Friday, July 29, 2011

Forgotten Books: Silver Wings by Raoul Whitfield

I tracked down all five of Raoul Whitfield's adult novels (three under his own name and two as Temple Field) long ago, but never paid any attention to his juvenile books. I decided to remedy that recently, and requested a couple of them from InterLibrary Loan. First to arrive was Silver Wings, first published in 1930. (This 1937 edition is a seventh printing).

Along with his work for Black Mask (under his own name and as Ramon Decolta), Whitfield wrote heavily for air war and air adventure pulps, and I figured this book would be either a novel or short stories culled from those. Nope. It is a collection of short stories (plus one novelette), but most of them originally appeared in Boy's Life.

Too bad. Because while Whitfield's prose is as sharp as ever, and his storytelling first-rate, the stories themselves are of true Boy's Life caliber. In other words, they're boyish, clean and nonviolent. Most of the characters are tediously nice and polite, and the few who aren't always learn their lessons by story's end.

The book consists of two short story cycles and a stand-alone novelette. The first cycle, of five tales, features three fresh-faced flight school cadets striving to earn their Silver Wings. The message of these stories (and pretty much the whole book) is summed up in a prefatory quote by someone named Colonel Hastings: "It takes a man to wear them, and it makes a man - to wear them - silver wings." In each tale, one of our three heroes faces a fear and whips it into submission. Yawn.

Next up is the novelette, "The Air Mail Flies." The hero in this one is a young man who thinks and acts like a boy. Again (surprise) he must conquer his fear to make the air mail fly. My problem here was that it begins as a Man Vs. Nature story, a theme guaranteed to put me to sleep. Our hero flies blind into a snowstorm and crashes in the mountains. Ho hum. There is a briefly interesting conflict when he encounters two guys with guns who seem to be up to no good. But we quickly learn they're forest rangers on the lookout for a suspicious flyer who has been buzzing the area. The mystery of the suspicious flyer is interesting for about half a page before our hero quashes it with the revelation that the guy is simply scouting emergency landing sites for the air mail service. And guess what? Our hero conquers his fear, and The Air Mail Flies.

The third cycle, of six stories, stars an 18-year old commercial pilot prodigy called Rush Roberts. Rush (you guessed it again) conquers his fears and overcomes adversity through strength of character and by being an all around swell guy.

OK, I know I'm making this sound like a lousy book, but it really isn't. Whitfield's writing manages to rise above the simpleminded moralizing and make it worth a read. But after this, I'm really looking forward to some old fashioned gratuitous sex and violence.

More (and probably better) Forgotten Books at Sweet Freedom!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Overlooked Films: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Not long ago I reviewed the Philo Vance novel The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which reminded me of the only Vance movie I had seen, The Kennel Murder Case. So I figured it was time to see it again, and discovered that the whole dang thing can be viewed online. I had forgotten it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who later did such great films as Captain Blood and Casablanca. This is it:

More Overlooked Films & ??? at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Forgotten Books: SEVEN SAMURAI (aka Potshot) by Robert B. Parker

This book is only ten years old, which doesn’t really qualify it to be Forgotten. But it’s what I’m reading at the moment, and my excuse is that I’d forgotten its obvious homage to The Seven Samurai.

Having seen this story played out in so many films and TV shows (the silliest I can remember was Message From Space), it’s become an archetype or a fable. Still, when I read this ten years ago - and again now - I was surprised to see Parker having fun with it. And he did have a hell of a lot of fun.

The set-up is this: Spenser visits the small desert resort town of Potshot to investigate a murder, and the most likely suspects are a gang of forty outlaws who live out in the hills and prey on the town. It ain’t long before the town fathers ask him to hire a gang of mercenaries and do away with the bad guys.

The homage is most obvious when someone mentions there are seven members in Spenser’s crew, as in the following exchange:

     “We’ll protect you,” I said.
     “Seven of you.”
     “Not all of us at once,” I said. “We try to be fair.”

But the real clincher is the way Parker manipulates the plot to include the obligatory “journey.”  Instead of making phone calls to his friends and asking them to come on down, Spenser, as sensei, travels the country to personally assemble the gang. For no other reason, he returns to Boston to recruit Hawk and Vinnie Morris. Then, with Susan in tow, flies to Georgia to invite Tedy Sapp, to Las Vegas for Bernard J. Fortunato, and to L.A. for Chollo and Bobby Horse. While in L.A. he does do some investigating that later proves necessary to solving the case, but it seems more a byproduct than a reason for the trip.

