Thursday, December 03, 2020

Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN; 1984)

Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie Dune...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure. 

Toothy and imposing, Stripe stands at over a foot tall, has poseable limbs (and claws...), beady red eyes, and on his blue box is this legend: "WARNING: YOU MUST OBEY ALL MOGWAI RULES!"

Of course, this monstrous creature (the figure designed for ages 3 and up...) is from one of the most controversial genre blockbusters of 1984 (the same summer of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.) 

Basically, Joe Dante's horror movie featured much violence (like a suburban mother sparring with a violent Gremlin in her kitchen...) yet the film was still aimed at children....the market that had appreciated E.T. 

Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and his clout was such that the movie (along with Indiana Jones) got a new rating "PG-13" instead of R. Basically, the M.P.A.A. created an entirely new ratings classification just to stay on the director's good side...

Anyway, this is indeed the figure of the malevolent Stripe, leader of the nasty gremlins, or Mogwai. 

The side of the box reminds us of the dangers of owning Mogwai by reciting the movie's warning. To paraphrase: Keep 'em out of water; Keep 'em out of light (sunlight is fatal...), and don't feed these buggers after midnight.

On the back fo the box, there's a Gremlins "Proof of Purchase" worth three points, and an admonition to "collect the entire line of Gremlins toys from L.J.N." 

These include the: "3 piece collectible gift set; wind-up Gizmo and Stripe; small Poseable Gizmo; Bendable Stripe; Large Poseable Gizmo; Large Poseable Stripe" and "Stripe and Gizmo Water Hatchers." 

As for me, I had this bugger, the Bendable Stripe, and the Large poseable Gizmo. But this is the only one that I still have the box for.

Also on the back of the box is an array of photos showing how a kid can "have fun making up your own Stripe costumes from accessories found at home." I'm sure Mom would appreciate you raiding her closet...

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

At a crucial juncture in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), an agreeable if dopey millionaire -- an amalgamation of Ted Turner and Donald Trump – learns that if you create a place for things instead of people, you shouldn’t be surprised that things eventually live there.

Daniel Clamp (John Glover) thus comes to understand that his fancy Manhattan high-rise -- automated to the max and designed to sell, sell, sell -- ends up being a place not for human beings, but for gremlins. 

This is an explicit continuation of Gremlins’ (1984) technology critique, which I discussed here on the blog the other day.

We shouldn’t be surprised, the film suggests, when de-humanization actually de-humanizes us.  Play with the building blocks of life, like Splice of Life does, or put people under the thumb of 24-hour surveillance and security guards, or cook exclusively with microwave ovens….and people begin to behave…badly.

Monsters start popping up.

This social critique probably makes Gremlins 2 sound like a deadly serious film, but instead it’s a gag-a-minute, laugh-a-minute treat that skewers the modern age, circa 1990.  This is a time, the film tells us, when technology will either carry the day, making us all “monsters,” or humanity will re-assert itself.

Look up from your iPhone screen for a moment and tell me which side won that particular war.

Caustic and hilarious Gremlins 2 is also “inventive and explosive” according to The Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt, and “thoroughly enjoyable” according to Films in Review’s Edmond Grant. The film is much funnier than its predecessor was, though the trade-off may be difficult for horror films fans to accept.  

As brilliant and subversive as Gremlins 2 remains, it has lost some of the scary, suspenseful aspects of the original film. 

Yet I suspect the trade-off is ultimately worth it. How many sequels are so delightful, and so thoroughly unpredictable? 

“We hope you have enjoyed our programming. But more importantly, we hope you have enjoyed…life.”

Former Kingston Falls resident Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates) are having trouble adjusting to life in expensive, impersonal New York City.  In Manhattan, the duo works at the technologically-advanced but de-humanizing Clamp Center, the world’s first fully-automated office building and home to the Clamp News Network (CCN).  

After the death of Mr. Wing (Keye Luke Luke), Gizmo is taken to the Clamp Center by a scientist working at the Splice of Life genetic laboratories inside the building.  

Before long, Gizmo and Billy meet up again, and face another outbreak of malevolent Mogwai.

This time, the gremlins are enhanced by Dr. Catheter’s (Christopher Lee) genetic experiments.  The Gremlins soon add to their numbers with a brain gremlin, an electric gremlin, a vegetable gremlin (!), a bat gremlin, a spider gremlin and…a female gremlin.

