27 December 2019

The Oxford and Cambridge Schools of British Fantasy

From Slate’s interview with Maria Sachiko Cecire, professor at Bard and author of Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century:
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, as many people know, were friends and colleagues, but they were actually working to reform the English curriculum at Oxford, in addition to writing their own fantasy.

They were the architects of this curriculum, which went into effect in 1931. And they really had an enormous role to play in the kinds of questions that were set in examinations, the texts that were required for undergrads to read; then this had this kind of huge knock-on effect in terms of what people were studying for the next nearly 40 years at Oxford. There’s still some vestiges of that curriculum in the Oxford education today. Then the younger authors I was looking at were Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman. They all studied this curriculum and got their degrees between 1956 and 1968.

This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis—which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology—but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment. . . .

And for comparison’s sake, I also went to the archive at a few other universities, including Cambridge, which went in a really different direction from Oxford in the ’20s and ’30s—much more intentionally towards modernism, towards more contemporary texts, and cutting out medieval requirements for their undergraduate English degree.

And interestingly, Cambridge didn’t really have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers. T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.
See previous discussions of Tolkien as a teacher of future fantasy writers in 2010 and 2011.

24 December 2019

Life Lessons from the MGM Movie

Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from Over the Rainbow is a short but not insubstantial riff on the MGM Wizard of Oz. The author, Peter Guzzardi, is a veteran book editor, but this is the first book published under his own name, several years in the making.

Emeralds of Oz is not based on the Oz mythos as a whole—just the famous movie. Guzzardi writes nostalgically about watching that film on television with his family but shares no fond memories of reading the Oz books as a child. He read a lot, but his taste leaned toward boys’ adventures. It takes over a dozen pages before Guzzardi even mentions L. Frank Baum, and there are only a couple of times when the book invokes parts of Baum’s story that didn’t make it into the movie.

Guzzardi isn’t just playing to the MGM movie’s larger contemporary fan base. That movie really defines his idea of Oz. At one point he recalls a difficult journey, noting he was about the same age as when Dorothy went to Oz. Context makes clear that he’s picturing the young adolescent Dorothy portrayed by Judy Garland, not the little girl drawn by W. W. Denslow.

The bulk of the book consists of lessons drawn from rewatching the MGM movie, rather like a sincere Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing. A fair number of these homilies actually grow out of the vaudeville-style jokes mixed into the screenplay. There are longer meditations on the movie’s more explicit lessons, and of course a struggle at the end because of the screenplay’s ethical knots.

The “Emeralds of Wisdom” found in the movie tend toward pleasant reminders to keep doing what we normally do or know we should do, not deeper digs into the philosophical and ethical questions that the movie could raise. (Can one be a very good man while pretending to be a wizard?) The working title was All I Need to Know I Learned from the Wizard of Oz, with the implication that we knew it all from when we were young. Guzzardi drops mentions of the Kabbalah, mantras, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and other mainstays of modern self-help books. The more interesting commentary grows from his own life, however.

As an editor, Guzzardi’s specialty was crowd-pleasers, sometimes with fantastic results—Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, most notably. Emeralds of Oz grew out of that same commercial impulse. It’s designed as a gift, with glittery emerald endpapers, deckle edges, eye-catching interior design, and other hallmarks of the book as object. For people who like the movie and this sort of advice, it’s a fine package. But its strength comes from Guzzardi’s sincerity as he seeks guidance in the question, “What Would Dorothy Do?”

18 December 2019

See What See You Yesterday Did There

Stories of time travel with branching possibilities emphasize the results of characters’ choices even more than other types of stories.

Furthermore, the way those stories end is inherently optimistic or pessimistic. They show that people can change their worlds, futures, or selves—or they show those people can’t.

[Since it’s impossible to discuss how stories end without SPOILERS, the remainder of this posting will not only not be SPOILER-free, it will be packed with extra SPOILERS.]

Back to the Future presents such an optimistic portrait of the universe that not only does Marty restore his family but without even trying he actually makes their life much better. In the sequels he also manages to repair the future and distant past.

Men in Black 3 doesn’t fix the losses of the past, but more knowledge of the past gives Agent J a happier present.

In contrast, Twelve Monkeys shows the hero unable to prevent the global catastrophe that leads to a dystopic future. From the same director, Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits ends on a sour note with its young hero orphaned and evil once again loose in the world. Something about free will, the Supreme Being doesn’t really explain.

See You Yesterday, a movie directed by Stefon Bristol and co-written by him and Frederica Bailey, is a time-travel story set in 2019 Brooklyn. Two high-school juniors, C.J. and Sebastian, have built a temporal displacement device as a science project. They have high hopes for college scholarships. The future looks bright.

Unfortunately, C.J. and Sebastian are also in the world where it’s necessary to say Black Lives Matter. Both crime and overpolicing constrict those African-American teens’ lives. Their experiments with traveling through time in their neighborhood end in the death of one character close to them, then another. No matter how many times they go back to the crucial day, someone ends up dead.

Finally, C.J. goes back on her own. And the movie ends with her running along a now-familiar alley. We don’t know if she succeeds is changing events. We don’t know if she can. By American entertainment standards, that’s a pessimistic ending. And a well considered one.

In an interview at the Decider, director Bristol said:
Often times when you have a tragic movie with a happy ending, people are like, “Well, all’s well that ends well.” I don’t want that. I want the audience to be uncomfortable. I want the audience to have their own interpretation of what’s happening with our country.
In other words, if we want this story to work out well for C.J., her family, her friends, and people like them, we have to fix this timeline ourselves.

10 December 2019

Baum and His Mother-in-Law, Matilda Joslyn Gage

Elizabeth Letts, author of the historical novel Finding Dorothy, shared an interview with former International Wizard of Oz Club president Angelica Shirley Carpenter about her biography Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist.

Gage was one of three coauthors, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of the first volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage. She had rare examples of early feminist writing and a broad view of history that she expressed in essays.

However, Anthony elbowed Gage out of the publication of those volumes, in part because her writing about male-dominated religions was more radical than Anthony thought the public would tolerate.

Gage’s daughter Maud married L. Frank Baum when he was a struggling playwright instead of a struggling novelist. In the interview, Letts asked Carpenter about them:
What was Matilda’s relationship with L. Frank Baum?

At first she didn’t approve of him as a husband for her daughter Maud. She saw him as a spoiled, rich young man who lacked education. Matilda, who had been denied the chance to go to college at a time when women were not admitted, who had worked all her life to get women into institutions of higher learning, was horrified when Maud dropped out of Cornell to marry Frank. But Frank made a sincere effort to win Matilda over and it worked. Since she often lived with the Baums, she saw first-hand what a loving husband and father he was. That’s not to say that she found him perfect; she could be funny and sarcastic about him, as any mother-in-law might be about her daughter’s husband, but they clearly cared for and admired each other. She loved the stories he told his four sons and she encouraged him to write them down and to send them to publishers. I like to think of the two of them, writing under the same roof, Frank writing fairy tales and Matilda writing radical feminist diatribes.
From this interview I learned that 2020 will bring a picture book about Matilda Joslyn Gage, written by Carpenter and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. The Voice of Liberty will be about Gage and her friend Lillie Devereux Blake protesting at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 because real women didn’t yet have basic liberties.

[Stay tuned for my own link to an upcoming Fotheringham project.]

27 November 2019

The Busytown Neighborhood in New-York

Every December the New-York Historical Society lays out a big model train set to visit, and this year’s design celebrates the centenary of Richard Scarry’s birth by sending the trains through Busytown.

The museum’s webpage doesn’t have any images from the display, but Time Out offered the photo above, showing that Scarry’s characters appear as little flat cutouts direct from his illustrations. (Rather than, say, three-dimensionally modeled adaptations.)

