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Batman: The Minstrel's Shakedown (1966)
Van Johnson tried to cope with his movie career hitting the skids by creating a singing nightclub act. This episode was clearly written so as to promote his singing, which gets tiresome and embarrassing quickly. Also, the director used his little minstrel tune as the instrumental cue for Johnson, so that by the time you are done, you have this awful song virus, even worse than the Verve's dreadful 1990's pop song 'Bittersweet Sympony.'
Johnson was getting soft and jowly by the 1960's, so he is, in general an unimpressive villain anyway, even without the singing. He and Alan (Alfred) Napier had worked together in '30 Seconds Over Tokyo,' Johnson's best movie, so maybe they had a drink together after shooting this episode, or maybe not. Regardless, this show was another step on the long way down from being an A-lister in the mid-1940's. By the late 1970's, Johnson would be shucking Poly-Grip and appearing on The Love Boat.
The death trap, slow roasting of the Dynamic Duo, is in worse taste than usual, and their escape is unimpressive. The high point for the whole episode is a cameo by Phyllis Diller. I recommend skipping this one.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
Anti-Authoritarian Suessian Fable
Here in the 21st Century, I'm not sure who this film's proper audience is, besides cinephiles.
The protagonist is a kid, a fact which will turn off many adult viewers.
At the same time, there are some amazingly elaborate and artistically choreographed dance and acrobatic sequences, prefiguring Cirque du Soleil...the complexity and wonder of which might be lost on kids. (I also wonder if kids' attention might wander during these sequences...)
I am, of course, a cinephile now, but was I at age 10, when my brothers and I watched this back in the 1970's, broadcast by a UHF TV station out of Youngstown, Ohio? Because we liked this film then. Would today's kids, fed a steady diet of video games, MTV and R-rated movies like this film? I doubt it, but you never know.
My 21st Century cinephile self recently re-watched this film, after 40 years, finding it to be beautiful and frightening. It is a clever mix of Suessian imagery and the anxieties of childhood (which adults remember better than we admit) contained within the forms and conventions of the 1950's Hollywood musical.
The cast is excellent, particularly the dancers, but credit should be distributed all around. Mary Healy is very sexy as Bart's mother, and her real-life husband, Peter Lind Hayes, portrays the kind of adult every kid wishes he knew. Hans Conried, at what turned out to the pinnacle of his career, is perfect. Even Bart, played by Tommy Rettig is good (child actors are often very hard to stomach).
Almost the entire film is an extended dream sequence, showing life for a young boy inside a surreal fortress of mandatory piano lessons, and where strict, autocratic order is enforced by a legion of uniformed, thuggish soldiers. Very obvious to my adult self, it is a commentary on authoritarianism and totalitarianism, in the world of an American child. It is interesting to consider that the year of this film's release, 1953, was the peak of the Senator Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. The following year, theocratic authoritarians successfully pressured the US Congress into mandating the phrase 'one nation under God' into the Pledge of Allegiance, which was itself an oath forced upon millions of schoolchildren 5 days a week.
Among many memorable moments is a solo titled 'Because We're Kids,' containing this verse:
'Now just because your throat has got a deeper voice, And lots of wind to blow it out, At little kids who dare not shout, You have no right, you have no right, To boss and beat us little kids about...'
So, as I said before, this film will not be 'accessible' to everyone. But to those of us for whom it is, there are rewards.
A lot of people expect Capt. America stories to be jingoistic right wing combat porn, but in the mid-1970's, writer Steve Englehart did a kind of parallel Marvel Universe Watergate-saga called 'The Secret Empire,' which showed corruption reaching the pinnacle of US politics, and Capt. America was confronted with reality.
And in the early 2000's, writer Ed Brubaker again brought contemporary politics and war into the Capt. America storyline with the original version of the Winter Soldier. Brubaker's run writing Cap was the best ever for Our Hero.
This film is a brilliant synthesis of the best political CA story lines and the 1970's conspiracy movie thrillers, such as 'Day of the Condor' and 'All the President's Men,' and the presence of Robt. Redford here is a clear signal of what the directors intend.
It's also clear to anyone with the slightest bit of imagination that the main plot is a hard-hitting critique of the US's policy of assassination-by-drone...Cap's pal Nick Fury intends to pre-emptively rub out 20 million 'bad guys' in order to (supposedly) protect 7 billion.
Chris Evans nails the difficult part of being an earnest and noble man in the modern world, and there is copious high quality super-heroic stage business, as Cap (and his pals Black Widow and the Falcon) smash their way through the requisite armies of henchmen and super-villains. The directors and fight choreographers also nailed the difficult task of translating Kirby-esque shield-slinging fight scenes into cinematic reality...this film, like the 2013 Thor movie, was like a living silver-age Marvel comic.
