Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Golden Age Superman, Vol. 4

Reprinting the Superman stories from World’s Finest # 3-5, Superman # 12-15 and Action Comics # 41-47, this fourth volume takes us to 1942. With these tales we see the propaganda machine kick in and cover art depicting Superman against the Nazi regime. Jerry Siegel wrote all of the stories and he’s having a blast. The cover artist on these gems was Fred Ray and these are among his best work, including the patriotic eagle cover on Superman # 14. Most of the interiors are by Leo Nowak, although the stories are credited to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Shuster was operating his art studio with contract staff by this time. Leo Nowak has the style down, clearly patterned after Shuster’s original art, although there’s more freedom with the layout and panel size. Fred Ray’s influence has also taken hold, and there’s an obvious concentrated effort to streamline and stylize the S-symbol on Superman’s chest. Jimmy Olson makes an appearance, but he is still a minor character. Lois Lane and Lex Luthor play major roles in these stories. Best of all, Jerry Siegel’s incredible imagination is on display with some fantastic tales that hint at the strong fantasy and science fiction elements that will dominate the series in the 1950s and 1960s. Superman visits strange, unknown islands and battles a tribe of natives, a giant prehistoric monster and Lex Luthor. There’s a dash of the fanatical elements from popular pulp fiction with Superman discovering and undersea city with mermaids, and this notion of unexplored worlds will manifest itself again in the coming years. The final story from Action Comics # 47 with artwork by John Sikela is a Lex Luthor classic and not to be missed. With the original pulp magazines aging rapidly and the pages becoming brittle, this reprint series is the pre-eminent repository of Golden Age Superman stories.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Thunder Over the Superstitions by Peter Brandvold

I have begun collecting these beautiful Five Star/Gale hardback books by Peter Brandvold. They retail at $25.95 and they are worth every penny. Being both an avid reader and a book collector offers special budgetary challenges that require monitoring. But not for these Five Star hardcovers. Just buy them. Amazon does discount titles for Prime members, and the shipping is free. Thunder Over the Superstitions is a Rogue Lawman, Gideon Hawk adventure, another of the fantastic series characters created by Ole Mean Pete. It’s not necessary to have read the previous Gideon Hawk novels because Brandvold skillfully and wisely includes enough of the back-story to bring new readers up to date fairly quickly. The story takes off at a break-neck gallop with the guns blazing. One of the qualities I admire in Brandvold’s fiction is the ability to create sympathy for his characters. Gideon Hawk is one tortured SOB. After the deaths of his son and wife, he decided to wear his tin star upside down, and seek out and kill every evil outlaw he can find. That’s his life’s mission now. He even kills other lawman that come gunning for him. He’s gone over the line, and he won’t stop. These are hardly endearing characteristics. Yet through it all, I found myself cheering him on, and when he makes a mistake, I’m almost shouting, “Oh no! Don’t be so stupid!” That’s because Brandvold makes his readers care about these people. The Bonus Story is Blood and Lust in Old Mexico starring the Rio Concho Kid and it’s a short but dizzying adventure that will leave you panting for more, like a water starved hombre lost in the desert. There’s even a dash of romance, Brandvold style. There are many fine writers out there right now, but Brandvold is hard to beat. The Five Star/Gale hardbacks are books the way books should be. Highly Recommended.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Frank Sinatra – Standing Room Only

