Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Overlooked Films: The Cocoanuts (1929)

It had been WAY too long since I’d seen a Marx Brothers movie, so when I spotted a box set of their first six talkies at the library, I snatched it up.

The Cocoanuts (1929), was almost their first film. That honor went to a 1921 silent flick called Humor Risk, which is now believed lost (and may have been purposely destroyed). So The Cocoanuts is as close as we can get to the early, undiluted madness of the Marx boys.

It ain’t their best movie, not by a long shot, but it’s a great appetizer for the better and crazier films to come.

On the downside, there are several insipid songs by the insipid romantic leads (including one called, I kid you not, “Monkey-doodle-do”) and way too many Marx-free dance numbers. But tucked between the dreck, the Marx Brothers do their stuff and do it well.

My favorite scenes are the ones where Harpo eats everything in sight (including a telephone) and picks not only pockets, but steals the false teeth out of Groucho’s mouth and the underwear out of his pants. AND the first of many love/insult scenes between Groucho and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont. A couple of samples that had me laughing out loud . . .

GROUCHO: I'll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see you now---you and the moon. You wear a neck-tie so I'll know you.

And . . .

GROUCHO:  Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales? I don't mean the present Prince of Wales; one of the old whales, and believe me when I say whales, I mean whales. I know a whale when I see one

The Brothers had been performing this show for a year and half before it became a hit on Broadway, and had refined their gags to perfection by the time it was filmed. Still, rumor has it when they saw the final cut of the movie, they were so disappointed they tried to buy up all copies and stop the release. I’m damn glad they didn’t. Next up is Animal Crackers.

More (and mostly less wacky) Overlooked Films at Sweet Freedom.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Punisher in "Welcome Back Frank"

OK, this one's only a comic book, but still (and this is the straight skinny from me to you,)…
it kicks ass.

The book is The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank (Marvel Comics, 2008), the graphic novel edition of a 12-part mini-series that originally appeared in 2000-01. The writer is Garth Ennis (that’s the important part) and the artists are a couple of other guys.

The Punisher is Marvel’s long-running rip-off of the even longer-running paperback hero The Executioner. You know, a one-man-war against the mob. The Punisher has accumulated a lot of comic book baggage over the years, but this mini-series pressed the reset button and put him back on track.

Make no mistake: This book is about killing. Bloody, brutal killing. The body count here is around 100, with our hero accounting for about 70, 30 by other hands, one suicide and one murdered dog (never fear, the dog killer is one of The Punisher's 70). But the tale is told with such finesse that it leaves you gasping for more. Sonehow, Garth Ennis weaves in a healthy dose of humor, a little heart, even a touch of pathos.

The overall effect is Jeez, I can’t believe this is happening in a comic! That lady above, for example, is Ma Gnucci, New York crime boss and the focus of The Punisher’s latest vendetta. After he kills her brother and two sons, she’s pissed enough to lead her street soldiers after him personally. They corner him in a zoo, but he turns the tables and lures them into the polar bear habitat, and Ma emerges with a few pieces missing. Later, when he tosses a firebomb into her house, she flops out the window onto the street and bites him on the ankle, so he boots her back into the burning building. I’d like to see Spider-Man or Superman do that!

Tune into pattinase for more (and on average less gruesome) Forgotten Books. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Overlooked Films: Matty Mattel Cap Gun Commercials

When I was a kid, the Mattel Fanner 50 was my number one sidearm and the Mattel Winchester was my preferred saddle rifle. I had most of the gear featured here (and do again), but have no memory of these Matty Mattel mini-westerns. Luckily I'm still kid enough to appreciate them.




Shoot over to SWEET FREEDOM for more of this week's Overlooked Films.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Forgotten Books: The French Key by Frank Gruber

When I started reading this book I had a headache. But after a few breezy chapters, the headache was gone. Such is the power of easy reading.

Reading Frank Gruber is sort of like watching Bones. You turn your mind off and let the story wash over you, and when it's over you feel mildly satisfied and mildly refreshed.

