Monday, January 31, 2011

DVD Review: PEANUTS 1970s COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video, 2010)

I'll gamely resist the obvious temptation to link the out-of-left-field "Motocross" theme of You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown (1975) to Fonzie's infamous flight and state uncategorically, definitively, and absotively that It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown (1977), the fifth (though actually fourth in chronological order) of the six episodes in this back-end-of-the-70s collection, stands as THE moment when the PEANUTS TV franchise officially "jumped the shark." The infamous episode that brought the Little Red-Haired Girl "on stage" for what Charles Schulz himself later admitted was the "cheap thrill" of having Charlie Brown get to meet and kiss his "dream girl" also marked the first PEANUTS special without the invaluable musical contributions of Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi's distinctive scores made even the lesser efforts of the TV franchise's first decade enjoyable. With First Kiss, we suddenly switch to something that the Schulz of ten years before would have dismissed out of hand as "generic cartoon music." To make matters worse, we start hearing the notorious wokka-chih-wokka! undertones of the disco era. It was only a short slide-step from there to Flashbeagle and all that that implied. Tack on the sheer unfairness of Charlie Brown getting blamed for his football team losing the "big game" when it was Lucy (doing the football-pulling-away routine on a "real" stage, this time) who was the real culprit, and First Kiss has a lot to answer for. What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown (1978) provided a welcome return to something like form -- albeit in an extremely unusual format and venue -- but I can't honestly say that I loved, or even overly liked, any PEANUTS special after that one, and even Nightmare originally struck me as more "weird" than anything else, only to grow on me later. So this package truly does represent the last of the "vintage" PEANUTS TV output.

The three Guaraldi eps in this set all have their good points, though Good Sport, with its patchy plot (which, like those of some of the weaker early shows, takes a good long while to get moving) and forced attempt to "sell Motocross," has fewer than either Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown (1975) or It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown (1976). Valentine is unspectacular but gets the job done; why else would Charlie Brown have been sent a flood of valentines after its original showing, just as people sent him candy to make up for getting all those rocks at Halloween? The show also cleverly updates the evergreen theme of Linus' crush on Miss Othmar by giving Miss O. a hot car and a boyfriend (and, presumably, a Women's Lib membership card). Arbor Day is often patronized because of the "sense of holiday desperation" suggested by the title, and it is rather strange that the obscure fete was chosen over, say, New Year's Day, which PEANUTS didn't get to until much later, or July 4th. A fresh viewing, however, reveals a clever juxtaposition of tree-talk with the opening of the gang's baseball season, and the scene of Charlie and Peppermint Patty's teams attempting to play ball in what has now been converted into an orchard is one of the most imaginative that Schulz, Melendez, & co. ever devised. Good Sport has one or two funny bits (e.g. the injured Charlie and "Masked Marvel" Snoopy getting brought to the vet and the hospital -- and that's the correct order), but I detect the start of a somewhat cynical attitude here. "Motocross" was never anything close to a big deal in the comic strip; tennis (which Snoopy plays vs. a ball-chucking machine and Woodstock in a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g sequence at the start) was much more relevant to the gang at this time, reflecting as it did Schulz' contemporary athletic interests. Was Schulz trying to sneak a new strip concept in through the back door, essaying a "TV test balloon" of some sort? If so, then the gambit obviously didn't work.

As noted above, What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown looks a lot better in retrospect. Such a radical departure -- Snoopy essentially soloing (with, of course, no dialogue as a result) and being forced to undergo a stern (albeit imaginary) trial as a sled dog in a quasi-realistic Frozen North where Scrooge McDuck and Glittering Goldie might not have seemed out of place -- needed complete conviction from all involved in order to work, and Melendez' animators rise to the challenge. Snoopy's facial expressions during his agonizing ordeal are priceless, as is the scene in the saloon (honky-tonk?!) where ol' Snoop tries without success to be a can-can dancer and clean up at the poker table. Then, of course, just when he's discovered that he needs to be a real dog in order to survive, he wakes up and it's back to normal (or what passes as such for Snoopy). Even the music in this special works reasonably well, throwing in harmonica riffs and an atmospheric player-piano tune to add to the ambience. Unfortunately, the high of this special wasn't sustained in the final entry in this collection, You're The Greatest, Charlie Brown (1979), which drags us through all ten events of the decathlon, tossing in a few surreptitious licks of the Olympic Theme for good measure. Charlie Brown and Marcie's sportsmanship is admirable but has the feel of a "this-is-good-for-you" theme that was stressed one or two too many times. We see a sort of anticipation here of such later specials as Why, Charlie Brown, Why? (1990) and What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983). In You're The Greatest, however, the rap of the schoolmaster's stick is a little too sharp. Alas, so is the adult voice of the track announcer, which opens up a whole new can of worms that would only grow wigglier as we moved into the 80s. (Adults of a sort do appear in What a Nightmare, it's true, but they follow convention; sled-dog Snoopy's master is only seen in silhouette and speaks with the familiar trombone-voice, while we only see bits and pieces of the bodies of the saloon patrons. I'm willing to forgive that because of the highly unusual nature of the special; we had to have some substantial visual evidence that we were "really" in the Arctic in order for the show's conceit to work.)

The only extra here is "You're Groovy, Charlie Brown," which purports to examine PEANUTS in the 70s. How strange, then, that I saw so many clips from the Schulz documentaries of the 60s tossed in. It seems that even the extra-makers realized that this collection well and truly marked the passing of the glory days.

RIP John "007" Barry

The gifted composer who established the "tonal template" of the James Bond movie series has died at the age of 77. Here's what I consider to be his most underappreciated musical contribution to the series -- and, fittingly, it appeared at the beginning of the most underappreciated movie in the series (sorry, Sean, Roger, Daniel, et al., this one is and probably will always be my favorite). Barry also contributed the classic "We Have All the Time in the World", so memorably sung by Louis Armstrong, to OHMSS.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

THE BEST OF KIMBA: Introduction

The American version of Osamu Tezuka's seminal manga JANGURU TAITEI -- known to us as Kimba the White Lion -- debuted in syndication 45 years ago this coming September. It's part of what I might call the substrata of my interest in comics and animation, a product that left an indelible impression on me during childhood, along with The Flintstones, Speed Racer, PEANUTS, and RICHIE RICH. All of my future fan-interests, including my interest in Duck comics, flowed from these early experiences. Kimba, however, was an exception in that I literally had to "rediscover" the series in adulthood.

