Monday, October 30, 2023

Awesome Audio (All's Wells That Ends Welles Edition)


Huh? As if things weren't bad enough in the Ukraine and the Middle East, now we have to worry about the Thames Valley as well?

Now we're getting somewhere. First published in serialized form in a pair of U.K. and U.S. magazines in 1887, and then as a hardcovered novel in 1888, Wells' tale of an extraterrestrial invasion of England, if it didn't invent (there were earlier examples here and there) then certainly popularized the idea that there were races of beings on other planets, and it was only a matter of time before we'd find them or they'd find us. And no matter who found who, we Earthlings better be careful, because it went without saying (for no other reason than Wells had so convincingly said it first) that the otherworldly peeps resided in a much more technologically advanced society than our own. Now, why exactly should that be? Why couldn't Mars or any other planet have little green hunter-gatherers? Wells never said, but some scholars have theorized that, despite War of the Worlds straight-faced prose, his intent may have been satirical. In other words, Wells wanted to take us humans down a notch or two, probably figuring we had gotten pretty cocky in the last few decades of the Victorian era as the technology of this planet was becoming increasingly advanced, what with such inventions as Edison's light bulb, Bell's telephone, and...  

...Marconi's radio. Now, the above photo is not from the Victorian era, as attested by that young woman's hemline. It just that from the time something is invented, 1901 in the case of radio, to the time it becomes commonplace may take a while. By the 1930s, radio had become commonplace, the internet of its era. And like the internet, content sometimes went viral

Which brings us to this fellow. A Midwestern child prodigy whose father made a fortune inventing a bicycle lamp, Orson Welles had become a leading light of Broadway and the Manhattan theatrical scene as a whole when he was barely out of his teens, first as an actor and then increasingly as a writer, director, and producer. In 1937, Welles and fellow Federal Theatre Project director John Houseman founded their own repertory company The Mercury Theatre, the success of which attracted the attention of the Columbia Broadcast System. At the age of 23 Welles was already a relatively old hand at radio, having played the title character on the popular series The Shadow, when CBS asked him and Houseman to come up with something, which turned out to be Mercury Theatre of the Air. The format was that every week would be a radio adaptation of a well-known literary work--Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.--with Welles playing the lead. Some months into doing this show, Welles got an idea. Along with The Shadow, he had also done quite of bit of acting on the popular program The March of Time, which often depicted historical events in the form of a radio news broadcast. Why not do the same thing with a classic work of fiction? The War of the Worlds was chosen, its setting changed and updated from Victorian England to New Deal USA. 

Airing on the day before Halloween on October 30, 1938, what listeners would have heard first was the announcer welcoming you to another edition of Mercury Theatre on the Air and that this week's episode would be a dramatization of the H.G. Wells classic. This was followed by Orson Welles himself reading an updated version of the first few paragraphs of the Wells novel, which then gives way to "Ricky Ricardo Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" supposedly broadcast live from a NYC hotel. Unfortunately for poor Mr. Raquello, his orchestrations kept getting interrupted by breaking news reports of objects falling from the sky. Here's one such interruption: 

After that news reports start coming fast and furious and regular broadcasting is permanently preempted for the night and maybe forever as the seriousness of the threat to the nation soon becomes clear. And I do mean soon. According to Houseman: "Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes. During that time, men travelled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it—emotionally if not logically.As civilization falls, so too does the "Inter-Continental Radio News." The last thing one hears before the station break, the real station break, is a lone ham radio operator asking if anyone is out there. After the commercial, and another reminder from the announcer that this is just fiction, the final twenty minutes of the play reverts back to Orson Welles' first-person narration, as his character wanders the ruins of civilization, encountering a right-wing whack job along the way, in much the same way as the novel's narrator did, albeit this time in a much more abbreviated fashion. The story ends relatively happily when Welles character, as did his counterpart in the novel, discovers all the Martians have dropped dead (I'll get to why in a moment.) At this point, Welles the survivor of an apocalypse gives way to Welles the radio personality as he cheerfully delivers his goodbyes for the night:

