Sunday, August 30, 2009

Movie Review: GRAND HOTEL (MGM, 1932)

If Cabaret is the quintessential "Weimar Republic-era movie" produced in Hollywood, then Grand Hotel, the 1932 Best Picture Oscar winner, surely runs it a very close second. Eschewing glitzy decadence and overt political sermonizing for a soberer (albeit more melodramatic) approach, MGM's tale of intersecting lives at Berlin's Grand Hotel features one of the most famous sets (the Art Deco hotel lobby) in movie history and a then-unheard-of approach to casting. Defying the contemporary conventional wisdom that putting too many stars in one movie would amount to overkill, Irving Thalberg and director Edmund Goulding put together the first true "all-star" cast. Even more daring was the decision to do so despite the fact that the featured players had dramatically different acting styles -- Greta Garbo's silents-influenced manic-depressive flouncing; John Barrymore's mannered stage presence; John's brother Lionel's melodramatic whininess; Wallace Beery's alternately overbearing and buffoonish pushiness; and, in arguably the film's best performance, Joan Crawford's breezy likability as a working girl (a struggling stenographer and would-be model, in her case) with a heart of gold and a well-functioning "BS detector." Some character collisions are more successful than others -- the romantic moments between Garbo and Barrymore seem pretty precious and overly studied now -- but every major character is worth watching. The supporting cast (many of whom were minor stars in their own right) are solid all the way, from Lewis Stone as a facially-disfigured, aphorism-spouting "lobby-and-bar cynic" and Jean Hersholt as a genial porter anxiously awaiting the birth of his child, all the way down to Allen "Officer Dibble" Jenkins in an uncredited role as a meat-packer.

In a strange way, the "all-star" Grand Hotel could also be considered a trail-blazer for another kind of film: the disaster movie. The difference here is that the "disaster" -- the Nazis' looming takeover of Germany -- remains under the horizon throughout. The Great Depression is preying on a number of characters' minds: Beery's overstuffed industrialist is desperate to effect a merger with another company and is willing to be dishonest to get it; J. Barrymore's "Baron" has fallen on evil days and is now living as a sneak thief and gambler; bookkeeper L. Barrymore, having been told that he's dying, wants to stick it in the face of his buffoonish employer (Beery, as it happens) and live it up just once before he passes (was this where that deathless cliche of countless movies and cartoons originated, I wonder?); ballerina Garbo's tour is in financial trouble because of the star's moods. Admittedly, apart from L.B.'s travails (which probably resonated with quite a few working stiffs at the time), these problems are hardly a match for standing in a bread line or being kicked off one's farm, but they help raise Hotel above the level of a simple, gilt-edged melodrama. Stone's disfigured doctor character sounds a more sinister note when he refers off-handedly to Germany's having lost the war despite winning battle after battle; Hitler, of course, made "avenging Versailles" one of his major "ranting points." Beery's clumsy attempts to seduce Crawford have it all over the Garbo-Barrymore business insofar as "meaningful sexual byplay" is concerned, but their sheer tawdriness links them to the much more overt "desperate sexuality" of Cabaret. The Thalberg-era MGM was well-known for its escapist polish, but Grand Hotel is certainly aware that a lot is going on outside the hotel lobby, and some of it isn't exactly pretty.

Unfortunately, the Grand Hotel DVD doesn't have a movie commentary, but a few other choice items are included. A brief but good documentary tells the story of the making and casting of the film, and we also get a vintage "studio-doc" of opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where the Hollywood elite were asked to sign a phony "desk register" at the lobby desk, which had been transported to the site for the occasion. It's cheesy but fascinating stuff. Weirdest bauble of all is Nothing Ever Happens, a low-budget short-subject spoof of the movie that features the chunkiest, clumsiest group of dancing girls I've ever witnessed. As for the humor level of the piece, imagine the Marx Brothers on a really bad day.

