stirling

It was 20 years ago today that screenwriter, novelist Stirling Silliphant died in Bangkok, Thailand. I remember sitting in my office at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, DC seeing the news on the AP wire. I was shattered. I didn’t know him, never met him, but he was a huge influence, mainly through the route 66 TV series that he wrote for CBS from 1960 to 1964. That series has been called the best ever written for television.

I couldn’t work the rest of the day. I called up Fred Blosser a fellow Silliphant fan. We’d followed his work since the sixties. He had a long career with lots of ups and downs, including winning an Oscar, but nothing he wrote later ever equaled his 66 output. He had complete creative control on that series.

In 1999, three years after he died I made a trip to the UCLA Charles Young Library and gained access to some of the 35 boxes of material he had donated before expatriating to Thailand. It was there, in that library, holding his actual manuscripts in hand, that I realized it all starts with a man putting words on paper. In my own humble way, I decided to try and do what he did. I was late to the game, but I’ve managed to turn out a few things that I feel he would recognize were his influences.

In one episode of 66 one of his characters said of her short-lived marriage: “How can anything so brief, be so enduring?” So it is with Stirling’s four brief years on route 66. His words, his thoughts, his emotions endure, and so do we.Thanks for making us believe that, somehow, it’s all worth it, Stirling.

creature

Every so often I read about this or that director wanting to bring the Creature from the Black Lagoon back to the big screen. But would a Creature remake even be possible today? I mean would people even want to see it? Given the likes of Jurassic World and Godzilla, and Pacific Rim– movies made on a big, big scale, with budgets to match– movie goers now are used to over-sized monsters capable of knocking skyscrapers over and wasting an entire city. How could the Creature possibly compete?

The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a monster built on a more human scale. He’s not even seven feet tall! The worst thing the Creature ever did was rollover a car, capsize a rowboat, and mess up a few cops.

CGI has changed the way horror and science fiction movies are made and it’s a shame that today’s giganticism has come at the cost of intimacy. The thing about the Creature was that you felt empathy for him. A poor creature dragged from his nice peaceful black lagoon into a strange, hostile world by scientists,who wanted to study and analyze him. You could identify with him. That was me skulking down there in the weeds ogling Julia Adams in her one piece bathing suit. I can’t identify as closely with T Rex and Godzilla. They’re just too big to worry about.

Hopefully the Gill Man is back in his lagoon now, enjoying retirement. I hope they just leave him alone.

Jurassic_World_poster

Okay. Jurassic Park worked because Michael Chrichton had the sense to set the story in the park before it opened. It was credible as a failed experiment type of story. But Jurassic World (shown last night on HBO) as a theme park full of thousands of people walking and riding and canoeing amidst living dinosaurs is totally ridiculous. The concept doesn’t touch base with reality. There are so many implausibilities in the whole premise and in plot development they aren’t worth discussing. Chris Pratt continues as the modern version of an alpha male hero– he’s a dinosaur whisperer. He’d rather have them for tea than shoot ’em. It scores high points for visual effects and is probably a movie I would have loved when I was 12. In fact, I know I would. Wish I could be 12 again.

robbersroost

I’ve got a new review up today on Cinema Retro. ROBBERS ROOST is an obscure but interesting western based on a Zane Grey story, that might have been influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. George Montgomery and Richard Boone star with a cast full of familiar actors who populated the movies of the  1950s.

BARQUERO

Lee Van Cleef, the man who provided the inspiration for the Mordecai Slate character is featured in BARQUERO the subject of my latest review on Cinema Retro.

 

mordecai mego

I can hardly believe it myself, but one of my readers has gone and made a Mordecai Slate Mego action figure. Randy Shilling, of Flint, Mich., is a pretty talented guy. He’s made quite a few Mego figures, including Godzilla, Swamp Thing, and a number of other pulp fiction characters. I’m really quite honored that he decided to make one based on the character in my monster hunter weird western novels.

