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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Harry Grant Dart's Futuristic Air Travel

One of the great, famous images of retro-futurism uncovered by the Internet's digital archaeologists in the last decade, Harry Grant Dart's painting of an Edwardian lady piloting an airship has become something of an icon. Originally published as the cover to the October 1908 edition of All-Story Monthly, it builds on some of the themes of Scientific Romance that Dart had already been exploring in his comic strip The Explorigator earlier that year. Nor was he alien to making social commentary, as in the case of an illustration for Puck that critiqued the movement to allow women to smoke in public. That illustration made the rounds again in 2014, where it was (erroneously) lampooned as an example of anti-suffrage histrionics. This particular issue of All-Story included the Scientific Romance The Master of the World by Charles Francis Bourke (not Jules Verne).


Dart's cover in published form.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Carousel Guest Blog - Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

As some may have noticed, I messed up the new schedule and posted two weeks in a row, the last time being last week. In lieu of what should have been today's post, I humbly present a guest post I wrote for Carousel, the official blog of Skyhorse Publishing. They were kind enough to invite me to write a piece on their recent republication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.



Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Victorian Invention of Christmas

On the odd occasion when I am asked what the greatest invention of the Victorian Era was, I tend to step sideways on it. Yes, various industrial, scientific, entertainment, and transportation technologies are interesting, but I think the best invention of the Victorian Era is the middle class. The idea of the bulk of persons in a society standing between obscene wealth and dire poverty, being able to enjoy opportunity and the fruits of their education and labour, to experience personal freedom as a birthright rather than a class privilege, is a remarkable idea virtually unprecedented in human history. For my second favourite Victorian invention, I may have to say Christmas.

Victorian card of Father Christmas
in his traditional green coat.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Scientific Romances in the Atomic Age

The resolution to the War in the Pacific in 1945 threw a wholly new anxiety onto the shoulders of the world: the heretofore impossible spectre of actual global annihilation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki culminated a trend begun with The Great War. In that first conflict, the "Christian Century" of infinite moral progress was crushed beneath the violence of technological warfare predicted by the likes of H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney, and the other 19th century writers of doomsday invasion stories. Often they predicted an apocalyptic outcome to the oncoming war, but humanity's execution was blessedly stayed in 1919. Even with advances in tank, aeroplane and explosive technologies, truly obliterating humanity was beyond humanity's power.

Then along came The Bomb.

To make the situation that much more dire, the end of the War in Europe also furnished a new and powerful opponent. No sooner were Germany and Japan brought to heel than the Soviet Union filled the vacuum, being a more expansive and more horrific regime than the two villains of World War II combined. Furthermore, Stalin also possessed The Bomb and, under Khrushchev (with help from Castro), the animosity between the USSR and the USA nearly led to Armageddon. While both sides built up their capacity for mutually assured destruction, proxy wars were held in Southeast Asia and in the ideological realm of outer space.

Our ability to smash atoms and potential to harness them for a new technological age, as well as the Space Race and its naive utopian promises, formed the perfect backdrop for what would later be recognized as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in film. The Great War that closed out the Victorian-Edwardian Era also closed out the genre of Scientific Romances; stories of adventure in far-flung places that shared the thrill of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and colonial exploration to a pre-film society, written by the likes of Jules Verne, Garrett P. Serviss, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Edward Everett Hale, and Edward Ellis. Between the wars, the only books of Verne's that were adapted to film were his spy adventures like Michael Strogoff, with a solitary exception in 1929's The Mysterious Island that had more in common with its own time period than Verne's original novel. Science Fiction, properly speaking, took over during the interwar period, in everything from serious meditations on how science and technology may affect society in such works as Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936) down to the Pulpy action-adventure of Flash Gordon (1936) and The Phantom Empire (1935). This nascent realm of Art Deco and radium transformed into the world of Googie and the atom after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, people old enough to beget the Baby Boom were themselves old enough to remember those years before the First World War, or remember the stories told by their own parents. The Gay Nineties re-surged as a reassuring nostalgia in film and places like Disneyland. One user of the Tiki Central forum referred to Tiki lounge culture as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age," and the same could be said of retreat into bygone days of bustled ladies in feathered hats and suffragette sashes, men in seersucker and handlebar moustaches, horseless carriages, pennyfarthing bicycles, Queen Anne revival architecture, barbershop quartets, and marching bands playing in town square. The authors of the Victorian-Edwardian Era came along with it. In particular, those writers of Scientific Romances became suitable for reinterpretation as modern Science Fiction.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

After several years of production, design and location shooting, Walt Disney released his first Hollywood produced live-action motion picture in 1954. If the advertising was to be believed, it was in fact the mightiest motion picture of them all. Considering that the film was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this is a credible claim. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring James Mason as Nemo and Kirk Douglas as Ned Land alongside Peter Lorre as Conseil and Paul Lukas as Prof. Arronax, is perhaps the single most important modern film in the genre of Scientific Romance. 20,000 Leagues came to the silver screen in a post-Hiroshima, pre-Sputnik era when Atomic Age Science Fiction was the darling of young and old imaginations alike (not to mention drive-in theatre patrons). Between voyaging to forbidden planets and fighting off prehistoric monsters, filmmakers turned their attention back to the Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The first of these was George Pal's War of the Worlds, which updated Wells' tale by placing it squarely in the modern day.

