Tuesday, 30 September 2008

King Kong Promotional Photos

Here is another photospread of 1930's style jungle adventure, this time featuring the Eighth Wodner of the World, King Kong! Enjoy!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Tarzan Escapes (1936)

After 1934's Tarzan and His Mate, the Tarzan series begins to echo the development of another great movie franchise of the 1930's and 40's: Universal Studios' Frankenstein. The similarities are almost frightening, as both series feature excellent opening chapters and even better first sequels, but begin their decline at the third film, falling ever further into mediocrity with each new installment. This isn't to say they are bad... It's quite fun mediocrity. But both series manage to veer away from the daring territory of their initial installments.

The problem with the Tarzan series is its inability to cope with that fundamental contradiction of Victorian-Edwardian escapist fantasy: the spectre of domestication. When Captain Nemo, in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, flees to the oceans, it is to escape a cruel world of domination and exploitation. But the world he creates under the sea is a mirror image of the one above it, with himself as a the sole reigning monarch over his crew, the ocean territories and resources he surveys. Jan Morris, in her excellent picture book The Spectacle of Empire, notes that,
By the imperial noonday... the spectacle of the empire was flamboyant indeed, coloured as much by oriental despotism as by feudal example from nearer home. If it was modernist in some ways, it was antique in others. It embodied the marvelous energy of steam as well as the immemorial pride of horseflesh. It was queenly, but it was savage. It was partly the consequence of dukes, but partly the beat of jungle drums...

A few authors were able to understand this contradiction, and bemoaned it. In the closing chapters to The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle places this observation in the mouth of Edward Malone as he departed that plateau:
With much labor we got our things up the steps, and then, looking back, took one last long survey of that strange land, soon I fear to be vulgarized, the prey of hunter and prospector, but to each of us a dreamland of glamour and romance, a land where we had dared much, suffered much, and learned much--our land, as we shall ever fondly call it.

The main appeal of the Tarzan myth is the idea of a more natural existence, of noble savagery, escaping the pressures of civilization to live a more free and genuine life contesting yourself against the elements of nature in an edenic paradise. When Jane left her world behind to live in Tarzan's, it was for that very purpose. But by Tarzan Escapes in 1936, Tarzan's world began to look very much like the civilization she left.

The first thing one may notice is the change to Jane's appearance. In Tarzan and His Mate, she was a stunning beauty barely concealed in her two-piece leather bikini, given to taking nude swims with her self-declared husband. In the following film, she had become a more homely housewife, wearing a far more reserved one-piece dress. This change was to a large degree inspired by outrage from conservative audiences and the Hays Code, but one cannot be so quick to dismiss it as the consequence of a few stuffed shirts. Money is the bottom line of Hollywood, and there was apparently little market for such a flagrant rejection of mainstream values of decency.

Another example is Tarzan and Jane trading in their flexible and mobile life sleeping in whatever tree was above them when night fell for a permanent jungle condominium reflective of the Swiss Family Robinson. Jane describes her home to her visiting relatives in Tarzan Escapes as having all the modern conveniences, including hot and cold running water, elevators, a rotating spit, dishwasher, gazebo and a sit-down formal table with utensils. The free life of the jungle has become settled and domestic.

Tarzan Escapes also solidifies the formula of the Tarzan series. It can be understood that there would always be a requisite swimming scene. After all, Johnny Weissmuller was - and remains to this day, despite Michael Phelps - the greatest celebrity Olympic swimming ever knew. However, the plot of an invading safari, Jane being torn between jungle life and civilization, and Tarzan's near-mortal injury become standard. This becomes even more noticeable when footage from previous Tarzan films becomes increasingly recycled. It does maintain a kind of twisted continuity, but at the cost of originality. Like Universal's Son of Frankenstein onwards, the Tarzan series descends at the third number into solid B-movie territory (which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one's point of view).

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Swiss Family Robinson (1940)

Johann David Wyss' 1812 novel has gone down as one of the classics of adventure, both in print and on screen. Most are familiar with the 1960 Disney version, with its traditional Disneyisms of songs, romance and wacky animal races. That more famous version, if being steadily forgotten over time, was predated by another. That version, sadly, has not merely been forgotten but actively suppressed.

We know exactly where this 1940 RKO production is, however: in the Disney vault. When procuring the rights to Swiss Family Robison for their 1960 version, Disney also bought up the 20-year older version in order to avoid any unflattering comparisons. Today the best available version of the 1940 film is an abridged supplement to the Disney DVD.