This three CD set of previously unreleased Sinatra live performances is an incredible achievement. These are the complete concerts that Sinatra performed, released for the first time in their entirety, and covering three decades of his amazing career. This is Sinatra in person; witty, charming, and always in command. His vocal range and high talent is readily on display. He was and remains among the greatest vocal stylists in music history, and that talent is on display here. Because these are the actual concert recordings, you hear Sinatra unfiltered, and sometimes politically incorrect by today’s standard’s. Get over it. Sinatra’s “patter” as they call it is mostly magnanimous toward others, and genuinely affectionate. CD # 1 is from the Sands in Las Vegas and recorded on January 28, 1966. This concert features Count Basie and the orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones. That fact alone makes the release of this concert a historical landmark. There are 16 tracks. CD # 2 is from The Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia on October 7, 1974 and features the great Bill Miller conducting the Woody Herman Orchestra. There are 17 tracks. CD # 3 is from the Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas on October 24, 1987 and again with Bill Miller conducting. There are an amazing 24 tracks. The sound quality is excellent and the package includes a booklet with text and photographs. There are many standards here that will please long-time fans, but rarities and stand out selections as well. The 1974 recordings of “Ol Man River,” and “Send in the Clowns” are especially fine. The 1987 recordings feature an aging Sinatra with a slight raspy edge to his voice, which adds a poignancy to the songs (he had recently recovered from acute laryngitis). His performance in 1987 of “What Now My love” and “Moonlight in Vermont” are wonderful. Sinatra knew music, and he knew what worked best for him, and he could meld a lyric to a melody better than anyone else. The occasional lapse or stalled que are handled with such finesse they are barely noticeable. Live performances, particularly by someone like Sinatra with extraordinary talent, are endearing not only for the popular music but because that music is offered as an unfiltered, raw rendition that is at once immediate and personal. Sinatra delivers. Frank Sinatra – Standing Room Only is a collection of music I will never grow tired of listening to.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Roy Rogers – The TruColor Classics

Revised 12-14-18
UPDATE! In my original blog post I stated that Kino Lorber was responsible for the restoration. That is not true according to author David Morrell who wrote:  “Kino Lorber is a DVD distribution company. They don’t restore films. But Paramount (which now owns the Republic catalog) has restored 22 RR films and is looking for ways to make them available, such as through TCM. I’m working on a RR project that might help. When Republic went out of business, the new owners failed to re-register the copyrights for half their films. That applies to RR films.” I don’t have the titles of the 22 restored films but I will post additional updates as they become available!

There has long been a high demand for restoration and a DVD-Blue-Ray release of the nineteen TruColor features William Witney directed at Republic and starring Roy Rogers. Kino Lorber has released two recently, Trigger, Jr. and Sunset in the West, both from 1950. Film historians and fans are well acquainted with the neglect these films have suffered, and the many problems associated with locating and restoring the prints. When they were released for television, they were severely edited, transferred to black and white, all of which resulted in a chopped up, dismal filmography for one of Hollywood’s legendary stars. Unlike Gene Autry, who maintained a film library with the intention of restoring and making them available to a new generation, The Roy Rogers features were sold and resold, some becoming part of the public domain, and little care was given to the handling of the prints. That’s the short version of a complicated problem.

These films are notable because director William Witney added a sense of urgency and swift action to the Rogers features. TruColor was added by Republic Pictures to compete with the trend of dazzling audiences with brighter, fuller pictures. Witney at times also scaled back the music, perhaps recognizing that the days of singing cowboys were numbered. While Rogers was still a popular recording star, the Witney films limited the music to about three songs, whereas in his earlier films Rogers was constantly singing, and sometimes as many as five songs might be featured.
The restored digital transfer offers pristine colors and sharp focus
In a William Witney film the action scenes are always exemplary. In Trigger, Jr there are several fistfights, but what stands out are the scenes with the horses. A fight between an evil white stallion and Trigger, Jr. is an amazing action sequence. In Trigger, Jr., Rogers doesn’t strap on his gunbelt until the end. The plot involves Rogers heading a traveling circus and getting involved in a corrupt range patrol led by Grant Withers. About midway through the film the circus acts get highlighted with a brief compilation of scenes that looks splendid in TruColor. Seen today, such scenes are a reminder that circuses were once a prominent part of American culture, and widely accepted as a staple of entertainment.
Dale Evans has a modest role in the film, and briefly sings a duet with Roy. Pat Brady also appears, looking much the same as he did during the The Roy Rogers Show which ran on the television from 1951-1957. Of note here is the opening title sequence with a beautiful orchestration. R. Dale Butts is credited for the music, but Nathan Scott and Stanley Wilson had an uncredited hand in the orchestration according to the Internet Movie DataBase.  The opening title sequence is visually stunning and features Trigger, Jr. filmed against a blue sky and high in the rocks. Many of the exterior scenes were filmed in the desert and rocky hills of Lake Los Angeles.
The restored DVD/Blue-Ray offers the best print available for both Trigger, Jr. and Sunset in the West. By comparison, Film Chest offers a color version of Springtime in the Sierras (1947) on DVD but this is a poor quality print lacking in restoration.
The Roy Rogers brand of family entertainment feature films deserve the quality treatment afforded by this restoration, and all credit is due the parties responsible at Paramount (current owners) for their exemplary efforts at film restoration. My goal with this post is blunt and simple – support these restoration efforts by purchasing the DVD of Trigger, Jr. and Sunset in the West with the hope this will encourage additional restorations of the Roy Rogers TruColor classics.
The Nineteen Roy Rogers TruColor Films Directed by William Witney

