Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Ranger Rides Through Hill and Dell!

Dell Comics published the adventures of The Lone Ranger for many many years. During that venerable run many of the covers featured the TV Ranger Clayton Moore. Here are some of my absolute favorites from those covers.

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Friday, March 30, 2018

Who Was That Masked Man?

The Lone Ranger as portrayed by Clayton Moore might well be my favorite TV character. The sure-footed nature of Moore's performance as the Ranger, his utter and complete lack of irony as a hero firmly and fully dedicated to promoting justice in a wild west are just at once admirable and compelling. As I've grown up, I see that along with that noble sense of justice there was a promotion also of the idea of progress and that what the Ranger was actually promoting was the modern world as it then existed in the suburbs, cities, and countryside of America. 

I recently watched the first two seasons of the series right through. It's been a long time since I'd seen some of those episodes, decades maybe, but watching so many back to back, the verities the shows promote came through like crystal. Though ostensibly a kid's show, there is plenty of stark evidence of unexpected death, especially by cruel criminal hands. The innocent are cast down as quickly as the guilty. The Ranger and Tonto always seem to be on hand, a trope that might seem silly until you understand it in broader mythic terms. They are every vigilant and so could never be far away, that's the comfort the Ranger and his partner supply to the people of the West. 

Now of course it's hardly an egalitarian vision, as sadly the Native Americans in the show while not belittled are diminished and it is clear that to be seen as good it is necessary to be compliant.  Tonto is the mainstay representative, but his affinity and friendship for the Ranger cloud his role as just a "good Indian". One episode had him filled with a desire for vengeance when a friend is found murdered. Also unfortunately Tonto is a flawed hero, the one who can take the lumps since the Ranger must usually be above such things. I'd hesitate to know the number of concussions Tonto suffered, but it's a great deal indeed as he was regularly conked on the noggin. 

These days the adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto might feel old hat, a part of an era which can only be appreciated in an ironic way. I don't agree. While the pro-American attitudes might be blunt, there is no denying that progress is preferable to the opposite. Certainly it must be considered and wise, but we can't allow ourselves to fall into a Luddite fantasy about the world. The Lone Ranger was all about justice and establishing a society in which gun play would not always be necessary. That's an ideal we can all agree on, or can we.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Popeye 1941-1943!

The Popeye cartoons from the years 1941-1943 reflect the many transformations going on in the world at large which would find itself engulfed in a world war and the unfortunate dissolution of the Fleischer Studios when the brothers fell out in a tragic way.

These cartoons feature a new and different Popeye. As the United States goes to war, the Fleischer Studios are more than happy to offer up propaganda to support the effort and the Popeye cartoons become a bastion as Popeye himself joins the navy and trades in his traditional togs for Navy whites. Many of the cartoons are about various aspects of war preparation, such as ship building and weapons development. Also on hand are some particularly nasty stereotypical Japanese characters who become the mainstay villains as Bluto becomes merely a rival and not an enemy. There is now a real enemy out there.

The cartoons themselves are full of movement and energy but still alas lack the charisma of the earliest Fleischer Studio efforts. In fact the Fleischer Studios disappears as the brothers Max and Dave fell out. Even before Paramount had seized control of the operations, and renamed it "Famous Studios".

The Fleischer Studios were never the peer of Disney, though they did rival esteemed West Coast operation. The cartoons, especially the daffiest of the Popeye cartoons capture a time and place in the history of the United States looked over by other firms which operated in balmier climes. The hustle and bustle of a claustrophobic NYC gave the earliest Popeye cartoons so much distinctive character.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Popeye 1938-1940!

The cartoons from 1938-1940 featuring Popeye here are still lovely examples of early Fleischer Studios animation, but it's clear to anyone that some of the inventiveness has departed and instead the creators are beginning to rely increasingly on the core plot of Popeye fights Bluto over Olive.

Also we have the unfortunate debut of the four nephews who are arguably the worst things the Fleischers added to the Popeye canon. As dream characters as they are in the cartoon in this collection they are a curious diversion but they will become sadly a mainstay of many of the later cartoons. Likewise the introduction of Poopdeck Pappy as a regular feature allowed the creators to trim down Popeye's own irascible nature and still find that voice in the cartoon. Popeye as the mainstay was being diminished somewhat.

There is one final two-reel color cartoon in this collection, Popeye in the role of Aladdin, a final nod to the Arabian Nights. It's not as lovely as the two previous outings, lacking depth and richness of backgrounds which make the earlier efforts so utterly wonderful. But nonetheless, it's a sturdy effort and a lot of fun in many respects.

The Fleischer Studios moved out of NYC and shifted operations to sunny Florida during the period these cartoons were developed and the lack of a cluttered urban setting can begin to be felt as the animators seem to be drawing on the real world they live in to inform the cartoons.

These cartoons are still very very good. But you can see that the creators are honing off the rough edges and as it turns out those edges are what give the earliest cartoons so  much zip.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Popeye 1933-1938!