The French Key introduced Gruber’s two most famous characters, Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg. But as I mentioned some months back in a review of the short story collection Brass Knuckles, Fletcher and Cragg were actually just re-envisioned versions of two earlier characters, Oliver Quade the Human Encylopedia and his assistant Charlie Boston.

Both Fletcher and Quade are mobile-mouthed book salesmen, and Cragg is basically Charlie Boston with muscles. In both series, our heroes are perpetually broke and one step ahead of the law, but somehow find time to chase women and solve murders. It’s all good clean fun.

As with all Gruber mysteries, this one revolves around a field the author found interesting. In this case, it’s coin collecting. The mystery has nothing with a French key (which, we learn, is a what vindictive hotel managers use to shut deadbeats out of their rooms), but concerns an 1822 five-dollar gold piece, considered the rarest of all American coins.

When The French Key was published in 1939, the coin was worth about $10,000. So how about today? An Internet source says there are only three known survivors, and two are in the Smithsonian. The one in private hands sold for $687,500 back in 1982, and is now valued at five million. Not bad. How much of that is due to inflation, and how much to collector mania? Elsewhere in The French Key, we learn that a New York eatery sells hamburgers for a nickel. I’ll let someone else do the math.

Republic released a film version in 1946. I haven't seen it, but Gruber wrote the screenplay himself, so it's probably not all bad. And Mike Mazurki (whom I remember best as Moose Malloy to Dick Powell's Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet) played Sam Cragg. According to IMDb, Johnny was supposed to be a private detective. Republic probably figured it would be hard to sell a book salesman hero to movie goers. If there was ever another movie based on this series, I'm  not aware of it.

FORGOTTEN BOOKS are hosted this week at pattinase (I think).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Overhyped Films: The Outlaw

Everybody’s heard of The Outlaw. It’s famous for being infamous, right? But how many people have actually seen it?

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was one of those heard but not seen people. Now I’m not, and I’m poorer for it. Not only did I waste 116 minutes of my life watching this turkey, but it’s costing me another 20 minutes to write this post.

So how bad is it? So bad I couldn’t bear to watch it in one, or even two, sittings. It eventually took four, spread out over a week and a half, before I finally reached the end.

The first horrible thing about it, the thing that smacks you in the face in the first few minutes and never lets up, is the heavy-handed soundtrack. Every detail of the action, every raised eyebrow and every twitch of the finger, is trumpeted by the music. There’s even a coronet making laughing sounds (ala a Three Stooges short) every time we’re supposed to be amused. This film could be played on the radio and you wouldn’t miss a thing, except the thing it’s most famous for - Jane Russell’s you-know-whats.

Which brings up the film’s second major flaw, the casting. Walter Huston is actually pretty good as Doc Holliday, but everyone else is a joke. Thomas Mitchell, who would make a fine Bozo the Clown, makes a ridiculous Pat Garrett. And Jack Buetel as Billy the Kid? They’d have been better off casting Bugs Bunny. Buetel poses and slouches and mumbles and looks moody, with no redeeming entertainment value. And finally, Jane Russell, who gets top billing, is there only because of her bod. Her range of expression goes all the way from sullen to pouting and back again. (You can tell she’s pouting when she thrusts out her lower lip.)

And if you can stand the music and the cast long enough, you’ll be appalled by the story. Or lack thereof. Near as I could tell, it boils down to this: Pat and Doc are old friends. Doc meets Billy and they become friendly rivals. Pat wants to arrest Billy but Doc objects. Eventually Doc winds up dead. Billy rides away and Pat’s sad. THE END.

But wait. What about Jane Russell? What’s she doing there? Not a damn thing. She has no part in the story. She’s just there for the men to ignore, to pout about it, and to occasionally thrust her you-know-whats in front of the camera.

A lot of folks on the Internet talk about this film depicting a homoerotic triangle between Pat, Doc and Billy. I couldn’t see it, and figured they must be imagining it - until near the end, when Doc and Billy do everything but kiss, and Pat nearly wets his pants with jealousy. Yep, those Internet folks are right.

I’m thinking Howard Hughes was mighty dang lucky this movie was yanked out of theaters for being too racy in 1943. Otherwise, it would have passed quietly into well-deserved obscurity, instead of being a box office bonanza when it was re-released in 1946.