What one sees in this first take on the story is a much more dramatically deep tale set against one of the great jungle epics of the golden age of cinema. The sets easily rival those of King Kong and Tarzan and his Mate for Doré-esque sublimnity, and the tension easily outstrips the Disney version. Instead of a love triangle with Roberta, the main conflict is between Mother and Father Robinson. While there is a little squabbling in the Disney film, the couple is still, ultimately, standing tall as the solid rock of the family. In RKO's version, their marriage is the first thing to painfully break down after Father so imperiously decided that they were going to leave the comforts of civilization for this godforsaken island. Then the relationship between father and sons is strained when he is working so hard to make fine men of them. If that weren't enough, the spectre of the Grim Reaper looms over the family's youngest...

Where later versions focus on the adventure aspect, this version stays truer to the original novel's pedagogical purpose. The Robinsons are definitely a Christian family, struggling with their beliefs, morals and identity out in the wilderness. An even larger conflict serves as the backdrop. Orson Welles, in his first and uncredited screen roll, narrates that the family flees a Europe darkened by the shadow of Napoleon... an easily-discerned allegory for another dictator in whose shadow Europe feared in 1940. Upon landing, the family erects a flag out of their former altar cloth: a symbol for a new land welcoming all who would live in peace. The commentary is not only on the struggles of the family, but the struggles of a world bound in war.

It is only a shame that such a film is locked away, never to be seen in its full version.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Summer Vacation Retrospective '08

After long last, I was finally able to overcome a faulty Windows Movie Maker with another adequate program called Video Spin, resulting in a pair of sepia-toned silent films of our adventures this past summer.

Click here to watch Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on Video.ca. Or here to watch The Grand Canyon, also on my patriotic host of choice, Video.ca.

We were also graciously invited by the premier Americana weblog, Viewliner Ltd., to write on some slightly different impressions of Waterton-Glacier park. Though a model of international peace across the world's longest unprotected border, it also provides an interesting laboratory with which to examine the cultural differences between Canada and the United States. You can read it here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Tarzan Promotional Photos

For your enjoyment, we pull a page from such venerable magazines as Famous Monsters of Filmland by posting a spread of photos from Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan's classic Tarzan films. Fondly remember old favorites, or a get a taste for what is to come when you finally see these movies for yourself!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

The success of Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 easily overtook that of the film it was a conceptual follow-up to, 1931's Trader Horn. So much so, in fact, that most people have never heard of Trader Horn. However, by the time the sequel - Tarzan and His Mate - came in 1934, the bar for adventure films had been raised and never yet truly surpassed. 1933's King Kong changed absolutely everything about the scale of an adventure film and driving home the age of the Hollywood epic. The gargantuan gorilla forced Tarzan and His Mate to be an even bigger, grander, more sublime and more ambitious story. For the most part, it worked: by most reckonings, this is one of the few cases where the sequel is considered superior to the original.

This time around, Harry Holt returns to the Mutia Escarpment to take Jane up on her offer to freely exploit the elephants' graveyard. He has ulterior motives, however. After pining away for his lost Jane, he hopes to woo her back to civilization and his arms with all the latest in fashions, music and impassioned pleas. Harry must contend, this time around, with a collaborator who also finds himself wooing Jane, more assorted jungle terrors, and a violent tribe known as the "Eaters of Lions".

Tarzan and His Mate is not only a more sublime and awe-inspiring film, with its brilliant matte paintings, immense sets and sprawling epic quality. It is also a far more risque film than the uninitiated might expect for 1934. The sexuality that was latent beneath the surface of Tarzan the Ape Man, tenuously masked behind furtive and surrendering gestures, is out in full force in the sequel. The most graphic was a scene often cut from theatrical prints: an afternoon skinny-dip between the loinclothed Tarzan and the nude Jane.

The more general temptation of Jane between civilization and the jungle, tepidly enfleshed in the more wholesome competition for affections between her paramours (it's always hard to woo a girl with her grizzled old father right there breathing down one's neck), becomes a passionate and hormonal allegory where Harry is enticing her back to civilization by putting her in slinky, sexy dresses while Tarzan in enticing her to stay in the jungle by ripping her out of them. Into the mix is thrown an additional suitor, whose designs on Jane are clearly of an objectified and self-gratifying nature.