As a long-delayed tribute to this marvelous series -- and, I'll freely admit, as a bit of a warm-up for my planned re-review of DuckTales next year, on the occasion of its silver jubilee -- I've decided to post my impressions/critiques of what I consider to be some of the best Kimba episodes. This is harder to do than it sounds, not because many of the series' 52 eps were lousy, but because the series' intended continuity -- a story line based in great part on the original manga, but which Tezuka found that he had to sort of sneak into the TV series through the back door, due to American distributor NBC Films' nervousness over any sort of continuity that could render reruns problematic -- was severely compromised by the manner in which it was redubbed for American consumption. The outstanding voice/writing crew that took on the job were fed episodes in a rather haphazard manner and, as a result, made understandable mistakes. The wonder was that the finished product turned out so well. As Fred Patten and Robin Leyden note in their authoritative article "How Kimba Came to Be" (which I highly recommend that all White Lion "Newbies" read):

["Kimba"] was created by a Japanese producer who didn't get to do the program he'd wanted to make, for an American TV distributor that didn't get the program it had expected to receive. It was adapted for American TV by a production team who often weren't sure of what they were doing. Yet what resulted was a program that was imaginative, intelligent, exciting, humorous, and charming.

To that concluding list of adjectives, I'd add "Heart-filled." "Heart" -- that undefinable but recognizable quality that makes us believe in the reality of fictional characters and care about their relationships and fates -- is present in the best Disney TV series, PEANUTS, and many other products I've enjoyed, but Kimba may be among the most "Heart-filled" series ever made.

I don't know how often I'll be posting these musings -- if I can pull off one a week during the spring semester, I'll be more than delighted -- but I do hope you enjoy them. The first episode reviewed will be the pilot, "Go, White Lion."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie Review: GRAND ILLUSION (RAC/World Pictures Corporation, 1938)

 La Grande Illusion (1937) Poster

Reams of paper, gallons of ink, and, now, terabytes of computer space have been used to parse French director Jean Renoir's World War I masterpiece, which Nicky and I viewed this past week as a "Netflix-Streaming Instant Watch" while a snowstorm whirled outside. I don't have much more than deux additional sous to pitch in... I think that the critics who reflexively describe it as a "great antiwar statement" are missing the point. The film is far more of a pro-humanity statement than an antiwar indictment. No character or class is presented in a really harsh light, not even the cruel-looking commander (Erich von Stroheim) of the German prison fortress to which perpetual escapees Capt. de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), and Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) have been sent. Compare a movie like Titanic, in which class determines attitude with all the rigidity of a Kabuki drama. Renoir's film can be taken as an elegy for an entire way of life, in which aristocratic foes can converse with resigned dignity and "noblemen" can willingly risk their lives for others (as de Boldieu does when he contrives a plot to help his two lesser-born comrades get away) while still not quite understanding what makes them tick. There's plenty of sardonic Gallic humor and an unexpected love story that takes up the last half-hour or so without feeling "tacked on" to appease a particular demographic. The use of subtitles probably mandates multiple viewings to take everything in, but there's no question but that this belongs on the "short list" of the world's greatest films.

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #715 (January 2011, Boom! Kids)

It's time to celebrate 70 years of Comics and (at least in the old days) Stories! To fete the moment -- which could also be considered a belated "official salute" to the old warhorse's passing the 700-issue mark -- three of the four stories inside this over-sized issue feature multiple-character "mash-ups" of the old-school variety. The gaudiest gumbo of all is the Dutch story "70th Heaven," drawn by Daan Jippes and Michel Nadorp and retooled by David Gerstein to obliterate its original status as (I believe) some sort of anniversary celebration of Dutch Disney comics. Actually, it's still fairly easy to tell that this tale was not originally intended for American consumption; the guest stars include all manner of Disney feature-film characters, most of which didn't get all that much four-color exposure in the U.S. back in the day. In order to involve all of these folks, the plot literally throws even the most elementary forms of logic to the winds, with the zephyr-blown handbills advertising Gladstone Gander's party for "luckniks" acquiring the apparent ability to traverse dimensions (Wonderland, Neverland, the world of Little Hiawatha's human Indian tribe) and travel through time (the 19th century rodent-London of The Great Mouse Detective, the Italy of Pinocchio). Turned away at the door, the visiting Disney-character mob repairs to a neighboring hall, where the Ducks are celebrating the anniversary of their beloved "community paper." (Does this mean that if I read old Gold Key issues of WDC&S, I'll find that the "Gold Key Comics Club" features have been magically replaced by yard-sale ads and slightly questionable personals?) Well, if I can accept the premise of Disney's House of Mouse, then accepting this should be a piece of cake -- and, indeed, the concoction slides down the old gullet quite easily. I can't think of two better, or more fitting, talents to pull this off than Gerstein and Jippes (who, like Tony Strobl, has the enviable ability to draw any Disney character well). Jippes, in particular, almost seems to be channeling early-50s Barks in some of his drawings of the Ducks -- entirely apropos, given that Barks' work was the featured item during those peak years of WDC&S' popularity.

"Villain in a Half-Shell" (WDC&S #115, April 1950), written and drawn by Gil Turner, continues the "Gang's All Here" theme by bringing Donald (not a particularly well-rendered Donald, but what the hey) into a "classic-era" LI'L BAD WOLF story setting. Irascible Don finds renting Practical Pig's home for a vacation to carry its own perverse share of "fringe benefits" in the form of the ravenous Zeke Wolf, who's quick to realize that roast duck tastes almost as good as roast pork. Turner certainly has a handle on Don's personality; the duck has his suspicions about the helpful Li'l Bad Wolf before finally agreeing to cooperate in Zeke-zapping, and, even more believably, goes well beyond what Li'l Bad had intended in terms of "teaching Pop a lesson" by gleefully exacting some painful revenge on Zeke. Western Publishing's track record with character crossovers was mixed; this is one of the more-carefully-thought-out ones.

