Tag Archives: unflattering cultural stereotypes

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

We sat down to watch Disney’s fabulous 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning and I enjoyed it like I always have. It’s a real classic. In the last sixty years, there have been a whole lot of adventure movies that follow in this one’s footsteps. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who later helmed a couple of other movies I may show my son one day.

In some of the other stories about Disney films at this blog, I’ve praised the studio’s excellent casting. Man alive, did they ever nail it here. James Mason is the iconic Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas play his guests – slash – prisoners, and you couldn’t cast better than those four in 1954. Mason’s just perfect. In these more sensitive times, there’s a backlash to casting an actor of European ancestry in the role of Nemo, but Mason’s performance is so defining that it may be a very, very long time indeed before audiences will even understand an Indian actor (like Naseeruddin Shah, who played Nemo in the ridiculous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) in the part.

It’s not flawless. While it’s mostly undated, the ooga-booga cannibals of a south Pacific island are very cringeworthy, and I really had to question whomever gave the order to start firing when the landing parties start coming over the ridge at Volcania. You’d kind of think that whatever military or privateer force that was would want some answers before they started trying to murder everybody in that lagoon, you know?

Other than these issues, it’s a massively entertaining movie. The themes are a bit over our son’s head, and we did have to pause to explain that in the 1860s, submarines on the scale of the Nautilus simply didn’t exist, and that Verne’s novel was a work of science fiction speculating about technology that was impossible in its day. He was okay. He’s done better with movies, but he’s also had a lot on his mind lately, getting used to our new home and getting ready to begin a new school, so he’s not been on his very best behavior.

While the climax of the film is the incident at Volcania, the real centerpiece is the battle with the giant squid. Holy anna, it’s amazing. Of course, any remake could certainly do as good a job today with computer effects, but you won’t convince me anybody will ever actually surpass it. And of course, it scared the pants off Daniel. He didn’t flee like he had done from some of the threats and villains we’ve seen in earlier shows, but he was crawled into his mommy’s lap, babbling to himself to keep himself brave.

Captain Nemo is killed and goes down with his boat in this movie, but this is certainly not the last time that we’ll meet the character as we watch classic adventures together in this blog. I am, however, reasonably confident that none of the actors who followed Mason in the role ever got to deliver a line like “Mr. Baxter, if you think you’re seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you’ve been submerged too long!” We’ll find out for sure before too long.

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One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

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The Secret Service 1.8 – Errand of Mercy

And so, very early in the show’s run, we get the obligatory “it was all a dream” episode. Tony Barwick wrote an awful lot of these for Gerry Anderson. This one started out quite whimsical, with Father Unwin’s car, Gabriel, flying to Africa to deliver medical supplies, but then they land in darkest Africa and everything goes to pieces. Yes, the natives are restless, they wear colorful masks and they have shields and spears.

It’s not just the unhappy and unfortunate old stereotype of the tribe that’s awful. When you’re watching something from this era, you grudgingly have to bite your lip because it’s old and insensitive. But this actually compounds it: Unwin’s able to communicate with the tribesmen by way of his Unwinese gobbledygook language.

The story goes that one of the reasons Lew Grade canceled the production of The Secret Service is that the potential American audience wouldn’t understand Unwinese. The counter-argument is that nobody’s supposed to understand his fast-talking palare; that’s the point. But the real problem with the way that Unwinese is presented in the show is this: it takes half the scene to realize he’s talking his gafflebam. It just sounds like mumbling, which is amplified by the other character saying “I’m sorry? I don’t understand…” If it was a little more clear, then everybody watching wouldn’t just be in on the joke, they’d realize that a joke was being told.

But having the ooga-booga natives being so primitive that the only English that they can understand is that fractured balderdash… that’s pretty offensive. I’m certainly going to have a talk with Daniel about these outdated depictions.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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The Secret Service 1.5 – Last Train to Bufflers Halt

How interesting! This is the only episode of The Secret Service that I had seen prior to obtaining this set, and I completely misremembered the character of the old man who maintains the closed railway station. I recalled him as being a wildly caricatured comedy yokel like Jeremiah from the Thunderbirds episode “The Imposters,” but he’s much more down to earth than that. He has a very broad “old rural man” voice (“Mummerset,” possibly?), and somehow knows how to start and accelerate a train but not how to slow it down, but he’s not ridiculous.