They only barely got away with this because Hollywood refused to learn decency until the Hayes Code was put into widescale practice in 1934. This limitation on sex and violence in the deepest, darkest jungle would prove to be a critical blow to Tarzan. While the series would continue with Weissmuller at the helm for another 10(!) motion pictures, they would never quite be the same... or this good.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

On the Trail of the Ice Age '08

Canada presents unsurpassed facilities for the study of the pleistocene deposits. Extending across the American Continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in the widest part of that continent, and reaching from the latitude of 45 to the polar regions, possessing great plains covered with drift material, and mountainous districts heavily marked with the action of land ice, and having in many places abundance of fossil remains in its more recent deposits... (John William Dawson, The Canadian Ice Age)

My interest in the Ice Age prehistory of North America began many years ago when I found a 400 million year old fossil brachiopod - a type of marine shell - in Late Cretaceous swamp deposits only 70 million years old, long after that type of brachipod went extinct. The most plausible explanation is that it had been picked up by the glaciers in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (where they are ordinarily found) and survived the ice and elements to be found by me, thrown out of its native time and space. I also had the pleasure of visiting the fossil-rich La Brea Tar Pits on one of my excursions to Los Angeles. Some day I hope to visit the near-Arctic goldfields of the Yukon Klondike, with a side-trip to the Yukon-Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Until then, we took up Dawson's challenge, deciding to scratch beneath the surface of grass and gravel to uncover the remains of the last great Ice Age and its glaciers, what lurched with inconceivable slowness from mountain peaks and across a continent. The whole landscape of Western Canada is shaped by glacial forces only 10,000 years past, its indellible mark tracable, the evidence leading us to its last remnant, the Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Our quest began, for the sake of inspiration, at the Calgary Zoo. Another point which impressed me was that the North American savannah of 10,000 years ago was so recent that many of the familiar species we see today in the Arctic, or even our local lakes and forests, were contemporaries of the woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth cat. We saw the musk ox - a true Ice Age holdover - and the caribou, the modern bison - a short-horned relative of the long-horned Ice Age varieties - and the grizzly bear. In the Eurasian exhibit we saw bactrian camels and Przewalski's Horse, Mongol relatives of formerly native North American species.

The Musk Ox, Bison and Przewalski's Horse.

Heading south, we passed through the town of Okotoks, so named for the largest glacial erratic in the world. The ancient boundary between the ice sheet that formed in the Rocky Mountains and that which formed from the Arctic and the Canadian Shield is marked by a chain of boulders stretching through Southern Alberta and into Montana. These boulders originated in what is now Jasper National Park, falling onto the ice sheet during a land slide, being drawn along with the glacier to where it butted up against the other, larger ice sheet, and then dropped when the Ice Age ended and the ice sheets retreated back into the mountains.

The Big Rock.

The Blackfoot First Nations have another story about the Okotok, or "Big Rock". They say that the Old Man, Napi, was walking along one day when he saw a lone and cold stone. As a gesture of generousity, he offered the stone his buffalo robe. However, cold soon set into Napi's bones and he returned to the stone, asking for his cloak back. The rock refused, so Napi took it, teasing the presumably immobile stone. However, he wasn't so immobile and soon started rolling after Napi. As he ran, Napi summoned the animals to help him, and though they could chip off pieces of the rock, no one could stop him. Finally a pair of nightengales dove in an split the big rock in two right down the centre, and there he came to rest.

Whether from the Big Rock that chased Napi or the retreating glaciers, the chain led us back to Calgary and locations like Fish Creek Provincial Park and Nose Hill Park, home to other alien boulders. Hitting the Trans-Canada Highway, we drove towards the Canadian Rockies, the origin of the glaciers. Along the way, strange teardrop and sinuous hills guided our progress. Though covered with a thin layer of soil, grass and a few windblown trees, these gravely mounds are themselves remnants of the Ice Age. Unlike the erratics dropped from their perch on top of the icepack, these drumlins and eskers formed at the bottom, pushed up and shaped by the glacier scraping the land as it moved over it.

A short hour from Calgary, the rolling foothills give way to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park. Unlike the American Rockies, one of the distinguishing features of the Canadian arm is the dramatic, craggy appearance of the mountains, caused to a large degree by the glaciers. The tell-tale signs of their passing are visible, from Matterhorn-like peaks to cirques and hanging valleys. One of the best places to see these is from high above, at the apex of the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. This bird's eye view shows valleys that the mind's eye can easily fill with a vast flowing mass of ice.

The jagged peak of Mount Rundle.

The Canadian Rockies from above.

