Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Terror


Continuing my foray into the lobby cards I had recently obtained from an antique mall. This one is from the 1928 film The Terror. The first two things that attracted me to this one is the artwork on the front & back, plus the image of a hooded, robed menacing villain. Then, I noticed it was adapted from the work of Edgar Wallace. Wallace may be one of the more influential writers on popular culture that few have read or very much aware of.

Edgar Wallace was a popular English writer of thrillers and detective stories. His work appeared as novels and reprinted in pulps on both sides of the ocean. Many have been filmed, some several times. Wallace also worked as a scriptwriter and his most famous work was the initial draft for King Kong. He died before completion of the script and filming but his name remained attached to the project.

The story goes that when the publishers created the house name of "Robert Wallace" as writer for the Phantom Detective pulps, it was because of the association the last name would bring.

The Green Archer by Wallace is an interesting novel that has been filmed several times. Its second outing was as a movie serial starring Victor Jory. Like all adaptations, characters are changed quite a bit from the source material. Still, it is hard to miss the color and initials of the mysterious title character and not wonder about the possible influence of the comic book superhero and villain archers that would follow: the Arrow, Green Arrow, Golden Arrow, Green Knight, etc. Most rightly point to the popularity of Robin Hood, both stories and swashbuckling films as direct and indirect inspirations of the whole costumed superhero genre. But, I like to think that there is room for the Green Archer still: the secret identity behind the costume and archaic weapon, the colorful name.

In The Four Just Men, Wallace wrote one of his few series of books centering around continuing characters. In these novels, he would write of a small group of men from different backgrounds coming together as an organization of vigilantes to punish criminals beyond the reach of the law. In an early science fiction story, Wallace would pioneer the idea of a parallel Earth, one that exists on the opposite orbit around the sun.

The Terror was first written and developed as a play in 1927. It was then adapted into this film version in 1928. This is an early talking movie, reportedly, Warner Bros. second. In 1929, Wallace would write a novelization of the story. It differs markedly from this movie in various character names and occupations. I do not know how closely the novel follows the play though. The 1938 film follows the novelized story more closely and is almost universally considered the better of the films. The latter film definitely had the better cast: Alistair Sim (A Christmas Carol), Bernard Lee (M of the James Bond films), and Alfred Wotner (Sherlock Holmes in several films).

Joe Connor and "Soapy Marks"are two crooks in the employ of the mysterious super criminal known only as O'Shea whose features no one has seen. With him they rob an armored truck full of foreign gold coins. Even though the two are responsible for hiding the truck and are to meet up with O'Shea later to split the loot, they find themselves captured by the police at the rendezvous and the gold gone.

Ten  years later as they near their release, the crime is still unsolved. Each vows their own separate revenge against O'Shea and intimate they may have an idea on the man's identity. The only thing they reveal to the police is that he is only sane 22 of 24 hours a day.

The action shifts to the mansion and grounds owned by the eccentric Colonel Redmayne whose military title and money seem a bit questionable. One of his eccentricities is that he sort of runs it as an inn but by invite only. The longer term residents include a middle aged businessman, a widow with a knowledge and interest in fantastic crimes, her daughter, and the colonel's own daughter newly arrived from school. Added to the mix are a youngish drunkard ne'er-do-well who is steadily trying to worm his way into an invitation, a roaming tinkerer, and a visiting scholarly pastor. Stories circulate of mysterious organ music played in the late hours of the night, and a spectral, robed figure that wanders the grounds. Such reports tend to set the colonel on edge. And when a murder happens on their doorstep, the links of the events from ten years before and rumors of hidden treasure come to the fore.

The novelization takes advantage of being a novel and fleshing out details of the story that cannot readily be captured on film. In man ways the story is similar The Green Archer. A master criminal, a mansion with hidden passageways, a mysterious spectral figure haunting the grounds. It is also similar to another story by Wallace, The Black Abbott, where a mysterious robed figure is haunting an old abbey where there is reportedly hidden treasure and those that might know too much meet death.