The Revolution Devours its Own (Food-Providing) Children

During the ongoing, acrimonious debate about "health-care" reform, at least one note of highly ironic levity has been sounded. Reacting to Whole Foods Markets CEO John Mackey's WALL STREET JOURNAL op-ed arguing for a reform package "provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges," a group of self-described "deceived progressives" have gotten up a boycott of Whole Foods stores. The boycotters have suddenly discovered that Mackey, whose company is listed in FORBES' top 20 "best places to work" and is well-regarded for its environmental standards, is an "Ayn Rand-loving libertarian," a union-buster (while Whole Foods employees are extremely well compensated, they are non-union), a seller of "dubiously" organic foods, and a craven tool of the extreme right. And Mackey didn't even metaphorically raise his voice: he simply described Whole Foods' health insurance plan and suggested it as an alternative that would give people adequate choice while respecting their health-care needs. Perhaps if he hadn't opened his piece with a quote from Margaret Thatcher about the drawbacks of socialism, his well-mannered op-ed would've slipped by without much notice. Then again, in this age of instant message-transfer and ever-speedier knee-jerk reactions, that was probably an unrealistic expectation.

I've always been leery of businesses which subtly or overtly push a political agenda in the guise of serving customers. It tends to make those who regularly shop there (or, in the case of Whole Foods, can afford to shop there) act Pharisaical and those who are not "part of the crowd" feel uncomfortable when they visit. That's not to say that a business can't maintain a distinct point of view: Ukrop's Supermarkets in Richmond have done quite well, thank you, with a Christian-based philosophy in which the stores sell no lottery tickets, tobacco, or alcohol, remain closed on Sundays, and support all manner of charitable activities in the community. Whatever the Ukrop family's politics are, however, they remain well hidden. The one Whole Foods I've visited in my life -- a basement store at the Time Warner complex near where Nicky's mom used to live in Manhattan -- was considerably less subtle in its stab for the dollars of progressive "metrosexuals" and single professional people. Placards and consciousness-raising displays were everywhere, and UTNE READER took the place of the usual tabloids and TV GUIDES at the checkout stand. The irony was that Nicky's mom, on a severely limited income, couldn't afford to shop there on a regular basis.

In today's Gospel reading in church, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for criticizing the apostles for not washing hands before eating, reminding them that that which defiles a man comes out of his heart, not from outside his body. Those who boycott Whole Foods out of a sense of "betrayal" should keep in mind that, no matter how "correctly grown and prepared" the foods they prefer to buy and eat are, they will bring their own intolerance and closed-mindedness with them into whatever store they patronize, whether it's Whole Foods or Wal-Mart.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: SUNSET BLVD. (Paramount, 1950)

"The Uncrashable Hindentanic," one of DuckTales' best episodes, featured a lofty pile of pop-culture parodies. Two of the best were Gloria Swansong, a has-been silent-movie actress bent on making an improbable comeback, and Quax, her long-suffering, Teutonic-accented factotum. These characters were based on Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Max (Erich von Stroheim) from Sunset Blvd., director Billy Wilder's surgical dissection of the "Hollywood mindset" and its possible tragic consequences. Now that I've finally seen the original movie, I can see just how close DT came to "the truth" -- though I find it inconceivable that anyone could get romantically involved with the addle-pated Swansong, as Joe Gillis, William Holden's on-the-make, would-be "Hollywood writer" character, did with Desmond. That "old doe, young buck" relationship, along with the creepy finale in which Desmond reveals just how out of touch with the real world she is, ticked off a lot of people in Tinseltown. Wilder didn't care, and his best movie has definitely stood the test of time.