There are also “custom-made Busytown vehicle-themed benches” and larger “Busytown characters” for selfies. Busytown is of course a going commercial concern, licensed from Random House. Given how hard most of its inhabitants work at their jobs, such marketing doesn’t violate the Busytown spirit in the least.

Weekend storytimes will feature Scarry’s books, including The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, and on 14-15 December Scarry’s son and collaborator, Huck Scarry, will get busy sketching characters and talking to visitors.

24 November 2019

Tom Lyle and the Robin Miniseries

In 1986 Tom Lyle, an aspiring comic-book artist in his thirties, went to a comics convention in Philadelphia. There he met Chuck Dixon, a young writer who was scripting Air Boy for Eclipse. Based on Lyle’s samples, Dixon got him the job of penciler on a related title, Sky Wolf. In a chat with Comics Interview magazine, Lyle credited that as “the event that triggered my career” in comics.

Lyle was recruited by DC Comics to draw Starman in 1988. After a couple of years, as he was wrapping up that assignment, Lyle asked Batman group editor Dennis O’Neil if he had any openings. O’Neil was planning a miniseries focusing the newly created Robin, Tim Drake.

“I’ve never been real thrilled with the Robins,” Lyle told his interviewer. “Dick Grayson, the original Robin, I couldn’t have given a flip about when I was a kid; it was like, ‘Get out of the way, kid, I want to see Batman.” But a job was a job.

O’Neil’s team wanted to make Robin into a martial-arts expert, so they needed a writer who understood the martial arts. Lyle suggested Dixon. He got the assignment and went on to be DC’s most productive writer of the decade. (On the occasion of his 40,000th comics page in 2017, Bleeding Cool noted Dixon wrote 106 issues of Robin, 89 issues of Detective Comics, 77 issues of Nightwing, 46 issues of Birds Of Prey, and 22 issues of Catwoman, to name a few.)

Dixon and Lyle’s first issue of the first Robin series carried a cover date of January 1991. The character of Tim Drake had been created by Marv Wolfman in issues drawn by George Pérez, Jim Aparo, and Norm Breyfogle, and his costume was designed by Neal Adams. But Dixon and Lyle’s portrayal fleshed him out by showing him on his own. Lyle was especially good at portraying Tim as a thirteen-year-old, lithe but not a powerhouse, the littlest guy in the fight who needed to think harder than anyone else to stay alive.

In the gritty, pouched, and overpumped 1990s, Robin was the equivalent of counterprogramming on broadcast television—standing out by doing something different. And it worked. According to Lyle, DC expected to sell about 200,000 copies of the first issue of the Robin miniseries. Instead, it sold three times that number.

DC asked the Dixon-Lyle team for a second miniseries about Tim Drake going up against the Joker, issued at the end of 1991. Then came a third, featuring the character the Huntress for an interesting contrast. That was the height of the speculative boom, and those magazines are festooned with holograms and other gimmicks.

Dixon and Lyle also collaborated on issues of Batman and Detective Comics showing Batman and Robin together. One of those magazines introduced Stephanie Brown as the Spoiler, who went on to become Tim Drake’s love interest, a fan favorite, and eventually Robin and Batgirl herself for limited periods. Lyle was also the artist for the first Robin Annual and the 1992 public service ad in which Tim decides to learn the facts about AIDS.

During that time, Lyle also plotted and penciled the early issues of The Comet for DC’s Impact imprint. In 1993 he started working for Marvel Comics on Spider-Man stories. That same year, DC launched the Robin monthly series with Dixon as regular scripter.

After another ten years or so, Lyle left monthly comics to become an art teacher at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Earlier this year he suffered an aneurysm, and last week he died, aged 66. Friends and fans have set up a Go Fund Me page for his family.

18 November 2019

Overthinking “Flyover Country”

I’ve lived all my life in California or New England, but my family roots on both sides are in the Midwest, and I’ve spent many pleasant times there.

I never subscribed to the dismissive label of that part of the country as “flyover country.” And in fact I never heard anyone from the coasts use that term.

I just read a National Geographic blog article confirming that pattern. The first author known to use the phrase was the Michigan-born Montanan Thomas McGuane referring to where he lived.

What’s more:

A search through Google’s massive archive of scanned books and periodicals finds that many subsequent occurrences of flyover country come from people who, like McGuane, put the phrase in someone else’s mouth. Rarely is it ever used by a New Yorker or Angelino as a pejorative.

“It’s a stereotype of other people’s stereotypes,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer says. . . .

It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention. It’s the linguistic nexus of Minnesota nice and Iowa stubborn. This self-identification has become a celebration.
It may be true that Americans from the coasts don’t consider or visit the Midwest as often as they should. But that includes not spending mental energy to come up with pejorative terms for the region.

15 November 2019

Breakdown

Let’s imagine that Donald Trump paid millions of dollars—assuming he actually has that much money to spend—to officials of a foreign government to announce a criminal investigation into his leading political opponent.

The officials didn’t even have to conduct the investigation. After all, Trump doesn’t criticize notoriously corrupt regimes, has cut the budgets of international anti-corruption programs, and is ignoring multiple laws and norms in the US. But for these millions of dollars Trump clearly wanted a big public announcement of that criminal probe that would damage his opponent.

Obviously, that would be a crime: bribing a foreign government for political purposes.

Now let’s imagine that Donald Trump took $391 million that the US Congress had allocated for a particular program and diverted it for his own political benefit. Again, that would obviously be a crime: a form of embezzlement and abuse of power.

Donald Trump did both those things at the same time.

09 November 2019

Maugham’s Wrath Outgrabe

From Somerset Maugham’s introduction to Ashenden, or the British Agent, a collection of short stories linked to each other and his own wartime work in intelligence. But not, Maugham wants us to know, linked too closely.

Fact is a poor storyteller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up to an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.

There is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model for fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why fiction should be so too; for fiction should imitate life. In life things happen at random, and that is how they should happen in a story; they do not lead to a climax, which is an outrage to probability, they just go on.

Nothing offends these people more than the punch or the unexpected twist with which some writers seek to surprise their readers, and when the circumstances they relate seem to tend toward a dramatic effect they do their best to avoid it. They do not give you a story, they give you the material on which you can invent your own. Sometimes it consists of an incident thrown at you without any particular reason and you are invited to divine its significance. Sometimes they give you a character and leave you to make what you can of it. They describe a set of people or an environment and expect you to do the rest.

Now this is one way like another of writing stories and some very good stories have been written on it. Chekhov used it with mastery. It is more suitable for the very short story than for the longer one. The description of a mood can hold your attention for half a dozen pages, but when it comes to fifty a story needs a supporting skeleton. The skeleton of a story is of course its plot.

Now a plot has certain characteristics that you cannot get away from. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is complete in itself. It starts with a set of circumstances which have consequences but of which the causes may be ignored; and these consequences, in their turn the cause of other circumstances, are pursued till a point is reached when the reader is satisfied that they are the cause of no further consequences that need be considered.

This means that a story should begin at a certain point and end at a certain point. It should not wander along an uncertain line, but follow, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve. If you wanted to represent it diagrammatically you would draw a semicircle. It is very well to have the element of surprise; and this punch, this unexpected twist, which the imitators of Chekhov despise, is only bad when it is badly done; when it is an integral part of the story and its logical issue it is excellent.

There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of the reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off ineffectively.
And he goes on, of course.

07 November 2019

The Real Legacy of He Walked by Night

He Walked by Night didn’t influence The Third Man, but it definitely did influence American popular entertainment.

To start with, it appears to be the first movie that includes a scene of self-surgery. The bad guy stitches himself up after being shot, using a mirror and a lot of grit. I’ve seen variations of that scene in The Terminator, Ronin, and Master and Commander, but this might be the original.

