Captain Blood (1935)

Boy, the list of things I’d rather do than get into a sword fight with Errol Flynn.

Curiously, this is the second film from 1935 that we’ve watched this month, following Bride of Frankenstein. Good year for the movies. Our son has been watching a National Geographic documentary program called Draining the Oceans about shipwrecks, and loves the book in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series about ironclads, so his imagination has been totally captured by pirates and privateers giving each other broadsides. So when his grandfather sent him a gift of his favorite film, 1935’s Captain Blood, I rearranged the schedule a little to make sure we could give this a spin.

Captain Blood was a big A-list picture for Warner Brothers, based on a classic novel, and given to the hugely talented Michael Curtiz to direct. It drops an Irish doctor into all of that court intrigue that plagued England in the 1680s, with one jerk after another taking the throne and deposing somebody else, and rounding up people who were loyal to the wrong party. Dr. Peter Blood had the misfortune of treating an injured rebel when the troops arrived, and soon he and many other rebels are sold into slavery in the West Indies.

To be honest, this is a long film and its first half really coasts along on Errol Flynn’s charisma, Michael Curtiz’s inventive direction, and Olivia de Havilland’s beauty. Right about the halfway mark, just when it looks like the slaves’ plans for escape are about to be thwarted, Spanish privateers storm Jamaica and the movie kicks it up about ten notches. I might have wished for eight or nine minutes from the first half to be trimmed, but every second in its second half is pure joy. The escaped slaves take the Spanish ship and set sail for freedom. Swashes get buckled, swords get unsheathed, rum gets drunk, and blood gets spilled. Basil Rathbone shows up as a French pirate captain, and if you don’t sit up straight when Flynn and Rathbone finally cross swords, you must be new to this sort of movie.

Our son conceded that the first half was a struggle for him as well, but he truly loved everything that came later, and was every bit as thrilled by the climactic naval battle as he was by any modern special effects movie. It really is a masterpiece of editing. Between miniatures, studio sets choked with extras in the ships’ rigging, and repurposed footage from 1924’s The Sea Hawk, they created a flawlessly effective battle. Of course I love watching something as old as this and finding it every bit as immersive and believable an experience as anything today’s effects could provide; it’s even better watching our son marvel at it all as well.

Warner’s DVD is out of print and it doesn’t appear that it has made it to Blu-ray yet, but the disc includes a tremendously neat little bonus feature. It’s presented by Leonard Maltin, who unfortunately gives away rather too much of what you’re about to see, but it’s meant to evoke what audiences might have experienced in their theaters when they went to see Captain Blood in December 1935, including a trailer for a wide release of the same year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also starred de Havilland, an end-of-the-year newsreel, an Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy one-reeler, a musical bit that we skipped, and an old Merrie Melody called “Billboard Frolics.” I honestly had no idea that the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes theme had lyrics! It’s not just the kid who learns a little something when we watch old movies!

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Back in March of last year – remember that far back? – we were all set to go to Atlanta to eat Indonesian food with friends at a no-frills place I know and love, and then go see the classic Bride of Frankenstein at the Plaza Theatre. And the reason I asked whether you remember that far back is that the week was really, really awful and scary and nobody knew how bad COVID-19 was going to be, and most of us – myself included – rolled our eyes, said we wash our hands all the time and keep our distance from people anyway, and wondered what the big deal was, and within about two days all the businesses were closed and everything was cancelled and then things got truly bad and we learned how wrong we were.

I’m saving that Indonesian place for another time, for when those friends feel comfortable eating indoors again, however long that may be. But the Silver Scream Spook Show has finally returned from the grave, a full two years since their last outing. Vaccination cards in hand and masks on, we met up with our good pal Matt, and reentered the Plaza after far too long. Instead of Indonesian food, our Tennessee bellies were full of Rodney Scott’s barbecue, ready for foolishness and shenanigans and a very good movie.

