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Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Señor Zorro, the Masked Avenger

The archetype of the avenging swashbuckler is a very old one. Ballads of Robin Hood go back to the 15th century, and there were certainly others before him... Characters of great daring and great romance who rob from the rich and give to the poor, and otherwise seek to right wrongs and fight injustice against which others are cowardly or impotent. The legacy of the swashbuckler has distilled into the modern superhero, the Captain Americas and Batmans who fight the fight that properly constituted authority cannot. Though the swashbuckler archetype is an old one, some of its most popular and well-known manifestations are not as old as some might think. The lineage of Batman - the dilettante whose secret identity is the mask - goes back at least to Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, the 1905 novel set in Revolutionary France. His more direct ancestor is Johnston McCulley's black-clad avenger of Alta California, Señor Zorro, who was created in 1919. 



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Walter R. Booth's "Airship" Trilogy

By 1909, Scientific Romances were well established in film. The "Romance" part often overshadowed the "Scientific" part, however. Georges Méliès, one of the most innovative minds in movies in the first decade of the 20th century, was most interested fantasies with a Vernian gloss rather than a straight attempt at serious speculative storytelling. In many cases, science was merely a just-so explanation for phenomena that would otherwise be attributed to magic or ghosts. For example, The Electric Hotel (1905) by Segundo de Chomón is an otherwise typical haunted house trick film, only this time it's electric conveniences gone awry.

Walter R. Booth was a magician turned trick filmmaker, like Georges Méliès in many respects. with the same preoccupations. 1901's The Magic Sword, for instance, is a straightforward fantasy story. An Over-Incubated Baby from the same year is more of a trick film with a mad science premise. But come 1909, Booth was interested in a much different project. Rather than a humourous trick film, The Airship Destroyer is a remarkably serious and prescient attempt at Scientific Romances in the vein of H.G. Wells' War in the Air, published the preceding year.        

This film is a remarkably prophetic one-reel opening chapter to a trio of conceptually similar films that includes The Aerial Submarine and The Aerial Anarchists. In it, a thinly-veiled Germany descends on the British coast with a fleet of invincible dirigibles which can only be brought down by the genius of an inventor and his guided aerial torpedo. More authentically like Verne and Wells, Booth's prognostications were based on solid projections of existing technology, as both Zeppelin's and the Wright Brothers' crafts had debuted and entered into commuter and military service by 1909. A scant few years thereafter, Europe would descend into violent mechanized warfare and The Airship Destroyer would become horrifying reality. It was even re-released in 1915 to boost morale. 

Extract from The Airship Destroyer.

A year later, Booth released The Aerial Submarine, in which a pair of children are kidnapped by high-tech pirates inspired loosely by Jules Verne's Robur. From beneath the waves they strike out at passing cruise ships, looting their cargoes. When the submarines of the Royal Navy catch their scent, the pirates take to the air and drop shells on their hapless pursuers. It is only when a careless engineer causes disaster that the world has a hope of salvation from the aero-pirates. It is much less serious than The Airship Destroyer, returning to the cinematic genre's more fanciful trends.

Extract from The Aerial Submarine.

Unfortunately, the third film in the series, The Aerial Anarchists (1911), is a lost film. No footage is known to exist, and all that is known is a vague synopsis that mentions a bombing of St. Paul's Cathedral and the destruction of a railway over a chasm.

Both The Airship Destroyer and The Aerial Submarine can be viewed from British ISPs on the BFI Player website.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Rose Marie, Renfrew, and the Canadian Mountie on Film


Today's special feature is part of the O Canada! Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Click on the banner above to read more about the legacy of motion pictures in the True North Strong and Free!





Hollywood's "golden age" of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties never wanted for stories of adventure set in the rugged wilderness of the mighty Northwoods. Between An Acadian Elopement in 1907 and the 1975 publication of Canadian historian Pierre Burton's damning Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image, 575 films were produced featuring mountainous and snowy locales populated by trappers, loggers and the women of disrepute who loved them. More than half of these, over 250, focused on that most iconic figure of Canadian history, the Mountie.

CANADA!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Harry Grant Dart's The Explorigator



When he began the amazing story of The Explorigator on Sunday, May 3rd, 1908, Harry Grant Dart was already well on his way to becoming an established and respected illustrator. After serving as a sketch artist in Cuba for the New York World paper, he assumed responsibility as its art director. It was for them that he developed the idea of The Explorigator as a response to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, running in the rival New York Herald.  

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.