Then all hell broke loose:

Really? The entire nation panicked? Well, that's what everyone thought at the time...until you try and find the person willing to go on record and admit that they panicked. It's always the other fellow who think it's real, while you know better. Actually, more people that night were listening to radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergan (just try and catch him moving his lips) and knew nothing of it...until they read the next day's papers. Still the idea that there was a mass panic must have come from somewhere. Academics far and wide have spent the last 85 years trying to answer that question. The consensus seems to be that in every major radio market the broadcast aired, there were a few people here and there who took it to be real, of maybe merely wondered if it was real, and called up their local police department, their local fire department, and most significantly, their local newspaper, to find out just what the hell was going on. So it made headlines, the newsworthiness of the event, some have alleged, exacerbated by the fact that print media had been losing advertising revenue to the radio upstart. Payback time may have been a motive on the part of the press. As stories of people committing suicide rather than be captives of the Martians swirled about, Orson Welles himself thought at first it was end of his career. Both the suicides and end of his career proved to be false. Already a public figure, Welles became even more of a public figure. A star in fact. Hollywood came calling. He produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in a major motion picture, Citizen Kane, the theme of which was... manipulation.

As for H.G. Wells, he was still alive during all of this. Three years after the radio broadcast, Wells and Welles finally met, in San Antonio, Texas. Orson was there for a town hall meeting, and H.G. to address a gathering of the United States Brewers Association (science fiction and alcohol--both has its effects on the imagination.) Here they both are on--where else?--the radio:

H.G. Wells died at the age of 79 in 1946, by which time atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. War of the Worlds minus the Martians. As for Orson Welles, his next movie after Citizen Kane was The Magnificent Ambersons. He produced, directed, wrote, and, though not seen on screen this time around, provided his signature narration. At least he did all those things until the film was taken out of his hands by an impatient RKO. From then on in the word "sporadic" best describes the rest of Welles' career. To be sure there were acting-directing highs, such as The Lady from Shanghai and A Touch of Evil. Solely as an actor, he turned in a memorable performance as the likably unscrupulousness Harry Lime in The Third Man. But Welles just couldn't abide the studio system, even as a combination of antitrust rulings and television was gradually tearing that system apart. During the 1960s and '70, Welles' self-directed movies were independent productions. I've seen a few of these and they certainly held my attention, but such arty fare as an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial or the Shakespearean amalgamation Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles played Falstaff, were hardly commercial crowd-pleasers. And these films could be few and far between as Welles was aways scrambling to find someone to financially back them. That's when he wasn't scrambling to pay back the IRS, a not uncommon celebrity chore. An endless appetite for food and drink led to enormous weight gain, though facially at least a certain handsomeness always remained. As did his sense of humor. The final decade-and-half of his life saw him involved with such disparate undertakings as narrating a Bugs Bunny documentary; appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, where he once hilariously upbraided Dino for his debauched lifestyle; Paul Masson commercials ("we will sell no wine before its time"); guesting on, and even guest-hosting, Johhny Carson's and Merv Griffin's talk shows; a cameo in a Muppets movie; a bravura performance as an exasperated judge in Butterfly, the film that made Pia Zadora, however briefly, a household name; and the very last time his distinctive voice was ever heard on film, in this case film animation, as Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie. The man who had once so memorably manipulated the media in the end was manipulated by the media himself, which he seemed to find amusing. Orson Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70.

Now I'd like to return briefly to War of the Worlds. Remember me telling you the Martians were all dead at the story's conclusion? So how did they die? Infectious diseases. The extraterrestrial's immune systems couldn't handle all the pathogens found here on Earth.

This past July Congress held hearings on the question of Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs for short. While NASA officials conceded they could not identify many of these flying objects, there was no reason to believe they were visitors from another planet. Well, that's one denial that went over like a lead weather balloon. If anything, it increased suspicions that this world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than ours.  And if so, how do we know their intentions are benign? That they won't stir up as much trouble as the extraterrestrials did in H.G. Wells' novel? What can we do to stop them?