Following Treasure Island and a series of three Mediaeval historical dramas shot in England with money tied up during the Second World War, Disney sought another live-action project for production in his studios in Burbank. In doing so, he revived his childhood love for Jules Verne. His concerns, in making the film, were very much the stuff of adulthood, however.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Walt Disney and the Gay Nineties

In a 1997 exhibition of the same name, scholar Karal Ann Marling aptly described Walt Disney's theme park ventures as "The Architecture of Reassurance." Through gingerbread houses, Western stockades, futuristic rocketships, and fairy tale villages, visitors to the newly christened Disneyland in the Fifties and Sixties could find nostalgia, comfort, and hope for the future through the uncertainties of America's changing culture and global position in the post-war milieu. Complimenting Walt Disney's Disneyland, the theme park, was Walt Disney's Disneyland the television series. Each week, Walt's comforting public persona would introduce updates on the theme park, behind-the-scenes programs for newly arriving films, and reruns of past cinematic successes, each themed to a different section of the park, be it Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland. When first unveiled to the world, "Disneyland" was not merely a theme park or a TV show or motion pictures, but a state of mind. The gateway to this mentality was Main Street U.S.A. and the reassuring myth of the Gay Nineties.



Saturday, 12 November 2016

BBC's The Secret Agent

Produced by the BBC and making its home video debut in North America on Acorn TV, The Secret Agent is a three-episode adaptation of Joseph Conrad's tale about The Great Game and its human cost. Toby Jones (Captain America's Armin Zola) stars as Anton Verloc, the owner of a pornography shoppe in London's Soho who moonlights as an anarchist agitator who moonlights as a Russian spy. His chief, the Russian ambassador (David Dawson) is tired of paying their hapless agent for inaction. The international anarcho-communist movement is threatening the stability of governments across Europe, and thus the ambassador wishes to provoke Scotland Yard into bringing its full weight against England's would-be revolutionaries. Verloc is assigned to frame his anarchist cell with a heinous crime: the bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.



What follows is a descent into an utterly bleak moral landscape of madness and ideology manipulated by damnable political forces. The anarcho-communists are a futile lot of bickering "old men" who talk of revolution while wasting their lives on petty seductions. Only one offers any help to Verloc, known only as "The Professor" (Ian Hart), a nihilistic maniac frustrated with the cell's unwillingness to actually get its hands dirty. The cell is under the watch of Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Grahame), who has nothing but disdain for their foolish hobby... Until he discovers that The Professor's wired up overcoat has turned him into a walking bomb. That is his first clue that there is more going on than impotent political bloviating.

Essential to Verloc's plot is his brother-in-law Stevie (Charlie Hamblett). Believing Verloc to be a decent and simple man, Winnie (Vicky McClure) married him for security rather than love. The security he provided allowed her, her mother, and her brother to get away from the abusive hand of her father. This was especially important for Stevie, who suffers from a developmental disability. The cowardly Verloc, who cannot bear to commit an actual act of terrorism, sees in Stevie an easy dupe to commit the terrible act. Yet the plan goes awry, and the lives of everyone spiral downwards to the abyss.


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Charles Golightly and his Steam Rocket

Man in Space, the classic 1954 episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series that helped launch the American space program, begins with a brief history of rocket science that veers from Newtonian physics and Chinese fireworks to the various silly and ill-conceived adventures of the Victorian Era to the successes of the German V-2 program. Nestled into it is a mention of "Charles Golightly," a British inventor who took out a patent on steam-powered rockets in 1841.


But who was Charles Golightly? Did he exist? And did he ever build his rocket?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Universal Studios' Dracula

It practically goes without saying that the landscape of cinema history would be radically different had the classic, 1931 version of Dracula never been produced, or been as successful as it was. The film catapulted Bela Lugosi to fame and precipitated Boris Karloff's Frankenstein later that same year, beginning a 30-year legacy of Horror, Thriller and Science Fiction began at Universal Studios. It also cemented the image of the undead lord as a darkly seductive Hungarian in a dinner suit.

Given its seminal status, Dracula provides a clinic in what makes those creaky old Universal films so wonderful. What is it hiding in those shadows on monochrome celluloid that resonates so deeply with viewers, now almost 80 years on? In the North American horror tradition pre-1960, the horror and blood isn't necessarily the point of the horror film. The exploits of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., and Vincent Price are not merely a parade of "mixed up faces", as Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman summed up the mainstream view of horror. Instead, through these films, we but up against the wonder and mysticism of the sublime in all its overwhelming, humbling, astonishing, horrifying glory.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Sublimity of the Universal Studios Monsters

Nothing is so efficacious for horror as the bygone monochrome of the truly silver screen. Only black-and-white held deep enough shadows for monsters to lurk. From within fog-choked forests, immense alpine passes, ancient tombs, and ruined castles, they bid us welcome, show us what it means to trespass in the realms of God, embroil us in the cosmic battle over the human soul, and did it with unparalleled glamour.   

And nobody did it quite as well as Universal Studios. The films of the German Expressionists were beautiful in their artistic, European fashion, and they went on to fuel Universal's own horror pictures. Other films and filmmakers rose to the occasion - White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, and even the times Mickey Mouse tussled with skeleton dancers and mad doctors - But none matched Universal for sheer output, enjoyment and quality. Hailing from the Silent Era to the Atomic Age, the legacy of the Universal Studios Monsters endures to this day.