So we have been given a pulse-pounding conspiracy thriller and socio- political critique, delivered in the mighty Marvel manner. This is the best (so far) of the comic-book movies. But will it spur a discussion? Will it awaken America to the sense of outrage we so adeptly suppress...the grim reality that we inhabit the Drone nation...sending our aerial buzz-bombs into the world, killing thousands of innocents? Will this film knock our blinders off, bring the realization that our mealy-mouthed pseudo-liberal and belligerent right-wing politicians are bringing unprecedented death and destruction to the world? Only time will tell.
But it's telling that in a time of political corruption of a scale and nature which makes the Nixon Administration look like a church picnic, the only main-stream film with the guts to speak up is a comic book movie.
The 'Citizen Kane' of Superhero Television
In the spring of 1968, my parents were mourning the deaths of MLK and RFK. But I was 4 years old, and like most of the kids in my neighborhood, I was mourning the cancellation of the Batman TV series. I was probably among the youngest of those who watched this series during the original run...certainly most of the other kids in the neighborhood who watched were older, being in grade school or junior high.
For kids of this era, I can testify that there was no TV show more important than Batman...and that is saying a lot, seeing as Batman was contemporary to 'The Wild Wild West,''The Avengers,''The Time Tunnel,' 'Mission Impossible,''Lost in Space,' 'Green Hornet,' 'Tarzan,' 'Man from UNCLE,' 'Star Trek,' and other classic fantastical series of the era.
At age 4, not only did I consider Batman to be a realistic depiction of modern crime-fighting, I also believed that it was perfectly appropriate for grown men to have a secret hide-out beneath their house containing super crime-fighting equipment including a souped-up car, and for grown men to wear masks and costumes and participate in elaborately choreographed fist fights with other grown men. To reinforce the part about the fist-fights, my brother, who was 2 years older, used to practice punching during the commercial breaks, and I happened to be the closest practice target.
Years later, I was 11 years old, and syndicated reruns of Batman became available via the UHF TV stations in the Ohio area, and so I watched the show again. This was a revelation to me, because my memories from age 4 had recorded this series as being a mythic epic of the highest order, both stunning and sublime. Yet at age 11, my childish memories collided with 6th-grade sophistication, and I could now see that Batman had been played for laughs. Fortunately, I had previously been familiarized with the concept of satire, and so was developmentally ready to understand that the series was a kind of meta-joke, a spoof on all things fantastical and heroic, of which there was so much in the mid-1960's. I enjoyed the big joke, but still secretly savored the fantasy of crime- fighting adventure, super weapons and wild gear.
Since those days, I have revisited the series now and again, in college and adulthood, and what impresses me is the brilliance of the heroes' and villains' suits, the brilliant visual design of the batcave and their gear, the brilliant performances, especially Adam West and Frank Gorshin, and the brilliant scripts from Season 1, when the great Lorenzo Semple Jr. had the biggest influence in the show. For that brief, shining period, it was a pop-art satire played straight, working simultaneously as a kid's adventure and as subversive giggles for grown-ups. The clearest example of a multi-level TV series that ever existed. The brilliance of Season 1, and of the 1966 feature film, make up for the gradual decline in quality that began in Season 2 and then escalated in Season 3.
The end was humiliating and cruel for this series, as ratings fell and talent fled in Season 2 and Season 3. And as Batman's star fell, so did the fortunes of almost every other fantastical TV series of the era...Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, etc....all were gone by the end of 1969 except for 'Land of the Giants' (ending in 1970) and 'Mission Impossible' (ending in 1973). But as for the others, it was as if they were all dinosaurs, killed by the same meteorite that killed Batman. In reality, I have to suspect that Batman's spectacularly rapid rise and fall in ratings must have spooked the advertising and TV people, so that shows like 'Ironside' and 'Hawaii Five-Oh' seemed better bets.
All the same, the reruns remain. The glory days of this show, as an epic for kids, as Don Quixote for adults, still shine.
Tarzan Triumphs (1943)
Jerry of the Jungle
'Now...Tarzan Make Propaganda!'
A lot of people seem to have a bias against the RKO Tarzan films, but in truth, it was MGM which gradually morphed the Tarzan franchise from A-picture status to B-picture status, gradually reducing the budget and running time of each picture. And MGM had a bad habit of recycling footage from previous entries in the series...how many times did audiences have to watch the trapeze-vine and the crocodile-wrestling scenes?