“This is a complete failure of management.”

In America, we tend to worship those who introduce us to the next level of technology (and its accordant convenience) and make a fortune doing it. Gremlins 2 introduces us to the (great) character, Daniel Clamp, and it is impossible not to love him…but also impossible not to recognize him.  

He’s a little bit Ted Turner, who founded the nation’s first 24-hour news cable network and was a proponent of “colorization,” the expensive process by which old black-and-white films would be updated and made palatable for contemporary (but lazy…) TV-watching masses.  

Clamp is also a little bit Donald Trump (1946 - ), the increasingly unhinged man behind Trump Towers in New York City, Trump Tower Resorts (casinos and hotels…) and such best sellers as Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987) and Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990).

In Gremlins 2, Daniel Clamp (John Glover) is the self-absorbed dynamo behind Clamp Premiere Regency Trade Center, a high-tech sky-rise/headquarters and home to CCN: The Clamp Cable News Network. Clamp is the author of the best-selling I Took Manhattan, and his cable network airs Casablanca, “now in full color…with a happier ending.”

And when the Gremlins disaster occurs inside his building, Clamp even has a handy “end of the world” message to air on CCN, a funny reference to Turner’s famous boast that his CNN “won’t be signing off until the world ends.”

The social commentary doesn’t end with the (gentle) skewering of these powerful men, who helped to reshape modern America. The film also comments on the fragmenting or “balkanization” of television brought about by cable networks, a process which creates (in the film) “niche” networks like The Archery Channel, Microwaving with Marge, The Movie Police (starring Leonard Maltin), The Safety Channel and on and on.  

What’s the point?  

That technology (in this case the new shape of television) is merely separating us into our own little worlds, not building a community that reflects life, like Kingston Falls, for example. 

Today, we are some way down the line from Gremlins 2.  We not only have over 200 channels, we have Internet streaming, 24 hour cable stations, and a host of other viewing options.  The “glue” that the mass media once used to hold us together as a nation is now gone. You can now choose the news (like a pizza topping) that best reflects your already-established world-view (conservative or liberal) and never be exposed to a new concept, or something that takes you out of your comfortable bubble.

Dante delves into pop-culture movie references too, commenting on the 1989 blockbuster Batman with a Gremlin-sponsored recreation of the movie’s ubiquitous bat logo. He ushers in jokes about the Wizard of Oz (“I’m melting”), The Marathon Man (“is it safe?”), and even laments the fact that a sequel was made to…Gremlins. 

Once again, the point is that even our art is now de-humanized. 

Batman is now a brand name and trademark, with a corporate logo you can’t mistake.  Forget individual artistry, the Dark Knight is an institution, not a vehicle for inventive storytelling! Matters such as story and character are less important than the creation of a perpetual money dispensing machine.  We watch a superhero movie from Marvel these days, and after the credits are over, we get a tease for another character, or another movie.  Then, we wait months for the trailer for that next movie, and anticipation is ratcheted up.  The actual product – the “movie itself” -- is just one piece of a never-ending media/marketing strategy.

Gremlins 2 likewise mocks the de-humanized essence of business jargon, which had grown and multiplied in American culture by the 1990s like some sort of terrible verbal plague. Workers were no longer asked to come up with good ideas…they had to “think outside the box.” Workers were no longer charged with blending departments, but finding and exploiting their “synergy.” They no longer had to simply do better at their job; they had to “take it to the next level.”  

This kind of inhuman gobbledygook -- this business-speak -- is mimicked and expanded upon with great success in Dante’s film. For instance, the revolving doors at the Clamp Tower entrance remind workers to “have a powerful day!”  

Similarly, characters don’t discuss career aspirations, they reflect on “situational long term outlook perspectives” and “career opportunity advancement.” Even ceiling lights are no longer just lights they are part of an “illumination system.”

And a takeover of the building by malevolent green gremlins is not a catastrophe, a disaster or even an invasion according to some, but rather a failure of management. 

So the film tells us that to go along with our inhuman technology, we have developed inhuman modes of communication.

If one catalogues all of these pop culture jokes, a common thread grows detectable. What Dante laments in Gremlins 2 is the coarsening of the American arts and culture and even national dialogue to the point that everything and everybody is a product; a vehicle for squeezing out a profit. 

