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.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I’m wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s made four films that I enjoy – all of which star Johnny Depp – and many more that I didn’t like at all, and three of the ones I liked have music that drives me completely nuts and takes me out of the experience. You have no idea how much I wish that somebody, anybody, would’ve told Danny Elfman to stick with Oingo Boingo and stay out of movie theaters. My favorite Burton film? Ed Wood, by a mile. Elfman didn’t score it.

So with the caveat that the music is so intrusive that it absolutely spoils several scenes for me, Edward Scissorhands is a charming and occasionally lovely fantasy in a pastel suburb. All of the adults are in some completely different world divorced from reality – I love how at least three of them “know a doctor” who might can help Edward but never seem to phone him – while the teenagers seem to have wandered from our world onto a film set they can’t escape.

I don’t say this next bit to dismiss the script or acting at all, because it’s wonderful, but this film is triumphant with me because of its absolutely impeccable design. It was made in a real place, albeit one whose residents agreed to have all of their homes painted one of four pastel colors, and shot in a real location – Lakeland’s Southgate Shopping Center still looks exactly like that, Publix and all – but it’s unreal nevertheless, populated impeccably by pristeenly-painted, nondescript, and horribly ugly Dusters and similar heaps from the 1970s. The homes, completely free from clutter, are all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same, inside and out, with empty spaces that are so large that they swallow the actors. This is a film where a cul-de-sac ends with the entrance to an abandoned, decrepit, “haunted” castle-mansion on a mountain, and it’s the homes below it that are the scary places.

Johnny Depp was then the teen heartthrob who people watched on TV’s 21 Jump Street while ignoring the plots, and Winona Ryder was omnipresent at the time (no, I don’t like Beetlejuice), and this weird and delightful film surrounded them with a perfect supporting cast. It’s such a neat, strange trick: the fantasy world of this neighborhood and its local TV show is so big that the main characters feel small inside it. They’re trapped by suburbia; Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, and Kathy Bates just naturally dominate their fantasy world while the audience’s eyes try to focus on Depp and Ryder.

About the only time that Depp starts to dominate the picture is during the scene that my son and I loved the most. While carving up some topiary, Edward notices a small dog badly in need of grooming. I don’t think Tim Burton’s ever done better. Most directors don’t. Every shot, every reaction, the place where it’s staged, the timing, the reveal, everything is just howl-inducing, and it builds effortlessly to the next shot of the neighborhood full of housewives with puppies in line for their own grooming.

As I occasionally do, I kept the reveal of the character’s look a complete surprise to our son, and deflected his question – “he has scissors for hands?” – by telling him a great big lie. “You mustn’t trust the names people give their neighbors. It’s about a young man who’s extremely good with trimming shrubbery.” And as I occasionally do in this blog, yet again, I bemoaned the kid’s inability to recognize actors. Earlier this week, before I put it in storage for his future, we dusted off War Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea for another viewing, and the dratted kid still didn’t recognize Vincent Price, who has a small role as Edward’s inventor. This was Price’s last appearance in a major film, and even though it’s a small part, he’s completely terrific.

It’s a very good film. I don’t revisit it as often as I should. I’ll show the kid another Burton/Depp movie, Sleepy Hollow, around next Halloween.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Yesterday, we were back in Atlanta for another trip into the past with the boys and ghouls of the Silver Scream Spook Show, although our son was wishing for another monster movie. They always promise that they’re going to scare the yell out of us, and this time, they delivered. The film was William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, Elisha Cook Jr., and Carol Ohmart. I’d never seen it before, and I just had a ball. It’s a terrific haunted house movie, and I enjoyed every frame of it.

I told our son that it was an old horror movie, and probably not all that scary. Boy, was I mistaken.

