Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Superman Phenomenon in the Late Thirties and Early Forties

It was eighty years ago yesterday, on April 18 1938,  that Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) hit newsstands. It was significant as it featured the first appearance of Superman. Today we somewhat take Superman for granted, but his first appearance would prove revolutionary. Superman would usher in a whole slough of other superheroes in comic books, some of who, like the Man of Steel, are still being published this day. What is more, Superman proved to be an outright phenomenon, comparable to Star Wars upon its first release in 1977.

Indeed, sales for Action Comics no. 1 were a sign of Superman's popularity to come.  Its initial print run was 200,000 copies, which sold out very quickly. Despite the fact that the Man of Tomorrow featured prominently on the cover, it would take some time for National Allied Publications (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) to realise that it was Superman that had spurred the issue's sales. Action Comics was an anthology title, so that it also included such features as Zatara (a magician character) and Tex Thompson (an adventurer) among others. In fact, Superman would not appear on the cover of Action Comics again until no. 7 (December 1938). During all that time the circulation of Action Comics rose until it approached 1,000,000 copies a month.

Eventually National Allied Publications realised that it was Superman that was spurring sales of Action Comics. Others did as well, and it was only nine months after his first appearance that Superman expanded into a medium beyond comic books. It was on January 16 1939 that a Superman daily newspaper comic strip was first published.  On November 5 1939 a Superman Sunday strip was added. At the height of its success the Superman daily strip appeared in 300 newspapers and had a readership of over 20 million. In all it would last 27 years, ending in May 1966. The "Superman" newspaper strip would have a lasting influence on the Superman mythos. In his initial appearances in the comic books, Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor had red hair. It was the newspaper comic strip that established him as being bald.  Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp who would plague Superman throughout the years, would also make his first appearance in the newspaper strip. The newspaper strip would also be the first medium to feature Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth. 

Given the popularity of Superman, it should come as no surprise that he soon received his own title, the first superhero to do so. Superman no. 1 was cover dated summer 1939.  He also began being featured on the cover of every issue of Action Comics starting with no. 19 (December 1939). It was in the pages of Superman no. 1 that Superman's official fan club, the Supermen of America, was launched. For ten cents young (and maybe not so young) Superman fans would receive a welcome letter from Superman himself, a membership certificate, Superman's Secret Code Manual, and a pinback button featuring the Man of Steel himself.  The Supermen of America proved to be very successful. By 1941 it had a quarter of a million members, including movie star Mickey Rooney, Spanky McFarland of Our Gang fame, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's two children, and even six Annapolis midshipmen (according to an article in the June 21 1941 issue of The Saturday Evening Post).

Superman did not stop at receiving his own title or a newspaper comic strip, but eventually conquered  the medium of radio as well. The Adventures of Superman was sponsored by Hecker's H-O Oats and made its debut on February 12 1940. The radio show would have a lasting impact on the character of Superman. It was on the radio show that Superman is first portrayed as flying (in the comic books originally Superman could only jump really far). Both Perry White and Jimmy Olson originated on the radio show and were late introduced into comic books. It also included the famous introduction later used in cartoons and on the 1950s TV show:  "Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets. 'Up in the sky - look!' 'It's a giant bird.' 'It's a plane.' 'It's Superman!'"  The Adventures of Superman also introduced Kryptonite and on the radio show that Superman first teamed up with Batman and Robin. The Adventures of Superman proved to be very popular. Beginning as a syndicated show, it moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System on August 31 1942  and then ABC on October 29 1949. The radio show would run until March 1 1951 for a total of  a little over eleven years.

By 1941 Superman had become a veritable phenomenon, so much so that various newspapers and magazines were covering him. What is more, a tonne of Superman merchandise was already on store shelves by that time. In 1940 Ideal Novelty and Toy Company manufactured a Superman doll made of wood with articulated joints, making Superman the first superhero to have an action figure based upon him (although the term "action figure" would not be coined until the Sixties). That same year Saalfield manufactured a Superman puzzle set. Daisy, best known for their BB guns, manufactured a Superman Krypto-Raygun in 1940. It was also in 1940 that Marx made a Superman rollover airplane tin toy, and Gum Inc. issued a set of Superman trading cards, the first such cards ever to feature a comic book superhero. There were even Superman Valentine's Day cards, made by Quality Art Novelty Company in 1940. In the early Forties there would be a wide variety of Superman merchandise, from Superman Bread made by Saylor's Bread in 1941 to Syroco Superman figures manufactured in 1942. An entire list of Superman goods made in the early Forties would take a complete book to detail completely.

