Sunday, November 27, 2016

What I'm Reading: Blondie: The Complete Daily Comics Strips from 1930-33

This is one tough item to find. I saw it several years ago when it first appeared in stores, and declined to buy it at the time. But I've found since I would like some early Blondie strips to join my volumes of early Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant, and Popeye. Unfortunately, this is no longer in print, and copies routinely sell for more than $100 on Amazon. When I happened to check one day and found a copy for only $50, I snapped it up.

It covers the very early years of the Blondie comic strip, before they were married. In fact, the early strips revolved around Dagwood's romance with Blondie. However, their romance was constantly stymied by his fabulously wealthy parents, who didn't approve of his love for a poor girl of little social standing. The culmination of this early phase of the strip occurred in winter 1933, when Dagwood went on a hunger strike until his parents finally relented to his marriage, with the only catch being he was to be completely cut off from his inheritance--a small price to pay for the hand of his beloved Blondie! The wedding took place on February 17, 1933.

I think what surprised me most was that it wasn't just a gag-a-day strip in the 1930s, as it is now. There were some fairly long story arcs that went on for weeks or even months. I think my favorite was when Dagwood was unable to gain entrance to a university, so his father simply bought one and admitted Dagwood and Blondie:

Dagwood makes friends at school

Needless to say, the two weren't really cut out for college life and the strip soon moved on.

I'm leaning away from picking up the next volume, however. Despite the longer story arcs, this one was fairly repetitive, with the themes of Blondie's airheadedness and Dagwood's wimpiness hammered home over and over again. Still, it's fun to see the roots of a long-time strip that's still running more than 85 years after its creation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Greek Way

I know Edith Hamilton best as the English translator of the most common edition of Greek and Roman myths--the famous edition of her Mythology is typically assigned in high schools. When I saw her book The Greek Way on the fundraising book sale table at work recently, I had to have it. It was published in 1930 and 1942 (not sure how that works--maybe certain parts appeared first in magazines?) and is a collection of critical essays on Hellenic-age Greek literature (i.e. the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.).

She moves more or less chronologically through ten of the most important Greek authors, starting with the poet Pindar and ending with the dramatist Euripedes, with a few essays on special topics like the religion of the Greeks or the Greek way of writing thrown in. She takes the characteristic she finds most important with each of these ancient authors and highlights it, typically by comparing him to a more modern author--the raw, heroic tragedy of Aeschylus with Shakespeare, for example, or the "exuberant, effervescent" comedy of Aristophanes with Victorian light opera librettist W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan)(!).

My favorite essay was on Xenophon, a Greek writer I was only slightly familiar with beforehand, whom Hamilton shows as the great portrayer of everyday Greek life, particularly for the leisured class in Athens. Xenophon is practically our only source outside of Plato to give an account of Socrates, but is also known for his autobiographical account of the retreat of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from Persia back to Greece after the general who had hired them was cut down in battle. The enemy didn't even bother mopping them up, assuming 10,000 leaderless foreign soldiers would simply perish, but that was not the case. Greek individualism and common sense carried them through a two-year journey across deserts and mountains, until they finally reached the Mediterranean Sea with most of their company intact. It is quite a stirring story.

I am not quite sure I could recommend this book generally. I think it would probably be most interesting to those who have somewhat more than a passing knowledge of ancient Greek literature and history. I found it quite fascinating myself, and my guess is if it sounds like a book that would interest you, you're probably right.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Scary Movies: Carnival of Souls

I have previously ranked horror movies hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. The final scary movie for this year is Carnival of Souls, from 1962. I have heard about this movie for a long time and have long wanted to watch it: the B-movie that somehow stumbled into being a highly influential classic.

It was filmed for a mere $33,000 and used a no-name cast, but director Herk Harvey had some advantages. First, he was a director of industrial films, and so had plenty of experience behind the camera. Second, his star, the exquisite Candace Hilligoss, only ever appeared in two other films, but had trained seriously as an actor in New York and had extensive stage experience. Finally, the musical score, by organist Gene Moore, practically tells a story in itself. Nobody who ever sees this movie forgets that eerie organ music.

The story is pretty straightforward. Mary Henry has just graduated with her degree in music and has accepted a job as organist at a church in Utah. The day before she is to leave, she is driving with some girlfriends when they accept a challenge to drag race a car full of boys. Going over a bridge, the girls' car goes over the edge. At first there are thought to be no survivors, but hours later, Mary emerges from the water. Others urge her not to drive to her new job, but she insists she must be there the next day.

As she drives to Utah, she sees a mysterious, spooky-looking man in the car window. Near her destination in Utah, she passes an abandoned dance hall by the Salt Lake and feels mysteriously drawn to it. Once in town, she starts her new job and moves into a boarding house where a neighbor, John, takes an interest in her. But as she goes about her new life, she keeps seeing that spooky man, and finds herself compelled to visit the dance hall again and again. She also has bizarre interludes when passersby don't seem to notice she's there or hear her speak. I won't give away the ending, but let's say it builds up to a surreal and frightening climax.

So, did director Harvey really know what he was doing or did he luck into it? Did he intentionally use the hypnotic soundtrack and surreal imagery to achieve the film's considerable impact, or was that merely a necessary by-product of the low budget? Did he mean to homage 1920s German expressionist films? Not clear on any of the three counts, but whether by fate or design this movie came together perfectly.


Story/Plot/Characters--Surprisingly good acting. Dialogue better than the usual B-movie. Straightfoward plot at first, by about halfway through we're operating on dream logic, but it makes perfect sense within the movie's world. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Not a lot of effects, really little more than make-up, but what little there is used well.  With even a slightly bigger budget this movie could have scored higher here, but maybe then we wouldn't have gotten some of the other virtues of the film. (.5 points)
Scariness--Yes. Not chills or shocks, but a sort of dread that builds throughout the film. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The abandoned dance hall on the lake, the feeling of isolation in the Utah countryside, the eerie town at night, and that organ music. This is exactly what I'm looking for in this category. (2 points)
Total=6.5 points

Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points