1950 Trail of Robin Hood
1950 North of the Great Divide
1950 Sunset In the West
1950 Trigger, Jr.
1950 Twilight of the Sierras
1950 The Bells of Coronado
1949 The Golden Stallion
1949 Down Dakota Way
1949 Susanna Pass
1948 The Far Frontier
1948 Grand Canyon Trail
1948 Night Time In Nevada
1948 Eyes of Texas
1948 Under California Stars
1948 The Gay Ranchero
1947 On the Old Spanish Trail
1947 Springtime In the Sierras
1947 The Bells of San Angelo
1947 Apache Rose

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Long After Summer by Robert Nathan

Robert Nathan’s prose is at times eloquent, always thoughtful, and infused with a sense of wonder at life. Long After Summer is one of my favorites, alongside Portrait of Jennie and Stonecliff. Nathan wrote stories that might be described as magical realism today; with a touch of the supernatural, but only a touch. His tales also sometimes employ Christian themes and imagery, and large tracts of philosophy. His armchair philosophizing is handled intelligently, and he never forces the topic. I find Robert Nathan’s novels refreshing, all of these decades after he published them, and I often spend too much money in my travels when I find a first edition hardcover with the dust jacket intact, or some paperback reprint uncovered on a dusty shelf in some remote bookstore. Long After Summer was first published in 1948 in the long, productive rush of success following The Bishop’s Wife (1928) and Portrait of Jennie (1940), his best known novels. Long After Summer is a wonderful novel that tells a heartbreaking story but manages to leave the reader filled with a sense of hope. Nathan’s descriptive powers, complemented by his astute understanding of human nature, produced lines and paragraphs of unswerving power. For example, his description in chapter 3 of a young girl giving a dog a childish hug is particularly moving: “ was passionate and hungry and ashamed – like a child without Christmas presents, in front of a shop window.” All of Nathan’s novels are filled with such insightful moments. Nathan was also a prolific poet, and his measured prose, clarity of thought, and sharp mind all combined to create stories of lost love, ghosts and spirits, and analogies equal to that of any great philosopher. With the release of e-books for Kindle, there’s an opportunity for a new generation of readers to discover Robert Nathan. Long After Summer is about a lonely middle-age bachelor living on Cape Cod and who hires a new girl in town to look after him when he’s recovering from an illness. Her name is Johanna, and she was an orphan come to live with distant relatives. Told in the first-person by the bachelor, about whom we know little, he watches and mentors Johanna throughout the summer. The first half of the book is a character study of Johanna, but of the bachelor, too. He watches her as she experiences the first blush of early teenage love when she meets Jot, a local boy; and the bachelor grieves with her when an unspeakable tragedy occurs. The second half of the book recounts Johanna’s reaction to Jot’s death, which is extreme, and Nathan’s prose hints at magical realism, or fabulism as it would have been known when this novel was published in 1948. There is less of a supernatural element here than in Portrait of Jennie (1940) where the supernatural element was blatant. Nathan handles all of this with extraordinary skill, and I consider Long After Summer among his best work. The ending leaves some issues unresolved, but the bachelor’s love for Johanna is no secret, and what will happen between them later is left for readers to decide. There is a strong Christian element here as well, but Nathan is never pious. Long After Summer is available to down load as an e-book. I also own the first edition hardcover and the 1974 paperback reprint.