He makes them as a hobbyist, but I’d love to see these become mass produced. As Yogurt said, “Merchandising! It’s all in the merchandising.” So here’s hats off and thanks to Randy. May the Schwarz be with you!

In the meantime, you can follow Slate’s adventures in the novel, VAMPIRE SIEGE AT RIO MUERTO,  and the collection of weird western tales called, HUNTING MONSTERS IS MY BUSINESS. 

 

 

KILLORBE

I take no prisoners in my latest review on Cinema Retro. “KILL OR BE KILLED” is a weird western that swings for the fences but ends up being a foul to left field.

bone tomahawkWatched Bone Tomahawk on BluRay last night. I’d give it two stars. Not bad for a young first time director, but it is totally unbelievable that a man with a broken leg can join a posse to hunt down troglodytes who kidnapped his wife. He not only has a broken leg, but breaks it again when he loses his horse. And keeps on going? On foot?

TROGLODYTES? Okay I can buy the concept but I can’t buy the matter of fact way the few townspeople there are in this low budget movie act like, “Oh, yeah, those troglodytes over there.”

This movie has Sean Young in it. That should be fair warning.

Kurt Russell was MacReady from The Thing again. Cool headed under pressure. Maybe that’s what he thought it would be.

The film doesn’t have a rating. It would get an X if it had one. There’s one particularly gruesome scene that is not for the squeamish.

Two Stars. * *

bogie

bogie

How’s that for a headline? BOGIE BATTLES GIANT OCTOPUS!

What, you say? Humphrey Bogart battled a giant octopus in a movie once? No way. Bogie played gangsters, and tough guys in inner city dramas. He never made a movie where he had to fight a giant octopus. What are you talking about?

Well, I have news for you. He did so.

First let me talk a little about giant octopuses. I have a fond place in my heart for these mythical movie monsters. I like the scene in TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS, where Johnny Weissmuller battles a big octopus  near the diving cliffs of Mexico. I love the giant, GIANT octopus in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. It destroyed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge! Buster Crabbe fights an Octosac in the first of the FLASH GORDON serials. And even Kirk Douglas battled a close cousin of the giant octopus, a giant squid, in 20,000 LEAGUES BENEATH THE SEA. And don’t forget, the octopus is the symbol of SPECTRE, James Bond’s most deadly nemesis.

big shutdown 2I love octopi so much I put an octopus fight scene in my book, THE BIG SHUT DOWN. Jack Brand, the last law left on the planet Tulon, fights an Octopod in the chapter entitled “The Eight Arms of Death.” He has to kill the monster in order to obtain a crystal lens that can save an underwater city from certain disaster.

All well and good, you say. But what does any of this have to do with Humphrey Bogart? You probably can’t even imagine Bogie in an octopus fight. Well, the fact is, you poor unschooled little guppy, he actually did. In 1936 Bogart made a quickie, 60-minute feature for Warner Bros. called ISLE OF FURY. He plays a fugitive from justice who has assumed a new identity as the owner of a pearl diving business in the South Pacific. He’s married to Margaret Lindsay, and one day Donald Woods shows up as a police detective to arrest him. The film is based on a Somerset Maugham story, so naturally, the characters fall into a love triangle, which complicates everything.

In one scene, Bogie’s pearl divers refuse to dive any more because several divers in the last couple of days have gone down but never came up. To prove there’s nothing to be feared, Bogies puts on the hard hat diving suit and goes down himself. Sure enough he gets jumped by a big (really fake-looking) mechanical octopus. He loses his lifeline back to the top and his  air hose and Donald Woods has to jump in and rescue him, complicating the characters’ relationships even further. Well, a giant octopus can do that to you.

Anyway, so there you have it. Bogie battled a giant octopus. If you don’t believe it, check it out for yourself on IMDb. The movie even ran recently on Turner Classic Movies.