Unfortunately, the novelization is unable to expand much beyond its original stage play format. So, while the characterization and motivation is expanded upon some and given more flourishes, much of the plot is sadly simple. It does not get a lot out of the gothic touches inherent in the story. The idea of the robed figure being the ghost of a monk attached to a ruined abbey and underground chapel don't get the build-up it richly deserves (as compared to the Archer being the ghost of a hanged archer with a corpse-like countenance in TGA). The cast is small because of its origins as a play and film which limits severely the choices of who "the Terror" is and there is no doubts about the Terror being the mysterious O'Shea. The cast feels even smaller once an absent detective whose specialty is O'She is brought up. There can be no doubt that one of the characters will stand revealed as the detective. Then add the two ex-cons, there are more characters in the story with second identities than there are those who are who they seem.

This gives the whole story a feeling of a distilled down plot of a Scooby-Doo episode. It brought to mind the many outlandish detective stories that P.G. Wodehouse would often allude to in his stories and would make fun of. Characters with hidden identities and motivations, apt to knock someone off just for the heck of it. Mansions always have hidden doors, passageways, and access to subterranean lairs. And, a decent mansion must come with hidden treasure and a ghost-story or two. And the mysterious criminal is always after the pretty young girl who is to be rescued by some fumbling bumbling guy who will stand revealed as being the great heroic detective all along.

The Terror at Project Guttenberg.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Daredevil's Reward


Continuing my sharing of some of the movie flyers that I bought several months ago. This one appealed because of the notable star as well being an early masked hero

For many, the idea of an old Western is probably one with John Wayne. My own first exposure to Tom Mix was as a character played by Bruce Willis in the move Sunset with James Garner playing Wyatt Earp. And, then as a character in the graphic novel Batman/Houdini: The Devil's Workshop.

Daredevil's Reward also aired overseas as $5,000 Reward so this managed to serve double duty. This is a silent film from 1928. A little research revealed the movie was copyrighted and renewed. At least old newspaper listed it as being successful, airing several nights to capacity crowds. Finding information on the story was a little more difficult. IMDB had nothing beyond the credits. The carried more details.

Mix plays Texas Ranger Tom Hardy who has to adopt various disguises to capture a gang of stagecoach robbers, one of which would appear to be the masked man shown here. Judging from the flyer alone, I assumed the film to be a response to the popularity of the Zorro films, but it's hard to tell from the description whether he wore the mask and black outfit regularly or even if he's called "Daredevil" as in the title. However, the film description does raise an interesting comparison. A Texas Ranger who puts on a mask to fight crime? This is 5 years before a more famous masked Texas Ranger would debut on the radio and was apparently a popular film.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Alias Jimmy Valentine


Several months ago at a local antique store mall, I came across a bunch of these movie flyers from the early days of film making. They were from silent movies and early "talkies" and some illustrating movies that are now considered lost.

I bought several of them, basing my choice on subject matter and overall sense of design and artwork.

This first one satisfied all of my criteria. It has some interesting art along with photos of the stars. The character of Jimmy Valentine is interesting for a couple of reasons of his own merit. He also is the creation of famed short-story writer O'Henry. I don't know if I was a fan of O'Henry because he was from my hometown, and where I currently call home, Greensboro, NC or if that was just happenstance.

While O'Henry was from NC, most of his stories were written while he was a resident of New York in the early part of the 20th Century. Before M. Night Shyalaman, O'Henry specialized in the ironic and twist ending to his tales. He wrote around 600 short-stories but four are especially notable for their fame extending past the stories themselves.

Before Hallmark started making so many Christmas themed movies that they could show them without repeating 24/7 weeks before Christmas, us older folks watched many of the same Christmas specials over and over and read many of the same stories. It was fairly popular for television shows to do a Christmas episode, usually borrowing the plot from "A Christmas Carol", "It's a Wonderful Life", and, a little more infrequently, "The Gift of the Magi" (1905). Like the other two stories, it has been formally adapted in film and plays as well. No doubt many are aware of the story without having actually read it. Interestingly, almost all adaptations that I can remember seeing, most tend to ignore one of the more unique aspects of this story that separates it from other O'Henry stories (at least of the paltry 20% I have read from that prodigious 600 total). It is one of the few stories written that the 3rd person narrative has a personality. The narrator is a cynic and presents the story as a cautionary tale, the young poor couple described as being foolish and for readers to not emulate them.

