January 1st, 2011

Flash your bulbs at Whataman MacMurray

This ad from a 1944 magazine. I have a pessimistic feeling there may be more entertainment in this ad than in the movie, especially if you're waiting to see Claudette Colbert "flash her bulb" at anyone.

It is odd to see bland, mild Fred MacMurray (THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR and MY THREE SONS)presented as a roughneck hunk...!

Send away for everything you see

These pages are from PANIC# 6, way back in 1954. Despite the fact it had MAD artists like Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder, PANIC just was never half as funny as MAD was. This is because Al Feldstein wrote it instead of Harvey Kurtzman and the demented satirical Kurtzman viewpoint wasn't there. To be honest, I have a theory that those first color issues of MAD were a one-time synergism of talents coming together. It might not have lasted in any case, even if Bill Gaines hadn't turned MAD into a full-size black & white magazine. But be that as it may, PANIC did have its bright moments. These ad parodies strike me as hitting the right note. In fact, these echo my own reactions to the mendacious claims in advertisements.

THE SAINT IN NEW YORK (book, not movie)

From the September 1934 issue of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE (it was serialized in THRILLER a few years later), this is a drastic change in style and outlook from the earliest books. Simon is still recognizably himself, but the cold piratical side has really taken over his personality, with only traces of whimsy or irony surfacing at intervals. That breezing, infuriating chatter he used to disorient his opponents is almost entirely unused here (and when he does try it, the American thugs think he's 'nuts'.). In its place, we have a Saint who is perfectly happy to assassinate gangsters-- not in a heated struggle but actually killing them in cold blood. (I don't actually have a problem with this, since from the start Simon was inclined to ease an occasional villain into the next life. It's just startling to see him do it so deliberately.)

In a story which takes place entirely in New York City and the immediate vicinity, the Saint has agreed to help avenge the murder of a police officer. Bad judges and rigged courts, bribery and shady lawyers have all conspired to let the murders go unpunished and the wealthy father is desperate for justice. For a fee of one million dollars from a victim's father, Simon agrees to wipe out the crooks involved and clean up some of the corruption in the town. He goes after the gang with ferocious determination. Twenty years after this, Mike Hammer would do the same and twenty years after him, the Executioner would go to work. But Simon Templar in this story could easily have been their inspiration.

Not that he has an easy time. This adventure is a rude awakening for our boy in a lot of ways. Away from his home territory, without Pat or another of his sidekicks, missing even the implied understanding he has with Teal, the Saint gets himself in over his head more than once and for the first time, finds himself in situations where he can't see a way out. Also, Simon gets what is probably the most serious wound of his career. Shot in the back, with the bullet grazing off a rib and having to be removed, he has to deal with weakness and pain that he normally never experiences. This enrages him. "The Saint had never seriously imagined that anything could attack him which his resilient health would not have been able to throw off as lightly as he would have thrown of the hangover of a heavy party." He hits the lowest point I can recall seeing him reach-- wounded, exhausted, too filled with dispair and defeat to care anymore.

Even more unsettling for Simon is that (for once) he is not the real manipulator here, not the sole player who understands the true situation, and the final revelations are more sobering to him than they would be to a more modest man. It's not news to Michael Shayne or Mike Hammer to find out that they have been deceived or exploited, but for the Saint-- well, it's something humbling.

The gradual toning down of our hero's exploits in understandable as you see the injuries and close calls add up. Too, time passes and what seems exciting and enjoyable at twenty-one might not have as much appeal at forty-one. So it's reasonable for the Saint to start off wiping out bands of armed gunmen and eventually be content with outwitting con artists and blackmailers. In one of the forewords to the books, Charteris even mentions that, like the rest of us, both he and Simon sometime regret youthful escapades.

One indicator of how Charteris had updated his style occurs when Templar is zipping along in his roadster, headlights off, trailing a car he hopes will lead him to Mr Big. It's such a lovely night that he begins to sing. "Above the hum of the engines rose faint and not unmelodious sound. Simon Templar was serenading the stars..." Four years earlier, Charteris would have given us half a page of the impromptu lyrics, some cheerful nonsense like "Phineas Throckle had a curious nose..." but here he contents himself with that simple observation. It still reminds us of the hedonistic, fun-loving side of the Saint, even in a singularly violent adventure, but it doesn't disrupt the momentum of the scene.

Charteris tells a strong coherent story, throwing in a few surprises and twists at just the right moment, really giving his creation a worthwhile challenge. The New York setting is handled well enough (Simon doesn't walk out of Grand Central station and cross the street to Central Park, or anything like that.) There is a good deal of political commentary, all lucid and unheated, about how the repeal of Prohibition left the crooks and corrupt officials still in place but looking for new outlets.

There's even a mysterious unseen criminaL mastermind, 'the Big Fellow', who gives orders through a cold-blooded gorgeous blonde, and the revelation of his identity is handled in classic thriller tradition. It's a side of Simon Templar that fans of the 1960s TV series would be surprised to see. Back in 1935, that little drawing of a stick figure with a halo could be an alarming thing.