In Search of the Castaways (1962)

Our son is at that hilarious age where hot lava is everywhere. Everywhere. So I’m obliged as a parent to show him a movie or two in which some volcanoes erupt. In Search of the Castaways, another Jules Verne adaptation from Disney, and one of six (!) films that Hayley Mills made for the company in the 1960s, has a terrific volcano eruption. It also has an earthquake, a flood, a giant condor, gun runners, and basically one darn thing after another getting in the way of two kids trying to find their shipwrecked father.

Daniel completely loved it. No sooner did the earthquake scene – a bizarre but wonderful moment in which our heroes slide down a mountain on a whacking big rock – end than he begged us to pause the movie and wind it back so he could see it again. He pouted just a little bit when we declined.

Top-billed in the movie is Maurice Chevalier, playing a kindly, upbeat, and wildly optimistic professor, and he’s well-matched with Wilfrid Hyde-White, a spritely young 59, which is a baby in Wilfrid Hyde-White years, who plays an unbelievably naive, yet cynical lord who owns several ships. One of these went down a few years previously with Captain John Grant at the helm. Captain Grant’s children, played by Mills and Keith Hamshere, and the professor have a damaged message-in-a-bottle from their father and persuade Lord Glenarvan to head for the 37th parallel to find him. But is he in South America, Africa, or Australia?

So this globetrotting drama is downright huge fun for kids and it was a mammoth hit in the sixties. It seems somewhat forgotten these days, but its impact remains big on filmmakers. One of the climactic bits in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to take its inspiration from the earthquake scene. It’s nowhere as blatant as the Stagecoach homage in Raiders, but Spielberg clearly knows it.

After some initial squirminess, our son really enjoyed the movie, and I was pleased by the unpredictable one-darn-thing-after-another nature of the search, with a hilarious number of obstacles thrown in our heroes’ way. As with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this began life as a serialized novel in monthly installments, so naturally the film is going to feel episodic, but the director, Robert Stevenson, really makes it work. It only just occurred to me that Stevenson, who did quite a lot of work for Disney, directed four other films that we’ve watched together for the blog: The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Herbie Rides Again and One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Also appearing in the movie: Roger Delgado has a very, very small part as a sailor, but blink and you’ll miss him; he’s onscreen for not even twenty seconds. Wilfrid Brambell, who either made the first series of Steptoe and Son immediately before or right after this, I’m not sure, gets a meaty bit toward the end as a loony old man. The immortal George Sanders is obviously up to no good as a well-dressed man who may know what has happened to Captain Grant.

I’m not sure why In Search of the Castaways isn’t better remembered. Some of the special effects have dated, but others remain pretty amazing. It’s a great family adventure and we had a ball. Our son even said that he liked it better than 20,000 Leagues. And, once we finished, I was happy to start the film again so that he could watch the earthquake scene one more time.

Batman 1.8 – Rats Like Cheese

I want to come back to this idea a few stories down the line, when something specific angered me as a middle schooler – there is nobody easier to anger than a middle schooler – but I’ve long believed that most people go “off” Batman between about the ages of 10 and 16, when it doesn’t make sense to them. After all, nobody takes themselves as seriously as a kid between the ages of 10 and 16.

But the Batman that I watched before I hit that serious, stupid age did stick with me, in the bizarre images that we used to get in the late afternoons on WGNX-46 in Atlanta. There’s a thunderous one in the next episode, but Mr. Freeze’s “hot path” is a real corker. Dr. Schimmel is forced to live in temperatures of fifty degrees below zero, but he’s rigged his house with a path controlled by a series of buttons that create areas of 76 degrees so that other people can interact with him.

The special effects are primitive, but they’re also incredibly effective. By mixing action in a mostly blue-lit set with “icy smoke” overlays, and shooting parts of the same set with red lights, and using clunky animation to change the size and shape of the path, it works tremendously well. I remember playing superheroes with my kid brother in villainous lairs just like this for years, with parts of various rooms that nobody could enter because the air was freezing, or acidic, or the floor was turning to lava, or whatever kids want to come up with. The show absolutely fired up our imaginations, and there’s nothing better for children.

And from the cold – sorry – the cold light of adulthood, this is still a fantastic episode. Sanders doesn’t go over the top with mania and self-awareness, as many – way too many – of the later bad guys would, taking their cues from Gorshin, Meredith, and Romero. While they were making the episodes but before any of them actually aired, there was a tiny window where the guest villains had the chance to play their roles in a wider variety of styles, as I believe we’ll also see next time. Sanders is sympathetic, ruthless, and intelligent in a style that is totally at odds with the stereotype of the show. The character doesn’t even leave his hideout in this episode, and the spacesuit seen in part one isn’t used. Sure, Sanders is playing in a kiddie show and he knows it, but he plays it straight, and the result is really fantastic.

Watching this story and knowing how much repetition would later set in, it really kind of breaks your heart. Batman is great, but if it could have been this unique every week, it could have been much, much greater.

Batman 1.7 – Instant Freeze

A four year-old’s natural curiosity and confusion about what he’s watching was compounded by Robert Butler, the director of this story, making the same weird decision as he did with the very first story. He introduces the episode’s villain, Mr. Freeze, just absurdly casually. There’s just a guy in a white spacesuit rushing past the camera, and the police later inform us that was Mr. Freeze. When we next meet him, he’s wearing civilian clothes in his temperature-controlled home. Daniel asked me, partway through that scene, “But who is Mr. Freeze?” I told him that he’s that man right there. “But what does he look like?” He needed a more identifiable baddie costume to attach to the name.

George Sanders, who uses a German accent in his role as “Dr. Schimmel,” alias Mr. Freeze, has some absurd puns about “cool” and “ice” that would later inform Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of the character, but he does not cackle and giggle like the previous three Bat-villains. Nevertheless, he still alarmed Daniel with his freeze gun. It’s an odd device, which can alternately fire a laser beam or a blast of super-cold air, like a fire extinguisher. When it’s spraying the blast, Sanders seems to have trouble controlling it. When he froze a security guard, that really alarmed Daniel. A second guard, in a later scene, seems to meet a grisly fate. It’s heavily implied, through a sound effect, that he toppled over and shattered into fragments. Thank heaven they didn’t show that.

This story must have been filmed around December 1965 and marked the first time the character of Mr. Freeze got that name. He had previously made a single appearance in the comics, in 1959’s Batman # 121, where he was called Mr. Zero, and this story was actually reprinted in the December ’65 giant-sized issue of the comic, # 176. Bearing in mind that the issue date is actually a month or two ahead and is intended as the “off-sale” date, this issue could have been the one on newsstands when ABC gave the producers the order to make the show.

(And that answers my question about the previous adventure. Batman # 176 also contains a reprint of “The Joker’s Utility Belt,” the 1952 story that formed the basis of “The Joker is Wild”/”Batman is Riled,” and so that’s where the producers got the idea for that episode.)

The TV producers gave this villain the new name of Mr. Freeze, and when the character next appeared in the funnybooks, in 1968, DC Comics kept his new name. From what I can tell from Wikipedia and comics.org, it looks like these two comic stories were Mr. Freeze’s only comic appearances until the late 1970s. He was seen in this show, and in the Filmation Batman Saturday morning cartoons, much more than in comics.

Daniel didn’t like the freeze gun, and he didn’t like it when Mr. Freeze zapped the front of the Batmobile either. We explained that the show has bad guys in it, and Batman has to fight them, and asked what sort of Batman story he’d like to see. He hopes the next story is “Batman Fights Bad Octopus.”