Sunday, December 16, 2012

Time for some DVD reviews!

The Samaritan

Samuel L. Jackson has a strong work ethic and has appeared in many films playing a very similar badass. Sometimes he's a good guy, sometimes he's a bad guy, but frequently he is the same type of character.

That is the curse of being a movie star. Once you've established a successful persona that's what producers — and audiences — want from you.

That's why I enjoyed "The Samaritan," a new crime thriller that gives Jackson a chance to ditch all of those "Snakes on a Plane" roles for something more substantial.

Jackson is Foley, a man who has been released from prison after serving a sentence of 25 years. He's a consummate grifter who was caught by a victim midway through a con. The victim forced Foley to kill his best friend and partner in crime and then turned him over to the police.

Foley now wants simply to be left alone. He wants to find a job and go straight. A quick check shows most of his old friends and cronies are dead and the few left alive don't want anything to do with him.

The only person eager for his company is the son of his dead partner. Evan (played with slimy intensity by Luke Kirby) wants to recruit Foley into a big con. Foley refuses, but Evan has rigged Foley's life to draw the ex-convict into his scheme.

What complicates matters is that Foley has met a young woman, Iris (Ruth Negga), and has entered into a cautious, and at times reluctant, relationship.

This film is full of twists and turns, which I can't reveal, but I will say some of the plot points will leave your mouth hanging open in shock.

While there are moments of violence, this is not an action thriller, but rather is a character-driven drama. Jackson excels as Foley, a man who is actively trying to change his future. Foley is a thinker and Jackson's performance is filled with moments of quiet that convey much about the character.

Director David Weaver does well with the look and pacing of the film and co-wrote the script.

If you're up for a different kind of crime movie, seek out "The Samaritan."


As I've mentioned before, the movies to review quickly add up and this film has been in that pile waiting patiently. I thought that considering the success of two huge summer blockbusters, "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avengers," it may be time to look at a more realistic approach to superheroes.

"Super" stars Rainn Wilson — best known for his role on "The Office" — as a short-order cook named Frank. Frank's life has been marked by two positive events. The first is when he helped a cop catch a criminal and the second is when he married his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a waitress at the restaurant who is battling addiction.

Life is good for Frank until his wife falls back into a bad crowd and leaves him to live with a local drug dealer played with twitchy charm by Kevin Bacon.

Filled with grief, Frank makes efforts to retrieve her, but Sarah doesn't want to be rescued. Frank doesn't know what to do until a group of tentacles saws open his skull to allow the finger of God to massage his brain. Well, at least that's what Frank believes has happened to him.

Frank may suffer from delusions, and he understands that about himself. His love, though, for Sarah is so strong that he is willing to accept what he thinks has happened.

The resulting inspiration triggers Frank's alter ego, The Crimson Bolt. In a homemade costume and with a huge wrench as his primary weapon, Frank decides to fight crime and get his wife back. What constitutes crime ranges from robbery to someone cutting into a line at the movies and both are met with concussions from Frank's wrench.

Frank's rallying cry is "Shut up crime!"

The violence is increased with the arrival of his young sidekick, a comic book store clerk played with a frightening intensity by Ellen Page.

This movie is part dark comedy, part social commentary and, at its conclusion, part legitimate hardcore action film. Director and writer James Gunn was responsible for one of the most outrageous and entertaining horror films of the past decade, "Slither" and he shows here that his quirky style certainly extends to another genre.

Gunn's basic premise is that to be a superhero one must be mentally ill or at the very least, emotionally distraught.

Wilson does well with the lead role, making Frank a sympathetic character, while Page is a hoot as the cute sociopath who complains to Frank he didn't tell her that she shouldn't kill people.

A very different kind of superhero film, "Super" was certainly more entertaining to me than "The Dark Knight Rises."

The Expendables 2

The first "Expendables" film was a master class in stunt casing. The idea of banding together action heroes — some of whom are fairly long in the tooth — for a film was an act of marketing genius.

Fortunately, the film as directed by Sylvester Stallone, the star of the movie, was enjoyable in a goofy way. It was difficult to take the film seriously and its largest charm was the sense the actors seemed to be having fun.

For the sequel, Stallone handed over the writing and directing chores to others and the result is a tighter, largely more credible film. The film stars Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and, in expanded cameos, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Director Simon West kicks off the film with an outstanding sequence with the mercenary group storming what appeared to be some sort of outlaw Chinese stronghold to rescue a kidnap victim, played by Schwarzenegger. That leads to the main story in which the mercenaries are forced to take on what would appear to be a routine assignment of rounding up some stray plutonium. The job is complicated when a group of bad guys not only take the plutonium, but also kills one member of the group.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays the chief heavy and he proves to have plenty of chops to protray a formidable villain.

For action fans, this film is a fun joy ride. Some of the territory will seem a little familiar, perhaps and the film's chemistry is weakened a bit by the departure of Li's character after the opening sequence.

West, who directed "Blackhawk Down," knows how to stage action and the film moves along at a faster pace than the first one.

The vintage of the some of the performers was more apparent in this outing. The addition of Chuck Norris, who at age 72, just seemed to capable of walking around a bit, didn't do very much for the film. Stallone's efforts to retain his youth have resulted in a slightly disconcerting look. Van Damme, on the other hand, seemed to have added a dimension with age.

Would I see a third installment of the series? If it has the energy and style of this one, absolutely.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I mention this film in light of the new biographical film, "Lincoln," in the hope that people don't take it seriously. I know that history isn't the favorite subject for some people, so let me assure you there is no evidence that the real Lincoln wielded a vampire-killing axe.

Talk about a high concept: Abe Lincoln is recruited to kill vampires as a young man a practice that he brings to the White House and winds up playing a pivotal part in the Civil War.

Now, I thought such an outrageous concept would be handled with some element of dark humor, but director Timur Bekmambetov plays the subject matter very straight. In fact, the more earnest the film became, the sillier it seemed to me.

The movie was not helped by the wooden performance by Benjamin Walker, whose Lincoln was painfully awkward and often thick as a brick. Although there were better actors in the cast, such as Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper, Walker's portrayal was crucial for the success of the film.

The production also has an odd cheapness to it that is a killer for any period film.

This film isn't even worth the dollar rental from the Red Box.


Not just do I love animation, I'm a sucker for stop motion animation — the technique used to create such diverse properties as the original "King Kong" and the "Gumby" shorts.

In this era of computer-generated animation, the rule of thumb was initially that stop-motion was dead, at best a nostalgic throwback. Nothing could be less true. Animation is an art form and different disciplines are available for artists to use to tell their stories.

"ParaNorman" is about a boy named Norman growing up in a New England town renown for its history involving the condemnation and execution of a witch. Norman isn't the most popular boy at school — and even at home his family hassles him — because he can see and speak to ghosts. Shunned by all, Norman's only friend, Neil, is also a social pariah.

Norman has a vision during his school play about the town's witch and her legend that leads him to his crazy uncle. Voiced with gusto by John Goodman, Uncle Prenderghast reveals a role that only Norman can play in saving his community from the supernatural events that are about to happen.

There are some great horror film comedy moments in this film as well as a surprising adult and moving plot point. "ParaNorman" may be well too intense for young children, but kids ages 8 and older, as well as their parents, should enjoy it.

The animation is wonderful as is the design of the characters. I was really impressed with this film and its success shows that stop motion animation continues to have a future.


Not to repeat myself — but I will — the biggest problem confronting the film industry today is lack of distribution and the unwillingness of theater owners to take any sort of chance on independent films.

