Tuesday, 31 August 2010

All's Fair at the Fair (1938)

The 1938/39 New York World's Fair captured the imagination of an era. A great deal has been written about "The World of Tomorrow" and its cultural impact, ending off the Great Depression on a high note of optimism only to be transmuted through the crucible of World War II into the Atomic Age. A perfect example of this Art Deco Utopianism can be found in the 1938 cartoon short All's Fair at the Fair by the Fleischer Brothers.

A little bit of fun is poked at these technological promissory notes, but the overall tone is approving and optimistic. As a pair of slack-jawed yokels from the country, arriving to the big city in their horse-drawn wagon, peruse the exhibits, they too receive the rewards of the coming age. As evidenced by their later Superman series, the Fleischers were adept at capturing the wonder of the Streamline Age.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

VEx August Contest - Ghosts of Manhattan

As this month is devoted to Science Fiction, Retro-Futurism and Adventure of the 1920's and 30's Pulp Era, our August giveaway is for a copy of George Mann's novel Ghosts of Manhatten. Set in an alternate 1920's, the title character is billed as "the world's first Steampunk superhero". From the publisher's blurb...
1926. New York. The Roaring Twenties. Jazz. Flappers. Prohibition. Coal-powered cars. A cold war with a British Empire that still covers half of the globe. Yet things have developed differently to established history. America is in the midst of a cold war with a British Empire that has only just buried Queen Victoria, her life artificially preserved to the age of 107. Coal-powered cars roar along roads thick with pedestrians, biplanes take off from standing with primitive rocket boosters and monsters lurk behind closed doors and around every corner. This is a time in need of heroes. It is a time for The Ghost. A series of targeted murders are occurring all over the city, the victims found with ancient Roman coins placed on their eyelids after death. The trail appears to lead to a group of Italian-American gangsters and their boss, who the mobsters have dubbed 'The Roman'. However, as The Ghost soon discovers, there is more to The Roman than at first appears, and more bizarre happenings that he soon links to the man, including moss-golems posing as mobsters and a plot to bring an ancient pagan god into the physical world in a cavern beneath the city. As The Ghost draws nearer to The Roman and the center of his dangerous web, he must battle with foes both physical and supernatural and call on help from the most unexpected of quarters if he is to stop The Roman and halt the imminent destruction of the city.

To enter, just leave a comment on this post. The random draw will take place at 12:00am on Saturday, August 28th!

The results: Congratulations to Esther for winning a copy of George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan! Esther, look for a message in your inbox. And to everyone who entered, thank you! Keep an eye out next month for another giveaway!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Orson Welles' Around the World in 80 Days (1938)

A week before creative prodigy Orson Welles shocked America with his infamous and groundbreaking performance of War of the Worlds, he tried his hand at the adventures of the other founding father of Scientific Romances, Jules Verne. Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air, commercially unsponsored on CBS, was a "cultural program" in which Welles was given free reign to adapt class works of fiction for radio audiences. He had already achieved some noteriety for his theatre work - including a lauded Harlem version of MacBeth set in Haiti and steeped in Voodoo - and was becoming known on radio through his performances in shows like The Shadow. His distinctive voice lent itself to the medium and the Mercury Theater on the Air was born.

These programs usually featured a pompous preamble by Welles, and Around the World in 80 Days was no different. He noted the anachronism of the story right from the start, observing that while 80 days was an absurdly short time in the mid-19th century, it was already old hat by the 1930's. Welles was speaking to the Golden Age of Travel by steamship and streamline locomotive, and was sure to make the connection to Howard Hughes. Just a few months prior, Hughes completed the first air trip around the world in 91 hours.

Being a short hour, Orson Welles' Around the World in 80 Days is a much-abreviated version of Verne's classic. A great deal of the adventure is gone, with only the episode of the elephant and the Indian rescue remaining. The subplot of Inspector Fix's chase steps forward, and the whole thing takes on an even greater whirlwind atmosphere.

Around the World in 80 Days can be heard at this website devoted to Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

King Kong (2005)

I haven't really seen Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), nor have I really had to. I'll tell you why...

