, it can be like a highly concentrated form of cinema in which all the variation that goes into the building of a sequence must be invested in a single frame. When I look at his work, I can intuit some of the questions he likely asked himself as he began building up those images, like: What is most essential about this facet of story? What do I most want this moment to express? What is the psychological truth of this moment? What am I not seeing that I am feeling, and how can I make that phantom feeling visual? I believe, without a doubt, that when Ditko's work most meaningfully came into my life with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #13 - the first Mysterio story - the path was paved not only for my interest in Ditko (and thus comic book art itself) but for the work I discovered later by Mario Bava, whose films evoked a similar atmosphere of horror and mystery.

Original Ditko art for CREEPY #12's "Blood of the Werewolf."

Much has been written about Ditko's influence by the works of Ayn Rand, and how he lived a hermit's existence - because it's just about all the general world seemed to "know" about him. He always preferred to let his work speak for him. I know that the second point has been highly overrated; he was not a self-publicist, he didn't care about fame or fortune, but I know he got around, met people (I know several people who met or had brief encounters with him), and I have good reason to think he probably answered every letter he received from those people who took the trouble to look up his address and reach out. I mean, handwritten letters, stamped at his own expense. This is a civil and generous discipline that exists among very few people today. What I find especially remarkable, from evidence I've seen on eBay and elsewhere, is that he would sometimes write at length to a stranger to explain why his answer to their request had to be "No." On eBay at this moment (and think of this when you reach the end of this paragraph) is a Ditko letter of reply stating that he doesn't sign index cards, and pointing out that the person requesting such did not include a blank index card with their request! However, think about what that individual received - a personal explanation, returned at Ditko's own expense of time and materials, and signed twice, as was his custom - his signature underlined by his hand-printed name, as if his hand-printing had been typewritten. In essence, he was telling this correspondent, "No, I don't deal in the impersonal, but here is a reply you can take personally."


The trouble is, the few facts we know about him are evidently misleading, and there is much that we may never know. Besides Rand, which authors did he most admire? I think we can safely say Poe (what is his tale "The Terror of Tim Boo Ba" if not a retelling of "The Sphinx"?) and Lovecraft; I see a lot of Doctor Strange in Sax Rohmer's stories about Morris Klaw, collected in THE DREAM DETECTIVE. Was he inspired by music? I think his work makes it quite plain that he loved film noir - so much of his work seems to take place in the years and amid the urban scenery of his own youth in the 1940s and '50s. In his panels, you can find Dutch angles, wide angles, low-angled stage lighting, rooms turned upside down, close-ups that delve into a character's fear and perspiration, even images that seem to shout with a movie's brass sections - as in Betty Brant's nightmare about Peter Parker revealing himself to her as Spider-Man. His work is supremely cinematic, so he obviously loved movies - genre film perhaps moreso than the classics. The people I would identify as the most discerning Ditko fans seem to prize his ink-wash work for CREEPY and EERIE as his career best. Some of this is due to the unusual and highly polished medium he was working in, but it also comes from (I hesitate to say "the fact that") his sensibilities were forged in the black-and-white realm of film noir. A black-and-white he would elevate to new levels of meaning and morality in his Mr. A stories.  

This is how you draw a sock in the gut. 
I loved and admired his work deeply. I could write about it for days, but what is the essential facet of this blog entry? What do I want most at this moment to express? What is the psychological truth of this moment? What am I not saying that I am feeling, and how can I make that phantom feeling verbal?

From my heart - thank you, Steve Ditko.

More than most of the artists I've chosen as my masters, you made me who I am.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.




Friday, July 06, 2018

Rapture of the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum Revisited

Various friends have been urging me to write for this blog a little more often, that they miss me when I go away. I don't mean to be neglectful; I've been busy with audio commentaries. Would you believe I've now recorded 84 commentaries since 1999, and that approximately 36% of them were recorded in this year? That's right, this year - the one that's only slightly more than half over.

But one way that I might find my way back into blogging is by not worrying so much about what to write about, and being definitive about the things I do write. Just tell you about some of the things that are on my radar, that I think are very cool. And here's one.

My wife Donna has been an OZ book collector since she was a little girl. When I married her, I had no idea there was an OZ book series and that many books were added to the series after the passing of series originator, L. Frank Baum. When she was a kid in grade school, a teacher read to her class from Baum's THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ but somehow failed to complete the reading, which left her wondering how the story ended. Then, some time later, she attended a yard sale and found a copy of the book for sale. I was also quite taken with the illustrations in these books, by John R. Neill, and it became one of the ways I demonstrated my love to always be on the lookout for OZ goodies to bolster her collection. Whenever I pass by the shelf that holds these books, I am filled with the romance of antique books and book-making, and since the great majority of them were used, it's an extra treat to page through them and see where their original owners wrote their names and addresses on the "The Book Belongs To..." page and where some of them with artistic inclinations took watercolors to the black-and-white illustrations. At some point, the OZ books became a Christmas tradition and some of our copies are inscribed with parental or avuncular love to children who found them under a tree.

