Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Serials - Riders of Death Valley (1941)

Well, after last week's trip to Alaska, it seems only fitting that this week we head back out to the heat of the wild west, so why don't we do that riding along with the Riders of Death Valley?

This was Universal's 51st serial of the talkie era, and as you might expect, by that point things had gotten rather formulaic. Nonetheless, Universal promoted this one as the first "Million Dollar Serial". Now I'll freely admit I have no idea how that price compares to other serials of the time, but it's hard to see where they could have expended that kind of budget, unless most of it went to the cast to get them to star in this rather standard shoot 'em up.

Actually, the idea that a large part of the budget went to casting is not all that far-fetched. When you have the likes of Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney Jr., Noah Beery Jr. and Leon Carillo all brought together for one serial, you do have the makings of some fine character acting. Unfortunately, those characters are saddled with names like Tombstone, Borax Bill, Butch, Smokey, Tex, and Trigger, along with a script that shows only a  little more imagination than those nicknames.

So, is it a BAD serial? Well, no. The middle chapters do drag quite a bit, but it does pick up towards the end. But compared to last week's entry, it simply doesn't have that "bring 'em back next week" quality that is really requisite for a truly successful series. Especially when one considers the potential that could have been had with that kind of budget and those stars.

But, hey, how about if I let ya have a look at it and then you can decide for yourself. Below is chapter 11 (don't worry, there's actually a pretty good scrolling summary to get you caught up on the essentials), and if you decide you want to watch the rest, they're available here.

 Riders of Death Valley is also available on DVD from Amazon:

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Charade (1963) - What's In a Name?

*** Special Note: It's not often that I really feel a need to put a SPOILER WARNING at the head of one of these write-ups. After all, generally we're talking about films that go back as far as the very earliest days of movie-making Even today's film is nearly 50 years old. So there is a large part of me that says anything in the movie is fair game to talk about. Nonetheless, a huge part of the enjoyment of this movie is the twists and turns that it takes, and there is no real way to discuss it in any meaningful way without revealing at least some of these. Although I've tried to do so without revealing too much, if you are one of those people who truly likes to go into a movie without knowing what's going to happen, you might want to go ahead and watch it (it is available on Netflix "Watch Instantly", at the Internet Archives, and even on YouTube, along with great looking Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD editions) and then come back to read this.

Simply put, though, this movie gets my highest recommendation. If you love thrillers, especially those with a comic twist, I think you'll really enjoy this one. Beyond that, well, if you want to know more, keep reading, but you have been warned.***

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Serials - The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)

Ok, kiddies, we're taking a step away from the superheroes today for a serial that's very simply just a good ol' adventure story.

Y'know, there are some things you really have to keep in mind when you are watching these old serials. First off, they were not designed to be high art. They were not made to have the highest production values, or to withstand critical analysis or to "stand the test of time" they were simply meant for one purpose - to bring the kids back to the theater the next week. This means they had to have thrills. They had to have a fairly decent mystery that moved along each week, whether or not it was even "internally consistent". And they had to have enough of a cliffhanger to give the kids something to think, talk, and maybe argue about until it was time for next week's show. And The Great Alaskan Mystery, while it may not be The Best Serial Ever, certainly fulfills those criteria.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Street Fighter (1974) - Kung Fu Krazy Fest

It's really part of the nature of this blog that most of the time I'm writing about "classic" films - older, black and white, even silent-era movies that have moved into the public domain because of the time that they were created. And since, due to the changes made in copyright law over the years (especially since the late 70's) no new movies (or books or music or anything else for that matter) will enter the public domain until at least 2019, it's likely to be that way for awhile. Still, there are some more recent films that over the years have in various ways "slipped through the cracks" and made their way into the public domain, and some of those movies could even be considered modern-day classics. Such is certainly the case with today's entry, the rousing Sonny Chiba martial-arts flick The Street Fighter.

Actually, The Street Fighter is notable for a number of different reasons. Though it was not Chiba's first movie, (he had been making science fiction and crime films and appearing on television in his native Japan for at least a decade before) it wasn't until this film that he became an internationally known superstar. The film also gained notoriety because it was the first movie to garner an X-rating from the MPAA solely because of its violence. It is also noteworthy because of the number of spinoffs and sequels that it spawned.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Serials - The Heroes Take Over #4 - The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

So who was the first superhero to actually make it to the big screen? Batman? No. Superman? Nope. Although both of them would later have their own serials, the first was actually the Fawcett Comics hero Captain Marvel.