Bottom Line: I want my 116 minutes back. I’ll suffer the loss of this 20 minutes of typing, because I discovered something I like about his movie: It’s fun to loathe. 

For less Overhyped Films, see this week's lineup at SWEET FREEDOM.

Mitchell, Huston, you-know-whats, Buetel.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

The original, silent version of The Mark of Zorro is one of my favorite films, and the Disney series is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, so it should be no surprise that The Curse of Capistrano (aka The Mark of Zorro) is one of my favorite books. BUT - even without the screen versions, I would still rate this as a great novel.

A short history: The novel The Curse of Capistrano ran as a five-part serial in All-Story Weekly (the mag that later became Argosy) beginning August 9, 1919. Douglas Fairbanks thought it was so cool he bought the screen rights and released the pic, titled The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. The first appearance in book form, a Grosset & Dunlap photoplay edition (also issued in 1920), used the movie title, as have most editions since.

As always when reading McCulley, I was struck by how well his prose stands the test of time. After 90 years, it’s still fresh - and snappier than a lot of stuff being written today.

I've read this book at least twice, but it's been a while, and there were several interesting points I’d forgotten.

First, it has none of that jazz about Diego learning his letters - and swordsmanship - in Spain, and returning to California when summoned by his father. Instead, we learn that he practiced in secret at home, preparing for the day his fighting skills might be needed. (Don’t know when that Spanish angle crept into the mythos, but it would be interesting to find out.)

Anyway, the story starts with Zorro’s wrongrighting career already underway. It’s said he made his debut in San Juan Capistrano, a mission town a short distance south of Los Angeles, where he raised quite a ruckus - hence the nickname “The Curse of Capistrano.” So as this book opens, he’s already a legend, and the corrupt governor and his soldiers are hot to catch him.

Next, I was surprised (once again, no doubt) that we never see Diego changing into Zorro or vice versa. In fact, though it’s pretty obvious, the reader doesn’t officially learn they are the same person until the last chapter. That called for some very clever plotting by McCulley.

Then there’s the issue of Zorro’s mask. In this story it must be rolled up from the bottom whenever he wants to uncork a kiss on his favorite senorita. This sort of implies it could be one that just hangs down over his face (as depicted on the cover of All-Story, and later in West magazine illos). But that wouldn’t be practical for swordfighting or riding a horse, so it’s hard to say what McCulley really had in mind. It’s clear, though, that it’s not the pirate do-rag thing worn by Doug Fairbanks and his screen successors.

Here’s a shocker: Zorro wears a purple cape. Probably not exactly the color of Barney the dinosaur, but it’s still hard to picture him in anything but basic black.

In the end (yep, this a SPOILER ALERT), Zorro removes the mask and reveals his Diego identity to the whole pueblo. Zorro, he says, will no longer be needed.

And this brings us to the final surprise, that Zorro was not merely a disguise for Diego, but a whole ‘nother side of him. Diego’s listlessness and foppery was not just a pose, but the real deal. Yep, there’s a split personality thing going on, and Diego (for Zorro is no more) admits he’ll have to work hard to incorporate some of Zorro’s bold and romantic character into his own. Surprisingly, his bride-to-be, who has fallen for Zorro and not Diego, does not seem alarmed by this development.

I’m now reading the sequel, The Further Adventures of Zorro (aka The Sword of Zorro) from 1922, and it’s interesting to see how McCulley brought him out of retirement. More on that in a future edition of Forgotten Books.

P.S. This book is available for free download on the web, but the version I found was teeming with atrocious typos. I have since acquired a much better version in Word, and will be pleased to send it to anyone who asks. It should work great on your Kindle (or non-Kindle). Write me at delewis1@hotmail.com and I’ll shoot you a copy.

This week's Forgotten Books round-up is brought to you over at Sweet Freedom.

P.S. Don't miss the FIRST Forgotten Book post by my fellow critique groupee Doug Levin, over at Levin at Large. It features Dead Skip by Joe Gores.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Overlooked Cartoons: Wholly Smoke (1938)

Here's a cool one. I'm thinking the guys who created this were smoking something a lot stronger than tobacco. This is the first time I've seen it in black and white. Must have been colorized for TV.