I confess that I was a little leery about showing our son Bride of Frankenstein, because we did watch one other classic Universal effort, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and he wasn’t even remotely impressed by it. Happily, he really enjoyed Bride. It reteamed director James Whale with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive for 90 minutes of violence and sadness and a comedy character who’s so over the top that for a second there, I forgot which movie I was watching and wanted Cloris Leachman to take it down a notch. It’s a very, very fun and intelligent film, and while a part of me kind of wishes that Elsa Lanchester, playing the Bride, had… er, a little more of anything to do, the more sensible part of me agrees that the character’s brief reawakening is just one more layer of tragedy in a film stacked with them.

The best part of the whole thing is that it wasn’t just our son who enjoyed this a lot. The theater had quite a few young kids in the crowd to enjoy this movie, which is amazing because it’s almost ninety years old. They were all incredibly well-behaved, and the noisiest and smallest of them was quickly removed when the movie and the sitting still got too long. I’d love the Spook Show if Professor Morte and his gang were doing it all just for the three of us. To see so many young film fans get to enjoy a really, really old black and white movie on the big screen would make anybody’s heart grow three sizes.

Image credit: Bloody Disgusting

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)

To cut a long story short, several months ago, something reawakened my long, long-dormant interest in cinema. Among many detours I’ve taken recently into everything from sleaze to horror to softcore to noir to indie to award-winning, I pulled up Wikipedia’s page that lists the Criteron Collection’s releases, started at the top, and read about many movies I’d never noticed before. Spine numbers 1015-1017 caught my eyes, and this morning, spine number 1017 made them pop out of my skull.

Criterion’s set for those numbers is called Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman and it’s a collection of Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention of Destruction, and the blissfully weird and wonderful Fabulous Baron Munchausen. I picked this one for no other reason that it’s in color and thought it might be a little safer to avoid very old stop-motion brontosaurs and keep an increasingly skeptical ten year-old kid from scoffing. Now, though, I’m sure any of the three would have been fine. Zeman is quoted in the box art as saying “I have only one wish: to delight the eyes and heart of every child.” The child in our house was completely delighted by this silly old movie. He laughed out loud throughout it and said “That was FUN!” when it finished.

It’s true that the kid was more pleased by the movie than the grownups, but that doesn’t mean we were disappointed. This is a weird, weird movie, and made with a sense of anything-goes whimsy. It’s like watching a dream unfold, with camera tricks and such a curious mix of live action, animation, and miniature work. I’m so glad that we’ve introduced our kid to old movies and old special effect tech before that preteen seriousness and skepticism kicks in, because it’s the sort of mix of playful images that I can easily, easily imagine some too-cool-for-school classmate of his responding with an eyerolled “That’s not REAL!” It’s not, not even remotely, but it’s strange and beautiful and so pleasant to see that even though the story is so slight that the Baron’s tall tales seem perfectly natural within it, it didn’t matter. It’s not about the narrative, it’s about the experience.

I don’t want to oversell this in a world where special effects have made everything possible, but this mix of visuals just kept surprising me at every turn, especially when a shot looks like the actors are in front of an animated background, and then when they move, we see that some of it is actually the foreground. Imagine the Yellow Submarine film, with all of its tricks, only with the actual Beatles in it. That could be a little bit like this.

The plot doesn’t really matter much, but in something that might be the modern day, an astronaut visits the moon and finds Munchausen living there with four famous friends from literature. Munchausen insists that this astronaut must be a moon-man and returns him to Earth on a ship carried by winged horses, only Earth’s not yet in the modern day. It’s the time of gunpowder cannons, Turkish tobacco, ship-eating leviathans, and giant birds. Munchausen and the moon-man both fall for the charms of a captive princess and enjoy a friendly rivalry to win her favor. It’s an unpredictable movie with sight gags and slapstick and harmless villains. Most of it is told visually. There’s not quite as much dialogue as there is narration, but much of it, like a silent film, just unfolds to music.