"Brake" is a great example of an indie film that could have found a theatrical audience. It's a superior thriller that would have captured the attention of people who enjoy action and suspense films. When a theater owner has 16 screens in a multiplex, one would think a single screen could be devoted to such product.

Stephen Dorff plays Secret Service Agent Jeremy Reins who wakes up to find himself locked in a plexiglass box in the trunk of a car. At first he has no idea why he is there but soon he learns his captors are terrorists who want him to reveal the location of a bunker the president would be using in a domestic attack.

Reins won't cave, though and the terrorists use a variety of ways to try to break his will. I can't give away any more of the plot as the film takes audiences places one couldn't anticipate.

This film is a bravura performance by Dorff, an actor who has a long resume but has never really had the breakout role he needs. This really should have been it as the film is a showcase for his talents.

Director Gabe Torres shows he has some major creative chops by keeping the suspense high, despite the limitations of having one character on screen in one set.

"Brake" is a film well worth the search.

©2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, November 26, 2012

I’m pretty excited about something that has been recently posted on-line: a beautiful print of the Fleischer Superman cartoon “Terror on the Midway.” Warner Brothers Online has posted beautifully restored prints of the Superman shorts.

This short, part of the legendary series of adaptations produced in the early 1940s by the Fleischer Brothers, has long been available on various public domain labels. The rights to these cartoons reverted back to DC Comics and, believe it or not, the person in charge of renewing copyrights at DC at the time at the time of the cartoon’s expiration neglected to do so.

The results of this action have been both good and bad: the good aspect has been the cartoons have been readily available, but the bad is that all too often the quality has been sub-standard.

Gone were the days when it was truly difficult to see these cartoons. Although I saw them on TV as a child, the first time I saw a number of them to study was in DC Comic’s office, watching the company’s own 16mm prints.

Even when various VHS and DVD collection boasted of superior prints, there was never a good print of “Terror on the Midway.”

The Superman series was the first comic book adaptation to film. Although comic strips had been the subject of both short subjects and feature films, the Fleischer Superman shorts broke ground.

They also broke ground at the studio with a radical departure from the kind of animation for which the Fleischers were well known and tried to change the perception of what kind of stories were suitable for animation. Although very popular with audiences, imagine if other adventure strips had been transformed into animation maintaining their signature look – “Flash Gordon” or “Captain Easy” or Terry and the Pirates.”

These are cartoons that are staged as a live action film would be staged. They effectively used pans of static drawings in order to put the animation budget into the action scenes. Fleischer head Animator Myron Waldman told me that animating the Superman shorts wasn’t easy. He said that additional drawings were added to give the characters a greater sense of weight.

The Fleischers were smart enough to use the vocal cast of the popular Superman radio show – starring Bud Collyer – that provided an additional thrill to Superman fans.

Let me quickly add that Superman wasn’t a project the Fleischers wanted. It resulted from a deal made between Paramount Pictures DC Comics after an effort to secure a serial version of Superman at Republic Pictures failed. The Fleischers knew to do the shorts in the manner that they should they would be more expensive than most cartoons – making it more difficult to recoup their production expenses and deliver a profit. Paramount basically forced the studio to undertake the assignment.

Republic, by the way, then turned to Captain Marvel and produced the live action film based on a comic book superhero.

The look of “Terror on the Midway” was unique to the series. On paper, it seems sort of mundane. Lois is saddled with the boring assignment of reviewing the circus. By accident, a monkey releases a huge gorilla from its cage, which sets off some terrifying circumstances.

Here, watch it.

I loved the use of shadow, the almost film noir feel, that is used to add drama and horror to this story. This cartoon is “lit” in a way audiences hadn’t seen before. I also admire the use of sound in this film from the ambient noise of the circus in the beginning to how the cartoon falls silent when the gorilla makes his appearance in the big top.

This is the Superman, by the way, who couldn’t fly, but took tremendous leaps. While he was bulletproof, he could be stunned by electricity. The fact that he was more vulnerable than the god-like character we know today. While there are no mad scientists or monsters, the gorilla is presented in such a way to maximize its brute strength and the problem he poses for Superman. In several scenes the viewer doesn’t see the gorilla in his entirety – just his torso, which emphasizes his unnatural size.

During the fight between Superman and Gigantic, there are two close-ups of the combatants that are presented in a way I hadn’t seen before in the series.

I appreciate whoever in the vast corporate hierarchy of Warner Brothers who decided to out these cartoons online.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The door to the offices or barracks of my dad's squadron.

My dad's B-17, named after my mom.

My dad, Gordon L. Dobbs (with hat on right) in the pilot's seat. I don;t know the name of the crew member.

My mother and father were keepers. Perhaps it was their experiences as children of the Great Depression, but both of them hung onto things.

Make no mistake, neither were pathological hoarders. They simply saw value in keeping objects and documents that many other people would have thrown away.

My brother and I saw a lot of that recently as I helped him close down my mom’s house, now that her health as forced her to move in with him. There were the standard objects –furniture, books, kitchenware – and then there are those items that instantly transport me to either a time earlier in my life or to a point in our parents’ lives that I only heard about.

My parents liked taking photos and there are several suitcases of family photos. My brother Patrick is a skilled photographer and so these photos interest each of us on several levels.

My father was an Air Force veteran of 26 years who piloted B-17s in WWII, B-29s in the Korean Wars and after, B-52s with nuclear payloads, until 1961 when an accident grounded him. He stayed in the Air Force on the maintenance side, serving in Vietnam as his last assignment.

Three wars in one life. I can't imagine the impact other than my dad was changed in some ways upon returning from Vietnam.

As a rule, He talked very little about any combat experience. We heard very few stories as kids. As he grew older, he would call members of his various crews and speak with them. The experience they went through linked them in a way that someone who had not been there couldn’t understand.

For years, he would read the "Air Force Times" to follow the careers of guys he knew and with whom he served.

About WWII, he did say you could never tell who was coming back and the B-17 crews were witnesses to seeing fellow squadron members shot down before their eyes. Occasionally there would be a colorful detail, such as how he chewed tobacco when he flew to help stay awake. I never asked him how he spat wearing an oxygen mask.

So the discovery of photos my brother and I never have seen helps us gain a tiny shred of additional insight about our dad. My brother found a large roll of unprinted negatives, which we believe are from the WWII period. He plans to scan those to see what they are.

My dad was pretty tolerant of my interest in films, but he had no interest in any war film. He didn’t want Patrick or me to watch them as he said they glorified war.

With combat vets you never know what trigger will cause a cascade of memories – negative or positive. My dad liked the television series “M.A.S.H.” but when McLean Stevenson’s character was killed on his flight home and out of the service, my father stormed from the room. He said something the effect, “That’s not funny. That kind of thing really happened.”

The following photos include combat photography taken in the skies over Europe by an unknown cameraman. Pat and I have made the assumption the reason my dad had these prints was because the photographer was either in his plane – Sue’s Special, named after my mom – or flying somewhere within my father’s squadron.

Those puffs of smoke are flak from German guns. This photo shows a B-17 that has been hit.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In honor of Turner Classic Movies' programming of classic animation I decided to post the following information on "Gulliver's Travels." This material, in a finished form, with be in my book that – yes, I'm indeed writing – titled "Made of Pen and Ink: The Fleischer Studio Cartoons."

The making of “Gulliver’s Travels”

Although some people have erroneously written that Max Fleischer had produced the first animated feature, his movie on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in 1924, that documentary was largely live action with some animated sequences.