The cover blurb suggests that stories "by" Don Rosa and Carl Barks are featured inside, but that's not strictly true; we get a story drawn by Rosa and scripted by Barks. Well, at least they're present (as is William Van Horn, who draws the cover parodying Hank Porter's famed cover for WDC&S #1). "Forget-Me-Not" (DONALD DUCK #278, March 1990) was one of Rosa's assignments for Holland's Oberon Publishing, and today it serves primarily as an illustration of just how Rosa's drawing style improved over the subsequent years. The DAISY'S DIARY (actually, it looks more like "Daisy's Steno Pad") entry finds scatterbrained Daisy having booked a lot of events on the same day. Isn't that just like a... well, to be fair, Rosa himself probably wouldn't have written Daisy to be as idiotic as she seems here. All the major Duck characters appear in the final panel, which is pretty much all that this three-page finger exercise has going for it. Barks' JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS story "Life Savers" (HD&L JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS #6, July 1970) was originally drawn by Strobl, but here we get the Jippes redraw from 2008. This unpretentious story predated Barks' long string of JW ecology stories, so it isn't forced to carry a heavy burden of uplift. It's OK despite a rather abrupt ending.

All in all, I was fairly pleased with this stroll down memory lane. There was enough new material to keep me intrigued and enough vintage stuff to satisfy those gnawing nostalgia cravings.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #8 (January 2011, Boom! Studios)

Here come the Zulus!!!!

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It's a good thing that there is no such (finite) number as infinity; otherwise, James Silvani would probably have taken the title "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings" literally and tried to draw that many DWs. For me, the "tipping point" was seeing a Linus Darkwing, complete with striped shirt, stringy hair, and lethally (I guess) wielded blanket. The guffaws came thick and fast after that, I can assure you. Picking out all the different pop-culture-spoofing DWs in this hyper-dense final issue of the arc is every bit as fun as playing Where's Waldo? (and, yes, there's one of those among the DW deluge, as well), so I'll leave ID'ing them all to you and move on.

It was inevitable that the visiting DWs and "Darkwing Prime" would be thrown together to cooperate in turning back the worst efforts of Negaduck, Magica, and Paddywhack, and writer Ian Brill shows great insight in letting Quiverwing Duck -- the DW who took over daughter Gosalyn's crime-fighting role when (as revealed in DW #7) the latter passed on -- be the first alternative DW to "break the spell" and regain his senses. It was QD who tracked the real DW to Drake Mallard's house and saw the portrait of Gosalyn and Drake together. Since the common DW trait of fealty to Gosalyn -- in whatever bizarre form she may take -- was, as Darth Vader might say, "very strong" in QD, it's not surprising that this encounter flipped his loyalty. It's fitting, too, that QD is the DW who gets to say a personal, and very heartfelt, goodbye to "Gosalyn Prime" when the adventure is over and the DWs are about to be sent back to their respective "universes." Even Darkwarrior Duck (who takes time out from the general mayhem to start corralling such relatively minor supervillains as Moliarty and Tuskernini, just on general principle) can appreciate the power of the emotions animating QD. Actually, that's no surprise if you remember how Darkwarrior came to be.

Once Magica's power is short-circuited and the DWs are "free to choose," the ish swings into free-for-all mode. Magica and Morgana turn out to be the only erstwhile antagonists to actively cooperate, and even that lasts only long enough for the giant Paddywhack/Negaduck "concurrence creature" to squash Magica flat, prompting Magica to retreat to the presumably safer pastime of old-fashioned solo assaults on Scrooge's Old #1 Dime. (I can't explain why Magica felt she needed to have Launchpad around in order to go Dime-hunting. It's not as if she doesn't know where Old #1 IS 99% of the time.)

The use of Megavolt's Tron-Splitter to break up the "not-so-beautiful blendship" of Negaduck and Paddywhack brings the whole "Negaduck story" full-circle, as it were. But where is/are Negaduck/s now? Probably in the same place where Negs wound up after Darkwing pulled out the "universal plug" in "Life, the Negaverse, and Everything." And how convenient it was for Launchpad to have Paddywhack's jack-in-the-box on hand for the crucial moment when the "positive vibes" thrown off by the Gosalyn-ogling DWs allowed Morgana to take Paddywhack out. If this story would have proven impossible to create in animated form -- and it would have, unless the animators had really strong wrists -- then it still carries within its genes the recognizable animated-DW "germ" of occasionally wobbly logic.

So Steelbeak and F.O.W.L. will be featured in the next arc. Hard to believe that that story could be any "bigger" than this one, although I suppose Egg Men could be drawn in something approaching an infinite number of sizes.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE #304 (January 2011, Boom! Studios)

MICKEY MOUSE... it's not just for "Boom! Kids!" anymore! With this issue, heralding as it does the start of the new "Classics" era, MM is officially promoted to the "adults' table" to join DARKWING DUCK and CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS. Mickey also "loses his 'Friends'," though Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, Clarabelle, and Pete do all make appearances here. It's the first time that Mickey's book has borne the proud old original title since the end of the "Gladstone I" era, at the beginning of 1990. The funny thing is that, to celebrate the return of vintage Mouse material for purportedly "older" audiences, Boom! presents a Bill Walsh and Floyd Gottfredson tale packed with features that can best be described as credulous and childish -- and, much more disturbingly, attempts to slip some censorship past our radar. Hopefully, the latter was only a one-time occurrence, but I'm certainly in no mood to accept such meddling as the "price" we are expected to pay in order to be allowed to enjoy works like these once again.