I’m glad that I chose Criterion’s box, because it comes with two other movies that I’m sure we will enjoy when we get some time next year. However, I have to note that the box is one of Criterion’s sillier presentations. It’s in a thin and probably fragile cardboard contraption that unfolds to reveal pop-up artwork. It really captures the spirit of Karel Zeman’s visuals, but I’d honestly prefer a more minimally-designed plastic clamshell to better protect the three Blu-rays. If you’re interested in just this movie, don’t need quite all of Criterion’s bells and whistles, and would like a simpler and much less expensive package, then Second Run has released Munchausen alone on region-free DVD and Blu-ray, and you can order it from them here. I won’t claim that I loved this film, but I liked it enough to want to give it a big hug when it finished for being so odd, and Second Run’s release would stand up to that kind of treatment.

Master of the World (1961)

A few years ago, I was thinking about what we might watch for the blog and put 1961’s Master of the World on the maybe list. I’d never seen it, but it sounded interesting, and of course we’ve told our son how important Jules Verne was to the development of science fiction. Plus, all boys should watch as many old Vincent Price films as they can find. But lots of movies were on the maybe list. It took a chance visit to a museum to prompt me to buy a copy.

Last month, we drove down to Cartersville GA to visit Tellus Science Museum, where we like to pay our respects to a dimetrodon along with many other beautiful creatures who came a little later on, several rooms full of gems, and a history of transportation that includes a few examples of very early automobiles, like the quadrovelocipede that Nicodemus Legend – I mean Ernest Pratt – used to drive. They only have a small room for temporary exhibits, but currently they have a small collection of film and TV science fiction props and memorabilia. There, our son saw a small model of the Albatross from Master of the World, and said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. I’d noticed that Kino Lorber had a new special edition on their coming soon list, and decided that enthusiasm should not go unrewarded.

Kino’s new Blu-ray comes with a very nice restoration, two commentary tracks, a tribute to screenwriter Richard Matheson, and several trailers for Vincent Price movies. We watched a few of those before we got started, and it struck me just how much nicer it would have been to see these trailers projected instead of all the unpromising movies that they were promoting the last time we went to the theater.

Master of the World begins with a short look at some of the failed experiments in flight from the late 19th century, the same sort of goofy crashes of impractical “airplanes” that we saw at the beginning of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Our son enjoyed the heck out of that. It put him in the right mood, and after a few minutes of well-dressed fops yelling at each other formally with language like “I tell you, sir, that it is balderdash!” things get started with some missiles knocking a hot air balloon out of the sky.

Our son asked “Did they really crash a hot air balloon for this?” I said that no, this was an American International Picture. They couldn’t have afforded any such thing. In point of fact, they couldn’t afford newly-shot footage of the British navy or a big land battle in Egypt either, so the Albatross ends up interacting with material from more expensive movies. Other than Vincent Price and the Albatross, this cost-cutting is the most interesting thing about this movie. Not even the great Vito Scotti, here playing a comedy cook, prompted me to smile, though the kid guffawed over his situation a few times.

The kid was very happy with it, and correctly noted “That reminded me a bit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” This villain, Robur, is nothing more than a Nemo of the sky, and while Vincent Price is a million times more interesting than most of the actors who played Nemo, Richard Matheson didn’t write the character as any different than the one James Mason had played for Disney seven years previously. The most interesting thing about the experience was that our son had assumed from the model at Tellus that the Albatross was going to be the heroes’ ship, but no, like the Nautilus, it’s commanded by a villain and crewed by loyalists who have turned their backs on the rules of human nationalities.

I’ll be honest: I fell asleep, and must have missed ten minutes. I woke when Robur’s captives were making their escape on a beach, wondered whether it was the same beach used in Planet of the Apes, and waited for the inevitable conclusion. I wasn’t impressed, but the ten year-old was really entertained. Everything from the comedy to the tech to the special effects had him really pleased, and while this purchase will go to his shelf and not mine, I’m very glad I got it for him. This keeps up, he’ll want to see Price teamed with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in one of those films we saw in the trailer collection next, and that’d certainly be a good thing.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Picking movies to watch with our son usually comes down to weighing two big factors: do I want to sit through it again, and will the kid enjoy being introduced to a “classic” – however you want to define that – from long ago. This shouldn’t be homework. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about The War of the Worlds. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid myself, and I’ve picked up the memory of it being quite dated. But really, that’s a problem with the original story. The 1953 production, directed by Byron Haskin, is mostly a lot better than its source, and some of it is just fascinating to watch. Criterion released a new edition with a brilliant restoration and piles of bonuses last year, so I decided to give it a try. We enjoyed it very much. It was not homework.