The highway continues on, transforming into the Icefields Parkway, widely regarded as one of the world's most visually stunning drives. Now we can see the few, dwindling glaciers hanging precariously off the peaks of mountains. Beneath them, waters pregnant with fine powdered rock drain into blue-green lakes nestled into virgin pine forests. The gem of the Rockies, Lake Louise is among them, fed by the six glaciers resting on the eastern face of Mount Victoria, marker of the Continental Divide. So to is Peyto Lake with its distinctive three-toed shoreline, and Bow Lake, headwaters of the Bow River that quenches the thirst of Banff and Calgary.

Lake Louise, Peyto Lake and Bow Lake

Up, up through the mountains the Icefields Parkway took us until we finally arrived at our destination. We stood at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, spilling out from that last great, desolate expanse of ice and snow on the horizon, the Columbia Icefields. This is as close as we could come to the Ice Age that once swallowed up the Northern Hemisphere tens of thousands of years ago.

The Athabasca, Dome and Andromeda Glaciers,
originating from the Columbia Icefields.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Son of Kong (1933)

It was a feat unmatched in all of cinema history: the roaring success of 1933's King Kong demanded a sequel, but unlike countless other big budget blockbusters that have spawned follow-ups, The Son of Kong was rush produced and released in the very same year as its predecessor! In only nine months, Willis O'Brien, Ernest Schoedsack and most of the original cast of actors returned to Skull Island to meet the progeny of the ill-fated Gigantopithecus.

Knowing full well that it would be impossible to match the scope and grandeur of the original King Kong, scriptwriter Ruth Rose opted for a much smaller film that is feverishly ambitious in its own strange way. The Son of Kong picks up almost immediately on the end of Kong, with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) on the lam from creditors and lawyers who are looking to extract their pound of flesh from the former movie mogul who brought disaster on New York City. Making a quick getaway with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the two make a quiet but unsatisfying sort of living plying the South Seas as shippers. That is until they make two new acquaintances: Captain Helstrom and Hilda. Helstrom (John Marston) was the Norwegian fisherman from whom Denham originally purchased the map to Skull Island, though he has fallen on hard times himself. This led him in murderous conflict with Hilda's father, and now devoid of home, she crews up with Denham, Englehorn and an incredulous Helstrom - who thought the map was a fake - to head back to Skull Island in search of jewels. Unfortunately, a mutiny strands the quartet, along with chef Charlie (Victor Wong), on the island and at the mercy of the perhistoric wildlife... Until Kong's diminutive, albino offspring swears himself to be their protector.

It goes without saying that Son of Kong is not King Kong. The latter is one the great masterpieces of film, unparalleled in its genre. Nevertheless, Son of Kong is enjoyable in its own little ways. Once again, it's the characters who really make the film. It was true of Kong, where nearly an hour of textbook precision character development passes before we even see a dinosaur or an ape. It is true again of Son of Kong.

One of the fun things about the film is that it finds a credible way to bring some of the secondary characters from the first into the spotlight, fleshing them out even more. Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot are understandably absent, and the only people Denham has to turn to is his old ship's crew. Joining them is the Norwegian captain, which delightfully expands the original's backstory without resorting to hackneyed prequels. And finally, the romantic leading lady is the stunning Helen Mack, who brings more wry street smarts to a more enjoyable character than Wray's innocent and waifish Ann Darrow.

The tight schedule necessitated the extensive character screen time, since stop-motion animation is too lengthy a process for this rush delivery. We see a much smaller patch of Skull Island this time around, and a smaller Kong who only engages a deuce of prehistoric monsters (including a cave bear and the styracosaurus originally planned for the first film). What is missing in epic combat is filled out by Willis O'Brien's trademark of masterfully adding life and pathos to his models. O'Brien's creations - whether Kong and his son, or the denizens of the Lost World and Slumber Mountain - are not merely functional movie monsters... They are living, breathing animals with their own quirks and nuances, injected with vitality in every painstakingly animated scratch and twitch.

If one enters with the understanding that Son of Kong simply could not live up to the grandeur of King Kong, one is in a better place to appreciate that the real gold in this sequel is not so much in what they did, but what they did with what they had. There is no mistaking that this is a b-movie, but it's a very fun b-movie, and still a sight better than most.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

King Kong (1933)

1925's The Lost World sparked the beginning of a cinematic trend in Imperialist Adventure films that spanned the 1920's, 30's and 40's. Without any doubt, the most famous and ambitious of these is 1933's King Kong, which essentially retreads The Lost World against a loving ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking itself.

