Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Life Magazine's Glimpses into the Future

I wonder if the relative degree of optimism in futuristic visions can be determined by how far away they are placed. For example, Walt Disney, ever the optimist, set his Tomorrowland in the amazing year 1986... A mere 31 years after Disneyland opened in 1955. Most Victorian-Edwardian retro-futurism seems to have opted for a safer 100 years hence. Occasionally they made those same lapses of placing the future too close to the present that make us really chuckle today. The following "Glimpses into the Future" ran through Life Magazine during 1898 and 1899, and projected into such distant times as 1901, 1912, 1930, and 1976. They do include some more objectionable fears to modern multicultural sensibilities, and aren't especially optimistic, but also hold out perennial dreams like the flying car. Click on each image for a larger version. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Scientific Romances of the Seventies

In 1954, Walt Disney set about proving the mettle of his studio and Science Fiction by producing one of the first great genre epics of the post-war era, turning to Jules Verne to supply him with the setting and outline of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That, in turn, inspired a lengthy series of Victorian Scientific Romances rebranded as Atomic Age parables that stretched until the end of the Sixties, running parallel to the more modern Science Fiction of the time. However, after the Summer of Love, the global protests of 1968, the Stonewall riots, the Tet Offensive, and the moon landing, the heady days of ray gun adventures and cautionary atomic optimism were passed. In their place came a strange affectation for pessimistic, deromanticized films whose ponderous lengths and turgid performances somehow gave the impression of profound meaning, no better exemplified than in the first truly large-scale, full-colour, big-budget Science Fiction epic since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An instructive comparison can be made between the two. Above all else, 2001 is a film about the emergence of consciousness. First, we see the emergence of primate consciousness in the "Dawn of Man" sequence and the connection between consciousness, technology and the violent struggle of survival. In the middle section, which contains the only part of 2001 that may be considered a story, we see the emergence of technological consciousness as HAL 9000 gains sentience and repeats the violent struggle for survival. Finally, in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" we see the emergence of stellar consciousness as a state of being that cannot be described, only show in slit-screen effects over footage of Monument Valley for half an hour. Yet all of Kubrick's brilliant cinematography is a disingenuous construct, meant to disguise the fact that the entire movie is conceptual. It is a 161 minute depiction of a theme without any meaningful ideas, and certainly very little that approaches anything like a story or characters. Kubrick asks us to be in awe of the technical spectacle of 2001, accepting that the spectacle in-itself comprises something kind of like a philosophical idea.

By contrast, 20,000 Leagues possesses not only a theme (atomic power), but an idea (how atomic power should be used responsibly) conveyed through an impassioned human drama. Whereas Kubrick may be the greater artiste, Disney is by far the greater showman. He no doubt recognized that you can't carry a 121 minute movie on theme or even ideas alone. A concept is what gets you started, a foundation upon which you build a movie and not the movie itself. Therefore the idea of atomic power's responsible use underlies an actual story about a trio of men who are taken captive aboard Captain Nemo's submarine ship... A story overflowing with human drama, tragedy, action, and charismatic personalities. It is a heartily Romantic, passionate film. Even the settings are richly Romantic, from the beauty of the ocean to the opulence of Nemo's salon. 2001, on the other hand, depicts the vast expanses of the cosmos as listlessly dull. All the ballet music in the world cannot bandage the gaping wound in which space, spaceships and even whole planets are stripped bare of anything interesting. With newly expansive stellar consciousness pushing beyond the infinite, all Dave Bowman sees are infinite dead worlds not unlike the dessicated desert that was Earth at the Dawn of Man. Though trying to communicate space as a place of infinite growth and possibility, Kubrick somehow only succeeds in making space looking really boring. It is no wonder, after 2001 and its offspring like The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, THX 1138, Blade Runner, and Alien, that the original Star Wars should have been such a huge hit. Its return to a Romantic vision of space begat a string of genuinely well-loved Science Fiction films through the Eighties and early Nineties, like Back to the Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Aliens, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, and even, God forbid, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

In between were the 1970's, and though those dusty old Victorian Scientific Romances were put back on the shelf, a few attempts were made to revive the genre, with varying degrees of success.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Jolly Top Hat

The Plimptons explain Victorian economics and class warfare through a giant robot...

