Sunday, May 30, 2010

Movie house of memory:Vincent Price in "Last Man on Earth".

Vincent Price had a three stage career spanning over 180 films, plus television appearances. The first, 'almost leading man' stage, from 1938 through the mid-fifties, was mainstream, with notable exceptions like 'The Invisible Man Returns". The second stage , running from roughly 1958 to 1965 was his 'horror' phase; the third, 'rebirth' or camp' stage, lasted from the two horrible sounding 'Dr. Goldfoot' films to his two tons of fun 'Dr. Phibes' films. The capstone of this stage was his appearance in "Edward Scissorhands",three years before his death in 1993.

I discovered Price in his second phase,lucky kid, with the delicious Roger Corman Poe adaptations and the eeriest version of Richard Matheson's novel, I am Legend.This version is The Last Man on Earth ,from 1964. A plague kills nearly everyone, except Price's character, and as we discover ,others. Everyone else is turned into vampiric creatures, shunning light, garlic, and mirrors. Price spends his nights inside, making stakes for these creatures; during the day he impales as many as possible. Dull days for him, a great show for the kids in the audience. It was filmed in black and white,a favorite film stock which lent credence to the eeriness of the film (no, RR, movie), and the 'last person on earth' conceit was fascinating to me. Shrinks would probably have a field day with that.

I do not remember any great production values to Last Man on Earth, just the pathos Price brought to the role. Price did psychologically tortured individuals very well, along with oily or urbane characters.He will appear again in the movie house of memory. I have not seen this title since 1964;I have seen one of the two remakes, Omega Man(1971), starring Charlton Heston. It is in Technicolor, and Heston brings a different energy to the role.I have not seen the 2007 I am Legend.

Next up: Buster Keaton's 1926 The General.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tool shed Thursday: Fokker!

Today is tool shed Thursday. Let me leave the shebeen in the capable hands of Mr. Finn, and let's step out back to the shed. That car? It is an Allard, and belongs to Mr. Finn. Think a roller skate with a big engine: I do not see what he sees in it, he looks like a bear on a tricycle driving it.Mr. Finn has been around for years and years. When I was young I asked him how old he was. "Older than dirt, young master." He can be cryptic, our Mr. Finn.

Ah, here we are. A few pointers about the shed. Firstly, you see it is o, 12' x 18' on the outside. Do not be dismayed when we go inside and it looks larger. Mr. Finn built the shed. I asked for a lifesaving service style boat house, and he built this. Secondly, you may see things you do not recognize: best policy is not to touch 'em. We'll open both doors. Careful, almost lost your footing; most people do, once they step inside.See what I mean about the interior size? Mr. Finn created a tesseract, a cube which looks small on the outside but is multi-dimensional inside. Comes in handy; how else could I store a longship, a Ford Model T, a Dodge Power Wagon; a New Holland baler,a Chesapeake Bay skipjack,a make and break engine,and an Indian motorcycle which once belonged to my grandfather? There's his picture on the wall over the treadle lathe. There are 3 generations of shop accumulations in here. Here we are, I moved this week's tool closer to the doors. Grab a corner of the tarp and help me remove it, please; we'll roll her outside. The rear lifts easily, she is lighter than she looks. Easy, there we go. What is it? This is a Fokker Dr.1, prime example of a tool having a reputation all out of scale with it's capabilities. I told my reader I'd yap about triplanes;no time like the present.