Float on over to Sweet Freedom for more Overlooked Cool Stuff.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Willamette Writers Conference 2011: It's History

Every year at this time, I devote three days of my life to the Willamette Writers Conference, held right here in Portland. (The Willamette, FYI, is a big honkin’ river that flows up from southern Oregon, cuts right through town, and heads west, where it joins up with the mighty Columbia and rolls into the sea.)

As usual, I worked as a Pitch Practice volunteer, listening to people try out their literary and film pitches and helping them whip them into shape. I worked with folks trying to sell thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, historical, YA and middle-grade fiction. At least five of the people I met had written memoirs. One guy had a 500-word book conveying its message with stuffed animal photography. And - there were screenplays running the gamut from documentaries to romantic comedies, with a couple of shots at TV series. This year I also did a lot of “Manuscript E.R.,” offering on-the-spot assistance with query letters, opening chapters, story structure, and even magazine articles. Thinking that hard, that fast, is a rush, but my brain hurts.

Now in its 42th year, this 3-day conference is by all accounts one of the best held anywhere. One reason is the extraordinary opportunity to pitch projects to literary editors and agents handling both books and films. Near as I could count, this year we had 19 literary agents and 8 editors, plus about 15 film professionals - a mix of agents and producers. For those unable to snag one-on-one meetings with these folks, most also hold group meetings, welcoming 10 or 12 writers at a time.

When not meeting the pros, writers have a nine-ring circus of events to keep them busy.
Four times each day (twice in the morning and twice after lunch) there are between seven and nine 90-minute events going on. These cover just about every aspect of writing and the writing life. The schedule assures there’s always at least one of interest to folk writing adult fiction, children’s fiction, nonfiction or screenplays, and plenty of others dealing with more specialized fields, topics or skills.

Two of the busiest presenters this year were mystery writers Hallie Ephron (a regular) and Robert Dugoni (a newcomer, I think). I attended two of Hallie’s, “Details to Make (or Break) a Character” and “Fly High, Fly Low Revision,”  - and two of Robert’s, “Writing the Knockout Query & Synopsis” and “The Second Draft - Are you a Barfer or a Pantser.” I never found out if I was a Barfer or a Pantser, but all four seminars were valuable and entertaining. I also took in a panel of five editors, including Terri Bischoff of Midnight Ink, Benjamin LeRoy of Tyrus Books, Martin Biro of Kensington, Emily Griffin of Grand Central Publishing (part of the group formerly known as Warners) and Denise Roy of Dutton. Interesting stuff.

Why am I telling you all this? If you’re a writer, and I know some of you are, you might consider visiting Portland next August. There are plenty of worse ways to spend your time.

Friday, August 5, 2011

UnForgettable Books: Hank & Muddy by Stephen Mertz

OK, I’m cheating this week. Just published this week by Perfect Crime, Hank & Muddy (that’s Hank Williams and Muddy Waters) is by no means a forgotten book. But it’s such a cool, unique and unforgettable book that I could resist reviewing it today.

Hank & Muddy came as a big surprise. I was already in love with the concept, and expected it to be good. But it turned out to darker, wilder and way more literate than I would dreamed.

The first surprise was the first-person narration, which alternates between the two characters. Letting Muddy and Hank tell their own stories was a ballsy move, but it sure pays off. We’re catapulted into the mind of each man, and given a given a glimpse of each man's soul.

When we first meet Muddy, he can’t get his pants on fast enough. He’s been caught by an irate husband, who just happens to be a small-town southern sheriff. And before he can make his escape, the sheriff’s daughter bursts in, revealing that she, too, is one of Muddy’s bed buddies. Muddy jumps out a window and makes his escape with the help of his harmonica player, Little Walter, and his friend John Lee Hooker.

Professionally, Muddy is riding high, and his biggest problem is that Little Walter wants to be a star on his own. He’d be fine if he could just keep his pants on, especially in the presence of white women. This is 1952 (and the South, remember?) and he’s taking some BIG risks.