In the end of most versions of the story, at least one of the heroes has to die - just to show us (wink, wink) that this is serious business and not heroic fantasy. In this case, the short straw falls to Bobby Horse. While he doesn’t die, he takes a crippling shot to the knee, which for a professional tough guy seems even worse.

For more Forgotten Books, round up your six best friends and bop on over to pattinase.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Overlooked Cartoons: Betty Boop in "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

This 1934 cartoon, which also features Koko the Clown, was supposedly banned for glorifying drug use, in this case laughing gas. Don't know if that's true or not, but it builds to a GREAT finish, with the whole city going wacky.

Boop on over to SWEET FREEDOM for more Overlooked Wonders.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

DOC SAVAGE and The Desert Demons by Will Murray (2011)

This is a very cool book on several levels.

First, of course, it’s a new Doc Savage adventure - the first since 1993 - and it’s a corker.

But for hardcore Doc fans like me, it’s a special treat because it furthers the legacy of both Lester Dent and James Bama.

Will Murray
The driving force behind The Desert Demons, the guy now wearing the Kenneth Robeson shoes, is long-time Doc expert Will Murray. But for this one, Will had a lot of help from Lester Dent. So much so, in fact, that this should really be considered a Murray-Dent collaboration.

In a revealing Afterword (exclusive to the deluxe hardcover edition), Murray explains how this novel came to be, and it's fascinating stuff. Delving deep into Dent’s papers, he discovered unpublished scenes, and even whole chapters, written and discarded from earlier Doc adventures, primarily Red Snow and The Derrick Devil. Combining those chapters with ideas and springboards from several other Dent stories, Murray was able to craft an all-new story that’s as close to a new Dent Doc as we’re ever likely to get.

A second Afterword (also only in the hardcover), details the Bama connection, as told by cover artist Joe DeVito. As a result of painting the covers for Will Murray’s seven Doc originals published by Bantam in the early 90s, DeVito became friends with James Bama himself. When the call came to produce new covers for this Altus Press revival, Mr. Bama (now in his 80s and still a Doc fan) provided him with photos of his long-time Doc model, Steve Holland. So the Doc gracing the cover of The Desert Demons is the real deal, in the much-admired Bama tradition.

Lester Dent
The story pits Doc and the gang against a boiling blood-red cloud that descends on California, enveloping buildings, vehicles, and even people. When the cloud vanishes, everything it touched is the color of sun-bleached bone, and quickly disintegrates into a white powder. All five of Doc’s aides are on hand for this one, and cousin Pat plays an important role too. I never got enough of Pat in the original series, and hope to see more of her in the next six books.

An added attraction is that much of the action revolves around the Hollywood film industry of 1936. Fun stuff. I especially enjoyed having Monk decked out in cowboy duds and riding a cayuse. And when the action moves to California, we get to see Doc battle an alligator à la Davy Crockett or Jim Bowie.

Bottom Line: You don’t want to miss this kickoff of the WILD Adventures of Doc Savage. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Forgotten Books: Doc Savage - His Apocalyptic Life

A new Doc Savage novel has been published!
A new Doc Savage novel is now on sale!

To long-time Savage addicts like me, that’s BIG news. I started celebrating two weeks ago, rereading and reviewing Will Murray’s 1991 epic Doc adventure, Python Isle. Then I had the privilege to read an advance copy of the new book, The Desert Demons, which has just gone on sale from Altus Press.

I'll be reviewing The Desert Demons tomorrow. But since this is Forgotten Books day, I'm getting my Doc jollies by focusing on Philip Jose Farmer’s 1973 masterwork, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.

I grokked on this when it first came out in paperback in 1975, and later picked up the Doubleday hardcover shown above.

Farmer, who bought the first issue of the mag on the newsstand when he was 15 years old, admits to having read the entire 182-story series three times in the course of writing this book. Only then, he says, did he realize how truly apocalyptic Doc’s life was, and he spends the first chapter of the book proving his point. He compares Lester Dent’s work and vision with that of other “apocalyptic” writers such as E.E. Smith, William Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Over the course of the book, Farmer shares his unique perspective on Doc himself, his five aides, his cousin Pat and other major elements of the series, like the gadgets, the vehicles, the pets, the villains, and the Empire State Building.

A major part of the book is a continuation of a mythical genealogy called The Wold Newton Family that Farmer detailed in his 1992 biography, Tarzan Alive. The basic idea is that a real-life meteorite that struck Wold Newton, England back in 1795 caused mutations in the descendants of folks who got too close. Many of these descendants had powers and abilities above and beyond those of mortal men, making them fit subjects for heroic literature.