 

I

 

 

skar.jpg

The long-awaited “The Legend of Tarzan,” the latest film about Edgar Rice Burroughs Lord of the Jungle, will open in theaters this July. The multi-million dollar, CGI-special effects-laden extravaganza starring Alexander Skarsgard is getting good press so far. After preview trailers were released, even die-hard fans are saying it looks like Hollywood may finally have done justice to Burroughs’ creation. It’s been a pet peeve of the fans that the movies have always presented a dumbed-down version of the ape-man, compared to the character in the novels. They’re hoping that for the first time they may get to see the “real” Tarzan on screen. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished, but the fact is, if “Legend” lives up to expectations, it wouldn’t really be the first time that a Tarzan movie got it right. There have been several films made over the years that have come pretty close.

There have been about 40 Tarzan features all together, going back to the silent era with Elmo Lincoln wearing a leopard skin rug in the swamps of Louisiana in “Tarzan of the Apes” (1918).  The best known and revered Tarzan films are the 12 movies Johnny Weissmuller made at MGM and RKO between 1932 and 1948, starting with “Tarzan the Ape Man,” and ending with “Tarzan and the Mermaids.” The average moviegoer considers the Weissmuller films to be the definitive Tarzan, but the truth is they never came close to portraying Tarzan as he is in the novels.
Annex - Weissmuller, Johnny (Tarzan and the Amazons)_NRFPT_02

Burroughs’ Tarzan is a man who was raised in the jungle as a child by apes and who in his early twenties was brought to England to claim his rightful place as the son of a British lord. He is both savage and nobleman, primitive and educated. He speaks several languages. He’s strong and he believes in his own version of the law of the jungle–only the strong survive and the weak are to be protected. In contrast, all of the Weissmuller films portray him as a monosyllabic jungle man who knows nothing of the outside word, except that guns are bad, and white man brings trouble. He communicates easily with his animal companions but the best he can do  with humans is: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” As enjoyable as these movies are, they’re a far cry from the character in the books.

TARZAN IN GUATEMALA

To find the first “authentic” Tarzan film you have to go back to 1935. While Weissmuller was swinging through the studio back lots at MGM, Burroughs, not happy with the way his tarzan greencharacter was being portrayed, decided to make his own Tarzan movie. “The New Adventures of Tarzan,” (1935), starring Olympic shot put star Herman Brix (Bruce Bennett) is the only Tarzan movie that can boast having Burroughs himself involved in the writing and production. Brix fit the part well. His tall, slender, but muscular physique, came closest to the illustrations of Tarzan by J. Allen St. John that appeared in the novels. He  was approved for the part by Burroughs, who was on location with the cast and crew in the jungles of Guatemala.

As a 12 chapter serial, it runs well over four hours and contains some good action sequences, with Brix giving a spooky rendition of Tarzan’s blood curdling ape-call. Brix looked as much at home on the lawn of the Greystoke estate, as he did swinging through the trees in Chichicastenango. The story revolves around the Green Goddess, a statue that contained a fortune in jewels as well as a secret formula for an explosive that could destroy the word. The serial was meant to be seen in installments on a weekly basis, so watching it over four hours on DVD can be somewhat arduous. The crude film making techniques of the time may also be off-putting for today’s audience. But despite those shortcomings, “The New Adventures of Tarzan” at least presents Burroughs concept of the character pretty much intact. A shorter feature film-length version entitled “Tarzan and the Green Goddess” is also available.

It would be more than 20 years before the next “real” Tarzan would show up. After Weissmuller retired his loin cloth, Lex Barker took over the role at RKO and made five Tarzans through the early 1950s. But producer Sol Lesser followed the Weissmuller template. They were good jungle action movies, although by this time the films were being aimed more at the Saturday matinee kid’s audience. Barker quit Tarzan in 1953 and went to Europe to make movies.Lesser next hired Gordon Scott, a Las Vegas hotel lifeguard, to take over the role.