Even more clearly, He Walked by Night gave birth to the most visible and long-lasting form of the dramatized police procedural. It even starts with an announcement that the story was based on real crimes, and that “names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

One of the supporting characters in the movie is a police lab technician played by Jack Webb. He’s young and almost winsome in the role.

At the time, Webb’s most prominent parts were as the star of the radio dramas Pat Novak, for Hire, about an unlicensed investigator who works at a pier, and Johnny Madero, Pier 23, about a pier manager who undertakes investigations. As was standard in hard-boiled mysteries, the cops in those stories were at best a rival for the hero, at worst a hindrance.

While working on He Walked by Night, Webb met the movie’s technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their conversations and the movie’s format gave Webb the idea of creating a radio drama about a police detective, inspired by real crimes and portraying realistic law-enforcement techniques.

The LAPD also loved that idea and got behind it. Dragnet premiered in June 1949 with Webb in the starring role of Sgt. Joe Friday. It ran for more than eight years on radio. For most of those years, a version also ran on television for nine years, and there was a movie adaptation as well. Then the TV show was revived in 1966 with a TV movie and more than four more years of episodes. Webb expanded the procedural franchise in the 1970s by producing Adam-12 and Emergency!

Dragnet made Webb’s Joe Friday character a national icon, cementing his image as an actor and even his politics. That means it’s very striking to see him play a different personality in He Walked by Night, or to hear him as a cornet player during Prohibition in the fine radio drama Pete Kelly’s Blues.

06 November 2019

Going Deep for a Climactic Chase

He Walked by Night is a 1948 police procedural that gets better as it goes along, largely because the original director, journeyman Alfred L. Werker, left the project and the up-and-coming Anthony Mann took over.

The cinematographer, John Alton, stayed the same, so the whole movie has the same look. It’s a noir docudrama. Many of the opening scenes have no more zip than an educational film. But scenes with the bad guy, played by Richard Basehart, are strong, and the climax is terrific. The police chase the killer through the Los Angeles sewer drain system. Mann and Alton used light and dark, angles and shapes, tracking shots, and sound with no music to build up tension.

The sewer chase immediately brings up a comparison with The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and released the following year. Did a B movie produced by a British-American distribution company that had just got into production influence that prestige project filmed in Europe with an international cast of stars? The similarity is striking, but it’s just a coincidence.

Producer Alexander Korda recruited Graham Greene to write a new screenplay for Reed after they had worked together well on The Fallen Idol. Korda had the idea of setting a story in Vienna, its policing divided among the Allied powers. Greene had one sentence in an old notebook about someone spotting an old friend a week after attending his funeral.

In early 1948, Greene traveled to Vienna to research and come up with more. Discussions with various people gave him two ideas: black-market penicillin and patrols of the city’s old sewer system. Greene went to Rome and drafted a novella incorporating all those elements, then adapted his prose into a screenplay. Filming on The Third Man began in October.

Meanwhile, Eagle-Lion Films was making He Walked by Night, inspired by the case of murderer Erwin Walker. In April 1946, after a shootout with police, Walker had escaped through Los Angeles’s storm drains. He did the same thing the following month. Walker was finally arrested in December 1946 in his apartment, the police having received a tip-off.

According to The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, the original scenario for He Walked by Night didn’t include scenes of the killer in the sewer. Instead, the climax was a chase at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which Werker probably filmed in the spring of 1948. When Mann took over, he reworked the screenplay. He and his chosen writer, John C. Higgins, changed the climax to be an extended capture in the storm drains. Those scenes were a technical challenge, but Alton and Mann captured that footage in reshoots in July 1948.

In November, Eagle-Lion released He Walked by Night in Los Angeles. That same month, Orson Welles arrived in Vienna and performed in a few shots of The Third Man. One of those involved going down into the sewer. But Welles famously balked at filming underground surrounded by actual drain water. The company had to build sewer sets in London and film the movie’s climax months later. Still, that timing shows how the sewer scenes of The Third Man were already mapped out by the time He Walked by Night was released.

Thus, the two movies’ chase scenes through drainage systems developed independently, each based on real events. Both scenes take advantage of the darkness and watery reflections of underground drainage tunnels. But they end up offering a strong visual contrast that reflects the two cities above. LA’s drains are all modern concrete, with smooth surfaces and sharp angles and arcs. Vienna’s Old World tunnels (or the studio reproduction of them) are bumpy brick and stone, filmed at vertiginous tilted angles. And both scenes are excellent.

03 November 2019

Restorative Young Justice

I was intrigued by the news that Brian Michael Bendis was reviving DC Comics’s original Young Justice team, featured from 1998 to 2003. I didn’t pick up the comic books, however, because I was already confused enough by the publisher’s continuity changes in recent years. The alternate universes that got us to this reboot seemed even more tortuous.

I’ve now read the first collected volume of that series, Young Justice: Gemworld, and I’m just as confused as I anticipated.

Bendis has indeed restored the core of the original team: Tim Drake as Robin, Conner Kent as Superboy, Bart Allen as Impulse, and Cassie Sandsmark as Wonder Girl. In addition, he’s added three more girls, versions of established heroes/trademarks: Jinny Hex, Amethyst, and Teen Lantern (leaving out the original Young Justice’s Secret, Artemis Arrowette, and later members). Bendis has also established that the team has always been part of this DC universe’s history but wiped from memory by a bunch of hand-waving—the same hand-waving that brought those characters back together. But as for the story itself, it felt thin.

Of course, the original Young Justice series was far from deep. Launched by Todd Dezago and then taken over and scripted almost entirely by Peter David, it was a sitcom. It had catch phrases, laugh lines, villains and supporting characters whose names were based on puns. Sure, there were many moments of teen angst and very special episodes and all that. But fundamentally that series didn’t take itself too seriously. This team formed because a bunch of young superheroes liked hanging out, not because they had a crucial mission or psychological need. That’s why the unorthodox artwork of Todd Nauck worked.

Bendis has restored the group, but he hasn’t restored that tone. To be sure, these first issues are devoted to reintroducing and introducing the team through one breathless flashback after another. But I recall only two jokes fondly, one of them repeated and the other almost lost in small panels.

The new series doesn’t need to follow the same path, of course. So far, however, there just isn’t enough adolescent drama (as in Teen Titans at its best) or threats to this world (as in the intermediate, TV-spin-off Young Justice magazine) to make up for the loss.

31 October 2019

The Deep Roots of Willow Cove

Next summer will bring The Witches of Willow Cove, a new novel for tweens by Josh Roberts, one of my writing group colleagues.

Here are some extracts from Josh's interview at Writers' Rumpus:

Growing up, I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home, complete with creaky floors, drafty windows, and a secret room sealed off from the rest of the house, so I spent a lot of my childhood making up stories to spook myself and my friends. . . . When I was younger, some of my friends were afraid to sleep over because the house was so spooky. But I have a lot of great memories from living there, too. And obviously it provided some fuel for my imagination.

I’ve always believed that the best spooky stories are the ones that feel like they could be happening to real people in real places. I knew from the beginning that THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE would be set in a small New England town like the one I grew up in. I knew I wanted it to be upper-middle grade, too, with characters right on the cusp of their teenage years, caught in that moment of their lives when they’re not quite grown up yet, but also not quite kids anymore. And I knew that my take on it would be: What happens when you find out you’re one of the spooky things that everyone’s afraid of? . . .

I think there’s a sort of comforting thrill that comes along with reading a spooky story—the promise that eventually the scary part will be over and things will generally sort themselves out. That release of tension is just as important as the frightening part. Maybe more so.
The Witches of Willow Cove will come from the appropriately named Owl Hollow Press, and the sequel, I happen to know, is already in the works.

23 October 2019

Raymie: “Everybody’s Kind of Movie”?

I’ve been noodling out a story about kids in a seaside town, so I tracked down the 1960 movie Raymie for visual inspiration.