While Superman conquered both radio and newspapers, it would be some time before he would conquer live action films. In 1939 Republic Pictures began pre-production on a serial to be titled The Adventures of Superman. It was even announced in trade publications. Unfortunately, negotiations with National Allied Publications fell through and as a result Republic did not make the Superman serial as announced. The script for the serial was instead rewritten to become the serial The Mysterious Dr. Satan. Republic attempted to get the rights to do a Superman serial again in 1941, but failed to do so as the film rights had already been acquired by Paramount (more on that in a bit). Ultimately Republic wound up making a serial based on Superman's archrival, with regards to sales: The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Of course, there would eventually be a Superman serial. Columbia released Superman, starring Kirk Alyn, on January 5 1948.

It was a mark of Superman's popularity that on July 3 1940 there was a Superman Day at the New York World's Fair. The event not only included many of those involved in the publication of Superman (co-creator Jerry Siegel, publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, and All-American Comics publisher Max C. Gaines), but the first ever live actor in a Superman suit. Some have identified the actor as Ray Middleton, who would later appear in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and the movies Hurricane Smith (1941) and 1776 (1972), but others disagree that it is. There seems to be no proof either way. Superman Day also included a live broadcast of The Adventures of Superman from the fairgrounds.

Such was the popularity of Superman that not only was he the first superhero to have his own comic book and the first superhero to have his own action figure, but he was also the first superhero to be included as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Superman balloon appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 21 1940. Sadly, the balloon would be redesigned as football player for the 1941 parade. There would be two more Superman balloons in the parade. The second would appear in the parade from 1966 to 1969. The third was the second largest balloon in the parade of all time and appeared from 1980 until 1987. During the Christmas season of 1940 Macy's also featured a Superman exhibit. Admissions cost 30 cents and made a total of $30,000.

While Superman would not appear in a live action film until 1948, that did not mean that he did not conquer the big screen in the early Forties. With the success of Superman in various media, it was natural that Paramount Pictures would take an interest in the Man of Steel. The studio approached animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose animated shorts they distributed,  with the offer of producing a series of Superman cartoons. The Fleischer brothers were not particularly keen on making cartoons starring the Man of Steel, and because of this they quoted a then astronomical budget of $100,000 for the series. To their shock and perhaps to their dismay as well, Paramount accepted the offer. It was because of the Superman cartoons that Republic could not get the film rights to their planned Superman serial.

The first Superman animated short, entitled "Superman," but also known as "The Mad Scientist," debuted on September 26 1941. Budgeted at $50,000 (a then unheard of amount for an animated short subject), "Superman" proved to be a hit at theatres. It also received its share of acclaim, even being nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 14th Academy Awards (Walt Disney's "Lend a Paw" won). "Superman (AKA "Mad Scientist")" would be followed by 16 more "Superman" animated shorts. Paramount ended the series in 1943. While very successful, the "Superman" cartoons were very expensive, costing on average $30,000.

It was in 1942 that Superman conquered the medium of books. That year the novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther was published. It included illustrations by Joe Schuster, co-creator of Superman. The novel was significant in including the first description of life on Superman's home planet Krypton in any detail. It also forever changed the names of Superman's birth parents. Originally named Jor-L and Lora, the novel renamed them Jor-El and Lara. The novel went from the destruction of Krypton through Clark Kent being raised by Eben and Sarah Kent (they wouldn't receive their current names of Jonathan and Martha until nearly the Fifties) to becoming Superman and fighting Nazi spies.

As might be expected given his popularity, references to Superman in pop culture occur relatively early in the character's history. On October 9 1940 Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was interviewed on the popular radio programme The Fred Allen Show.  The episode also featured an appearance by publisher Harry Donenfeld. In the 1942 movie The Man Who Came to Dinner, Sheridan Whiteside refers to Superman. Parodies of Superman appeared relatively early, with the 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Super-Rabbit" being an example. As mentioned earlier, Superman was covered heavily in newspapers and magazines of the era, from The Saturday Evening Post to Look to Time.