Swanson and von Stroheim, both faded stars of the silent era, were perfect choices to play their roles, especially the latter. One of Desmond's ex-husbands and a director whose world had come crashing down once talkies came on the scene, Max is now reduced to feeding Desmond's fantasies of an imminent return to stardom. Joe is anything but a "hero," as he grasps at the chance to "polish up" Desmond's horrible comeback script and later misses an opportunity at a relationship with a comely Paramount "reader" (Nancy Olsen) because he can't bring himself to leave his cushy situation with the dotty diva. Thanks to one of the best opening scenes in movie history, we know what ultimately goes down (or should I say, drown?) before it happens, but Wilder saves the most unsettling and memorable scene for last. This is classic stuff and will make you think twice about trusting any Hollywood star's hold on reality.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Review: BOTTOM OF THE NINTH by Michael Shapiro (Times Books, 2009)

The shadowy Continental League -- a putative "third major league" conjured up in the late 1950s by New York lawyer William Shea, legendary baseball executive/visionary Branch Rickey, and a motley collection of investors interested in cracking the 16-team National and American League structure -- is one of the great "might-have-beens" of baseball history. This well-argued but shakily organized book, however, didn't quite convince me that the failure of the CL to take shape was the turning point that led to baseball's loss of status as America's favorite sport. Author Shapiro tries to draw a parallel between the intended innovations of the CL -- revenue-sharing from TV, a possible adjustment of the reserve clause -- and those of the American Football League, which successfully challenged the NFL at almost exactly the same time. The CL, though, was always ephemeral in nature, with Shea's true goal being the return of a National League team to New York after the departures of the Giants and Dodgers. Once Shea got his wish (and, ultimately, his name on the Mets' new stadium), the CL vanished in a puff of smoke. The only real way that the CL would have shaken up the landscape is if it had decided to operate outside the structure of organized baseball, a tack that was considered but never pursued. The fact that a few CL operators joined Major League Baseball and immediately agreed to do business the "old-fashioned way" suggests that their simple desire to have a seat at the MLB "table" outweighed any desire to test a new model for how the game should function. Lamar Hunt and the other AFLers, by contrast, were perfectly willing to go their own way, at least until a series of tit-for-tat player signings (touched off by the urgings of new AFL commissioner Al Davis) convinced both the established NFL and the "newbie" AFL that peace and a merger were in both sides' best interest.

Shapiro would already have had the makings of a entire book had he chosen to focus on the backstage maneuvering that concluded with four new teams in the majors (in 1961 and 1962) and the CL consigned to oblivion. Instead, he tries to give us some game action to go along with all that "dry bread" by tracing Casey Stengel's final two seasons as manager of the Yankees. After winning the 1958 World Series, the Yanks slipped to third in '59, even spending time in the cellar at one point. Rebounding to win the 1960 AL pennant, the Yanks were upset by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, and Stengel, now 70, was not-so-gently shoved out the door. This is all very interesting, but was a blow-by-blow account of the 1960 World Series truly necessary? Plenty of books on the "business of baseball" have been able to focus on the issue at hand without trying to force this more "readable" material into the narrative. Shapiro's coverage of the legal and business matter is fine, but the additional game stories and such made for a rather clumsy final product and, ultimately, an only partially successful read.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Is This Goode-Bye?

Mike Judge's The Goode Family has reportedly been "officially" cancelled by ABC. Once the show was shifted to Friday nights, I knew that the game was up. Despite leveling a fair amount of criticism at the show's first episode in an earlier post, I thought the series had definite potential as a sharp but quasi-affectionate satire of the left-wing lifestyle. Several just-OK eps later, however, The Goodes had made little progress on the issue of creating effective foils for the well-meaning Goodes. Helen Goode's raspy-voiced, sarcastic dad came the closest, but he seemed a little too much like a warmed-over (though considerably taller) version of Cotton Hill for my taste. Liberal critics, of course, despised the show, but conservatives and moderates evidently found it wanting as a "frontal assault" on politically correct attitudes. Those with a nastier sense of humor probably opted for South Park, while those not into scatology... well, probably watched the cable news to see current life in these United States imitating art.

