Friday, March 16, 2018

unForgotten Books: LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry (1985)

No one has forgotten Lonesome Dove, and it ain’t likely anyone ever will. But I re-read (or more precisely re-listened to) it recently, and discovered a few things I'd forgotten.

Remember when there were shops specializing in renting audiobooks on cassette? Yeah, there really were such places, some twenty-odd years ago. That’s when and where I came upon a copy of the unabridged reading of this book by Lee Horsley. Yeah, I’m talking about the Archie Goodwin-Matt Houston-Guns of Paradise Lee Horsley, who I didn’t especially like on TV, but who did a masterful job with this novel. It stuck in my brain ever since as the perfect marriage of narrator to book, and I’ve been hankering for another listen ever since.

Well, I finally got one, and I’m pleased to report it’s still every bit as good as I remembered. And while Horsley’s narration makes it shine, the real star of the book is Larry McMurtry’s prose. I have to say that word-for-word, the first half of this novel is one of the most entertaining reads I’ve ever had.

Point of view shifts quickly, often from one paragraph to the next, introducing us to a huge cast of outrageously captivating characters. Each has his own cockeyed world view, and many of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny. McMurtry keeps the yuks coming through most of the first half, leaving me agog with envy.

But somewhere in the middle, things turn serious. McMurtry’s West is a grim and deadly place, and the further our cast of characters stray from Lonesome Dove, the grimmer and deadlier it gets. The new characters we meet are dumber and duller, and the older ones stop having fun. Point of view shifts much slower, and we’re stuck with dumb, dull folks for way too long. That’s when a lot of people start dying, while others are subjected to such misery they wish they could die (and I was rooting for them to hurry up and do it).

This is still a great novel, of course. There’s a reason it won a Pulitzer Prize. And while I’d like it better if the humor of the first half filled the whole book, chances are it would now be largely forgotten, rather than the cornerstone of a franchise that spawned three more novels, more TV miniseries than I can count and at least couple of regular TV series.

So I think everyone should read it. Or better yet, listen to it, if you’re lucky enough to score the Horsley version. Just don’t be surprised when it turns your smile upside down. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

"Commodore John Barry" - An Adventure of the Revolution by REED CRANDALL (1961)

This tale, from the July 1961 issue of the Catholic comic book Treasure Chest, was uploaded to comicbookplus by the user movielover. It's a great example of the pencil and ink skills of Mr. Reed Crandall.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

You'tube Theater: THE SHADOW STRIKES (1937)

Here’s the good news: This first film version of The Shadow was based on the pulp magazine rather than on the radio show. (The pulp character, by my reckoning, is the real Shadow, and the other guy an imposter). The movie is based on the novel “The Ghost of the Manor” from the June 15, 1933 issue.

But the bad news is: Despite the cool title, The Shadow never really Strikes. In fact, he’s hardly present at all. This is really just an average low-budget mystery in which the hero twice dons a cape, for a total screen time of just over a minute.

As the film opens, we meet an unnamed gentleman and his aide. The gentleman is examining the bullet that killed his father, a high-profile attorney killed by the racketeers he crusaded against. The gentleman professes a desire to learn who fired the bullet.

Our hero spends the rest of the film solving a couple of mundane manor house murders and pretending to be an attorney named Chester Randall. Why this Randall persona was necessary is more than I can figure. In the pulp story, The Shadow was masquerading as Lamont Cranston, currently vacationing in Timbuktu. Anyway, it’s pretty tame stuff. A couple of guns are fired, but no one is shot on camera, and we don’t even get a fist fight.

In The Shadow’s first brief appearance, he wears a normal narrow-brimmed fedora and has a cape draped casually over a shoulder or two. Though his face appears to be in full view of the bad guys, they immediately know him as The Shadow. Hm.

Next time he pops in, he has the high collar of his cape turned up, so folks see just his eyes. This is more effective, but all he does is stand there, point a gun, and vamoose.

Only at the very end of the film, via a newspaper article, do we learn that our gentleman hero is amateur criminologist “Lamont Granston.” Yes, Granston with a G. Why? I’ve no idea. Unlike the Cranston we know from the magazine, he doesn’t know anybody and nobody knows him, so he parades around in his own face without being recognized. The mystery of who shot his father is never resolved, though the film ends with him studying a bullet recovered during the case.

Rod LaRocque makes a decent film detective. He always wears a slightly amused look, like a slightly older and fleshier version of Warren William. This adds a little comic relief, and we get more from the byplay between him and his aide. Trouble is, he’s not Lamont Cranston, or even Granston.

The film is otherwise not horrible. It’s a typical cheapie, with passable acting and occasionally good dialogue. A musical soundtrack would have helped a lot, but I guess that wasn’t in the budget. It’s only really bad if you watch it expecting to see The Shadow.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Forgotten Books: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE by Ian Fleming (1963)

Look out, there’s a SPOILER coming up. But it’s only a spoiler if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie. The plot element (and ending) I’m going to discuss was a really big deal in the film, and it’s because that element is so underplayed in the novel that I feel compelled to bring it up.

Yeah, I’m talking about Bond getting married, and his bride’s almost immediate demise. She had to die, of course, just like every unwitting damsel who every got engaged to one of the Cartwright boys. But the way it’s presented in the book, it’s pretty hard to swallow. Bond spends one night with this woman, finds her to be mentally disturbed, and scoffs at her father’s suggestion that he marry her.

Months later, meeting her again (in an amazingly contrived situation), he spends a couple of hours with her (with his clothes on, no less), decides she’s the love of his life, and proposes. I just didn’t buy it. 

So why did Fleming do it? Well, it's pretty obvious he wanted a way to rationalize Bond recruiting a group of Corsican mobsters to help assault the stronghold of his arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That assault makes for a cool scene, and the friendship between Bond and head mobster (his fiancé’s father) seems genuine. But once that’s over, Mrs. Bond is simply discarded like the plot device she is. She’s snuffed out on the final page of the book, the story’s over, and we get no glimpse of Bond’s grief, if any. This was not Fleming’s finest hour.

Otherwise, it was fine Bond book. One of the funniest parts was seeing him 007 play the role of a snooty aristocrat from the royal genealogical society. And there’s a cool tribute to Rex Stout.

It's set up when we learn that M’s hobby is to paint watercolors of the wild orchids of England. As Bond enters M's office, he's hunched over his drawing board with a pitiful looking flower in front of him. Here's what follows:  

“What the devil’s the name of that fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What’s he called?”

“Nero Wolfe, sir. They’re written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.”

“They’re readable,” condescended M. “But I was thinking of the orchid stuff in them. How in hell can a man like those disgusting flowers? Why, they’re damned near animals, and their colours, all those pinks and mauves and the blotchy yellow tongues, are positively hideous! Now that”—M waved at the meagre little bloom in the tooth-glass—“that’s the real thing. That’s an Autumn Lady’s Tresses—spiranthes spiralis, not that I care particularly. Flowers in England as late as October and should be under the ground by now. But I got this forced-late specimen from a man I know—assistant to a chap called Summerhayes who’s the orchid king at Kew. My friend’s experimenting with cultures of a fungus which oddly enough is a parasite on a lot of orchids, but, at the same time, gets eaten by the orchids and acts as a stable diet, Mycorhiza it’s called.” M gave another of his rare smiles. “But you needn’t write it down. Just wanted to take a leaf out of this fellow Nero Wolfe’s book.”

So Ian Fleming was a Stout fan. If you ain't, you should be too.