Walsh and Gottfredson's 1944 strip continuity "The Pirate Ghostship" has had two prior comics reprintings. The first, in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES in 1947, boldly titled the uber-fanciful pirates-and-natives epic "The Isle of Death" (and this two years after the end of World War II, no less). In 1989, Gladstone republished the story in one of its oversized Comic Albums, pairing it up with another 1944 tale, "The World of Tomorrow." The '89 effort, unsurprisingly, "whitewashed" the brown-skinned "sea cannibals" who capture Mickey and the 17th-century (sic) Pete placeholder, Captain Greatbeard. Boom!'s version, by contrast, tints the natives and their Minnie-like "White Goddess" Princess green. (Was the underwater passage to the natives' lair some sort of wormhole to Vulcan?) Given that Walsh's story is tethered only loosely to reality to begin with, playing "How Green Were My Natives" makes the giddy concoction seem all the zanier. Over the past two decades, there has apparently also been a change of opinion on the burning issue of the propriety of showing drunken canines. The '89 reprinting preserved intact the scene in which Pluto becomes sozzled after sampling "The Captain's Grog," but Boom! changes the "Grog" to "Sarsparilla" and, even worse, appears to have Photoshopped in a pic of a just-about-to-vomit Pluto from some other source. The panel with Pluto paying for his sins in the stocks has been altered, as well. I suppose it could have been worse... Pluto could have been using "uncivil discourse" and gotten cut out entirely. (Don't laugh; one of the Princess' tricks is getting Pluto to speak English, albeit only briefly.)

"The Pirate Ghostship" is a far wobblier vehicle than its '89 bookmate "The World of Tomorrow," but "World" was reprinted by "Gladstone II" fairly recently (WDC&S #588-590, 1993-94), as was another Walsh tale of similar vintage, "The 'Lectro Box." Walsh's casual attitude towards plot setup and resolution are always a little troubling to those more used to Gottfredson's well-calibrated storytelling, but they are especially so here. Even so, "Ghostship" has several good, solid, creepy moments: the fate of Greatbeard, the appearance of the fatal "Walking Death," Minnie's picture "coming to life" to scowl at the comely Princess, and Mickey's and Pluto's lives "flashing before their eyes" when they think that they're about to drown. Nice work by David Gerstein on the restoration (now, if we could only have had one of his commentaries to accompany the tale) and Casty's first-rate cover add to the package's appeal.

Following "Laundry Blues," a Gottfredson Sunday-page gag from 1932, the backup GOOFY story "Don't Worry About It" is a bit of a surprise. One might wonder why a simple "Goofy goofs up in a new job" (as a tree surgeon, this time) story would require no less than three scripters: Ed Nofziger, Byron Erickson, and Romano Scarpa. According to INDUCKS, this state of affairs came about because the tale was originally created for the Disney Studios overseas comics program but was never actually published. Scarpa dusted it off and reworked it (presumably with Erickson's help) not long before his death. This may account for the story's unusual level of self-awareness. It's a standard plot, but everything is pitched one octave higher: Clarabelle's reactions to Goofy's depredations upon her property are way over the top; Mickey and Minnie are actually betting on whether or not Goofy will succeed; and Pete is thrown in at the end more or less for the heck of it. I think that the story's self-conscious humor would have been even better appreciated had it run during the Gold Key era, when such GOOFY stories were routinely run as secondary features in DONALD DUCK. Alas, it's ten pages long, rather than four, and thus wouldn't have fit the GK template. The extra effort is appreciated, though.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DVD Review: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

Director John Ford's much-admired take on the tale of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the evil Clantons, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been superseded in realism and historical accuracy by a number of more modern films, but what it lacks in documentary precision, it more than makes up for in visual poetry and its timeless comments on the conflict between the impulses of civilization and those of anarchy. For one who only knew My Darling Clementine as the "background noise" to a particularly anarchic episode of the TV series M*A*S*H, finally seeing this classic from beginning to end (with no comical film breaks!) was a revelation. Admirable acting performances and a focus on character interaction as opposed to violence -- the climactic gunfight is, if anything, underplayed -- make this a quintessentially atmospheric Western.


Someone once joked that Henry Fonda's well-known liberalism made it imperative that, when the actor played in a Western, he be shown packing major heat in order to be "taken seriously" as an action hero. Well, as Wyatt Earp, Fonda only pulls a gun when he absolutely has to -- all he and his brothers want is basically to be allowed to pass through Tombstone, Arizona in peace. But when the Clanton gang, led by their vicious Paw (Walter Brennan, a "fur piece" away from the amusingly genial Dan'l Baboon inspiration we're all used to), rustle the Earps' cattle and kills the youngest Earp brother, Wyatt willingly takes up the task of defending the thin veneer of civilization surrounding the town. Symbolically, Earp defends a traveling Shakespearean actor (Alan Mowbray) from the Clantons when he sees the louts torture the hapless ham into performing for their own amusement. The tubercular, hard-drinking, hot-tempered gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) perfectly straddles the line between the tame and the savage; he's a Bard-quoting exile from the medical schools of the East who nonetheless refuses to rejoin his ex-girl Clementine (Cathy Downs) when the latter comes to win him back, preferring the dubious company of saloon-hall girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and a bottle of whisky. The relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is the subtlest one in the film; they would not normally be allies, yet are thrown together in opposition to the Clantons and ultimately learn how to cooperate.

While most of the performances here cannot be faulted, the weakness of the female leads is a major debit. Chihuahua is about as authentically Mexican as a bowl of Cheez Whiz with a little cumin sprinkled on top, while Clementine is entirely too demure and passive. A catfight between the two women was considered but ultimately dropped; while I can understand why -- the leisurely pace of the narrative, so well exemplified by Fonda's casual gait as he strolls through Tombstone, would have been badly disrupted by something as cheesily superfluous as that -- it would at least have given Downs and Darnell something lively to do. The unseen woman whose irritating, cackling voice can be heard during literally any loud "saloon scene" made a much bigger impression than either of these ladies.