Might FOX pick up The Goodes? Judging by its promos for Seth MacFarlane's new The Cleveland Show, the network now appears to have committed to MacFarlane's output as the "one true alternative voice" to The Simpsons. Of course, politically speaking, it's not really an alternative at all. Mike Judge would be well advised to back off, do some slight retooling on what is still an essentially viable concept, and wait until the inevitable "MacFarlane overload" drags down ratings, at which point The Goodes could be re-offered as a change of pace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Movie Review: INTOLERANCE (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

No, the above is not a misprint. Nicky and I have put a few REAL "classic movies" into our Netflix queue, and I'll be reviewing them here. We lead off with an object of pious reverence by many film historians, D.W. Griffith's follow-up to the bank-breaking The Birth of a Nation (1915). Incensed at the "shocking... shocking!" accusation that Birth was virulently racist, Griffith created this lengthy rumination on the subject of intolerance throughout history, from the era of ancient Babylon to mid-1910s America. In all honesty, "The Modern Story" is more of an old-fashioned melodrama than anything else, with little true prejudice on view (apart from a few shots at the pretensions of "do-gooders" who are bound and determined to clean up a city, whether the objects of their pity want to be "reformed" or not). Fear not, however, as Griffith unspools three (!) other distinct narratives at the same time as he is telling his present-day tale. "The Judean Story" is, of course, the story of Jesus Christ and the Pharisees, and Griffith spends relatively little time in treading that familiar ground (though extant versions of the film apparently cut some of the original footage out -- the film ran over four hours when it premiered). "The French Story" details the horrific St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 16th-century France, with a doomed romance between a Huguenot soldier and a Huguenot girl named "Brown Eyes" (Griffith was big on giving his characters abstract names) thrown in for good measure. Both of these tales obviously relate directly to the film's overall theme. The fourth narrative, "The Babylonian Story," does as well, but the rivalries between jealous votaries of various gods, which left ancient Babylon open to conquest by Cyrus' army of Persians, frankly pale next to the eye-popping, justifiably famous sets, the thousands of extras, and the half-comic, half-tragic performance by Constance Talmadge as the feisty Mountain Girl, a grown-up, ancient-Babylonian version of Gosalyn Mallard whose attempt to warn King Belshazzar of the impending attack goes for naught. Linking these stories is the relentlessly repeated motif of Lilian Gish rocking a cradle that is meant to represent the eternal nature of human passions, joys, and sorrows (that, or the somewhat cynical theme that humans never really learn anything, despite constant returns to the "cradle" by new generations).

Intolerance cost $2 million to make -- over $40 million in present-day dollars -- and was such a flop that it ruined Griffith's Triangle Studios. It's not hard to understand why contemporary audiences were baffled by the movie. The switching back and forth between plot lines gets ever more frantic as time wears on, and a number of the title cards, giving details on the French Wars of Religion and the competing religions of Babylon, bear rather arch, pedantic text. The techniques of effective film narrative were still being developed at the time, and Griffith evidently saw the overlapping-story conceit as the next major step up the ladder. In the intervening 93 years, very few directors have dared to take that step with him.

For all of Intolerance's flaws and overwrought performances, actually seeing it for the first time was a treat. After its failure, Griffith chopped off the modern and Babylonian tales and released them as separate features, meaning that restorers had quite a job on their hands putting the pieces back together. The seams show, but they don't really wreck the viewing experience. Even when seen in faded black and white, the Babylonian sets and set-pieces really are amazing, especially when you consider that the first film with a storyline -- never mind an elaborate set -- predated Intolerance by only 13 years. The ending of the film is also memorable, as Griffith uses some early "movie magic" to simulate a host of angels descending upon what appears to be a World War I battlefield and pleading for peace. If you are interested in the history of movies -- not to mention tired of modern movies that seem to have less and less respect for the intelligence of the audience -- you really should see Intolerance at least once.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Movie Review: FUNNY PEOPLE (Universal, 2009)