I’ve never liked the original novel, and since any adaptation of it is probably going to stick to its – let’s be blunt – utter cop-out of an ending, I’m going to be checking my watch waiting for the Martians to die without any help from the protagonists. That means what an adaptation needs to give us is a story worth watching while all the death rays and war machines do their trick. For a while, it’s the usual disaster movie / monster movie stuff, with Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne, plus a small on-camera role for the great Paul Frees, going through the motions against a backdrop of tremendously good special effects. It’s a lean 85 minutes long, and I liked how it doesn’t waste any time getting started. The prologue’s awfully dopey, but once we get to Earth, war machines are landing.

But there were lots of “usual” disaster movies and monster movies in the fifties, some good, and some bad. The War of the Worlds is a standout because after that first big battle against the Martians, this movie kicks it up a notch and goes for real bleakness. It’s a movie that does a whole lot with sound, both in the screaming, shrieking noises of the Martian guns (later pilfered by everybody, including Benita Bizarre’s zapper in The Bugaloos) and in silence so thick it’s uncomfortable.

The scene in the abandoned farmhouse is rightly remembered and praised for being one of the scariest things in any monster movie, but in my book, it’s the evacuation of Los Angeles that really makes this film a genuine classic. I’ve seen a lot of extras running away from giant monsters in my time, and a lot of empty streets, but The War of the Worlds is just eye-poppingly excellent. It shifts from backlots to the real streets of LA effortlessly. Well, that’s probably not the right word, because prepping the streets with all that trash in the dead of night just to get first-light Sunday morning shots like the one above was certainly not effortless. But the conviction in making audiences believe this city has fallen apart except for the looters and the ones too poor or injured to get out, is solid.

And Gene Barry, who spent the next few decades of his long career looking for a role half as memorable as this, is just remarkably good throughout. When night falls and he moves from church to church desperately searching for Ann Robinson, he really looks like a man who just wants to die holding somebody’s hand. And if the film started a little unconvincingly, with a big echoey studio pretending to be a country hillside, it ends looking like a trillion bucks, black, red, and orange, a city on fire with hours to live. It’s a movie which badly deserved a better ending than “Oh, the invaders didn’t wear spacesuits.”

For what it’s worth, our son didn’t roll his eyes at the climax like I did. It’s one that culture spoiled for him quite some time ago, somewhere, so I couldn’t keep this one a secret like some of my other triumphs in the field, and said “I think it’s a good ending. It makes sense that our bacteria would kill them!” He enjoyed all the mayhem and explosions and can’t pick out a favorite moment or scene. He did say that his favorite character was the little orange tabby who briefly surveys the destruction of LA. Film buffs have not positively identified this cat but speculate that it’s probably Orangey, a cat who did a lot of work for Paramount and also appeared in two other well-remembered fifties sci-fi epics: This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Criterion is releasing in a spiffy new edition next month.

Spirited Away (2001)

I told the kid Friday night that we were watching another film by Hayao Miyazaki this morning. “Oh, I hope it has scenes with lots of delicious food like some of his other movies!”

Possibly the biggest, and certainly the most unwelcome, surprise I’ve had since starting this blog came this morning. I’d been saving Spirited Away, which I think everybody loves, for a rainy day, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. So I’ll turn this over to the kid, who says “Spirited Away is a film by Studio Ghibli about a young girl, say about twelve, who is moving to a new town. Her parents get lost and turned into pigs. And then, through a series of unpredictable events, she finds herself working in a spirit sauna run by a sorceress.” He liked it enormously. It had delicious food, strange comedy, genuine peril, dragons, river spirits, and weird monsters. There was a new, wild surprise every few minutes. I wish I enjoyed it more, but he enjoyed it enough for both of us.