The DVD contains two versions of the movie: the 97-minute cut familiar from TV and a somewhat longer "pre-release version" containing several scenes that were snipped by 20CF boss Darryl Zanuck. (Ford was not pleased by this, but the picture had been done as part of a commitment to the studio, so he had only limited control over what Zanuck did.) The movie commentary, by Scott Eyman (with an assist from one of Wyatt Earp's relatives), was a major disappointment. As Ford's leading biographer, Eyman certainly had the potential to be a fount of additional information about the making of the movie, so it was a real turnoff when I heard a verbatim recitation of generous chunks of PRINT THE LEGEND. I draw one important lesson from the experience: If a commentator talks really fast and makes no mistakes, then there's a good chance that they're performing a recital, rather than giving visceral impressions -- which often provide more insight than "mere" manuscripts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #362 (January 2011, Boom! Kids)... plus BONUS COVERAGE!

*** SPOILERS BELOW: PROCEED WITH CAUTION! ***

It may sound like a backhanded compliment, given my general opinion of some of the previous issues in the "Kung Fu Donald" sequence, but this issue -- the last of the rice wine, as it were -- turns out to be a pretty good conclusion to the short-lived cycle. In "Return of the Titan of Tae-Kwon-Duk," scripter Joe Torcivia picks up where he left off in "Titan of Tae-Kwon-Duk!", the enjoyable backup story in #360, by, strangely enough, going in temporal reverse. Torcivia cabooses the unrelated 1990 Paul Halas-Tom Anderson-Vicar story "Malicious Mallard" onto the backside of the original "Titan," which Egmont actually released over a decade later, and creates a Barks-flavored mini-epic in which Donald's difficulties, rather than those of some "does-he-or-doesn't-he-really-exist?" relative in feudal Japan, drive the plot. Actually, Donald is more of a victim in "Return" than anything else, since Halas and Anderson stick Don with a case of amnesia at just the moment when a lookalike lowlife, the bad-assed, karate-kicking Mangler Mallard, escapes from jail. Torcivia enlivens what could have been (and probably was in the original incarnation) a truly dreary cliche-fest with some inspired name-dropping (e.g., the amnesiac Donald's boss, who thinks the zoned-out mallard is the real Mangler and uses him to commit robberies, is named Handlebars McTwirlsneer) and some snappy repartee between Mangler and the recovered Don as they have a sort-of-set-to in a junkyard. (The use of "Ajax" as the junk company's name is a clever shout-out to the "Acme" simulacrum used in Mickey Mouse Works and Disney's House of Mouse.) Donald earns an unexpected triumph -- though not one without a barb in the very end of its tail -- so we get an ending that can be ranked as satisfying, for all of Don's travails. Torcivia's success in hooking up the two unrelated stories is pleasantly reminiscent of Disney Comics' creation of "The Time Tetrad" from a quartet of Duck tales that ran across four different titles dated October 1991. Disney Comics "imploded" soon after "Tetrad" appeared; let's hope that isn't an omen...

Janet Gilbert, ably assisted by artist Francisco Rodriquez Peinado, gives us an equally amusing back-up, "A Star is Hatched." As those of us who enjoyed her GOOFY stories during the Gemstone era can attest, Janet has come a very long way from the bad old days of having a bored Scrooge join the circus. Here, it is entirely believable that a glory-hungry, martial-arts-obsessed Donald would try to horn in on director Quackie Chan's action film. Don has to settle for the role of a lowly "production assistant" (read: all-purpose goofy "gofer") but winds up filling a hole in the cast after he inadvertently puts one of the stars out of action. The kicker: the star is actually a starlet. The extra kicker: Don's reaction once he learns that he's become a comedy smash is frankly surprising. Very funny and very well-drawn, with a positively grotesque depiction of the starlet's demise thrown in. "Goof-Jitsu," a two-page MICKEY MOUSE strip gag from 1948, is the "cherry blossom" on top of an enjoyable package that finally does a little bit of belated justice to the whole "Kung Fu Donald" concept.

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The trade paperback versions of "DARKWING DUCK: The Duck Knight Returns" and "DUCKTALES: Like a Hurricane" have recently been released, and some oddities -- both minor and major -- are immediately apparent. For starters: Why is the DUCKTALES volume slightly smaller than the "Duck Knight" volume? Not in terms of page count, but in terms of actual, physical size? Is this meant to indicate some sort of "aesthetic difference" between Boom! Studios releases and those carrying the imprimatur of Boom! Kids? If so, then the policy is apparently not being applied uniformly, since the advance notice for the collected "CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS: Worldwide Rescue," slated for release in July, lists dimensions that are slightly different from those of "Duck Knight."

After its early struggles, I had thought that Boom! had weaned itself off of major editorial gaffes, but the "Like a Hurricane" collection is the messiest, least logically constructed thing that I've ever seen the company release. Recall that "Like a Hurricane" was the "umbrella title" used to envelop the DUCKTALES material in UNCLE $CROOGE #392, #393, #394, and #395 in a clumsily awkward embrace. Aside from recognizing the use of the phrase for trade-paper packaging purposes, I gave it no mind, but now it appears that I should have done so -- or, at least, tried to. As bizarre as it seems, "The Curse of Flabberge," "The Everlasting Coal," and "The Pyramid of Prak-ti-Kal Dioker" -- in that order -- are presented without separate story titles here, as if they were some sort of continuous narrative. Unlike Joe Torcivia's efforts with "Tae-Kwon-Duk," however, there isn't even the slightest attempt to believably create linkage. Indeed, on page 2 of "Flabberge," there's a reworked editorial sidebar reference to "Prak-ti-Kal Dioker," which originally was released before "Flabberge" in "real" UNCLE $CROOGE time but appears after it in this volume. I didn't know that sidebar references could be used to predict the future. If this isn't enough to make one's head hurt, consider that "The Littlest Gizmoduck" and "A Switch in Time" are used as "filler" material with their titles still intact. Honestly, did the proverbial "pack of monkeys typing randomly on typewriters" have a hand in putting this together? I suppose that I ought to be pleased that the positioning of "Flabberge" at the front of the book might represent a recognition of sorts that David Gerstein's ambitious use of an existing story to "achieve closure" on the tale of Carl Barks' Brutopia was, in fact, the high point of the DUCKTALES era of UNCLE $CROOGE. From all appearances, however, putting "Flabberge" first might literally have been because someone "rolled a six."