When art and business join forces,” declares one character in Gremlins 2, “anything can happen.”  He means it as a net positive; but Dante means it sarcastically.

Gremlins 2 is prophetic in understanding the pitfalls of this modern approach.  

Have you been a success in real-estate?  

Write a book and proselytize your success!

Direct a successful movie?  

Market it and make a sequel!

Have a good idea for a restaurant?  

Franchise it! 

Yet in a culture where the all-mighty dollar is so important, qualities such as individuality and creativity – nay, artistry -- eventually lose their significance.  Clamp’s two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar high-rise, a monstrosity of mechanization, voice-operated elevators, self-cleaning ash trays, surveillance cameras and “eye-pleasing, color-coordinated, authorized art,” is not an environment fit for unique, individual human beings.  

Instead, it’s a big fat, high-tech “work”-extruding beast. 

The Gremlins -- the very embodiment of Loki; of chaos and anarchy – descend on Clamp Towers and very quickly prove…bad for business.  They get into the “natural” ingredients at the Yogurt Stand.  They destroy “Splice of Life,” a genetic laboratory that is the very representation of profit put ahead of responsibility and science run amok.  They foul the complicated phone system in the building, and in one wicked joke, are consigned to a hell called “hold,” where the muzak never stops.

Is it a wonder that monsters exist in a world like this?
Gremlins 2 is probably the closest thing to a live-action cartoon you are likely to see, but all the mayhem, all the brilliant effects carry pro-social weight.  The real movie monster is our craven consumer culture, and our desire to possess new, better technology. This monster is everywhere, infiltrating every walk of life.  It’s in our television (“an invention for fools,” says Mr. Wing), it’s in our newscast, here presented by a man in a vampire suit (a literal bloodsucker), and it’s in our most revered businessmen like Clamp, who still wants to merchandise Gizmo…even after all the anarchy.

What makes this point so interesting to contemplate is that Dante decides, in this sequel, to make the gremlins non-generic even as the world of humans becomes more generic. There’s not just a furry creature and an evil one here, like in the first film. Instead, we meet dozens of individual gremlins. There’s one little guy with googly eyes who acts like he needs Ritalin, stat. There’s Greta, the female gremlin. There’s one mogwai who becomes a gargoyle. And, of course, there’s my favorite, the delightful Brain Gremlin (voiced by Tony Randall), who wants only, “civilization.”  

Thus, the shape of the film might be interpreted as a mirror of the overall critique. To destroy a world of homogenized, inhuman technology and jargon, you need a return, perhaps, to messy individualism.  The Gremlins -- funnier, and more colorful than ever -- provide that antidote.

Gremlins 2 is wicked good fun, and one sequel that not only differentiates itself from the original, but in some way, exceeds it. I watched both Gremlins films with my son, Joel, and he couldn’t decide which he liked better. He liked the original, he said, because it told a scarier, more suspenseful story.  He liked the sequel because it upgraded the monsters and was very, very funny.

In my assessment, Gremlins fits together better as a coherent central idea or movie, but Gremlins 2 takes the cake in terms of ingenuity and humor. In the final analysis, original or new batch matters little because the franchise provides viewers two remarkable films.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Gremlins (1984)

Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) is a brilliant and wickedly funny horror movie that concerns “corruption and violence beneath the surface of small-town American life,” according to William J. Palmer’s The Films of the Eighties: A Social History

Yet perhaps Gremlins’ greatest quality involves the fact that the film's central threat -- which Harlan Ellison once termed “The Muppet Chainsaw Massacre” -- can be analyzed or viewed in so many competing ways.

On the surface, of course, the film is all about a small, Norman Rockwell American town -- Bedford Falls -- overcome by violent mischievous critters at Christmas time. One might also view the film as a story of friendship involving a young man, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his unusual pet, a Mogwai called Gizmo.

But peel back the onion a little bit, and one can detect how Gremlins might be read from any number of different view-points, or according to a variety of societal critiques. What's a bit amazing is that the film stands up to scrutiny no matter which lens one chooses to apply. 

One monster -- the diminutive, green-skinned, sharp-toothed Gremlin -- stands in, essentially, for many (cultural) monsters.

First, for example, there’s the ethnocentric/technophobic angle, which sees WWII veteran Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), lamenting the rise of foreign imports, and suggesting that people should only purchase and trust American-made products.  