The story by Tony Barwick is so light that it borders on inconsequential. There’s no sense of urgency in the attempted hijacking of a million pounds. The criminals don’t even call for their getaway truck until after they’ve successfully diverted the stolen train to the disused platform. Daniel really enjoyed it, but this is a pretty slight story.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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Legends of the Superheroes 1.2 – The Roast

The other episode of Legends of the Superheroes is one of those things you hadda been there for, and you hadda been under the age of nine. It still amused Daniel today, quite a lot actually, but to have seen this as a child in the era of celebrity roasts was to love this on a totally different level. As kids, we were all aware enough of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts to understand what this was making fun of. But the very intoxicated Dean Martin and all of his incredibly drunk friends – seriously, the only reason that Match Game bettered the Martin roasts in the “Inebriated Seventies Celebrities” stakes was that Match Game was on at least five days a week – weren’t for kids. This was, and it was magical.

But kids today, they have no idea what a roast is. And Daniel’s a little small to catch all the “grown up” gags about the Budweiser Clydesdales, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Idi Amin. This just has dumb slapstick to appeal to him, and it succeeded mightily in that. Even if the entire business with the “regional” superhero Ghetto Man went completely over his head.

There’s also the cute innuendo about how the hot new couple, Atom and Giganta, might have children. That also went over his head. Frank Gorshin’s not in this episode, but Ruth Buzzi is, as Aunt Minerva, and all the gags about her finding the right man also confused him. In what might be the strangest thing Daniel’s ever seen, Aunt Minerva – who, if you remember your comics lore, is a loony old lady, meaning Ruth Buzzi was just about the perfect casting choice – kisses Captain Marvel, shouts “Shazam!” and is transformed into a gorgeous young blonde, at which point all the superheroes who have been desperately trying to avoid her want her telephone number. “Who is she?” asked Daniel, not getting it. And he certainly didn’t get the climax, in which Mordru sings a version of “That’s Entertainment” that lists all the naughty things that supervillains enjoy.

Things that he did like: there’s a bit where Adam West and Burt Ward play charades in order for Robin to explain that he’s totaled the Batmobile, and a bit where William Schallert, who passed away last week, plays that “old, doddering fellow” he always played in the sixties and seventies – a bit like Ruth Buzzi, I suddenly realize – and, of course, the greatest and only actually funny moment of either special: Ed McMahon battling Solomon Grundy.

Fact: the day after this show aired, every single boy in my class reenacted and recited this bit ALL DAY LONG, and we kept doing it for weeks. It remains stupendously silly, stupid, and lovable. Ed McMahon somehow manages to repeatedly offend Solomon Grundy by either mentioning the word “swamp” or another word which Grundy can connect to a swamp, at which point Grundy shouts “HATE SWAMP!” and pounds McMahon. It’s a stupid shtick as ancient as, I dunno, Niagara Falls, but it works brilliantly for its target audience.

We’ve been hollering “HATE SWAMP!” at each other for the last ten minutes, actually.

Well, mercifully, they only made these two specials. After this, West and Ward put away their capes and cowls, and most of the other actors who played the superheroes (or, in deference to the ladies, super persons) left their very brief time in the Hollywood spotlight.

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The Love Bug (1968)

This morning, we sat down to watch The Love Bug and had a complete ball. The only problem with this movie, to hear Daniel tell it, is that somehow there’s not enough racing and weird magic Volkswagen business. This is the sort of very silly complaint that only a five year-old can make. If there’s a legitimate complaint at all to be leveled at the first film in the famous and successful Herbie franchise, it’s that it’s got some very dated hippie business, and some very, very dated “inscrutable Chinese” business. Otherwise, it’s a very funny and very solid little film.

One thing I really enjoy about revisiting older Disney films is how downright brilliantly they’re cast. As the heroes: Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett, and Michele Lee. They are fantastic; they make every click and clack of the plot appear completely effortless. As the villain: David Tomlinson, whom we enjoyed a couple of months ago in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, here playing a snob luxury auto salesman, who has a sideline racing a downright beautiful 1962 Apollo.

But the real stars of the film are Herbie, and all the unbelievably talented drivers. Awesomely, they get their own screen of credits at the beginning of the movie. Some of the perfectly-timed zips, zigs, and zags in between each other’s cars had me wincing. Much of the close-ups are rear-screen projection of course, but all of the live stunts and what we now call practical effects are still amazing. The climax of the film involves Herbie coming in first and third place in the big race. Just imagine how that looked; providing a visual would spoil a remarkable gag and a great special effect sequence.

