Friday, January 27, 2012

Forgotten Books: Spartan Planet by A. Bertram Chandler

Once in a while I like to cleanse the reading palate with a visit to another planet, and lately I’ve been doing that in the company of John Grimes of the Federation Survey Service.

The last Grimes novel I read (The Broken Cycle, the final installment of the Baen collection To the Galactic Rim) was a big yawn, so I was hoping Spartan Planet (from 1969, and the opener for the second Baen volume, First Command) would be better. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure. The earlier Grimes books were all in his point of view, but the protagonist of this one turned out to be a small planet policeman named Brasidus.

BUT, once Grimes and his crew (including his sometimes sex partner Margaret Lazenby) showed up, things started popping, and I had a smile on for the rest of the book. Our man Brasiduyou see, has never laid eyes on a woman, or imagined that such strange critters existed. He and most other residents of the planet Sparta think Margaret is a deformed man, and can’t fathom the big peculiar bumps on her chest.

Sparta, it develops, is an early Federation colony, out of touch so long the people have forgotten they’re a colony. Their society is modeled on the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, and they’ve somehow managed to do entirely without women (or so they think).

Grimes and crew, with only the best of intentions, manage to turn the whole society on its head. Despite some horrific events along the way, the novel never loses its tongue-in-cheek focus. My faith in the Grimes saga has been restored, and I’m looking forward to the next adventure, The Inheritors.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Oklahoma Kid (rides again)

More posters hyping yesterday's Overlooked Film.

At center, future Wagonmaster Ward Bond

Cagney braces a saloon full of thugs

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Overlooked Films: The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

This one surprised me. Most of what I’ve read or heard about The Oklahoma Kid was negative, and now I don’t know why. I found it an extremely entertaining film.

I’ll admit it took me a couple of scenes to get used to Jimmy Cagney, with his New York wise guy accent, as a western outlaw.  But his character is so engaging that I soon stopped thinking about it, and just enjoyed the ride. Cagney plays a good boy gone bad, who puts his badness to good use when he goes up against an even badder guy in the form of Humphrey Bogart. As the Oklahoma Kid, Cagney is happy-go-lucky, cynical and chivalrous all at the same time, and somehow makes it work. You just can’t help liking the guy.

When this film was released in 1939, Cagney was a huge star, and Bogart had not yet hit his stride. Bogart's breakthrough appearances in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon were still two years away. So while Bogart did get second billing on the posters, it was a very distant second. It’s hard to find his image on any of the posters, and he’s hardly even seen in the lobby cards. By the time the movie was re-released in 1956, of course, Bogie was on at least equal footing, and the new posters make it appear they are battling man-to-man.

And surprisingly, that’s pretty much true. Bogart’s role in the film as much greater than I expected, and I believe he got almost as much screen time as Cagney. And though the two are clearly the story’s chief adversaries, they rarely appear on screen together. Still, it's clear a big confrontation is coming, and it arrives in the climactic fistfight between the two stars (and their two stunt doubles).

Bogie’s role, as an unscrupulous gent with the name Whip McCord, is pretty standard fare. He’s the outlaw gang leader who owns the saloon and plots to take control of the whole town. A similar character appears in about half the westerns you could name, but this one rises above the pack merely because Bogart commands the screen with the same force we see in his more famous roles.

The film’s historical setting is interesting too. The story begins in 1889, with President Cleveland opening up the Cherokee Strip - a big chunk of Oklahoma that had belonged to the Cherokee nation since 1836. The idea seems to be that this prime farm land is just too good to be wasted on the Indians, so they're reimbursed at the bargain rate of $1.40 an acre and told to vamoose. This sets the stage for the biggest land run in U.S. history, and this film treats us to the founding of the great city of Tulsa, where most of the later action takes place.

Beyond that, I don’t want to give too much away. This is a movie I can highly recommend, and you deserve to discover the rest of the story for yourself.

For more posters from The Oklahoma Kid, check out yesterday's post, HERE, and tune in again tomorrow.

And for more Overlooked Films, hop in your wagon and thunder on over to SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Three Musketeers (2006)

When this translation of The Three Musketeers came out in 2006, it was heralded as being the most accurate version ever, and for supposedly restoring some spicy bits censored by earlier translators. I was intrigued, of course, and with a new film version out (which I still have yet to see) this seemed a good time give it a read.

Well, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear this is still a great book. But as for Richard Pevear’s translation, I’m less than impressed. In his introduction, he crows that his is the most literal translation of Dumas’ words, and scorns earlier translators who took too many liberties.

Trouble is, a translator walks a fine line between content and style. Sure, you want to be true to the original author’s intent, but you should also convey some of the writer’s style. To do that, you have to be more than a translator, you must be a writer yourself, and that’s where Pevear falls short. His version lacks the rhythm and grace found in most earlier translations.

The trouble with critiquing a translation, of course, is that I can’t read French, so I don’t know if Dumas had that rhythm and grace or not. All I know is that several earlier translators told the story with more style. Pevear’s prose is flat and pedestrian. I’ll take his word for it that he’s an accurate translator, but I saw no evidence that he's a writer.

As for the spicy bits, I couldn’t find any. Pevear says that the removal of explicit and implicit references to sexuality in one earlier translation “makes the rendering of certain scenes between d’Artagnan and Milady, for instance, strangely vague." Well, guess what? They’re still vague. There’s no sex, explicit or implicit, in Pevear’s version either. D’Artagnan spends a couple of nights in her presence, and we still don’t know if they did the deed or not.