"The Ransom of Red Chief" (1910) is one of several stories featuring Bill and Sam, a pair of somewhat scoundrels always pursuing a quick buck or easy path to fortune. In this story they decide to kidnap the boy of a local prominent citizen and end up getting far more than they bargained for. Like the above story, it has been filmed and adapted for stage many times. Its plot has become a standard comedy trope, showing up in movies and television shows. Most recently, the plot showed up just a couple of weeks ago in television's Grimm when a crooked cop kidnaps Renaud's daughter to force him to honor his end of a bargain and not knowing how powerful of a little witch she actually is.

"The Caballero's Way" (1907) is notable for two things. One, it introduces a specific character who becomes famous beyond the original story, in this case, the Cisco Kid. Two, it does not have the wit and humor generally found in O'Henry stories. It is a dark tale. Readers expecting the Cisco Kid of television and comics are in for a surprise as he is a clever, ruthless and murderous outlaw. In 1914 a silent version of the story was filmed and apparently a fairly faithful adaptation of the plot. In 1928, a sound film, In Old Arizona, was released with a more heroic Cisco, albeit still an outlaw. The movies would continue, he'd have various sidekicks before settling on the familiar Pancho. The characters made the transition to a 1950s television series. In 1972, he even made it into a pop song. Sing it with me, "The Cisco Kid, was a good friend of miine." In 1994, Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin would saddle up for a tv movie featuring the characters. Moonstone Comics did a series several years ago that walked the line between the two versions of the Cisco Kid.

This brings us to "A Retrieved Reformation" (1903) which introduced the world to the safe-cracker Jimmy Valentine. Jimmy is known to be able to break into any safe or vault and is casing a small town bank with a state of the art new vault. However, he sees the bank manager's daughter and falls in love. He passes himself off with a new name and endeavors to go straight. However, a detective rolls into town and is positive he recognizes Jimmy but has no proof. That's when a young girl gets accidentally locked in the safe. Jimmy can save her but it means revealing who he is and sacrificing his chance for happiness. The story was adapted for a play which was then filmed as a movie three times. The above images are from the third film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's first sound film with dialogue sequences. The story would also make it onto radio. He would achieve a different kind of fame outside his story than the Cisco Kid. His name became synonymous for skilled safe crackers and became a somewhat slang term. Reading mysteries and pulp novels, it would not be surprising to come across a sentence that read something like: "he wasn't a Jimmy Valentine, but this old safe shouldn't give him too much trouble he thought." These days, his name has drifted into the past as money is stolen more through computer hacking than safe cracking. With all of the meta-fiction out there and people dusting off old characters and concepts for new stories, I am a bit surprised that we have not seen "The Return of Jimmy Valentine" as a series of historical mysteries set in the early pre-WWI days of 20th century New York. Or, maybe we have and it has just slipped by me.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pulpy Motifs in Pop Lit



So, I was at the comic book store and looking over the titles and the one for Hellblazer struck me as being very familiar. It probably wouldn't have been immediately recognizable if not for the fact that I got a Fantomas paperback using the image from the original cover. From the online Hellblazer previews, the story does take place in Paris so the swipe obviously is meant to be an homage or a parody. However, Cassaday does not cite from where his cover comes from. Plus, it is an image that probably only a small percentage of  comic readers are going to be aware of the reference. You know the old saying, "if you have to explain the joke..."

Astro City #41/100: I will warn you, the issue comes with two different covers. At the store I frequent, the issues with the Astro-naut on the cover all had printing/binding issues. In two different places, several pages were duplicated in place of the proper pages. I returned mine and swapped it for the one with other cover as the issues they had left with the same cover had the same errors.

Busiek has lately been knocking it out of the park using the superheroics to explore the history of music and race relations and tensions around the turn of the 20th Century. In this issue, the lead character and his story and relationship to the colorful superheroes of Astro City are definitely meant to evoke the era of pulp heroes and the relationship and popularity of them to the rise of the comic book heroes of WWII. As usual, Busiek does a great job telling a story that is meta-fictional in its use of history and archetypes but in a way that's not mocking or parodying by focusing on creating rounded characters and character driven stories. Prior knowledge is not required for the enjoyment of the stories on their own merits.

Books:
Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd. Several years ago I heard about Megan Shepherd, a new North Carolina author whose debut book The Madman's Daughter was coming out. The book features Juliet, a 16 year old girl in late 19th Century London. Juliet is strong-willed and talented in sciences despite the limitations on her due to her gender. She finds out her exiled father is still conducting his mad experiments on a secret island, the same experiments that got him exiled. She decides to find out if it is true. The catch, her father is Dr. Moreau. That story is a compelling retelling of H.G. Wells' classic tale. The retelling does take quite a few liberties beyond simply inserting the character of Juliet. It is a re-writing of the story, using it to explore similar and different themes and constructing a powerful new story that follows some of the same plot points.