Given the meteoric rise of Superman's popularity in the early Forties, it should come as no surprise that he continued to be relatively popular into the late Forties, even after superheroes in general had declined in popularity. A plethora of Superman merchandise still filled store shelves. In 1948 Columbia released the serial Superman, marking his first live action appearance. Columbia followed it with the serial Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950.  In 1951 there would be Superman's feature film debut in Superman and the Mole Men with George Reeves in the lead role. Mr. Reeves would also play Superman in the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1951 to 1958. Since he was first introduced in 1939, there has not been a decade that has gone by without Superman appearing in some other medium besides comic books. Although not as popular as he once was, the lasting popularity of Superman began with what an almost immediate rise in popularity following his introduction. After all, it is not every character who has a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of theatrical cartoons within three years of his first appearance.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Late Great Harry Anderson

Harry Anderson, the magician and actor who starred in the classic sitcom Night Court and played a recurring character on Cheers, died on April 16 2018 at the age of 65.

Harry Anderson was born on October 14 1952 in Newport, Rhode Island. His family moved frequently when he was growing up, so that he lived in such cities as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans. He was 16 when his family moved to California. It was there that he became a professional magician, practising his skills in Los Angeles and making a living as a street magician in San Francisco. In his late teens and early twenties he travelled the country performing magic. It was in Austin, Texas that he met the juggler named Turk Pipkin. The two formed a partnership and performed around the United States. Mr. Pipkin would later guest star on Night Court.

Harry Anderson's success as a magician led to appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and Saturday Night Live. His appearances on Saturday Night Live led to him being cast in the recurring role of Harry the Hat on Cheers. His turn as Harry the Hat led to him being cast as Judge Harry Stone on the hit sitcom Night Court. He was nominated three times for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the role. Night Court ran for nine seasons. In the Eighties he also guest starred on such shows as Tales from the Darkside, The Magical World of Disney, and Tales from the Crypt. He appeared in the television mini-series It. Mr. Anderson also appeared in the movies The Escape Artist  (1982) and She's Having a Baby (1988).

Following Night Court he starred as Dave Barry in Dave's World, which ran for four seasons. In the Nineties he also guest starred on such shows as Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Hearts Afire, Night Stand, The John Larroquette Show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Noddy, and Explore Our World. He appeared in a television adaptation of the play Harvey.

In 2002 Mr. Anderson moved to New Orleans where he opened a magic and curiosity shop. In 2005 he opened a nightclub called Oswald's Speakeasy. In the Naughts he guest starred on the shows Son of the Beach and 30 Rock. He and his wife attempted to remain in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, but eventually moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Harry Anderson made his last appearance on screen in the film A Matter of Faith in 2014.

Harry Anderson was marvellous in the roles of Harry the Hat on Cheers and Judge Harry Stone on Night Court. Between the two shows he created two of the most memorable characters to emerge on television in the Eighties. He also appeared in other memorable roles, including the absent-minded Professor Henry Crawford on The Magical World of Disney and Richie Tozier in the mini-series It. As good as he was as an actor, Mr. Anderson always considered himself a magician first. And he was a very good magician. When it came to slight-of-hand perhaps no one matched Harry Anderson. With a quick and easy delivery, when it came to magic, Mr. Anerson's hand was definitely quicker than most people's eyes. Enormously gifted as both a magician and an actor, it is sad to know that he is gone.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The 100th Birthday of William Holden

It was 100 years ago today that William Holden was born in O'Fallon, Illinois. He was one of the biggest stars from the mid-Fifties into the early Sixties, ranking every year in the top twenty of Quigley Publishing's Top Money Making Stars poll of theatre owners. He also won won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Stalag 17 (1953).  While his career would decline in the Sixties, he would make a comeback in the Seventies. To this day he remains one of the best remembered stars of the late 20th Century.

If William Holden was so successful as an actor, it was perhaps because he was extremely versatile. He was handsome enough to be a romantic lead, but looked rugged enough that he could be equally convincing in action films. Indeed, for many people he might always be womanising playboy David Larrabee in Sabrina (1954). Although it would be his best known romantic comedy, it was not the only one in which he appeared. He was reunited with Sabrina co-star Audrey Hepburn in Paris When It Sizzles (1964), once more playing a playboy. He also appeared in The Moon is Blue (1954), in which he also played a playboy (who also happened to be an architect). William Holden was very adept at playing the sort of roles for which Cary Grant was well known, that of charming playboys who always got the girl. He also starred in such romantic comedies as Dear Ruth (1947) and Born Yesterday (1950).