So this one’s about a creepy party held by an eccentric millionaire at his even more eccentric wife’s behest. If any of the five guests can stay the night in this spooky old mansion – the exteriors were filmed at the downright bizarre Ennis House, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed to look like a Mayan temple – they will earn $10,000. The five guests were chosen because they are all strangers who need the money. The windows are barred, there is only one door, made of steel, and after the caretakers leave at midnight, there is no escape, and no way to phone the police when the eccentric wife hangs herself to death.

So yes, I thought it was great, and really enjoyed a startling reveal about twenty-five minutes in, when the camera lets us know that there’s somebody else in a room with actress Carolyn Craig. From there, it was half an hour of solid shocks for our kid, who was without comfort blankets and the rest of his menagerie and curled up in a tight ball next to me.

He missed the last fifteen minutes. Craig gets the wits scared out of her again when a rope somehow enters her room and she looks outside to see that on the other end of it, the ghost of the wife is outside, lit by the lightning, still with the noose around her neck. I heard a whimper and a moan and I leaned over to hear him tell me “I am really, really, super scared,” and told him to head for the lobby. I didn’t need to tell him twice. So Marie went to join him, and, after the hosts had provided one little interactive element of the movie, Professor Morte commiserated with the otherwise heroic eight year-old. Turns out when you’re that age, this really is a tremendously terrifying film.

I knew this was going to be a great presentation, because I was betting that the Spook Show gang was going to incorporate a famous element of the movie’s original release. Now, if you’ve Googled your way here without knowing anything about the Silver Scream Spook Show, quickly pop back and read our story about our first Atlanta trip for the show. This time, the show started with a silly bit of business about a haunted mirror. I’m still chuckling about Atlanta’s beloved Jim Stacy, dressed as a pirate ghost, bellowing “Turns out I’ve got a fetish for Alice in Wonderland fightin’ like Popeye!”

When House on Haunted Hill was originally released, it was with the promise that it was made in EMERGO, which meant that at a critical moment in the climax, a pulley system in the theater would activate and a skeleton would swing out from the rafters above the crowd. Well, the Plaza Theater didn’t have a pulley system, but they did have the next best thing, which was Professor Morte and one of his pals using a big wire puppet setup using the two aisles of the room. They raised a skeleton from a box placed below the screen, and with Morte in one aisle and his assistant in the other, they stalked the length of the room, with the skeleton dangling over the audience.

To say that the crowd loved this is an understatement. This was the most packed we’ve ever seen the Spook Show, with the room very nearly filled with classic film lovers. Let’s be fair: a whole lot more people want to see Vincent Price than Gorgo. And as for this film? I remember reading about EMERGO in middle school and never, ever thought I’d get the chance to actually see it played out in person.

It’s a shame that our kid missed out on the skeleton, but we visited friends and had barbecue and ice cream and got to see the dolphin show at the Georgia Aquarium and he otherwise had a great day. He’ll be telling his friends down the line that this sixty year-old movie was the scariest film he’s ever seen, but he had a great day. This was the Spook Show’s last performance of 2019, but we thanked Professor Morte in the lobby and said that we’d see him again next year.

Image credit: LyricDiscorde

City Under the Sea (1965)

During his amazing career, Vincent Price probably made nine or ten pictures where he was by some measure the best thing about the whole production. One example: 1965’s City Under the Sea, which was released in America with the confusing title War-Gods of the Deep. This led to a silly moment early on, when a bargain basement Gill Man is chased away from a remote house on a cliffside and our son said “I think that must be a War-God!”

Like nine or ten other pictures in Price’s catalog, this one takes a little inspiration from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Our heroes, played by Tab Hunter and the redoubtable David Tomlinson, who is accompanied by a chicken in a picnic basket for comic relief, stumble across a first edition collection of Poe in the strange underwater city, so that Price can recite a passage from the poem over footage of the miniature of the city, next to a volcano as the pressure inevitably builds.