I hate Peter Jackson. Well, that's not exactly right. I'm sure he's a nice enough guy on his own if you were to sit down and have a pint with him, but I cannot stand his films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is nine-some hours of my life that have been lost and that I would give practically anything to get back. The first film I saw because that is simply what one did. I resolved thereafter not to see the next installments, but my roommates happened to be watching The Two Towers when I was trying to avoid studying. I'm sure they did not appreciate my peals of laughter as Gollum was talking to himself. Sorry guys. The final film was a power play between myself and a then-girlfriend who resolved that she was going to make me watch it after I expressed my contempt for the first two.

Never having read Tolkien, I found the films practically incomprehensible. I understood that they were nine hours of walking to a volcano to drop a ring into it, but all points inbetween were not connected by a plot as such. They were a series of cinematically realised vignettes from the books that I'm sure made sense to people who had read the books, but which made for a very poor example of a coherent movie.

This was compounded by Jackson's amteurish direction, which made those scenes on the screen unwatchable. One could easily make a drinking game out of his affectations, and the list of them became my oft-repeated reason for not seeing King Kong. "I don't need to see it," I would tell any friend who asked, "since I know exactly what's going to happen: there will be a big, sweeping pan-shot over New York until it zooms in on Kong perched dramatically on the Empire State Building. Then there will be this really choppy, quick-cut fight scene between him and the planes where you can't really tell what's going on until suddenly *boom* Kong gets hit and falls off the building... in slow motion... to Enya."

I was steady in my resolve this time, but I did happen to be on a date at a lounge where they were playing Jackson's version on their bigscreen TV. Being male, I couldn't help but keep the bright, flashing things in the corner of my eye, and right in the middle of the conversation I burst out laughing when what flashed across the screen was exactly what I predicted. The only thing I'm not sure about is the Enya ballad, since the volume was off. I'm sure the music was terribly melancholy, whatever it was.

That is why I have not seen Jackson's King Kong, haven't had to, and why I never wish to.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

We Are Now Approaching The Futurama (1939)

The GM Futurama at the 1939 New York World's Fair takes to the World of Tomorrow... the amazing year 1960. Like anything from the era, it is entertainingly jingoistic and patriarchal, but provocative in its own way. One cannot help but ask the question of how much we have accomplished of this vision and whether or not it was as good a thing as people on the tail end of the Great Depression hoped it would be.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Bushell's Tea: The City of Tomorrow (1941)

The following advert for Bushell's brand tea from Australia purports to show us the world of the future right on the cusp between the aesthetic of the 1930's Art Deco "World of Tomorrow" and the bright lights of post-war Googie Retro-Futurism. But what will always remain the same, they insist, is tea time!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Max Fleischer's Superman (1941-1942)

Though never as popular as his main competitor, what with his Mouse and all, animator Max Fleischer was still able to eek out a string of popular characters including Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man. For three years he had been trying to talk Paramount Studios into making a feature-length animated film, against which they dragged their feet, allowing Disney to release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Fleischer was able to release Gulliver's Travels for 1939, but too late. Not only had Disney beat him out, but the war in Europe started and Gulliver's Travels did not recoup its production costs. Finally, Fleischer was handed the licence to a popular National Allied Publications character created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. With lavish production costs and distinctive style, the Superman cartoons would prove to be another of his workhorse hits.

Superman, first of the Fleischer Superman cartoons.

With roots going back as early as 1933, an outfit inspired by heroes like Flash Gordon and circus strongmen, a look echoing Golden Age Hollywood movie stars, and a city both inspired and named for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Superman is fundamentally a Pulp hero. Like Batman, who appeared a year after Superman's 1938 debut, he seems to work best in a 1930's type of setting. Batman: The Animated Series figured it out and gave Bruce Wayne's otherwise modern, computerized world a Thirties look of Art Deco and fedoras. The creators of that series frequently cited Fleischer's Superman as one of their influences.

The Mechanical Monsters, second in the series and partial
inspiration for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Superman as a Pulp hero is a great deal of fun. None of the villains we have come to know are plaguing him in these shorts... No Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Toyman, or Darkseid. Instead, its a strange array of mad scientists and gimmick bank robbers. Oh, and a dinosaur thawed out from the Arctic. Against his still fantastic but less than god-like powers, these malcontents are well-matched to the Man of Tomorrow. This is played out against a fantastic World's Fair landscape inherited from Fleischer's own 1938 cartoon All's Fair at the Fair.

The Arctic Giant, fourth and most awesome in the series.