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The Great Unknown by Clement Melville Keys

There are two great intractable expanses that have always captured the imaginations of writers, being the vast desolations at the Earth's poles. From Arthur Gordon Pym to Captain Hatteras to the Miskatonic University Expedition to the Antarctic to the incessant true-life quests to find the South and North poles, and the Northwest Passage, the endless ice have attracted adventurers and lovers of mystery.

The North-West Passage by John Everett Millais (1874)

The Great Unknown by Clement Melville Keys was originally published in the 41st volume (1902-03) of The Argosy magazine, and reads more like the set-up for a larger story than a story unto itself. Though published as a short story it could easily be a first chapter. It was not to be, at least as I have been able to uncover. Keys is far better remembered for his role as a financier for Curtiss-Wright, China National Aviation Corporation, North American Aviation and TWA. Though born in Canada in 1876, he came to be known as "the father of commercial aviation in America." Literature was apparently more of a recreational sideline.

That leaves the titular Great Mystery up for the reader's imagination to discover... Or to simply savour, respecting that sometimes a perpetual terra incognita can be more enticing than the actual discovery. 

The complete text of The Great Unknown appears below, as published in The Argosy. Click on each page for a larger version.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

A Christmas Dinner with the Man in the Moon

Could there be any more pleasing a Christmas dinner than one spent in the mansions of the Moon's prime minister? Or a more charming Christmas evening that one spent with Uncle Jack telling you about it? Thus comes Washington Gladden's delightful tale of a trip to the lunar surface aboard the Great Aerial Line, the ways of life of its inhabitants, and a scientific mystery that the arrival of earthlings has solved.

A Christmas Dinner with the Man in the Moon was published in the December 1880 edition of St. Nicholas Magazine and is presented here in full, with original illustrations by Victor Nehlig. Gladden, a Congregationalist minister most famous as a pioneer of the Social Gospel movement, a unionization advocate, and anti-segregationist, was also an author of hundreds of poems, stories, and religious tracts. A Christmas Dinner with the Man in the Moon resurfaced in Gladden's 1894 anthology Santa Claus on a Lark: and Other Christmas Stories. Click on each page for a larger version.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Ely's Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth Bellamy

Even more than flying cars, perhaps the longest-standing dream of Science Fiction is the robot maid. Tales of adventure and exploration in the far interstellar frontiers excite the more science-minded, but the average person is, quite understandably, more interested in how technological development is going to improve their daily lives. Sometimes it won't, which is the focus of dystopian "Anti-Science Fiction", but more often it's a bit of a mixed bag. The most famous example of the robot maid - Rosie from The Jetsons - is closest to getting it right... What will happen when we have robot maids and flying cars and condos on stilts and all of that? Basically the same things that have always happened. 

Despite a steady stream of misfortune, Elizabeth Whitfield Bellamy maintained a steady stream of fiction writing. Born in 1837 in Florida, her affluent family moved to Antebellum Georgia to provide a better education and quality of life for the children. It was not to last: at the height of the Civil War, both of her children and her husband passed away of illness and the family plantation was left in ruin and bankruptcy. Widowed, Elizabeth went to live with her parents and afterwards her brother's family, earning her keep with teaching and writing. She stayed with her sister-in-law when her brother passed away in 1884 of bronchitis at the age of 45. Ely's Automatic Housemaid, a satirical exploration of the subject of robot maids, was one of her last short stories.    
The following is the full text of Ely's Automatic Housemaid as it appeared in the December 1899 issue of Black Cat Magazine, only a few months before she herself passed away. Click on each page for a larger version.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Wojciech Ostrycharz's World of Jules Verne

The following images are by Polish artist and animator Wojciech Ostrycharz, currently of Barcelona, Spain, drafted for an interesting Jules Verne exhibit. His credits include work on Dead Island and the Call of Juarez game franchises, and a cross section of his excellent work can be found at his website  Art Way Studio. The exhibit - The World of Jules Verne - was put together by Branzo Artistic Agency, photos of which can be seen on their website

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

George Chetwyn Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space

Quite often, both the chief delight and the greatest challenge of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances is the quality of the language. Earnest, effervescent, sometimes overwrought 19th century prose can, in the right hands, not only describe the scene with vivid intensity but convey the mood of overstuffed Victorian formality. In less capable hands they are a mulch of jagged cliches, stilted dialogue, and bizarre Eurocentric racial attitudes. Thankfully George Chetwyn Griffith was a much more accomplished writer than many. Granted, he certainly has his share of melodrama, unrealistic conversations, and objectionable views towards the ethnic characteristics of Martians (as well as clumsy prose: "I wonder if the descendants of the ancestors of the future human race on Saturn will invent anything like a suitable language."). Nevertheless, Griffith's background as a journalist prepared him to deliver his forays into Scientific Romance with the pitch of a Jane Austin novel set in space.