"Duck Knight" is a much more pleasing package, in large part because it has a couple of surprises lurking within. For one, there are no ads for other Disney-related Boom! products. This makes some sense, given that (1) DARKWING is being released under the Boom! Studios banner and (2) Boom! is clearly trying to "hook" mainstream superhero fans here as well as Disney comics fans, but a one-page preview of the "Worldwide Rescue" collection, as well as that of the ongoing "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings," might not have seemed out of place. Following the cover gallery, we find two bonus items that more than make up for the PR omission: two pages of character sketches by DARKWING artist James Silvani and a three-page article on "The Origin(s) of Darkwing Duck" by none other than DW's creator, Tad Stones. For the Stones piece alone, with its priceless bits of "inside infor" on how "Double-O Duck, Starring Launchpad McQuack" mutated into the "terror that flaps" that we know and love, this volume is worth getting, even if you already own DARKWING DUCK #1-#4. Did you know that Gizmoduck was originally going to be paired with "Double-O" Launchpad? I didn't.

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As we gear up for the official launching of "Boom! Kids 2.0" and the promised "return of the classics," word has come of some unfortunate cancellations elsewhere in the Boom! "universe." Read the entire thread for some interesting observations and revelations. I didn't read the Pixar and Muppet books but heard many good things about them. Could Disney be planning to shift these titles to Marvel?

Friday, January 14, 2011

DVD Review: BRINGING UP BABY (RKO, 1938)

I'm of two minds regarding this "classic" screwball comedy -- and, judging by the dramatic division of opinion seen on the movie's iMDB Web site, I'm not alone in my appraisal. The wacky Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant mash-up contains plenty of hilarious and memorable bits of slapstick and lashings of clever verbal humor, but, BOY, do you have to exercise some patience in order to buy the entire package. For one thing, it's an even bet that you'll want to kill Susan Vance, Hepburn's dizzy heiress character, before the movie is one-quarter over. I have never been a big fan of "comedies of humiliation" in which one individual -- in this case, Grant's hopelessly "square" paleontologist Dr. David Huxley -- receives the brunt of the abuse. Director Howard Hawks' later film I Was a Male War Bride (1949), though less critically revered than Baby these days, actually worked better for me than did Baby because (1) both Grant and Ann Sheridan were affected to some extent by frustration and comic distress while waiting to consummate their marriage and (2) Sheridan was far less annoying than Hepburn. It's not hard to imagine Grant and Sheridan's marriage lasting for a good long while; the hopes for Grant and Hepburn's hook-up seem much dimmer, even without taking into account the ultimate fate of Huxley's painstakingly assembled brontosaurus.


Despite its more irritating aspects, this movie "works" in part because of a superb supporting cast of well-regarded character actors, all of whom are in excellent form. Charlie Ruggles' fluttery Major Applegate, Barry Fitzgerald's bibulous gardener, Walter Catlett's bumbling, self-important constable, May Robson's pompous dowager, and Fritz Feld's stiffly officious Dr. Lehman are as good a "bench team" as I've ever seen, and the fact that their distinctly drawn characters are so different from one another makes for much hilarity, especially in the jail scene near the end of the movie. The only real problem with the cast is that, as Hawks himself admitted later in life, everyone was a screwball of one sort or another (well, perhaps the two leopards and George the digging dog should be excepted), and therefore the audience lacked a character with whom to identify. Well, I didn't think Huxley was that much of a nut, and I definitely identified with his travails, for reasons that anyone who knows me will immediately recognize.

I watched the DVD of the movie twice, once with Peter Bogdanovich's commentary (complete with Bogo's imitation of Hawks' low, drawling voice). The commentary was lightly enjoyable but didn't really explain why this movie, which did not do well upon original release, has ascended so dramatically in terms of critical acclaim. It's funny how many films have been "reassessed" over time, but so little attention has been paid to "reassessments" of the original "reassessors." My verdict: Baby is fun to watch, but don't necessarily believe all the hype.

Book Review: THE COMPLETE LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, VOLUME 6: PUNJAB THE WIZARD by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2010)

Guess which canonical ORPHAN ANNIE regular debuts in this volume, which features strips from the period February 1935-September 1936? Hint: It isn't the funny-looking, white-bearded guy in the red bullseye. The massive, magic-mongering, vaguely sinister Punjab represents Harold Gray's first serious foray into the world of fantasy, and, as such, he presents some immediate continuity problems. For example, soon after Punjab meets Annie for the first time, he gives her a special whistle that she can use to summon him whenever she needs help. All well and good, but there's no clear indication that the whistle is a one-shot gimmick of the type featured in "Tex" Avery's famous short Bad Luck Blackie (1949), nor is there any apparent radial limit to the "penumbra" of the whistle's effectiveness. Why couldn't Annie use the device to call for Punjab in any and all circumstances? It seems to me that this actually undercuts one of the sources of Annie's appeal, namely, her self-reliance. In several adventures later in the book -- Annie's sojourn in Hollywood, her alliance with the elderly shoe repairman Jack Boot in the town of Butternut -- Annie could certainly have used the whistle, but she did not. It will be interesting to see whether the whistle ever appears again.

