Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I had planned for us to watch The Wizard of Oz sometime next month, but I got a craving to see it again so we moved it forward. I’ll have less to say here than in other chapters about movies; you know this story already and it’s one of the most written-about films in Hollywood’s history. I have nothing to add beyond our own experience.

We stopped it and restarted it after about five minutes. Our son wasn’t paying a lick of attention. But we forced the issue and he loved it. Our son was happy and laughing aloud through much of the movie, making occasional exclamations of delight over the proceedings. “Those munchkins hatch from an egg?!” “A lion afraid of imaginary sheep!” he called out with glee. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Wizard of Oz is flawless.

My only quibble is that I can’t stand the high-pitched voices of the Munchkins, but whoever designed their costumes deserved all the awards in the industry. Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr are hilarious and perfect in their roles, and I always spare a thought for poor Jack Haley, lumbered in one of the the era’s most uncomfortable costumes and makeup jobs. The Tin Man was our son’s favorite character, so we appreciate Mr. Haley suffering for his art.

At any rate, glee turned to anxiety when our heroes went off to obtain the witch’s broomstick. That amazing scene between Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton had him wide-eyed and desperately hugging Mom, and the whole rescue sequence had him kicking and jumping and dashing to the staircase behind our sofa in anxiety and excitement.

I was concerned, of course, about whether the Wicked Witch would terrify our son. As somebody who wishes to be a better wordsmith than I am, I have always been pleased by Joseph Berger’s 1985 obituary of Hamilton in The New York Times, which describes her as “the actress whose role as the cackling Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz unnerved generations of children.” That’s so perfect.

This blog is nearly two years old. We began it with H.R. Pufnstuf, creating a worry of witches that has lasted to this day. Margaret Hamilton’s performance, I am pleased to say, retains its power to unnerve after nearly eight decades.

I have not watched The Wizard of Oz in quite a long time. See, about eleven years ago, I was dating this beautiful Little Green Girl, as she liked to be known, who absolutely loved Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked – the musical less so – and who insisted that I read the book, over my objections and suspicions. She didn’t even allow me to buy the edition with the cover that tied in with beautifully-designed artwork of the musical, forcing a book with a far less interesting cover on me.

So I read the novel over the course of a week, and finished up with a public display of whimpering, crying and downright bawling when the Wicked Witch meets her unfortunate end. I was on my lunch break in a Jason’s Deli in Alpharetta and made such a Mary-at-Chuckles’-funeral spectacle of myself I never darkened that restaurant’s door ever again. The relationship didn’t last, but it cemented my love for the witch to the point that I just haven’t wanted to see that awful child from Kansas kill her again.

Naturally, of course, that was our son’s favorite scene. Kids!

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The Six Million Dollar Man 1.2 – Survival of the Fittest

I don’t want to watch all of the Bionic shows – we’d be here for years! – but I wanted to show my son some of the classic episodes, and that meant picking up some low-priced sets of the series, and so we might as well look at a few other installments, principally the ones with interesting casts. So about eighteen months ago, I had a careful look over an episode guide – yes, eighteen months ago, I enjoy planning ahead – and picked five of the first thirteen episodes.

But as it was so long ago, I didn’t remember who was in these episodes that made me want to pick them! So in this story, written by Mann Rubin, in which our heroes and some other survivors of a plane crash are being stalked on a Pacific island by villains who want to kill Oscar Goldman, we got to see Laurette Spang, who we’ve seen in a later episode of Isis, along with Christine Belford, who would play Baroness Von Gunther in the first episode of Wonder Woman, as a nurse.

Our son didn’t remember either of them, but what he did recall pleasantly surprised us. Among the cosmetic changes that the show’s new executive producer, Harve Bennett, initiated when he took the show from movie-of-the-month to a weekly series, there’s the iconic “running in slow motion” to indicate super speed. Steve shows off this power when one of the villains coshes Oscar and leaves him unconscious with a huge snake bearing down on him. Steve slow-motion-rushes to save the day, and our son said “Hey! He runs slow like they did in that Bigfoot show!” I’m glad that he remembered that. It bodes well.

