Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Years!

Happy New Year! If you aren't doing anything fun (and Lord knows we aren't) come to The Slumgullion and join us for our annual tradition, as we exorcise the old year with burning sage and pissy comments:

And because you're the best people in the world, here's some holiday-themed cat photos while I still have a mildly reasonable excuse for squeezing them in.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Forward! Into The Past!

Just a quick note while you're enjoying Hank's exegesis of World Without End (spoiler alert: unlike a lot of Fifties films, the title is technically true thanks to the Future's acquisition of some mid-century He-Men whose genitals still function on the principle of hydraulic expansion).

Anyway, Batocchio has kept one of Blogging's most venerable and sacred traditions going for years now, by tending to the Jon Swift Roundup (The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves), and the 2018 edition is out now.

Click here and catch up on all the cool stuff you were too busy being cool to read.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Let's Do the Time Warp Again: World Without End (1956)

By Hank Parmer

At first glance World Without End has a few things going for it: By far the trippiest poster of any of the movies I've reviewed to date, and one of my favorite actors, in an early role. Plus it can legitimately claim to be the first SF thriller filmed in Cinemascope, with a release date five months prior to Forbidden Planet.

Unfortunately, Allied Artists was no MGM, Nancy Gates was no Ann Francis, and a cheesy giant spider puppet was in no way a substitute for an Id Monster.

The movie opens with stock footage of an A-Bomb test, then a quick dissolve from the atomic fireball to a Moon's-eye view of the Earth set against a starry background, with the title blazoned in scarlet slash-script across the face of our cloudless, paper-mache globe. This Bernds guy sure isn't pulling his punches.

According to the credits, Hugh Marlowe is our lead. Not the best choice, if you ask me. Nowhere near as bad as John Agar, sure, but he does better as a supporting character. Especially when he's playing something of a dick, like in The Day the Earth Stood Still or Twelve O'Clock High.

In fact, writer/director Bernds is said to have described Marlowe as "often lazy and unprepared". Although that may be an understandable if not particularly praiseworthy reaction to the material, or sour grapes because he was consistently upstaged by far more charismatic Rod Taylor. Fun fact: The IMDB trivia page also claims the lead was first offered to Sterling Hayden, which would have been ... different, to say the very least. Then to square-jawed character actor Frank Lovejoy, before Hugh snagged it.

Nancy Gates shares the top billing. She's probably best remembered for her turn as "Ellen Benson", whose happy home is commandeered by would-be presidential assassin Frank Sinatra in the 1954 thriller Suddenly. Snark aside, she was pretty good in that one. But in today's nitwit narrative the actor is little more than eye candy slated for the "Princess Who Speaks Up for the Handsome Stranger" role.

Leith Stevens wrote the score, which will be the typical cut-and-paste of themes he composed several years earlier for George Pal's science fiction films Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds. By this point, Stevens really seems to have just given up trying. Though again, I can see why he didn't exert himself for this one.

Screenplay by Edward Bernds, from a story by Edward Bernds. Directed by -- wait for it -- Edward Bernds. (I'm getting a bad feeling about this ...)

After the credits, the movie whisks us to the not-too-distant future of [cue reverb] 1957, with an establishing shot of a towering radio aerial, which segues to the communications shack at an arctic outpost. They've lost contact with the XRM, in mid-message! At the Pentagon, a P.R. flack breaks the worrisome news to a handful of reporters, then to the wife and golden-haired children (a girl and a boy, natch) of one of the astronauts.

Oh FFS, is this a widescreen, Technicolor remake of Rocketship X-M? The fiends!

Cut to Mars, where the crew of the spaceship XRM are finishing up the first reconnaissance of the Red Planet with a polar orbit.