Farmer presents a complex family tree linking not only Tarzan and Doc, but such folks as Solomon Kane, Sherlock Holmes, Natty Bumppo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Allan Quartermain, Phileas Fogg and Fu Manchu, on down to more modern descendants like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and James Bond. It’s a fascinating game, and the fun continues in the capable hands of such Wold Newton disciples as Win Scott Eckert, most notably in his recent two-volume work, Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's review of The Desert Demons (a joint effort by Lester Dent and Will Murray). But if you can't wait, you can order right now direct from Altus Press. Click HERE!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Gracie Allen Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine

Back in the Golden Age of second-hand bookstores (meaning the Pre-Internet age), I used to see this book a lot, and was intrigued. But by the time I got intrigued enough to buy it, it wasn’t there. And soon, neither were the stores.

But a couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Rose City Book Fair, which is sort of throwback to those by-gone days, where I ran into several old friends - and one old book I could no longer resist - The Gracie Allen Murder Case.

Prior to this, my only acquaintance with Philo Vance was seeing William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case, and that was so long ago I don’t remember anything about it, except that he was not playing Nick Charles.

But I was only mildly curious about old Philo. The real attraction was Gracie, one of my favorite comediennes of all time.

Apparently this book came about when, near the end of S.S. Van Dine’s writing career, Paramount asked him for a screen treatment pairing Philo Vance with Gracie Allen. Van Dine delivered a story involving Gracie, her mother, her brother and George Burns and collected his dough. Then everything went sideways. Burns opted out of the movie project and Paramount decided to do their own thing with Vance and Gracie.

I haven’t seen the film (released in 1939), but it sounds fun, with Gracie taking over the action and repeatedly calling Vance “Fido.” In this one, Vance was played by Warren William, the screen's first Perry Mason.

Meanwhile, Van Dine wrote the novel based on his screen story, resulting in a strangely amusing book. As a character, Philo Vance is okay, though he talks funny and goes to the well for too many foreign words and literary allusions. The big surprise was that Van Dine simply did not get Gracie Allen. Her distinct brand of humor should have translated easily onto the page, but Van Dine failed miserably. This could have been a great book if the studio had approached Raymond Chandler or Rex Stout instead.

As presented here, Gracie is ditzy, scatterbrained and lovable, but never funny. I was on the lookout for a couple of good lines I could quote, and failed to find a single one. The best that can be said is that she wanders on and off stage (mostly off) like some sort of magical creature and unwittingly provides Vance will all the clues he needs to solve the case. And Van Dine's handling of George Burns is even more inept. He’s a typical jealous boyfriend who could have been played by anyone out of central casting. It’s no wonder George had no interest in the film.

Want to see for yourself? Download the book for free HERE.

Crave Forgotten Books? Find more at pattinase!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Overlooked Films: THE THREE STOOGES in "Punch Drunks"

Here's one of my favorite Stooge shorts, from 1934. This one introduces the notion that hearing "Pop Goes the Weasel" makes Curley go berserk.

For more Overlooked (but less berserk) Films, check out Sweet Freedom!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Forgotten Books: Doc Savage in PYTHON ISLE by Will Murray

When I heard that Will Murray had a new Doc Savage coming out (his first in 18 years), I had to get warmed up by rereading his first, Python Isle.

Python Isle was the first of seven all-new Doc adventures Will wrote for Bantam between 1991 and 1993, and it’s a classic. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a lost work by Lester Dent. Actually, it was based on a Dent outline, but every word of prose rings true. Will nails the characters, the relationships, the dialogue, and the humor better than any of Dent’s contemporaries - a list that includes Laurence Donovan, Harold A. Davis, William Bogart, Alan Hathaway and Ryerson Johnson.

This one features a lost civilization, a mysterious babe, a zeppelin, a gang of ruthless thugs - and, as you may have guessed, a mess of giant pythons. It was a kick in the butt to go adventuring with Doc and the gang again, and I’m now looking forward more than ever to the new one coming from Altus Press - The Desert Demons. Even cooler, it will be the first of a seven book series, with the next, Horror in Gold, coming late this Summer. You'll find more on The Desert Demons HERE.

And f that isn’t enough good news for you, you’ll be pleased to know that Python Isle is now available as an audio book from Radio Archives. They plan to release all seven of Will’s earlier Doc novels on CD, plus classic adventures of The Spider and Secret Agent X. I know what you’re dying to say about that, so I’ll say it for you. I’ll be super amalgamated!