Now I know for some of you, Captain Marvel is gonna be kind of a "whozzat?" hero. Others may remember him from the 1970's Saturday morning TV show "Shazam!". Still others may know him from his current comics incarnation and wonder why I called him a "Fawcett Comics hero" instead of a DC comics hero, since that's who publishes his adventures today. The truth, however, is that the history of this hero, originally created as a rival to Superman, is rather convoluted. Fortunately, it's also not all that relevant to the subject of today's essay, the 1941 Republic serial version of the character, except perhaps as an amusing sidebar in that as William Witney, notes in his book  In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, the previous Republic serial, The Mysterious Dr Satan was originally intended to be a vehicle for Superman, in which case he would have beaten his rival to the screen. As it turned out, however, National Comics (as DC was known at the time) pulled out of negotiations, the hero for Dr. Satan was changed to the Copperhead (a non-powered masked man) and the Captain Marvel follow-up became the first official comics-to-film adaptation.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cat and the Canary (1927) - It Was a Dark and Silent Night

Ok, gang, time to jump into the way-way-back machine and set the dial for 1927, and the American debut of famed German director Paul Leni who has just combined the expressionism movement of his home country with the burgeoning horror-comedy genre of this country to create what may be one of the most influential films of the mid 1920s, The Cat and the Canary.

Now I've made no bones before about my love for the so-called "old dark house" genre of films. I've used the analogy before, but in a lot of ways,  for me sitting down for one of these movies is like tucking into a favorite meal of... oh, go ahead and pick your own comfort food. It's the kind of thing where it doesn't matter how many times you've eaten it, no matter how well you may know the taste of it, that's a large part of the enjoyment of it. You know what I'm talking about, the kind of thing that may bring back special memories, maybe from your childhood, maybe of a particular time with someone special, maybe of a place that you once visited and want to go back to. It's the kind of thing you maybe keep in the back of your mind when you go to a new restaurant, something that even if you're unsure of the menu, you know that you're going to enjoy this particular dish. That's how I feel about old dark house mysteries - they're my fall back comfort food, because even when they're not that great, there's usually some aspect of them that I can enjoy.

But if the old dark house mysteries are comfort food, then watching The Cat and the Canary was, for me, like going back to the place where it all started, finding that little English pub or off the byway place where your favorite dish was created. Or maybe talking to the great grandparent that first came up with the secret family recipe and realising that all along there had been something missing. Like taking that first bite and realising that no matter how many times you' had the dish, how many variations you've tried, there really is nothing quite like the original.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Sunday Serials Bonus - The Avengers (1952)

Ok, to make up for the long time between posts (and the fact that the "Sunday Serial" isn't actually hitting until Monday morning), here's a little bonus for you. Youtuber whoiseyevan has made a series of trailers for what he calls "premakes". The basic concept is sort of what if certain movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Empire Strikes Back were made in a different era? Then through the strategic editing of classic clips and new narration he has made trailers for these unfortunately never-to-be-seen classics.

Well, since all of the Marvel movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have been leading up to a certain blockbuster that actually will be in theaters next summer, and since we took a look at the actual Captain America serial this week, it seemed only appropriate to share this premake trailer with you:

Yeah, now that's a flick I'd love to see.Let's just hope next year's big-budget version shows half the imagination and excitement of this short.

And be sure to check out whoiseyevan's other premakes on his youtube page.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian

Sunday Serials - The Heroes Take Over #3 - Captain America (1944)

So pretty much anybody that's been to a theater this summer or watched any kind of television has at least an idea of who Captain America is. The trailer for the new flick lays it out pretty well, and if you've actually seen the movie, well, then you're steps ahead of the game here. Steve Rogers, a scrawny 78 pound weakling who has a big heart but is too stupid to know when to give up in a fight wants desperately to join the army so that he can join his bestest ever friend James "Bucky" Barnes in getting his face shot off in World War II. Repeatedly rejected by the military despite continuously trying and lying about who he is on his enlistment papers, this sad sack is finally spotted by an ex-nazi scientist who wants to continue his experiments in creating the master race of soldiers over here (experiments that the government and military apparently have no problem not only approving but financing, which should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the phrase "The Tuskegee Experiment") and is taken back to a secret laboratory where he is shot chock full of super-steroids and irradiated until he finally becomes enough of a beefcake that the army decides he will, if not win the war single-handedly, at least be useful for some great propaganda films and USO tours.

Yeah, well, forget all of that, at least for today, because that's not Captain America. At least not in this 1944 Republic serial.

Unless otherwise noted, all movies discussed on this blog and all associated materials are believed to be in the Public Domain. If you are a copyright holder for any of these materials, please email me. Unless otherwise noted, all material created for this blog by Professor Damian is licensed under a Creative Commons license as described below. Creative Commons License
Professor Damian's Public Domain Treasure Chest by Professor Damian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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