I love Popeye cartoons. Like most of my generation, I grew up on these vintage theater short animations thanks to television which in the 1960's was hungry for content and found in these old cartoons from the Fleischer Studios a character and a fictional world which appealed to youngsters of the Summer of Love as much as they had long before for generations bred during the Great Depression.

These are the original Fleischer Studio cartoons, the ones which first brought the burly Sailor to the big screen. Popeye of course was the creation Elzie Segar in his Thimble Theater comic strip. From the moment he stepped onto the field Popeye, an older and ugly sea-faring grouch captured the imagination of the public. In the cartoons by the animators at Fleischer, Popeye's pugnaciousness became the centerpiece of many a weird and wild cartoon which always ended in the Sailor punching the daylights out of Bluto, or whatever human or creature had raised his ire during the course of the action.

In these cartoons Popeye and his best girl Olive Oyl are often joined by the hamburger-eating Wimpy, and from time to time other members of the Thimble Theater gang pop up. But always the main emphasis is on movement and on action, and by action I mean raw visceral potent cartoon violence, the kind I grew up on and which has left me a better man for it.

These cartoons are urban masterpieces, showing a world of the city by animators who lived in the city of New York. The world of Popeye in the early days is a somewhat seedy one, one recognizable to a whole swath of Americans who were on hard times themselves. In later years the settings and atmosphere would become more suburban and upscale, but in the beginning the world we see is rough and tumble and one which the audience could find out their window, almost.

The backgrounds of these earliest Popeye cartoons are masterpieces, actual photographed models which spun to accommodate the animation which bounced along in front of them. These weird images give the Popeye cartoons a depth of field unlike any ever in cartoons. And this look holds for the earliest color Popeye efforts, two-reel cartoons which take the Sailor Man and his cohorts into skewed lands from the pages of the Arabian Nights.

The sound performance on the earliest Popeye cartoons is as weird as the look. A gravelly voice is given to the Sailor from Segar's pages and oddball moan is adapted for Olive. These voices will be refined in the earliest cartoons as Jack Mercer and Mae Questel eventually become the voices which will define the character for multiple generations to come.

If you've never sampled these awesome animations, I heartily recommend this first volume filled with not only Popeye cartoons but loads of background information on animation history as well as samples of the earliest cartoons from Fleischer Studios and others. This is a trove for any cartoon fan.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

Trader Horn!

I read and heard about Trader Horn long before I ever got a chance to see this seminal jungle adventure movie. MGM landed the property about a great-white-hunter type named Aloysius "Trader" Horn (apparently a real guy) who takes the young and raw son of a former ally under his wing and takes him into the depths of the African territory. It's a land filled with dangers of all kinds, but mostly it's a land filled to the brim with animals and more animals. After we meet Trader Horn (Harey Carey) and Peru (Duncan Renaldo) we get a long long section in the movie where Trader introduces Peru and the audience to one animal after another. It's quite a thing, and goes on for quite some time. I can only imagine what it was like for audiences of the day when these were rare creatures to catch sight of.

After the lengthy travelogue we get into the heart of the story when the duo and their safari meet encounter a tough missionary woman who is attempting to find her long-lost daughter named Nina. Trader promises to look for Nina if the woman fails and as it turns out she does tragically, so Trader is forced by his honor to press into territory unexplored by "white men" and find the girl. They find a fearsome  tribe and an exotic and dangerous white woman who leads them, a veritable white goddess. Edwina Booth is electric in the role of Nina, and the fact she plays it nearly topless makes for some rakish movie making.

Of course Nina fall into love with Peru, though Trader himself has designs on her beautiful frame. The trio along with Trader's loyal gun-bearer Rencharo (Mutia Omoloo) race to save their lives as the natives bear down on them relentlessly. Not all of them will survive the adventure, which does evoke some pretty decent tension before it's all said and done. Apparently the dangers in making this movie were at least as harrowing as the narrative the fictional film itself. According to reports some of the team died from animal attacks and Edwina Booth infamously contracted an illness which ultimately ended her career. There seems to be some dispute what that illness was, but she for certain sued the producers of movie.

It was the success of Trader Horn which convinced the bigwigs at MGM that jungle movies were a profit-center and they cast about for another property to adapt. As it happens there was a little thing called Tarzan out there and they got it, so beginning the epic Weismuller run on the epic character. The first MGM Tarzan, Tarzan the Ape Man was produced by W.S. Van Dyke, who had also done Trader Horn, and much of the animal footage in the debut Tarzan movie was from Trader Horn. So for fans of the Ape Man, it's almost an unofficial prequel to the whole series. That's why I sought it out and I'm glad I did.

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Look Out For That Tree!