Hank’s troubles run deeper. After great success and a string of big hits, his drinking is catching up with him, and he’s on a downhill slide. His marriage is on the rocks, and he’s recently been dumped from the Grand Old Opry. He’ll be damn lucky if he can catch on less prestigious Louisiana Hayride. To make things worse, he’s having blackouts and sometimes wakes up in a wet bed.

Stephen Mertz is guilty of some damn fine writing here. Both characters are thoroughly convincing, and he handles their voices perfectly. By the time they meet, their troubles have deepened, and they find themselves up against a couple of maybe-FBI agents, rival Shreveport mob bosses and the Ku Klux Klan.

Bottom Line: I read most of the 2011 Edgar nominees, and this book ranks right up there. For anyone who has ever heard these guys sing - or anyone who hasn’t - Hank & Muddy is not to be missed.

My Hank & Muddy interview with Steve is HERE.

Videos of both Hank and Muddy in action are HERE.

pattinase has really Forgotten Books HERE.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A HANK & MUDDY Interview with author Stephen Mertz!

Hank & Muddy, an amazing novel just published by Perfect Crime Books, recounts a fictional meeting in July, 1952 between legendary bluesman Muddy Waters and Country music icon Hank Williams. This is GREAT book, capturing the spirits of both men and throwing them together in a hair-raising adventure in Shreveport, Louisiana.

I'll be posting my review of Hank & Muddy on Friday. But today I have something much better - an interview with author Stephen Mertz!

(P.S. If you missed yesterday's videos of Muddy doing "Got My Mojo Workin'" and Hank singing "Hey, Good Lookin'," you can check them out HERE.)

ME: First off, I’m insanely jealous of the very idea of this book. I wish I’d thought of it myself. What inspired you to bring these two guys together in a novel?

STEVE: I’m glad you liked it.  If I knew where good ideas came from, I’d order up more of them! For me, this is one of those books that turned out pretty much the way I wanted it to while I was writing it. That’s a good feeling for a writer. 

ME: Did you find any evidence that these ever really met?

STEVE: No but if they didn’t, they damn well should have. They were both around Shreveport at the same time. Hank was trying to salvage what was left of his career and get back on the radio. The Opry had let him go and he finally made it back onto the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport. Hank & Muddy takes place just before that. Muddy was touring Louisiana in July of that year. The story of Little Walter walking on the band in the middle of the tour is accurate. 

ME: You must have done an amazing amount of research into their characters. Are there biographies you would particularly recommend?

STEVE: Actually, most of the “research” amounted to a lifetime of compulsively reading album liner notes and everything else I could find related to those two, and of course with the internet everything’s out there.  Chet Flippo’s book on Hank is exhaustive and well written, as is the Sandra B. Tooze book on Muddy. 

ME: Though I’m a longtime fan of both these singers, I knew absolutely nothing about their private lives. I’m impressed that you’ve pulled no punches here, delving into the dark side of each man’s character. Were you at all hesitant about taking us so far beyond their public personas?

STEVE: No, because that was my intention. 

ME: I know that the members of Muddy’s band portrayed here (Little Walter, Elgin Evans and Jimmy Rogers) were real guys, and it was cool to see a brief appearance by John Lee Hooker. Were there any other real people in the book?

STEVE: A few. Tee Tot, the black street musician who taught a young Hank how to play guitar, is really one of the most unsung figures in American music. Tee Tot teaches this country boy how to play the blues, and years later those two strains come together in Elvis and the first generation of rockers. Hank’s mother and Audrey, his ex-wife and muse, are portrayed as realistically as I could render them from what I’d read. That also applies to a few cameos in the book like Billie Jean, Hank’s next and last wife, and Leonard Chess, who produced and recorded Muddy. 

ME: Your handling of both Muddy and Hank is so masterful that I feel like I got to know - and like - the real men behind the songs. I’d love to see you write historical fiction about either or both. I’m thinking that would appeal to a whole different audience beyond the mystery field. Any chance of that?