For your consideration, this extended excerpt from the opening chapter of his 1901 novel A Honeymoon in Space, in which "the tall athletic figure and the regular-featured, bronzed, honest English face" of Rollo Lenox Smeaton Aubrey, Earl of Redgrave, Baron Smeaton in the Peerage of England, and Viscount Aubrey in the Peerage of Ireland, appears in his flying machine to whisk Miss Lilla Zaidie Rennick and her chaperone away from a trans-Atlantic steamer on its way to an arranged marriage of economic convenience...
Mrs. Van Stuyler was shaking in every muscle, afflicted by a sort of St. Vitus' dance induced by physical fear and outraged propriety. Quite apart from these, however, she experienced a third sensation which made for a nameless inquietude. She was a woman of the world, well versed in most of its ways, and she fully recognised that that single bound from the bridge-rail of the St. Louis to the other side of the clouds had already carried her and her charge beyond the pale of human law.
The same thought, mingled with other feelings, half of wonder and half of re-awakened tenderness, was just then uppermost in Miss Zaidie's mind. It was quite obvious that the man who could create and control such a marvellous vehicle as this could, morally as well as physically, lift himself beyond the reach of the conventions which civilised society had instituted for its own protection and government.
He could do with them exactly as he pleased. They were utterly at his mercy. He might carry them away to some unexplored spot on one of the continents, or to some unknown island in the midst of the wide Pacific. He might even transport them into the midst of the awful solitudes which surround the Poles. He could give them the choice between doing as he wished, submitting unconditionally to his will, or committing suicide by starvation.
They had not even the option of jumping out, for they did not know how to open the sliding doors; and even if they had done, what feminine nerves could have faced a leap into that awful gulf which lay below them, a two-thousand-foot dive through the clouds into the waters of the wintry Atlantic?
They looked at each other in speechless, dazed amazement. Far away below them on the other side of the clouds the St. Louis was steaming eastward, and with her were going the last hopes of the coronet which was to be the matrimonial equivalent of Miss Zaidie's beauty and Russell Rennick's millions.
They were no longer of the world. Its laws could no longer protect them. Anything might happen, and that anything depended absolutely on the will of the lord and master of the extraordinary vessel which, for the present, was their only world.
"My dearest Zaidie," Mrs. Van Stuyler gasped, when she at length recovered the power of articulate speech, "what an entirely too awful thing this is! Why, it's abduction and nothing less. Indeed it's worse, for he's taken us clean off the earth, and there's no more chance of rescue than if he took us to one of those planets he said he could go to. If I didn't feel a great responsibility for you, dear, I believe I should faint."
By this time Miss Zaidie had recovered a good deal of her usual composure. The excitement of the upward rush, and what was left of the momentary physical fear, had flushed her cheeks and lighted her eyes. Even Mrs. Van Stuyler thought her looking, if possible, more beautiful than she had done under the most favourable of terrestrial circumstances. There was a something else too, which she didn't altogether like to see, a sort of resignation to her fate which, in a young lady situated as she was then, Mrs. Van Stuyler considered to be distinctly improper.
Griffith was most famous in his day for his political novels of future war, such as Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror (1893) and Olga Romanoff (1894). Pure cosmic explorations were more rare, and he restrained himself from the socialist revolutionary views that he injected more freely into his war books. These views likely limited his appeal in the United States, but perhaps enhanced his appeal in the milieu of public debates between Victorian-Edwardian England's intelligentsia. Between 1893 and 1895 he was considered the most popular English writer of Scientific Romances, until Wells usurped him.

