Saturday, August 01, 2015

AUGUST WITH THE SUPER-HEROES

NOW. . .AUGUST.  Two anniversaries celebrated this month as well as, today, a very Happy Birthday Mama! 

We begin with this wonderful selection from Marvel's 1975 calendar featuring a bevy of super-villains

DC's Bicentennial calendar provides a portrait of Billy Batson turning into Captain Marvel by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

The immortal Wally Wood provides this action shot of the Justice Society of America tackling Solomon Grundy from DC's 1977 calendar. 

DC's 1978 calendar featured an odd match-up with Black Lightning fighting the Flash's foe Heat Wave portrayed by Rich Buckler and Vince Colletta

Marvel's 1976 Bicentennial calendar finds the Fantastic Four helping George Washington cross the Delaware.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

After making the classic film noir PHANTOM LADY, director Robert Siodmak helmed THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE for RKO and what a little gem of a film it is!
A master of film noir, Siodmak tackles gothic horror in a film project originally spearheaded by David O. Selznick before he sold the property to RKO. From the very first moment of the film when we see the familiar RKO radio tower, the mood is set masterfully; superlative composer Roy Webb's brassy fanfare lasts only a few seconds when it suddenly dissolves into the evocative sound of wind and rain which then is overlain by eerie theremin as the title card appears on the screen.
The film title appears over a high camera shot looking down upon the eponymous spiral staircase and the top of Dorothy McGuire's head as she tentatively steps onto the top step and descends into the film itself. The film takes place sometime at the beginning of the 20th century as the first scene features a showing of a silent movie in the Village Hotel with Helen (Dorothy McGuire) in the audience. Upstairs, a woman with a lame foot is dressing to go out and, as she moves away from her clothes closet, the camera (brilliantly piloted by Nicholas Musuraca) lingers at the closet as we see the clothes stir and a crazed-looking eye peer out from the darkness.
 
The lame woman is quickly murdered by the hidden killer and a hue and cry is raised.
Helen, who has been mute since a childhood trauma, is urged to hurry home to the Warren mansion where she works as a servant because this is the third murder of a woman with a disability and/or disfigurement recently. While on her way home, the new local doctor in town Dr. Parry (Val Lewton vet Kent Smith) picks Helen up in his carriage. The Doc is sweet on Helen and the feeling is mutual. Dr. Parry is called away for a medical emergency and Helen has to walk the rest of the way home. By the time she nears the Warren mansion (which is further on the outskirts of town than the Addam's Family place), night has fallen. A little under 12 minutes into the film, the promise of the opening credits is fulfilled as the gorgeous cinematography and lighting provides a shot of McGuire in the windy night approaching the gloomy old mansion along a wrought-iron fence as the wind gusts and the autumn leaves swirl around her.
Apprehensively, in a "whistle past the graveyard" attitude, McGuire clacks a branch along the fence posts and enters the spooky grounds of the Warren house. A crash of thunder heralds the sudden downpour as Helen runs the lengthy approach to the house simultaneously searching her purse for the key. The fluid camera follows her as we pass a foreground tree and realize that there is a man in shadow hiding behind it watching her.

Helen drops the key in the mud as the man (who is the serial killer with the same crazed eye close-up) begins to approach her.
More lightning and thunder crashes as the theremin reappears on the soundtrack. The killer begins to lunge towards her as Helen finally finds the key in a mud puddle and races towards the house -- momentarily thwarting the killer's intentions.