 Maybe this fellow can persuade the outer space invaders not to take their shots. After all, he and his ilk have already convinced enough earthbound humans not to 


Monday, October 23, 2023

Are You Lonesome Tonight?


In 1969 Elvis Presley was enjoying a career resurgence when this photo was taken of him with the then-host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, the latter visiting backstage at whatever Las Vegas hotel the former was playing at the time. Then as now, but more so then when there were much less in the way of viewing options, the late-night talk show was the first choice of celebrities who wanted to go on TV and promote their latest book, movie, record, or just themselves. Elvis, however, was such a big star at the dawn of the 1970s that the mere fact that he walked the Earth was promotion enough, and thus never appeared on Carson's show. That's not to say Johnny couldn't find another way to capitalize on the King of Rock and Roll's great success.

An up-and-coming comedian named Andy Kaufman turned out to be that other way. His act consisted of several comic characterizations, the most popular of which was the fresh-off-the-boat Foreign Man, which eventually became Latka Gravis on the hit sitcom Taxi. However, the character was still nameless when Kaufman was booked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in March of 1977.  The following clip isn't the entire appearance, which means I have to do the mundane job of setting it up. The Foreign Guy comes and does some very poor impersonations of various celebrities, but then strikes paydirt:

The real Elvis Presley died about five months later. Andy Kaufman passed on in 1984, and Johnny Carson, who otherwise would have turned 98 today, took his leave in 2005. Of the three, only Carson's death remains undisputed. And even he's got his own streaming channel.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Quips and Quotations (A Lovable Space That Needs Your Face Edition)



Creating her was actually intellectual. How do I make her likable and loveable? ...Dumb blondes are annoying. I gave her a moral code. I imagined it was the childhood I would've liked to have had.

--Suzanne Somers, on her Three's Company character Chrissy Snow.


Friday, October 13, 2023

The Smartest Religious Movie Ever Made

 (Recent events in the region of the world commonly referred to as the "Holy Land" has compelled me to rerun this post from 6/21/2010. I've added pictures--Kirk)

Recently, I wrote a post about faith which seemed to stir up a lot of strong feelings. So strong were these feelings, in fact, that I decided it best to stay away from the subject from now on. But then I saw my name mentioned on someone else's blog dealing with faith, and thought, "Well, if people are still interested in my views on the subject..." So I've decided to take another stab at it. I've even eschewed the usual wordplay in the post's title. I'm telling you flat out it's about the smartest religious movie ever made.

And what movie might that be? The Ten Commandments? No, as entertaining as that film is, it's not the smartest. Nor is it that other mainstay from Easters past, Ben-Hur.

And it's not King of Kings, Sign of the Cross, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary, The Keys of the Kingdom, Joan of Arc, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Salome, Solomon and Sheba, The Silver Chalice, The Big Fisherman, Barabbas, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Nun Story, The Singing Nun, Lillies of the Field, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible...In The Beginning, The Sound of Music, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, King David, or The Last Temptation of Christ.

It's not even Bruce Almighty

No, the smartest religious movie ever made is...

...Raiders of the Lost Ark!

What's that, you say? Raiders of the Lost Ark? That's not a religious movie! It's action-adventure!

Well, there is action, as well as adventure. And there's also religion. At least there's something from the Bible. Where do you think the Ark comes from? Actually, there are two Arks in the Bible. The more famous Ark is the big boat with all the animals that Noah captained. The other Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is less well known. At least it was less well known before director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got their hands on it. Here's King James' earlier take:

10 "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side. 13 And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them. 15 The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you.

--Exodus 25:10-16

The above is God's instructions to Moses on how to build the Ark. Where Moses was supposed to get all that gold, I have no idea. Anyway, the Ark was a kind of chest with supernatural powers that contained bits and pieces of the original Ten Commandments. The Israelites carried it around the wilderness for some 40-odd years, until they reached the Promised Land. After that, it pops up throughout the Old Testament, often to lethal effect, zapping Philistines or even dim-witted Israelites who come too near the thing. Keep that in mind as I discuss the movie.