Raymie came from Allied Artists Pictures, which grew out of the Monogram, one of the “Poverty Row” studios of the 1930s. Allied still took pride in keeping budgets low. There’s a small cast, a limited number of settings, only one action scene, and not a little stock footage.

I hoped the picture would be an interesting exploration of the young title character, played by Hollywood scion David Ladd. Raymie is indeed at the center of the story, his quest to catch a legendary barracuda defining the plot. But there’s a lot more footage of adults discussing Raymie than of the boy expressing himself. Some scenes are outside of his point of view. I believe Ladd was twelve when the movie was made, but he’s playing a simple nine-year-old.

Instead of a character study, Raymie really lays out the culture of a fishing pier somewhere along the California coast. A bunch of white men who have nothing better to do spend their days fishing off the pier, trading stories and jibes. Raymie’s widowed mother works at a diner on the pier, so he gets to fish, too, without paying.

One of the men is a grouch who dislikes Raymie’s presence. The rest use him as an object of their opinions and advice. There’s a wealthy older man who suffers a health crisis partway through the movie. There’s an African-American worker who shares wisdom in scenes with Ladd and no other actors, making me think they were shot separately and possibly ready to trim for certain audiences. And there’s John Agar as Ike, an off-season construction worker who’s trying to woo Raymie’s mother, played by Julie Adams.

In a vaguely Freudian way, some of the action turns on a fishing knife that Raymie inherited from his late father. (The father died in the Korean War, when the boy was an infant.) After resisting for two-thirds of that movie, Raymie trades that knife for the bait he needs to catch the barracuda. Then at the climactic moment he picks up Ike’s knife instead. That change presages how Raymie’s mother, seeing Ike standing up for her son, finally accepts him as a suitor.

Raymie’s mother doesn’t know that, much earlier in the movie, Ike dove off the pier to protect her son from a shark. Presumably she would have warmed up to him earlier if she were aware. But all the men on the pier, and Raymie, conspired to deceive her about how he got knocked into the water. In other words, the pier culture stretched out the movie.

The Raymie theme song was recorded by Jerry Lewis, then at the height of his stardom. He was even featured on the posters, as shown above. I’ve seen reports that a legal dispute over that recording has prevented the movie from being rereleased in any new format. Whether or not that’s true, in order to watch Raymie I had to download a bootleg file made from a scratched 16mm print found a few years back in Australia. It’s available for the curious, but I’m not recommending it as a sadly lost classic.

18 October 2019

The Late Storm

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning a northeaster blew through the Boston area. A little after midnight, I heard a loud thump outside my house, and the lights went out.

A large branch of a tree in the front yard had fallen onto the wires from the utility pole to the house. I walked around, making sure the branch hadn’t hit the roof as well or done other damage. As I did, I realized that, while most of the lights were out, some rooms at the front of the house were still getting power. I plugged all the devices that need recharging into those outlets and went to bed.

In the morning, I found the same situation: no lights or power in some rooms, perfectly normal in the rest. The tree branch had dragged the power line to the ground, yanking it and the electric meter off the front of the house, but that line was still connected and conducting electricity. The wire for telephone and internet service, in contrast, was well and truly snapped.

Thursday was therefore awkward but not debilitating. I used cell service and went to the library to connect to the internet. I ate lunch out while keeping the refrigerator closed and contacting utility companies. And as I prepared to go to an event in the evening, I tested the power in the kitchen by flipping on one burner of the electric stove.

The overhead light went on. So did lots of other lights in the house. I flipped the burner off. All those lights turned off.

For a second it felt like I was in the Buster Keaton short “One Week,” the one when he assembles a kit house out of order and the systems are all mixed up. An electrician might have a better explanation for what was happening, but I’m sticking with the “Sherlock, Jr.” theory of being briefly stuck inside a silent movie.

I put a big pot of water on a small burner turned as low as it could go without being off. Electricity flowed freely through the house. The refrigerator hummed. The digital clocks blinked happily. Still no phone or broadband internet, but cell service still worked and life went on.

Then today the electric company showed up. Because there was the little matter of live wires under tree debris in the front yard, coming dangerously close to the sidewalk. The line workers unhooked the wire. They ran a new wire from the pole to the house. And then, because of their mandate not to deal with electric meters and indoor wiring, they left. Leaving the house totally without power for the first time.

So now I’m in a coffee shop, typing till they shut off the Wifi and close. I’ve got a hotel room with a change of clothes in it. I’ve got a car. I’ve got an appointment with an electrician (and, next week, with a phone technician). Fingers crossed for the food in the freezer.

14 October 2019

Casting Aspersions

In The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting (in the voice of Tommy Stubbins, the shoemaker’s boy) described Dr. John Dolittle as “a little round man with a very kind face.”

Lofting’s own sketches for the books show a short, plump man with curly hair receding from his forehead.

As of 2020, according to a trailer released today, this character will have been played in the movies by:
  • Rex Harrison
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Robert Downey, Jr.

05 October 2019

Big News

The Atlas of Boston History is a big book. I just got my copy, and it’s 14 inches tall and 11 inches wide, 224 full-color pages of maps, charts, and other illustrations of Boston history.

I got a copy because I worked with editor Nancy S. Seasholes on the page spread about Revolutionary Boston. You can see the whole list of topics and contributors, and several sample spreads, at the website for the book. Needless to say, a project this big has been several years in the making.

The Atlas of Boston History will be officially launched at the Boston Public Library’s central building on Thursday, 24 October, at 6:30 P.M. Nancy will speak about the project, and there will be a question-and-answer session with her and contributors. (I hope to participate, but I’ll have to come from another event in Cambridge.)

Other Atlas events include:
  • Wednesday, 30 October, 7:00 P.M.: Porter Square Books, Cambridge, author talk
  • Thursday, 14 November, 5:30 P.M.: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, author talk and panel

03 October 2019

Hard to Read

One reason the Waukegan Public Library may have chosen not to portray native son Ray Bradbury as a little boy (as I discussed yesterday) is that the site is already chock full of metal kids with books.

The library’s Stimson Sculpture Garden contains no fewer than seven bronze sculptures depicting ten little kids reading, along with a few fairy-tale animals.

There used to be two more children reading, but in 2012 they were stolen and melted down as scrap. Since those statues were bronze, other castings survive, such as Jane Rankin’s “Little Scholar” shown here.

Last time I checked, my public library has two such bronze statues of little kids with books. It looks like this is a genre with solid demand, and artists like Gary Lee Price, Randolph Rose, and Rankin are happy to supply the market.

Someday art historians will write monographs on this form and the studios and patrons behind it, like the studies of Civil War statuary.

02 October 2019

Ray Bradbury’s Rocket

I am not taken with the Ray Bradbury sculpture erected in his native town of Waukegan, Illinois, and unveiled this summer.

Zachary Oxman sculpted the figure of a young Bradbury riding the outline of a rocket, steampunk gears inside. The steel figure waves a copy of Fahrenheit 451.

The design is deliberately “retro” to fit with the mid-20th-century library building nearby, where Bradbury bequeathed his book collection. But the result strikes me as cheesy, diminishing the themes he wrote about instead of celebrating them. “I send my rockets forth between my ears,” Bradbury wrote in a poem, and this turns that metaphor into something solid and heavy again.

I also wouldn’t recognize Bradbury from this statue. I picture him from photos and TV appearances in my youth as a somewhat rounded bespectacled middle-aged man, a chatty dean of American science fiction.

It would make sense for a Bradbury statue in Waukegan to depict him as he looked when he was living in Waukegan. That would be a little kid since the family moved to Arizona when he was six. A young boy dreaming of the future could be iconic but not recognizable. Here’s Bradbury at age three, from the Knopf collection of the Harry Ransom Center. Here he is again, said to be in 1923 but probably a couple of years later.

