Saturday, September 26, 2015

Harvey by Mary Chase

Mary Chase first named her three act stage play “The White Rabbit” in 1943 and re-named it “Harvey” for its 1944 premier on November 1st at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre in New York. Jane van Drusen played Myrtle, Josephine Hull played Veta and Frank Fay played Elwood P. Dowd. Jesse White played the sanitarium aide Duane Wilson, a role he repeated on film and on stage again later. Josephine Hull also reprised her role on film. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

It is the James Stewart film version that made the play a cultural theatrical icon. Released in October 1950, “Harvey” is one of Stewart’s best films. I first saw this production on television in the early 1960s and soon thereafter it was one of my mother’s first theatrical performances. She played Myrtle at the Twilight Ridge Playhouse in Crystal Lake, Illinois. “Harvey” is one of my favorite films. I have seen numerous stage productions as well, and because of the film’s influence many of the stage productions suffer from “The Hollywood Syndrome;” meaning, frankly, that the lead actor mistakenly plays Elwood P. Dowd as an imitation of James Stewart. I have seen the same thing happen to productions of Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring and On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson. Imitating Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace and Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond is always a critical error. This speaks to the great power of motion pictures but one is advised to avoid such hackneyed stage versions with the identical diligence in which we avoid contact with the bubonic plague. As a point of trivia, many decades later my mother was cast in On Golden Pond and she wisely avoided the Hepburn imitation. And Hepburn, that darling blueblood actress, sent my mother a signed personal good luck wish on opening night.

“Harvey” is a cleverly written fantasy. Outside of the casting problems, several other problems often cripple modern stage productions. The first of these problems being that the director and actors don’t understand the material. This fact is made difficult by their perception of Harvey himself. Is the rabbit real or imaginary? The play itself tackles this very question throughout its three acts. So let’s cut to the chase, to use a film term, and clear the air. In Mary Chase’s play Harvey is real. There is textual evidence in the play to support this statement. Harvey is not a figment of Elwood’s imagination. At the end of Act One, Wislon picks up the Encyclopedia and reads out loud the entry on a “Pookas”

Pooka. From old Celtic mythology. A fairy spirit in animal form. Always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one at his own caprice. A wise but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum-pots, crack-pots, and how are you Mr. Wilson...

Startled, Wilson closes the book. In one deft moment the author defines Harvey’s identity and has him speak with a character on stage. Secondly, Elwood P. Dowd really is an alcoholic. Thus, the emotional conflict of Elwood being a friendly alcoholic who really does have an invisible six foot tall rabbit as a friend can only be resolved with acceptance. The actor should not play him strictly as an alcoholic. Harvey is real, and so is the booze. This puts an entirely different light on Elwood’s character. The heart of Elwood’s character comes in a piece of dialogue in Act Two, scene 2:

Harvey and I sit in the bars and we have a drink or two and play the jukebox. Soon the faces of the other people turn toward mine and smile. They are saying: ‘We don’t know your name, Mister, but you’re a lovely fellow.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We have entered as strangers – soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they have done. The big wonderful things they will do. Their hopes, their regrets, their loves, their hates. All very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey. And he is bigger and grander than anything they offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed.

This dialogue is the key to understanding Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood is a tragic figure, eternally amiable, basking in the benefit of Harvey’s friendship and ultimately expressing the universal desire for happiness. The comedy involves Elwood’s family’s attempts to have him placed in a psychiatric institution. Eventually, the intimation develops where the audience is cognizant that other people can see Harvey, too, but they pretend not to. None of these elements are blatant, and they develop slowly with bits of dialogue and stage gimmicks with doors opening by themselves.

James Stewart was the perfect actor to portray Elwood. A tall and lanky Midwesterner who could affect an appropriate drawl, his embodiment of Elwood is certainly definitive. In addition to the 1950 movie, there are several filmed stage performances of Stewart reprising the role later in life. All of these are worthy of your attention, but the film, even with its modest changes, offers a brilliant character study that is both superbly written and acted. Aren’t we all waiting for those golden moments, too?