Fleischer, who was seen as Walt Disney’s primary rival in the 1930s, had indeed experimented with longer form animation prior to Disney’s “Snow White” with great success. In 1936, the studio’s two-reel special Popeye cartoon for the Christmas season, “Popeye Meets Sinbad the Sailor” had gorgeous color, effective use of the Fleischer 3-D sets and a marvelous script. Exhibitors and audiences loved it, and the studio was preparing another two-reeler for Christmas of 1937. Disney, though, had an 83-minute feature, and Fleischer, his staff and the rest of the film industry wanted to see if audiences would accept a long cartoon.

“Snow White” was released nationally in February of 1938 and its overwhelming success prompted an announcement from Paramount Pictures. Paramount, Fleischer’s distributor, said that Max would be producing a feature for them. They would be fronting some of the production money for Max and also would help Max build a brand-new studio near Miami, Florida. Fleischer had settled a bitter strike in October, and had decided to move his operations from New York to Florida. The Fleischers had vacationed in Florida and the warm climates, generous local tax incentives and lack of union activity appealed to him.

So the studio’s plate was quite full. Max had to produce his studio’s first feature-length cartoon, move the operation from New York to Florida into a new studio he was helping to design and maintain the studio’s commitment of short subjects. Disney had worked on “Snow White” for five years. Paramount had given Max a release date of Christmas 1939.

During the same period, “Variety” reported that Universal and Walter Lantz would be making his feature debut with an adaptation of “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.” This feature apparently never made its past pre-production.

In June, Max signed a contract with Paramount to produce “Gulliver’s Travels” (GT). Like Disney, the Fleischer brothers had chosen a “pre-sold” property that had a certain amount of name recognition, especially in Europe. How Jonathan Swift’s sometimes bleakly satiric novel would be adapted into a family feature was another problem.

According to a discussion guide prepared for high school teachers by the Educational and Recreations Guides in January 1940, there were several different scripts, several of which had Popeye playing Gulliver. According to this booklet, designed for teachers to use in the classroom, Dave Fleischer had wanted a light Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta, while Max wanted something closer to Swift – “a truly sociological pictures, retaining the full weight of Swift’s satirical theme with modern implications.”

The final script was publicized as a compromise. The cartoon would have a surplus of music and would have the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu not over which end to open of a hard-boiled egg, but rather their national anthems. If Max’s intentions were to actually convey some of Swift’s satiric rage, this script was scarcely a compromise. There is little of Swift in the Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Although there would have been reports that GT had at one time been discussed as a vehicle for Popeye, one could wonder if that would have resulted in an additional payment to King Features for the use of the character in a feature.

A story in “Good Housekeeping” described, the story session for the feature, which one should take with a grain of salt.

“A cartoon begins with a script and a script begins with story conferences. The first weeks in the new studios were dedicated to mass meetings in Fleischer’s office. Bill Turner, head of the script department, and 20 or more of his assistants thrashed out every angle of the story with Max.”

I don’t believe there were 20 people on the writing staff and it’s difficult for me to believe that Max, not Dave Fleischer, was that deeply involved in developing the script.

The same article quoted Edith Vernick as the “studio’s only female animator” lobbying for Gabby, the town crier and the comedic star of the film, to be more handsome. Vernick had been employed at the studio since the mid-1920s, but had only attempted animation once during the cartoon “The Fresh Vegetable Mystery” in 1939 and studio veteran Myron Waldman told me she was too slow in producing the necessary footage. Lillian Friedman was actually the first woman to be promoted to that position at the studio.

Publicity stories from that era in Hollywood can certainly be misleading.

Ever since the 1920s, Dave handled more and more of the creative side of the studio, while the business side was Max’s responsibility. That is not to say that Max wasn’t creative. Max’s daughter, the late Ruth Kneitel, showed me a script for a proposed cartoon featuring mermaids covered in notes Max made in red pencil. The date for the cartoon was unknown and by the test art that had been made for it, it could have been beautiful.

One aspect of the Fleischer Studio that colored the publicity for the feature was that Max was named more prominently than Dave, the film’s director. What the movie-going public didn’t realize was a growing sibling rivalry between the two men that eventually resulted in a split and helped along the demise of the studio in 1942.

The end of Dave’s marriage due to an affair with Mae Schwartz, a studio employee who became his second wife, didn’t help the relationship with Max, as Edith Vernick, a long-time Fleischer staff told me in 1977.

While there was drama between the two Fleischers, there was also drama among the staff caused by the deadline from Paramount.

By March of 1939, GT had been laid out, and the studio began hiring additional animators to help with the workload. A half-million drawings were required to produce GT, besides the work necessary to produce the studio’s short subjects. Waldman remembered the Fleischers were in a mad rush to hire people, some of who were not qualified as animators. This influx of talent, primarily from the California animation studios, created tension in the studio.

“Many of the people who came from the (west) coast thought they were better than us,” Waldman explained. The studio was still divided because of the strike, and the new additions to the staff didn’t help.

There were about 250 original Fleischer employees who made the trip to Miami. That staff grew to about 600 in order to make the production of the feature and the shorts possible.

Waldman also told me that a problem was some of the people hired in this rush had padded their résumés a bit and couldn’t really do what they claimed.

John Walworth was one of those new additions. Walworth was working at MGM when he was hired away to work on GT. He worked with studio vet Joe Oriolo, who felt insulted that he had to animate some of the many crowd scenes in GT.

“Joe sub-contracted some of these scenes to me to do under the table,” Walworth said with a laugh when interviewed in 1977. “So I did them along with my other work.”

The quality of the animation varies greatly. Some of it was seemed rushed, while other scenes are very good. Waldman attributed this uneven quality to the number of new animators plus the near-impossible schedule. Some of the new animators were amazed the studio didn’t do extensive pencil tests as did Disney and there was only one Movieola to view rushes.

There was only one pencil test performed and critics of the studio have seen the lack of pencil tests as an example of the Fleischer Studio “crudeness” as opposed to the polished quality of Disney animation. Certainly Max and Dave may not have thought pencil tests were necessary, but perhaps the schedule dictated by Paramount just didn’t allow it.

The film did not use the 3-D process Max had developed and was so effective in the shorts. Max did try a new invention during the making of the film. Like Disney would use a Xerox process years later, Max had come up with a system that would transfer the pencil drawings from the animators to the cels, skipping the inking step. Waldman told me that while it did work to a certain extent, it did not pick up fine lines and therefore was abandoned.

Waldman, one of the studios top head animators – who actually had more control over the actual direction than Dave Fleischer – sat out the first feature and worked primarily on short subjects. He did work on one sequence toward the conclusion of the film during which Gulliver wades into the ocean and gathered up the warring ships, dragging them to shore.

The recruitment of animators brought two former Fleischer animators back to the studio. Both Grim Natwick and Shamus Culhane had done considerable work at the Disney Studio, and now accepted Max’s offer to work on GT. Culhane was given crowd scenes to animate upon his arrival.

“Mob shots. I came in right at the end of the picture and they had a whole mess of them waiting for the very end of the job. I got things like the whole crowd is waving at Gulliver as he leaves. Jesus Christ! After being a specialist working on ‘Snow White’ I get stuck with this junk to do. But because of my background by that time I could do it very well, but it was a pain in the ass. I hadn’t done that kind of thing since a started at Walt’s,” Culhane told me in 1977.


These excerpts from early model sheets show the evolution of the characters. Although The King Little character looks close to his final design, the Gabby is more boyish and less grotesque.

Natwick recalled the casual atmosphere of the studio in an interview that year. He was given Dave Fleischer’s office to use while directing his 1,000 feet of GT. Natwick offered his assessment of the differences between Fleischer and Disney.