By age 14, Bradbury was a working writer in LA with hints of how he’d appear as an adult. But I haven’t found any photo of Bradbury looking like the young man in that sculpture. He didn’t wear his glasses for photos in the 1940s, and he had a crew cut through the 1950s. The statue’s combination of spectacles, floppy hair, and svelteness seems like a composite. (Or perhaps Oxman worked from family photos I haven’t seen.)

Lastly, I have to admit, when I see someone clinging to a rocket like that, I can’t help but think of Bucky Barnes about to be blown up by Baron Zemo.

21 September 2019

Amazon and Authors’ Rights

I’m old enough to remember how ten years ago the publishing industry was up in arms against Amazon for encroaching on audiobook rights.

Amazon’s second-generation Kindle had a “Read Aloud” feature that could produce an audio version of any given text. Not a good audio version, to be sure, but a free one, as long as the text was available.

Publishers and the Authors Guild insisted that any such reading required a grant of the book’s audio rights. Amazon insisted there was no rival recording, simply a reader turning on a feature that produced one word at a time. Eventually Amazon backed down, and publishers could have the “Read Aloud” feature disabled for designated texts.

Meanwhile, Amazon bought Audible, a leading company in the small but growing business of producing consumer audiobooks. In the last decade, with the help of smartphones and fast downloads, audiobooks have become a big moneymaker. Amazon made Audible by far the leading distributor.

This year Audible started to promote a feature called “Captions,” which would convert spoken words into written text. Again, it’s not always accurate, but it shows how far software engineering has come.

And once again, publishers and authors are pointing out that the resulting text is the equivalent of an ebook, and thus an infringement on rights they hold and exercise elsewhere. After an industry outcry, Audible offered to let audiobook publishers disable “Captions” for some books—for now.

This is of course the same story told twice, once in audio form and once in text. The part about Amazon pushing new technology and pushing into new territory, that doesn’t change.

10 September 2019

Mid-Century Modern in the Emerald City

After the original publisher of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went bankrupt, Bobbs-Merrill became the book’s one and only US publisher.

At first Bobbs-Merrill included W. W. Denslow’s illustrations, though not in the original ground-breaking multi-color design that integrated text and art. The company kept the book in print until the World War 2 paper shortages. As the war wound down, it looked for a way to reintroduce the title.

In 1944, Bobbs-Merrill commissioned entirely new art by Evelyn Copelman (1919-2003, also known as Evelyn Campbell and Evelyn Copelman Baker). She created black-and-white art on scratchboard and painted several color plates.

The title page of that new edition stated that Copelman’s art was “adapted from the famous pictures by W. W. Denslow.” Obviously those pictures weren’t the only source. Copelman’s Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Wizard are clearly designed like the characters in the 1939 MGM movie, and her Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion look like hybrids.

Bobbs-Merrill had asked Copelman to create an edition that matched the movie, but it didn’t have rights to the MGM designs. It did own the rights to Denslow’s art, however. The title page claim apparently provided legal cover.

In 1949 MGM re-released its movie into cinemas. Not coincidentally, Bobbs-Merrill gave the book a new push. Copelman reworked her line art and added more plates.

With the book still under copyright, Bobbs-Merrill was the exclusive producer of new copies of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, for over a decade in the middle of the century, Evelyn Copelman’s artwork introduced young readers to Oz.

Then the copyright lapsed in 1956. Reilly and Lee, the publisher of the rest of the Oz series, created an edition with black-and-white reproductions of Denslow’s art in a trim that matched its other titles. Other publishers commissioned their own illustrations. As the years passed, Copelman’s art disappeared from bookstore shelves.

Archive.org, working with the San Francisco and other public library systems, has made a digital copy of a Copelman edition available for borrowing. This is a 1994 Illustrated Junior Library edition, with cover artwork by Michael Zimmer but Copelman’s line art and five plates inside. It’s worth a virtual thumb-through, especially if that’s the edition you remember.

02 September 2019

The Rise of the “Oxford Comma“

A weekend Twitter conversation with editor Harold Underdown and picture book creator Debbie Ridpath Ohi set me digging for the origin of the phrase Oxford comma.”

That’s the currently popular term for the comma before “and” or “or” in a series of three or more, as in “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” The more established term is “serial comma.” Some people are trained to use that comma, others not to.

Punctuation in the eighteenth century was haphazard to the point of being hazardous. In contrast, the Victorians were prescriptivists, and the spread of print culture meant there was a lot to prescribe.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Horace Hart (1840-1916), controller of the Oxford University Press, issued a set of guidelines for that organization’s type compositors and proof readers. His examples show he expected to see the serial comma, but he never pointed it out or prescribed it.

Around the same time, the polymath Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote to F. Howard Collins (1857-1910) about why the serial comma mattered, stating:

whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green”—I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally: Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.
Collins quoted Spencer in a footnote of his 1905 book Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists. Collins wrote that book in part because he felt Hart’s guide didn’t have enough practical advice for authors.

The Inland Printer magazine, published in Chicago, quoted Collins’s footnote in a review of recent references for compositors. By the end of 1905, therefore, Spencer’s argument for serial commas was spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. For decades the serial comma has been a standard put forward by The Chicago Manual of Style, the main style guide of the American book publishing industry.

However, some areas of publishing resisted that rule. One was daily newspaper journalism in the US. A serial comma might be little more than a flyspeck, but if we total up all such commas in a week of newspapers, eliminating it might save a significant amount of ink, paper, and time. For decades, therefore, The Associated Press Stylebook has prescribed not using the serial comma unless it was necessary to avoid confusion.

Americans in different fields can thus train themselves either to use the serial comma or not to, in the firm belief that they’re following the most authoritative writing guide. It’s all a matter of which sort of writing they’ve undertaken.

Meanwhile, after World War 2 Britain went through a great punctuation contraction. I’ve written about this before. Double-quote marks became single-quote marks. Periods disappeared from many abbreviations. Newspapers stopped setting off titles with italics or quote marks. And the serial comma was shooed away.

Except at Oxford University Press. As at the University of Chicago Press, scholarly editors continued to see value in the clarity of the serial comma. Posthumously expanded editions of Horace Hart’s rules made that mark of punctuation a standard even as much of British publishing disagreed.

Because the serial comma had become a hallmark of the Oxford University Press, Peter Sutcliffe dubbed it the “Oxford comma” in his 1978 history of the publisher. He credited Collins with establishing the rule, but his own book established a new term for the mark.

“Oxford comma” is thus a retronym, a term coined for something that was once so standard it didn’t need a special designation (e.g., analog watch, prose novel). At one point all British publishers put commas into series of three or more. Now that most don’t, that comma is notable enough to need a name, and “Oxford comma” has a touch of class. It’s quite possible that “serial comma” is also a retronym, forced by journalism developing a different standard.

Harold and I agreed that “Oxford comma” seems like a parvenu synonym for what we’d learned as the “serial comma.” Indeed, Google Books Ngram confirms that authors used “serial comma” and “series comma” starting around 1920. For a long time the terms appeared at about the same rate, but “serial comma” took off in the late 1970s.

Not until this century did “Oxford comma” spread, perhaps pushed by international internet debate. In the Google Books Ngram database (which stops in 2008), “Oxford comma” has overtaken “series comma” and cut into the dominance of “serial comma.” It has not, however, returned to being standard punctuation in Britain.

29 August 2019

Thundering Herds

The Thundering Herd was another Zane Grey novel made into a movie by Paramount, and then remade by the same studio with the young Randolph Scott. (Later still it was retitled for television as Buffalo Stampede.)

In this case, the reason for the remake was the advent of sound pictures. The first version was a silent made in 1925.

The 1933 sound version slipped into cinemas before the Hays Code took real effect. We thus get to see that the villain has unmistakably lascivious aims on his stepdaughter. We get to see a morally ambiguous older woman do away with three men.