Of course, not every comedy William Holden made was a romantic comedy. What is more, some of the comedies in which Mr. Holden appeared could be very dark. Stalag 17 (1954) is arguably as much a comedy as it is a drama. Indeed, it is set in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II. What is more, Mr. Holden's character is a far cry from the charming playboys he sometimes played. Sgt. J. J. Sefton was a hard-nosed cynic who came from somewhat less than wealthy circumstances. As strange as it might sound, the satire Network (1976) is arguably darker than Stalag 17. In the film he plays Howard Beale, a long time evening news anchor who has a psychotic break, an event that his network takes full advantage of. Mr. Holden was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor and some might argue that he should have won.

While William Holden made a number of comedies, he is also well known for his action-adventure films. Indeed, two of his most famous movies could be counted as action-adventure films. The first was the epic war movie The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in which he played Commander Shears. Held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Shears and the other prisoners are forced to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai. The second was The Wild Bunch (1969), the famous Western in which William Holden played ageing outlaw Pike Bishop. Over the years Mr. Holden appeared in so many action-adventure films that many probably identify him with that genre more than any other. He appeared in war movies such as Submarine Command (1951), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), and The Devil's Brigade (1968). He appeared in Westerns such as Texas (1941), The Man from Colorado (1948), Streets of Laredo (1949), and The Horse Soldiers (1959). He even appeared in disaster movies, the most famous being The Towering Inferno (1954).

With Mr. Holden's talent he could easily play drama, and one of his most famous films is a drama. Indeed, it could be considered film noir. In Sunset Boulevard (1950) he played ill-fated screenwriter Joe Gillis. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role. He also played Hal Carter, the drifter who disrupts life in a small Kansas town in Picnic (1955). In Executive Suite (1954) he played Vice President for Design and Development Don Walling. The Dark Past (1948) was another film noir. This time he actually played a bad guy, psychotic killer Al Walker.

William Holden was an extremely talented and versatile actor, whose many roles have definitely left their mark on film history. The characters of William Holden remain recognisable to even casual film viewers, whether as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Sefton in Stalag 17, Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, or Howard Beale in Network, or a few other roles. 100 years after his birth, William Holden remains one of the best remembered actors to emerge from Hollywood.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Godspeed Milos Forman

Milos Forman, who directed such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984), died April 13 2018 at the age of 86.

Milos Forman was born on February 18 1932 in Cáslav, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. He was only eight years old when his father was arrested by the Gestapo. His mother was arrested not long afterwards. Both were killed in death camps. During part of World War II he lived with his aunt. He was later taken in by the director of the local gas company in Cáslav. Following the war he attended a boarding school for orphans of the war. He attended film school in Prague.

In the late Fifties he served as assistant director on Dedecek automobil (1957) and Stenata (1958). He received his first directorial credit on the documentary Laterna magika II (1960). In the early Sixties he was an assistant director on Tam za lesem (1962).  He directed his first feature film Cerný Petr (1964 Black Peter). It was followed by Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965 Loves of a Blonde) and Horí, má panenko (1967 The Fireman's Ball).  It was following the Soviet invasion of the Czech Republic that Milos Forman migrated to the United States.

Although it received the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Milos Forman's first film made in the United States, Taking Off (1971), did so poorly at the box office that Mr. Forman owed the studio $500. This was not the case with his next film. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) not only did well at the box office, but it also won the Oscars for Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay (becoming the first film to do so since It Happened One Night). One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was followed by Milos Forman's adaptation of the Broadway musical Hair (1979), which received mostly positive reviews, but did not perform well at the box office.

Milos Forman began the Eighties with Ragtime (1981), which was nominated for the eight Oscars. It was followed by Amadeus (1984), which won eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director).  He ended the decade with Valmont (1989).

In the Nineties Mr. Forman directed The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999). In the Naughts he directed Goya's Ghosts (2006) and Dobre placená procházka (2009).

Milos Forman was a remarkable director. He had a gift for making movies about outsiders and nonconformists, from McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Mozart in Amadeus. He also had a gift for making period pieces. Among his best films numbered Ragtime and Amadeus. He was also very versatile. During his career he directed documentaries, comedies, a musical, and dramas. The setting of his films varied as well. His movies were set in such diverse places as a mental hospital, a hippie commune, Turn of the Century New York City, and 18th Century France. What is more, he handled all of these diverse genres and settings with a skill and finesse most directors lacked. Few directors were as talented as Milos Forman.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Tim O'Connor Passes On

Tim O'Connor, who starred in the TV shows Peyton Place and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, died on April 5 at the age of 90. The cause was cancer.