“Harvey” plays on the boards infrequently these days. Perhaps such plays are considered too quaint by today’s disaffected and floppy pants crowd of thespians. I can think of dozens of talented actors in Hollywood who could play Elwood P. Dowd as Elwood P. Dowd on stage effectively, but I don’t have any desire to see a film remake. We already have Stewart’s classic. For those of you that haven’t read the play it is easily found on Amazon, and the film is available on DVD. Together, they make for two charming entertainments, and thank you, Mr. McNulty, for bringing attention to us neglected pookas....

Friday, September 18, 2015

Doc Savage by Kenneth Robeson

Doc Savage by Kenneth Robeson

A reader’s memoir...

When Bantam books began republishing the Doc Savage novels in 1964 with cover artwork by James Bama they ushered in a revival of interest in the pulp era that has never abated. The James Bama artwork, using actor and model Steve Holland’s weathered visage, had an immediate effect on the paperback shopper. The Doc Savage books flew off those spinning racks. Doc Savage was a hot property again.
The classic first ten Bantam reprints
 I’ll repeat some well-known facts for the benefit of readers coming to the dance late. Lester Dent wrote most of the Doc Savage novels under the Kenneth Robeson pseudonym between 1933 and 1949. Doc Savage was created to capitalize on the popularity of The Shadow, publisher Street and Smith’s phenomenally successful monthly pulp magazine. Bantam re-published over a hundred Doc Savage paperbacks and reprinted each one several times.
Lester Dent passed away in 1959 and I encountered Doc Savage about ten years later. Those James Bama covers had an effect equal to the stunning artwork Jack Kirby was producing for Marvel Comics; the images were larger-than-life, masculine, and wildly imaginative. At 45 cents or 75 cents a copy I was hooked. The James Bama artwork captured the flavor of the pulp adventure magazines and Doc himself appeared superhuman. Bama depicted Doc as a muscular giant with short-cropped golden hair cut into a form fitting style. Actor Steve Holland’s features added a menacing tone. Doc was formidable, and much different than his original cover appearances by Walter Baumhofer where he looked rugged but traditionally good-looking. In fact, James Bama’s depiction is uncannily close to Lester Dent’s original vision in The Man of Bronze, chapter one: “The bronze of the hair was a little darker than the bronze of the features. The hair was straight, and lay down tightly as a metal skullcap.” Other artists employed by Bantam Book such as Boris Vallejo and Bob Larkin all rendered Doc as Bama saw him. Best of all Dent’s prose crackled with energy and imagination. Doc Savage was old but new again.