As with The Fighting Caravans/Wagon Wheels, footage from the earlier movie was reused and became some of the best material in the new film. The screen shows us actual thundering herds of stampeding buffalo! Stage coaches and wagons chasing across the plains! Scores of Native Americans and European settlers riding into a fight!

The main disadvantage of reusing the old footage is that Randolph Scott had to wear a thin mustache to match the star of the earlier movie. Other players such as Noah Beery, Sr., and Raymond Hatton simply had to look a little younger since they played the same role in both versions.

Among the supporting cast were Buster Crabbe, then on his way up to stardom, and Harry Carey, who was descending back into supporting roles as he aged. Like Beery, Carey had a namesake son who would also go into pictures and eventually costar with Randolph Scott.

26 August 2019

Billy Lee: “one of the heaps magnificent young actor”

Last week I mentioned Billy Lee, Hollywood child actor of the 1930s and early 1940s.

I really can’t improve on the profile of him from this site:
Billy Lee, whose not clear moniker be William Schlenaker, was born bordered by Nelson, Indiana. As a baby, infantile William lived a serene occurrence against his family's dairy farm, but that all changed when he turned three years infirm. Billy and his parents moved to California nigh on 1933.

Billy's parents enrol him, at age 3, in The Meglin School For Kiddies in Los Angeles. The administrator of the seminary, Ethel Meglin, take a outstanding zest in Billy Lee, note, in locate of his parents enjoy, that Billy was a severely magnificent and cooperative youth, fast to swot yawning awake and complete of anticipation. Mrs. Meglin, who was Billy's personal rumba instructor, get Billy Lee started in films via age 4, solely a few months after he was enrolled at the school.

Billy's opening role was in a "Little Rascals" squat, "Mike Fright", as himself (as a slap dancer), and he give relatively an gleaming case in spike of his talent. From at hand it was on to Billy's first fact motion effort of art, "Wagon Wheels" (1934), wherein Billy land his first acting role, which his dance instructor, believe in his talent, had him audition in favour of. Billy also have a solo singing cog in the the flicks. This take place when the primary template, plus Randolph Scott, takes turn singing front on the movie's focus ode. So it was that, at age four, young William go from anyone a young Indiana farm boy to Billy Lee, young Hollywood actress.

In 1937, Billy Lee appear near familiar child lead singer Bobby Breen in _Make a Wish (1937)_ (qv), playing Breen's dictation advantageous forces camp buddy, "Pee Wee". The two boy recite "Polly Wolly Doodle" as a duet. Billy may be best certain for his starring role in the very exciting 1940 movie _The Biscuit Eater (1940)_ (qv). He unremitting acting through the 1930s, appear in complete 30 movies and method alongside more than a few of Hollywood's finest, including Lon Chaney Jr., Roy Rogers, Charles Boyer, Randolph Scott, Olivia DeHavilland, and Broderick Crawford, to name a short time ago a few.

Billy also appeared in a few short subject. One Hal Roach short in individual cast Billy, immediately age 11, in the starring role of "Pinhead" in the 1941 cadenced wit film _Reg'lar Fellers (1941)_ (qv) along with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as "Bump". The characters here film be base on the desirable "Reg'lar Fellers" slapstick comedian discard. This film not only provide Billy with a indiscriminate to skip in a lead comedic role but also allowed him to broadcast departed its sell-by date his hitting skill during one musical cipher that had be record by "Billy Lee's Band" according to the credit. In the film, Billy be the only real musician when he is lead by the other kids performing as Pinhead's trimming. Billy also sing the closing song of the film, "Hooray For Fun".

Another short where on earth Billy landed the lead was call _War Dogs (1942)_ (qv) (aka "Unsung Heroes"). Billy drama the doting son of his aging, decked out military officer dad, who has turned to bash after his claim to rejoin the resource to assistance in the time of war oblige (WW2) is turned fuzz by the military.

Billy's final film disguise come in 1943, when he was 13 (surprise, surprise) in a movie called, _Eyes of the Underworld (1942)_ (qv) in the role of Mickey Bryan, dyed-in-the-wool son of police chief Richard Bryan, play by Richard Dix. After this film, Billy Lee become one of the heaps magnificent young actor who, once reaching his teens, found that leaving from film making was something that was just allotted for you.

Billy Lee lived until 1989; he die eight months after his 60th centenary of a quick heart bridle.
Actually, Reg’lar Fellers is a feature, not a short. It was based on a popular comic strip. Ethel Meglin was an associate producer; Hal Roach wasn’t involved, though it was “Alfalfa” Switzer’s first movie after leaving the Our Gang series.

24 August 2019

The Journey from Fighting Caravans to Wagon Wheels

In 1929 Zane Grey published The Fighting Caravans, a novel about a scout who leads wagon trains across Native American lands to the Oregon Territory. Grey was already a best-selling, brand-name novelist with a deal at Paramount, and that studio came out with a movie version of the book in 1931.

Aside from the basic situation, however, the Fighting Caravans film had little to do with Grey’s novel. The book follows hero Clint Belmet from childhood to a career as a cross-country “freighter” driving wagons. He loses his mother, childhood sweetheart, father, best friend, dog, childhood sweetheart’s adoptive father, and childhood sweetheart turned fiancée to various groups of Indians. At the end [SPOILER] he finds his childhood sweetheart again.

In contrast, the movie focuses on the movement of a single wagon train. Gary Cooper plays Clint Belmet, a scout rather than a freighter. Orphaned as a child, he’s been raised by two grizzled scouts; those characters come not from the novel but from a previous Paramount western, The Covered Wagon (1923). At the start of the story, Belmet and a French woman meet cute in Independence, Missouri. They pretend to be married, he to get out of jail and she because she thinks single women aren’t allowed in the wagon train.

A lot of the movie’s comedy involves Belmet trying to enjoy the benefits of that sham marriage. Meanwhile, his two dads try to keep him away from women. Also along on the journey is a wagon of what are obviously, if not explicitly, prostitutes. [SPOILER: Those women all marry men from the wagon train at the end of their journey.]

The most striking parts of The Fighting Caravans come from the second unit, which filmed an actual long train of wagons moving up and down hills, across snowy plains, and over rivers. Those long shots show where the movie’s budget of close to a million dollars went. I assume the men moving the wagons in those scenes had actually done that work as a living not too long before.

In 1933 Paramount released a second adaptation of Grey’s novel, this time titled Wagon Wheels. Why so soon? Evidently because of the Hays Code. Though the major Hollywood studios officially adopted that set of moral guidelines in 1930, the first couple of years of enforcement were a joke. Indeed, in 1931 The Hollywood Reporter quoted a screenwriter saying, “The Hays moral code is not even a joke any more; it’s just a memory.” But more public pressure forced the studios to strengthen the system, and by 1934 it had become a rigid set of rules. The Fighting Caravans had no chance to get past the censors into theaters again.

Wagon Wheels was just as far from Grey’s novel as The Fighting Caravans was, but it was almost as far from its cinematic predecessor. The hero was still scout Clint Belmet, now played by Randolph Scott. He was still working with two grizzled older scouts, but there’s no suggestion those men constituted a family. And the new movie had an entirely different attitude toward marriage.

The female lead was Gail Patrick, not yet typecast as the overly respectable other woman in screwball comedies but respectable enough. She played a young widow with a little boy—actual four-year-old Billy Lee, enjoying himself immensely. There’s no fake marriage. Instead, she and Belmet start out at odds and become close over time. The old scouts don’t try to get in the way of that relationship; in fact, one of them marries another woman in the train. There’s no wagon full of ladies of the evening, to be redeemed or not. What’s more, there are multiple musical numbers.

The major overlap between The Fighting Caravans and Wagon Wheels is the footage of the wagons on the move. And that’s because it’s the same footage, simply recycled and redubbed into the new movie. That’s why Paramount could make Wagon Wheels for only a quarter of the cost of the earlier picture. And, now that the Hays Code was in force, it could play in theaters and later on TV.