Tim O'Connor was born in Chicago on July 3 1927. During World War II he served in the United States Navy. After his service he studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. In the early Fifties he moved to New York City, where he appeared Off-Broadway in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. He made his film debut in Master Minds in 1949. He made his television debut in an episode of Look Up and Live in 1954 and appeared in an episode of Brenner in 1959. In 1960 he appeared in episodes of such shows as Diagnosis: Unknown and The DuPont Show of the Month.

In the Sixties Mr. O'Connor guest starred on such shows as Way Out, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone, General Hospital, Espionage, The Outer Limits, Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Name of the Game, Daniel Boone, and Dan August. He had a recurring role on The Defenders and starred in the night time soap opera Peyton Place.

In the Seventies Tim O'Connor guest starred on such shows as Mannix, Longstreet, Hawaii Five-O, Gunsmoke, The F.B.I., The Manhunter, Get Christie Love!, The Rockford Files, All in the Family, The Six Milllion Dollar Man, Police Story, Cannon, Maude, Columbo, The Streets of San Francisco, Lou Grant, Police Woman, Wonder Woman, Barnaby Jones, and M*A*S*H. He starred in the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He appeared in the films Wild in the Sky (1972), The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), Across 110th Street (1972), Sssssss (1973), and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).

In the Eighties Mr. O'Connor had a recurring role on the TV show Dynasty. He guest starred on such shows as M*A*S*H; Vega$; Matt Houston; Knight Rider; The A-Team; Murder, She Wrote; Dallas; and Doogie Howser, M.D. He appeared in the film La cruz de Iberia (1990).  In the Nineties he guest starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation; Walker, Texas Ranger; and The Burning Zone. He appeared in the film The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991). His last appearance was in the movie Dreams Awake (2011).

Tim O'Connor was an extraordinary actor. While he played plenty of military officers and cops in this career, he also played a variety of roles. He played the newspaper man who had previously spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit on Peyton Place. In Sssssss he played a carnival freak show owner. On All in the Family he planned an old flame of Edith. Tim O'Conner could play a variety of roles. What is more, regardless of the material, he always brought a depth to his role. There should be little surprise that he was very much in demand for roles in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Flash Gordon (1980)

(This post is part of "The Outer Space on Film Blogathon" hosted by Moon In Gemini)

Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope) was the smash hit of 1977. Indeed, it would become the highest grossing film of all time, a title it would retain for many years. As might be expected in the wake of such success, several sci-fi films set in outer space would be released in the years following Star Wars. Among the sci-fi films set in space following Star Wars, both serious and otherwise, were Starcrash (1978), Alien (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Galaxina (1980), and The Last Starfighter (1984). Even old sci-fi properties would see a revival due to the success of Star Wars, including Star Trek (with Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979) and Buck Rogers (with a movie released theatrically in 1979 followed by a TV series that fall). Alongside Buck Rogers would be another older sci-fi property that would be revived in the wake of Star Wars. The comic strip Flash Gordon was nearly fifty years old when the motion picture Flash Gordon (1980) was released.

Of course, just as Flash Gordon (1980) owed its existence to Star Wars, the original comic strip Flash Gordon owed its existence to another, earlier science fiction property. The comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. first appeared on January 7 1929. It was distributed by the John F. Dille Co., a newspaper syndicate that would later be known as the National Newspaper Syndicate,  

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. proved to an enormous success, so much so that other newspaper syndicates took notice. Among these was the powerful King Features Syndicate, who decided they wanted their own science fiction comic strip to compete with Buck Rogers. Initially they sought to license Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars novels, but the syndicate could not reach an agreement with the author. King Features Syndicate then turned to one of their staff artists, Alex Raymond, who was currently illustrating the comic strip Secret Agent X-9, and asked him to create a science fiction comic strip. Borrowing the idea of a rouge planet from Philip Wylie's novel When Worlds Collide, Alex Raymond and Don Moore created Flash Gordon. The comic strip first appeared on January 7 1934.

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon
Flash Gordon proved enormously successful from the beginning, even more so than Buck Rogers. It was quickly adapted to other media. In 1935 a radio show, The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon, debuted. This was followed in 1936 by the Universal serial Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. The serial proved successful enough to produce two sequels: Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).  All three serials were also edited and condensed into feature films. The success of Flash Gordon would continue for many years, so that it would be adapted as a television series in 1954. The TV series Flash Gordon was produced in Germany and syndicated to television stations throughout the United States.

