January 5th, 2011

Even monsters like to party

The inimitable Jack Davis brings his skewed point of view to a novelty album from the late 1950s. With the sale of the "Shock Theatre" package of classic Universal horror flicks to TV, America lost its cool completely over monsters for a few years. For me, it sure beat the CB radio craze or roller disco that came along later.

Batman wearing a simple cloth outfit....?!

From 1943, BATMAN was a lot more fun than I expected. To be honest, I'd always been a Republic fan and I approached this Columbia serial without expecting much. But it's enjoyable and compelling in its own way, and encouraged me to check out other well-known chapterplays from that studio.

The Republic cliffhangers had bigger budgets and great stuntmen, and they sometimes looked like as polished as the 'B'-pictures of that era. BATMAN on the other hand is more like an early black & white TV episode. The special effects (car crashes and ray guns and so forth) aren't as convincing, Batman's lab seems seriously understocked, and the solutions to the chapter endings aren't particularly inventive (Batman just dusts himself off and walks away from a plane crash, for example) but none of these things are fatal drawbacks.

For one thing, the fights and stunts are awkward and unspectacular, but they also seem more realistic, like real brawls. Batman and Robin fight gamely but they're not superhuman in skill or strength. Our heroes are shown actually climbng and jumping, without special effects. And it's strangely appealing to see a Batman who is wearing a simple cloth costume, not a gadget-laden black rubber get-up that would weigh a ton and be difficult as a straitjacket to move in. This is a Batman who fits in with other human mystery men of that time, like the Phantom and the Green Hornet. It's odd but Batman seems more real here than he has ever since.

The cast is pretty good, overplaying their roles a bit but that's appropriate. Lewis Wilson wasn't athletic-looking (especially compared to guys like Tom Tyler and Buster Crabbe) but he had the right voice and languid gestures for Bruce Wayne.

And the fact that he played the role in a straightforward and sincere manner helped. William Austin as Alfred added some comic relief from the unbearable suspense and Shirley Pattterson as Linda Paige had surprising charm. (When she's made into a brain-controlled zombie who will follow any orders, many teenage boys in the audience must have had some ideas of their own on what Batman should do next.)

But it's J. Carroll Naish who takes over the serial and runs with it. I've always liked his broad style of acting (remember him as the love-smitten hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN?) and here he plays the Japanese spymaster Dr. Daka as a completely diabolical mastermind. Daka not only compels his American agents to betray their own country and work for Japan (boo! hiss!), he uses the advanced gizmos found in the world of the serials. There's the explosive radium gun, the mind-controlling zombie helmets and a pit in the floor containing hungry alligators. (You just KNOW where he's going to end up in Chapter Fifteen!)

Admittedly, Naish's make-up looks crude today and his accent is a bit strong, but it works. Even a big MGM production like THE MASK OF FU MANCHU had make-up that looked more like a Martian than an Asian. There aren't as many (or as virulent) anti-Japanese slurs as I had expected after hearing the protests when this was re-released on video. Seeing this for the first time, I find the 1966 TV series suddenly makes more sense. The bombastic narration, the death-traps and imminent crashes at the end of the episodes, the wild fistfights.... they were all there back in 1943, just dusted off and put on the small screen twenty-odd years later where they were met with amused condescension. The thrills offered were the same, it was the audience that had changed.

Dir: Lambert Hillyer - 15 Chapters

Robert E Howard's "The Thunder-Rider"

[I don't have an illustration on hand for this story. It wasn't published in a pulp and there don't seem to be an appropriate pictures drifting about. If I spot an old painting of a brave on horseback that seems right, I'll put it here.]

Unpublished during Howard's lifetime (it can be found in the collection MARCHERS OF VALHALLA and the more recent THE BLACK STRANGER), this tells of John Garfield, a modern, college-educated Comanche who works in an office building but who has increasing restlessness and violent urges (which he blames on his ancestry). Before he can wig out and go on a killing spree, he turns for help to a shrivelled old medicine man. This wise elder puts him through a grueling Sun Dance-type ritual which gives him the ability to relive his previous incarnations and so find a vicarious outlet for his present-day violent urges.

I would guess that this story was written by Howard around the same time he was whipping out the James Allison tales. He only sold one of these, "The Valley of the Worm" to WEIRD TALES but the premise of them all is similar. Allison is a young Texan who lost a leg at an early age and is slowly dying of some unspecified illness. (Post-Traumatic Bitter Speeches would be my diagnosis.) Allison finds comfort in his visions of earlier lives as well. The difference is that Allison's previous incarnations ranged all over the antedeluvian world, while the Comanche's were limited to those of his immediate ancestors in the Old West (so his stories might be a bit more limited in possible scope.)