A Honeymoon in Space was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine as Stories of Other Worlds, before being collected into a single volume in 1901. The change in title is significant. Though still suggesting considerable adventure and wonder, the idea of a honeymoon also implies a certain comfort and familiarity... A domestication of outer space. While his protagonists Lord and Lady Redgrave are exploring uncharted territory, Griffith is not. Based on popular conceptions of cosmology and evolution in his day, Griffith retreads the ground of the celestial spheres as a study in the pathways of human development. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Tragedy of H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is rightly heralded as one of the greatest horror writers of all time, if not the greatest. His lurid prose hinted at indescribable terrors lurking beyond human comprehension, tapping into the fundamental existential angst of modern society. In the wake of the Great War, when the optimism of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras was inexorably shattered in the blasphemies of flesh wrent and consumed by industrial warfare, Lovecraft invented a pantheon of unfathomably monstrous, blasphemous gods who saw humans as mere food for their march through vast cosmic space, if they thought of humankind at all. Though not overtly successful during his lifetime, Lovecraft's nihilistic post-war view of life came to resonate with society imagining itself spiralling ever more and more towards meaninglessness. Yet, no matter how hard he railed against it, meaning is inescapable.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

H.P. Lovecraft's The Beast in the Cave

H.P. Lovecraft's work is most accurately understood in its post-World War One milieu. In fiction, the optimism of Scientific Romances and the notions of good and evil in Gothic Horror had largely gone extinct in the conflagration that seized the world in its most devastating mechanized war to date. Horror would be given a reprieve on the silver screen with the Universal Studios series of Gothic monster movies that lasted up to the Second World War, but Lovecraft was ahead of the game on the sense of cosmic nihilism that would pervade much of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, Lovecraft began his writing career prior to the First World War. Though not published until 1918, The Beast in the Cave was drafted in 1905 when Lovecraft was only 14 years old. In it, we already see the nascent themes that he would explore in his literary career. A visitor to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, now a national park, gets separated from his tour group. In the darkness of the subterranean depths, terror seizes upon him as he hears the fall of footsteps drawing close. A young Lovecraft explores his powers of description leading up to the kind of shock ending that he would become known for.

Without further ado, we present the complete text of The Beast in the Cave...

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Song of the Deep and its Sources

Insomniac Games' Song of the Deep is a charming 2-D action-puzzle game in a rich underwater fantasy world. The company's first "Metroidvania"-style game, the story revolves around young Merryn, a 12-year old girl who lives by the sea. When her fisherman father goes missing one terrible night, she must descend below in her own makeshift submarine to find him. There, she discovers that the mystical world of sea creatures, sunken wrecks, and ancient civilizations he told her about in bedtime stories actually is real. 

Song of the Deep's reveal trailer.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Those Fatal Filaments by Mabel Ernestine Abbott

Subtitled "A wonderful invention and the story of why it was never perfected", Those Fatal Filaments by Mabel Ernestine Abbott explores one of those turning points in history when the inventor faces down the prospect of great discovery with even greater costs. There are things that Man Was Not Meant to Know, including the thoughts of other men... and especially the thoughts of women. 

The following is the complete text of Those Fatal Filaments as it appeared in volume 41 (1902-03) of The Argosy magazine. Click on each page for a larger version.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Announcing "Science Fiction of the British Empire: A Victorian-Edwardian Anthology"

The next volume in my series of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance anthologies has been released!

The British Empire was largely accidental. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a small island nation accrued a patchwork scattering of commercial monopolies, isolated ports, utopian experiments, and surrendered colonies. By the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen. The shape of the Empire was amorphous, its machinery unwieldy, its values contradictory, and its legacy ambivalent. Science fiction developed along with it, to celebrate and critique the imperial project. This volume features rarely reprinted stories from across the United Kingdom, India, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, including the “Poet of the Empire” Rudyard Kipling, Indian nationalist Shoshee Chunder Dutt, New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Julius Vogel, Catholic theologian G.K. Chesterton, Muslim feminist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, Canadian satirist Stephen Leacock, military alarmist George Tomkyns Chesney, and “Jeeves and Wooster” creator P.G. Wodehouse.

To order Science Fiction of the British Empire: A Victorian-Edwardian Anthology, visit Amazon or click on the image above. If you can also share this post or the link on your social networks, leave a review on Amazon, and rate Science Fiction of the British Empire, that would go a long way to helping spread the word!

Thank you very much for you support of this blog for all these years and for your purchase of my new anthology.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

The Crown of the Continent: Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park

"Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent."
These words, penned in 1901 by famed naturalist George Bird Grinnell, introduced the world to the natural majesty of the area known today as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It is comprised of two national parks in two countries - Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in the United States - linked by their ecosystem, geology, cultural history and scenic beauty.