Blood Seal of the Eternal Mermaid (2011)

Oh, thank heaven. Our brief investigation into the long series of Lupin III annual-ish television specials concludes with what is easily the best of the four I selected. Napoleon’s Dictionary and Dragon of Doom were pretty good, while Twilight Gemini was godawful. This one stumbles through a climax that’s a little bloated and weird, but getting there was an absolute joy and sliding our heroes against a world of strange magic and supernatural powers worked surprisingly well.

To be sure, there’s a lot in this movie that I bet bigger fans of Lupin than me have seen before. There’s an underworld kingpin of enormous power and influence never mentioned in any previous adventure, great big super-jewel treasures, and a new arch-enemy for Goemon who gets the upper hand by getting into Goemon’s head for a minute. But it’s all done exceedingly well in this movie, which is apparently the only one that’s been given to Teiichi Takiguchi to direct, although he did move on to work on one of the television series a few years later.

The big key that makes this one such a standout is that a 14 year-old girl figures out who Lupin is and decides she will become his apprentice. Lupin tries very hard to discourage her – hilariously badly at one point, as he thinks she is a lot younger than fourteen and he can scare her off with monster stories – but of course he ends up stuck with her for most of the running time. Frankly, I’m amazed that it took forty years for anybody to come up with such a wonderfully simple idea. Unless a bigger fan of Lupin than me would like to tell me that actually they did it in a two-parter in 1979.

What else? There are clever deathtraps, a bit where Lupin gets uncharacteristically pensive and introspective about why he’s a criminal, and his famous grandfather actually shows up in a flashback, which I’d never seen them do before. The climax is a little wonky, but all the supernatural revelations come fairly and honestly within the rules that the movie establishes. Overall, a fine couple of hours of entertainment. We’ll check out one more Lupin III adventure before we wrap up the blog, and if it’s at least as good as this, I’ll be satisfied.

Moon Zero Two (1969)

There are dozens of episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that I have not yet seen, but the only one that I have deliberately avoided – thus far – is their take on 1969’s Moon Zero Two. That’s because I’ll be damned if my first experience of a sixties Hammer directed by Roy Ward Baker with a cast this solid would be those wonderful chuckleheads riffing it. Now that I’ve seen it, and mostly enjoyed it, mock away. I’ll probably track it down soon and enjoy the jokes, assuming Joel and his robot friends don’t fall asleep during the interminable ride in the moon buggy to the missing man’s claim, because I almost did.

To be sure, it’s dated and slow and I just wish that more women dressed like this in the far-flung future of, er, 2021, but I thought that, scientific quibbles aside, this was a very good script, I loved the design and the really great music, and I enjoyed almost all of the performances. Unfortunately, American actor James Olson was cast as the lead, and he’s the weak link. We’ve seen Olson a few times before, and he was absolutely a reliable character actor in guest roles, but he does not seem or feel enthusiastic about this part. Unsmiling, monotone, and frankly radiating boredom, he’s certainly among the weakest performances by an American in any Hammer film that I’ve seen. Bizarrely, I didn’t know that Olson was in this, and was just thinking about him yesterday because I was watching a 1972 episode of Banacek set in Las Vegas, with the standard seventies Howard Hughes analogue, and remembered Olson from “Fembots in Las Vegas”, a Bionic Woman installment where he played the Hughes stand-in.

But joining Olson in this are Adrienne Corri and Catherine Schell, who are wonderful. Warren Mitchell leads a team of villains including Bernard Bresslaw, Joby Blanshard, and Dudley Foster, and, and as you might expect from a sixties Hammer, Roy Evans and Michael Ripper show up briefly. You put this many good actors in a movie, and I’m not going to complain much, especially if it looks this good. I’d love a cleaned-up Blu-ray. The only in-print option in the US is the DVD-R from the Warner Archive. I scored a cheap copy of the out-of-print properly-pressed version which pairs it with the uncut When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Apparently nobody realized how much nudity there is in the full Dinosaurs and it was quickly removed from shelves, because they told retailers it was the Rated G version.