But in "Marchers of Valhalla", one of the better Allison stories, Howard introduces us to a sinister pre-Toltec civilization that flourished ages ago in "Old Texas"... that is, part of what is the modern state but which slid off into the Gulf of Mexico in a disaster comparable to Atlantis or Mu sinking. I love these concepts, they offer so many possibilities for a writer with Howard's love of fabulous ancient lands and the lore of the Southwest. We meet a similar (and equally ominous) lost race in "The Thunder-Rider."

Okay, so we open with John Garfield, seemingly successful and respected in his career (not a screen star, by the way) but troubled by increasingly bloodthirsty thoughts and dreams of the great plains. ("My mind began to turn red. The shadow of a dripping tomahawk began to take shape, to hover over me.") Like many other Howard protagonists (such as Esau Cairn of ALMURIC), Garfield blames his murderous impulses and sudden rages on his ancestry smoldering just under the surface. (I suspect this might be similar to Howard explaining away his own deep-seated anger and quasi-paranoia by claiming it's just the black Irish blood bubbling away, not his fault at all.) Not wishing to go berserk and end up doing the rope dance, Garfield turns for help to a withered old shaman called Eagle Feather, who lives alone in the mountains; and Eagle Feather offers him release through a brutal ceremony which frees Garfield's ancestral memories so he can experience them in a cathartic way.

Surviving the ritual, Garfield finds himself now to be "Iron Heart, the Scalp-Taker, the Avenger, the Thunder-Rider." He's a Comanche warhawk back around 1575, roaming the Southwest in constant battles with apparently every other tribe in the area. Being chased by a horde of Tonkewa cannibals and their Wichita allies, Iron Heart's warparty rides smack into a group of Apaches! Don't you hate it when that happens? Only five of Iron Heart's squad survive, drifting with empty quivers and rumbling stomachs across an unseen Line into the Darkening Land of legend. Here things get seriously creepy in a hurry. This silent, misty realm contains the undecayed bodies of the giant Terrible People; there's a dozen Pawnees in warpaint led by Conchita, a vicious Spanish woman raised among the Indians; and then there are the people of the Feathered Serpent.

As it turns out, these are Pueblo Indians who were enslaved by a sorcerer calling himself Tezcatlipoca. He was from "an ancient, ancient kingdom which had been declining even before the barbaric Toltecs wandered into it" and had come north to set up his own little realm. As the surviving Comanches are taken away one by one to face unbearable tortures, Iron Heart's only hope of escape is to join forces with Conchita... but she hates him with a vengeance, too. Doesn't look good.

There are many surprising aspects to this story. With all the well-founded racism charges that have been laid against his writing, Howard shows complete identification with both the modern John Garfield and the long-gone Thunder-Rider. Howard thought the Indian nations, like the African tribes, to be hopelessly savage and bloodthirsty... however, to him, this was a good thing and so he always had a grudging admiration for the various non-white opponents his Aryan heroes fought. (Especially the Picts.) "The Thunder-Rider" is packed with information about the Indians that only listening to old tales and dedicated research could produce. Howard travelled all over Texas, visiting historical sites and scenes of battles.

It's interesting too that Howard occasionally admits that the civilized societies he so heavily scorns did not invent vice and that savages were not completely noble paragons. "Barbarism has its vices, its sophistries, no less than civilization.. If our virtues were unspoiled as a newborn tiger cub, our sins were older than Nineveh."

But I don't know how today's readers would take to the scene where Iron Heart beats a woman so thoroughly that the fiery spirit goes out of her and she meekly follows him. It would be okay if she smacked him around, of course, that would be funny.

"The Thunder-Rider" seems to have touched something in Howard and the poetry always in his writing is strong here ("...always a bronzed, naked warrior against a background of storm and cloud and fire and thunder, riding like a centaur, with war-bonnet streaming and and the lurid light flashing on the point of a lifted lance.") I would have liked to see Howard write more stories set in the days before the Europeans arrived. Today, when we are so saturated with visualizations of Native Americans as pure, gentle "free spirits", singing to little birdies by the waterfall and living as Nature planned, it's refreshing to be reminded that the real picture was (as always) more complex and many-sided. Long before the wagon trains were even built, Utes and Sioux and Crow were waging large-scale wars against each other, and many nations were wiped out long before the pioneers arrived to record their names (and also getting a chance to mow them down themselves).