Now, I said Raiders was smart. But it's not immediately smart. Like any Hollywood product designed to separate an adolescent from his 1981 currency, there's a lot of watchable silliness. The movie begins in a South American jungle in 1936, where we find a big guy with a big hat, ratty clothes, and a whip going into a cave to snatch an ancient idol, evading all sorts of pre-Industrial Age booby traps to do so. He gets out of the cave alive, only to be confronted by an apparent archrival backed by a bunch of spear carrying natives. Our hero is forced to hand over the idol, and then somehow manages to outrun, outjump, and and outswing hundreds of spears thrown in his direction. None of this has anything to do with the Ark of the Covenant, which is in a whole different hemisphere. It's all meant to establish character, and, boy, what a character: Indiana Jones, an professor of archeology (his real first name is Henry, but you won't find that out for another couple of sequels) who apparently doesn't believe in hiring hundreds of diggers to excavate a site, but rather just do the job himself.

Back in his classroom at the university, having exchanged his ratty clothes and whip for a tweedy suit and blackboard chalk, he's approached by a couple of government agents. Adolf Hitler is looking for the Ark of the Lost Covenant, hoping its' powers of God will give him an edge in the upcoming World War II. Now, the agents refer to Hitler as a "nut" and that he's "crazy" for actually thinking he can get away with this. But as nutty and crazy as Hitler may be, they decide to hire Professor Jones to stop him, just to be on the safe side. Do intelligence agents always outsource their work to college archeology professors? They must be understaffed.

Anyway, Indiana Jones goes to Cairo, meets an old flame who decides to help him find the Ark. The Nazis, along with the archrival from the film's opening scene, try to stop him. But Indy does indeed find the Ark, only to quickly lose it to the Nazis. My memory's a bit faulty on this, but the Ark seems to pass back and forth between the Jones and the Nazis until they all end up on some island together. Indy has a chance to destroy the Ark with a rocket launcher (good thing to have when a whip won't do), but, dedicated archaeologist that he is, can't bear to destroy something of such obvious historical significance.

Now we come to the part that always intrigues me. The Nazis have won. They've prevailed. They've got the Ark. Before presenting it to the Fuhrer himself, they decide to take a peek inside.

They shouldn't have. Benign ghostlike figures at first emerge, but they quickly turn malignant. Fire and lightening shoot out out of the Ark, fricasseeing the Nazis standing closest to it. The ones standing a little farther away don't last much longer, as they soon melt or combust or both. Only Indy and his girlfriend survive, having shielded their eyes.

So by winning the Nazis have lost. The power of God gives them no actual military advantage. How you gonna use a weapon if you can't even open the damn thing? Not that the U.S. government is much better. They must have shelled out a lot taxpayers' money, in transportation costs if nothing else, to have Indiana Jones go halfway around the world to stop the Nazis from finding something that turned out to be irrelevant. He could have saved himself the trouble and just stayed in the classroom, though it's always nice to see old lovers reunite.

Indy gets the Ark (did he close it back up with his eyes shut?) to Washington D.C., where it is stored in a giant government warehouse.

"Fools. Bureaucratic fools! They don't know what they've got there," Indy says at the end.

I imagine sometimes after Pearl Harbor, some of those bureaucratic fools will open up the Ark to see just what kind of military advantage it gives them. When they do, well, time to mop up the warehouse floor. So the WWII in the movie's fictional world is fought much like the WWII in our real one, without any discernible help from God.

Of course, in our real world, people are always fighting and thinking God gives them some sort of advantage. Look at the Middle East. The Israelis and the Arabs have been fighting over the Holy Land for how long now? And why is it even called the Holy Land? If the Lord created the entire Earth, shouldn't the whole enchilada be considered holy, rather than just one tiny morsel? Then there's the people who attacked us on 9/11, thinking they were doing God's work. The average devout terrorist doesn't even have to open up an ark if they wish to immolate themselves. They'll do it with a strapped-on bomb, with the expectation that they'll be greeted in Heaven by 72 virgins (what do they have against more experienced women?) And what about female suicide bombers? Are they greeted by 72 eunuchs?