20 August 2019

Television the Great and Terrible

The MGM Wizard of Oz has gone through three stages defined by how we the public got to watch it.

First was the reception that the filmmakers envisioned: exhibition in 1939 as a “prestige picture” in movie palaces, mostly owned by Loew’s Theatres. The movie was then moved to smaller venues and eventually taken out of circulation. MGM re-released the film in the same way in 1949 as the Hollywood studio system was under legal and financial siege.

That cinematic run was successful, if not immediately profitable. Even with reduced admission prices for children, The Wizard of Oz earned $3 million in its first release, enough to make it the second highest-grossing movie of 1939. It gained five nominations for Academy Awards, winning two. It established Judy Garland as a box-office star and enabled associate producer Arthur Freed to oversee many more movie musicals over the next two decades. Though most of the songs were novelty numbers, “Over the Rainbow” became a standard.

The next stage of the movie’s history started when MGM licensed the television rights to CBS in 1956. News reports about that deal marveled at how young Garland, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr had been when they made the picture—they were all major stars almost two decades later. In 1959 CBS took a further step and launched an annual showing, which the network touted as a major event for families to share.

The medium of television didn’t serve The Wizard of Oz well artistically. With more than 90% of American households in 1966 still watching TV in black and white, the movie’s shift to color as Dorothy arrives in Oz was invisible to most of the audience. Likewise, the nostalgic sepia tone of the Kansas scenes was printed in standard grays, and a bit of the opening was trimmed to free more time for commercials.

Culturally, however, television did wonders for The Wizard of Oz. Watching it once a year became almost required for American children, a common national experience. “Munchkin” entered the language, denoting small children and donut holes. Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers not only supplanted the book’s Silver Shoes in the public imagination but were enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In Marvel’s The Avengers, the Flying Monkeys are the one pop-culture reference that WW2 veteran Steve Rogers shares with his Gen-X colleagues and the audience. To be sure, there were American children who grew up without seeing The Wizard of Oz, or who didn’t like it enough to watch year after year, but most of them still knew its main points.

The third and current stage of the MGM movie’s life started with its release on VHS tape in 1980. It sped up as VCRs became standard household equipment and continues into today’s world of DVDs and streaming video. Now anyone ready to make an initial investment can watch The Wizard of Oz anytime they want to. No more waiting years for MGM to re-release the fabled movie into theaters, no more waiting months for the annual television airing.

Artistically, today’s media serve the movie much better than the last stage. Though we’re not watching the picture on giant movie screens as in 1939, the film has been restored to its pristine appearance and full length. What’s more, we can study scenes and frames and edited footage, and multiple behind-the-scenes books tell us about what went into this piece of popular art.

On the other hand, the MGM Wizard of Oz is no longer the cultural colossus it once was. The audience for popular entertainment has splintered, so families rarely gather around one screen to watch one channel. When one can watch the movie anytime, it no longer feels as urgent to watch it tonight. While the live-action recreations of the movie on stage and ice can provide families with a special shared experience as the movie itself once did, those productions are pale projections of the celluloid.

As a result, the fan base of the MGM movie appears to be shrinking and aging. The highest-profile works it inspired in the last three decades—Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, the subsequent Broadway musical, and and the movie Oz the Great and Terrible—were created for adult audiences, with sexual content and hardly any child characters. We once thought of The Wizard of Oz as a near-universal part of growing up in America. Now we see that only a couple of cohorts of Americans shared that experience.

Fortunately, the same abundance of entertainment media that swamps the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz offers many other ways to enjoy the Oz mythos. The original books, new books and comics inspired by them, virtually all the Oz movies and TV cartoons ever made—they’re all available for children to try. There are more doorways into Oz fandom now, not one big door that nearly all American children were funneled through to see if they liked it. But will more variety make up for smaller numbers?

[This essay was written at the behest of Michael Booth, to be published on his Facebook page in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz on 25 August.

The picture above is PhotoShop art by LunaC, hosted on FreakingNews.com. The challenge was to slip a cathode ray TV into an old painting. LunaC chose Joseph Wright of Derby’s depictions of science in the eighteenth century.]

19 August 2019

Rethinking a Decision at Sundown

I thought I’d watched all seven movies in the “Ranown Cycle” of westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, most produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown and written by Burt Kennedy. But I’d missed Decision at Sundown—until last week.

As in most of the cycle, Scott (almost sixty years old in 1957) plays an experienced westerner on a mission of revenge. In this case, he comes to the town of Sundown to call out a man he holds responsible for his wife’s suicide.

A hallmark of these westerns is that their villains can be as charismatic and more rounded than Scott’s protagonists. Indeed, sometimes the villain in one movie even echoes the lines of the hero in another. They’re all men who refuse to change, heading for a collision.

Decision at Sundown takes that mirroring to its furthest point. Scott’s character first appears stopping a stagecoach at pistol point. Meanwhile, his antagonist, played by John Carroll, is treating the whole town to drinks to celebrate his wedding.

Of course, that antagonist is a crooked town boss. He’s throwing over his long-time lover for this advantageous marriage. Yet he’s also in love with his new bride. Most striking, he doesn’t hide his past or his methods—he’s one of the movie’s truth-tellers.

Scott’s character interrupts the wedding and winds up besieged in a livery stable. The boss sends his hand-picked sheriff and deputized gunmen after the interloper as the cowed townspeople wait out the conflict in the saloon.

As the action rises, however, the main characters decline. Of course, in this sort of story we expect the villain to be cut down. But the action reveals Scott’s character as more petty than principled, and he gets his only friend killed to preserve a delusion. In the end, both main characters ride out of Sundown diminished.

Boetticher considered Decision at Sundown to be a failure. Certainly other films he made with Scott and Brown, such as Seven Men from Now and Ride Lonesome, are more stirring. But this one is an effective, character-driven story, not to be missed in the bunch.

17 August 2019

Only Two Plots?

The two prose stories about Jex and Ticca exemplify the adage that “there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey.”

In “Relief,” the young narrator flies to other planets in Jex’s spaceship. In “Just,” the narrator finds Jex has arrived on her moon and gotten caught in a murder investigation.

Quote Investigator looked into the origin of that adage, which has been attributed to many authors in recent years. It found that:
  • Credit most commonly goes to John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction.
  • He never wrote that, though he wrote an exercise in starting a novel in omniscient voice that could be stretched and misconstrued into that statement.
  • Gardner was being credited with making that pronouncement as early as 1986, four years after his death.
Therefore, if you find wisdom in the adage, give Gardner the credit. If you think it’s far too reductive and at best it’s a rubric for starting a story, be pleased there’s no proof he said it.

15 August 2019

“Just” Another Adventure with Jex and Ticca

Last fall I shared news of my story “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney” being published in volume 5 of the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthologies.

Now I’m happy to report that another prose story about Jex and Ticca is now slated for volume 6 of that series. “Just: A Tale of the Jitney” begins like this:


Mama doesn’t usually bring prisoners home.

As magistrate here on Chamulna, Mama keeps prisoners in jail until trial season. Even with all the zirnium miners making trouble on this moon, the jail wing of the Magistracy isn’t full. But I guess she figured this prisoner was too small to stay with the rest.

“I think he’s young,” she told me.

“But he’s a different species,” I said. “We don’t know how his people age.”

Most of Mama’s prisoners are normal Polatians, but this one had smooth, doughy, mahogany skin. His little fern-green eyes were sunk into his face, and his cornsilk hair covered the whole round top of his head. “If he were a Polatian girl like you,” Mama told me, “his crest would be turning light twell—”

“Mama!” I’m sure she could see my cheeks shine.