Punjab plays a tangential, but creepily decisive, role in this volume's most famous continuity, the "Eonite" story. In his introductory essay, Jeet Heer correctly notes that the idea of the perpetually cackling ("He! He! He!") inventor Eli Eon creating a substance with a seemingly infinite number of useful properties is every bit as much of a flight of fancy as a nine-foot-tall Indian mystic. Eon is a less interesting character than other oddball comic-strip inventors of the era, such as Floyd Gottfredson's Dr. Einmug, but his existence is strictly a means to several ends. Gray uses the fight over "Eonite" to lay bare the distinction between "good" capitalists ("Daddy" Warbucks, who wants to help Eon develop his idea for the good of America) and "bad" capitalists (the ruthless J. Gordon Slugg, who hires loudmouthed, business-bashing politicians and "Bolshie" rabble-rousers to portray Warbucks as a public enemy) and to illustrate, in lurid detail, his loathing of unions and the "class warfare" rhetoric frequently used by proponents of the New Deal. It was this storyline that prompted THE NEW REPUBLIC to famously brand Gray as a purveyor of "Fascism in the Funnies." This was definitely a case of overegging the critical pudding, yet I'm not surprised that the overwhelmingly sincere manner in which Gray staged this morality play led some to believe that he must have had some sinister "hidden agenda." The story is alarmingly modern in some ways, too. In portraying Slugg as a power-mad rich man who is willing to exploit dupes from both sides of the political spectrum to achieve his ends -- as opposed to simply running as profitable a business as possible -- was Gray somehow intuiting the future existence of a figure like George Soros?

The lengthy story "Annie in Hollywood," with its gleeful send-up of the Shirley Temple phenomenon, gives Gray ample opportunity to hop onto one of his other favorite hobbyhorses and bash hypocrisy. Tootsie Snoots, the "adorable" Temple placeholder for whom Annie doubles, is a spoiled brat with litigious, "enabling" parents, not unlike the nasty Darla Dimple in Cats Don't Dance (1997). The plucky Annie refuses to accept the status quo and eventually wangles a part as a blacked-up "native princess" who becomes an overnight (albeit anonymous) sensation. You might think that the blackface routine would be offensive, but it actually isn't; it simply looks as if Annie has a really, really, really nice tan. Annie takes time from her rise to sort-of-stardom to play inadvertent matchmaker for her mentor and ally, the struggling actress Janey Spangles, and risk-taking producer George Gamble. No politics here, just good, clean satire and another test of Annie's seemingly boundless optimism.

The lengthy "Jack Boot" storyline takes its cue from several continuities earlier in the 1930s, throwing Annie together with a kindly caretaker with more of a "past" than seems apparent on the surface. The "mystery" element of this story is expertly planned and executed, and Gray has a high old time taking pot shots at the two-faced townsfolk who swing back and forth in their opinions of Boot with comical suddenness. For the ability to lure readers back for more day after day, Gray's work of this period has rarely been equaled.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Comics Review: CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS #2 (January 2011, Boom! Studios)

In part two of "Worldwide Rescue," Boom!'s RESCUE RANGERS creative team one-ups its splashy debut -- and shows considerable guts, besides, given its stated concerns about satisfying the Rangers' demanding fan base -- by boldly striding directly into the midst of territory normally staked out by and quarreled over solely by C&DRR fans... namely, the area of character backstory. Then, the proverbial rug is just as boldly jerked out from under the readers' feet with a shocking/poignant moment that is a match for some of the better "character-building" episodes of the TV series. You'd better believe that this merits some

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I figured that we had a good chance of seeing Foxglove here, given that "Brazilian bats" were among the animals affected by the misuse of the Animal Rescue Signal, but I didn't expect that she would be in a pre-adventure flashback... and I doubly didn't expect that Foxy's "retired" father Eaglewood would be among the "possessed" bats. How fortunate, indeed, that the Brazilian portion of the A.R.S. "Super Key" just happened to be in Eaglewood's cave. But no sooner were we introduced to a character that the most elaborate fan "explanation" of Foxy's past claims shouldn't even exist than poor Eaglewood was -- apparently -- "done fer" at the hands of a nefarious human rainforest-wrecker. Chip's comforting of a shocked Dale in the wake of the tragedy more than made up for all the griping and irritability that the Rangers' hard-headed leader has displayed up to now. Eaglewood's fate certainly leaves open the door for Foxy to formally join the Rangers in a mission of "revenge," but that is small comfort. I give writer Ian Brill all the credit in the world for being brave enough to set something like this before us so early in the life of this title.

We get another surprising development when Monterey Jack, seeing how the "possessed" bats were able to stop the humans from their deep-woods depredations, argues in favor of allowing whoever has activated the A.R.S. to continue doing what they are doing, even though it goes against what his old mate Geegaw would have wanted. This is definitely in character coming from a bloke who frequently rushes into things without thinking, but Monty's stated reason for his opinion -- that the "possessed" animals are enjoying a chance at adventure -- strikes me as weak. I would have bought Monty arguing in favor of the animals defending themselves from harm or even getting revenge, but surely even he can recognize the difference between having a true adventure and being manipulated into doing things one doesn't want to do. Monty changes his mind after witnessing the "possessed" Eaglewood's fate, but the original reasoning seemed to be a far too convenient excuse for Monty and Chip to get into yet another argument. I think that Brill could have handled this a bit more artfully. He could also have done more with the Pi-Rats, whose sudden appearance at the end of C&DRR #1 winds up leading to... not so much. The Pi-Rats get knocked out by the Rangers and that's it? It's not even clear why Fat Cat chose the Pi-Rats, of all critters, to "mind-control" and run up against the Rangers. The Rangers, after all, have established that they can handle the bantam buccaneers if it comes to that.

Fat Cat continues to be the only apparent villain behind the shanghai'ing of the A.R.S., and he seems to be channeling The Phantom Blot with his atypical desire to use psychological warfare on the Rangers ("I want the world to crumble around [the Rangers]... and they have no power to stop it!"). He has finally gotten a clue and is trying to exploit the Rangers' commitment to helping others in order to break them mentally. I call that progress, of a sort.

Brill's writing may have been a little uneven here, but Leonel Castellani's art continues to be drop-dead gorgeous. Colorist Jake Myler also merits plaudits for the beautiful light-and-shadow effects when the Rangers are in the bats' cave. DARKWING DUCK set a very high standard indeed for Boom!'s TV-based comics, but C&DRR is thus far outpacing it by a fairly decent margin.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Kimba Konnections!