THE GORDON SCOTT ERA

Scott’s Tarzan career got off to a weak start with a low budget, black and white jungle epic called “Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle.” It was filmed on studio back lots and had a less than spectacular story line that had Tarzan mostly calling all the jungle animals across a river where they would be protected from hunters. The next feature, “Tarzan and the Lost Tarzan Great.jpgSafari” opened things up a bit by including some African location filming. Much was shot in the Elstree Studio in the U.K, but some of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Kenya, and near Mt. Kilamanjaro. It was notable for being the first Tarzan movie in color. This was followed by “Tarzan and the Trappers”  and “Tarzan’s Fight for Life” a campy effort that kept Scott stuck in the Weissmuller mold.

But then in 1959 things changed. Sy Weintraub took over as producer of the series and he made it his goal to bring Tarzan closer to the character in the  books. “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure,” (1959) the first of his productions, is a great effort in that direction and one which some fans think may be the best Tarzan film ever made. It was shot entirely on location in Kikuyu, Kenya. Tarzan speaks perfect English, is intelligent, educated, and nobody to mess with. The script by Berne Geller and John Guillerman (who also directed) is top notch. A doctor friend of Tarzan is killed by four men stealing explosives to use in a diamond mine. The leader of the men, Slade (Anthony Quayle), is a psycho killer that Tarzan had sent to prison once before. The ape-man’s pursuit of Slade and his gang becomes a personal vendetta. Of course, Slade knows Tarzan will come after him, and that’s just what he’s waiting for.

Aside from the location shooting, and tight story, there’s an excellent  British cast that also includes Sara Shane, and in one of his earliest parts, a 29-year old Sean Connery as an Irish gunman named O’Bannion. It’s fun watching the future 007 being stalked by the Lord of the Jungle. Connery delivers a great line after Tarzan fires an arrow at him. “A bow and arrow! How about this guy!”

Almost as good as “Greatest Adventure” is “Tarzan the Magnificent,” which features veteran stuntman and TV cowboy star Jock Mahoney as Coy  Banton. This one, again shot in color on location, features Scott and Mahoney going all out with some dangerous looking rough and tumble stunts on a rocky cliff by a waterfall. Robert Day directed with a firm grip on the proceedings, delivering a taut, edge-of-the seat film.

Scott ended his Tarzan days  with “Tarzan the Magnificent” and went to Europe to make a number of sword and sandal epics in Italy. His life ended in a strange way. He became wheel-chair bound in his old age and wound up living in the basement of one of his fans in Baltimore, Md. He died in 2007 at age 80.

TARZAN IN ASIA

600full-tarzan-goes-to-india-photo

The attempts at presenting a “realistic” version of the Lord of the Jungle continued under Weintraub’s supervision, when he cast Jock Mahoney in “Tarzan Goes to India” and “Tarzan’s Three Challenges.” Mahoney had the physique and athletic prowess to do his own stunt work, despite being 43 years old at the time. These two films are the first wide-screen Tarzan films shot in Panavision and are worthy, colorful additions to the Tarzan filmography. Mahoney played him, as Scott had before him, as a cultured man who simply preferred nature to civilization, and had the ability to survive in both worlds. Unfortunately, Mahoney had trouble surviving the location shooting in Thailand. He contracted dengue fever and dysentery, lost 40 pounds, yet somehow managed to finish the movie.

Tarzan went through a number of reincarnations after Mahoney, including a TV series with Ron Ely, another well-spoken Tarzan, who got into adventures on a weekly basis, with guest stars like Tammy Grimes, Julie Harris, Maurice Evans, and Ethel Merman. It was a fun show that ran for three years on NBC. Weintraub next cast former L A Rams star Mike Henry as Tarzan in “Tarzan and the Valley of Gold.” It was an attempt to modernize Tarzan along the lines of James Bond. It’s a good action flick, but too far from the original character. Subsequent films, including “Tarzan and the Lost City,” with Casper Van Dien, and “Greystoke,” with Christopher Lambert, and Bo Derek’s “Tarzan the Ape Man,” remake were all interesting tries, but never aroused much enthusiasm among fans or at the box office.

And now comes the “The Legend of Tarzan” with Alexander Skarsgard. True fans eagerly await. Will this be the one? It’s like that moment on that old TV show from the fifties when the announcer would say: “Will the real Tarzan please stand up?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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