The lasting success of Flash Gordon made it inevitable that a big budget feature film would be made based on the comic strip. In fact, some very recognisable names were interested in making such a film. In the early Seventies George Lucas approached King Features Syndicate about obtaining the film rights to Flash Gordon. Unfortunately for Mr. Lucas, King Features Syndicate asked for more money than he could afford. As a result he went ahead and created his own space opera inspired by Flash Gordon and other sources, Star Wars. In more ways than one, then, Star Wars would not exist without Flash Gordon.

As it turned out, King Features Syndicate had another director in mind besides George Lucas for a Flash Gordon movie. Quite simply, they wanted legendary Italian director Federico Fellini. Although he never actually wrote an Italian continuation of Flash Gordon after it was banned in Fascist Italy as often claimed, Mr. Fellini was a huge fan of the comic strip. For whatever reason, Federico Fellini eventually declined making a Flash Gordon movie.

Filmation's Flash Gordon
Of course, while neither George Lucas nor Federico Fellini would direct a Flash Gordon movie, after the success of Star Wars it perhaps became inevitable that someone would. It was in August 1977 that King Features Syndicate announced that they had licensed the live-action film rights to Dino De Laurentiis. At the same time they announced that licensed the animated rights to Filmation in order to produce an animated television movie. With the rights to Flash Gordon secured, Filmation would produce both the 1979 animated series Flash Gordon and the television movie Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of Them All (although made before the Saturday morning cartoon, it would not air until 1982). As to Dino De Laurentiis, he would produce Flash Gordon (1980).

While Mr. De Laurentiis now had the rights to Flash Gordon, in some respects Flash Gordon (1980) would not be an easy film to make. Initially he hired Nicolas Roeg, who had directed Don't Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), to direct Flash Gordon.  Mr. Roeg began work with screenwriter Michael Allin, who had written Enter the Dragon, on the screenplay. Ultimately Dino De Laurentiis was dissatisfied with Nicolas Roeg's vision for Flash Gordon, and as a result the director would leave the project. Dino De Laurentiis offered the chance to direct Flash Gordon to the legendary Sergio Leone, who turned it down because he wanted to do something more faithful to Alex Raymond's original comic strip. Dino De Laurentiis also hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay. Best known for the TV series Batman, Mr. Semple had also written the screenplays for Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Dino De Laurentiis finally found a director in the form of Mike Hodges, who had directed Get Carter (1971) and The Terminal Man (1973). While Mr. De Laurentiis had difficulty finding a director, he also had difficulty finding someone to play Flash Gordon. He offered it to Kurt Russell, who rejected it outright. He also considered a then unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. As might be expected, it was Mr. Schwarzenegger's accent that cost him the role. According to Liz Smith's February 1 1977 column, William Katt was also being considered for the role of Flash Gordon. Mr. Katt had already appeared in Carrie (1976), First Love (1977),  and Big Wednesday (1978). Eventually he would gain fame as the star of the TV show The Greatest American Hero. The part would finally go to a total unknown. Dino De Laurentiis's mother in law had seen Sam Jones on The Dating Game. His only movie appearance had been in the movie 10 (1979).

The role of Dale Arden, Flash Gordon's love interest, would also present some problems. After several actresses had been auditioned, Canadian model Dayle Haddon was cast in the role. Unfortunately for Miss Haddon, Dino De Laurentiis had second thoughts about her only days before the movie was set to shoot. It was then that Melody Anderson was cast as Dale Arden. Miss Anderson had guest starred on the TV shows Welcome Back, Kotter; Logan's Run; and Battlestar Galactica.

Orenlla Muti and Max Von Sydow as Aura and Ming
Max Von Sydow, who was a friend of Dino De Laurentiis, was cast as Ming the Merciless, Flash Gordon's archenemy. As Flash Gordon's friend and ally, another one of Mr. De Laurentiis's friends was cast, Broadway star Topol. Brian Blessed practically demanded to be cast as Prince Vultan, prince of the Hawkmen. He even went so far as to point out his resemblance to Vultan as drawn by Alex Raymond. Ultimately Mr. Blessed was cast in the role and it has since become one of the most iconic of his career.