The movie has small parts for familiar faces like Derek Newark, John Le Mesurier, and Tony Selby, who isn’t credited, and the only female character is played by Susan Hart. It has some impressive sets, an underwater chase/fight that goes on forever and features old-fashioned diving suits so angular and clunky that they reminded our son of Minecraft, and, of course, a great big volcanic eruption. I thought the movie was the most boring thing we’ve watched in ages, and the villain’s henchmen were just about the most pathetic and sorry bunch of dopey bad guys in any universe, but it’s worth watching if you’re six, or if you want to marvel at Price’s ability to rise over everything, or if the movie comes on a double-feature DVD with something else and so you have a copy anyway.

The Bionic Woman 2.7 – Black Magic

For the November 1976 sweeps month, The Six Million Dollar Man went big, with a pair of feature-length audience-grabbing episodes. One featured nineteen year-old Vincent Van Patten as the fourth bionic operative, about which more in a couple of weeks, and the second movie featured the USAF Thunderbirds precision flying team.

The Bionic Woman, meanwhile, went with an all-star comedy episode. “Black Magic” is a live-action Scooby Doo story written by Arthur Rowe. It’s got a big spooky house full of secret corridors and dungeons, and a weird monstrous figure in the bayou outside. Jaime goes undercover as the long-lost relation of a family of thieves and swindlers played by a downright fantastic cast. It’s got three – three! – Batvillains: Vincent Price, Julie Newmar, and Hermione Baddeley (Egghead, Catwoman, and Shame’s mother-in-law-to-be Frontier Fanny), along with Abe Vigoda as a creepy butler and William Windom as a scheming lawyer.

The episode is completely ridiculous, of course. It’s played strictly for laughs and it works perfectly. Our son adored it. I think he recognized that he’s precisely the age bracket for whom this was pitched. Nothing was really scary, even though, like Scooby Doo or The Ghost Busters, it plays with the imagery at a kid-friendly level. I might need to remember to dust this one off next Halloween.

Batman 3.15 – The Ogg Couple

At a very early stage in prepping this season, the producers planned for a trio of three-part adventures: one with Egghead and Olga, one with Lord Ffogg in Londinium, and one with Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Then they and the network got cold feet, fearing that the audience wouldn’t stick with the stories that long. They couldn’t do anything about the Londinium story, short of shelving the fool thing, but they decided to split the others into a two-parter and a one-off.

In this case, it almost works, as each half-hour has its own little plot, and some quick reshoots in the set of Commissioner Gordon’s office try to paper over the cracks and make this feel like the villains, captured after episode 3.9, are back in town. But this episode is clearly the first of the three: it introduces us to the idea that Egghead intends to marry Olga after stealing enough of a dowry. Part of this is a heavy, solid gold egg which is clearly seen in their lair in episode 3.8. So they almost got away with it if it weren’t for these meddling props.

This does mean that the original ending for the episode must have been lost. Remember that this season is light on the cliffhangers, but there must have been some level of wrap-up, a “what do we do next” scene. Instead, we get the remarkable coda in which it’s just casually revealed that Egghead and Olga were arrested offscreen, before the teaser announcing another chunk of the Catwoman story. I certainly don’t think we’ve seen them do that before and I hope we don’t see it again!

Anyway, Vincent Price, Anne Baxter, and Yvonne Craig all look like they had fun making this episode. It felt kind of odd having Batman and Robin being so superfluous to the story. Really, all they do this time is rescue Batgirl from drowning in caviar, otherwise this story belongs to Batgirl and not them.

Batman 3.9 – How to Hatch a Dinosaur

When you’re a little kid, you shouldn’t see through Batman. Yet I distinctly remember watching this show at the tender age of six or so and feeling unbelievably cheated by the downright dumb double resolutions of this half-hour.

As an adult, there’s enough that will make any audience cringe, but Egghead’s plan – to bombard a 40 million year-old Neosaurus egg with radium, hatch it, and then rule Gotham City – is a whole new level of ridiculous. But that makes sense for kids, in much the same way that “the Penguin has a tank made from solid gold and nothing can stop it” does.