In fact, it was probably a good thing that the franchise migrated from MGM to RKO, because RKO made some of the best B-pictures of all time, including many classy ones like the Val Lewton horror series, whereas MGM treated their B-pictures like red-headed step-children. Here we get a brand-new plot and a good script, and we get to see Tarzan fighting a bunch of WW2 Jerries. Thanks to Indiana Jones, it turns out that Nazis are timeless villains, which likely would have surprised the creators of this film, who clearly were content to make a fun propaganda piece.
Above all other considerations, we get Weissmuller and his distinctive portrayal of Tarzan. Maureen O'Sullivan, who was wonderful in her own right and who brought out the best in Weissmuller, is absent here, but we find that Our Hero delivers a good-to-excellent performance throughout, being strangely moving in the scene where Boy reads Jane's letter and his righteous fury is very effective when he utters this famous line: 'Now...Tarzan make war!'
Frances Gifford was an excellent choice as the beautiful and brave princess Zandra, who besides being eye-candy for the adolescents and adults in the audience, has very good chemistry with Weissmuller. Perhaps the chemistry is a little too good...Zandra attempts to persuade Tarzan to help by engaging in some enjoyable flirtation...if Jane had seen the two swimming and sunbathing together, if she had seen Zandra leaning her head on Tarzan's bare chest in a moment of despair, she might not have come back from London in 'Tarzan and the Amazons.'
The MGM Tarzan films were marred by blatantly racist depictions of African tribes. For some reason, the RKO Tarzans seem to have few dark- skinned African tribes, but numerous groups of hidden pale-skinned cities. I don't know why RKO's fictional Africa was populated this way, but I will speculate that it may be due to the fact that in WW2, the US govt. made certain efforts to squelch racism in the media, due to the fact that excessive racial oppression was deemed bad for the war effort. DC Comics, who published the Justice Society of America, did some anti-racism comics during the war, at the behest of the War Department.
Whatever the reason, we are spared the usual bad African stereotypes, but at the same time, it is odd to think of an Africa inhabited mostly by pale-skinned people.
The action and violence in this film are, by the standards of B-movies and Weissmuller Tarzans, very good and satisfying, particularly the sequence where Tarzan tracks and taunts the lead Nazi. Sig Ruman, who played Sgt. Shultz in my favorite Christmas movie, 'Stalag 17,' plays a comedy-relief Nazi here, to good effect.
The Nazis go to Africa seeking oil and strategic mineral wealth, and they use military domination to secure their holdings...the Jerries' troops were called 'Africakorps.' Today, the USA and other military powers are still active in many African nations, perpetrating intrigue, fomenting violence, allying themselves with unsavory characters and regimes, so as to secure petroleum and strategic minerals, such as coltan, which is vital for cell phones and personal electronics. The USA has 'Africom.' Now more than ever, the world needs a Tarzan. Barring that possibility, at least we can watch and contemplate this fun adventure.
Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)
A Monkey Uncle
There are two facts that if you know going in, might increase your appreciation of this film:
1) Johnny Sheffield, who played Boy, loved Johnny Weissmuller like an uncle. Sheffield gave a little speech upon Weissmuller's death, and wrote a foreword to a Weissmuller biography, each glowing with praise and affection for the star. The two were in about 7 films together, spanning ages 7-16 for Sheffield...knowing that there was genuine friendship will help you appreciate their scenes together.
2) This film was originally conceived and scripted to be Jane's swansong in the series, due to Maureen O'Sullivan becoming discontented in the role. (Since the reader of this review likely knows that O'Sullivan starred in 2 more Tarzan pics after this, this is not too great a spoiler.) The script originally called for Jane to die near the end of this film, and knowing this will help you appreciate a speech she gives to Boy, and O'Sullivan's performance as well. Also, this knowledge will help you tolerate the fact that the producers added a kid sidekick to the Tarzan series...when this film was conceived, the producers believed Jane would be gone, and that Tarzan needed another person to talk with, to help with exposition, and to be captured so as to help make the plot more compelling. Modern viewers such as myself generally despise kid sidekicks, but in the 1930's they were an accepted convention...in the 1940, the greatest and worst of all kid sidekicks was introduced into the comic strips...Robin the Boy Wonder.
Now, down to business. This film is something of a mixed bag, but does contain all the ingredients that make for an enjoyable and satisfying Tarzan film. It does suffer in the following respects:
1. A little too much of Boy laughing...probably this was due to the popularity of cute child actors in the 1930's, such as Shirely Temple, Our Gang, etc. But to a modern viewer, the laughing comes off as a somewhat cloying.