STEVE: Thank you, Evan. I hope the critics are half as kind.  I believe Hank & Muddy is the book that does reach beyond the mystery field.  Earlier you referred to it as “a mystery novel,” and I certainly won’t object to it being so classified with so many of my colleagues in the mystery field. I’m pleased to be grouped with them, and I’m grateful to Perfect Crime Books for publishing the book.  But Hank & Muddy is sub-titled “a novel.”  Yes, there’s definitely a strong noir/whodunit vibe. I love that stuff.  But at its heart Hank & Muddy is a character study of these men and their world, or worlds, and with this novel I’ve pretty much had my say on the subject. I hate writing the same book twice. 

ME: I thought it was especially ballsy of you to tackle both men in first person, with alternating points of view. That had to be intimidating, but you pulled it off perfectly, and obviously had fun doing it. Was that a tough decision to make?

STEVE: I wanted Hank & Muddy to convey the cultural divide that separated them. The first person approach seemed the most even-handed way of showing that. And you’re right, it was fun doing my best to portray the rhythms of speech and thought that contrasted an urban bluesman with a down-home country boy. Actually, I met Muddy several times, backstage at gigs in the 1970s, which allowed me to at least get a sense of the man. As I was typing I was usually speaking the words aloud to myself in what I hoped was an approximation of what they sounded like.

ME: Would you care to list some of your favorite songs, albums, or CD collections by these guys?

STEVE: Hoo boy, that’s a tall order!  The Complete Muddy Waters 1947-1967. It’s hard to find unless you want to download it but that’s the most comprehensive collection of Muddy, an out of print boxed set that a U.K. outfit called Charly did about 20 years ago. Hank’s career burned bright and ended much too soon, and nearly all of his recordings are readily available in a variety of collections. The work of both men from that period epitomizes the roots of what became rock & roll.  I listen to that stuff all the time.  



Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Overlooked Films: HANK and MUDDY

The new mystery novel Hank & Muddy by Stephen Mertz was officially published just yesterday, and is NOW AVAILABLE from Amazon. I read an advance copy, and it's one hell of a book!

I'll be interviewing Steve and posting my review in the days to come, but for now, here are live film performances by both of these great artists.




More Overlooked Films, TV and whatever (as usual) at SWEET FREEDOM.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Skyler Hobbs and the Rabbit Man: How I Came to Write THAT Story

I owe it all to Bill, Arthur and Irene.

That’s Bill Cameron for setting, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for characters, and my wife Irene for story.
Here’s how it happened:

Cap’n Bob (aka Robert S.) Napier was riding high on the publication of his first novel, Love, Death and the Toyman, and was invited to roll down from Tacoma to make two personal appearances in Portland. As President of the Oregon chapter of his fan club, I tagged along. The first event was a panel of writers at a meeting of the Friends of Mystery, a local club headed by my old friends Ellie and Jim Rogers. 

One of the six panelists was Bill Cameron, discussing the writing and publication of his first novel, Lost Dog. Of all the books featured, his was the one I wanted most to read. So I did, and it was great stuff. I especially enjoyed the way he used Portland as a setting, and told him so at the next event, a gathering of Northwest mystery writers at fabled Powell’s bookstore. 

At the time, I was working on a historical adventure novel and engaging in creative avoidance by whacking out an occasional short story. These included three mysteries featuring a modern-day descendant of Davy Crockett (still unsold), two stories about Davy’s grandson in the Old West, and a tall tale starring legendary Texas hero Strap Buckner. 

Lost Dog made me want to write a mystery set in Portland. As cities go, Portland has a quirky personality, rising almost to the level of a character. (Note: I have since enjoyed Bill’s subsequent books, Chasing Smoke and Day One, and look forward to the next, County Line.)

Now determined to write a mystery, I did some brainstorming to come with a suitable hero. Ideally, I figured my character should: 1) Be immediately accessible to just about anyone, 2) Have a sidekick, so I could have fun with their banter, and 3) Lend himself - or herself - to stories of any length, from flash fiction to novel. 

After putting those ideas through the grinder, I reached some conclusions. Everybody knows, and just about everybody likes, Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson is the perfect sidekick to highlight both the human and extrahuman sides of Holmes. And Conan Doyle himself had proved that the characters worked well in tales of any length. His story “How Watson Learned the Trick,” reprinted in Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha, would today be considered flash fiction.