Even once principal photography was completed, Flash Gordon was not an easy film to make. For reasons that are now unclear, Sam Jones got into a spat with Dino De Laurentiis and would do no further work on the film. Any dialogue that had to be redubbed was then done by another actor, whose name remains unknown to this day. Of course, this also meant that Sam Jones would not do publicity for the film. As a result, the publicity campaign for Flash Gordon was not quite as big as Universal had intended it to be.

Of course, one of the most famous aspects of Flash Gordon is its musical score. Dino De Laurentiis decided that the film should have a score composed by the rock group Queen. The soundtrack to Flash Gordon sold well, hitting no. 23 on the Billboard album chart and no. 10 on the UK album chart.

Sam Jones as Flash
Flash Gordon was released on December 5 1980. It received largely positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a largely good review, commenting, "Is all of this ridiculous? Of course. Is it fun? Yeah, sort of, it is." Pauline Kael also gave the film largely a positive review, writing, "Flash Gordon is simply out to give you a good time." David Ansen of Newsweek also liked the movie, remarking, "Like the original, Flash Gordon has nothing on its mind but moving its jet-propelled plot from one fairy-tale setting to the next. It's nice to see a movie accomplish exactly what it sets out to do, with wit and spirit to boot." Upon its initial release Flash Gordon did have its share of detractors. The uncredited critic at Variety was not impressed with the film, writing, "The expensive new version of Flash Gordon is a lot more gaudy, and just as dumb, as the original series starring Buster Crabbe." Vincent Canby of The New York Times also gave the film a bad review, writing, "The pacing is so funereal that this Flash Gordon seems far longer and far less funny than the 15-chapter serial Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)." While Flash Gordon did receive some bad reviews, over all it had a good reception, and it maintains a fairly good reputation to this day. At Rotten Tomatoes it has a score of 82%.

While Flash Gordon received several positive reviews, its box office in the United States was less than impressive. Flash Gordon made $27,107,960 in North America (that would be about $81,827,259 today). It did a good deal better in the United Kingdom, as well as in Europe. According to director Mike Hodges, a sequel would have been possible if not for Sam Jones's disagreement with Dino De Laurentiis.

While Flash Gordon received mostly positive reviews, there were fans of Alex Raymond's original comic strip, as well as various sci-fi fans, who disliked the movie's camp approach. Like the TV series Batman before it (which was developed for television by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.), there were those who felt that the movie was poking fun at Flash Gordon. Whether Dino De Laurentiis set out to create a campy movie is unclear today. Director Mike Hodges seemed to think the only way to approach Flash Gordon was camp. In the book Get Carter and Beyond: The Cinema of Mike Hodges by Steven Paul Davies, Mr. Hodges is quoted as saying, "What else are you meant to do but laugh at a comic strip? When Alex Raymond had first created the strip in the 1930s, man was a long way from landing on the moon. But by 1980 we'd been there, done that! It had to be done tongue-in-cheek."

Melody Anderson as Dale
In an interview with Starlog, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. also expressed the idea that Flash Gordon was meant to be a campy film, although he regretted writing it as such. He said, "Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous. At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realise it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. That was a catastrophic thing to do, with so much money involved... I never thought the character of Flash in the script was particularly good. But there was no pressure to make it any better. Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny. The entire film got way out of control."

While Mike Hodges and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. seemed to think Flash Gordon was meant to be done tongue-in-cheek, Melody Anderson has not only said that everyone in the cast played their roles seriously, but Dino De Laurentiis was not happy that people were laughing while watching the film. She said, "When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, 'Why are you laughing?' And then they discovered they had a comedy, that it was camp."

Brian Blessed as Vultan
Whether Dino De Laurentiis meant for Flash Gordon to be campy is perhaps a moot point. Despite the fans who are critical of the film and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s reservations about it in later years, the camp approach works very well for Flash Gordon. Indeed, in many of the reviews upon the film's release, many of the critics appreciated the film's camp approach and regarded it as one of the best things about the film. Certainly the camp approach of the film is much of the reason it would develop a cult following over the years. It is one of director Edgar Wright's favourite films and he has said that it influenced the look of his film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). It is the favourite film of comic book artist Alex Ross, who painted the cover of the film's "Saviour of the Universe Edition" DVD release from 2007. Brian Blessed regards Flash Gordon as one of the high points of his career and Prince Vultan's line, "Gordon's alive?" is perhaps the most quoted line of any character he has played.