One of the myriad pleasures of being a reader and book collector are the fond memories these tales evoke. Doc was with me at our first campsite at Buffalo Lake in the early 70s where Doc and I took on The Pirate’s Ghost with great success. We found The Polar Treasure together, and survived The Meteor Menace. Together we solved The Mystery Under the Sea and defeated The Squeaking Goblin. My craving for adventure was satisfied with The Haunted Ocean and The Golden Peril. Doc was with me again when I camped in the San Gabriel mountains for the first time; my little box of paperbacks and comic books I hauled along on our cross-country trips relied heavily on favorites like Doc Savage to make rainy days tolerable. The Munitions Master and The Roar Devil were tasty deserts savored beneath the western sky.
Once up near Little St. Germain, I met some distant cousins, brothers, who were so excited about their Doc Savage paperback collection that they were unable to discuss any other topic. Together, they bounded through the forest trails emulating Doc, Monk, or Renny. Evil-doers beware, for when the fires of a youthful imagination are stoked all villains will be vanquished by a pummeling of massive fists.
Doc Savage taught me the value of a dollar. With little money to spend on my voracious reading habit, I discovered that being employed as a dishwasher (and soon as a bus-boy) helped satisfy my craving. I now had choices to make. Should I purchase the latest Marvel Comic or opt for a paperback? I learned how to budget for a month, and how to bust that budget wide-open with an impetuous splurge. My only regret then as now being that I couldn’t buy it all. But I sure as hell tried.
Some of you may be surprised to learn that bookstores were not all that common back then. The great era of nation-wide chain bookstores had yet to begin. Paperbacks were sold by retail operators on spinning wire racks. Some of the major department stores like Wieboldt’s, Marshal Fields, Macy’s and Montgomery Wards all featured “Book Departments” which served as a major source for readers. Smaller stores and local pharmacies always had a spinning rack or two of paperbacks. I bought my comic books and paperbacks where I encountered them, including a tobacco shop, a bowling alley and a Woolworth’s Diner. The Evil Gnome, Land of Always Night, The Phantom City, The Mountain Monster, Poison Island, The Midas Man and The Mental Wizard were all captured on my radar. Somewhere I noticed the books were numbered and I began filling in gaps. The Doc Savage paperbacks seemed endless and I thought they would go on forever. There were originally 181 Doc savage novels published. Bantam initially reprinted 96 and supplanted this with “Double” editions.
I recall being told by more than one old timer Doc Savage, Superman, Batman and other cultural icons were around long before “you were a twinkle in your papa’s eye.” So it was that Doc Savage bridged the “generation gap.” Doc was just as cool in 1968 as he was in 1934. Collectors of the Bantam series are as passionate for their Doc Savage paperbacks as I am. I have met fellow collectors across the country who are happy to recount their experiences when they encountered the Bantam editions all those years ago. For many, they might not have picked up their first one until the reprint series was well under way. No matter if it was The Lost Oasis (#6) or Fear Cay (#11) or maybe even The Land of Long Ju Ju (#47), their enthusiasm was apparent in their faces. Doc Savage has added quality to a great many lives and in ways that perhaps Lester Dent might not have imagined, but if he were here today I think he would be pleased to know it.
Lester Dent’s prose is marvelous. I recently re-read The Squeaking Goblin and it holds up well. I enjoyed it so much more than most of today’s thriller best-sellers that are all padded with unnecessary scenes. A Lester Dent story means non-stop action. No sooner does Doc and the boys find themselves in one predicament than they’re forced to untangle themselves from another predicament. Doc is the center piece, as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes and as strong and agile as Hercules.
Like most Doc Savage fans, I wasn’t too thrilled with the 1972 film version starring Ron Ely, but I met Ely years later and I liked him immensely. Having also played Tarzan, he’s aware that he played two of pulp fiction’s best characters, and he seems grateful that anyone remembers him. Hollywood is rumored to have another Doc Savage film in the works, and we can only hope that it’s a good one.
Thanks to author Will Murray, Altus Press and cover artist Joe DeVito, Doc is very much alive in a series of new adventures that recently teamed Doc with The Shadow for the first time. Joe DeVito’s fantastic artwork pays tribute to both James Bama and Steve Holland while capturing the high-octane flavor of the Doc Savage legacy. Will Murray’s stories are every bit as exciting as those written by Lester Dent. Facsimile editions of the original pulps are also available from Nostalgia Ventures.
Today I hunt for duplicates of favorites or for copies in better condition than what I own. None of the titles are especially rare, and prices vary. E-bay is a great source for the collector with Buddha’s patience. Whatever you want will eventually be found on E-bay. Flea markets, used book sellers, and antique shops are regular sources for me.
 Some few decades ago I found myself on a back-trail in that faraway country where the pines touch heaven, and when it began to rain I did what most experienced campers do – I pitched the tent and hunkered down with a Coleman oil-lamp and pulled a Doc Savage paperback from my rucksack and began reading. I had a long way yet to go on that trip, and Doc took me even further and to strange lands. I have walked in two worlds; one of my own design and one created by Lester Dent. Who could ask for a better path?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Haunted Lady by Mary Roberts Rinehart