I go into this amount of detail of basically only the first 10 minutes of the film in order to somehow convey the beautifully evoked gothic atmosphere which Siodmak and Musuraca conjure to perfection. For truthfully, there's not much mystery here as to the identity of the killer so the greatest pleasure I think derives from the absolutely superlative cinematography and direction and the uniformly excellent performances of the cast. The beautiful exterior shot (looks like a glass painting to me, probably) as well as the interior of the Warren mansion (credited to veteran art director Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey) are sumptuously Victorian and creepy with extreme noirish chiaroscuro lighting; the same as can be found in Siodmak's noirs like the aforementioned PHANTOM LADY as well as all the RKO films Musuraca lensed for Val Lewton's horror productions as well as my vote for the first film noir: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. The inside of the Warren house is all gaslight and candles! REBECCA and JANE EYRE will immediately come to mind.
Inside we have a gothically-disfunctional family with cranky Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) confined to her bed with her sons Professor Albert Warren (a somewhat somnambulant George Brent) and his black sheep step-brother Steven (Gordon Oliver). Also inhabiting the gloomy old pile are Albert's live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), the servant couple Mr. & Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams & the wonderful Elsa Lanchester), a battleaxe of a nurse (Hitchcock veteran Sara Allgood) and the charming bulldog Carlton.
While the interior of the Warren place is all, as I've said, Victorian-looking, it strikes me as slightly odd that the actual spiral staircase of the title is extremely plain-looking: bare banisters and bare steps that look to be made of plain wood or even metal. Actually, with the conical walls surrounding the spiral staircase (also bare and plain) interspersed with windows showing the storm outside, the spiral staircase looks more like it's from the set of a lighthouse. Of course, anything to do with lighthouses is OK with me and the spiral staircase is usually only lit by a candle being carried by a person walking on it so it still looks great.
But I wonder if budget-conscious RKO reused some lighthouse set for this. The film is chock-full of superb Siodmakian film noir set pieces. One example is a scene where someone ventures into the dark cellar (by the light of a single candle, of course) and encounters the killer who, with a single sweep of a hand, extinguishes the candle and backs the victim into niche in the wall. The victim is lit cowering there by the candle until it is extinguished and the niche is then plunged into darkness while the walls on either side of it still are lit presumably by moonlight coming in from a window. The killer strangles the victim backed into the niche which is in total darkness; all we see are the victim's outstretched hands emerging from either side of the inky-black niche as the killer strangles the poor soul. Expertly done.
There are one or two patented "dream sequences" which were so popular in mid-40's suspense/films noir i.e. Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND or the classic MURDER, MY SWEET. These are from the killer's POV and in one disturbing example shows Helen as the killer sees her: with no mouth at all. All the cast perform very well indeed (with the possible exception of George Brent who appear almost zombie-like but that actually works for his character) with the character turns of Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood particularly good. The real shining light here, though, is Dorothy McGuire who is the heart and soul of the film and, with no dialogue, provides a vivid, human performance as the mute Helen with particularly expressive eyes.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is, as I've said already, a little gem which would be wonderful to watch on a dark and stormy afternoon or in the dark of night with all your lights turned out!

Monday, July 06, 2015

JULY WITH THE SUPER-HEROES

MORE THAN HALF THE YEAR GONE ALREADY?  Well, here's the latest installment of our look back at those classic Marvel and DC Comics calendars of the 70s. 

First it's a visit to 1975 again with Captain America and the Falcon provided by the legendary John Romita.

Next our patriotic Justice League of America is rendered by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano from DC Comics' 1976 calendar.

And speaking of patriotic, Marvel naturally chose to depict Captain America for their July 1976 calendar page.  And it's John Romita again providing this iconic portrait.

Next Joe Kubert provides a masterful depiction of Hawkman and Hawkgirl battling the Gentleman Ghost from DC's monumental 1977 calendar.

And finally this rather odd battle scene by Curt Swan and Dan Adkins finds Superman and Supergirl matching wits against Brainiac and Sinestro in this 1978 calendar entry from DC Comics.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

SUPERMARKET SHELF OF THE LOST

HAVING LIVED FOR SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS HAS IT'S DRAWBACKS.  That is, I found that over the years the yummiest of yummy foods have managed to go extinct.  Foods like I grew up eating and took for granted suddenly disappeared from supermarket shelves -- never to return.  The number one lost tummy treasure has got to be Nabisco's Doo Dads Snack Mix.  
From the 1960s until the (probably) early 1990s, Doo Dads reigned supreme until the inferior upstart Chex Mix seemed to bully it off the shelves and into gastronomic oblivion.  The cult of Doo Dads exists all over the internet with people trying to replicate home-made versions as well as endlessly petitioning Nabisco to bring back this delectable snack.

Once thought to be lost was my childhood favourite Black Jack gum:  chewing gum that tasted like black licorice. 
However, this is still being made (albeit only at certain times of the year) and I've grabbed it in the Cracker Barrel restaurant store.  Black Jack gum was originally made by a company called Adams who also made Clove gum and Teaberry gum (which I think are also still available at certain times of the year).  I also remember Adams made a Chocolate gum and a Strawberry gum.  Adams had it going on! 

I decided to post a little gallery of lost food favourites below this post.  Sadly, there doesn't appear to be any commercials for Doo Dads but there are for other lost favourites including my first job:  Rustler Steak House! 
 
There was delicious, crisp Aspen Soda:  an apple-flavored soda which was delicious. 
There was Marathon candy bar:  a long, long, long candy bar of caramel covered with chocolate that was twisted like an infinity symbol.  You know it occurs to me that actor Patrick Wayne (John Wayne's son) seems to be the curse of death to my favourite old food items; he appeared in TV commercials and print ads for both Aspen Soda AND Marathon candy bars (as you'll see in the videos posted below). 
There was Soup Starter:  a canister of flavourings and pasta which you could add your own fresh meat and vegetables to in order to make a quick pot of soup.  It actually tasted really good. 
And there was Tuna Twist: another box of flavourings and such that you added to your tuna fish and mayo when making a tuna fish sandwich; it jazzed up the taste of the tuna sandwich and also stretched it further. 
Then there was Koogle:  a spread very like today's Nutella which came in flavours like chocolate, banana and yes, peanut butter as well.  