Just as in Raiders, the U.S. Government in not immune to the sway of God's strategic value. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack , in the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush referred to himself as a "messenger of God" who was doing the "Lord's work". In the Pentagon, the war was often referred to as a "crusade".

Meanwhile, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seems to be finally winding down. It only took four centuries.

To be fair, if you examine some of these religious wars more closely, you'd see that they're as much about politics, territorial conquest, ethnicity, and natural resources (oil comes to mind) as they are about the divine. But nothing rallies the troops like saying it's God's work.

From the Crusades on, can you really say all the blood shed in God's name has made the world a more spiritual place?

Some arks should just stay lost.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Haunts of the Very Strapped


Following a recent showing of Barbie, a fellow moviegoer ventured the opinion that what we had just watched was an "art film." I felt it necessary to point out that a major Hollywood studio, in this case Warner Bros., isn't likely to shell out a reported $145 million dollars on anything that's not an arguably guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and an art film is rarely that. Nevertheless, Barbie's plot, a good deal of which takes place in a land where dolls come to life, necessitated loads of abstract imagery which may have made the whole thing accidentally avant-garde. And I wonder if that could work in reverse. An ambitious--in terms of story--science-fiction saga with a lower-than-Death Valley budget, could in the end resemble an art film, albeit unintentionally. Which brings us to 1957's Plan 9 from Outer Space. Yes, there are those who say it's the worse movie ever made, but the film's slapdash, flea market dreamlike imagery has always held my attention, an 80-minute workout that prevents the eyeball muscles from atrophying. The above photo, culled from a movie memorabilia auction site, is a behind-the-scenes portrait of some of the characters, and we can all agree that they were characters, involved in the making of Plan 9. The good-looking, dapper young prole crouched in the foreground is not Johnny Depp, but the film's producer, director, and writer Edward D. Wood Jr. Moving clockwise from Wood we have Swedish professional wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson, who plays a zombie under the control of disdainful space aliens; local LA horror movie TV hostess and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark precursor Vampira (Maila Nurmi) as another zombie; the movie's narrator, the Amazing Criswell, a local LA television psychic; and just above Wood, cinematographer William C. Thompson, who had begun his career in 1914 and lived long enough to witness the advent of the drive-in movie. Conspicuously missing, mainly because for some reason he seems to have been cut out of the picture, is Bele Lugosi, who according to the photograph's ballpoint penned copy should be standing to the left of Wood. Plan 9 from Outer Space was Lugosi's last movie (in fact, he died in the middle of filming and was replaced by a younger, taller man holding a cape over his face!)  Also missing, conspicuously so only because it seems rather odd that someone would have had it deliberately removed, is some nondescript prop, maybe a pile of nondescript props, situated between Vampira and Criswell. The imagination reels! I suppose there's some enterprising digital wizard out there who could make this photo once again complete, but I'd advise against it. Incompleteness was crucial to Ed Wood's art. It's what made him, however unintentional, avant-garde.  

Nice try, Eddie, but it's not nearly as scary as the 118th Congress. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Quips and Quotations (Babes in Toyland Edition)



If you put the doll in the Dreamhouse and she puts her hands in the air, she can touch the ceiling. She is strikingly out of scale. It’s the same with the car. Barbie never quite fits because her legs don’t bend. We worked it out to be 23% smaller than human size for the sets. What this did is when you built it for real, you made the actors seem bigger in the house. That gives it a toy quality or what we found out Mattel calls 'toyetic'. Finding what it is that makes it a toy.

--Barbie production designer Sarah Greenwood 

To my mind, we were creating a toy. A toy is tactile, a toy is real. Everybody knows what’s CGI. Your sixth sense will tell you—even children will know. So, with the painted backdrops, it just gave everybody the belief that you are in the toy box, you are in there, you are a toy.

--Barbie set decorator Katie Spencer