Sunday, 29 July 2012

VEx July Giveaway - Hearts of Smoke and Steam

You know the routine by now! July's giveaway is for Hearts of Smoke and Steam, second book in the Society of Steam series by Andrew P. Mayer. The back reads:
The Society of Steam takes place in a Victorian New York powered by the discovery of Fortified Steam, a substance that allows ordinary men to wield extraordinary abilities and grants powers that can corrupt gentlemen of great moral strength. The secret behind this amazing substance is something that wicked brutes will gladly kill for, and one that Sarah must try and protect, no matter what the cost.
To enter just leave a comment to this post, ensuring that there is some way or other to contact you through it should you win. The draw will take place at midnight on Sunday, July 29th. Good luck and thank you all again for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

And the winner is... Asthmatic! Check your inbox for a message. And for everybody else, thank you for your support and keep your eyes peeled for another contest in August!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Edwardian Fashion of the Space Age

According to the philosopher behind the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Innumerable are the Internet commentators ready to point out there is nothing original, but rather, only those things that have been forgotten long enough to be recycled. Yes, nearly everything has been done before, and usually better. That includes retro Victorian-Edwardian fashion.

In the wake of the Second World War, fashion was in massive flux. Everything was, but as progress marched forwards, some sectors of society began looking to the past for reference points. In film and themeparks, primarily in the United States, it began a second round of nostalgia for the Gay Nineties... Those halcyon days of Main Street USA, with women in bustles and large, feathered hats accessorised by men in striped suits and straw Boaters. Science Fiction films utilizing Jules Verne and H.G. Wells came into vogue and Disney became its sainted patron.

Across the pond, this nostalgia took on a decidedly more aristocratic tone. Tailors in London's upper-crust Savile Row took it upon themselves to reclaim the dignity of mens fashion from the American "zoot suit" style and, most definitely, against the drab grey flannel of post-war British clothing rations. The Edwardian Era is often acknowledged by peacocks as the height of masculine style and bearing, therefore it was resurrected with some adjustments.

According to Richard Walker in The Savile Row Story: "The outfit featured slightly flared jacket, natural shoulders, slim waist, tight sleeves and narrow trousers; a curly brimmed bowler set atop a longer hairstyle and long, slim, single-breasted overcoat with velvet collar and cuffs completed the look." The Victoria and Albert Museum, who provide a handy guide to clothing from the Fifties, ascribe the origins of the style to the civilian dress of the Brigade of Guards, which included a Bowler and double-breasted coat. Not content with their lovely red serge uniforms, young guardsmen would don their civilian suits for a cruise down Piccadilly en route to the Savoy Turkish Baths.

Guardsmen off-duty.
The greatest proponent of the style was Neil "Bunny" Roger. One of the last great fops, Roger made a life of cutting along fashion's edge. Born to a family made wealthy in telecommunications, his nickname was granted by a nanny who imagined a resemblance. He studied art at the Ruskin for a time, intent on becoming a fashion designer, but was expelled on grounds of his emergent and flamboyant homosexuality. In 1937, family money established his own eponymous design house. After serving in the British Rifles during World War II, he invested in fashion both as a shareholder and as one of Saville Row's best customers. His annual order was around 15 suits at £2,000 each with matching shoes and accessories. Besides inventing the Capri trouser in 1949, Roger was notable in the early Fifties by sporting Neo-Edwardian suits. The suits, that is, and his scandalous, lavish fetish balls.

Bunny Roger about town.
The Edwardian look became most popular amongst Guardsmen, bankers and other members of the financial elite, and London's gay establishment. There was no express complementary style for women, however. In 1947, Christian Dior released his first collection to a Europe starving for innovation after years of wartime austerity. The "New Look" was ushered in, featuring pencil skirts, rounded shoulders and tight waistlines.

The "New Look" at Paddington St.
Arriving at Royal Ascot.
New Edwardianism became an enviable mark of class distinction, economic affluence and British pride with a subtle undercurrent of subversive sexual proclivity. Thus it came to be adopted, in a manner, by youth of lesser class and means. Adjusted by teenage showiness and influences from Nashville, these rocking and rolling youngsters were labelled "Teddy Boys" by the media. Their most direct heirs, after a few generations of tweaking, are Rockabillies. For Teddy Boys ("Teddy" being a nickname for "Eddie" or "Edward"), this adaptation of the style had both a sense of emulation of the upper classes and a co-option of the same. In the poorest districts of London, procuring a suit could only be accomplished with funds raised by illicit means, a kind of reverse-hierarchy racing to the bottom.