So enjoy the retro-commercials gallery I've provided below this post for these lost but never forgotten food favourites from my childhood.     

Koogle peanut butter spread - 1970's?


Rustler (Commercial, 1979)


Soup Starter 1978 TV commercial


VINTAGE 1974 MARATHON CANDY BAR WITH ROGER C. CARMEL & PATRICK WAYNE (JO...


Tuna Twist ad, 1976


Aspen Apple-Flavored Soft Drink Commercial 2 ~ 1980


Sunday, June 14, 2015

97 YEARS

She was born during the First World War when Woodrow Wilson was the President.  In the time since then, she has seen most of the 20th century and ventured into the 21st.  And during those 97 years, she experienced more than her fair share of setbacks and infirmities.  But today, my grandmother's time on earth came to an end.  She was tough and resilient.  For the last couple decades, she battles with macular degeneration which left her practically blind and in the last several years her hearing went so she could hardly hear as well.  Some days she suffered from such pain that she couldn't walk down the stairs.  However, other days she would get around just fine.  In fact, it was only at the end of last year that she finally decided that she could no longer make it to Senior Care which, until then, she had gone to three days a week.  She was a fighter.

My grandmother has been a major part of my life every since I've had a life.  I've talked many times about my childhood visits most weekends when I'd stay at my grandparent's huge old house in Pennsauken.  There I would sit at the kitchen table with the old Bakelite radio on it while my grandmother cooked dinner or did the dishes.  We'd always take the long walk up Westfield Avenue past the Walt Whitman Theater (which my great-grandfather built) all the way to Thor's Drug Store where I would get my comic books, Black Jack Gum and other sundry items a kid lived for back in the 70s.  When my great-grandfather died in 1978, my grandparents had to give up the house in Pennsauken and move to an apartment which was only a couple blocks from our house.  I would still go over there many weekends as well as being able to hop on my bike and ride over anytime I wanted since they were so close.  We would often take walks around the neighborhood and up to the Wawa convenience store.  By January 1981, my grandfather died and my grandmother came to live with us; and that's where she's been ever since.  She moved in the same year that MTV started up and she loved watching the music videos -- particularly Journey because she really liked Steve Perry.  In the 80s and early 90's, she and I would watch Britcoms on the local PBS station; GOOD NEIGHBORS (aka THE GOOD LIFE) was a particular favourite and, later, ARE YOU BEING SERVED?  And oh boy, did she love her chocolate!  In the last couple decades, she's been able to do less and less due to her age and her ailments; all of which she took in stride with good humour.  Not able to do much for herself, my parents and I have taken care of her in recent years.  When my parents went away, I would be in charge of looking after her and cooking her meals (which she loved).  She lived long enough to see all of her friends pass away but she still loved meeting new people and being the center of attention.  She would get down from time to time but she never gave up or gave in.  It was only her heart which gave out on her a couple weeks ago but she still hung on.  Until today when she couldn't fight any more.  I hope that wherever you are you are at peace and free of pain.  I love you so much and I will miss you all the days of my life.     

Friday, June 12, 2015

Every fan of classic horror, as well as every fan of cinema in general, has reason to mourn this week as we learned of the death of Sir Christopher Lee. 
I specifically, while at the moment going through the terrible trial of having a grandmother who is dying, felt the loss particularly hard.  I’ve told the story many times of how I’d stay at my grandmother and grandfather’s huge old house in Pennsauken during my 70’s childhood and often would watch the weekend horror movies there.  Down in the basement with my grandfather, I first saw the original DRACULA with Bela Lugosi on the old B&W television down there in the area which used to be a licensed taproom.  My grandfather has been gone since January of 1981 and ever since then my grandmother has lived with us.  About two weeks ago, she suffered a heart attack which has seen her go from intensive care to hospice with very little hope of recovery.  So, it was with my already raw nerve-endings in place that I learned last night of Christopher Lee’s death; also heart (and respiratory) related.  I suppose the shock was double because I’ve been waiting for my grandmother’s death and this other news came completely out of the blue to knock me further off-balance. 

