Author: Michael H. Price
Ringed with popular anticipation in view of its producer’s involvement with the hit teleseries Lost, director Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield proves to be something more than the moviegoing customers might have expected.
The film is an American Godzilla, and I don’t mean the bloated Hollywood Godzilla of 1998. A larger-than-life disaster film, Cloverfield addresses the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in much the same way that Inoshiro Honda’s Gojira, or Godzilla, of 1954, helped Japan to come belatedly to terms with the bombings in 1945 of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And yes, I know: Giant-monster movies are dime-a-dozen fare, and so what do we need with another one? We don’t so much need another one, as we need somebody capable of doing one right – the way Fritz Lang did with Siegfried in 1924, or Honda with the original Godzilla. Cloverfield makes the cut, okay.
Such impossible menaces, after all, have served since ancient times to literalize humanity’s fears of threatening forces beyond reasonable control, from the Tiger Demon mythology of primeval Siam through the Germanic and British legends of Siegfried and Beowulf. (Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 version of Beowulf is more a matter of digital-effects overkill than of mythological resonance.)
Never mind that the American movie-import market had treated the 1954 Godzilla as merely another creature-feature extravaganza, drive-in escapism with trivialized English-language insert-footage and enough re-editing to diminish the myth-making allegory. In its authentic Japanese cut, Godzilla is a national epic on a par with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai – same year, same studio. It took a while for America to catch on: The fire-breathing creature known as Godzilla is the A-bomb, re-imagined in mythological terms.
Yes, and it takes time for the popular culture to get a grip on a real-world disaster. Hollywood dealt at first with the 9/11 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center by dodging the issue, then gradually addressing the loss in such lifelike dramas as Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), whose allusions to Ground Zero pointed toward an explicit depiction of the crisis in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). There have been other such striking examples – but you get the idea.
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.
December of 1938 saw the arrival of an ad hoc comic strip called Tippy Tacker’s Christmas Adventure, signed by one Robert Pilgrim and distributed to the daily-newspaper trade by the Bell Syndicate.
The feature appears to have run its month-long course with little fanfare and only desultory, though complete, documentation of its passage. The microfilm archive in which I had found Tippy Tacker shows no advance promotion, no front-page come-ons, and no particularly prominent placement. The daily installments appear away from the formally designated Comics Page, plunked down at random amongst the general-news and advertising columns. Just a business-as-usual, matter-of-fact deployment, with no attempts to steer the reader toward a Yuletide-special attraction.
The piece came to light around 1990. I was rummaging through the files of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, my home-base newspaper for a long stretch, in aimless pursuit of who-knows-what. The Depression-era back issues had yielded considerable raw material for my contributions to the original Prowler comic-book series, along with motion-picture advertisements relevant to my Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books. Robert Pilgrim’s Tippy Tacker cropped up during one such eyestrain marathon at the microfilm station.
Sometimes, obscurity alone is cause for a resurrection, even though many outpourings of the Popular Culture (“history in caricature,” as the novelist and cultural historian James Sallis puts it) will lapse quite deservedly into obscurity. But I happen to have built a career around the defeat of that Old Devil Obscurity — starting with the Forgotten Horrors books and progressing, or digressing, from there — and Tippy Tacker’s Christmas Adventure seemed to fit that pattern..
Right about now, my cousin Vincent Price would be grumbling about a new film called I Am Legend (opening Dec. 14) – reminding anyone within earshot that he had been the first to star in a movie based upon that apocalyptic story and muttering, “You’d think we hadn’t done it right, the first time.”
Price (1911-1993) had said as much about another movie during our last get-together, in 1986 during a college-campus lecture-tour visit to Fort Worth, Texas. David Cronenberg’s Oscar-bait remake of The Fly was about to open, and Price – who had starred in the original Fly of 1958 – was exercising his prerogative, as a grey eminence of Hollywood’s horror-film scene, to cop an indignant stance: “Hmph! You’d think we hadn’t done it right, the first time.” Like I said…
Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend, starring Will Smith in a role corresponding to that which Price had handled, is the third filming of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel about the collapse of civilization under an epidemic of vampirism. Price’s version, issued in 1964 with little fanfare, bears the title The Last Man on Earth. Price might have grumped about a 1971 remake called The Omega Man – if not for the starring presence of his friend Charlton Heston in that one.
In a benevolent side-effect, the heavy promotion of I Am Legend has prompted a classy widescreen-DVD release of The Last Man on Earth – issued last week via a video-label holding-company ghost traveling under the worthy old corporate name of MGM.
Vincent Price: The name conjures images as varied as the roles he tackled (romantic, comical, heroic, tragic) before typecasting kicked in to distinguish him as the baddest of bogeymen. Price was as prominent a champion of gracious living – gourmet chef, cultural scholar, published author, and discerning collector of art – as he was a reliable movie menace..
Some recent installments of this so-called Forgotten Horrors feature – the title suggests a resurrection of obscurities more so than it proclaims any particular shivers – have established the music-making imperative as essential to the standing of Robert Crumb as a Great American Cartoonist. Other such pieces have touched upon the kinship that I have perceived over the long haul amongst comics, movies, and music. This inclusive bias was cinched as early as the moment I noticed, as a grammar-school kid during the 1950s, that a honky-tonking musician neighbor named “Honest Jess” Williams was (unlike most other grown-ups in my orbit) a comic-book enthusiast.
The connection was reinforced around this same time, when I met Fats Domino backstage on a Texas engagement and learned that the great New Orleans pianist included in his traveling gear plenty of issues of Little Lulu, Archie, and Tales from the Crypt. Later on, as a junior high-schooler, I discovered that a stack of newsstand-fresh funnybooks always seemed to exert their thrall more effectively with a hefty stack of 45-r.p.m. phonograph records on the changer. (“Flash of Two Worlds” plus Charlie Blackwell’s Warners-label recording of “None of ’Em Glow like You,” augmented with a wad of Bazooka-brand bubblegum, add up to undiluted pleasure – well, the combination worked for me, anyhow.)
This latest unearthed obscurity has more to do with music – and a peculiar strain of indigenous Texas music, at that – than with any other influence. But the parallel tracks of American roots music, comics, and motion pictures tend to cross spontaneously. There is only one Show Business, and if not for the early revelation that such a fine Western swing guitarist as Jess Williams followed the comic books avidly (his favorites were Tomahawk and Blackhawk, the comics’ great “hawks” after Will Eisner’s Hawk of the Seas), I doubt that conclusion would have struck home with me.