For some reason, the first book was in the local bookstore and library under regular new fiction. With the second book, it was classified as "Young Adult". I also discovered at the local library that carries the book, there is a difference between "Young Adult" and "Youth" fiction which explains why I was having trouble looking for it amongst the Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons of the latter. While the protagonist is of an older teen, the storytelling is every bit of sophisticated and even moreso than much of the fiction that finds itself on the adult shelves of genre and normal fiction.

Her Dark Curiosity picks up after the first with Juliet back in London. A professor that had once been friends with her father has taken her in. Meanwhile, she is living a double life as she is conducting research in trying to find a cure for her illness and dealing with personal fallout from the first novel. There are killings occurring across the city, gripping it in terror. Juliet discovers that there are links of the killings to her own past and the methods seem to indicate that maybe not all of her father's beast men died on the island.

Like the previous novel, the story uses a pre-existing classic to explore different themes and issues of a person trying to find her own way in a highly gender divided society. In this case, it is Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Shepherd takes more liberties with the original novel and characters. But, she uses it to explore some of the same themes just recasting for a new generation. Juliet struggles with the nature of good and evil existing in the same person, from seeing the world in black and white vs shades of gray. In some people, the demarcation between good and evil are literal. But some are more successful in keeping their bestial sides hidden from view. By the novel's end, Juliet and the reader find themselves in a world where knowing who to trust is difficult and trusting the wrong person can be fatal.

The novel ends on a note setting up the third and last from the trilogy drawing inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now, I know where in the library to find it.

Reanimatrix: The Horror of Lovecraft's 20th Century by Pete Rawlik. I am only a few chapters in to this book. The opening chapters are in the format of letters from a soldier in France in the days after WWI to his brother. Each chapter is a whole short story of horror and dread and are setting him up to be the proper character to return home to the town of Arkham, Mass. to handle crimes and horrors that the regular cops cannot.

As the novel is based on Lovecraft, I expect references to characters, creatures, and places from his works and those that continued the mythos. However, Rawlik is in full Wold Newtonian mode. In the first few chapters, there's references to The Great Gatsby, The Phantom of the Opera, Robert W. Chambers' "King in Yellow", Talbot Mundy's Meldrum Strange (who is related to a Hugo Strange, whether the superhero Doc Strange or Batman's villain is untold), the pulpish French master-villain Cornelius Kramm (http://www.coolfrenchcomics.com/cornelius.htm), Frankenstein, works of Clark Ashton Smith (Beasts of Averoigne, events around the fictional location of Yvones) and even Bela Lugosi's Dr. Sangre from King of the Zombies. There is also a reference to the real legend, the beast of Gevaudan that served as the basis for the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf.

On one hand, once you realize the references are there to such a degree it becomes distracting from the novel. With each character or concept introduced one wonders is it from a specific source? It's akin to all the Easter Egg in Moore and O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yet, Rawlik so far is excellent at telling disquieting stories, building a novel from short short stories. His writing skill is strong enough to override the name-dropping. As I am still under 40 pages into the book, here's hoping that he is able to maintain the quality. At the worst, he has already directed me towards some other writers and short stories to check out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Peter Francisco & Ann the Huntress

One of the joys of my new job in archives is coming across bits of information while conducting research. Often as I am looking to track down a bit of information or history for someone, often something I know little about, I come across completely unrelated but fascinating information. Going down rabbit holes I call it.

Most recently, I was looking for information concerning history of Greensboro, NC. After looking through several archives boxes, I was checking through some of the history books in archives. In one a photograph caught my eye of a man from the Revolutionary War. The photo was of Peter Francisco but it was the billing of "Hercules of the Revolutionary War" that further drew me in. Also called the Giant of Virginia and Hercules of Virginia, he fought valiantly at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse among other conflicts. His life story reads like one out of myth and later Americana tall tales. As a boy, he was discovered on foreign docks and spoke Portuguese. He gave his name as Pedro Francisco, that his family lived in a mansion and that he and his sister were kidnapped. She escaped but he was taken away by ship and later abandoned.