Teddy Boys...
...admiring Teddy Girls.
 As New Edwardian style found itself employed beyond its original intent and losing its air of sophistication amidst torrents of lurid reports of juvenile delinquency, the Savile Row set dropped it like a hot stone. Popular culture always has a cultural lag, however, and Edwardianism eventually wound its way into television in the Sixties. Draped across William Hartnell in Doctor Who circa 1963, it was an example of dowdy datedness. Yet when tailored to Patrick Macnee and matched to the thoroughly modern Diana Rigg in 1965, it reclaimed some status as a symbol of British style. The Avengers is something of a stylistic microcosm of the time: a Spy-Fi drama with witty John Steed in Bowler hat, rarely without umbrella and teacup, behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, equally matched by the intelligent and sexy assistant Emma Peel (really there is only one) in leather catsuits and Mod outfits, driving her Vespa, representing Swinging London. Though Ralph Finnes certainly looked good in the suit, Nineties "Cool Britannia" couldn't compensate for the original Avengers' context nor rescue the 1998 feature film.

A clip from The Avengers.

By the Sixties, the style also found its way into music and the Mod culture that surrounded it. One group in particular was noted for donning Edwardian suits to compliment mop-topped hairstyles.

Very occasionally does New Edwardian style resurface, with no help from the myriad recombinations of brown, leather and brass. A prominent example was the Alexander McQueen suit paired with Phillip Treacy hat that graced the promotional materials of 2008's Royal Ascot competition. World renowned for its fashion, Royal Ascot is one of those last vestiges where smart attire is the enforced rule.

The full outfit, bustle and all,
can be viewed in this video.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

First Men in the Moon (1964)

Ray Harryhausen's First Men in the Moon is not merely an Atomic Age adaptation of one of H.G. Wells' most celebrated novels. It is also an interesting piece of Retro-Futurism purporting to show a lunar landing five years before it happened in fact. The world is rapt with awe as a United Nations lander touches down on the moon. An international crew of Americans, Russians, Japanese and other astronauts steps foot on the orb, celebrated as the first humans to do so. That is until one of them makes a startling discovery. Within a boulder's crevice is ensconced a small Union Jack and a sheet of paper claiming the moon for Queen Victoria in the Year of the Lord 1899.

Trying as they might to keep this discovery a secret, earthbound agents of the UN space administration follow clues on the piece of paper that lead the to the home of Bedford. A very aged man, he panics when he sees the faxed images. Once calmed down, he relates the tale of his meeting with the eccentric Dr. Cavor and their journey to the moon, whereupon they run afoul of the insectoid Selenites.

The late Lionel Jeffries, who passed away in 2010, acts out a career trope as a goofball, reprised in such films as Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Edward Judd played the somewhat sleazy scam-artist Bedford and Martha Hyer is shoehorned in as the romantic interest forced along on the trip only to be pushed aside for most of it. First Men in the Moon's real star is Ray Harryhausen's Dynamation.

The highlights of Wells' novel are touched on, from the hunt of the mooncows to the trial of humanity before the Grand Lunar. Touched on, but not belaboured in the manner of Wells. Coming on the heels of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Three Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island, First Men in the Moon is all about Harryhausen's special-effects adventurism.

An attempt is made to reclaim some of Well's impending menace otherwise dissolved by the framing sequence. The original novel ends on a disturbing note, with the possibility of a preemptive strike by the Selenites against an Earth that Cavor inadvertently painted as monsterously threatening. Just two years before, Wells' achieved great success with his War of the Worlds and was preparing to spend the better part of his remaining career telling stories of invasions and their aftermath.

First Men in the Moon, the film, began with a contemporary space mission, so we know that the Selenites did not invade. But the everpresent question through Bedford's extended flashback is whether the Selenites remain to threaten the lunar mission. It does not reflect the atomic anxiety of other films of the era, but does raise some of the strange possibilities of what a Space Age humanity might encounter in the final frontier.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Like other Vernian adaptations before it, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth was forced to expand a novel about the wonders of deep time into a palatable movie. Without any avenue for social commentary on the Atomic Age, it was left with turning the otherwise somewhat drab vehicle of the Lindenbrook Expedition into a homicidal scientific race. Prof. Lindenbrook did not come about the knowledge and records of Arne Saknussem's theories on his own, but through the device of an Icelandic plumbob encased in Mediterranean volcanic rock. In the process of research, he sent his findings to a Prof. Goetaborg in the hopes of gaining more insight. However, he absconds with it and attempts his own expedition. Goetaborg gets his commupnace when a third party looks to reclaim the family heritage of the Sakmussens. Now Lindenbrook, his assistant Alec, the widow of Goetaborg, and a Icelandic muscleman named Hans are trapped underground with a homicidal maniac, as well as subterranean dangers and gigantic reptiles.

Journey marks James Mason's second round with Jules Verne after Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is not the only convention that the film borrowed from its predecessor. Teen hearthrob Pat Boone is on hand to deliver the requisite song numbers and Hans brings a funny animal along with him, in the form of a duck named Gertrude. Whereas Disney took their production on location to the shallow, clear waters of the Bahamas, Journey was shot in parts in the majesty of Carlsbad Caverns. Whether the trick photographed iguanas masquerading as dimetrodons are as convincing as an animatronic squid is a point of continued debate. One cannot help but noting that when Imagineers had to supplement a 20,000 Leagues attraction in their Tokyo resort with a second Vernian adventure, they turned to Journey.