These intrepid explorers aren't concerned about losing contact with Earth: It's only Mars' magnetic field temporarily messing with the reception. Pilot John Borden (Hugh Marlowe) is disappointed they won't be landing on Mars this trip, but Pontificator and Commander Dr. Eldon Galbraith (Nelson Leigh) isn't willing to risk losing all the valuable data they've gathered, if they were to make the attempt and crash.

Their pole-to-pole circuit completed, Borden decides it's time to set the gyros for good ol' Terra. Flight Engineer Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor) and Navigator Henry 'Hank' Jaffe (Christopher Dark) heartily approve. Aussie Taylor, taking his posh accent for a trial spin before he played H. G. Wells, in The Time Machine (1960), wryly jokes that it will make his creditors happy.

They blast out of orbit. Sorry, but I have to pause here to question a few things about this arrangement: The astronauts don't have safety harnesses, not even so much as a seat belt. Although their chairs recline, since the compartment clearly runs fore-and-aft, they're lying flat, parallel to the rocket's thrust with their feet pointing toward the nose. Which means once the engines fire up not only will the blood rush to their heads, they should start sliding off those slick, vinyl-upholstered cushions, to pitch headfirst onto the rear bulkhead.

It certainly must make those vertical takeoffs and landings rather tricky. Maybe their flying togs have Velcro butts.

As the XRM speeds away from Mars, the astronauts somehow adhering to their recliners, the ship unexpectedly encounters a flame hurricane.

"You should never have said Picard was a better captain than Kirk!"

(Aficionados of '50s space epics will of course recognize this iconic rocket miniature, which made its first appearance in Flight to Mars (1951) and would be trotted out more than once afterwards, most notably in the film that was one of the major inspirations for Alien: 1958's It! The Terror from Beyond Space.)

The XRM bucks like an emphatically goosed bronco. Considering they're not strapped in, that ought to have our helmetless astronauts ricocheting around the inside of that compartment like ball bearings in a tin can -- except, much, much gorier. And it's a wonder the actors didn't get singed by the real-life flames billowing through those portholes the production was too cheap to glaze. 

"Alright: Who left those open?" 

The spaceship accelerates uncontrollably, even though Borden commands Ellis to reverse the rockets! (He must have seen that Duck Dodgers cartoon, and thought this was a real thing.)

The hull temperature hits the danger zone as their velocity rapidly increases to an astonishing 81 miles per second. The crew blacks out.

While they're all unconscious, the space storm flames out. The XRM plunges into a planet's atmosphere. Of course, the friction heat when they hit even the most tenuous layer of the stratosphere at almost 300,000 miles per hour should vaporize their craft in milliseconds, but sure ...

Monday, December 24, 2018

You Better Watch Out!

By Bill S.

The holiday season is upon us once again, and that means it's that time of years for Christmas carols, gift shopping, tons of cookies, and of course, TV special. A few years back, Scott and I both revisited the Rankin-Bass classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This year, I've decided to have a look at another Rankin-Bass childhood favorite, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Like the previous one, it boasts good production values, nice music...and a story so insane you wonder what they were smoking when they made it.

It begins with newsreel footage of children preparing for Santa's Christmas Eve visit, then cuts to a postman, riding a snowmobile en route to the North Pole. His name is S.D. Kruger, and he informs us that the "S.D." stands for "Special Delivery", but I'm guessing it doesn't stand for anything and he just makes up something different to fit the occasion, like T.S. Garp did. S.D. is voiced by Fred Astaire (hiring a brilliant dancer to do voiceover work makes as much sense as anything else in this special). When the snowmobile stalls in a snow bank, he has a lot of free time, so he tells us about the letters kids write to Santa Claus, revealing that he opens their mail and reads it before delivering it, which can't possibly be legal. According to him, in addition to the usual requests for toys, kids ask a lot of questions about Santa: "Why do you wear a red suit?" "Why do you come down the chimney?" "How do you know if we've been bad or good?", etc. We hear a lot of children, off-camera. They might simply be voices in S.D.'s head, which is preferable to a bunch of kids being stranded in a frozen wasteland. Real or imaginary, he tells them to settle down, and spins for us a tale of Santa's origin.