Blame the British for developing them:the first triplane was built by A.V. Roe in 1909/1910.The Shuttleworth Collection has a flying replica. When the war started the firm of (Sir) Tommy Sopwith, another pioneer,began work on a triplane design which was introduced with some success over the front in 1917. Less than 150 were built; those few (especially B Flight,No. 10 squadron, RNAS) were so effective the German high command thought they should get themselves a triplane. Several firms, among them Albatros and Pfalz, built prototypes. The design of Anthony Fokker was chosen for production, even though 10 Pfalz Dr.1s were sent to the front. Two of Fokker's prototypes, designated F.1, were issued to the two leading lights of the German Air Service: Rittmeister Baron Manfred Von Richthofen and Leutnant Werner Voss. Two very different but effective pilots. Richthofen was a calculating hunter: flying was a means to an end, bagging game. When commanding his Jasta, he forbade his pilots to do acrobatics. Voss was not a good administrator; he was a 'natural' if reckless pilot, and a tinkerer. Many a time one could find him at the hangar, working alongside his mechanics.Richthofen, Junker to the bone, did not mingle. The Dr.1 had two things going for it: it was light and could climb quickly. Secondly, the design of the wings and that torquey radial engine made it very maneuverable in the hands of the right pilot. The Dr. 1, with its Obereusel engine, was underpowered. Pilots of Voss' Jasta 10 offered infantry soldiers a bottle of champagne for every Le Rhone engine (French) they would bring in. An additional 10 horsepower was gained, small gain but every bit helps. Voss' aircraft had a Le Rhone mounted the day he was shot down. Reports of the British pilots that day ( Voss took on 7 Se5's of No. 56 squadron, amongst them six aces) say Voss made the tripe do things no aircraft was supposed to do. He would hit right rudder, and do a flat turn; before spinning out, he hit the opposite rudder to regain control. No banking turns that evening. He put bullets into every aircraft opposing him, before numbers prevailed.

On the 30th of October, 1917, Leutnant Heinrich Gontermann, Staffelfuhrer of Jasta 15 was test flying his new production Dr. 1above his airfield when one of the top wing's ailerons flew off,fabric began peeling, followed by catastrophic failure of the top wing. The 39 victory ace died of his injuries from the subsequent crash 2 days later. Thus was exposed another fault of the triplane:bad quality control. Later numbers of the 'plane had reinforcements built into the wing; the problem continued intermittently. This put a damper on pilots' enthusiasm for the kite. Production of the triplane never exceeded 350 aircraft;small, even for hand built production. Over 1000 Albatros D.III and the later D.V, backbone of the Air Service, were built. Even Albatri had wing problems: looking at photos of late D.Va's one sometimes sees a small reinforcemnt piece on each wing's V-strut. Odd. The Fokker Dr.1 was a gorgeous aircraft, especially when photographed in the air. It all meant nothing if the top wing fell off.

There you have it, our first tool, proving a tool is only effective as the hand which wields it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie house of memory: Vikings!

The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on!Start-the-show!Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread out before us, white and silent.The film has broken, or a bulb has burned out. It was difficult, even for us,old fans who've always been at the movies (haven't we?)to tell which before the darkness swept in. T. Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow.

Welcome to the movie house of memory. It is the Cameo, a favorite haunt: a place which still exists, if in a less pleasing configuration. The time span is 1964-1979-ish, though some dates will fall outside this span. I am there with my brother,mebbe some pals. Not all the films were seen at the Cameo: some were seen in lesser places,some in venues with an eerie link to life.A few, sadly, were not seen on the big screen at all. Place is important in memories,and I will establish the context of place and film.

Kids, noisy not unruly, boil through the entrance doors and descend on the concession stand in a lobby cleverly designed to look like a parlor. Home: more upscale than my home, but that is not important. Behind the ticket taker, through more doors, is where we want to be; in the dark, waiting for the asbestos curtain to part, darkness to cover us,and the vision on the screen to be revealed.The place reeks of popcorn, still a favorite smell. We settle in, middle of the row is good. The house lights dim, and the magic begins. It is 1964, and the feature is The Longships.

Directed by Jack Cardiff, one of the great cinematographers, it is a quest story. Richard Widmark, Viking, loses his ship and crew in a maelstrom, and is washed ashore more dead than alive. Byzantine monks find him and nurse him back to health. While there the monks are telling a story with tiny stones, mosaics.It is the story of the 'Voice of the World', a bell taller than three men and made of gold. Cut to a market in an unamed North African city. The authorities hear Rolfe (Widmark) telling the story of the bell, and he is taken to the chieftain, Sidney Poitier, island lilt still in his voice. It just so happens Aly Mansuh is obsessed with finding the bell. Rolfe escapes, washes up months later at home in Scandinavia, just in time for the festivities marking the delivery of the king's funeral ship, built by Rolfes's father. Oskar Homolka has a great time playing Krok, his father. Lionel Jeffries, another seasoned character actor, has a wee role, as does Gordon Jackson. Since Krok is now bust at the expense of making this very nice long ship for the king, his sons steal it and go to find the bell. Again, the ship gets wrecked in the maelstrom, though Rolfe's crew survives, only to be captured by Mansuh, still obsessed, again. The quest is on!