The kid, on the other hand, was mostly unimpressed. I did caution him up front that this was made during a period where some science fiction was being made for adult audiences, and was made without stuff like aliens and death rays, but instead just setting tales of human greed and failure in the near future. I think there was a little eye candy for him, and some nice visuals, and a skeleton in a spacesuit moment that Steven Moffat probably remembered from his childhood and incorporated into Doctor Who‘s “Silence in the Library”. But overall, he was a little restless and we agreed afterward that this was too slow a movie for a kid who likes spaceships that jump to lightspeed.

The best little moment came when I pointed out Bernard Bresslaw and said that he’d seen him before. I let him chew on that a moment and then let him know that he had been Varga, the very first Ice Warrior in Who. The kid tolerates my astonishment that he has trouble with faces, because he knows it doesn’t actually bother me, but this was too far. “Was I seriously supposed to recognize him?” he protested. “Good grief, no,” I said, “just wanted to point out that when you cast an Ice Warrior, you cast a big guy.”

“That dude is a big guy,” he agreed.

Daimajin (1966)

Regular readers may recall that whenever possible, I like to surprise my ten year-old son with the details of what we’re watching in a way that really, nobody else gets to experience. Previously, we started watching Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) without him knowing that one partner would be a ghost, and he may be the only viewer in the world to not know what the “them” in Them! were. He didn’t even know that Edward Scissorhands really did have scissors for hands. So this morning, we sat down to watch 1966’s Daimajin, better known in this country as Majin: Monster of Terror, and I told him we were going to watch a samurai movie.

See, I think this setup made this experience really, really fun. Late last month, Arrow Video put out a remarkable Blu-ray box set of the three Daimajin films, which were made simultaneously by Daiei in 1966 and released at four-month intervals. I’m sure that my small audience knows to go someplace like DVD Beaver for really detailed restoration comparison and analysis, so I’ll just say that these look really impressive. The whole enterprise, from picture to sound to special features to packaging, just shines with love. I preordered my set from the good people at Diabolik DVD, and I’d say you could click the images to go there and order your own set, except that mine arrived on Monday and now, six days later, Diabolik’s already sold out, so you can click the image and get on the waitlist.

Anyway, I’m very, very glad I didn’t overpay for an older DVD of this as I’d been considering, because the new set is just so beautiful, and we had such a good time. Settled in for a samurai film – his first – we watched the pretty unexceptional story unfold. By that, I mean that it’s a story told well, but it isn’t the most unique tale in fiction. The local warlord is peaceful and indulgent, and once took in a drifter, who rose up the ranks and became a trusted lieutenant. Years pass, and, inevitably, the man betrays his lord with a giant company of brigands and murderers loyal to him. The warlord’s children escape in the company of one of the few good men remaining, and take refuge on a mountaintop next to a breathtaking waterfall. Ten years pass before they are needed to save the village from slavery and oppression.

The beautiful thing is that this film spends an hour grounded in the real world, with passing references to gods and hauntings and villager superstitions. We get hints that there may be something supernatural in this land, but then we see quick explanations for what we thought we saw. Then the villain sends his men to destroy a statue that keeps inspiring the oppressed villagers that their mountain god will save them, and this happens. The statue starts bleeding.

So obviously, my ten year-old kid is crazy for giant monsters, in part because he’s ten, and in part because he’s my kid. But the Daimajin films have a reputation for only revealing their showstopper at the climax. I really didn’t want him to judge this as a movie supposedly about a giant monster where you have to wade through a whole lot more human stuff than any Godzilla picture to get to the meat. I was reminded of that New Avengers where if you go in waiting for the giant rat to show up, you’re bound to be frustrated and disappointed. The best way to pull the rug out from under the audience is to do to them what the movie does to those fool warriors.

Having said all that, our son was patient and curious, but honestly not completely thrilled with this movie until it does its magic trick. It’s far less gory than many Japanese swords-and-samurai movies that I’ve seen, as it was intended for general audiences, although some of the tortures may be pretty intense for younger viewers. But he was never restless. I’d like to think the gorgeous location might have had something to do with that. If this movie doesn’t leave you wanting to hike to that waterfall, haunted or not, something must be wrong with you.