It begins in a bleak, depressing place called Sombertown, presided by the Mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a squat, ugly man with a thick German accent and a permanent scowl on his face. His dinner is interrupted one day by the appearance of Grimsley, described as "the lawkeeper" (Police chief? Army general? Ancestor of Wayland Smithers?). Grimsley sports a Kaiser helmet, a pencil thin mustache, and a prissy British accent. He also brings with him a baby, found on the Murgerbeister's doorstop. There's no identification, other than a name tag reading "Claus" and a note, asking the Burgerchedder to raise the baby. (And really, who wouldn't want to leave their kid with that guy?) Of course he refuses, and tells Grimsley to take the baby to the "Orphan Asylum", which, according to him, is "the proper place for foundlings" (I'm guessing "foundling" is a euphemism for "bastard").

Grimsley heads for the orphanage, dragging baby Claus on a sled, because I guess pulling a bulky object through the snow during a blizzard is easier than simply carrying a baby. The rope breaks, and the sled is carried away by a heavy wind. Grimsley half-heartedly races after it, calling out, "Do come back!" (Even as a kid, I thought that was a stupid thing to say). After making the barest minimum effort to rescue baby Claus, Grimsley gives him up for dead and heads back home. Fortunately, the animals of the forest are able to rescue Baby Claus, shielding him from the dreaded Winter Warlock. They bring him to the home of an elf family, the Kringles, leaving him on their doorstop. The baby is discovered by brothers Ringle, Dingle, Wingle, Tingle and Zingle, who immediately take a liking to him and bring him to the Elf Queen, Tanta Kringle, a sweet-voiced old lady with a perennially cheery demeanor. She decides they should adopt the baby, naming him Kris Kringle. There are cheers all around over this decision.

The elves raise the boy, and while they home school him, the animals of the forest are in charge of P.E., teaching him to run, jump, and laugh like a seal. They also school him in the family business: toy making. According to Tanta Kringle, the Kringles were well known for their fine craftsmanship, as she explains in the musical number "The First Toy Makers To the King". She doesn't explain how they went from being internationally known toy makers, working for royalty, to living in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere. I can't imagine the elves blowing their earning on hookers and coke. (Well, to be more precise, I don't want to imagine that). But the real reason might be that they have no way to transport the toys, so they just keep piling them up on the porch, which doesn't seem like the best way to run a successful business.

Years pass, and Kris grows into a young man, sounding like Mickey Rooney, only taller. He decides it's time to deliver the toys to actual people, which delights the family. Tanta even makes him a red suit like the ones the elves wear. He kisses Tanta, bids goodbye to Jingle, Pringle, Single, Mingle and Der Bingle, then gathers the toys in a sack and heads for Sombertown.

Along the way he meets up with a stranded penguin, who was headed for the South Pole, but apparently took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. He names the bird Topper, and adopts him as a pet. Together, they manage to get away from the Winter Warlock, who lives in the Mountain of the Whispering Wind. As a kid, I found the Warlock scary, but he doesn't actually do anything but cackle maniacally and issue threats in a booming voice.( I guess when you're six, that's plenty scary.)
Meanwhile, in Sombertown, the Burgerurger suffers a fall down the steps of City Hall. When he discovers the cause was a toy left on the steps, he decides to ban all toys, and, in a parody of Tanta Kringle's song, he describes the various ways he'd like to mutilate them. Having all toys outlawed over a minor, avoidable injury seems like a rather extreme reaction; I guess we should be glad he didn't trip on a banana peel, because then all the Sombertownians would be condemned to a life of severe potassium deficiency. 