“Max did something so very different. They were two different people. Disney was a Yankee, coming from several generations of Americans. I believe Fleischer was probably the first generation...And they (the Fleischers) were American in every sense of the word. Disney had this in-bred thing that he didn’t have to think about doing something, but the Fleischers did. They accepted exactly as it was in the society in which they lived. And they grew up in the Jazz Age, and their cartoons are jazz cartoons.

“Disney had an aristocratic studio. Actually at Fleischer’s I never had a room of my own. There were one or two or three big rooms with one desk sitting behind another. But at Disney, we had private rooms, and they had a little buffet service. If you wanted a drink of pop or something or an apple to eat, you could phone the girl downstairs and it would be brought up, by errand boy,” Natwick said.

Natwick was considered a specialty animating women and Princess Glory was his assignment.

Three moments from the film.

Max Fleischer hired the song-writing team of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin who had won the Best Song Oscar in 1938 for “Thanks for the Memory” to write the songs for the feature. According to the study guide, Rainger and Robin suggested the musical theme for the war.

Even resident tunesmith Sammy Timburg, whose usual chores were composing and scoring the studio’s shorts, got to write a song for the film – perhaps the movie’s biggest hit “It’s a Hap Hap Happy Day.”

Acclaimed composer Victor Young was hired to write the musical score. Young was nominated for 22 Academy Awards during his career, which was cut short by his early death at age 56 in 1956.

Some of the songs in GT were recorded by big bands of the day, including Glenn Miller.

The studio then did something that might have raised a few eyebrows in the film industry. Animation voice actors seldom got credit for their contributions to cartoons and were often fairly anonymous radio actors. The Fleischers signed up two of the nation’s most popular radio singing stars, Lanny Ross and Jessica Dragonette to perform the songs sung by the Prince and Princess in the movie. This was the first time any “name” personality had been recruited to do voice work in cartoons.

It was not unusual for the Fleischers to feature the music of popular artists in their cartoons. Performers including Cab Calloway, Ethel Merman, Arthur Tracy, Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, Don Redmond and more had appeared in live action and animated sequences in Betty Boop and Screen Songs cartoons throughout the 1930s. The Fleischers extended this practice to their first feature.

In 1976, Ross recalled to me his experience working on GT. He had known Fleischer since they lived in the same building and had accepted the job like any other.

“I was told the Prince was very small, and I thought I should do something the make my voice sound small. So, I stood on my knees in the recording studio,” he said with a laugh. He really didn’t receive any direction on how to perform and his contact with the production was minimal. The publicity value, though, of having established performed involved with movie was considerable.

Pinto Colvig, who had done considerable work at the Disney Studio, including creating the voice of Goofy, was recruited to do the voice of Gabby the town crier who discovers Gulliver on the beach. Jack Mercer performed the voice of King Little of Lilliput while Miami radio personality Sam Parker of WIOD, a Miami, Fl. radio station, did the voice of Gulliver and performed the rotoscoped actions as well.

Although Ross and Dragonette received screen credit, none of the other vocal performers did.

This British postcard was one of the many merchandising tie-ins for the film, as was this Big Little Book.

While the movie was being animated, Max was working with Paramount’s Harry Royster on the merchandising of GT. Waldman explained that he had gone to Max once earlier in the decade and asked why the studio didn’t merchandise Betty Boop more.

“He said to me, ‘This is an animated cartoon studio, not a toy factory.’ He didn’t want to get into it then,” Waldman recalled.

Perhaps Fleischer had seen the enormous success of the Disney merchandising and had decided he too wanted to jump on that bandwagon. The Betty Boop material had been minimal and Fleischer had no merchandising rights to Popeye. With the move to Miami impending, Mae Questel – Betty Boop’s primary voice artist – decided to stay in New York, which helped to kill the Boop series. With Betty Boop gone, Fleischer pinned his merchandising hopes to GT. Paramount’s new licensing department arranged for 65 different GT products including dolls, coloring books, a Big Little book and pajamas among others.

With the splash the newly established television industry was making in cities such as New York, Fleischer and Paramount took the unusual step of offering for sale the television and radio rights to the picture. Clearly they were confident GT would be as much as a success as “Snow White.” In a full-page ad in the June 14, 1939 edition of “Variety,” Paramount trumpeted “The Biggest News of the Screen Year! A Full-Length Feature Cartoon Completely Filmed in Color!” With most movies in black and white and with only one other color feature-length cartoon existing, GT was indeed special at that time.

By August, both the new studio in Florida and the feature were reaching completion. The film’s budget had gone over the expected $900,000 mark and was to reach approximately $1.5 million. The Miami press welcomed the new studio as Florida had often attempted to become the “Hollywood of the East,” and the studio was the subject of a number of stories on Oct. 9, 1939.

In the Dec. 6, 1939 edition of “Variety,” Max announced this studio would produce another feature, as he was quite confident of the success of GT. A Spanish-language version was prepared for Latin and South American markets and 41 prints would be available for Christmas Day release with another 50 ready for New Year’s Day.

Paramount planned a massive advertising campaign designed to have a penetration of 60 million people. Full color ads were scheduled for “The Saturday Evening Post,” “Life” and “Good Housekeeping,” a first for productions from the Fleischer Studios.

The film had truly put a strain on the Fleischer staff. Not only did the staff have to move from its home in New York City to a new facility in Miami, but the contracted schedule of short subjects also had to be maintained.

Cartoons and features in the studio’s “Flipper” employee magazine in its December 1939 edition referenced the workload. Seymour Reit, the creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost, wrote the following poem for the “Flipper:”

“A Song of Impatience
“The feature’s finished,
The feature’s done
Work is over and worry’s begun
Come bite your nails,
Come tear your hair,
Come harry the gods in hysterical prayer.

“We mumble morosely,
All joy we despise
As we watch the growth of rings ‘neath our eyes
And we wait for the day that
The critic unravels
The wondrous merits of ‘Gulliver’s Travels.

“Hark! Winchell and Fidler
and Nugent and all!
When ‘Gulliver’ opens,
Heed promptly the call.
We know it’s a ‘wow
And we’re sure it will click,
But hurry, we beg you, and tell us that quick!”

The Miami premiere of GT was Dec. 18, 1939. Paramount officials, Florida politicians, members of the Miami social elite and entertainment figures met at the Sheridan and Colony theaters for the screening. A special police unit held back a crowd straining behind rope barricades hoping for a glimpse of the rich and famous, according to a contemporary newspaper account. Overhead, a balloon floated carrying a banner for the film.

One publicity feature was an appearance by Gulliver himself. No, not Sam Parker, but a nearly seven-foot tall unidentified man decked out in a Gulliver costume.

The next day, The Miami Herald reported on a congratulatory luncheon attended by Ross, Dragonette, Paramount executives and local officials. Max said, “Eighteen months ago when the decision was made to produce ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as a feature, we faced some very real problem. For example, more than two years is required to produce an animated cartoon feature in color and sound, provided one has a large enough staff sufficiently experienced and coordinated to do the work.

“When we started this picture we lacked space, manpower and the machinery for feature work. We only had one and half years instead of two years in which to build, move, organize, equip and complete the picture by Christmas 1939.”

Although Max added some humorous remarks, his message was clear: GT had been an almost impossible task.

While the public made GT one of the top moneymaking films of the year, the critics were less than impressed. Frank Nugent of The New York Times dismissed the film as a “fairy tale for children,” calling “Snow White “a fairy tale for adults. Although entertaining, GT was not up to the Disney standard, he added.

“Variety” was more positive. “An excellent job of animation, audience interest and all-around showmanship,” it reported.

The film could have surpassed the box office it did if there hadn’t been a war in Europe.

According to a note in Variety, MGM brass mused that perhaps the live action “Wizard of Oz” should have been a cartoon.