Funny People (2009) Poster

To my great surprise, I liked Judd Apatow's first big hit, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Those who know me will probably understand why I found Steve Carell's character in Virgin easy to empathize with. The raunchy humor, though, was something of a turn-off, so I passed on Apatow's subsequent films. Enough bouquets were tossed at Funny People, however, to convince me to give it a try. I talked Nicky into seeing it with me (that in itself should make Apatow proud!), but we both left the 2 1/2-hour film feeling disappointed and let down. Apatow appears to have been going for a more serious brand of pathos in crafting this story of George Simmons, a successful comedian who learns that he may have a terminal illness. The simple contrast between the self-absorbed, prickly Simmons (Adam Sandler) and the struggling young funnyman (Seth Rogen) whom Simmons hires to help him make a return to the "improv" circuit is, in fact, a promising setup for a meaningful study of how celebrity can corrupt and degrade a person, and it would have been ideal for a 90-minute movie. Apatow, however, lets a subplot spiral out of control and allows it to drag the characters through an additional hour's worth of tedium, leading to a far-too-predictable ending. The fact that Apatow produced a movie in which Adam Sandler actually looks like a halfway-decent actor should count for something, I suppose. Here is one instance, though, in which a movie fell short due to an excess of ambition (and, dare I say it, hubris?).

No "Tank"s

Comics creators have had to deal with censorship for a long time. Walt Kelly of POGO fame was "dinged" enough times that Kelly's fans have a term -- "bunny strips" -- for the harmless substitute strips that the creator was obliged to produce for nervous newspapers editors who balked at printing some of his more sharply-edged politically-themed strips. Carl Barks had an entire DONALD DUCK ten-page story nixed because Donald "was too mean to the villain." Etc. and so on. Another chapter in the long censorship saga was written this week when THE WASHINGTON POST and several other newspapers refused to run a series of TANK McNAMARA strips in which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is urged by former Vice-President Dick Cheney to settle the ongoing controversy over the reinstatement of disgraced quarterback Michael Vick in a rather drastic manner...


I can only speculate that TANK creators Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds -- who've gotten more attention from this caper than their frankly mediocre, unfunny strip has ever merited during its quarter-century of existence -- were referring here to Cheney's well-publicized hunting accident. Or perhaps they're finding it hard to shake off lingering "Bush-Cheney Derangement Syndrome" and simply had to lance the boil publicly. Actually, the ensuing strips, which deal with the NFL's supposed institutionalized racism, may be even more appalling than the "funny hit" bit. Cheney, after all, has been a public figure and fair game for a long time. By contrast, casual accusations of racism thrown at the NFL as an entity splatter a whole bunch of folks who don't deserve it. I can't say I approve of the censorship, but I can certainly understand the logic behind it.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Book Review: CREATED AND PRODUCED BY TOTAL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS by Mark Arnold (Bear Manor Media, 2009)

Over the past two decades, Mark Arnold has done yeomanlike service in preserving memories of various pieces of fondly recalled pop culture that have, for one reason or another, fallen by the wayside (though fond memories of them may linger on). Most of his efforts have gone towards commemorating the legacy of Harvey Comics in his fine fanzine, THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES!. For more than 15 years, I've written the RICHVILLE RUMINATIONS column for that magazine and therefore can testify directly to Mark's love for the subject matter. Now, Mark has favored us with a book on the unjustly overlooked output of Total TeleVision productions, a cartoon producer in the paradoxical position of having created several of the best-loved animated TV series of the 1960s, yet currently languishing in such obscurity that (gasp!) no one has even bothered to create a Wikipedia page wholly devoted to the company. Though Mark's book isn't as tightly organized as I might have liked, he presents by far the most detailed and enlightening history of TTV that has appeared to date.

Past reference works that have touched upon TTV's output have tended to be condescending at best and disdainful at worst, often making disparaging remarks that compare the company's work unfavorably to that of the Jay Ward Studios. This is an understandable parallel to draw, given that (1) both the Ward shows and the TTV efforts were sponsored by General Mills; (2) both groups of shows were animated by the same limited-animation factory in Mexico; (3) a number of network and syndicated "compilation series," such as The Dudley Do-Right Show and Go-Go Gophers, indiscriminately mixed Ward and TTV product together, virtually forcing viewers to do comparisons; (4) to be perfectly frank, Ward's shows (especially those starring Rocky and Bullwinkle) were legitimately funnier that TTV's. Arnold, however, provides some helpful information as to WHY such TTV series as Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and King Leonardo and His Short Subjects took a different tack.