By the time Mary Roberts Rinehart died in 1958 her books had been bestsellers for half a century. During that 30 year span of the 1950s through the 1970s her novels had been reprinted dozens of times. Those were the pocket paperback’s glory days. A spinning wire rack of paperbacks always had titles by Mary Roberts Rinehart. In the neighborhood where I grew up all of the older women read her books. Her titles spun at me from the rack, were peeked at sticking out of a purse, or were noticed on a table next to a coffee cup and a pack of menthol cigarettes. The Circular Staircase, The Street of Seven Stars, and The Bat and more all registered on my consciousness. I love the cover for this May 1971 reprint of Haunted Lady from Dell Publishing, originally published in 1942. The novel’s protagonist, Hilda Adams, appeared in several other novels by Rinehart. Naturally, as an impressionable kid I picked these up because I liked the covers. Initially, I was always a little disappointed because there were never any monsters, only stuffy villains. I did enjoy the pointed writing and general creepiness. But as I became a little more sophisticated in my reading I began to appreciate her ability to build suspense and set a scene. Rinehart really mastered the Gothic Mystery. In Haunted Lady, Hilda Adams is visiting the Fairbanks Mansion as a nurse-companion to old Eliza Fairbanks and soon discovers that someone living in that mansion is up to no good. Is the Fairbanks fortune being targeted? Nothing astounding happens, as this is a simple parlor room mystery. Rinehart is credited as being the writer responsible for the cliché “The Butler did it” as a result of the denouement in her 1930 novel, The Door. Sometimes I think of her female protagonists as adult versions of Nancy Drew, but less exciting. Modern readers will bemoan the lack of saucy romance. Rinehart is an acquired taste; she’s good once in awhile when you have a taste for a leisurely mystery.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Munsters by William Johnston

Do you recall Mockingbird Lane? Of course you do. There’s a strange family living in a time warp on Mockingbird Lane. It’s always 1966 and Herman has a bad case of green skin. His wife, Lily, is as pale a funeral flower. Their son, Eddie, is a hairy little monster, and grandpa is...well...always thirsty. Their daughter, Marilyn, however, is a lovely blonde. Just lovely, although Lily and Herman are disappointed that she’s not as attractive as other family members, namely themselves. Trouble starts for the famous Munsters when a Hollywood agent comes calling requesting to use their Mockingbird Lane residence as a movie location. The full title of this Whitman mid-60s juvenile is The Munsters and the Great Camera Caper. It holds up better than some of the other Whitman authorized TV books and manages to capture the tongue-in-cheek humor from the television series. All of the Whitman Books from this period are collectable, but The Munsters is special and I’ve known collectors to pay over $25.00 for a really fine copy. The endpapers of the Mockingbird Lane house, which still stands on the Universal lot, are fantastic. The interior illustrations are by Arnie Kohn. Published in 1965 to capitalize on the TV series, The Munsters and the Great Camera Caper originally sold for a whopping 65 cents. I was told recently that there is an ongoing interest in collecting any Munsters material, and a pristine copy of this book are among those highly sought-after items. A second book, The Munsters: The Last Resort by William Johnston followed a year later. Whitman also published a coloring book.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow by Kenneth Robeson

Will Murray’s latest Doc Savage novel for Altus Press teams Doc with The Shadow in their first full-length adventure. The book is truly fantastic and the best of Murray’s Doc Savage novels to date. Best of all, Murray handles The Shadow with the same skill and talent for storytelling as Walter B. Gibson, who, as you all know, wrote most of the original Shadow novels. This pairing of pulp fiction’s two greatest characters is a landmark event that I’m pleased to see is getting good exposure. Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow is a reader’s delight and page-turning thrill ride from start to finish. This publication is a feather in the cap for both Will Murray and Altus Press. The stunning cover is once again by the great Joe Devito. A tip of the fedora to Lester Dent, scribe of the original Doc Savage series, whose story notes provided Murray with some key plot elements. It all begins when millionaire Lamont Cranston and attorney Ham Brooks are kidnapped by the evil criminal known as The Funeral Director. When another attorney is murdered the noted criminologist, George Clarendon, finds himself involved in a deadly plot that threatens them all. Long time Shadow fans will appreciate Murray’s handling of Clarendon and Cranston, both of whom have strong ties to The Shadow. As always Murray’s knowledge and characterization of Doc Savage is great, but this volume is really a showcase for The Shadow. There’s no question that I and other readers are now praying Murray will write not only some stand-alone Shadow novels, but will eventually re-team pulp fiction’s two greatest heroes yet again. The Shadow sequences are appropriately creepy, wildly mysterious, and tightly plotted. Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow ends on page 466 and it’s a long and exciting ride. The concluding sequence in a graveyard and crematorium succeed in capturing the flavor of the moody original Shadow stories. Intensely imaginative and pulse-pounding from the start, Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow is a sure-fire collector’s items for fans of adventure fiction. Kudos!