The origins of the cinema's biggest primate are shrouded in the mystery of an unrealized sequel to The Lost World which producer Harry Hoyt pitched to stop-motion pioneer animator Willis O'Brien, and about which nothing is known. That project likely evolved into Creation, another Willis O'Brien stop-motion film about dinosaurs that went unrealized. In Creation, a boatload of debutantes are caught in a storm and rescued by submarine, which then comes ashore on a newly-formed tropical island teeming with antediluvian life. O'Brien was given time, space and money on the RKO Radio-Pictures lot, but after spending more than an average film on just one reel of test footage, the project was chopped by studio axe-man Mirian C. Cooper. Cooper, though, was developing a project of his own, and brought O'Brien, his crew, his dinosaurs and his talents over to it.

Cooper's film was King Kong, in which an intrepid wildlife filmmaker Carl Denham - a classic adventurer modelled on Cooper himself and played by Robert Armstrong - brings along a hardened ship's crew and movie starlet Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as he traces the obscure map of a Norwegian captain to the lost Skull Island, upon which dinosaurs still live and are ruled over by the gigantic simian deity Kong. Like The Lost World, King Kong brings a piece of their lost world back to civilization where it proceeds to run amok. In this case, it's Kong himself, who meets his untimely end atop (or more correctly, at the bottom of) the Empire State Building.

The premise of King Kong is an odd variation on the lost world theme. Skull Island is as good as anywhere for antediluvian monsters to evade extinction... But why a giantic ape? That bit of lateral-thinking was the product of Cooper's daydream of a knock-down, drag-out bit of nature red-in-tooth-and-claw between a mountain gorilla and a Komodo dragon. Both species were still relatively new discoveries, the former described in 1902 and the latter in 1910, and steeped in mystery. Originally, he conceived of filming these actual creatures and photographically enlarging them. When acquiring and pitting these against each other in mortal combat proved impractical, O'Brien came to the rescue.

It is difficult to write a review of King Kong that doesn't dissolve into love poetry. Rarely does one see a film that so remarkably and almost completely gets everything so right. It could benefit from some tightening edits and still has the insanity of its concept, but otherwise, this picture is practically perfect in every way.

The characters are some of the most charming, each in their own ways and even in their flaws, and their development is a clinic in how to write a script. No time is wasted in cutting right to the heart of who these people are and what their motivations for undertaking this adventure might be, yet neither is any time spared in letting the viewer get to know and become involved with them. Nearly an hour passes before we see our first glimpse of the titular monkey, but it's barely noticed.

Cooper's philosophy was a simple one: let the audience get well-acquainted with the characters, get them to care about them, right at the beginning, and then you won't have to slow the film down later during the action. It works like a charm, and once Kong appears, we're ready for him and his entourage of prehistoric beasts, and invested in what happens to Ann Darrow, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Carl Denham. And what an entourage they are!

King Kong was one of the first Hollywood mega-blockbusters, managing to pack in audiences with it's mix of escapism and entertainment right at the height of the Great Depression. It became such a phenomenon that it pushed Cooper's hand into making a sequel, The Son of Kong, produced and released in the very same year. For us today, it works not only as an artifact of that glorious era of luxurious Art Deco excess in the Golden Age of showbiz, but as a hymn to it. It is a film about a giant ape, but more than that it is a film about filming a giant ape. Kong is subtly self-referential by capturing the exciting myth of moguls and cameramen going around a still exotic globe in search of the best footage and greatest spectacles for the coast-to-coast bright lights of Hollywood and Broadway.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Grand Canyon '08

Our second big adventure of the summer came as a complete surprise to me. Some 24 hours before the fact, my girlfriend advised me to pack my bags and be ready to fly, destination unknown. The first guess was Seattle, which wasn't it. That was only our first layover, and that flight was itself cancelled. We made it there via rush replacement flight and from there we connected to Los Angeles. Along the way we caught glimpses of Mount St. Helens and Crater Lake from above, but the big deal was the implicit possibility of Disneyland, Griffith Park, Hollywood and rejoining my friends from down there. However, that was also a mere layover. The final flight took us to Flagstaff, Arizona. Destination: the Grand Canyon.

The spark of inspiration can be blamed on Disneyland and the Grand Canyon Diorama lying alongside the rails of the Disneyland Railroad. Like the rest of the theme park, the Grand Canyon Diorama is not supposed to replace the experience of the Grand Canyon... How could it? The painted backdrop and taxadermied animals are meant to inspire one into entering a mental landscape, a feeling of what it must be like to ride a steam engine along the rim of the majestic swath cut by the Colorado River. Imagine the passion planted by the discovery that there was, in fact, a steam railway that brought passengers to the Grand Canyon!