2. A bit too much of Boy getting himself into peril, requiring Tarzan's rescue. These vignettes do serve a plot purpose, in that they provide a rationalization for Jane's behavior, and also a key the resolution of the plot. But there are one or two too many, and so they start to seem tiresome.
3. Too much of the plot is recycled from 'Tarzan Escapes.' I guess this is somewhat excusable since TE was released in 1936, and this film in 1939...audiences in this pre-home video era had plenty of time to forget some of the previous film.
And a brief note about racism: as is typical with films of this era, depictions of Africans are racist, showing them as savage, violent and sadistic. If it is tempting for a modern American to feel superior to the creators of this film, I advise watching some Fox News or CNN and taking note of how Muslims are depicted in a supposedly non-fictional medium.
Now for the good: There is plenty of good Tarzanic stage business, vine swinging, running, wild beasts, etc. I found the underwater swimming scenes, shot at Silver Springs, in central Florida, to be particularly good...I used to live in that region and snorkeled in similar waters. And for a 7 year old, Johnny Sheffield's underwater swimming is amazing. Weissmuller and O'Sullivan are, as usual, absolutely terrific, and having the added element of a child to parent together, and all the accompanying parental emotions, raises their performances to a new level. The love of a parent for the child is the emotional heart of this movie...and the scene where Jane leaves Tarzan alone with the baby for the first time is priceless, and unique in the series.
If one is inclined to like the Weissmuller Tarzans, and there are many reasons to be so inclined, and one keeps one's expectations in line, this film is both enjoyable and satisfying.
The Karate Killers (1967)
Bland From UNCLE
As the administrator of the Facebook UNCLE page, and having seen all of S1 and S2 of Man From UNCLE via DVD, I consider myself a fan of the series. But even as a fan, I cannot say this is a good film in any way. Too bad, a number of good actors such as Herbert Lom, Joan Crawford, Kim Darby, Telly Savalas and the smoking hot Jill Ireland appear in this film, a spliced-together 2 part MFU adventure.
Also a shame, seeing as there is a fun opening sequence with a squadron of Wallis WA-116 type autogyros that attack Our Heroes as they drive the Pirhanna UNCLE car...as an autogyro aficionado, this sequence was released two months before the 007 'Little Nellie' autogyro sequence in 'You Only Live Twice.' There should be more autogyros in cinema, but they still don't save this picture.
It's mostly a bunch of short, uninteresting vignettes, and very silly fight scenes featuring a bunch of goons in matching outfits, similar to the goons you'd see on the Batman show, working for Penguin or the Riddler.
The most silly fight takes place in a night club, where the mostly forgotten bubble-gum band 'Every Mother's Son' performs...apparently MGM owned this group and used this film for cross-promotional purposes. Which pretty much sums up this film...just cashing in before the gravy train dried up. Vaughn and McCallum, who usually had a good chemistry together and had high individual appeal, seem to be phoning in their appearances...it might have been my imagination, but I swear it looked as if they were each wondering if their respective agents had been getting calls lately, or whether he should invest in a restaurant.
If you are not familiar with the MFU series, you should know that Seasons 1 & 2 of that show were generally good (and a few excellent) but from Season 3 onward there were serious problems. This movie is from two Season 3 episodes, and Season 3 was the nadir of this series.
The good episodes of MFU have cleverness, fun and some kind of a point to them....but this doesn't, and worse, it's a double-length waste of time, as opposed to just one misfire of an episode.
I DVR'd this last time it was on the TCM cable network, it having been a while since I'd seen an MFU episode. Frankly, I would have been better off going the library or video rental store and watching another episode.
This film is only of interest for die-hard UNCLE fans, or for college students drinking cheap beer to watch on a Saturday afternoon so they can jeer at it. If you've never seen MFU, this is not a good introduction to the series. This is sad, seeing as MFU is almost never shown even on cable TV.
The 'Citizen Kane' of Bad Taste
It was a tremendous boon to TV and tabloids when celebrity Woody Allen was revealed to be having sex with his adult adopted daughter. Because it was a case of perversion and child-molestation, except that Allen apparently waited until the girl was over age 18 to make his move. And because the victim was legally an adult, media were under no obligation to protect the privacy of the victim. The whole sick spectacle could be exploited guilt-free.
There is a curious fascination to this film, it appears to be completely saturated with unintentional comedy. The guy who plays Woody Allen absolutely nailed the part, and he is made up so realistically, it creates the perfect illusion of what Woody Allen would say and do in his private life, if his lines were written by a 17 year old. The actress who played aging screen goddess Maureen O'Sullivan is also a singular performance of sophomoric material. All in all, this telefilm is an excellently staged and acted rendition of a surreal imagining of a disgusting, real-life tragedy.