The other cast reasons I probably picked this episode out for a watch: James McEachin, whose Universal series Tenafly had just been axed by NBC, plays one of the villains, and Jo Anne Worley, who was spending her post-Laugh-In days appearing as a guest star on everything, is the comic relief character. It’s not a bad story. Our son enjoyed it and was able to follow along, and it has a few pretty good action scenes.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.3 – Frankenstein Drops In

I decided early on that we’d take a couple of days’ break from Freewheelers every few episodes, and this turned out to be a good idea. More on that later. So my son and I watched Sigmund tonight and enjoyed another episode written by Si Rose. I was really amused that he remembered what his mother had said about Johnny Whitaker’s hair last week. As though it was a brand new gag, he said “I’ve heard of long hair, but a rose bush?!”

He also completely adored the various fish and monster puns, including “peanut butter and jellyfish,” “abalone on rye,” and “ghoul in the family,” and missed an important plot development we had to wind back to hear because he was so busy laughing over Big Daddy calling his two older sons “yo-yos.”

Speaking of monster puns, here’s something cute. I love specially-made one-of-a-kind prop newspapers, press kits, and magazines. Big Daddy is reading an issue of Playbeast, and the front cover is some dopey piece of artwork, but look what’s on the back! It’s Orson Vulture from H.R. Pufnstuf standing in front of a chalkboard covered with math stuff. Evidently, Witchiepoo sent him to learn about cosines. We get no clearer picture than this grab. I wonder who else is in the picture or where it was used.

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Freewheelers 6.4 – Mayday

I’d read that there was a lot of Avengers and Department S in this series’ DNA, but it seems to have a lot of The Famous Five in it as well, what with these kids having their adventures and following criminals rather than calling for police or anything. I was thinking that even before tonight’s installment, in which Mike phones the RAF (!) to rescue Steve from Ryan and Burke, who are shooting at him from another airplane. And sure enough, the air force scrambles four fighter jets to bring down their prop plane.

But the real Famous Five bit comes when Burke starts mumbling about a lighthouse so that Sue can hear it. It’s uncannily close to “blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War…”

Jerome Willis isn’t in this episode, which our son enjoyed a good bit more than the previous one. We did have to pause and explain what Buchan was doing at one point. In his third disguise and silly voice so far, he pretends to be thrown into Burke and Ryan’s cell in order to gain their confidence. But overall he really seemed to enjoy it, and even shouted “Yes!” when the stock footage of the RAF’s jets showed up.

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Freewheelers 6.3 – Medusa

Our son was quite candid and honest when I asked whether he’s enjoying this series. “Not really,” he said. He explained that there’s not a lot of action in it. That’s despite two people being knocked unconscious by blows to the back of the head, an exploding airplane, and a weird burst of radioactivity that turns the room blue and bathes the villain, Nero, in psychedelic colors.

We learn this time out that up until recently, Nero was Professor Barnet at Cambridge, a respected researcher into oceanographic studies. Like a lot of misguided scientists in the 1970s, he was trying to solve the world’s foot shortages, and his solution was the Medusa project, which stimulated plankton into unnatural growth via radiation. What this has to do with melting gold into frying pans and shipping them to France is still a mystery.

In fact, lots of this is kind of hard to figure out how each plot element fits into each other. It’s almost like they went on location, filmed a lot of material based on what was available and handy – like the big air show in this story – and then crafted a final script around that before they went back into the studio to tie it all together.

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Freewheelers 6.2 – Operation Seagull

It’s a little surprising just how far ahead of our heroes Professor Nero and his gang are. Episode two of this story starts with Col. Buchan revealing himself to “the kids.” He only knows Mike, but he’s been in the area nebulously investigating in disguise, just in time for Ryan and Burke to gas everybody aboard the ferry and steal the gold. All that’s left for our heroes to do is do some spectral analysis to determine what kind of gas it is.

Back at the country house, Nero has all of the gold melted down and recast – a whole lot quicker than I thought this could be done – as frying pans, and then sent back to the port to get shipped to his agents in France. Nero stumps everybody again, even as they’re closing the net, by using a decoy truck. It’s always refreshing to see villains who can think on their feet and stay ahead of our heroes. But then again, three of the four are just “talented amateurs.”

I didn’t mention it last time as that post was a little long, but there’s a really amusing moment in part one when Ryan and Burke are in the back seat of Nero’s gang’s car, and they’re wondering whether these “geezers” who picked them up are really policemen. It’s incredibly similar to a scene in the Doctor Who serial “Terror of the Autons,” which had been shown earlier in 1971. I was half-expecting Ryan to lean forward and ask to see these men’s warrant cards.