No, what let me down at the age of six was that when the egg hatches, this happens:

Even at six, I knew that this was a guy in a terrible, silly suit. The costume was refurbished from a couple of appearances on Lost in Space, and I bet that when this aired in November ’67, half the audience recognized it. (Kind of like when an old Sea Devil showed up in a Blake’s 7!) Still, you have to admire their moxie: recapping over tea in Barbara Gordon’s apartment, everybody even mentions the great big plot hole. How did Batman, inside the Neosaurus costume, get inside the egg without being noticed? Nobody knows for sure, and they just admire Batman’s awesomeness in pulling it off. You’d think that with a hole that big, they’d just quietly avoid the issue. I wanted to know that as a little kid myself!

But that was me at six. Daniel at four was behind the sofa. He didn’t like seeing Robin and Batgirl in trouble in the first place, of course, but that hatching egg had him really, really convinced. I’m glad that he’s not quite seeing through television yet.

Batman 3.8 – The Ogg and I

Here’s a question for your bar’s trivia night. Who was the first actor to play two different Batvillains? It’s Anne Baxter, who had been Zelda the Great in season one, and now plays Olga, queen of the Bessarovian cossacks, in season three. Or is it? Milton Berle, star of the previous episode, might squeak in on a really obnoxious technicality. He played Louie the Lilac as well as a unbilled character called Laugh, in a cameo in season two’s Ma Parker story. Just because we never actually saw the story in which Batman and Robin sent Laugh to prison doesn’t mean he doesn’t count, you know. Pull that one on your trivia regulars when you’re mad at them.

Anyway, the only other things of note tonight are from a production standpoint. There is a three-part story coming up, but there are also some cases where we’ve got three episodes with the same villain broken into a two-parter and a one-off: these with Anne Baxter and Vincent Price, and some with Eartha Kitt. This whole thing feels very badly disjointed. I don’t remember what happens with Olga and Egghead in episode 15, but nothing that happens in episode 8 carries over into episode 9, does it? We’ll see what happens tomorrow night.

Oh, and Alan Hale Jr. plays a fellow named Gilligan who owns a diner. Hardy har. Otherwise, this whole episode is eggcrutiating, and I think it will just get worse.

Batman 2.14 – The Yegg Foes in Gotham

So the story goes that for a few months and possibly longer, Burt Ward had shown some pretty diva-like behavior and made enemies of just about everybody on the Batman set. He still did his thankless job pretty well; in fact, he gets one of the best lines in the episode this time out. When Bruce Wayne explains, after setting off a radar-egg-bomb, that at the age of eleven he had been the junior marble champion of Gotham City, Dick simply replies “Even then.” Nobody ever said that Burt Ward had a tough job as Robin, but he did what he had to do pretty much perfectly.

That’s onscreen. Behind the scenes, he had allegedly become a holy terror. And Vincent Price, he was a professional, and didn’t like to see the crew mistreated. So when they came to film this fight, he didn’t appreciate Ward lobbing eggs at the cameramen. I’ve read that he did what he did on his own and I’ve read that one of the crew gently suggested that maybe Price could, instead of smacking Ward in the head with a single egg, maybe find a couple of handfuls.

Whichever, it’s absolutely beautiful. Watching these fights on DVD, you can always spot Ward’s stunt double, and occasionally the lead villain’s. That’s definitely the case here. It’s not like Vincent Price’s bald cap-and-dome is the best-looking work of makeup in the world anyway, but the poor fellow subbing for him in the long shots has an even worse fake head. So they filmed the fight with the doubles, and then brought the actors in for the closeups, and then Vincent Price takes an entire tray of eggs and smashes the living daylights out of Burt Ward.

To his considerable credit, Ward followed the instructions given by the director with the wonderfully-stylized name george waGGner, who told everybody that this was a one-take fight because of all the egg yolk on the studio floor. Plus, he probably had the sense to know that, for continuity, he was just going to have to play the rest of the scene with yellow all the heck over his costume and shells in his hair. He might have been a diva, but he knew to act like a professional when he needed to.

