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.

03 December 2018

Finding “Relief” with Jex and Ticca

In October I shared the first page of a comics story featuring Jex and Ticca, an orphan kid with his own spaceship and the young stinkbug-like alien who helps keep it running.

While that was in production, I wrote a prose story with the same characters. “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney” is being published this month in volume 5 of The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide from Dreaming Robot Press.

Thanks to alphabetical order, I’m one of the listed authors of that book on the big bookselling websites, but the the collection contains two dozen science-fiction tales for young readers.

Here’s the start of “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney.”


My father said he’d fly home a month ago. “I’ll be back before the moons switch places, Eeshal,” he told me. “I’ll miss working here with my best girl, but right now people need my help.”

“I understand, Daddy,” I told him. Flyers had been landing at our resupply base with reports of how the planet Wengu had suddenly flown through an asteroid cloud. “Dozens of meteor- ites!” “Two cities just devastated.” “I heard there were tsunamis!” A Confederation patrol ship had come with a call for volunteers to repair Wengu’s infrastructure.

“You have to go help those people,” I told Daddy. We were standing out beside the landing field, looking up at Wengu’s star. “You’re the best mechanic in this solar system. And I’m old enough to run Gadder’s Landing while you’re gone.”

“I guess you are now, Eeshal,” my father said. He gave me a bristly mustache kiss on the forehead and went inside to pack his tools.

So I’d been running the base for two months. Whenever a ship landed from outside our system, I asked if there was news from Wengu.

“At least the meteorites have stopped,” said one four-armed lady. “Top off my radon tanks, would you, dearie?”

“Confederation’s still advertising for relief ships,” growled a furry yellow hauler. “Sure you can’t tune my ion jets?”

I can repair computers, but my father hasn’t let me work on engines yet. So pilots who needed that sort of tune-up flew off to other bases. I watched our landing field empty out and our creds account drop. One fuel tank ran low, and the delivery droids stopped letting me sign for new shipments.

I still thought I was doing fine, but then I had a dream about missing my momma. I was only a baby when she died, and here I was waking up crying. Really I was missing Daddy, I knew. I had to do something to bring him back.

Then this little jitney flew in—half the size of most cargo ships, none of the comforts of passenger liners. The registration code on the tail was too scratched to read, but I recognized the ship right away. No other flyer had those refurbed engines and mismatched landing legs. “Held together by wire and epoxy,” Daddy had muttered when he first saw it. “But at least it’s thick wire.”

“So you inspected it?” I said.

“Not officially,” Daddy said. “Jex never asked.”

Jex was the little jitney’s pilot. I don’t know how his species ages, but Jex looks about as old as I am. Sometimes he acts younger.

“Is his ship safe to ride in?” I asked.

Daddy hadn’t answered. But now I was desperate.


The link above leads to Powell’s. The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, volume 5, is also available in digital form through Amazon. That’s how I read this series.

25 November 2018

“I think he should have a kid buddy”

The Library of Congress has a new exhibit featuring a recent donation, Steve Geppi’s vast collection of American comics and pop culture.

George Gene Gustines reported on the display for the New York Times. Many of the items reflect the interplay of comics and other media. For example, there’s the sheet music of a song inspired by the Yellow Kid. There’s the first mockup of the G.I. Joe action figure alongside one of the G.I. Joe comic books. There’s the storyboard for a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

But for the theme of the weekly Robin, the most important item is Joe Simon’s first drawing of Captain America, even before the hero started using a circular shield ( reportedly under pressure from the publisher of an earlier patriotic crime- and Nazi-fighter, the Shield). Created for Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman, it labels some traits of his costume and logo.

At the bottom of the paper is this note:
Simon created this art in 1940. It shows how the popularity and practicality of the “kid buddy” was already evident to the superhero comics industry, only months after the debut of Robin the Boy Wonder.  And Simon recognized the principal benefit of a sidekick: giving the hero someone to talk to.