St. Mary's Lake, Glacier National Park.

Upper Waterton Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

The Monster of Lake LaMetrie by Wardon Allan Curtis

The Monster of Lake LaMetrie is an early Weird Western tale and one of the earliest extant examples of truly Weird Fiction applied to the Western, rather than "merely" inputting a scientific or supernatural concept. Published in Pearson's Magazine in September 1899, this short story by Wardon Allan Curtis, it is subtitled as Being the narration of James McLennegan, M.D., Ph.D. and is framed as the extracts from a diary sent to Professor Wilhelm G. Breyfogle, University of Taychobera, from McLennegan by way of Captain Arthur W. Fairchild of the US Army. 

McLennegan, being a scientist and having heard of strange occurrences in Lake LaMetrie, takes trip up to these high Wyoming regions with his constitutionally ill friend Edward Framingham. On McLennegan's part, the appeal is a phenomenon of bubbling and broiling at intervals in the lake's middle, after which are found odd specimens of plant and animal washed ashore. The plants are those that might only be found today in coal fossil deposits. The fish populating the lake are bony ganoid types long-extinct. Framingham, an intelligent and astute person with a scientific mind, is admittedly more interested in the fishing and the rarefied air in which he hopes to find relief from his dyspepsia.

There is little rest to be had after McLennegan makes his great discovery. A flitting at his elbow causes him to lash out with his machete, nearly severing the head of a massive Elasmosaurus. It rose, he believes, during the particularly violent flooding and broiling of the night before and confirms for him the suspicion that the lake is somehow connected to the primordial interior of the earth. Nevertheless, he now has one dead Elasmosaurus in danger of lashing out in its death throes, so he removes it brain for study.

The shock comes when he finds the beast still alive days later. It is lying on the beach where he dissected it, but it is still breathing and, furthermore, the wound in its head is healing. So durable and primitive is this marine reptile's physiology that it may very well survive the removal of its brain! Another happenstance pulls this experiment into Frankenstein territories: Framingham, overcome with his worst bout of fever yet, attempts to kill himself with a slash across the neck. He only partially succeeds, for his body will die but his brain lives yet. Given a living Elasmosaur body without a brain and a man's brain with a dying body, McLennegan does the only logical thing.

What follows is a brief but surreal exploration of Victorian anxieties about evolution and the distance between the human intellect and bestial instinct. The Monster of Lake LaMetrie is also a provocative metaphor for the uncivilized character of Western expansionism. Though the Wild West was not so wild as legend makes out - the most deaths any one town saw during the whole settlement era was five, and the year of the Gunfight at the OK Corral was Tombstone's bloodiest ever with a deathtoll of three - it was still a rough and unforgiving existence. It could take the brightest minds and, as though transplanting them into a prehistoric monster, preoccupy them with the basest needs of survival. That is until the civilizing powers of the government and the military pacify the landscape.

Without further ado, Wardon Allan Curtis' The Monster of Lake LaMetrie as it appeared in Pearson's Magazine... Click on each page for a larger version.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys

A big country requires big people to settle it... Big people with big stories... And the frontier of North America is just that kind of a place. It is a vast stretch of land of almost incomprehensible breadth, from the pine forests of Canada in the north to the rainforests of Mexico in the south, from the Mississippi River in the east to the rivers of the California Gold Rush in the west. Spanning three countries and the bulk of a whole continent, there is enough space there for every dream and every tall tale. 

Like the tall tales it gives rise to, the Wild West is a diverse land that skirts the boundary between fiction and reality. The endless reaches of Great Plains and Painted Deserts, the big skies of Montana, the towering mesa and Rocky Mountains, and the depths of the Grand Canyon all seem like something out of a fantasy... As they did to the first Native Americans who crossed over from Asia in the twilight days of the Ice Age and the first European settlers who crossed over by riverboat, stagecoach and rail. Against this background played out some of the most dramatic conflicts of history, from the Northwest Mounted Police's March West to the Trail of Tears, Custer's Last Stand to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. And like that final confrontation between the Earp lawmen and the Clanton outlaws, those events and figures of history slowly and surely enter the realm of myth to the point where we may even forget that the likes of Davy Crockett, Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane, Sam Steele, Geronimo, and Wild Bill Hickok actually lived. Or that the likes of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Slue-Foot Sue didn't. 