The film was sold in the 1950s to a television distributor, which did re-release the movie to theaters, but along the way the film’s copyright was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.

With the advent of home video, dozens of different versions of “Gulliver’s Travels” have been in the marketplace, most often muddy and splicy second generation prints.

A simplified and sanitized version of Jonathan Swift’s classic, the film centers on Gulliver settling the differences between two kings who can not agree which national song should be played at the wedding of their children. The musical score is bright and bouncy in the tradition of 1930s musicals and there are some great moments of animation.

The difficulties with the film are the characterizations. The prince and princess who are to be married are simply vehicles for the performances of the national songs. The princess is remarkably bland, the prince has only one line of dialogue, which is marred by an inappropriate almost haphazard voice.

Gulliver, himself, is a very passive reactive character, only taking action in response to what is going on. He seems in a contact state of bemusement and used the phrase “My, my” way too much.

The nominal star of the show is the obnoxious town crier Gabby who fares much better here than in the series of shorts that followed the feature with him as lead. The three spies who are charged with killing the “giant” supply much of the humor.

Perhaps the scene which stops the film dead in its tracks is the one in which Gabby and Gulliver are walking together. Gabby is recounting a tall tale in rhyme with Gulliver responding with a refrain of “My, my.” The sequence does not to advance the plot or the characters.

The Fleischer staff established the design style of having the little people done as cartoons, while Gulliver is rotoscoped. It was an interesting decision as it separates Gulliver’s world– “the real world” – from that of Lilliput.

The look of the film is highly stylized and attempts to have the look and color range of Arthur Rackham's illustrations – an odd choice for bright and bold Technicolor.

While it’s not the studio’s best work – the 20-minute Popeye specials are more entertaining and their second feature “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” is better realized – it’s certainly is charming and has entertainment appeal today. There are scenes of wonderful animation and invention and I’ve always enjoyed the sequences in which Gulliver is captured as well as the one in which he is cleaned up by the townspeople. These scenes continue the Fleischer theme of mechanics that pops up in some many of the studio’s cartoons.

Another great sequence is the outdoor banquet illuminated by firelight with Gulliver’s hand “dancing” with the Lilliputians.

The Fleischers would get one more chance at a feature and would do far better.

This cartoon alludes to the impact of the feature on the Fleischer staff.

© Copyright 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Guilty, guilty pleasures

Yes, I can appreciate the great movies – most of them, at least – but I find that I'm drawn to films that live on the fringes of polite movie society.

"The Mad Doctor of Blood Island" is a thoroughly unhinged mad scientist movie shot in the Philippines with an American cast, but a decidedly different point of view. I will watch damn near any film shot in that nation in the 1960s and '70s. They look and feel different, even if an American director is on board.

"The Fiend of Dope Island" is the kind of film that makes me wonder, "Just why did they make this thing?" Bruce Bennett was an Olympic athlete who was slated to play Tarzan at MGm before an injury prevented him from doing so. He made a number of low budget films under his real name of Herman Brix in the 1930s, but changed his name and appeared in a string of big budget A films for major studios. By the late 1950s, he appeared in this pt boiler. He also co-produced. It has an evil hypnotic char,

Few films deserve more of revival than "Shakes the Clown." Starring, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, "Shakes" gives all of us who grew up mistrustful of clowns plenty of ammunition. Very funny and in highly questionable taste, "Shakes" is one of my favorites.

There are few films from the 1970s that I love more than this movie created on a dare by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush when they were cutting trailers for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Made in 10 days and utilizing a lot of existing footage from other Corman movies, it has a true charm and stars an actress who is largely forgotten today, Candice Rialson. She was a young woman who should have been a major star, but spent most of her career in low budget films. She could have done much, much more.

By the way the trailer is not safe for work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I've been watching a lot of DVDs for work and here's a few of them.

The Three Stooges

Like many Stooge fans I was very uncertain whether or not I should spend the cost of a movie ticket to go see this homage/rebooting of the venerable slapstick trio. After all, I couldn't see someone "being" Buster Keaton's or Charlie Chaplin's on-screen character in a new movie, so why the Stooges?

Fanboys hadn't been so divided about a movie since Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman.

Now that the film is on DVD, I'm willing to risk the time and reduced cost of admission to see it and I have to say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly with this love letter to Moe, Larry and Curly.

Rated PG, the film has just three gags that are more attuned to modern comedy conventions, with all the rest falling squarely in the Stooge's tried-and-true brand of ultra-violent slapstick.

Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly are clearly devoted fans and they cast this film carefully with three actors who did the Stooges proud Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, Sean Hayes as Larry and Will Sasso as Curly. Sasso had perhaps the most difficult assignment, considering how many people love Curly, and he carried it off well.

Hayes actually brings something extra to Larry and does a great reaction bit when Moe throws a live and irritated lobster down Larry's pants.

Acknowledging the beautiful Christine McIntyre, the long-time Stooge co-star who could either be a heroine or a villain the directors cast Sofia Vergara as the bad guy, something the actress seemed to enjoy.

The directors even used some of the original sound effects from the shorts and ended the film in a very appropriate Stooge manner.

Now if you don't like the original Stooges, you won't like this film, but if you're a Stooge fan, watch it.

By the way, at the end of the film is a short piece designed to keep youngster from doing things such as hitting each other over the head with a sledgehammer. I wondered if 20th Century Fox attorneys demanded this sequence to lower the studio's liability?

Pirates! Band of Misfits

Some people get all excited by a new animated release from Pixar, but I get twitchy when I learn that Aardman Studios have a new project. The people who brought audiences the adventures of Wallace and Gromit and "Chicken Run" are not only amazingly talented animators specializing in stop motion, but also are vastly clever.

"The Pirates!" may not be the studio's most laugh-out-loud film, but it provides a very enjoyable 90 minutes or so.

The story centers around The Pirate Captain, a man determined to be voted Pirate of the Year, but is so ineffective he doesn't have a chance. His men admire him, though, and stick with him when the ship's beloved pet Polly, the last dodo, is suddenly sought after by Charles Darwin who is in love with Queen Victoria!

This mixing and matching of real people and fictional characters — along with pirates of the 18th century with the technology of the latter 19th century is part of the film's unique charm.

To appreciate the animation one must watch the documentary that is included on the Blu-Ray (but not on the DVD). The process is astounding.

The voice cast is headed up by Hugh Grant, who does well, and also includes Martin Freeman and David Tennant.

For a great family night, get your hands on this film.

Girls Gone Dead

The late great David Friedman, producer of dozens of exploitation films, explained in many interviews that when you make such a movie you better be prepared to at some point give audiences what they expect.

This limp dishrag of a film purports to be a clever, sexy spoof of horror films, but instead is so dreadfully inept, your finger will be on the fast forward button throughout most of the film.

What can I say about a film whose cover graphics features an actress who doesn't appear in the film? Case closed.

I don't care how desperate you are standing at the Red Box on a Saturday night eager for something new to watch. Rent this and you will be sorry.

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites

In this era and anything-goes comedy, one might think that episodes of a television variety show from the 1970s wouldn't have much to offer today's viewers.

If the show was "The Carol Burnett Show," that assumption would be wrong as this new five-disc collection shows.

Burnett was on television from 1967 to 1978 with a highly rated variety show. For readers younger than the age of 40, variety shows once roamed airwaves in the same numbers — almost as reality shows. They were a mainstay of television programming and Burnett's was consistently at the top of the heap.

Besides being an incredibly talented performer — fearless in doing almost anything for a laugh — Burnett surrounded herself with talent with her supporting cast and in the writers' room.