While it seems possible that a serious take on Flash Gordon in 1980 could have been successful, it also seems likely that it might not have. Over the years the many tropes of the comic strip had been borrowed and reused so many times by comic strips, comic books, movies, and television shows that they no longer seemed fresh and new the way they did in 1934. Indeed, Star Wars, released only three years before Flash Gordon in 1977, was done seriously and borrowed many of the tropes of the original comic strip. Done seriously, Flash Gordon may have run the serious risk of being compared to Star Wars, a film that utilised many of the themes it had originated.

Besides, like the first season of the TV series Batman, Flash Gordon can be appreciated as an adventure movie was well as camp. There is plenty of action and excitement in the film and, while many of the situations in the film might be humorous, everyone in the cast plays their roles straight. What is more, while its humorous tone might set it apart from the original comic strip, Flash Gordon is loyal to the bare bones of the comic strip. Just as in the comic strip, Dr. Zarkov forces Flash and Dale into his spaceship in order to save Earth from a collision with the rogue planet Mongo. Once there, they run afoul of the planet's ruler, Ming the Merciless. What is more, the movie looks a good deal like the comic strip, with many of the costumes and sets looking as if they came straight out of one of Alex Raymond's panels. Indeed, the production design of Flash Gordon may be the best thing about the film, so much so that looking back it seems amazing that it was not nominated for an Oscar for production design.

While it initially did not do that well at the American box office, Flash Gordon has since become one of the most recognisable and most popular sci-fi films of its era. It has maintained a cult following to this day, so much so that articles are still being published about the film in such sources as Empire magazine and the website Uproxx. While there many always be those who object to its camp approach, one thing seems certain. Flash Gordon will continue to be popular for many years to come.


Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Soon-Tek Oh Passes On

Korean actor Soon--Tek Oh, who appeared in several films and TV shows, and provided the voice of Fa Zhou in Mulan (1998), died on April 4 2018 at the age of 85.

Soon-Tek Oh was born on June 29 1932 in Mokpo, Japanese Korea (now South Korea). He graduated with a degree in political science from Yonsei University in Seoul. After immigrating to the United States he won a scholarship to the Neighbourhood Playhouse in the United States and also attended the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1965 he founded East West Players in Los Angeles, one of the first Asian American theatre groups in the United States.

Soon-Tek Oh made his television debut in an episode of I Spy in 1965. In the Sixties he guest starred on such shows as Mister Roberts, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, The Invaders, The Wild Wild West, It Takes a Thief, Death Valley Days, and Dan August. He made his film debut in Murderer's Row in 1966. He appeared in a bit part in The President's Analyst in 1967.

In the Seventies Mr. Oh guest starred on such shows as Night Gallery, Ironside, Search, The Magician, Kung Fu, M*A*S*H, Logan's Run, Baa Baa Black Sheep, How the West Was Won, and Hawaii Five-O. He had a brief, recurring role on Charlie's Angels. He appeared in such movies as One More Train to Rob (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Good Guys Wear Black (1974), and The Final Countdown (1980).

In the Eighties Soon-Tek Oh guest starred on such shows as Charlie's Angels, Trapper John M.D., M*A*S*H, Quincy M.E., M*A*SH, The Greatest American Hero, Hart to Hart, Airwolf, Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, MacGyver, Simon & Simon, Tour of Duty, and Hunter. He appeared in the mini-series East of Eden and Marco Polo. He appeared in such films as Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985), Steele Justice (1987), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), and Collision Course (1989).

In the Nineties Soon-Tek Oh guest starred on such shows as Zorro; Highlander; Murder, She Wrote; Babylon 5; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Malcolm & Eddie; and Stargate SG-1. He was a guest voice on such animated shows as The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and King of the Hill. He appeared in such films as A Home of Our Own (1993), Red Sun Rising (1994), S.F.W. (1994), and Beverly Hills Ninja (1997). He provided the voice of Fa Zhou in the animated film Mulan (1998). In the Naughts Mr. Oh guest starred on the TV shows The District and Touched by an Angel. He appeared in the films True Blue (2001), Last Mountain (2005), and Gang-jeok (2006).

Soon-Tek Oh was an extremely talented actor. In the course of his career he played everything from Japanese soldiers during World War II to police detectives to surgeons. He may be most familiar today in the role of Mulan's father, Fa Zhou. Mr. Oh was always convincing in any role he played.