The West is a land of strange contradiction. Its mythic imagery of freedom came with the oppression of Indigenous peoples. Always seen as a land of opportunity and untamed exploration, the settlers came by Conestoga wagon only to be followed by the steel of the railway. And the more tamed the West became, the more the legends grew. Where would John Henry be without the tracks to test his strength against, or the steam hammer to contest? Some of the biggest legends have come out of the most settled period, whether Lone Ranger on the radio, Zorro in the dime novels, or Roy Rogers on the silver screen.
Roy Rogers, Trigger, and Dale Evans

Roy Rogers, like his predecessor and chief competitor Gene Autry, blurred the lines between myth and historical reality. Regardless of the setting, time, occupation, or any other consideration, Roy Rogers was the character. Trigger was the horse. Gabby was the sidekick. Dale Evans, at least, got to play different people. 

How much was the character and how much was the man will probably always be a mystery for as long as anyone thinks about it. It probably didn't bother Leonard Slye much. Slye was born in Cincinnati in 1911 and lived both in the city and on the farm for a good part of his youth. After both he and his father tired of working in an urban shoe factory, the family moved out to California in 1930. In 1933 Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Canadian singer Bob Nolan and to form the Western music group The Sons of the Pioneers. Though largely subsumed into Country music today, Western music has a distinctive history and sound. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them.  One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of a twangy accent, slide-guitar, and Bluegrass influence, opting for a cleaner acoustic guitar sound, harmonious vocals, and lyrical content reflective of cowboy poetry. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in the flickers. 

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

The Sons of the Pioneers were introduced to film in 1935. As a back-up cowboy to Gene Autry, Slye performed both under his name and as "Dick Weston." When Autry went AWOL from the studio in 1938, Slye was thrust into the spotlight of the film Under the Western Stars in his new identity as Roy Rogers. His stock and trade were the hour-long b-movie Westerns that preceded a-list movies in theatres, in the day when a dime bought you an entire afternoon of cartoons, newsreels, a b-movie, and the a-list feature. 

As Roy Rogers, his popularity skyrocketed. Having control over the licencing of his likeness and silken voice, it is anecdotally stated that no other name of the time was as well-known - or marketable - save for Walt Disney. Rogers also proves an interesting, and dare one say "postmodern," character in piecing together the romantic construction of the Wild West and its intersections with identity and Hollywood. Thankfully, with so many of his multitude of films being in the public domain, the Internet Archive allows Rogers to be continually, perpetually accessible.

Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers.

In Billy the Kid Returns (1938), Roy Rogers is a deputy sheriff masquerading as a Robin Hood-like Billy the Kid in order to rout the cattle barons who are terrorizing homesteading farmers. Rogers becomes, essentially, the agent of the Wild West's domestication; at one point, a newspaper headline flashes "end of the open range predicted." Two other common themes come out through Billy the Kid Returns. The one is when Roy Rogers portrays a historical character, like he does in Young Buffalo Bill (1940) and Young Bill Hickok (1940), though neither film really has anything to do with them. In the case of Billy the Kid Returns, Rogers directly replaces the historical figure with his own persona as a plot point. The other is that of Rogers in disguise, his use of deception in order to secure a higher good and the sublimation of his true self beneath an assumed identity. In Jesse James at Bay (1941) he plays a virtuous version of the outlaw Jesse James and a nefarious doppleganger. In Billy the Kid Returns, he is Leonard Slye being Roy Rogers the man being Roy Rogers the character being a US Deputy being Billy the Kid. 

In Sheriff of Tombstone (1941) he's back to lying for the greater good. This time he plays Sheriff Brett Starr, late of Dodge City, who has moved to Tombstone and assumed the identity of gunslinger turned would-be-corrupt-sheriff Shotgun Cassidy. Therein he becomes embroiled in a plot by the mayor - who hired Shotgun - and the other town bigwigs to cheat the populace out of their silver mines. It's the bad guy, Black Bart, who is using deception and dual identity in Nevada City (1941), where is attempting to drive a wedge between the stagecoach and railway lines. Roy, playing Jeff Connors, does get caught up in false accusations left and right as the agent of reconciliation between the companies. In the end he aids, once again, in the settlement of the West. This one also features a gorgeous steam train on which Roy has a thrilling, car-hopping fight. Roy spends a good deal of time on the lam in Bad Man of Deadwood (1941) as well. He begins as the trick shooter for Gabby's snake oil sales outfit, but they find that the town of Deadwood is overrun with a mafia-like collusion of businessmen. It's up to quick drawing Roy to become the only real justice the town has seen. Another case of mistaken identity puts Roy in the position to administer justice in Sunset on the Desert (1942). 