His (protectionist?) argument is essentially that foreign goods come replete with saboteur gremlins and should thus be avoided.  The Gremlins, essentially then, are the second coming of Pearl Harbor, an attack concocted by "foreigners" to bring America to its knees.

Since the Mogwai do originate with a dealer from the Far East according to the film’s narrative, there’s a certain plausibility to Futterman's stance, one might conclude. But this particular reading grows more complicated when one considers the fact that original masters/owners/care-givers of the same Gremlins are able to control them safely, without violent incident.  Why can’t Americans accomplish the same feat?   The Old Man, Mr. Wing, suggests that we are not ready to control Gremlins/technology. That we are not wise enough.

That the Gremlins are equated with new-fangled technology is established, in large part, by Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score, which creates a conflict or dichotomy in terms of musical choices.  Much of the film is traditionally orchestral, creating an epic, lyrical sweep.  But the actual Gremlins Theme is electronic in nature, signaling the creatures' origin as something from modernity, from technology.

Also notice that a cold metallic hue is applied or seen in many of the scenes involving Gremlin attacks.  This color equates them either with electricity (again, a technological creation), or the blue static-y glow of television (another technological toy.)  The images below reflect this palette.

Secondly, there’s the economic angle, or critique in Gremlins

In Billy Peltzer’s America, the rich are getting richer, even if it means bank foreclosures for middle class families. At the same time, yuppies (represented by Judge Reinhold) reign supreme...plotting to be millionaires by thirty and bragging about their cable TV. Meanwhile, artists and other creative personalities, like Billy, are being shoehorned into “business” jobs that make them miserable. The pursuit of money has become everything -- the gold standard -- in this version of eighties America.

Significantly, absolutely everything is a commodity in this world as it is rendered, even the Gremlins themselves. Consider the old Grandfather’s (Keye Luke) horror upon hearing Mr. Peltzer’s description of Gizmo being “sold.”  It was really a scam, not a fair transaction, wasn't it? The Grandfather had no say in it, no choice.  

Similarly, Mr. Peltzer seems to view Gizmo primarily as a commodity, noting that he bets “every kid in America would like to have one….this could be the big one.” A unique, un-classified animal --  La life form -- is no more than a get-rich quick scheme. It's something that be used to help one acquire vast amounts of wealth.

The picture-perfect Rockwellian appearance of Bedford Falls -- deliberately likened in the body of the film with the cinematic world of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) -- is thus a contrast to real life there. As Billy learns the hard way, the town is far astray from the American Dream. All the bells and whistles of the holiday season seem empty and cynical when the eighties equivalent of the Wicked Witch -- Polly Holliday’s Mrs. Deagle -- controls the bank, real estate, and the town itself.

Next up, one might consider the season portrayed in the film more closely. Gremlins might actually be considered a “gleeful trashing of everything America holds dear about Christmas,” according to author Mark Connelly in Christmas at the Movies (page 138). Specifically, the 1984 film seizes on the dark, unsettled emotions some people feel during ostensibly the most joyous time of the year.  Once more, Dante's film presents a powerful dichotomy: the appearance (of happiness) and the reality (danger and sadness).

For instance, Mrs. Deagle threatens to throw a family of renters out on the street, informing a mother (Belinda Balaski) and her children that they should wish for Santa Claus to pay the rent.  And late in the film, Kate (Phoebe Cates) shares a haunting story about a family Christmas gone horribly wrong. 

All the symbols of the holiday, ultimately, prove dangerous or threatening to Americans. The Peltzer family dog is strung up or hanged in Christmas lights. A Gremlin eats Christmas cookies and is killed in the blender along with the cookie dough…which turns green.  

And a Mogwai even hides inside a Christmas tree, ready to strike an unsuspecting suburban mother. Few Christmas “symbols” survive the movie intact. We get a dead Santa stuck in a chimney, Gremlin carolers, and more holiday-themed atrocities.

When I reviewed Gremlins in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), I considered the environmental aspects or argument of the film too. The film seems to concern, generally, how something innocent, beautiful and unspoiled (in this case Gizmo) can be perverted, or destroyed by its irresponsible use. The Gremlins are harmless creatures if a certain set of rules are applied and obeyed, but if those rules are ignored, the creatures become a hazard.