She wiggled one eye to signal she was joking. “That’ll remind you, Yari, not to assume your mother’s forgotten how alien species work.”

Mama steered the boy into a spare room on the second floor of the Magistracy with a hand on the back of his neck. Half that space was filled with old, mismatched furniture from the squad room downstairs. I moved a broken screen off a crimson sofa, and Jex sat down, his little eyes moving in tandem to take in the mess. On his left wrist, just past his ragged navy shirtsleeve, I spotted a saffron-orange detainment bracelet.

Mama turned to me. “You know how you’re always asking to help with the Magistracy cases?”

“Only a thousand times!” I wanted so much to be an investigator, the way Mama had started out. But she never let me.

“You can help me right now. This boy’s a witness to a crime. I need to question him, and he doesn’t speak Polatian—only Stelpidge.”

Stelpidge was one of the courses I’d chosen from teleschool, but I didn’t think it would come in handy this fast. “Of course I’ll help investigate!” I said.

“Translate,” Mama said.

I let that go and asked, “What are your questions?”

“Let’s start by finding out his basics.”

I’d watched enough investigatory dramas to know what that meant. I pushed a chrome chair in front of the boy and sat down. “Greetings,” I said in Stelpidge. “My name is Yarilotta. This is my mother, Magistrate Squoryvotta. What is your name?”

He said, “Jex.”

“Just Jex?”

He nodded his head. I repeated the name to Mama.

She tapped the name into her handscreen. “We’ll ask Interstel if he has a record. Keep going.”

I asked the boy, “Where do you live?”

“On that space flyer your mother made me park outside.”

“How old are you?”

His narrow eyes peered warily through his fringe of tawny hair. “How young do I have to be to go free?”



Dreaming Robot Press is gathering preorders for this volume through Kickstarter. The higher funding levels bring not only this book in digital and/or print form, but also the previous volumes, so you can own both prose stories of Jex and his jitney and dozens more besides. The press also likes to seed the fondness for science fiction by making its books available to schools and libraries.

11 August 2019

Robin and Gender Shifts in American Naming

Last year the Life of Words blog discussed how over time many American names have flipped from being predominantly male to predominantly female—and, in a few cases such as Stacey and Lacey, flipped back.

Here’s the prevalence graph for the name Robin, based on US Census and Social Security data.

As you can see, until 1850 basically all Americans named Robin were male. Gradually more women named Robin appeared and then around 1930 there was a sudden shift and Robin became a predominantly, though not exclusively, female name.

The character Robin made his debut in 1940 shortly after that shift to a female name. However, the men who created him—Jerry Robinson with Bill Finger and Bob Kane—came from a generation that knew Robin even more predominantly as a male name.

In 1970 the trend of Robin being a female name in America peaked. As of 2000, we were heading back to the range in which the shift happened back around 1930. Was there another sudden change?

03 August 2019

Catching Bob le flambeur at Last

In my mid-teens I saw a bunch of movies at the now-closed Nickelodeon cinema, the type of theater that flourished in college towns before the art films they showed became available on VHS.

In front of every damn one of those movies, the cinema showed a preview of Bob le flambeur, a 1956 film by Jean-Pierre Melville that’s often pegged as the start of the French new wave. I saw that preview so many times that I could recite its voiceover: “…the story of a man who moves like a prince through the dark streets of Paris, gambling in back rooms until dawn. Then one day, down on his luck, he masterminds the biggest gamble of his life: the robbery of the Deauville casino…”

Almost forty years later, through my local library’s Kanopy subscription, I finally watched Bob le flambeur. I was expecting a heist film, but it’s really a character portrait with a heist attached. Bob doesn’t even come up with the robbery scheme until halfway through the movie, after we explore his relationships with a protégé, a young demimondaine, and a police inspector.

There are scenes of Bob walking his confederates through his robbery plan on a floor outline painted on a field, and of a safecracker at work. But to anyone who knows the rules of good storytelling, those scenes are a tip-off that we’ll never see the plan come off that way, and we don’t.

Instead, the movie is an homage to American gangster movies and what Melville’s colleagues dubbed film noir. Roger Duchesne has a ducal George Raft vibe at the center. Women, and the men who love them too much, prove to be the weak spots in the conspiracy. But in the end, it’s Bob’s character that matters.

30 July 2019

Sea Fairies and Sea Sirens

Sea Sirens is a new middle-grade graphic novel by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee. It’s subtitled A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure, and the back cover says it was “inspired by L. Frank Baum’s classic adventure The Sea Fairies, the ‘underwater Wizard of Oz.’” The story’s last page promises more Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventures.

However, this is not a story about Trot and Cap’n Bill from The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, whom Baum settled in the Emerald City in The Scarecrow of Oz. It’s a remix of elements from The Sea Fairies including the names of major characters, the setting in and off the coast of southern California, and the general idea of being able to breathe underwater to visit mermaids.

Baum’s Sea Fairies is one of his weaker fantasies, though it introduces some of his most winning characters and one of his scariest villains. As in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a lot of pages are taken up by underwater tourism with little plot (but, in Baum’s case, plenty of puns). Though Trot is a winning personality already distinct from Dorothy Gale, she functions mostly as an observer; she becomes more of a plot driver in Sky Island.

Lee, who created the striking Return of the Dapper Men, had the idea to pull from The Sea Fairies to create a modern adventure. Like Trot, the Trot* in Sea Sirens lives along the southern California coast with her mother and a disabled older man—not a one-legged sailor but her grandfather, who suffers from intermittent dementia. The new Cap’n Bill* is one-eyed cat.

Trot* is a Vietnamese-American surfer. About twenty years ago I wrote an Oz novel featuring a Vietnamese-American surfer as the child who travels to the Emerald City. I’m therefore particularly intrigued by Trot*. Both stories hinge on the powerful allure of surfing, particularly as a respite from domestic tensions.

In The Sea Fairies, Trot and Cap’n Bill are boating off the coast when the mermaids of the title appear and invite them to visit. They want to disabuse Cap’n Bill of his superstitious ideas about mermaids luring sailors to their deaths. Once underwater, Trot and Cap’n Bill meet many creatures, culminating in a gigantic, ancient sea serpent named King Anko, who presides over the Pacific. Then they get captured by the villainous Zog.

Sea Sirens strives for more conflict from the start. (Perforce this paragraph and the following contain SPOILERS.) Trot* is at odds with her mother over whether it’s safe to leave her wandering grandfather to go surfing. Trot* and Cap’n Bill* almost drown before a mermaid princess with her own mother issues rescues them and empowers them to breathe underwater. The mermaid queen Aquareine* is imperious instead of just friendly. The mermaids are close to war with a nation of underwater serpents, and Trot*’s grandfather wanders into their possession.

However, in the end that conflict washes away in a few pages. The King Anko* in Sea Sirens is a former cabin boy with more than a little resemblance to Maurice Sendak’s Max, Mikey, Jack, and Guy, who in turn harken back to Winsor McCay’s Nemo. Anko* is delighted to find other humans underwater at last. Trot* asks him and Aquareine* to pull back their armies, and they do. Problem solved.

Even Trot*’s fear of her mother worrying that she and her grandfather have drowned evaporates quickly. It turns out the entire underwater adventure takes only an hour in surface time. (In The Sea Fairies, Baum had the mermaids cast a spell on Trot’s mother so that she slept peacefully through her daughter’s absence.) There’s a final fear that Cap’n Bill* has drowned, but he hasn’t.

In sum, Sea Sirens ends up being even slighter than The Sea Fairies. The pictures are lovely, and the graphic storytelling successful on a page-by-page, moment-by-moment basis. The character-based jokes land, especially when Trot* learns there’s more to Cap’n Bill* than she thought. Jimmy Gownley, creator of the Amelia Rules! series, provides fine lettering. Now that the characters are established, we can hope the next graphic Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure is more of an adventure.