The Arizona Kid (1939) takes place in a more specific place and time: Missouri, beginning in 1861. Roy and Gabby star as Confederate scouts hunting down the rogue raider McBride, who is wanted for having dishonoured the South with his ungentlemanly habits of looting and pillaging every farm along the way. Nowadays, seeing cleanshaven Roy Rogers in a Confederate uniform is jarring... One might as well see him in the black of the Gestapo. In Hollywood of the time, the ambiguous ending of the American Civil War was still being played out. It may be said, in an era of continued racial disparity and North-South, Republican-Democrat political divide, that the Civil War never really ended. The Golden Age of Hollywood, however, was only one generation removed from the conflict. The children and grandchildren of Confederate soldiers would have been his fans. For Roy, what that means is that he played a "good" Confederate, reinforcing "Lost Cause" mythology by pursuing Southerners besmirching the cause, and giving him an opportunity to sing spirituals with African-American slaves. 

Roy and Gabby lose the Confederate grey in Southward Ho (1939), when the Civil War ends and the two return to Texas. Gabby becomes part-owner in a ranch with a Union commander that he humiliated during the war. This odd coupling turns more sinister when faux-blues show up to loot the countryside. Roy becomes the agent of American reconciliation after it becomes apparent that the men are acting without the knowledge and permission of the commander. 

Roy and a pretty pale sidekick who is not Gabby hook up with the Arizona border patrol after serving with Roosevelt in Rough Riders' Roundup (1939). In Come On, Rangers (1938) Roy plays a former Texas Ranger getting the unit back together. Roy does his part to protect wildlife from a female-lead gang of poachers in Springtime in the Sierras (1947). 

Other films available for viewing include South of Santa Fe (1942), Sunset Serenade (1942), Idaho (1943), Silver Spurs (1943), The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944), Cowboy and the Senorita (1944),  Utah (1945), Bells of Rosarita (1945), Bells of San Angelo (1947), On the Old Spanish Trail (1947), Night Time in Nevada (1948), and Under California Stars (1948). Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers kept a healthy relationship through the decades. They joined with Roy in the 1942 film titled Sons of the Pioneers and guest-starred on The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show 20 years later, with some 45 films in between. At the height of their fame, they were enlisted by none other than Walt Disney to feature in one of his musical anthology films.  

Times were notoriously tough for Disney through the 1940's. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs catapulted him to even greater fame, follow-up features like Pinocchio and especially Fantasia failed to capture the same popularity. The animator's strike struck in 1941, tensing up the studio at the same time that World War II shut off the European film market. In order to survive, Disney slimmed down its cinematic offerings, releasing a string of "package film" anthologies. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came out during the war, as a product of Disney's Latin American goodwill tour and post-strike vacation. These begat Make Mine Music in 1946 and Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, the latter comprised of two straightforward half-hour cartoons and the former being a pop-music version of Fantasia featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Nelson Eddy, Andy Russell, and the Andrews Sisters. Disney looked to refine the format of Make Mine Music with 1948's Melody Time. Donald Duck and José Carioca of the Latin American films returned in Blame it on the Samba, the Andrews Sisters narrated Little Toot, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra provided the Bumble Boogie, and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers sat around the campfire telling Song of the South's Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten the story of Pecos Bill. The piece, the climax of Melody Time, begins with a melancholy ballad entitled Blue Shadows on the Trail, indicative of the Sons' two biggest hits Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, also released in 1948. The cast reprised their roles for the RCA-Victor album, with even more inspired and hilarious moments of cowboy storytelling. It is freely available from the incomparable Kiddie Records Weekly. Click on the cover below to download it.

The Sons of the Pioneers eventually returned to the Disney fold where they backed-up Rex Allen on the shorts The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961) and the feature film The Legend of Lobo (1962). BY then, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had been long fixtures on television, starting with the The Roy Rogers Show, which ran original half-hour episodes from 1951 to 1957 on NBC that were rebroadcast on CBS from 1957 to 1964. They attempted an hour-long series in 1962 called The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, but it lasted less than a season. The move to television reflected changes in the film industry. Television supplanted theatres as the venue for news broadcasts and short form entertainment like cartoons and b-movies. The Saga of Windwagon Smith was one of Disney's last theatrical cartoon shorts. The b-movie Westerns starring Roy, Dale, and Trigger became perfect fodder for a weekly TV show. 