When Buck Biggers, Chet Stover, Treadwell Covington, and artist Joe Harris formed TTV in the late 50s, the goal was to follow Ward's lead and produce shows sponsored by General Mills (for whose advertising agency Biggers, Stover, and Harris all worked at the time). The focus of TTV's output, however, was intended to be different from the outset. Wary of Ward's prickly reputation and penchant for firing jokes that sailed over the heads of (most of) his audience, GM wanted shows that, while still watchable by sophisticated audiences, were a bit more "kid-friendly." TTV shows, as a result, emphasized characterization and narrative over "boffo yuks." This approach sometimes puts these shows in the awkward position of "falling between two stools" -- not being funny enough for the wiseacre crowd that loved Ward's material, yet being too funny to be taken entirely seriously. (This was especially true of Underdog, which spent its active life in perpetual tension between authentic, cliffhanger-ridden superheroics and outright parody.) It did, however, have the advantage that when such a "halfway-house" methodology was appropriate to get a specific point across, TTV's work could be very effective indeed. This is why, after considerable reflection, I've come to regard Tennessee Tuxedo, rather than Underdog, as being the best TTV series. Tuxedo was one of several "educational" cartoons that popped up in the early 60s in response to complaints (most famously by FCC Chairman Newton Minow) that animated TV fare didn't teach kids anything useful. Similar beefs have been registered in the intervening decades, resulting in occasional classics (Schoolhouse Rock) and a whole lot of schlock (Histeria!, Cro, most "green-themed" cartoons). Tuxedo was the best of that first generation of "edu-toons," which also included The Funny Company and The Big World of Little Adam. Unlike those series, which leaned heavily on live-action documentary footage, Tuxedo wrapped its soft-pedaled nuggets of info in the appealing package of wise-guy penguin Tennessee Tuxedo (would you believe, voiced by Don Adams?) and dimwitted walrus Chumley getting required data from Phineas J. Whoopee, the genial "man with all the answers." The fact that Tuxedo was 100% animated (with assistance from Whoopee's "three-dimensional blackboard") permitted the educational material to slide smoothly down the throats of the youngsters for which it was intended. As Arnold points out, while some of the technology described in Tuxedo has dated, the method of delivery displayed in the cartoon remains highly effective.

Tuxedo and Underdog, like most of the other TTV features, relied upon repetition of catchphrases and the like as a means of ramming their points home. This has the advantage of rendering the shows difficult (if not impossible) to forget, yet, when taken to extremes, it can become irritating. Arnold notes the major repetitive features of these shows and additional TTV products such as The World of Commander McBragg, The Hunter, Klondike Kat, Go-Go Gophers, and Tooter Turtle, yet does not "string the thread through the popcorn" and discuss TTV's output as a complete entity. Instead, we get series-by-series recaps, some of which are better than others. Another structural flaw in the book is the heavy emphasis upon lengthy quotations from Biggers, Stover, Covington, Harris, Bradley Bolke (the voice of Chumley), and others. Aside from not being adequately edited for clarity, these quotes should have been set off in paragraphs by themselves, allowing Arnold to fill in the gaps with more writing of his own. As it is, I had to read the book several times before the narrative really started to "flow" and make coherent sense.

Despite the aforementioned problems, Arnold's book, along with Biggers' and Stover's own book of reminiscences (also available from Bear Manor Media), will be the standard reference work on TTV into the foreseeable future. Arnold is especially good when describing TTV's demise in the late 1960s and the story behind the company's last, unproduced series, The Colossal Show. This series, which was intended to star a Sergeant Bilko-style character in ancient Rome, "lives on" to this day in the peculiar form of a one-shot comic book commissioned from Gold Key after TTV had reached a "handshake deal" with NBC to produce the show (General Mills had dropped out of the picture several years before, and TTV's actual last series, The Beagles, was sponsored by a toy company). NBC eventually backed out of its commitment, but the comic book remains, preserving what The Colossal Show might have looked like, in the manner of prehistoric tree sap preserving an ancient insect. The failure to produce this series -- which would undoubtedly have been far, far better than Hanna-Barbera's later The Roman Holidays -- is probably the one "pseudo-tragedy" in TTV's relatively short, but genuinely distinguished, history. Thanks, Mark, for finally doing TTV some justice.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Review: CHESTER GOULD'S DICK TRACY, Volume 8: 1942-44 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2009)

Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, Volume 8

Garyn Roberts, in DICK TRACY AND AMERICAN CULTURE, identifies 1943 as Chester Gould's peak year on DICK TRACY. This may be a bit premature -- aside from the fact that plenty of memorable villains were still under the horizon, Gould had yet to create the rest of his stable of supporting protagonists (the Plentys, Sam Catchem, etc.) -- but it was at this point that Gould thoroughly committed himself to the "cult" of the grotesque villain. This latest collection opens with the introduction of the ruthless Axis agent Pruneface and closes with the opening salvo in the saga of Flattop, the planar-pated hired gun who's come to be more closely identified with Tracy than any other villain. Within these pages, we're also treated (if that's the word) to the most fiendish deathtrap Gould ever concocted for his put-upon plainclothesman, as well as one of the most obnoxious bad guys Gould ever created. Oddly enough, though, the very best complete continuity in the volume, at least in my opinion, owes a lot more to the sensibilities of the 1930s than those of the 1940s.
As threatening and vicious a villain as Pruneface is, he's basically a dry run (dry? prunes? that's a joke, son) for the very similar, and somewhat more fully characterized, Brow of the following year. Pruneface's sabotage, if successful, would have led to the killing of many civilians, but his persona lacks the clever, humanizing touch that was given to The Brow when the latter fell for Gravel Gertie. What makes the Pruneface tale memorable is that it's bookended by Tracy's near-fatal encounter with the hideous Mrs. Pruneface, who craves revenge for her husband's death (actually, she was operating under a false assumption, as PF would make a comeback many years later) and seeks to enforce it using the aforementioned death trap. This notorious scene is among the most nakedly sadistic Gould ever staged. Mrs. PF's demise winds up being rather contrived, but you'll leave the company of this dreadful duo thanking your lucky stars that you weren't invited to the wedding reception.
Flattop is, of course, a legendary villain, and Gould handles his introduction, motivations, and characterization in just the right ways. In his intro, Max Allan Collins rightly describes the scene in which Flattop is about to shoot Tracy as one of the best Gould ever did. The narrative does cut off in the middle of the story, but at a logical "pause point" that serves as an ideal hook for the next volume in the series. (This lacuna also points up the fact that Flattop proved to be so hugely popular with the public -- with a world war competing for people's attention, mind you -- that Gould decided to keep him around for longer than he'd originally planned.) Flattop shines all the brighter in comparison to the ghastly Laffy, the cackling, rotund drug kingpin who's laid low just before the imported killer nonchalantly blows into town. Laffy's character design and shtick are both immensely irritating, which I suppose was the point, but the manner of his ultimate demise shouldn't have been wished on Tracy's most feared foe. In his TRACY history, Jay Maeder called Laffy's lengthy decline "a good laugh," but it's more pathetic than anything else.

The real gem of this era is the story of 88 Keyes, the sallow-faced piano virtuoso. I loved this story when I read it in abridged form in THE CELEBRATED CASES OF DICK TRACY, and the complete version is even better. Keyes certainly isn't grotesque in a physical sense, but his character is pitch-black, correctly described by Collins as that of a "charming sociopath." Keyes' crimes transcend the immediately topical -- though the story does acquire a wartime-flavored subplot when the on-the-lam Keyes has to pose as a farm worker filling in for absent personnel -- and are both relatively mundane (focusing on the old standbys of exploitation and loot-pocketing) and extremely believable. In letting an underage farm girl fall for the pianist, Gould comes very close to a line that is seldom crossed even today and was triply taboo in 1943. The story ends with shocking abruptness as the pursuing Tracy basically takes matter into his own hands; while Tracy would be arraigned in nothing flat these days, his action probably made plenty of sense to readers in a nation at war (and would have reminded those with long memories of some of Tracy's rawer exploits in the previous decade). Marrying the slickness of Gould's drawing style of the 40s to the unvarnished realism of Gould's plots of the 30s, this story stands out, even in a collection that boasts nary a weak spot.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review: WHITE KING AND RED QUEEN by Daniel Johnson (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