This collection features a selection of shows picked by Burnett and boy are there some great comedic moments here, including the hilarious send-up of "Gone With the Wind" and the skit about a nervous new dentist with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.

As a kid, I hated "McHale's Navy" — I still think it's stupid — and at first I didn't care much for Tim Conway. His work on the Burnett show was a revelation to me, though. He was an amazing — and to his fellow performers, challenging — ad libber who would go off script as a comic inspiration hit him.

The collection also features several of the "Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggans" sketches, which featured Conway as a frustrated boss and Burnett as the world's most dense secretary.

Vicki Lawrence, who was hired to play Burnett's sister in skits, also came into her own when the writers developed a recurring sketch called "The Family," in which Lawrence played the matriarch of a Southern family. The skit was so successful it was spun off as a separate series called "Mama's Family."

The set also has many extras, including some of Burnett's work on "The Garry Moore Show," plus many behind the scenes interviews.

This collection shows just how comedy has changed on television and not necessarily for the better.

The Dictator

If you're like me, you probably cringed so much through "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," that you skipped Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up film, "Brüno."

I admired "Borat" for its sheer comic audacity and for Cohen's satiric nerve, although I have to admit that watching two men wrestle in the nude wasn't my cup of tea.

Cohen returned to the screen in this far more conventional comedy that I certainly found funny with its political incorrectness.

Cohen plays Aladeen, the life-long dictator of a small northern African nation. He believes his people actually like being oppressed and uses his position to do outrageous actions to bolster his own ego, such as competing in a race and using the starter's pistol to wound his fellow runners.

During a trip to United Nations, Aladeen is a victim of a coup by his trusted second-in-command, but he manages to escape with his life — but not with his trademark beard.

Alone in New York, he accidentally meets the super liberal manager of an organic food store (played by Anna Faris with her usual cuteness) who believes he is a victim of the dictator's oppression. Aladeen isn't used to kindness and changes for a moment, until he hatches a plot to grab back his power.

Although "Borat" was studded with satiric digs, "The Dictator" is fairly standard in its storyline — funny but nothing new. It isn't until its conclusion that Cohen gives a biting monologue that certainly hits home this election year.

Although undoubtedly not for everyone, "The Dictator" provides some good laughs.

Absolutely Fabulous 20th Anniversary

Have you ever run into anyone who is determined to not act or dress their age and follow youthful trends despite the fact that such an effort makes them look pathetic and desperate? That's the premise on which Jennifer Saunders has based her hit television show "Absolutely Fabulous."

Saunders plays Edina Monsoon, an over-the-hill party girl obsessed with high fashion and fame, who supposedly has a public relations and management business, but really relies on alimony from her two husbands. Her best friend, Patsy Stone, played by Joanna Lumley, is also a fashionista, working for a style magazine. Stone is so burnt out from alcohol and drugs that she's not even sure how old she is.

Together, they attempt to stay up on the trends and appear to be important members of British society. Needless to say, they fail miserably.

Monsoon's problems are exacerbated by her mother and daughter, neither of whom is impressed with her shallow life.

Saunders' scripts are laced with biting social and pop culture satire as well as moments of old fashioned slapstick and politically incorrect humor. What has always been remarkable is the number of people from British fashion and entertainment who have been guest stars on the show, some even gladly suffering jokes at their own expense.

The show was a hit on Comedy Central and on BBC America and although the initial run ended years ago, Saunders and Lumley have reprised their characters in a series of specials.

This DVD contains the three latest shows, aired in Great Britain in 2011 and this summer. They are a scream with Saunders' scripts deftly referring to the ages of the characters.

I particularly enjoyed the show about the summer Olympics, which was broadcast in the UK in July.

If you already an "Ab Fab" fan, this DVD is a must-have. If you're not a fan, you might find the shows a little difficult to understand. As a writer, Saunders likes to build her comedy on the backstory she has developed, which will cause a person new to the series a little difficulty.

The extras on the disk include a short episode design to raise funds and awareness for a British charity and the making-of that show.

Watch a little "Ab Fab"online and then try this very funny DVD.


A "cleanskin" is a person involved in some sort of undercover operation who has no record, a point that is pivotal in this very good and intense thriller about a series of terrorist attacks in London.

Sean Bean plays Ewan, a former British commando now employed as an operative by a branch of the British Secret Service. His current job is to follow the illegal sale of a box of plastic explosives to get at a terrorist cell.

There is a security breach and armed, masked men hijack the explosives. It is now Ewan's job to find the explosives before suicide bombers can use them.

What complicates his assignment is that his bosses need to have this operation completed before an up-coming election, so they can keep their jobs.

This is a gritty, no-wisecracking kind of action thriller and Bean does a great job as an emotionally broken man driven by the need to stop the terrorists before they can act.

What makes this film even more interesting is that director and writer Hadi Hajaig includes the backstory of the lead terrorist to try to show how this man made the decision to attack the country of his birth. This adds greater dramatic depth to the film.

Add a major twist ending and you have a really effective thriller. Be warned, though, the film doesn't mince on the violence, which may offend some people.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, August 06, 2012

The 2012 Great New England Air Show

This C-47 transport plane was used in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

In the collection of the American Airpower Museum, it was given the nickname "Second Chance."

The spartan interior meant room for more troops and more supplies.

There's little room in the cockpit.

My dad's last plane, a B-52 bomber.

The vertical take-off Osprey drew crowds.

This modified Hercules cargo plane is iced for trips to the North and South Poles. Note the skis for landing.

Once my dad received special permission to show us a B-52 up close. For years, it was almost classified. I remember standing looking up at the bomb bay and thinking it was huge. It's become a bit smaller with age.

I love nose art, this one on a WWII vintage Avenger fighter.

This is General Hap Arnold's personal B-25.

Is there anything cooler than the standard nose art of the Warhawk?

Well, maybe a half-naked woman on a B-25 is cooler!

There are some assignments I truly enjoy and covering the Great New England Airshow at Westover Air Reserve Base is one of them. My dad, Gordon L. Dobbs, was a career Air Force officer, who entered the Army Air Corps as an enlisted man, applied to flight school on a bet and commanded a B-17 in Europe. He flew B-29s in Korea and was a B-52 nuclear pilot when he had an accident that left one side of his body paralyzed in 1961.

He recovered and continued in his career on the maintenance side. His last assignment was commanding a unit Bien Hoa outside of Saigon keeping helicopters in the air.

Three wars in one life. He retired after Vietnam.

For me growing up on and near air bases was all a great adventure. One of my earliest memories is visiting my father through a chain link fence when he was on nuclear duty. The bomber crews that were on alert had to stay in an underground barracks called "The Mole Hole" at Westover. My mom would come a pre-arranged time and Dad would come out to see us.

One of the biggest treats in the world to me was when he would bring home a spare flight meal. I thought this was the most exotic food possible.

I have very few regrets in my life, but one is not going into the Air Force myself. After his Vietnam experience, my dad had every mixed feelings about how the military treated its men and women.

I have been privileged to have flown in two different B-17s – my father's favorite plane – and both times I was practically moved to tears. Both flights took place after my dad's death in 1996 and they seemed to offer a link to him that I hadn't had before.

To this day, if I hear a plane overhead I will stop and look at it. The roar of a jet engine is actually a reassuring sound to me.

The following is what I wrote for the newspapers I edit.

WESTOVER ARB – As we cruised over Western Massachusetts and toward the Quabbin Reservoir, it occurred to me that the sound of the engines of the C-47 was what the paratroopers heard as it carried them to the D-Day invasion – that is until the plane crossed the English Channel and into the Nazi fortified coast of France.