Yet when I screened Gremlins for the first time since 2007 last week with my eight year old son, Joel,  I noticed another aspect of the film I hadn’t really considered fully. On some level, the film seems to involve responsible parenting. 

Billy and Mr. Peltzer take stewardship of an innocent life: Gizmo. He will grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted if the three Mogwai rules are obeyed. These rules are: no bright light, no water, and no feedings after midnight. 

All three rules are violated in short order, and the Peltzers soon find themselves contending not with innocent, cuddly babies, but rambunctious, mischievous creatures who crash cars, tear up the town, and make life miserable for them.

Being a father myself, it’s impossible for me not to view the film as an argument directed at irresponsible parents.  If you want to raise a kid “right” you have to establish responsible parameters (the equivalent of the film’s rules), and then stick to them. 

If you don’t do so, those babies don’t transform into green, scaly monsters, but they transform into something worse: irresponsible, defiant teenagers!  Before you know it, they are listening to loud music, drinking beer, and otherwise acting out. Your baby grows up in a terrible way because you couldn't be bothered to be consistent, or responsible. In the film, the Gremlins go on a rampage that is childishly excessive, like a teenager experiencing freedom for the first time.

Even the film’s discussion of television seems to reflect the parenting angle. Grandfather, or Mr. Wing, returns to find that his wayward child has been allowed to spend his time….watching television.  

And of course, TV is the most common babysitter in the world, right?  Essentially, Gizmo goes from being held in one box (which keeps him safe from the dangers of the world), to being captivated by another box -- the television -- that exposes him to those dangers, at least vicariously.

Gremlins is a manic, unruly film, and one of my all-time favorites The anarchic antics of the wee monsters grant the film its umbrella of unity, but also permit for a series of vignettes which shine a light (or reflect a crack’d mirror) on American life in the 1980s.  

Bruce G. Hallenbeck wrote of Gremlins in Comedy-Horror Film: A Chronological History that “there is a dark and subversive undercurrent that keeps viewers off-guard, wondering in which direction it will veer next.” (page 131)  This is a powerful observation, and helps to explain how one film can be viewed through so many different lenses

Or how one cute little guy like Gizmo can turn into a thousand ugly -- and relevant -- monsters.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Memory Bank: Sears Wish Book for the 1979 Holiday Season

A few years back, I tried explaining to my son, Joel, the idea of ordering items from a catalog. 

I explained that it’s like ordering something from, only your choices are more limited, you can’t buy the items online, and you have to wait longer to receive your toy.

He didn’t see the appeal.

But when I was growing up, it was tremendously exciting to order from a catalog, or I should say from one catalog in particular. 

Every year, Sears sent out a mammoth Christmas catalog or “Wish Book,” a hugely fat inventory of everything it sold, from appliances and clothes to toys galore.  

One of the Wish Books that I’m remembering today -- from the year 1979 -- was illustrated with the tag-line “Where America Shops For Value.”

Forget value, I just wanted space toys. 

The 1979 Sears Wishbook Catalog had ‘em too. 

From Page 613 thru 620 in that catalog, there was everything a 1970s space-kid could possibly desire: toys from Mego’s Micronauts, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Wars, and Star Trek too.  There were models, play-sets, toy action figures…the works.

And the great thing about Sears was that it not only offered toys you could find elsewhere, it also offered exclusive toys, like the Star Wars knock-off playset called “The Star Fortress” (seen on page 617).  I’ve covered this toy before on the blog, but the giant fold-out space base has a position of honor in my home office to this day.  

Another Sears exclusive from the same era (although it may have been first sold in 1978…) was the Star Wars “The Cantina Adventure Set” (not to be confused with the Creature Cantina).  The legend in the catalog read “If you stop at this cantina, watch out for strangers.”

This diorama of the exterior of the Mos Eisely drinking hole came with four new Kenner action figures that were unavailable elsewhere: Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, and Blue Snaggletooth.  The Blue Snaggletooth has become a highly-prized collectible.

Without me knowing, my Mom ordered me the Cantina Adventure Set, and I loved it. 

I kept it intact until about two years ago when the diorama base finally ripped. But it’s the item I remember most from the catalog.  

After I received the toy in the mail, I would play adventures with Sheriff Snaggletooth and Deputy Hammerhead.  They’d drive the land speeder around Mos Eisely, catching the gangsters Greedo and Walrus Man.

