Friday, June 23, 2017

Brooklyn Dodgers and the Fox Film Corporation

Two new books crossed my desk in the past two weeks, delivered by the friendly neighborhood postman and the authors of these magnificent tomes. Merrill T. McCord, the former editor of the Journal of Medical Education and author of numerous academic books, frequents the good old days of Hollywood movie making with articles that have appeared in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images. His recent book, a massive hard cover totaling more than 670 pages, documents the history of the Fox Film Corporation during the silent movie-making era. William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation: A Biography and a Chronicle stands alone as the only book you will ever want to have regarding the silent era of the Fox Film Corporation. A pleasant read, indeed. 

To accomplish this task, along with documenting the first 378 films produced at Fox from 1914 to 1925, Merrill visited every film archive across the country to screen the silent classics, take notes and make sure the cast and production crew were documented extensively -- and accurately. Since only about 30 percent of silent features and presumably similar proportions of silent shorts, serials and newsreels have survived in some form, researchers studying the era of silent films and the people involved in making them have to rely substantially on information in film trade publications of that period and in whatever old studio documents that can be accessed. Merrill had to decipher the difference between studio publicity hype and the real deal.

There is a fantastic 220 page history of the Fox Film Corporation, the actors under contract, the budgets, props, staged Movietones, John Ford and many other aspects that branded the studio from the competition. Series features, movie theaters, schemes and confrontations... it is all here. I could go on for numerous pages about how fantastic this book is but I will save you the trouble and just say that every movie buff should have a copy of this book.

William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation (2016) by Merrill T. McCord was published by Alhambra Publishers, 10208 Fleming Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. Drop them a line and inquire about purchasing a copy today.

David Krell, a freelance journalist, author and attorney, a member of SABRA and the bar in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has established a high reputation for superb books about America's favorite pastime. His latest book, Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture (2015), was published through McFarland Publishing. The story of the Brooklyn Dodgers includes personal stories from fans who embraced Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella and other icons of Ebbets Field. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary press accounts and fan interviews, David chronicled the glory and demise of the team that changed baseball and America. The historical retrospective is broken down in nine chapters, referred to as innings, with statistics, comparison of the real life playbook to Hollywood movies, radio and television broadcasts, and much more.

The bibliography is a wealth of information for any fan of baseball history -- books and references that I myself have never heard of. "To be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the 1950s was to experience magic," David remarked in chapter one. He demonstrates this with more than 200 pages of fantastic prose. If you love the history of baseball, you will enjoy reading this book.


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Both Merrill and David will be guest speakers at this year's Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, September 14 to 16, 2017. For more information visit: www.MidAtlanticNostalgiaConvention.com

Friday, June 9, 2017

WILLIE WHOPPER and THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN

Two obscurities of vintage cinema have recently been released to DVD and through lesser-known independent distributors. While a few in the hobby tend to dismiss anything released under an independent label, these two offerings are proof that the best restoration jobs can be made available through the efforts of fan boys who want to see the films restored properly. The Mysterious Airman is a 1928 silent serial that was once thought to be "lost," featuring biplanes and exciting action with screen icons Walter Miller and Eugenia Gilbert. Produced by the Weiss Brothers, only the first reel of chapter nine is still considered missing, reconstructed from stills and a plot synopsis. An aircraft corporation is under attack by a band of mysterious flyers, whose leader is known as "Pilot X." It takes a hero willing to risk his life to unmask the identity of the villain, and their motives.

Few silent serials exist today and many of them are incomplete, missing segments and whole chapters. Originally part of the holdings of Kit Parker with his acquisition of Weiss Global International in 2004, Parker was approached by film archivist Jeff Joseph of SabuCat Productions, who offered to loan a near-complete original 35mm tinted nitrate print. Dr. Andrew Simpson of the Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia, produced a new piano score. A commentary track is also available on the disc from historian Richard M. Roberts. (Last month I had my DVD cover insert autographed by Richard personally.)

Of recent a number of silent serials have begun making their way to DVD for fans and collectors to purchase and view. While a number of them have been "altered," such as replacing the original dialogue cards with new ones in an effort to watermark or brand the print, purists prefer to view the films as they were meant to be seen  -- unaltered. But sometimes artist interpretation of "restoration" versus "alteration" is loosely interchanged. Thankfully the Sprocket Vault has released The Mysterious Airman to DVD as a true restoration -- the type of restoration we fanboys wish all silent films received. No alterations. You can purchase your copy here:

Willie Whopper has come to DVD and BluRay (as a combo pack) and fans of vintage animation can enjoy all 14 animated classics from UB Iwerks, produced in the 1930s, from the best surviving masters. Among the highlights are both Willie Whopper cartoons made in Cinecolor, Davy Jones' Locker and Hell's Fire, taken from the original camera negatives. Unseen for over 80 years except as black and white or faded dupes, these two cartoons are again presented in all their two-color glory. Like The Mysterious Airman, the picture quality is superb on every level. 

As if a major restoration from archival elements was not enough, both the DVD and BluRay contain a number of bonus extras such as the script for a never-produced Willie Whopper cartoon, original production art, a gallery of stills, a 12-page booklet documenting the history of the cartoon character, a few bonus cartoons and audio from the 78s (jazz recordings which were featured in the animated cartoons). 

Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean continues to work alongside film archives to digitally restore vintage animated cartoons. Most of the cartoons he put out are in the public domain which means the former owners would never consider spending thousands of dollars or man hours restoring old cartoons that -- in the minds of studio heads -- have no financial value. Here, Steve partnered with Blackhawk Films and UCLA to obtain the best materials to work with. Being UB Iwerks productions the cartoons are not brilliant gems -- but the best of the Willie Whopper cartoons warrant viewing. Steve is presently working on a restoration of every Flip the Frog cartoon ever made (from 35mm elements), along with the ComiColor series. I will be among the many to purchase a copy of each to continue showing my support. I recommend you send a thank you note to Steve for providing this service by purchasing a copy of the DVD/BluRay combo pack today. Financial support helps with future projects.

You can purchase a copy here:

Disclaimer: Unlike most products, these DVDs were not sent to me with the request of a review on my blog. I purchased these on my own accord to help support the endeavors of The Sprocket Vault and Thunderbean Animation.

   

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Move Over Lynda Carter... Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman

Move over Lynda Carter. There is a new gal in town and her name is Gal Gadot. For a generation that never grew up with the television icon, the Israeli-born actress (who was born when Wonder Woman was in reruns) will become the fanboy favorite this summer. Anyone who saw the movie trailers over the past eight months could tell this was going to be a winner and what you saw is what you get.

In dramatic fashion we have a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origin, rescuing Steve Trevor on Paradise Island (a.k.a. Themyscira), and upon learning of the pain and suffering from the War to End All Wars, suspects manipulation by the hand of Ares, the Greek God of War, her sworn enemy. Venturing into the real world Diana Prince has to adjust to a sexist society where women perform secretarial tasks and struggle for the right to vote. Along the way her stubbornness and determination to right the unjust of war-torn travesty (weeping mothers, maimed soldiers, etc.) establishes the ground rules for future superhero charisma. And along the way she learns something about herself in the process.


While the British and the Germans are discussing the terms of Armistice, Steve Trevor attempts to warn his superiors of impending doom by Ludendorff and “Dr. Poison” to create an ultimate weapon that would turn the tide in the Germans’ favor. Naturally, the British maintain a stiff upper lip and dismiss Steve’s warnings. Leave it to Wonder Woman to take control of the situation by striding onto a battlefield (known as “No Man’s Land”) and fight the good fight. Before there can be peace, there must be war.

Created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist credited for inventing the lie detector, the character of Wonder Woman established an early feminist movement representing a peaceful force in society, gender relations and sexual freedom. The recurring theme in the comics was of Wonder Woman restrained, eventually freeing herself from the bondage of her enemies, submission in the subconscious form. Interjected a number of times in the movie we see Diana respecting a newfound appreciation of matrimony, while at the same time insisting women do not have to be secretaries and champions for female independence. If Marston was alive today he would have appreciated the subtle nods within the script.

Dr. Poison, as anyone who read the comic books know, worked for a poison division of the Nazi Party during World War II, attempting to poison the U.S. Army’s water and clog the carburetors of U.S. airplanes. She is partially masked throughout the movie, suggesting one of her past experiments went horribly wrong. When she is eventually unmasked the gruesomeness was obviously toned down for the younger viewers. An early scene with Steve Trevor exiting a pool of healing water reveals nothing but a suggestive appetite between Diana and her future boyfriend, but Chris Pine, while perfectly fitting for the rogue, is a tad bit old for the role.


Which brings me to the question of why a World War I setting, rather than World War II, as initially conceived back in 1941? I get that Diana Prince is the daughter of Zeus, as conceived in DC’s New 52 series, but the Kaiser could have been referred to as Der Fuhrer, war-torn Belgium could have been referred to as France, and a change of uniforms and flags would have been all that was needed to create a World War II setting. According to one source at Warner Brothers, the second Wonder Woman movie will take place during the Second World War.

In an era when Jessica Chastain blasts the lack of female representation in Hollywood, and when Black Widow (of Marvel’s The Avengers) cannot even get her own action figure, Diana’s sacred duty to rid the world of war comes at a price. Warner backed their money with a strong promotional campaign and time will tell how large a reward.


While this may not live up to the standards of Marvel’s popcorn movies, which entertain with tongue-in-cheek mercenaries, and Warner’s attempt to differentiate their comic property from that of Marvel by employing what fanboys refer to as “DC stands for Dark Cinema,” this movie has plenty of color. War sequences and trench warfare are not overblown with glory and pride as demonstrated prior in Wings (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but rather through the lens of the dimmed hopelessness of an occupied village seeking deliverance. What they received was Wonder Woman standing up against the oppressors, insisting to man and woman alike that you either stand by and do nothing, or you take a stand.

Much of the movie is a playbook on time-period action films and with the exception of the set-up and the closer I have to admit we’ve seen this all before. Old hat while Diana Prince attempts to assimilate into normal society. Stands in the way of an automobile? Check. Loves newborn babies and thinks they were molded out of clay? Check. Walking around society with sword and shield for humor that only children will find funny? Check. But the shining moments come when Wonder Woman steps out of the trenches and takes a stand against the Germans, unrelenting fierceness while authentically seductive at the same time. We will always have Lynda Carter but Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman.

Closer
There is no post credits sequence. When the closing credits start to roll, you can leave with your empty candy wrappers and unfinished popcorn.