I was one of the lucky members of the media to be invited to fly in literally a piece of history on Aug. 2.

It was all part of the publicity for the Great New England Air Show at Westover Air Reserve Base. The first air show in four years, the event drew hundreds of thousand of people last weekend.

This year’s edition was different as it emphasized two themes: a salute to the veterans of World War II and the display of planes that had been stationed at the base, including the B-52 bomber.

The C-47 was among those aircraft that flew from base from the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

The crowds walked a good part of the long length of the tarmac seeing a wide variety of aircraft, from a FedEx cargo jet to a LC 130 “Snow Bird,” a modified cargo plane with skis used by the New York Air National Guard for operations in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Many of the planes were open for visitors to go through them and to view the cockpits.

The C-47 was officially known as “The Skytrain” for its versatility in hauling people and cargo where it was needed, however it had another name, said affectionately during World War II, “The Gooney Bird.”

This particular C-47 brought British paratroopers to D-Day. It also played a role in the Israeli War of 1956 as part of the Israeli Air Force. It’s civilian counterpart, known as the DC-3, can still be seen in use, according to Ron Barris, a volunteer crew member from the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, N.Y., where this plane is part of the collection.

The C-47 also was known for its role in the ”Berlin Airlift,” which dropped food and supplies in 1948 and 1949 to the Allied occupied part of Berlin, Germany, to counter a blockade by the Soviet Union.

Barris said the first flight for this particular plane was in 1943.

John Purdy, the plane’s co-pilot, called the aircraft, “a grand old airplane.”

It’s “sweet” to fly, he added.

The plane had just come out of its annual inspection and is in a Federal Aviation Administration approved maintenance program.

As we were taxiing for takeoff, Barris explained, how the paratroopers connected their ripcords to a static line so their parachutes would automatically deploy as they jumped out over their target.

He added the Germans dug eight-foot-deep trenches filled with water, so if a paratrooper landed in it, the weight of his 85-pound backpack would drown him.

The plane has been restored with the kind of seats used by the paratroopers. Barris added the soldiers would sit with their packs on to add some protection from flack and shells fired at the plane.

The plane carried no armaments and relied on protection from other aircraft.

Once aloft, we were allowed to move around. The only convention to modern air travel is there were signs instructing passengers not to smoke and to fasten their seatbelts.

A blistering hot day, Barris noted with a smile that there would be some cool air once the plane reached its cruising attitude and the pilot opened up his window.
The cockpit was just big enough for pilot John Vocell and Purdy. The only other crewmember sat in a tight area with the radio gear.

For Capt. Matthew Bates, who is stationed at Westover, the C-47 had a special significance. Looking at the plane, he said his grandfather, Andrew Bates, was the pilot of a glider filled with supplies and troops that was being pulled by a C-47. His grandfather, who is still alive, unavoidably crashed the glider into a hedgerow during the D-Day invasion and was seriously injured.

The take-off was delayed a bit as Vocell was bringing in another plane from the museum, General Henry “Hap” Arnold’s personal B-25. The B-25 bomber was best known for Gen. James Doolittle raid on Tokyo.

The museum also flew in other World War II vintage aircraft, including a P-51 Mustang, a P-47 Thunderbolt, A FG-1D Corsair, a TMB Avenger and a P-40 Warhawk.

Four of the fighter planes and the B-25 put on a show for the people lining the edge of the runway that included a simulated bombing run with coordinated explosions on the ground.

As thrilling as that seemed, it was the maneuver to open the flying show that silenced the crowd. To honor those World War II veterans who have passed on, three of the fighters flew low over the runway and then one broke way from the formation heading nearly straight up into the clouds.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Indian Day 2012

I don't ride a bike, but I would like to and I love going to Indian Day each year at the Springfield Museums. If I ever hit the lottery, one of the first things I'd buy would be a classic restored Indian. I guess I would have to learn to ride.

The Indian was the first successful American "motocycle," and was made here in Springfield, Mass. from 1901 to 1953. It was a product of the incredible pool of engineering and manufacturing talent here in Pioneer Valley.

On Indian Day, Indian owners ride their vintage bikes to town and it's quite a sight to see – rolling history.

The classic bikes summon up a time and place in this country – before the Interstate when U.S. highways such as Routes 20, 5 and 66 were the principal roads linking this nation.

It was a time of mechanical innovation, when someone working in their garage could change the course of a product or invent a new one.

The following are some of the photos I took.

Have a hankering to bring an Indian back to life? The guy who had this 1946 model was asking only $12,000 and assured me the engine was in great shape as all of the parts were in boxes!

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, July 08, 2012

I've been watching a lot of DVDs lately and here's a few thoughts!

The Decoy Bride

Normally I would avoid most any film that has the word "bride" in it only because of the prospects of yet another romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor funny.

But when "The Decoy Bride" was delivered to me, I knew I had to watch it. First, the film was shot in Scotland — my wife is Scottish — and second, it stars David Tennant.

Who? That's right, but actually you might know him with a title: Dr. Who.

Tennant is no longer traversing time and space in the long-running British science fiction series and he returned to his native Scotland to make this film.

The problem is the publicist sent the review copy in the Blu-Ray format instead of a DVD. I had to upgrade my technology in order to watch it, so I hoped it was actually worth of all of the expectations and the $100 in a new gizmo.

I'm happy to say this film is actually funny and the romance is actually acceptable even to this old curmudgeon.

Tennant plays James, an author who is engaged to Lara, a world famous movie star (played with sympathy by Alice Eve), and a woman who can't get a private moment away from the paparazzi. In an effort to thwart the press, the couple decides to get married on a small island that is part of the Hebrides.

At the same time, a resident of the island is coming home after her failed engagement. Kelly Macdonald is Katie, who seems to be willing to resign herself to a kind of exile.

When a persistent photographer shows up on the island, Lara's management comes up with a plan to fool him: stage a phony wedding with a decoy bride. Katie is recruited when they offer her 5,000 pounds.

Although Tennant's name may attract American fans to the film, the movie is really Macdonald's and she shines. She is a familiar face from a number of films including "No Country for Old Men," the last "Harry Potter" film and "Nanny McPhee," among others.

Now for those who might think a film full of Scottish accents would be a challenge, don't worry. Everyone makes allowances for non-Scottish audiences.

This little film is a lot of fun.

The Artist

Perhaps the most celebrated film from last year, "The Artist" is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray. I wrote about this movie when it was in theaters last year and was eager to see how it would be presented on home video.

The extras are pretty standard — interviews with the cast and crew and a gag reel — and I was surprised that they did not include something about the inspiration for the film and whether or not there were models for the characters and the events.

If you've not seen "The Artist" I urge you to do so.

Since "The Artist" was the first silent film many people had seen — and not one from the silent era of cinema — I thought it would be appropriate to present some information that might shed some additional light on the film and the time it recreates.

Did an actor like George Valentin really exist?

In interviews, star Jean Dujardin said his inspiration was Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gene Kelly. That's very apparent, as Valentin is cocky like Fairbanks, who was also extremely likable. The director even used a clip from Fairbank's first Zorro film as a wink to the audience. I think, though, the part of the film that chronicles Valentin's fall is modeled after John Gilbert.

Gilbert was a major star in the silent era. He is the actor who has been surrounded by a myth that his voice was so bad that sound ruined his career and he drank himself to death.

In reality, Gilbert's voice was just fine, but his clashes with MGM head Louis B. Mayer had more to do with crashing his career than sound. Gilbert was put into some poor films that spurred the legend about his voice.

Gilbert, sadly, suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 39 that was undoubtedly brought on in part by his drinking.