George of the Jungle from 1967 is by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the masterminds behind the amazing Rocky and Bullwinkle shows. They tried to capture that zany irreverent magic again with George of the Jungle and in my opinion they caught it. The show has a slightly more glitzy look since it was animated in these United States by Hollywood talents, but that doesn't hurt it at all, since the creators don't let the slightly more sophisticated animation hurt the pacing or the quality the scripts.

Each episode feature one George of the Jungle cartoon. George of course is a spoof of the immediately recognizable Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and it's a parlay on the films which makes many of the gags work. I did catch at least one giant gorilla called Kerchak though, so there is some recognition of the novels. George is assisted by is girlfriend Ursula who he cannot seem to pay enough attention to even remember her name or her gender. He' likewise confused by his elephant companion Shep who George insists is a dog -- Shep seems also to be confused on this issue.

And then there's my favorite George character known merely as Ape, an urbane highly intelligent gorilla who sounds just like Ronald Coleman. I didn't even know who Ronald Coleman was when I was a kid, but I always loved Ape's ironic comment son George's stupidity. When I finally got to see Coleman, I immediately thought of Ape.

Some research tells me George was based, at least in part, on George Eiferman, a bodybuilder with small renown. A picture does show a remarkable kinship between the two Georges.

Each show featured a Super Chicken cartoon. This is a terrific send up of the superhero shtick with the wildly rich Henry Cabot Henhouse III becoming Super Chicken with the help of his musketeer costume and a "super sauce" brewed by his assistant Fred who serves it to him often in a martini glass. The duo keep a wonderful patter going as they confront an array of villains like the Zipper, the Geezer, the Oyster, Merlin Brando, a giant living Toupee, and even my fave, a dope called Salavador Rag Dolly.

Also on display each episode is a race by Tom Slick, an all-American hero in the mold of the classic ultimate Mountie Dudley Do-Right. Tom races around the globe converting his car the "Thunderbolt Greaseslapper" for all sorts of events (cars, trains, planes, boats, submarines, skateboards, and even blimps) and often battling  the nefarious Baron Otto Matic and his hapless henchman Clutcher. Tom is adored by Marigold who will literally do anything for him and often scolded by Gertie Growler, his mechanic and just about the only character in the cartoon who sees the absurdity of the situations.

All of these features were put into comic book form by the folks at Gold Key. I think I owned at least one of these at one time, but I don't have them now. A nifty reprint would likely not be cost effective, but there's always hope.

The George of the Jungle cartoons were gathered up several years ago in very colorful package. The gags hold up very well and the cartoons are breezy and brisk entertainments which are ideal for a gloomy day. You can't watch these and not feel better -- they're too much fun.

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Lord Of The Jungle!

The first season of Filmation's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle is among the smartest and most literate presentations of the Ape Man which either the small or large screen have ever seen. If anything, the Tarzan presented in these cartoons is a little bit too reserved and too cautious. He's certainly not the grunting, barely verbal creation of the popular Weissmuller movies. The Tarzan here is the master of his domain who by his absolute willingness to help others weaker than himself finds himself cast into weird and time-lost domains all across the mythical geography of his Africa.

The folks at Filmation apparently had a deep understanding of the original Burroughs novels and sought to bring that literary version of the famous jungle hero to the small screen rather than the skewed rendition which still sadly dominates the popular imagination today. Tarzan here is not exactly the same character from the books (no Jane, no expansive estate either in England or Africa, no Waziri) but he is an intelligent and literate man who lives in the jungle and has a special affinity to the animals there by dint of his peculiar upbringing. And the use of the monkey N'Kima and not that tiresome Cheetah was most welcome as well as the inclusion of the remarkable Jad-bal-ja the Golden Lion.

He finds himself visiting versions of famed ERB locations such as Opar, the Golden City, the Forbidden City, and even Pellucidar. But he also takes on robots and outer space aliens when those show up in his jungle too. Tarzan in these stories always seems to have someone to take care of, usually a denizen of the civilization he's visiting who has a reason to object to some aspect of that society. Usually the kingdom in question whether the Golden City of Zandor, the tree-top city of the Giants, or some other are despots who need to be defeated or deposed. Sometimes they are misguided and Tarzan's lesson is all they need to mend fences and make a better life for their subjects such as the land of the Vikings. As in most romantic fiction, the very notion of monarchy is rarely objected to, rather complaints are about personal failings in leaders and not in the very notion of class societies. But that's a bit much for Saturday morning to be fair.

This is Filmation at its finest. The limited animation requires lots of repeated action, but generally that stuff is very well done to begin with and seeing it again and again is not really a problem. The real weakness with Filmation is in the sound recording. Tarzan himself is excellent but often there seems to be an indifference to other voices in the show, with some meager acting filling in and hurting the proceedings. Having read about Filmation, I realize that Lou Schiemer was often part of these recordings as were his kids, but I don't really know the extent they are used here. It's a weakness for certain.

But that said, this is still a rousing version of Tarzan and I heartily recommend it to everyone with an interest in the Lord of the Jungle.

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