Now of course, things are better: we have reality TV, so we can watch this kind of twisted garbage unfold in real time.
Tarzan Escapes (1936)
The Passion of the Chimp
This was the first Weissmuller Tarzan film I ever saw, back in the 1970's in the days of UHF TV, and while I enjoyed it then, I enjoy it more now, being able to see a less-redacted version via DVD. As an adult, I appreciate the clever and at times powerful script by Cyril Hume (who wrote 'Forbidden Planet,' the most perfect scifi film of all time) and I also appreciate the often artful camera work...the fleeting view of Tarzan as he first approaches the safari's camp, as well as the swimming scenes stand out in particular.
As every other IMDb review points out, a few very grisly scenes were cut before theatrical release, and so there are a couple abrupt jumps in the story. Also, there is some usage of fast motion (to simulate more aggressive fighting), stock footage, and some of the comedy relief is also clumsy. And of course, the depiction of Africans is racist. These are the flaws in this picture, and are typical of the era. I forgive them since the overall experience of this picture is enjoyable and interesting.
This is likely the most violent of the MGM Tarzan films, and certainly depicts Our Hero dispatching justice in a very cold, yet understandable, fashion. At the same time, this film has some of the most emotional and heart-rending moments of the series, and there is something vaguely messianic in the way Tarzan, believing himself betrayed by one he loves, willingly enters the cage, later to descend physically down a violently rocky slope into unconsciousness, only to re-emerge into the world commanding an army of avenging elephants.
Weissmuller has all the moves down here, and utters mono-syllabic sentences with the strength of a conqueror or the vulnerability of three year old child, depending upon the needs of the script. There is a moment of genius when Tarzan says 'Secret?' to Jane...it's as if he is simultaneously asking for the definition of the word and asking Jane why in heaven's name she is keeping a secret from him. While hWeissmuller was never an Olivier, Olivier never could have played Tarzan, so there you go.
Besides fun and adventure, this film contains several extended commentaries on human behavior, on relationships, and on moral values. O'Sullivan gives her usual magnificent performance and there is suitable Tarzanic stage business throughout. Lovers of old adventure and fantasy films, as well as lovers of the Tarzan series, are likely to enjoy and appreciate this film.
Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)
Amazon Doth Come
This film was released in April, 1945, very close to the end of WW2, and likely reflects some of the sub-rosa anxieties of this period. Specifically, some of the allied service-men had already been mustered-out (due to wounds, etc.) and some had been rotated back the USA at the time of this film's production. So it was that many men, raised in a highly machismo and patriarchal society, found themselves contending with wives and girlfriends who had been empowered by wartime factory work, and children who had suddenly become rebellious adolescents.
And so it is that we find Tarzan contending with a secret society of matriarchal Amazons, fiercer and sexier than Rosie the Riveter, and with a rebellious adolescent son.
It is also fitting that this film marks the return of Jane to the Tarzan series. Intelligent Tarzan scholars can disagree as to who is the greatest Tarzan in cinema, but there is universal acknowledgment that Maureen O'Sullivan was the greatest Jane. Despite this, Brenda Joyce was an amiable replacement, wholesome-sexy and not obnoxious, and she fit with the peculiar chemistry of the Tarzan films, and so we like her.
The last 4 Weismuller Tarzan films feature titles that name female characters. Besides this one, there was 'Tarzan and the Leopard Woman,' 'Tarzan and the Huntress,' and 'Tarzan and the Mermaids.' Likely the producers were attempting to lure more heterosexual men and other lovers of female beauty into the theaters, to broaden the ape-man's appeal beyond the 12-year-old demographic.
This film is a little short on action, although we do get to see Our Hero fight a crocodile and we see an adequate degree of peril and hazard. To it's credit, the script calls for Tarzan to express several philosophical concepts, using his own unique modality of thought, which author Jose Phillip Farmer describes as being 'Tarzanic.' In one instance, Tarzan issues forth what amounts to a haiku, likening the dazzling effect of gold on human greed to way the sun blinds those who stare directly at it. In another instance, Tarzan issues this pithy gem: 'Every time men bring guns, men bring trouble.' There is a quality of mythology to this film which compensates for the reduced action, and this is something of an initiation rite for Boy.
Also, the Amazons are sexy.
A lot of people bag on the RKO Tarzans because they are smaller budget than the MGM's, and because Weismuller has a bigger gut, but such concerns are trivial. This film contains Weismuller, who still had the confidence, charisma, and conviction to be a convincing Tarzan, and whose portrayal of the ape-man was the most distinctive of all actors. I recommend this film for all fans of vintage B-movies and fans of Weismuller.