Here's a clip of Gilbert speaking. His voice was fine, but the talkies in which he was placed by MGM were not.

Were there actors who decided to direct themselves who had disastrous results like Valentin?

One of the silent film's celebrated comics, Harry Langdon, had a near meteoric rise to fame after years of near obscurity. Frank Capra directed Langdon's most successful features, but Langdon dumped him. The comic directed three features in the late 1920s that showed he really didn't understand his own on-screen character very well.

Did silent films disappear as quickly as the film shows?

The success of "The Jazz Singer" in 1927 convinced many studios and theater owners that sound — which had been tried before — was worthy of investment.

By 1929, most films boasted of having recorded dialogue and sound effects. By 1930, only a relative handful of films were silent.

Only Charlie Chaplin resisted recorded dialogue and, like Valentin, thought sound was artistically inferior to silent films. Chaplin didn't perform any dialogue in his movies until he made "The Great Dictator" in 1940.

What's a short list of silent films to view?

Watching comedy is frequently the best way to break into silent film and I'm a huge fan of Buster Keaton. Try "Sherlock Junior." Harold Lloyd's films also hold up well and "Speedy" is a treat. Fairbanks' "Robin Hood" is a lot of swashbuckling fun. For something serious — and a bit twisted — Erich von Stroheim's dramas can't be beat.

One of my favorite silent films is Fritz Lang's science fiction fable "Metropolis," now finally in a version that restored Lang's vision from 1925.

John Carter

Many critics trashed this film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' venerable pulp science fiction series and honestly I don't why. Perhaps they didn't know what to expect from source material aimed at boys and men and first published in 1917?


This is what I call a "Boy's Life" movie — no slam intended to the Boy Scout magazine I certainly loved when I was kid. The hero acts like a hero, the princess is beautiful and capable, there is rousing action, interesting visuals and at the end you've had a good time.

There is no message, no outrageous sex, nudity or violence in this PG-13 movie. It's an old fashioned good guy versus bad guy adventure film.

John Carter is a Civil War vet who finds, quite by accident, a way to transport himself to Mars, or as the Martians call it Barsoom. There he finds several species of people fighting among themselves, including the tall green, multi-armed Tharks.

Because of the lower gravity, Carter can jump great distances — shades of the earliest form of Superman — and becomes a valuable warrior to the Tharks.

There's plenty of intrigue as well supplied by the Thern, an intergalactic race who go from planet to planet manipulating civilizations for their own purposes.

Andrew Stanton, the director of the animated hits "Wall-E" and "Finding Nemo," is a Burroughs fan and he does right with the material, even working Burroughs himself into the narrative.

I think the marketing of the film helped sink it at the American box office, where the film lost money. Interestingly, it was a huge hit overseas and, with DVD sales as well as pay-per-view, the film just might break even, eventually. The trailer of the film didn't seem to convey what this film was about and the title — "John Carter of Mars" or the original book title "A Princess of Mars" would have been better.

If you're looking for a perfect summer movie that all but the youngest members of the family can enjoy, gamble a rental fee and get "John Carter."

Billy the Exterminator, season four

Storage Wars, season two

Gene Simmons Family Jewels, season six, volumes one and two

Top Shot, season four

Pawn Stars, volume four

Thanks to DVDs, we can have summer television reruns whenever we want them as this new group of releases proves.

I will sheepishly admit that I do watch reality television, but I can't see collecting reality television to watch over and over. I will also admit that is a position that makes no logical sense as I do collect movies and will watch them multiple times.

I can't explain it. It's an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum with a creamy puzzle center. However, to each their own.

"Billy the Exterminator" perhaps is the most formulaic of the bunch. Billy gets a call to remove some sort of varmint. Billy goes out to the work site and removes the offending animal. He does so wearing heavy metal country rock clothes and giving us play-by-play commentary showing his familiarity with the critter.

How many times do I need to see him do this?

At least "Top Shot" is a marksmanship contest, which like any athletic event has the elements of uncertainty.

"Storage Wars" merely pushes the concept of finding something valuable in a heap of crap and then finding out who has made the most money by doing so. Frankly, "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers" are more interesting and informative.

A group of "characters" with various backstories compete with each other bidding on abandoned storage lockers and the stuff therein. They hope their cursory examinations of the contents give them some idea if the material is worth something.


Rock entrepreneur Gene Simmons is probably the smartest guy in pop music as he turned KISS into a juggernaut of merchandising. At a time when other musicians of his age are either oldies acts or signing autographs for $20 bucks at conventions, Simmons is rising much higher with this reality show depicting his family life.

Simmons, who also co-produces the show, understands both the fundamentals of soap opera and the sit-com. Like many classic TV comedies, Simmons knows the role of the father is to be an idiot and he gladly plays it. He also knows the dramatic value of those episodes in which he debates whether or not he should marry Shannon Tweed, his long-time girlfriend and mother of his two children.

Simmons' show can be entertaining at least, something many other similar shows are not.

The reality show that is my most frequent guilty pleasure is "Pawn Stars," only because I actually learn things from the show but also, like "Antique Roadshow," I'm intrigued by items that people have either stumbled across at flea markets or acquired through their families.

The interaction among the Harrison family who run the pawnshop in Las Vegas is far less interesting to me than what people bring in to sell.

Of this group, a positive nod to "Pawn Stars," and furtive approval to "Family Jewels."


If you have not yet discovered "Sherlock," now is the time to do so.

BBC Home Video has recently released the second season of this updating of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's venerable detective and if you're a mystery fan or a Holmes fan, you need to see it.

I have to admit that I viewed the new show with some trepidation. Sherlock Holmes has been one of the sturdy literary characters when it comes to adaptations into other media, but not all of the actors or adaptations have worked.

I will readily admit that I'm definitely a Basil Rathbone/ Peter Cushing/ Jeremy Brett enthusiast, but I'm open to other interpretations of Holmes. I've always preferred depictions of Dr. Watson that were not comic relief.

So I came to this new show wondering if the approach was going to be straight or campy, retro or ironic. I'm happy to say that Conan Doyle himself would probably see how well his character could fit into the 21st century.

Dr. John Watson's original backstory is that he is an Army doctor who has been injured in a war in Afghanistan and the new show has maintained it, as it is frighteningly appropriate today. Martin Freeman, best known to American audiences from the original production of "The Office," plays Watson as a bright, competent man who is trying to deal with his post-war life. His involvement with Holmes is accidental and has more to do with finding a place to live than anything else.

The only reason Watson seems a bit thick at times is because Holmes is such a genius. Conan Doyle always characterized his hero has someone seeking a puzzle to solve, afraid of being bored and, despite his general lack of concern for the human race, needed someone to act as a companion and humanizing agent.

These are all qualities the new show has brought to its stories. This Holmes is described as a "highly functioning sociopath," and yet with Benedict Cumberbatch's performance he is still a likable hero. Physically, Cumberbatch is also perfect, although his Holmes is a bit more physically agile than earlier versions.

The strength of the Conan Doyle stories and characters is evident in the new show. Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older brother, was a high level government official involved with secrets. That fits in perfectly today. So does crime genius Professor Moriarty.

I was curious how a story such as "The Hound of the Baskervilles" would work today. One of the most horrific of the Conan Doyle stories and one with a genuine monster, the new adaptation brought these elements along and they fit perfectly as Homes and Watson investigate sightings of a horrendous beast near a government research facility.

The pacing of these shows is brisk and I like how there is a visual device to show how Holmes thinks.

My wife and I found these shows to be pretty addictive and wanted to watch one after another. In a summer filled with re-runs and derivative reality shows, "Sherlock" on DVD is a must-see.