They also retain his more sensible sort of origins. The framework is still there: Superman is sent from an exploding Krypton to Earth, where he is found, raised and has become a hero with the secret identity of reporter Clark Kent. Ma and Pa and Smallville haven't been retconned in yet. Superman's powers have been a weird sort of thing in later revisions, though. For some reason, Kryptonian physiology acts like a giant solar battery enabling them to fly and take bullets to the eye unless they are in the presence of minerals from their own planet. What?!

The Golden Age version, of which these cartoons are a part, posit nothing more serious than the Kryptonians have developed themselves mind and body into ubermenschen; smart enough to build rockets, strong enough to leap tall buildings and run faster than a speeding bullet. That may have its own connotations given the time period, but Captain America also has blonde hair and blue eyes. It's alternately amusing and disturbing how short the distance is between the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Later writers who have worked with the Golden Age version of Superman have added in that Krypton itself was a larger, denser planet, so his walking around on Earth would be like one of us walking on the Moon.

Science must go on! The Magnetic Telescope, sixth in the series.

Unfortunately, the Fleischer studios were already doomed by the time Superman was produced, and not even the Man of Steel could fix it. Mounting debts to Paramount and a breach of contract by Max Fleischer's brother Dave allowed the studio to take over the company. Paramount ousted Max and reorganized Fleischer Studios as Famous Studios. Production on Superman continued, but that second series from 1942-1943 did not have the same charm as the originals. Some insane Scientifictional elements were added - like a race of hawkmen who live underground(?!) - and the series was spiced with Superman's enlistment in the war effort. Like every other cartoon of the time, his adventures on the Pacific front are marred by disgusting racist caricatures (but still less horrible than the live-action Batman serial, which describes Japanese-American internment as the "wise action of a prudent government").

Electric Earthquake, seventh in the series.

The Fleischer Superman cartoons are all in the public domain. In addition to the ones presented here, one can also easily find Billion Dollar Limited, The Bulleteers, and Volcano online. They are also a frequent favorite for public domain DVD companies, though Warner Bros. have put out a definitive edition.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Mechanical Man (1921)

Scene from The Mechanical Man (1921).

Originally clocking in at 80 minutes, the 1921 Italian Scientifiction film The Mechanical Man is now, sadly, reduced to a mere 20. In its full breadth, the story covered the creation of a remote-controlled robot by Professor D'Ara and its subsequent destruction, along with his death, at the hands of a criminal gang. The gang, led by the villainous femme fatale Mado, want a mechanical man of their own, so they kidnap the scientist's niece Elena and pry the plans out of her. The police were onto the plot, rescue Elena and capture Mado. Then the existing footage starts in.

What remains is still a hodge-podge of loosely connected scenes around the middle and end. Mado escapes and builds her own unstoppable mechanical man, which goes on an uncontested crime spree. The comic relief, Saltarello, is captured and escapes and is captured again and escapes again in a Napoleon outfit. The climax arrives at a costume ball, at which the deceased professor's brother debuts his own mechanical man, leading to the inexorable showdown.

The eponymous automaton's design is enjoyable. As a humanoid robot in the age before robots, it looks appropriately alien enough to suspend some disbelief. Not all, as par for the time period, but it is a sight better than men in tinfoil boxes. Between these designs and the snippets of footage, The Mechanical Man looks like it would be a pretty fun film in its entirety.

Thanks to Dan Ross of the VEx Facebook group for letting us know about this!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Gernsback Continuum (1988)

Setting the stage for the nostalgic reminiscence of yesterday's version of today is noted Cyberpunk author William Gibson. His short story The Gernsback Continuum - a reference to Amazing Stories editor Hugo Gernsback, who coined the term "Scientifiction" for his magazine's content - features a photographer who stumbles upon visions of a parallel universe where all those impossible futurisms of the 1930's and 40's came true.
Sometimes they’d run old eroded newsreels as filler on the local station. You’d sit there with a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk, and a static-ridden Hollywood baritone would tell you that there was A Flying Car in Your Future. And three Detroit engineers would putter around with this big old Nash with wings, and you’d see it rumbling furiously down some deserted Michigan runway. You never actually saw it take off, but it flew away to Dialta Downes’s never-never land, true home of a generation of completely uninhibited technophiles. She was talking about those odds and ends of “futuristic” Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing: the movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels. She saw these things as segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present; she wanted me to photograph them for her...

To read the rest, click here.