Upon discovering that the restored Grand Canyon Railway exists, the thought of visiting it never drifted far from my mind. One perceptive girlfriend later and we were on the plane heading for Flagstaff, Arizona. On landing (and having our baggage find its way to us on a later flight, neither our first nor last problems with Horizon Air and United Airlines), we took a side jaunt to Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. Wupatki is notable for the millennia-old ruins left by the Puebloan, or Anasazi, people famous for the more spectacular sites of Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. It was amongst that ancient masonry that we experienced the vivid purples, reds, blues and yellows of an unparalleled Arizona sunset.

Wupatki Nat'l Monument.

A short drive down America's Main Street, Route 66, and we arrived at Williams and our abode for the first part of our stay, The Red Garter Bed and Bakery. If you are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon yourself, I cannot more highly recommend The Red Garter. Right on Route 66, the Garter is a two-story brick building restored from an illustrious career including an opium den and a brothel. The lushly appointed Victorian rooms are reportedly haunted as well, or "slightly haunted" according to the skeptical owners. Williams has the reputation of being the third most haunted city in the United States, though our evening ghost tour resulted in little more than wind-blown doors and light reflecting off specks of dust.

The big day came, and with our baggage transferred, we heeded the cry of "all aboard" to find our seats on the antique Pullman carriage. We found that our trip back from the canyon was the better of the two: while the original Pullmans have a historical flair, there is a great deal to be spoken for with the parlor car. Besides the plush seats, polished wood trim and complimentary alcoholic refreshments, it also provides exclusive access to the platform at the rear of the train. One of the problems with appreciating works of engineering is that one cannot both experience being in them while at the same time appreciating them aesthetically. The one thing you cannot do while in the Eiffel Tower, for instance, is look at the Eiffel Tower. The one thing you cannot do on a steam train is watch the steam train... Unless, that is, you are hanging off the back of the parlor car, the ponderosa-scented wind blowing through your hair, the monsoon rains of August drenching you.

A lone ponderosa pine.

Our goal was reached, though unlike the Disney version one cannot ride the rails along the rim. They must get out and walk to the rim of one of the most magnificent natural wonders one could ever lay eyes upon. Unfortunately for my readers, the Grand Canyon defies the power of words to describe it. It is sublimity in purest definition, a chasm of such temporal and physical scope that it is beyond imagining. The tiered rocks in hues of red, brown and beige drop a thousand feet and more straight down from the rim, taunting even the bravest and most foolish who would venture to the breech. Gazing from the safety of the rim or from above by helicopter, one still only gets the sense of watching the canyon, like a diorama. A true sense of its wonders comes when one descends along the trail into it, whether on foot or by the classic mule ride. There one is enveloped by the canyon, its walls stretching above and beneath to place oneself within its immeasurable vastness. At the end of the day, the stone blazes with the most astonishing sunset ever beheld.

The whistle blows, the train beckons, the canyon pulls from sight and all that is left are the faint melodies of Grofe's famous suite. Travelling back to Flagstaff, we visited the observatory of Percival Lowell, the famous crank who, in 1894, established his eponymous observatory for the study of Mars and its life. In 1895 he published his theory in Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906 and Mars as the Abode of Life in 1908. To make it an even set, a seven hour layover and a pair of very generous friends who I hadn't seen in far too long brought us to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. It is, as any movie using it as a backdrop can attest, an Art Deco masterpiece par excellence.

The Lowell and Griffith Observatories.

Then things came full circle in their own way. Our layover in Los Angeles coincided with the third Sunday of the month. Those are notable as the days that the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, dedicated to preserving Walt Disney's railroading legacy, opens the doors of "Walt's Barn" in Griffith Park. This was the barn that Disney built in the backyard of his home on Carolwood Drive as a shop and switching house for his miniature railway. Now it is kept on the premises of the LA Live Steamers, housing exhibits, artifacts and memorabilia having to do with Walt Disney, his famous railfanning employees like Ward Kimball, and the railways of Disneyland. The trip began because of a Disney train, and in a sense ended with one as well.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Contrary to advertising rhetoric then and now, Johnny Weissmuller's iconic performance as Tarzan, Lord of Greystoke and of the Jungle, was not the original: Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth for several outings in the silent era. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Tarzan series has ingrained itself in the cultural consciousness as the definitive version. Weissmuller's countenance is synonymous with Tarzan. It may even be said that his version eclipses Edgar Rice Burroughs' literary version: the famous call and Tarzan's savage inability to string together a full sentence are creations of MGM.