Our son claims that he “kind of” saw the statue coming to life, although its transformation into a blue-faced beast of anger was a huge surprise. Majin goes to give the evil, oppressive warlord his just desserts, and the kid was in heaven. Perhaps modern militaries might have a weapon or two to deploy against forty-foot stone monsters with spikes in their forehead, but these baddies are a little outclassed. The kid absolutely loved Majin’s “path of destruction” (our son certainly does enjoy that phrase) and whooped when I showed him that the box contains two additional Majin films.

I did warn him that the law of diminishing returns sets in immediately with this series. The other two have some fine set pieces, but they really don’t reinvent the wheel. Still, I can’t recommend Arrow’s new set highly enough. They did such a great, great job with the restoration that I went ahead and preordered their forthcoming collection of the same studio’s three “Yokai” ghost/monster films from the sixties. If you don’t get this from Diabolik, get it from somewhere, and don’t tell your kid what it’s about first!

Mister Jerico (1970)

Well, what a fine TV series this might have made! And not just for Patrick Macnee’s colorful clothes, either!

I’ve mentioned before in these pages that our son has a very patchy memory, but he impressed me yesterday. I told him that this evening we’d be watching Patrick Macnee from The Avengers in an unsold pilot movie. “You mean like Madame Sin?” he asked. And yes, exactly like Madame Sin, because this was also made by ITC to test the waters for a potential series investment, the same way that the studio tested Leonard Nimoy in Baffled! and Chad Everett in The Firechasers, which was actually written and directed by the same duo who did this. And I’d happily have swapped the full run of The Adventurer or The Protectors (about which, a little bit more in October) for a season of any of these pilots.

So joining Macnee behind the scenes are some familiar names from The Avengers, which wrapped production about three months previously. Mister Jerico was filmed in the summer of 1969 and was produced by Julian Wintle, and the music is by Laurie Johnson. The script was by Philip Levene, who’d been writing for the series right until the end, and it was directed by Sidney Hayers, who’d done some of the color Mrs. Peel episodes, most recently “Dead Man’s Treasure”, and would work with Macnee again on several New Avengers.

This is a terrific vehicle for Macnee. Philip Levene knew exactly how to cater to his many strengths and created a fine character for him: Dudley Jerico is a con artist who works the lovely cities of southern Spain and France, and Malta, where much of this was filmed. His associate, driver, and diamond expert is Wally, played by Marty Allen, who was now a solo act since his decade-plus partnership with fellow comedian Steve Rossi ended the year before. Jerico has decided to target an old acquaintance, the filthy rich Rosso, conning him out of half a million for a phony diamond. Rosso is played by the great Herbert Lom, and his secretary by Connie Stevens, and Jerico soon gets in over his head when somebody else starts baiting Rosso with the same diamond.

Honestly, I’ll praise the kid for remembering Sin the way he did, but you’d have to be about ten to not realize that Stevens is playing both the secretary and the other diamond’s other owner, Claudine. That’s because her character is actually a legend-in-the-business called Georgina and she has been setting up her scam for months, and now has to bat off Jerico and Wally as well as work her scheme. To his credit, he did figure out that the secretary must have stolen Rosso’s real diamond before Jerico could; he just didn’t realize the secretary and Claudine were the same person. So diamonds get switched and swapped and switched again, and the hotel receptionist, played by Paul Darrow, spends his time unwittingly letting people do some of their swaps out of the hotel’s vault.

It all ends splendidly and not completely predictably, either. There is certainly a car chase, but nobody’s driving a white Jaguar so I felt confident nobody was going over a cliff. Jerico finally figures out that his opponent has two identities, and the three go off into the sunset, not quite half a million richer, but ready to work together and find their next mark. They make a fine team in the end, and seventies television is all the poorer for not having Macnee, Stevens, and Allen match wits with whoever ITC wanted to bring on to play the rich jerk-of-the-week and the henchmen. Honestly, whatever network dingbats at ABC, CBS, and NBC were considering pilots for the fall 1970 season should have been shot into orbit for not ordering a package of twenty-six hours of this. And Sin and Baffled! and Firechasers!