Kris finally arrives in Sombertown, and doesn't make much of a favorable impression with his colorful clothes and cheery disposition. He seems baffled that inhabitants of a place called Sombertown are a bunch of crabby assholes. When he explains that he just wants to distribute some toys, they all go apeshit and run back home, locking their doors. He comes upon a couple of kids who are washing socks. They look completely miserable, as any kid would, and he scolds them for it. He then cheers them up by offering them toys. They spread the news to some other kids, and pretty soon they're all flocking to this friendly stranger. Miss Jessica, the school teacher, comes upon this scene and explains to Kris that toys are illegal, and at first tries to defend the law. When Kris, who finds this law ridiculous, hands her a china doll, she acknowledges that the law is stupid, and agrees to help him hand out the toys. Kris expresses the joy of giving in a song:

If you sit on my lap today
A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay
If you sit on my left knee
Don't be stingy! Be prepared to pay!

WHAT. THE. FUCK? It sounds like a pedophile anthem. Which may be the reason it was cut from the most recent televised broadcast of the special.

The Burgerchef intrudes on this happy scene. He's ready to have the children arrested until Kris rushes to their defense, claiming responsibility for the toys. He then gives the BrentMussburger a yo-yo, which delights the old man, until Grimsley reminds him that he's breaking his own law. Flustered and embarrassed, he urges the police to arrest Kris, who escapes by climbing up a tree and hopping from rooftop to rooftop until he reaches the forest, and finally racing away. The policemen take one look at the woods where Kris disappeared, decide it's not worth the trouble to go after him, and return to Sombertown. What efficient law enforcement they are. (Incidentally, while everyone is impressed by the skill with which Kris eludes capture, nobody mentions that Topper, a tiny penguin, was able to keep up with him the whole way.)

Kris and Topper make their way to the Mountain of the Whispering Wind, and are captured by a pair of Tree Monsters. The Winter Warlock threatens to destroy them, but Kris pleads with him to be let go, offering him a present. The Warlock, touched by this gesture, orders the trees to release him. When Kris hands the Warlock a toy train, his icy heart melts, and he feels reborn, He wonders how long that feeling will last, but Kris assures him that making a change from bad to good is as easy as walking, in a toe tapping number, "Put One Foot In Front of the Other".

(The lesson to be learned here is that it's easier to reform a centuries old evil wizard than a grouchy old man with a sprained ankle.) Winter (as he's now called) strikes a bargain: in exchange for more toys, he'll teach Kris some of his magic tricks, including the Magic Crystal Snowball, which allows he to see and hear people far away. Kris gazes into it, and sees Miss Jessica wandering in the woods calling for him. He finds her, and discovers that the children want more toys to replace the ones Burmashaver had destroyed. He agrees to this, and she kisses him, causing him to blush.

When the Boogiemaster discovers the children have toys again, he calls for all the homes of Sombertown to be locked during the night. Kris is discouraged by this, until Topper, through a series of gestures, gives him the idea to go down the chimney. This enrages the Masterblaster even further, so he demands that the police go from house to house searching for toys. (This might be a good time to point out that the animation was outsourced to Germany, which possibly explains why the police look like Nazis). 

With the doors locked the night, and daily searches of homes by the police, Kris wonders how he'll be able to get more toys to the children. He should probably be more concerned with the human rights abuses going on in the town, but I suppose when you have several decades worth of toys piled up in front of your house, finding a way to get rid of them might feel like a bigger priority. So he comes up with the idea of hiding the toys in the children's stockings, which are hung above the fireplace to dry, on the not unreasonable assumption that no police officer will want to stick his hand inside a wet, crusty sock. His instinct prove correct, and once again the kids have toys to play with. This proves to be the last straw for the Murkinblister, so he decides to lay a trap for Kris, arranging for police officers to lay in wait at one of the houses to arrest him. At first Kris protests, but when he looks out a window and sees another officer holding Topper in one hand and a jar of barbecue sauce in the other, he goes quietly. Meanwhile, officers are dispatched to the Mountain of the Whispering Wind, where they arrest Winter, Tanta Kringle, Jangle, Bangle, Spangle, Tangle and Dangle, as accomplices to Kris' crimes. All of them are thrown in jail. The Megabastard then gathers up all the toys in a pile and lights them on fire, in front of the children, who are all reduced to sobbing messes. (Since Kris warned against them crying, but didn't mention any exceptions to that rule, those poor kids must think they're really screwed.)