Anyone who knows me or who has visited this blog knows full well my enduring love of the horror genre and Christopher Lee was particularly important to me as the last of the titans.  Lee was the last who could be mentioned in the same breath of the indelible icons of my “monster kid” youth:  Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.  This Mt. Rushmore of Classic Horror is only completed by Christopher Lee; and he has sadly now joined these and more horror greats who have awaited him in whatever filmic Valhalla they all reside.  But instead of Norse warriors and Valkyries, this classic horror film afterlife will hopefully find Christopher Lee awakening to the outstretched hands and back-slaps of Conrad Veidt and Michael Ripper, Peter Lorre and Michael Gough, Evelyn Ankers, John Carradine, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bates, Edward Woodward, Hazel Court and Basil Rathbone, Michael Reeves, Val Lewton and Joyce Jameson, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and Elsa Lanchester among many many more.  And before he takes his place seated with the immortals – the Chaneys, Lugosi, Karloff, Price – Christopher Lee will imitate the voice of Yosemite Sam or Sylvester the Cat as he gets a great big bear hug from his dear friend Peter Cushing who tells him, “Why, my dear boy, we’re all here to greet you!” 

Monday, June 08, 2015

HARDCORE HISTORY

ALWAYS A DAY LATE & A DOLLAR SHORT, I THOUGHT I'D LISTEN TO A MASSIVE PODCAST ON THE FIRST WORLD WAR A YEAR AFTER IT'S 100TH ANNIVERSARY.  So I'm not a follower!  Whatevs!  

Anyway, as I sit here suffering through a terrible cold during a particularly trying time in my personal life as well as an extremely difficult time at work (resulting in my being the only person now working on 3rd shift), I have found myself totally engrossed in this thing called DAN CARLIN'S HARDCORE HISTORY.  I'm sure many of you already know about this history podcast but, as I say, I'm not first out of the gate here.  Dan Carlin, former radio host, son of Academy Award-nominated actress Lynn Carlin and unabashed history nut, has been doing a history podcast for about a decade now called HARDCORE HISTORY which I must say makes for absorbing listening.  Carlin, not an official historian himself, is more of a storyteller and that's what makes his history podcast refreshing, interesting and entertaining.  He takes a particular topic of historical interest and speaks about it as if he's telling a story around a campfire; and that's exactly what hiSTORY is supposed to be.  Carlin has a B.A. in history as do I and I think we both became fascinated in history early on for the exact same reason:  it's full of incredible interesting stories!

Now, when he started HARDCORE HISTORY, Carlin's podcast would last about a half hour but nowadays he frequently takes a topic and spends 3-4 hours talking about it.  And that's not including his series in which he takes a particular subject and does a multi-part podcast on it with each part a few hours long.  Now, you'd think that would be an enormous trudge but instead listening seems to fly by.  This is because at no time does this sound like a "history lecture"; instead, Carlin sounds as if he's speaking to you one on one and not as if he's standing at a lectern at the front of a classroom.  For example, the First World War series Carlin has just finished last month is called BLUEPRINT FOR ARMAGEDDON; it's in six parts (each part about 4 hours long) and it's immensely compelling to hear.  Carlin does an enormous amount of research to prepare for these podcasts (which he releases about once every three months) and this current series on the First World War he began at the end of 2013.  I don't really know if he writes out a full script ahead of time but it sure doesn't sound like it; it sounds like he's speaking off the top of his head and the podcast is conversational and, as I said before, in the best tradition of the storyteller who can grab the listener's interest and never let go.  The First World War is certainly not unexplored territory for me but BLUEPRINT FOR ARMAGEDDON brings it to life more completely than any book or movie I've previously encountered. 
And for such a complicated and intertwined narrative, Carlin makes it all incredibly understandable as well.  I'm told he does a "current events" podcast called COMMON SENSE as well but I haven't heard that.  I have, though, heard quite a few HARDCORE HISTORY episodes and I've found them all just as absorbing.  On Dan Carlin's website, you can listen to the last year or so's episodes FOR FREE and get the older ones for a small price; the older episodes are available on iTunes for a slightly more expensive price tag.  I can particularly recommend the episodes STEPPE STORIES (about the nomadic warriors of the Steppes), JUDGMENT AT NINEVEH (about the downfall of the brutal Assyrian Empire) and THE AMERICAN PERIL (about the Spanish-American War) and PROPHETS OF DOOM (about the bizarre and freaky 16th century Anabaptist takeover of the town of Munster) which you can still listen to for free!  And after BLUEPRINT FOR ARMAGEDDON, I plan on listening to Carlin's previous multi-part epic tale of THE WRATH OF THE KHANS (also available for free).  If you're the slightest bit interested in history, you owe it to yourselt to give DAN CARLIN'S HARDCORE HISTORY a listen.