The Posthumous Persistence of George E. Turner, by Michael H. Price
George E. Turner is a familiar name among serious movie buffs – a pivotal figure in the realm of film scholarship, as influential these many years after his death as he was during a lengthy prime of productivity. George’s authorship alone of a book called The Making of King Kong (and known in its newer editions as Spawn of Skull Island) would be sufficient to cinch that credential.
But add to that George’s hitch during the 1980s and ’90s as editor of The American Cinematographer magazine and resident historian of the American Society of Cinematographers, and you come up with a pop-cultural impact of formidable staying power, beyond the reach of trendy distractions.
Where George preferred to limit his interests to the prehistory of filmmaking and the first couple of generations of Old Hollywood, he nonetheless kept a hand in current developments: His last job in a seven-year span of purported retirement was that of storyboard artist and second-unit director on the hit network teleseries Friends. And as a fan, he was as fluent in the continuing story-lines of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as he was in the history of RKO-Radio Pictures or the careers of Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Tod Browning and Val Lewton.
The Friends storyboarder hitch is significant: Even those who are most familiar with George Turner’s film scholarship – for example, a chronic-to-acute genre-history series that he and I launched in 1979 with a book called Forgotten Horrors – scarcely know of his parallel career as a commercial artist and gallery painter, a comics artist and newspaper illustrator, and overall an accomplished talent in practically any medium one might care to mention. His higher degrees, after all, were in commercial illustration (from the American Academy of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago), and before he re-invented his career in Hollywood during 1978-80 he had spent some 27 years as the editorial art director of a daily newspaper in Northwest Texas.
This is where we began working together during the 1960s, at the Daily News & Globe-Times of Amarillo, Texas. I had grown up reading George’s exclusive-to-the-Globe cartoons and comic strips, and as a schoolkid I had recognized his distinctive style in a locally produced series of tourist-trap postal cards bearing the signature of one Tex Lowell. The bogus name was necessary to survival at a pinch-penny newspaper whose management frowned upon freelancing, and I found it astonishing that nobody in charge ever seemed to make the connection between the dignified newspaper art of George E. Turner and the roughhousing gag-card cartoons of Tex Lowell.
When George cashed in unexpectedly at 73, early in the summer of 1999, and a bunch of us American Cinematographer cohorts got together for a memorial roast at Society of Cinematographers’ clubhouse in Los Angeles, I brought up the topic of George’s seminal work in the postal-card racket.
Nobody out there in the Far West was particularly aware of this early sideline. Indeed, although George had spent much of his time in Hollywood as a storyboarder (on Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, for example) and a cartoon animator (on the SHAZAM! series, among others, at Filmation), few within his film-scholarship circle knew George’s cartooning interests to consist of much more than a habit of place-mat doodling while waiting for service in restaurants.
So I cited a particularly ripe example from George’s Postcard Period. (The cartoon is reproduced here, lest mere words diminish its cornball rudeness.) Most of those in attendance were amused; some found the joke undignified and pronounced it just as well that George had outgrown that scrofulous phase of his career before he could set foot in the Motion Picture Capital of the Known World.
Except that George never cared to outgrow much of anything that interested him. As late as 1999, he was working on a new series of gag cartoons as innocently vulgar as anything from the postcard years.
He never outgrew much of anything, that is, with the patent exception of Amarillo, Texas, where a comfortable professional groove had gradually turned into a rut. Linwood Dunn, a Cinematographers honcho who had been a leading camera-effects artist with RKO-Radio Pictures during that big studio’s long heyday, had met George during the 1960s while George was conducting research for The Making of King Kong. Having visited Amarillo during the book’s preparation, Dunn had found George to be “withering on the vine,” as Dunn put it. He began contriving a way to lure George out to work in Los Angeles. The Amarillo newspapers’ newer chain-ownership had proved no improvement over the old hometown regime with which George had felt secure enough, and George’s new wife – a no-nonsense newsroom editor named Jean Wade – was on the hunt for an exit, anyhow. So George accepted a tentative gig with a Dunn-related outfit called Film Effects of Hollywood (the position was fuller of promise than of immediate stability) and parted ways with his native Texas for keeps.
The move threatened to play holy Hades with George’s and my writing-and-drawing partnership, which had started in the newsroom and then branched into international publishing, with the first Forgotten Horrors book contracted to London’s Tantivy Press and its Barnes & Co. affiliate in New Jersey, and a follow-up book in progress called (at the time) Human Monsters of the Movies. George’s The Making of King Kong, which had provided me with an apprenticeship in this specialized arena, had made a big splash in 1975, and during the next few years the book resurfaced in a Ballantine paperback edition and a translation into Japanese.
But George made a point of keeping the collaboration perking, and by the 1980s I had followed his lead out of Amarillo, landing in Fort Worth at a bigger newspaper, where I found all manner of opportunities to travel to Los Angeles on journalistic assignments. These always managed to transform themselves into movie-biz and cartooning excursions with George, and I seldom returned to Texas without a portfolio crammed with new research notes and comic-book roughs. George contributed many ideas to the Prowler comic-book series that Timothy Truman and John K. Snyder III and I developed at Eclipse Comics during the late 1980s, and George and I rough-sketched and rough-drafted any number of comics pages and film-scholarship essays that – as late as the here-and-now – are still finding their way into various projects.
Some saw print during George’s lifetime, including a 20th-anniversary edition of Forgotten Horrors, which arrived from Midnight Marquee Press of Baltimore a few days before George’s death. Others appeared posthumously, including our long-planned expanded version of The Making of King Kong. For a new Prowler-series escapade, in preparation for a ComicMix edition, I’ve worked a four-page Turner & Price story into the overall script.
I’ve continued the Forgotten Horrors books into a fourth volume, meanwhile, with a fifth in progress. The original edition had covered the independent horror-movie scene from 1929 into 1937. The recently published Forgotten Horrors 4 (in collaboration with the novelist and critic John Wooley) brings that coverage well into the post-WWII years, and Forgotten Horrors 5 is stretching into the 1950s as a fertile period for low-budget horror and science-fiction movies.
Somewhere along the way, I figure a companion volume will be in order – might call it Horrors beyond Forgetting – that will document more fully George Turner’s earlier efforts as an illustrator and hopeful moviemaker. I have restored his earliest published comic strips, from the 1950s, for a 2005 book called The Ancient Southwest (TCU Press), and this year I have compiled a selection of our earlier frontier-history pieces into an anthology called The Cruel Plains (Zone Press).
A few of those Horrors beyond Forgetting pieces are reproduced here – storyboards from the 1950s and ’60s, a portrait of Boris Karloff with an appreciative note from the subject, and sketchbook pages in rehearsal for a Tarzan comic (“Tarzan and the Crocodile God”) that appeared in an Edgar Rice Burroughs magazine of the 1960s. Together, such artifacts serve to demonstrate that George Turner was ready for Hollywood long before Hollywood knew it was ready for him.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.