Heady stuff for a twelve year old boy. I must admit, as I have not seen it since that day in 1964, to renting it from Netflix to see how well it stood the test of time. Very well. The opening storm and wreck is done with models, according to my adult eye, and there are some plot dropouts (did Rolfe swim from N Africa to Scandinavia?). So what. Richard Widmark, whom I have never been a fan of, does an adequate job.Exotic climes, highly functional yet aesthetic naval architecture (you'll soon hear more about dragon ships), and a good story make up for the minimal shortcomings. Plus it has the cool Mare of Steel.

Here is an interesting coincidence: Jack Cardiff, director of this film, served as cinematographer on The Vikings (1958), which I have seen (on the big screen, probably at a drive in with my family), though obviously later than its release date.This title stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis ostensibly brothers, but really not, and Ernest Borgnine, cheerfully chewing the scenery as their father. I remember Borgnine jumping into a pit of ravening wolves or dogs, Saxons made him do it, and Douglas losing an eye to a bird attack. One of these days I will pay a return visit to this title.

Much to the Missus' dismay, I have made many return visits to the last Viking title, The 13th Warrior. Any time I get the old Ishmael knocking-hats-off-people-with-a-snowball feeling I pop this title into the dvd player.I saw this one at a megaplex;later,I bought the dvd, I was so en-tranced.Based on Michael Crichton's The Eaters of the Dead,it is a re-telling of a favorite of mine, Beowulf. Beowulf films are a sub-genre of Viking films, as Beowulf takes place in the transitional time of conversion from pagan to Christian. "This is the old way, you shall not see this again", a Norseman tells Ahmad Ibn Fahdlan, capably played by Antonio Banderas at the height of his action hero-dom, as they watch a late Norse king being burned on his ship. "Eben", as the band he now belongs to as the 13th warrior calls him, pledged to rid Hrothgar of his bane, the Wendela. Directed by John McTiernan, experienced and comfortable with the action genre, the film sticks closely to Crichton's story, twists and all. Very satisfactory.

The house lights come up and we shuffle to the door, images of longships and great deeds etched in our minds. After the matinee, we step blinking into the daylight of 'real' life. What did these films do for me? They piqued a lifelong interest in Northmen and their ships, and gave me some pleasant memories.

Next at the movie house of memory: Vincent Price in glorious black and white in The Last Man on Earth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


A hearty Shebeen welcome to a new follower, crrltech.

Sorry, have not had much to say for myself.The Shebeen, except for a light dusting and moving around of the bottles, has been quiet. I have even neglected my reading.I suspect timewasters like Facebook and Spider Solitaire.

Le'see, rehab has been progressing, though a couple cardiac colleagues have Gone West. People do not show up and, not knowing the protocol, I do not ask. An obit. sometimes appears on the bulletin board or door, and my unvoiced queries are answered. So it goes.

As to the blog, your 'umble correspondent has had a rare idea.Inspired by my co-worker and fellow blogger, "Burly Man", I will try themed days. Mondays will be movie day, where I will jabber about memorable, some not very good, films and movies I have seen. Thursday will be "Tool Shed Day": I'll monkey with tools from wrong way knives and Louisville Sluggers to V-6 (or Allison or LeRhone) engines. Might have a food day too,we shall see. I will suppress my 'sub-sub librarian' tendencies and rely on minimal research, working from (sometimes limited) experience,gut,and sieve-like memory.

The trouble starts next Monday. Suggestions and comments always welcome.

Photo: Hunter S Thompson wasting a perfectly good typewriter.