He was taken to America and grew up in Virginia. When he was old enough he apprenticed as a blacksmith. Peter grew to be somewhere between 6 foot 6 to 6 foot 8, a giant of a man, especially for those times. As a soldier, he participated and was wounded in several notable battles. In addition to stories of his prowess as a soldier, stories of his strength spread. When a wagon was stuck in mud and two mules could not pull it out, he did. Another time, he was loathe to leave a cannon to be recovered by the enemy and the horses that were to pull it had been killed. Supposedly he hefted the heavy cannon on to his shoulders and carried it. This feat was immortalized on a stamp. To add to the mythos of the man, he had a special broadsword made, commissioned for him by General Washington. The sword was six feet long, five feet of it being the blade. The mental image of this fighting giant on the battlefield with a sword longer than the height of many men is striking. Sadly, his sword was lost at some point after being donated to a historical society by his daughter.

With these stories of strength and fighting ability, it is no surprise that the moniker of Hercules would be attached to him. I cannot help to wonder if such stories around a man of historical record somehow inspired later fictional heroes of tall tales, folklore and various supermen of late 19th and early 20th Century pop culture. More can be found out about him at www.peterfrancisco.org.

Ann the Huntress

I came across this story in another book, Greensboro North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford by Ethel Stephens Arnett, University of North Carolina Press, 1955. For a little context, Mrs. Arnett writes that in the late 1700s in order to increase agriculture harvests, legislation passed a law that each man in the region would kill a quota of crows, blackbirds and squirrels or pay a fine. Out of this grew a celebration and shooting match as the men would turn in their quotas and show off their marksmanship skills to their women. Quoting Mrs. Arnett:

At one of these meetings, about 1790-1791, "an incident occurred... of such a character that it had an influence of North Carolina... the United States, and the world," wrote Addison Coffin in his "Early Settlements of Friends in North Carolina" And this is the story he recorded:
There was a shooting match about one mile east of where Guilford College now stands, in a forest. [A large company of noted riflemen were performing wonderful feats of marksmanship]. In the midst of the exciting contest a beautiful young woman suddenly made her appearance coming up the road from the northwest. She was dressed in a neat walkng dress with ornamented Indian leggins and moccasins. She carried a small rifle highly ornamented with silvr mountings, and the usual shot pouch and belt, with hunting knife and small hatchet, a complete hunting outfit. After the excitement had somewhat subsided and shooting began again, she modestly asked permission to take a shot with the contestants; the request was granted and she stepped lightly out of the line, raised her rifle, took quick aim and fired, the ball drove the center to a hair's breadth sixty yards away. A shout of applause from the hunters made the forest ring. Again she loaded and fired, again the ball drove the center. Astonished and bewildered the old hunters gathered around her, doubting whether they were seeing a vision, or were in the presence of flesh and blood, but her bright intelligent face, respectful language, and lady-like bearing convinced them that whe was a mortal, and one of the highest types of sacred womanhood, but to the inquiry who she was, from whence she came and why thus alone among strangers, she respectfully declined to answer, but gaver her name as Ann, the huntress. Richard Dodson, a Friend, invited her to go home with him... she accepted the invitation and as they walked away her form was so graceful and her step so light and springing that the old veterans shook their heads again doubting or no all was really human.
The story could end there. It makes for a great tale from folklore or legend. But, it does not simply end there. As Paul Harvey, now for the rest of the story. According to Arnett, she stayed with the Dodson family working as huntress for the family and teacher for the children. In addition to be a crack shot and hunter, Ann was highly educated for her time and she changed the language of the region.
Everybody said "goin" "doin." She taught the children to sound ing to all words with that termination - some of the old ones had trouble retwisting their tongues to talk "politely" but before she left a half generation had grown up under her magic instructions...Her cheerful smile, bright face, and gentle ways [were] a light in every household; so much so that many began to seriously believe there was supernatural about her, but alas, the scene suddenly changed. In the winter of 1807-8 Ann disappeared as suddenly as she appeared and no trace of her was ever found. It is said that her teachings were engrafted [by emigrants from North Carolina] into the school systems of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa and the language and the pronunciation is that of all the great Northwest and Pacific coast." (Arnett).
 She is not to be confused with Mad Anne Bailey, another interesting woman.