Jessica goes to the Burgermerger and tries to make plea on behalf of the prisoners, asking him to let them go. When he refuses to listen to reason, she has an epiphany: Sombertown really, really sucks. (We figured this out in the first five minutes) She expresses her newfound clarity in the song "My World Is Beginning Today", which is my favorite number in the show, partly because the song is pretty, and partly because the visuals are so utterly weird. Here, watch:

It's like tripping on acid with Petula Clark -- which is why it's my favorite number in the show. The most recent broadcast of the special omitted this entire sequence. When it was being carried on cable, the conversation between Jessica and the Meister Bräu was retained, but the song was cut down to the final two lines, which was jarring for those of us who remembered it, and probably more so for first time viewers. (Lesson learned: Cable networks are such greedy assholes they'll sacrifice plot continuity for two more minutes' worth of advertising time. But you already knew that.)

Jessica visits the jail, and asks Winter if he has any magic that might help them get out. Alas, his magic mojo is off, and all he has is a handful of magic feed corn that enables reindeer to fly. This seems like an oddly specific thing for anyone to be carrying around in their pocket, even a wizard. Jessica takes the corn and feeds it to some reindeer. Sure enough it works -- they soar into the sky and fly to the jail, where they free Kris, Winter, Topper, Tanta Kringle, Mango, Tango, Django, Durango and Fandango. (Wait, TOPPER? They threw the penguin in jail?) It's not clear how the reindeer managed to get in the jail cell, unless it has no roof, which seems like a major design flaw.

The group (along with Jessica, who has joined them) are now on the run from the Sombertown police. Wanted posters bearing Kris Kringle's likeness are plastered everywhere. But Kris has now altered his appearance by growing a heavy beard. Tanta Kringle suggests he stop using the family name, and go by his birth name, "Claus". (Oddly, nobody wonders whether that's his first or last name. I guess he's a one-named celebrity, like Cher.) 

Kris and Jessica are married in the forest, under some stars, on Christmas Eve. There's no minister officiating, but they "stood before the Lord", which I guess is enough for a trailer park-style common law marriage. Hoping to make the ceremony special by lighting up the trees, Winter prays to Jesus for a little more magic. It works. (Kids, don't try that at home -- at least not in front of your parents.)

In order to evade the police force of one little town, the group treks all the way to the North Pole, where Kris decides they should build a new home, and the best toy factory in the world. And so they do, although how they accomplished that in such an isolated region remains a mystery. (Did the Kringles assemble an entire house with their little hammers?)

Kris continues to deliver toys to all the children of the world. Because of his outlaw status, he still has to make these deliveries in the dark of night. Years pass, his legend grows, and his outlaw status changes when the Burgermeisters die off and people realize the toy ban is stupid. Now too old to keep making frequent deliveries, Kris decides to limit his trips to one night a year, and picks that holiest of night, Christmas Eve. And that's the whole...


The Burgermeisters "died off"? That was an inherited title? So, at some point, years after this story took place, the Bugermeister Majorbugfuck had a kid? Really? That fucking guy?

With who? I can't imagine anyone having sex with him. (Well, to be more exact, I don't want to imagine that.)

So, to recap, here are the answers to the questions asked by the children at the start of the show:

"Why is Santa Claus sometimes called Kris Kringle?" He was adopted by an elf family named Kringle. "Claus" is his birth name. The "Santa" part was added when people decided to canonize him even though he isn't dead, because why wait?

"Why does Santa wear a red suit?" It's the uniform of his elf family.

"How did he learn to make toys?" Again, the elves.