One thing I didn’t know - or had forgotten: Dumas wrote the novel as a newspaper serial. I think he knew where he was going for the first half of the book, telling the story of the queen’s diamonds and d’Artagnan’s trip to England to save her honor. But after that, I suspect he was making things up as he went along. At the mid-point, the story loses focus and our heroes wander aimlessly about in search of another plot. Eventually they find one, in a grudge match against Miladay, and reach a satisfying conclusion, but there are huge chunks that could be cut out without loss to the story. In that second half, a bit more rhythm and grace (which Dumas likely had) would have helped a lot.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Overlooked Films: The Three Musketeers (1948)

I was surprised to learn that this 1948 flick was the ninth film adaptation of the book. I’ve seen only two earlier versions, the 1921 silent with Douglas Fairbanks and the 1939 farce with Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers.

This is a good ‘un, full of action, humor and Technicolor, with a few peculiar quirks. First, there’s Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan. In the book, he’s supposed to be no more than 20, and much is made of his youth compared to the older Musketeers. Kelly is actually 36, and looks older. In fact, he’s only two years younger than Van Heflin (Athos), three years younger than Robert Coote (Aramis), and a year older than Gig Young (Porthos). But what he lacks in youth, he makes up for in athletic ability. In the sword fights (and there are many) he bounces around like a rubber ball, looking even more graceful and formidable than Douglas Fairbanks (and that’s saying something).

There are examples of 1948-style PC thinking. Richelieu (Vincent Price) is demoted from Cardinal to Prime Minister, apparently to avoid offending Catholic sensibilities. And D’Artagnan’s girlfriend Constance (June Allyson), the wife of his landlord in the book, become the landlord’s god-daughter. D’Artagnan and Constance even perform a private wedding ceremony late in the film, legitimizing a sleepover before she goes into hiding.

The all-star cast adds an extra element of interest. Lana Turner, who got top billing, is okay as Milady, but could have used an extra helping of evil. Angela Lansbury, as Queen Anne, is young, but still looks like Angela Lansbury, raising the question of why the Duke of Buckingham is so infatuated with her. June Allyson as Constance is bright-eyed, innocent and dumb. The most interesting female performance (which is unaccredited) comes from Marie Windson (a guest star in just about every old TV series you can think of) as the queen’s maid. We only see her twice, and she doesn’t even have a line, but she steals the scenes with sultry expressions. She would have made a far better Milady.

The Technicolor, while a definite plus, was sometimes abused, with D’Artagnan and the boys often wearing costumes so garish they resemble clown suits. Oddly, these outfits were colored differently - and more tastefully - on the lobby cards displayed here. The green shirt D’Artagnan wears on the cards is gold in the film, and the other Musketeers sometimes appear in bright purple.

One thing this film never gets is boring. It’s extremely fast-paced, because - as the posters proclaim - they’re presenting THE FULL NOVEL. Sort of. While some films focus on only the first half of the book, involving the queen’s diamonds, this one attempts to cover the muddled second half, centered around Milady’s revenge. There are many changes and shortcuts, and some of the changes are actually improvements over the Dumas plot (or lack thereof).

More Overlooked Films, as always, at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Crooking Finger by Cleve F. Adams

It’s been a while since I read Cleve F. Adams, so I decided to soldier on with the Rex McBride series. The Crooking Finger is the fifth, and the last of the true McBride novels, the others being Sabotage, And Sudden Death, Decoy and Up Jumped the Devil, all former FFBs. One posthumous McBride novel, Shady Lady, was published as half of an Ace Double, but it was actually a non-McBride pulp story expanded by Robert Leslie Bellem.

In a comment over on Mystery*File, David L. Vineyard once said that Adams used the plot of Red Harvest several times. I hadn’t noticed that on first reading, but have been looking for it since, and The Crooking Finger, from 1944, was one of those times.

The action takes place in a Nevada gambling town called San Gorgonio, that could be based on Reno. As in the Hammett masterpiece, our hero is up against two factions battling for control of the town. He also meets a femme fatale clearly based on Red Harvest’s Dinah Brand. McBride’s plan is to “dynamite” the situation by setting them at each others’ throats. Unlike Hammett’s Op, he’s not interested so much in cleaning up the town as in nailing the person who killed his friend and getting himself and his inamorata, Miss Kay Ford, out from under the trouble he causes.

Overall, McBride is more subdued here than in earlier novels. He only gets drunk once, is less preoccupied with proving himself a heel, and does not adopt a hard-drinking palooka as partner in anti-crime. If you’re new to Adams, I’d say The Crooking Finger is not the place to start. Instead, go with Sabotage (Adams’ first mining of the Red Harvest theme), and it’s direct sequel, And Sudden Death.

Though this is the last true McBride book, it’s not the end of Adams. There are six other genuine Adams novels and four collaborations, including the aforementioned Shady Lady. I have a lot more re-reading to do.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Overlooked Films: Heckle & Jeckle in THE POWER OF THOUGHT

Along with the illustrious Three Stooges, these distinguished gents were two of my childhood role models. Hm. Guess that explains a lot. Here's a cool escapade from 1948.

Overlooked Films, of course, is the brainchild of Todd Mason. Find more over at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Forgotten Books of 2011

Here's the result of another year of play in Patti Abbott's sandbox. Each date links to the original post.

Feb. 11

A eomplete (and rare) story by Paul Cain
May 20

May 27

A complete (and rare) story by David Goodis
June 24

Aug. 5