Back in the 1970s I loved coming home from school and finding in the mail either the next week’s issue of TV Guide (so I could see if Star Trek or Space:1999 was playing…), but it was a day of absolute delight and toy nirvana when the Wish Book arrived.

I still remember the feel and scent of the Wish Book catalog's pages. I remember poring over those toy pages too, imagining adventures with Buck Rogers, the Micronauts, the Cantina, and that Space Fortress...

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Land of the Lost: "The Musician"

“The Musician” is Land of the Lost’s highly intriguing, Saturday morning version of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Only here, it is Chaka (Philip Paley) -- not primitive man -- who undergoes a sudden, evolutionary leap in intelligence. We learn from a strange humanoid visitor to Altrusia -- a Builder?-- that now”  is Chaka’s “time.” And, when the episode is over, Chaka has learned how to play Holly’s recorder, an act which previously eluded him.

One of the most memorable images from “The Musician” finds Chaka confronting a human, evolved version of himself; one also played by Paley.  The human version of Chaka informs the Pakuni that it is his time to be tested, and he wears a uniform that looks like it came straight out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).  Is this form Chaka’s destiny? His form in another universe?

What precipitates Chaka’s evolutionary leap is a visit to the strange temple near the Lost City of the Sleestaks, the temple first seen (but not explored…) in the second season episode called “The Test.”   In a certain sense, I suppose, one might claim that Season Two of Land of the Lost boasts a story arc since elements of earlier stories pay off in later ones, and build on one another. 

Inside the temple, the Marshalls and Chaka find the “great granddaddy of all matrix tables” and it materializes a strange red ring, one apparently belonging to “The Builders.”

I love the idea that Land of the Lost -- on a TV budget and in a time slot for children -- attempts to tell a complex story in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one that gazes at, explicitly, the idea of intelligence, or genius, and asks (as Will does in the story): “where does it come from?”

I like the idea encoded in “The Musician” (as well as other episodes of the series) that Altrusia is an artificial world created by highly-intelligent, but mysterious beings.  On the temple wall in this episode, for instance, we see a sculpture of human hands.  What role do human beings -- perhaps a future Holly?  -- play in the shaping or maintenance of this world?  It would have been truly fascinating to learn where more about these beings, and their purpose, but a format change in Season Three left the idea unfulfilled.

Still, “The Musician” is likely one of the best episodes of Land of the Lost’s second season since it explores this (abandoned) mythology.  The episode features a Builder (or at least I think it’s a Builder), their strange temple, and the mysterious brain boost for Chaka.

Today, one can only wonder where this storyline might have eventually led if things had been different…

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

In several significant ways, Mighty Joe Young (1949) might be described as the “most evolved” of the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack giant ape films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In part this is so because the third (and last) film in the cycle understands that audience sympathies rest with the exploited main character, a kindly gorilla named Joe, and not with the humans who exploit him for financial gain.

And in part this is so because this film depicts the female lead character, Jill Young (Terry Moore) as more than a screaming ninny.  The feisty Jill can see beyond Joe’s intimidating physicality -- in part because she raised him -- and recognize that he is an intelligent creature worthy of dignity and respect.  Jill is no mere damsel in distress, but rather a very human woman trying to do the right thing, and honor the important relationships in her life, both with Joe, and with promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong again), the man who brought her “fame and fortune” in Hollywood.

These elements, along with an exciting chase and nail-biting finale, make Mighty Joe Young a solid addition to the King Kong canon, even if the film doesn’t actually concern Kong or his progeny.

Mighty Joe Young begins with little Jill Young (Moore) living on her father’s farm in Africa.  She trades a baby gorilla for several trinkets, including a flashlight, and decides to raise the ape she names “Joe.”  Her father objects to this course of action, worrying that the gorilla will one day grow into a fierce animal and menace.  

But Jill prevails, and a friendship is born.

Twelve years later, Max O’Hara (Armstrong) plots to make his next Hollywood night club, “The Golden Safari,” a runaway success.  He strikes on the idea of going on a dangerous safari in Africa with cowboy, Gregg (Ben Johnson) in tow.  Once there, they collect man-eating lions and other animals, and then unexpectedly encounter a fully-grown gorilla, Joe.  Max urges Jill to sign a contract making the ape and his master the newest (permanent) attractions at the Golden Safari.

