Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dining with Charles Laughton on the Train

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton’s widow, actress Elsa Lanchester, recalled that he had a couple of telling experiences on cross-country trains.
“Once, when Charles was traveling across the United States on the Super Chief in the late thirties, he sat in the dining car opposite a couple,” she wrote. “They were a nice, middle-aged, middle-class husband and wife, and Charles got into a conversation with them. The husband explained that he was in the wholesale dolls-underwear business.
“‘And you’re a famous actor, aren’t you?’ he asked.
“’Yes.’
His wife piped up, ‘But what do you do in real life, Mr. Laughton?’”
Lanchester wrote, “Charles was a moral man who was shocked by himself, so that he suffered the painful guilts of a highly moral individual. He could laugh at moral contradictions in others, but he couldn’t laugh at the paradoxes in himself. But he could roar with laughter when he told this story:
“On another of his trips across the country, talking to a couple in the dining car, Charles asked if they went to the theatre much in New York.
“ ‘No, we don’t go to plays nowadays,’ the husband answered. ‘We don’t approve of the immoral language.’
“Charles inquired, ‘May I ask, what is your work, your profession?’
“ ‘Oh,’ answered his wife, ‘my husband is in atomic research.’”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Steve Ditko's Titans: Destructive and Lovable

I think children are attracted to giant monsters for the same reason they are attracted to superheroes — because small people find it easy to imagine how nice it would be to be much bigger, more colorful and more powerful than all those bossy grown-ups who surround them, eternally barking their strange orders.
But although superheroes essentially founded and sustained the comic book industry, ongoing giant monster characters are pretty much a movie genre. Two of the exceptions were created for Charlton Comics by the great Steve Ditko  — the giant ape Konga (1960-1965) and the amphibious dinosaur Gorgo (1961-1965).
Each ran 23 issues, plus specials — a relatively long run, considering. Loving them both as a child, I didn’t consider how difficult it must have been to write stories for characters who cannot talk and, because of their Brobdingnagian stature, virtually cannot even interact with human beings. Writing tales for Rex the Wonder Dog or the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver must have been a breeze by comparison.
Konga was based on a relatively bad film of the same name, notable for starring Batman butler Michael Gough (it wasn’t his fault). The murderous Konga of the movies was killed off in the first issue, replaced in the rest of the run by a namesake sweet monkey amplified into a sweet but nevertheless formidable giant ape.
Gorgo was based on a relatively good film of the same name, with a plot that lent itself to a sustained comic book series. Gorgo was a giant aquatic reptile captured, like King Kong, for exhibition. What his captors didn’t know was that he was only a child, and that his truly titanic mommy — as big as Big Ben, and therefore 300 feet high — would let nothing stop her in her attempt to rescue him. This was one of those rare giant monsters movies with a happy ending in which the monsters won.
Gorgo was a touching tale of mother love, like Stella Dallas, and Konga was the poignant saga of a lost boy, like Pinocchio. No wonder they worked so well.

When the Right Hated Lucy: The Red Hair Scare

At 24, Lucille Ball had signed a Communist Party membership card to please her socialist grandfather, Fred Hunt. Unknowingly, she had also signed on for a nightmare.
The I Love Lucy show aired during the McCarthy era, and in 1953 ruthless right wingers were determined to use the “scandal” to destroy the show and its star. It took all of Desi Arnaz’s PR wiles to quell the storm. He joked that “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that isn’t legitimate.”
In Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Stefan Kanfer wrote, “Lucy and Desi made no more public statements, going about their business as if nothing had happened, resentful of fair-weather friends and acquaintances who made themselves scarce, and grateful to the handful who went out of their way to express their support. First to pay a call was comedian Lou Costello. Lucy thought of him as an acquaintance more than a pal; she had only been on his radio show a few times. But there he was sitting in the garden, and when Lucy asked him why he was in evidence, Costello replied: ‘You just go about your business. I’m just hanging out here for the day. I thought you might need a friend about now.’ Jack Oakie, Lucy’s costar in the old days, showed up; so did Lionel Barrymore, crippled by arthritis, who visited in a wheelchair.”
A force more powerful than even the House Un-American Activities Committee finally vaporized the storm clouds entirely, and that was the Nielsen and Trendex overnight ratings. I Love Lucy was still the number one show, and a Los Angeles Times headline cheered: “Everybody Still Loves Lucy.” President Eisenhower invited the couple to the White House, and all was well.
But not with Lucy, not entirely. “She could never quite relax after her experience with the congressmen and the fallout that came from their investigation,” Kanfer wrote. “A signature on an old piece of paper had been enough to justify her most pathological fears: one’s livelihood and social position could indeed vanish overnight, and in the end (not) money nor love nor public relations would be powerful enough to keep the jackals away.” 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

What Captain America Is All About

When I think of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at the peak of their storytelling powers, I turn to 1968 and the Tales of Suspense storyline that culminated in Captain America 100, the first title devoted to the Star-Spangled Avenger’s adventures in 14 years.
His lady love in peril unknown to him while disguised as a Nazi secret agent, Cap tackled a redoubt of the Nazi super villain Baron Zemo, the man who had seemingly killed his partner Bucky and who now wielded a space death ray that threatened the planet.
Odds against him, Cap was teamed with an African prince who was the world’s first black superhero — an irony given the fact that Steve Rogers’ archenemy was dedicated to subjugation of “inferior races,” whether black or Jewish.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

From the Pages of 'Ahem' Comics

If you ever run into anyone who wants to know the meaning of “subliminal,” you can just show them this. “Oh, whatever will we do? If only Master Man were here to save us with his giant hose!”

The Challenge of 'I Love Lucy'

Behind the cameras at the filming of the classic sitcom 'I Love Lucy'
When I Love Lucy began, the wealthiest person on the set was the cameraman.
Well, the director of photography, really. German native Karl Freund had filmed Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue, and won an Oscar for The Good Earth. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz knew him from the film Du Barry Was a Lady, and knew he’d invented a popular light meter, and that he certainly didn’t need to do a sitcom. Yet that’s what Desi wanted him to do.
In Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Stefan Kanfer noted that Desi wanted to stage the show as a play, filmed in front of a live audience of 300 with three cameras that were to be synchronized on one sound track. The film could therefore be easily edited from master shot to medium shot to close-up.
That couldn’t be done, Freund told him. Those shots would all have to be lit differently for decent quality.
“Well, I know that nobody has done it up to now, but I figured that if there was anybody in the world who could do it, it would be Karl Freund,” Desi replied.
Intrigued by the project, “Papa” Freund ultimately  signed on for union scale. “Papa was loaded anyway,” Desi said. “He could buy and sell Lucy and me three or four times. The money he had made out of the light meter alone, plus a lot of acreage in orange trees he owned in the San Fernando Valley, made him a man of considerable means. The challenge was what got him, and that’s what I was counting on.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trump's Triumph Is the Shame of the Press


I remember how the U.S. corporate news media hacks sneered at the truth-seeking journalistic idealism of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom," as if all we sophisticated observers agree that a virtue is really, of course, a flaw. Trump's triumph is the result of their amoral philosophy in practice.