You Never Know What You'll Find on the Internet, part 3,421,705,116: Yesterday, I stumbled across a couple of neat discoveries concerning the American voice cast of Kimba the White Lion. Those of you who know about my interest in Kimba will recall that I met Ray and Sonia Owens and corresponded with Billie Lou Watt some years ago. The two other principals were Hal Studer (Billie Lou's husband) and Gilbert Mack. Mack's most notable voice on Kimba was the irascible parrot, Pauley Cracker. Well, Pauley's voice -- a slightly younger-sounding version of it, anyway -- seems to have turned up two decades before Kimba in a Popeye cartoon, The Hungry Goat (1943), as the voice of the goat character. Clearly, Paramount was eying the success of Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros. in this case and wanted to (no pun intended) horn in with its own take on a Bugs-like character. Mack, who had a long radio career as a "man of many voices" (lasting into the CBS Radio Mystery Theater era of the 1970s) and did other incidental voices in several future Paramount cartoons, didn't get screen credit for his work here, more's the pity.


As a bonus, here's a 1980 clip from the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, with Billie Lou Watt appearing in live action as Ellie. She played this role from 1968 to 1981. Sorry for the low quality; it's amazing that this has survived at all, given the ephemeral nature of soap operas!

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #399 (January 2011, Boom! Kids)


UNCLE $CROOGE's DuckTales detour (or, if that word sounds unfairly pejorative, then why not try "diversion"?) concludes here with a better-than-decent final issue that serves as a neat precis of the strengths and weaknesses of the past eight releases. In the lead story, "The Arcadian Urn," we once again see clever rescripting giving some extra life to what appears to have been relatively humdrum original material. Paul Halas and Tom Anderson's Egmont tale of the DuckTales gang "plus one" (read: Scrooge, HD&L, Launchpad, Webby, and Donald, who's conveniently "on shore leave from the Navy") exploring the "hidden land" of Arcadia in Ionian Greece would have been a more or less conventional treasure trek -- Scrooge is after an artifact that will trump the ancient urn that Flintheart Glomgold had earlier auctioned off for a pretty penny -- had the ever-reliable David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray not upped the ante by engineering what has to stand as Webby's finest moment in the comics medium. Consider that the much-mocked moppet:

(1)  Wields a "Littlest Chickadees Field Guide" every bit as dexterously as the Nephews handle their Junior Woodchuck Guidebook. (This could be considered "retconning," at least by those who've seen the TV episode "Merit-Time Adventure", but I'm glad to see Gerstein and Gray returning to Barks' original intention of unisex scouting organizations. Besides, who's to say that the legendary Hypatia couldn't have scrounged up her own set of material from the lost Library of Alexandria and preserved it for posterity?)

(2)  Is the first Duck to follow Launchpad into the magical underground pool that leads to Arcadia. (Yup, she's even quicker off the mark than HD&L.)

(3)  Is trusted to get the other Ducks out of prison by slipping out of their cell by herself and knocking out the guard with "Morpheus' sleeping powder."

(4)  Saves Scrooge's bacon (after the destruction of the pool and the treasure that Scrooge was bringing back) by bringing along figs in a jar made of Arcadian "blue glass."

Add all of this up, and it's hard to think of a story in which Webby more deserves the honorable title of "fourth Nephew." This, despite the Nephews offhandedly referring to her as a "danger-prone duckling" and Scrooge conveniently forgetting Webby's presence in the "ultimate" treasure hunt by claiming that she and Launchpad will "get used to the drill" of treasure-seeking with Scrooge, Donald, and the boys. (BTW, does the presence of Donald really make that much of a difference? He basically does nothing here, apart from playing Sancho Panza and making sarcastic remarks as the bumbling Launchpad confronts the dragon who's been menacing the Arcadians, going gaga over a frankly unattractive Arcadian lady, and dropping verbal references to Gyro Gearloose, Daisy, Admiral Grimitz, and Mickey Mouse. Since Launchpad's references to Darkwing Duck bring us right back to the same continuity issues that dogged "The Everlasting Coal" in #392, all of those otherwise-appreciated cross-references are pretty much canceled out, anyway.)

Despite Webby's superb performance, it's tough to rank "The Arcadian Urn" as anywhere close to the level of the TV series' two masterful encapsulations of Greek myth and legend, "Home Sweet Homer" and "Raiders of the Lost Harp." The magical pool provides too easy and convenient a route to Arcadia, the Arcadians are generic guys in togas rather than distinctly drawn characters, and Prince Baklava's treachery seems strange given that his father, King Metallia, is the one offering the treasure-prize to whoever can best the dragon, and thus the treasure already belongs to Baklava, in a manner of speaking. Jose Maria Millet Lopez' artwork, which has enlivened a couple of Boom!'s DT offerings, and a really fine coloring job by Diego Jourdan provide at least partial compensation for these drawbacks.


The use of "Scrooge's Nose Knows Gold," a four-page story from the DUCKTALES activity magazine, as the issue's backup tale -- written though it is by the accomplished John Lustig -- reveals the scarred and chipped "other side of the coin" of Boom!'s DuckTales phase. During the first year of Boom! Disney comics, the lack of backup features was often a negative. In the DT $CROOGE issues, by contrast, the choices of supplementary material cruelly revealed that, apart from the William Van Horn gag sequences featuring Launchpad and Gyro, really good short DT stories are very few and even further between. "Nose Knows" is better than the average mag quickie -- I should know, I have most of them in my collection -- but even Lustig has problems with the format, creating plot conveniences right and left. Would the more ruthless DT Glomgold really carry around "instant hay fever" as an ultimate deal-breaker? Isn't a more, um, decisive weapon more his speed? And how come Scrooge mistakes a mountain of yellow flowers for gold early in the story, a goof which seems to contradict the story's very title?

I'd have to give the DuckTales era of Boom! $CROOGE an overall B- grade. The lead tales were generally fairly good but could have been better at times, even with the frequently inspired scripting. If Boom! uses DT material in future issues of $CROOGE, then it would be well-advised to mix DT lead stories with more conventional backup material, much as the Carl Barks story "Christmas Cheers" was used as the backup in #398. In light of the great success of DARKWING DUCK and CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS, I think that we can pretty much count on more DT offerings in $CROOGE, and I'll certainly welcome them.