This was a most refreshing read! Subtitled "How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard," this book describes how the Soviet Union made a conscious effort to promote chess as a propaganda weapon during the Cold War... and how the resulting "chess machine" was challenged by three very different threats that each portended the crack-up, not only of the USSR's dominance over world chess, but of the USSR itself. What makes the narrative -- which could have been quite dry and pedantic -- so powerful is the author's pronounced anti-Communist stance. No punches are pulled and no "moral equivalence" is tolerated. In his preface to the American edition, Johnson, a British reporter, notes that this uncompromising stance earned him some criticism when the book was published in the U.K. From my point of view, we should all have such detractors.

The three aforementioned "threats" to post-WWII Soviet chess hegemony were Bobby Fischer, the troubled American genius who defeated champion Boris Spassky in a 1972 match that put chess on the front pages of the world's newspapers; Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet defector who barely lost to Anatoly Karpov in a pair of contentious, occasionally bizarre matches in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and Garry Kasparov, who wrested the title from Karpov in 1985 -- though not without a fair share of controversy -- and gradually drifted from a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms to outright opposition to the Communist regime, a position he has since maintained vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. The Fischer story will be familiar to most American readers who are interested in chess and has been told in greater detail elsewhere, and Johnson plows relatively little new ground when discussing Fischer's career, his relationships with the world and the Soviet chess establishments, and the Fischer-Spassky match. Korchnoi and Kasparov, however, have never truly gotten their due in this country, and this book serves as a useful corrective. Korchnoi, in particular, may have been an even graver threat to the Soviets than Fischer, since he had been a well-established grandmaster in the USSR before falling afoul of the authorities and choosing to abandon the Soviet system in favor of the West. Paranoid and superstitious Korchnoi may have been, but the saying "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" never contained more truth than it did in his case. Kasparov -- who's best known in this country for losing to the computer "Deep Blue" back in the 1990s -- was younger, much more of a "world citizen," and, once he made his break with the Communists, a much clearer indication that the regime that had nurtured his talents had lost the ability to control them for its own purposes.

In between the sections dealing with Fischer, Korchnoi, and Kasparov, Johnson discusses such topics as the history of chess, the fates of post-Revolutionary emigrants from Russia, the fact that the vast majority of great chess players have been Jewish, the uses of chess in various literary contexts related to the Revolution and its aftermath, and the Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, a chess player of promise who used tactics adopted from the chessboard to maintain his intellectual independence from the Soviet state. This renders the narrative somewhat choppy at times, but Johnson does manage to "thread the needle through the popcorn" in ingenious ways, e.g., discussing the development of chess-playing computer programs in the context of the failure of Soviet technology to keep up with that of the West. Those who know nothing about chess need not worry about diagrams and game summaries; this is strictly an historical narrative that can be read by anyone with an interest in the Cold War -- and, thankfully, never loses sight of who was "black" and who was "white" in the overall struggle.

Toons 'n Tea (with apologies to ANIMATO!'s Andrew Osmond.)

Spotted at the supermarket yesterday: a new product with a name that positively screams "Bad Karma"... Bonkers brand Performance Teas!

This particular one is caffeinated, so, in addition to providing you with additional "mental clarity," I assume it causes you to bounce off the walls and ululate like a resident of Toontown. Evidently the Hollywood Police Department needed an alternative beverage to consume with donuts, and their "token Toon bobcat" came through.