"How does he see us when we're sleeping, and know when we're awake?" He learned black magic from a born-again demon.

"Why does he visit homes by going down the chimney?" A penguin suggested it.

"Why does he leave toys in stockings?" To hide them in case Nazis search your house, a problem that still persists to this day.

"Why does he have a beard?" So he wouldn't be recognized by the police. Of course, today he'd have to shave it for that to happen.

"Speaking of beards, how did he meet Mrs.Claus?" After spending his entire life (well into adulthood) living with five old men and his adopted mother, and having had zero contact with any other human beings, he married literally the first single woman he met.

"How does he make reindeer fly?" Magic corn, which contradicts what we saw in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, where they were a race of metas who could fly, talk, and apply false eyelashes.

"Why does Santa visit us on Christmas Eve?" Because he figured it would be easier to deliver gifts to all the children of the world in one night, instead of spacing things out in multiple trips.

"Why didn't the parents of Sombertown rise together in disgust, and kick the living shit out of the Burgermeister?"

Oh, wait, that wasn't a question on the show. That was my question.

Merry Christmas to all of you, from all of me!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmastime is Here

I'm back from Miami and elbow deep in notes and audio files. And since the interviews I conducted are considered proprietary information, I can't just send them out to be dealt with by Della and her Dictaphone, but have to laboriously transcribe everything myself. So my Christmas Spirit is barely budging the needle this year.

However, my brother Miles concocted this dreamy, Island-flavored take on A Charlie Brown Christmas for his own amusement, and it perked up my sagging holiday mood considerably. And I was thinking that if you too are suffering from Seasonal Mood Sag, it might do the same. So pour yourself a Mai Tai (or spike that eggnog with a little Captain Morgan) and enjoy this tropical yuletide carol... ukulele & Hawaiian slide/steel guitar

Friday, December 7, 2018

Random Scenes of Miami

I'm in the Magic City for a few days researching a screenplay (I can't say what it's about other than it involves nefarious activities in the early 90s, when cell phones were the size and weight of paving stones, a cocaine-encrusted upper lip was seen as the natural evolution of the pre-pubescent milk mustache, and by the way did you know one million dollars in hundred dollar bills weighs exactly 11 pounds?)

Anyway, when the cat's away the mice will play, but since our cats refuse to budge I've taken on the rodent responsibilities, and my idea of play is wandering around annoying the natives by snapping photos of things no sane tourist would give a second glance. And now I'm going to share them with you, because it's lonely in this hotel room and the pizza delivery boy is taking so long that by the time he finally arrives I'll be too pooped for the traditional porn scene. So enjoy.
Chicago, O'Hare

Traditional chicken matador and Plus One keeping vigil outside a restaurant.

I can't confirm their slogan, but I can recommend the Roast Pork.

Traditional chicken condemned to salivate at a chocolatier for all eternity.

Unfortunately this ad, while clearly attempting to traffic in nostalgia, makes Cuba sound like an intestinal parasite. But with enough Havana Club, you can at least keep your tapeworm drunk AF.

Traditional chicken guarding the off-brand Dollar Store.

The tomb of Mary B Hecht (1912–1982) who I’m guessing either died without survivors, or worse, hated her family enough to blow their inheritance on a granite Sphinx and a marble pyramid.

I can't tell if this chicken is saying "Welcome!" or "Eh. Salmonella. Whaddya gonna do?"

Um...Okay. I guess the lack of an apostrophe could mean it's not the barbecue equivalent of a Sambo's restaurant, but just another BBQ joint run by avuncular turkeys.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

To Doctor Who It May Concern

Scott and Jeff return from their Strange Interlude, and are joined by Mrs. C. for this quick mini-sode about the current season of Doctor Who. And guess what?

You'll never guess.

Okay, I'll tell you.

Scott's a little grumpy.

And here's a link to the Mike and Ike video mentioned on the show.