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.