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Earlier this week, I took our son for his allergy shots, saw that one of the TVs in the waiting room was playing something that looked like Pokemon*, and asked him “Would you like to sit there and watch Pokemon?” He’s ten, and while most of the time he’s still our delightful little boy wanting hugs and cuddles and positive attention while unrolling his world of wild fan theories, he will, occasionally, remind us that the teen years are just seconds away. Suddenly he was fifteen already, embarrassed by his uncool dad, and he rolled his eyes and said “Dah-ah-ahddddd, why do you think all anime is Pokemon?!” Little twerp, I was reading that show was called Pocket Monsters and giving people seizures before I knew what Team Rocket even looked like.

So what happened the very next day? The North American distributor of lots of good things, GKids, made an astonishing announcement. They’ve licensed Future Boy Conan. I’m not kidding. Go read about it. Everybody else I know has a lot more time for Japanese cartoons than I do, but Conan is stop-the-presses huge. It’s a 26-episode TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki for a weekly early-evening slot for NHK in 1978, based loosely on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. Conan made it to several international markets, including Mexico and Italy, but didn’t land in the United States, not even all those years later, once Miyazaki became the de facto face of the medium for people who have even less time for Japanese cartoons than I do.

You can read a huge amount about Conan over at Let’s Anime, where Dave wrote a comprehensive article last year. And the reason I’m so hyped about the forthcoming English-language release of this series, where absolutely no other cartoon release has prompted more than a raised eyebrow, is that about three decades ago, he landed a laserdisc set of the 26 episodes, raw, without subs or dubs, copied them for me on seven VHS tapes, and I watched those bad boys from beginning to end three times in a row, two or three episodes every single day, occasionally baffled but otherwise transfixed. I gave it another spin a couple of years later. They were lost in the VHS purge of 2001, and I am so looking forward to revisiting its weird world, oddball humor, and wild melodrama.

There are so many people in this country whose love of Japanese cartoons and comics have been a springboard for a deeper interest in Japanese language or culture or careers. Maybe our son’s turning into one. This morning, we watched Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which some people consider his best. The lead character, Ashitaka, carries around a bowl, as I believe you did back in the 1400s or whenever, to enjoy some rice on the road. That got the kid wanting ramen for lunch. Unfortunately, we live in Chattanooga, where options for a really good bowl of soup are more than a bit limited. We ended up watching him enjoy the heck out of a giant bucket of tonkatsu ramen while we ate expensively and far worse than he did. (I don’t actually like ramen. I don’t like pho either. Soup for me is what you dip a grilled cheese sandwich in.)

As for the movie, he said that he mostly liked it, but he had trouble with what seemed to him like Ashitaka’s shifting alliances. “Like, whose side is he on,” he protested. He was unprepared for the level of violence – it was very surprising when I first saw this in the early 2000s and remains so today – but mostly fascinated by the story. I think I like Lady Eboshi the best. She’s an interestingly sympathetic villain, who’s done so much good that it mostly mitigates the evil. And I like the score: it might be Joe Hisaishi’s finest after Nausicaa.

But mentioning Nausicaa just brings up the problem: this movie just feels like Nausicaa redux, with a male lead. As Miyazaki explores the wheel turning and civilizations rising and falling and nature taking over and man beating it back, this was perhaps inevitable, but there isn’t anything here that Nausicaa didn’t do better, especially the climax. The great anecdote everybody loves to share about this one is that Miyazaki and/or his PR team sent the North American distributors a firm and slightly hilarious warning against making any cuts, but this climax goes on for freaking ever and could seriously stand to have a good fifteen minutes pruned from it. There’s a lot to like in the end, especially how all the people who live in Lady Eboshi’s town are ready and willing to rebuild and keep her in charge, despite everything, but it takes an agonizing time to get there.

Agonizing. Once we can preorder Conan, that’s precisely what it’s going to feel like. Mononoke is a pretty good movie, but it’s not Future Boy Conan.

*It was Beyblade.