Baum himself was quite the busy writer. In addition to this series, he wrote other books of many different kinds - including other series, Young Adult adventure novels that he penned under pseudonyms like Edith Van Dyne, Floyd Akers, and Schuyler Staunton. Because his books are often beautifully made, illustrated, or just plain weird, they have become highly collectable and costly to acquire. Gone are the days when I could walk into a book store (as I once did), find a copy of the novel THE FATE OF A CROWN on the shelf, and pick it up for five dollars. There was even a time when I climbed a tall ladder in a bookshop to come within reach of their children's authors whose names began with B, and found up there an actual copy of Baum's second OZ book THE LAND OF OZ, under its original title THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. I doubt we paid even ten dollars for it.

But, as I say, he's now a pricey fellow to collect - and the OZ books of his successors (Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill himself, Jack Snow and others) sometimes even moreso, given their rarity.

The other day, I was lamenting to Donna that Baum ebooks available to for Kindle are almost never illustrated, which takes away so much of their immediate charm. She explained to me that Kindle books are not set up for illustration, which is more the province of the iPad. So I decided to see if anything better was available for iPad. I know, I know - nothing beats reading the original books, and why would I want an iPad version if I had access to those books in the first place? In my case, it's a matter of convenience; I like to read in bed, to read before going to sleep, and my iPad lets me do this without disturbing Donna's sleep by keeping the lights on. Anyway, I was gratified to discover that there are many illustrated Baum ebooks available for iPad, and also a significant number of the Thompson books (which I must confess to liking even somewhat more than Baum's - I find his puns corny and hers elegant). But what most impressed me is the volume I have pictured above.

Delphi Classics is far and away my favorite ebook imprint. They have really cornered the market in terms of "Collected" or "Complete Works" volumes. They are consistently reliable, attractive, and they also venture in their selection beyond the primary classic authors (Dickens, Twain, Verne, Wells, James, Conrad, etc) to some early 20th Century masters like Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, Wallace and Rohmer. Some of their books are less than complete owing to certain titles being still under copyright (a truly COMPLETE WORKS OF EDGAR WALLACE is available only in the UK, for some reason), but what these books manage to access is often uncanny. There are titles here you would have to pursue for a lifetime to be able to find. When I discovered that they offered a COMPLETE WORKS OF L. FRANK BAUM, I couldn't believe it. But it's true: if you have an iPad, you can download every word that Baum ever published, under any and all of his various bylines, everything completely illustrated, for a mere $2.99.

Among the treasures to be found herein are THE ROYAL BOOK OF OZ (the first Thompson novel but officially credited to Baum), the two rapturous OZ spin-off books about Trot and Cap'n Bill (THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND), fairy tale oddities like AMERICAN FAIRY TALES and QUEEN XIXI OF IX, his gender-bending mystery JOHN DOUGH AND THE CHERUB (which generated an actual "Guess the Cherub's Sex" contest upon its initial publication), his "electrical" science fiction adventure THE MASTER KEY, his "Boy Fortune Hunters" "Mary Louise" and "Aunt Jane's Nieces" series, POLICEMAN BLUEJAY, and even his widow Maud Gage Baum's autobiography. It has it all - including his rarest work THE WOGGLE-BUG BOOK, which no one has rushed to reprint, apparently because it contains an abundance of sexist and racist humor that is fairly unique among this author's work and has not dated at all well.

I have a cherished memory of my own, about the time I surrendered to the OZ book romance I mentioned earlier, and promptly sat down on the floor next to Donna's shelf, pulled down Ruth Plumly Thompson's OZOPLANING WITH THE WIZARD OF OZ (a title that always beckoned to me), and read it there and then, in that same spot. It took me about three hours, but it's three hours I continue to look back on in fond remembrance. The OZ books have been spoken of fondly by a lot of important writers - Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, John Updike, Ursula K. Le Guin, even Harlan Ellison. I think I'll be dipping back into them soon.

If I've intrigued you, I can direct you to some additional reading worth the exploration. Back in 2010, Mari Ness decided to re-read and review all 40 books in the main canon of the OZ series for the TOR Books website. You can read that fascinating body of work here.

Oh, and for those of you who are strictly about paper, Books of Wonder is a good place to look for new editions - and even one $24,000 First Edition (Second State) of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ!

UPDATE JULY 20, 2018: Upon further perusal of the Delphi Classics COMPLETE WORKS OF L. FRANK BAUM, I have discovered that only the OZ texts are illustrated. Other important illustrated books, even THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND volumes illustrated by OZ artist John R. Neill, do not represent any of the interior illustrations, just the cover art. Still a good buy, but I didn't want to mislead anyone with my endorsement.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.