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Freewheelers 6.1 – Nero

Time for a new experience here at the blog: a program I’ve never seen at all before. We’re looking at the few surviving and available episodes of Freewheelers, a kid-friendly adventure that ran for eight series on the UK’s Southern Television between 1968-1973. Inspired by the success of The Avengers, it’s a show in which a top professional teams up with some talented amateurs to fight ruthless masterminds and save the world from evil. The stories were told in linked serialized adventures, typically two or three stories in each batch of thirteen, and almost half of the show’s 104 episodes are missing, as is often the way with British television from the period.

The top professional, for most of the run, is Colonel Buchan of the British Secret Service. He’s played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and we saw him in the role of Commander Radnor in the Doctor Who story “The Seeds of Death” last month. “Seeds” was made and shown after series two of Freewheelers. Col. Buchan specializes in recruiting small groups of teenagers to assist in his war against the forces of villainy. As would later be common in, say, The Tomorrow People, the cast changes a little with each new batch of thirteen, with “the kids” coming and going. None of the original young stars lasted beyond series three.

For those first three series, the lead villain was an ex-Nazi officer called Karl von Gelb, played by Geoffrey Toone. He was dropped for series four, in which Buchan and “the kids” battled a new villain played by Pamela Ann Davy across a pair of stories. Buchan himself was absent for series five, which was the first to be made in color, as Ronald Leigh-Hunt was working on the film Le Mans in late 1970 and unavailable. In that series, Wendy Padbury, who had played Zoe in Doctor Who‘s sixth season, joined the trio of “talented amateurs” as a new character, Sue Craig.

Most of these episodes are missing. Series one exists in full, but only a single episode from the next four series is known to exist. Simply Media released series six on DVD in 2009 and it was hoped they might release the other three existing batches, but sales were apparently too low to overcome the other complications: series one, since it’s in black and white, is less likely to be a big seller in today’s market, and some of the surviving episodes from series seven and eight are said to be in pretty bad shape and really should be restored before release. The investment would eat up any potential profit.

So, for series six, we’ve got Ronald Leigh-Hunt back as Col. Buchan, Adrian Wright returning for his third go-around as Mike, Wendy Padbury back as Sue, and Leonard Gregory as the latest recruit, Steve. We’ve got two master villains in a pair of stories, and at least the first of these diabolical baddies is using the services of two henchmen who’ve tangled with the Freewheelers before: Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper.

Series six ran in the fall of 1971. It seems to comprise a seven-parter written by Paul Erickson, and a six-parter by Richard Montez. We started with episode one, “Nero,” this evening. I thought it was quite entertaining, and our son gave it a “pretty cool” thumbs up, although he didn’t like it when Ryan and Burke engaged in some petty crime on an amusement pier on England’s south coast. Interestingly, there was a 2p toll to go onto the pier.

The story opens with Ryan and Burke on the run, having broken out of prison that morning. Mike and Sue are on a vacation together and they meet Steve, who’s chasing the criminals. The baddies seem to get arrested, but they’re actually kidnapped by agents of Professor Nero, played by Jerome Willis, who enlists them in a scheme to steal £6 million in gold from a ship using a non-lethal gas. Because of the law of conservation, this turns out to be the very ship where our young heroes have got summer jobs as stewards. But Col. Buchan is on board as well, strangely in disguise… we’ll see what happens next tomorrow evening!

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.13 – Escape Proof

The first half of series two comes to an end, unsurprisingly, with another big fight with the Mechanic, this time involving the Hood as well. It’s kind of low on shocks and wows; most of Rich Fogel’s story is FAB 1 driving down a gigantic tunnel that the Mechanic has dug, and driving back very fast as his big new device reverses direction. Meanwhile, Virgil and Gordon carry out a very meticulous rescue. I was pleased that they made the choice to pay attention to something so laborious and repetitive instead of the usual edge-of-your-seat bit of grabbing somebody at full speed in the nick of time. Nice change.

Our son loved it, full stop, and asked questions about the Mechanic’s weird technology and wires that are plugged into his back. The episode ends with our heroes left more than a little wrong-footed, setting up some more stories with these villains when series two resumes later this year. About which… I haven’t seen a date for when it’s due back. Probably in September, I imagine, and we’ll write about it here as soon as ITV Studios gets a DVD in the shops!

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