If by some nefarious plot one was reduced to watching merely one decade of film for the rest of their life, this author would easily chose 1925 to 1935. This was truly the golden age of genre cinema, and included amongst many titles, The Lost World, Phantom of the Opera, Thief of Baghdad, Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein. It was into this illustrious company that Tarzan the Ape Man was ushered in 1932. The film itself was a response to an epic MGM box-office success the preceding year, Trader Horn. Trader Horn was essentially a retelling of Sir H. Rider Haggard's She, Who Must Be Obeyed, in which a lost white woman is treated as a god by the natives she rules over. The public clamored for more, and MGM supplied with an advertising gimmick that seems almost unbelievable today. Where movies now may be cynically decried as copies of last year's hit, Tarzan the Ape Man was actually advertised as being "The 'Trader Horn' of 1932!"

Beyond the action and plot, the first of the Weismuller Tarzan films is a visual feast. Much of the screen time is taken up by stock footage - most of it shot for Trader Horn - featuring scenes of African savanna wildlife and native tribes. Though approached through the lens one might expect of the early 1930's, this still forms a fabulous cinematic record of a romantic time. There is plenty of action though. The story revolves around British trader James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his right hand man Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) embarking on a risky safari to find the legendary "elephants' graveyard." African myth tells of a hidden, faraway valley where elephants go when they know they are on the verge of death. Though sacred to natives, this graveyard promises an incalculable treasure in ivory for the explorer who dares the journey.

Along on their adventure is Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), daughter of Mr. Parker and the apple of Harry's eye. But when they reach the forbidding Mutia Escarpment, a vast plateau which the superstitious natives refuse to climb, Harry finds a new competitor for Jane's affections in the form of the mysterious Tarzan. From there, mortal combat with savage lions and crocodiles, battle with ferocious pygmies, pit-fighting with bloodthirsty apes and great elephant stampedes ensue.

Even the passing fan of Tarzan will notice that Tarzan the Ape Man has almost no relation to the book it is based on. Unlike most cases, this was actually by design: having dealt with unsatisfactory adaptations before, Edgar Rice Burroughs licensed the Tarzan characters but not the rights to the literature. The creative personalities behind the MGM films were forced to come up with a wholly original idea, purposely avoiding legally entangling similarities to the original novels!

Whether this helps or hinders the film is subject to debate since, as already noted, this rendition of the Ape Man has transcended all others, including more accurate ones. Tarzan may very well have not become the icon he is if not for Weissmuller and MGM. The film he was placed into is a near-perfect picture of that lost romantic time, won by rifle and pith helmet in an exotic and forbidding land. But for as wonderful as Tarzan the Ape Man is, it is one of those rare breeds of film where the sequel may in fact eclipse the original. Everything that makes Tarzan the Ape Man a magnificent piece of celluloid is only enhanced with 1934's Tarzan and His Mate.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

King Solomon's Mines (1937)

The full feature film King Solomon's Mines (1937)

In the Imperialist Adventure genre of Great White Hunters and lost civilizations, few tomes stand as tall as Sir H. Rider Haggard's 1885 King Solomon's Mines. This text essentially defined the genre and established its basic tropes... The hero, Allan Quatermain, was the archetypal Great White Hunter figure and through the course of the story, the very British adventurers take upon themselves the burden of Kipling as they set right the wrongs of this unexplored region of deepest South Africa. For this mysterious realm, Haggard delved into Biblical history and the legends of wealthy King Solomon's diamond mines, and in so doing created the "lost world" genre that would be later charted by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As well off as these "boys adventures" were in literature, they flowered with the advent of film. The first full-length Imperialist Adventure film was 1925's The Lost World, which established many of the tropes of the cinematic version of the genre. In this adaptation of Conan Doyle's novel, the Great White Hunters are joined by the romantic interest of a fashionable young lady in search of her father, a previous explorer of the land, and scale a plateau populated with dinosaurs and a rampageous volcano that saves its pyroclastic fury until the expedition arrives. 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Wiesmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan followed, in which the impassible barrier to the unexplored jungle was the forbidding Mutia Escarpment, which ivory hunters returned to in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate before the series went off the rails in subsequent sequels. Between them was the mighty King Kong, in which Carl Denham's film crew had to penetrate an ancient wall and a sheer cliff face on skull Island in order to bring Kong back to civilization... and retread The Lost World's London climax. To crib The Lost World's South American climax, Skull Island was complete disintegrated by a cataclysmic earthquake in Son of Kong. The genre probably tapped out with the now lost 1940 version of the Swiss Family Robinson.