Comparisons are as unavoidable as a movie based on a Jules Verne books starring James Mason and a funny animal makes them. However, Journey stands on its own thematically and qualitatively as an enjoyable film in its own right and one of the pleasures of the genre (perhaps third only to 20,000 Leagues and Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days). It is a robust adventure film of the post-war era and a wonderful hymn to scientific enterprise.

What Journey lacks in Atomic kevetching it gains in genuine scientific romanticism, pulling beyond the debates about what to do with scientific knowledge to the roots of scientific wonder. Lindenbrook conveys a palpable joy at the mystery of the Icelandic artifact locked within the igneous rock of an Italian volcano. At the end, the filmmakers show a remarkable appreciation for the Scientific Method when the triumphal Lindenbrook publically proclaims that his testimony is useless without tangible evidence. Ceratinly the murderous intent of rival scientists is a bit far-fetched, but needed to add some cinematic panache. Regardless, it still conducts much electric excitement over the themes of discovery and exploration.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

No Scientific Romance adapted to film, and specifically no film adaptation of Jules Verne, has received the kind of critical acclaim that was heaped upon Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days. It received a near-countless array of statuettes, including a Golden Globe for best dramatic picture and five of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated. In addition to best adapted screen play, best dramatic score, best film editing and best colour cinematography, it also took away the coveted best picture, beating out The Ten Commandments and The King and I. Michael Todd, in fact, has the best track-record of any producer in Hollywood. The only feature film he ever produced earned best picture. In the same year, he also met and married Elizabeth Taylor. Unfortunately he was to pass away a mere two years later in a plane crash.

Around the World in 80 Days is a remarkable achievement in every cinematic sense. Besides the large pile of gold it accrued, both in awards and hard cash, it was technologically innovative. Todd was one of the founders of the Cinerama widescreen process, but was unsatisfied with its flaws. Foremost amongst these was the need to film with three cameras and superimpose three projectors. In response he developed the Todd-AO process, which filmed in widescreen with one camera and one projector. His sole feature film made use of this process.

The film not only set the stage for scenery-chewing cameo appearances that was bequeathed to later productions of Around the World starring Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan, but actually invented the whole concept of the cameo appearance. An ambitious former Broadway producer, Todd went out to recruit a major Hollywood player for every role with a line, no matter how short. Some did not even have lines. No self-respecting star would be caught dead in a "bit part", so Todd sold it on the idea that these were "cameos" in a major spectacle. The result is a film that includes Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, John Carradine, Peter Lorre, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Red Skelton, Noël Coward, John Mills and many more, with an introduction by the thorn in Joseph McCarthy's side, Edward R. Murrow, in addition to the principle cast of David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine, and Robert "Long John Silver" Newton in his final role.

Todd lived up to his promise of Around the World in 80 Days being a larger-than-life spectacle. It is three hours long and widescreen and filmed on location, from the bullrings of Spain to the temples of Thailand to the Great Buddha of Kamakura to the American frontier. In an age of spectacle pictures - from The Ten Commandments's 220 minutes to The Great Race's 160 - Around the World had the benefit of taking audiences literally around the world. They were able to see the authentic thing in widescreen... Most of the time. There are questionable episodes, like a train getting attacked by whopping "Sioux" or MacLaine being unconvincing as an East Indian princess, but it's hard to complain about seeing real matadors and stunning mountain vistas.

Though innovating on Verne in some respects, like including a hot air balloon and a railway windwagon, Around the World shares the spectacle of being a global travelogue with its source material. Though the long-beleaguered production was doubtlessly helped along by the success of Disney's gamble two years before, Todd resisted any urge to conform to any need of inputting superfluous technology. It is very much a testament to the joys of travel and exploration unto themselves, with a liberal dose of comedy. Through Murrow's opening narration, Todd pays respects to the true progenitor of his film, Georges Méliès. An edited down version of A Trip to the Moon begins our three-hour journey across the planet.

Around the World in 80 Days is indeed a joy to watch. This Victorian Era adventure by air, land and sea deserved every accolade given to it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


When I first began Voyages Extraordinaires while living in a foreign city and working on my graduate degree, it was with an ambitious thrice-weekly schedule. That was quickly bumped down to twice-weekly, which has remained fairly consistent for several years even as I returned home and embarked upon the career phase of my life. However, as those roots of employment, volunteerism, church and romance are becoming stronger and more stable, I find myself with less and less time to devote to the consumption of media and research required of this blog.

Therefore it is my regret to announce that we will be shifting to a once-per-week schedule for the forseeable future. Starting tomorrow, Voyages Extraordinaires' new publication day will be Wednesdays, still with giveaways and extras on the weekends. Be sure to visit then, and if you haven't yet, subscribe through Facebook or Google. Either way, thank you all for your ongoing support of this humble weblog!