Back in Hollywood, Joe grows increasingly depressed by the nightly festivities in the club, and his near-continual entrapment in a too-small cage.  Jill sees the gorilla suffering, and attempts to get out of her contract with Max.  He sweet-talks her back into compliance, and the Mighty Joe Young show continues for a whopping seventeen weeks.

Then, one night, a trio of obnoxious drunks release Joe from his cage, feed him champagne, and watch as the gorilla trashes the club from top to bottom.  Deemed a public safety menace by a judge, Joe is ordered executed.  Realizing what he has done to Jill and Joe, Max O’Hara teams up with Gregg and Jill to free the ape from captivity, and return him to his home in Africa.

On the way to freedom, however, Gregg, Jill, and Joe spy a disaster in the making.  An orphanage is burning down fast, and three children are trapped upstairs with no hope of escape. 

One last time, it’s Joe to the rescue…

Although there are no prehistoric monsters on hand in Mighty Joe Young, the film nonetheless perfects (or evolves) the King Kong formula.  Max O’Hara -- the familiar showman character -- undergoes his transformation from exploiter to defender in one movie, not two (as was the case with Carl Denham), and the movie also makes the point that there is something worse than imprisonment…the loss of dignity.  

Here, Joe undergoes a horrible humiliation when a nightclub routine requires Jill to dress up as an organ grinder, and Joe as her monkey.  Then, the unruly crowd is encouraged to throw giant coins at Joe while he catches them in his cap.   One drunk gets out of hand and tosses a glass champagne bottle at the ape.  This is a miserable moment for Joe, one which reduces the noble beast to the level of carnival freak.

Joe goes wild soon after this humiliation and destroys Max’s night club, but he finds redemption by saving the imperiled children at the burning orphanage.  Again, this kind of redemption was something denied Kong in the original film (though awarded to his son, in The Son of Kong).

Though it is impossible to argue that Mighty Joe Young is more spectacular or exciting than King Kong was, one can certainly detect how a very similar story (with similar characters) is more completely and emotionally told here.   Some may consider that comment a heretical remark in terms of cinema history, but at least three of the four leads in Mighty Joe Young -- Max, Jill, and Joe himself -- are treated with greater humanity than their counterparts were in King Kong.  

While there’s nothing as awe-inspiring as a battle with a T-Rex in this film, Mighty Joe Young nonetheless satisfies on a purely human level.  No one in King Kong really listened to their conscience, at least until it was far too late.  Here, the characters all make difficult personal decisions to repair the breach, and honor their friendship with Joe.

I had not seen Mighty Joe Young in several years before this recent viewing, and was delighted to find the film so engaging, and so action-packed. My wife watched this one with me, and was on the edge of her seat during the finale at the orphanage.  She told me that if Joe died, I should just turn the movie off right then, because she couldn’t handle it.

That in-the-moment exclamation/protest reveals how successfully Mighty Joe Young works on an emotional level. It’s not the Beauty and the Beast epic or prehistoric safari that King Kong is, but it’s a damned exciting and engaging adventure film with some fine special effects (from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Son of Kong (1933)

The conventional wisdom regarding this sequel is that The Son of Kong (1933) is a not-very-good, not- very-memorable follow-up to the enormously successful and enormously beloved original King Kong (1933). 

It’s easy to see why critics, scholars, and some fans feel this way about the film.  The sequel is but a brief seventy minutes long, two of the original stars -- Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray -- are missing-in-action, and the film was produced on an extraordinarily low-budget.  

Furthermore, King Kong is a spectacular, a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and spectacle, and The Son of Kong…is not.

And yet despite these deficits The Son of Kong is an intriguing little movie, primarily because it focuses almost obsessively on Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the man who brought Kong back to modernity because he wanted to give that jaded world a sense of “wonder.” 

Denham has been repaid for that act, however, as The Son of Kong opens, with law-suits, public condemnation, and grand jury indictment.  His original desire to “escape” modernity, has, in fact, brought the bureaucracy of modernity crashing down upon him.

We also learn early in The Son of Kong that Denham feels guilty regarding Kong’s death, and wishes -- for his own sake and Kong’s -- that he had never visited Skull Island in the first place.  

This is all very interesting, very human material, and there is likely more focus on characterization and character development in The Son of Kong than in all of King Kong.  Robert Armstrong is terrific and charismatic again as Carl Denham, but he shows many more shades of the man here than he was able to reveal in the original Kong.