Daniel enjoyed this episode much more than the first part. He was much less hyper and wild today, which helped, but he paid attention and enjoyed things, egg-specially that final fight. He really liked this one and only got a little hyper in the wake of all the mayhem and egg-throwing.

One other note: I missed out on mentioning that Sammy Davis Jr. had a Batclimb cameo in the previous story. Bill Dana has one this time, in character as José Jiménez. Ben Alexander, who was Officer Smith in Dragnet, also gets a cameo in this story as a Gotham City detective, and gets to say “just the facts.”

Batman 2.13 – An Egg Grows in Gotham

What has got to be one of the strangest little bits of meta-fiction happens in this episode of Batman. The plot involves the every-fifth-year contractual obligation that the heirs of the Savage, Tyler, and Wayne families have to the Mohican Indians. Centuries before, their ancestors leased the land of Gotham City for a payment of nine raccoon pelts, and tonight is the night that each must bring three more to the last Mohican Indian, Chief Screaming Chicken, who’s played by Edward Everett Horton.

Now, casting Horton is a great big wink at the audience in the first place, as Horton is basically just repeating his F Troop role of Roaring Chicken. Of course, it’s done with all the grace and subtlety that you’d expect from a 1966 sitcom to give to native Americans: none whatsoever. But what you’re seeing is exactly like when George Clooney and Noah Wyle showed up as doctors on an episode of Friends. It’s a good reminder that even in 1966, TV networks acted like TV networks, and found reasons for their actors to cameo in the other shows in the lineup.

But here’s the really weird part: Bruce Wayne explains that the last time they did the raccoon exchange, they got the pelts from a popular singer from the 1920s who wore a raccoon coat, and who had fallen on hard times and had to sell it. This is a reference to Rudy Vallée, who was sometimes called America’s first pop star, and who sang jazz age hits such as “Doin’ the Raccoon” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Vallée hadn’t worked in Hollywood for several years when this was made, having spent quite a time on Broadway, but he’d make a comeback the following year playing a villain on this very show. How fun is that!

So I’ve talked around the real highlights of the episode: the villain and the script. The baddie is Egghead, played by Vincent Price, and the script is another laughs-first effort by Stanley Ralph Ross. Egghead speaks in egg-scrutiating puns about egg-splosions and uses the word egg-sactly as much as possible. This pleased my pun-loving wife, who said something about how she appreciated a good yolk as much as the next guy and I’ve only myself to blame for showing her this and encouraging this behavior. I was, on the other hand, inordinately pleased that she caught a reference to The Lone Ranger among all of Chief Screaming Chicken’s “how” babble. She normally misses all the pop culture stuff.

Daniel wasn’t too taken with this episode. He was really wild and hyper this evening and did not want to sit still tonight. He growled at the cliffhanger, and said “That wasn’t any fun.” It’s a shame that he didn’t like it, because Stanley Ralph Ross, showing again that he’s more interested in developing an internal continuity and growth of characters than just shoehorning celebrities in (no matter how well that has worked, and, Archer aside, I think season two has worked a lot better than I remember it), came up with a humdinger of a cliffhanger.

Egghead believes that he’s the smartest of all criminals, and has been thinking about Batman’s secret identity. He has a double purpose in abducting Bruce Wayne and the other heirs, Pete Savage and Tim Tyler beyond intercepting the contractual pelt delivery. He has deduced that Batman must be an athletic millionaire in his early thirties. Tyler is left-handed and Savage, who spends most of his days in Paris, has an accent, and so Batman is most probably Bruce Wayne… or possibly, he concedes, a wealthy rock star who lives in Gotham. He intends to use his wild-looking machine to egg-stract all the knowledge from Bruce Wayne’s mind and settle the question. I really enjoyed that; like the bit earlier this season with Catwoman complaining about all the other supervillains asking her out, it shows that Ross really did consider how the characters would think and act when they’re not onscreen.