Trigger himself got an origin story in My Pal Trigger (1946). Roy Rogers is sent to prison after a false accusation that he killed Gabby's horse Golden Sovereign. Roy wanted to breed his horse with Sovereign, but Gabby refused. That year later, Roy returns with Trigger, the son of Sovereign, and seeks the chance to clear his name. This dramatic origin covers Trigger's real history: this palomino stallion always was a Hollywood stunt horse. He began life in 1932 as Golden Cloud, making his silver screen debut as Maid Marian's steed in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Roy was offered the chance to use any of five rented horses and chose Golden Cloud. Later that year he bought Cloud outright and renamed him Trigger. Trigger lived a ripe 33 years, after which he was taxadermied and mounted in the now-defunct Roy Rogers Museum. Trigger and the museum's contents were put up for auction in 2010, where the celebrated horse fetched the sum of $266,500.

Both man and horse are, in a sense, a Hollywood riddle. The Roy Rogers brand, the character, came to stand for the most upright, honest American values carried over from a rugged and bygone era. Yet the man was a celebrity made possible by glitz and glamour (as glitzy as his sequined outfits later in life). His films betray this: regularly Rogers is unjustly on the run from the law or using deception on behalf of justice, and just as regularly he is being the very agent of the frontier's domestication that he bemoans in song. On screen and in life he was a man of great integrity, but his films are a meta-philosophical layering of everything as upright, rugged and honest as a non-alcoholic cocktail. It is almost as though he knew, beneath all that charm and silken-voiced verse that Roy Rogers and the Old West could not coexist. Just as Leonard Slye constructed Roy Rogers, Roy Rogers had to construct a New West to suit him. In that process, he became a legend of the Wild West, somewhere between the tall tales and the historical figures.

Roy and Trigger doing what they do best, along with
The Sons of the Pioneers, in Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Geoffrey's Planklaggephone by Ellis Parker Butler

Ellis Parker Butler, the eminent American humourist and author of Pigs is Pigs and An Experiment in Gyro-Hats, strikes again in this story of invention gone awry published in the September 1909 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. It is presented here as it was originally published, with illustrations by Horace Taylor. Click on the image for a larger version.

And a note on dialect: the character Casey is supposed to be Irish.  

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

The Fugitive Futurist

In this 1924 short by French director Gaston Quiribet, an inventor is on the run from spies seeking his singular contraption: a device that shows the future. By exciting the ether, it can show visions of London's possible fate, including a flooded Trafalgar Square, billboards in the Strand, a dirigible lifting off from the Parliament, and a monorail crossing the Tower Bridge. Plenty of amusing trick photography in this brief tour of retro-futuristic fantasies. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Hans Christian Andersen's In a Thousand Years

Most famous for his moralistic fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen, Hans Christian Andersen was not too aloof of Retro-Futurism to supply a quick satire in the form of the short story In a Thousand Years. Published in 1853, it severely overestimated the length of time before mass aerial transport and packaged vacations would reduce travel to Europe to a matter of days. More often, naive fantasies tend to underestimate how long it takes to affect change - a lunar colony by 1986, abolishing private automobiles within ten years - but Andersen would have been perfectly fine putting his story a mere 100 years in the future. Anyone who has loaded onto a bus for a whirlwind tour of Europe, Japan, India, or South America could easily relate. They might even miss the satire.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Future of the Earth, According to Cosmo

The Future of the Earth by Nobel Prize-winning Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck was originally published in the March 1918 volume of Cosmopolitan. As futurism, it is not very specific with technological, social, or evolutionary hypotheses. But in the context of the Great War raging on around it, it is a marvelous sermon. "It is well, sometimes," he says towards the end of his article, "to tell ourselves, especially in these days of distress and discouragement, that we are living in a world which has not yet exhausted its future and which is much nearer to its beginning than to its end." It is advice still worth heeding. 

Accompanying the article is a magnificent illustration titled The Earth with the Milky Way and Moon by Wladyslaw T. Benda.