Backing up these leads is another really impressive bunch of supporting players. Joe E. Ross is here, playing a police detective, and he doesn’t say “Ooh! Ooh!” Gary Owens is here, playing a radio announcer, because that’s just perfect. There’s even a guy who’s the racing association president, greeting all the drivers to the big race. “Spot the non-actor,” I said to Marie. Turns out he was Andy Granatelli, the former CEO of the motor oil company STP. You get the feeling the movie’s got a lot more Easter eggs than just that for gearheads and racing fans.

In the days before home video, it was common to see paperback novelizations of films and TV series. I tracked down a copy of this one years ago because of a legendary bit of writing. The book is one of dozens by a guy with the remarkable name of Mel Cebulash, and, rather than actually coming up with a description of what Buddy Hackett’s character should look like, he wrote the following:

Instead of going into the firehouse, Jim walked around to the courtyard. There he found Tennessee, welding another piece of metal onto a growing pile of junk. Tennessee, who looked and talked like Buddy Hackett, regarded his sculptured pile of parts from wrecked autos as a work of art.

It’s actually kind of aggravating to have this really good movie that so many people worked incredibly hard to make – seriously, the cinematography is just downright beautiful throughout, with gorgeous location filming around San Francisco, and simply looks far better than a silly kids’ film needs to look – and when it came time to merchandise the movie through Scholastic Book Services, somebody just hacked that out, but you know, that really is kind of funny.

Daniel’s favorite part of the movie, or so he claims, was the final slapstick gag, in which Thorndyke and his former lead henchman, demoted by his business’s new owner to a simple mechanic, spray each other with motor oil. I don’t believe that. I told him that Disney made four of these movies and asked whether he’d like to watch another in a couple of weeks. He said yes, of course.

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Thunderbirds 2.2 – Path of Destruction

Watching this episode, I started to wonder whether they crafted episodes like this, where literally fifteen minutes are spent with the civilians in South America who are about to be part of the crisis, to shoot chunks of it on one stage while the main character puppets are busy on another. The only entertaining thing that happened in those fifteen minutes was realizing that Matt Zimmerman, who did the voice of Alan Tracy, dubbed one of these one-off puppets and didn’t disguise his voice at all.

The other big thing that happens in these first fifteen minutes is that we meet Sancho and his wife, who are deeply offensive caricatures, even accepting that they’re from an era where “si, señor” yokels were common, and who run a nasty, filthy restaurant with a hideously unclean kitchen infested with rats. Their food poisons the crew of the Crablogger, and they pass out after the big machine sets off on its preprogrammed course, so nobody can stop it or shut down its reactor or clear out all the fuel that will destroy a dam in its path, and so on.

It’s hideously overcomplicated and completely lacking in internal logic, and Lady Penelope has to spend forever finding the guy outside of London who programmed the Crablogger’s reactor and get him to dictate the shutdown sequence into a recorder while keeping her face hidden because nobody in South America has a telephone and can ask the guy for help, and he didn’t design the machine with an “emergency stop” button.

This one is so stupid that Marie and I just gave up and turned to Facebook for entertainment, which has never happened before. Daniel was completely thrilled, though, and just about self-combusted with excitement when the Crablogger threatened to topple over a narrow ridge, because that was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen, and that’s what’s important. We mock and roll our eyes because we’re boring old grown-ups, but he got to watch the Crablogger smash its way through a village, toppling walls and buildings, and had a much better time than we did.

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Pippi Longstocking 1.2 – Pippi’s New Friends

I was premature when I said, in the previous chapter, that the people who made this recent dub seem to have erased the original soundtrack entirely. In this episode, Pippi goes on a shopping trip and buys toys for all the kids within earshot. She finds a plaza and about thirty children join her in a rousing performance on wooden whistles. It’s a lovely cacophony, but because this is the era where children should be seen and not heard, the policemen shoo them all away.

It is kind of nice to look at old TV and movies made in the time where kids could roam the city streets unattended without their parents getting in trouble. It’s also a little surprising to see characters puffing on cigars in a kids’ show. Even if these are robbers who’ve just broke out of jail and are hearing rumors of a huge pile of gold coins somewhere in Pippi’s big house (and who I believe we’ll be seeing again in an episode or two), it’s not just the bad guys who were smoking in the sixties. The sweet shop sells chocolate cigarettes, too!

Sadly dated bit: Pippi tells one of her outlandish stories about other lands, this one involving China, and uses her fingers to slant her eyes as she talks. Kids did that back then, of course, but sometimes reminders are uncomfortable.

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