With its lead character dwelling in self-hatred and guilt, and facing a future of legal entanglements, The Son of Kong depicts a more dissolute, sleazier world than did its predecessor.  In short order, Denham and Captain Englehart (Frank Reichert) slink out of New York Harbor on the Venture not in search of great adventure this time, but in search of a job -- any job -- in the East Indies. 

In far-flung Dakang, they settle in at a tiny port and meet another fallen Western entertainer, Peterson, and his lovely daughter, La Belle Helene (Helen Mack).  Both are going nowhere, and have no future save for the next (sparsely populated) show.

Denham and Englehart also meet the troublesome Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the very man who first sold Denham the map to Kong’s island. Helstrom -- a murderer -- is looking for a way to escape Dakang too and soon he, Denham, Englehart, and Helene head to Kong’s island in search of a legendary treasure.

On Skull Island, Denham and Helene encounter a young giant ape, Kong Junior.  He’s more playful than his father, but no less fierce when it comes to fighting dinosaurs.  After Denham and Helene save Kong Jr. from a quicksand trap, he defends them from a giant bear, a four-legged dinosaur carnivore, and other grave threats.  

After the giant ape helps Denham retrieve the legendary treasure from a secret temple, an earthquake sinks the island, and Kong Jr. gives his life to save Denham.

While it’s true that the pleasures of The Son of Kong are relatively mild in comparison to King Kong, some are certainly worth noting.  I love the first act in particular, set in a corner of the world where people go to disappear.  There are some great deep-focus shots in the local bar, which sell beautifully the nature of the people living in that environment.   

I also admire the fact that the sequel attempts to make a human judgment about what happened to Kong in New York City…a subject the original film did not broach. 

Here, Denham admits that he owes Kong’s family “something,” and when he takes care of Kong Jr.’s injuries, he notes that the act is “sort of an apology.”   

These moments reveal Denham’s humanity and decency, and also acknowledge the audience’s (quite correct) feelings that King Kong was badly exploited in the first film.  This movie rehabilitates Carl Denham, one might assert, and that’s a worthy enterprise for a sequel.

The stop-motion effects of The Son of Kong are certainly as impressive as those of its predecessor, and the film suffers mainly in the final act when, out-of-the-blue, an earthquake arrives to, literally end the movie.  The earthquake comes from out-of-the-blue, and stops the movie’s development cold, skipping essentially from the beginning of the third act (arrival on the island and discovery of the treasure…) right to the denouement, Kong Jr’s sad death, and the ape’s heroic sacrifice to rescue Denham.  

Those valedictory images of heroic Kong Jr. holding Denham aloft above the swirling ocean waves as Skull Island sinks below the roiling surface are arguably as powerful as any image in King Kong, but in some sense they have not adequately been prepared for or built-up to.  The moment of Kong Jr’s death is powerful, but could have been infinitely more so if the film actually spent more than twenty or so minutes in the company of the mighty ape.

The Son of Kong’s final “happy ending,” that Denham and Helene will marry and share the proceeds from the island’s treasure, also fails to ring true.  Even a huge payday isn’t going to take away a grand jury indictment for Denham.  Plus, Carl has once again looted Skull Island for a resource or treasure by which he hopes to profit…an act which in some sense hampers his character’s development and maturity.  He's still, even after everything that's happened, a profiteer.

But taken in total The Son of Kong is a charming little monster movie, a good dessert after King Kong’s main course.  The sequel boasts some real humanity, and represents a turning point in the Cooper/Schoedsack saga because it is the first big ape film to suggest sympathy for the central animal, and to recognize that the exploitation of natural resources like Kong results only in destruction for everyone.

Also, I must admit that on a personal note, I get a kick out of one idea in The Son of Kong that is often not even considered in terms of sequels.  In essence, this humble movie acknowledges that King Kong was the main event, and that this is a smaller, perhaps less important story in the same universe.  That kind of modesty is, at the very least, refreshing.  It also seems realistic, to some degree.  Sequels traditionally get bigger and bolder, and more outrageous. 

But how do you create a sequel bigger than a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building?  

I submit that The Son of Kong’s human, if small potatoes approach, works just fine.

Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN; 1984)

Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie  Dune ...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the ...