King Solomon's Mines first flickered across the silver screen in 1937, and found itself owing as much to The Lost World as to Haggard's novel. However, as it goes, the film is still a remarkably faithful adaptation and a very entertaining movie in its own right. It is a worthy addition to the canon of Imperialist Adventure films of the Golden Age, and its few faults come as a direct consequence of some of its greatest advantages.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, who would later become a Disney stalwart and responsible for some of the best-remembered films and poorly-recalled Victorian adventure offerings, the focus of this version of King Solomon's Mines is on the hard-up Irish father and daughter duo of Patrick and Kathy O'Brien. Reviewing their options after going bust in the South African diamond rush, they meet up with Allan Quatermain. Coming along with him to meet the English tourists he has been hired to guide, they meet up with a dying Sylvestra Getto and his African guide Umbopa. Before passing, Sylvestra's map tells them of the lost King Solomon's Mines, which sets the elder O'Brien off to cross the parched desert and mountain barrier to the north. Following them are the younger O'Brien, a reluctant Quatermain, the English hunters Sir Henry Curtis and Commander Good, and Umbopa. Here we find the first borrowing from The Lost World, as the love interest leads the Great White Hunters off to find her father.

If you're going to have a love interest, you need to have someone to fall in love with her. In this case, John Loder's Henry Curtis fills the roll of handsome paramour for Anna Lee's Kathy O'Brien quite nicely. Roland Young's Commander Good adds some quite well-timed and well-placed comic relief. He's much like the friend you have who knows he's funny by just whipping off some witty, situational one-liners every now and then. His comedic relief isn't ham-fisted, disruptive or irritating in any manner.

Cedric Hardwicke, of the Universal Studios Monsters movie fame, plays a much gruffer Quatermain, however. The Quatermain of the novel is humble and practical, while the one of this movie is cynical to the point of fatalistic. He seems to have no real joy in his work (at one point exclaiming that with his share of the wealth, he'd buy a flock and keep sheep in the British Isles) and no qualms whatever with telling the girl that her father is dead and everyone else that they're going to die. This Quatermain is a bit player in the film, though, coming in second to the central story of the O'Briens and Umbopa.

The prodigal prince of this unmapped patch of Africa is played by African-American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson to great effect. Only a year off of his iconic performance in Show Boat, you almost hope that the expedition comes across a tributary so that you can hear him belt out "Old Man River". They don't, but they still make ample use of his beautiful bass-baritone voice as he sings the ox-cart along and calls out to the mountains in stirring refrains of misplaced, but still welcome, Negro spirituals. At a critical moment, a native song rallies the oppressed soldiers of the evil pretender, Twala, behind him.

The setting is more than equal to the task of competing with Robeson's voice... Large portions of the film were shot on location in South Africa, using genuine Zulu tribespeople as extras. When Umbopa sings of how he is gonna' climb that mountain, you can almost hear it actually echoing in spite of the dubbed-in version. Offset by some studio and set work, the location shooting has the advantage of directing the action and including the actors... In this respect, the movie is heads above the back projections of documentary footage in Tarzan or the completely contrived scenes in King Kong. King Solomon's Mines is almost in the same epic class as Zulu.

There is a distinct impression, however, that they spent so much on the invaluable location shooting that they didn't have enough left in the budget for some critical special effects scenes later on. I won't be critically spoiling anything if I reveal that the next device of Imperialist Adventure films that King Solomon's Mines borrows from The Lost World is a climactic volcanic explosion that threatens to destroy the mines and murder the heroes. But besides a river of lava and some shooting flames in the belly of the beast, you don't actually see the eruption itself. Instead, you merely read about it in Quatermain's journal after the fact. If Stevenson decided that it was better to write about it than show a shoddy and under-budgeted version of if, then it was a good decision. Either way, though, it was a pity.

Overall, the film's positives outweigh the negatives... it even manages to skirt a lot of the troublesome "White Man's Burden" that slithers into the text and the genre... and King Solomon's Mines is a worthy entry into the richly rewarding period of Jazz Age cinema and Imperialist Adventure films.