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  1. [​IMG]

    Welcome back to my blog's newest feature, the INCspotlight Interviews! Today's guest is Mariah Wilson, a documentary director, producer, and writer whose works cover a wide array of topics, particularly hate groups in the United States and various aspects of wildlife and environmental defense. Her documentary Revealing Hate was awarded a Special Jury Commendation at the 2010 Durango Film Festival as well as the Silver Lei Award at the 2010 Honolulu International Festival (where she also won a Special Jury Prize in 2012 for her documentary Volunteer). More recently, her film Kaziranga won the Animal Award at the 2016 Cinema Verde Film Festival.

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    INC: To start things off, can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?


    MW: I've been working in film and television since graduating from film school in 2003. I work as a producer and director on a variety of non-fiction projects for TV channels like National Geographic, Discovery, History, PBS, and others. I also do documentary films, usually passion projects that I want to dive into further, and then release those independently.

    INC: What inspired you to get into film, documentaries in particular?

    MW: I knew I wanted to be in film, in some capacity, since high school. I was really into films, and always tried to watch as big a variety as possible - foreign, indie, horror, mainstream, you name it. So film school seemed like the natural progression. It wasn't until my last semester in film school that I decided that I wanted to go into documentaries. I was starting to feel sad about graduating, because I was just enjoying learning so much. I wanted to keep absorbing knowledge in all kinds of disciplines for as long as I could. But I didn't necessarily want to go to grad school, and knew I still wanted to work in film, so I asked myself: "how can I combine working in film and constantly learning new things?" As soon as I framed the question that way, the answer seemed obvious: documentaries!

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    Mariah Wilson consulting with Tony Harris, the host of Hate in America (2015)

    INC: Makes sense. Your directorial debut was Revealing Hate, which you also wrote and produced. How did that particular project come about?

    MW: So I had heard about this man Stetson Kennedy from my mom, actually. Stetson was a fascinating figure - he was a huge civil rights activist, and had actually done some significant infiltration and busting up of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, when they were a really powerful entity with influence in government, courts, police, etc. So I decided that I wanted to do a doc about him. I flew down to Jacksonville and had a long sit down interview with him - poor guy, he was in his 90s; it was like a marathon interview! But he was less interested in talking about what he had done in the past, and more focused on talking about what these groups like the Klan were up to today.

    This was in 2004, in a post 9-11 environment, when everyone was focused on international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, etc. No one was talking about domestic terrorism any more, even though it hadn't even been a decade since Oklahoma City. So he got ME thinking about it too, and I decided to branch the documentary out wider, to include a variety of stories on where the white supremacist and right wing extremist movement was in America at that time. I interviewed a former neo-Nazi, a man documenting the modern KKK, the watchdog group SPLC, and a major white supremacist too. My goal was to create a tapestry of perspectives on where the movement was, and where it was going. Little did I know that the film (released in 2010) would become increasingly relevant over the years.

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    INC: You’ve returned to this subject over the years. How did things change in between, let alone to where things stand now?

    MW: Well, the topic has certainly become increasingly relevant and a bigger part of the national discourse. I worked on a show called Hate In America for Investigation Discovery in 2015-2016, and to be honest, it was sad to see how much the white supremacist movement has gained strength in recent years. In my interview with Tom Metzger, the white nationalist who I spoke to [for Revealing Hate], he said that his big strategy (at that time in 2006) was telling his followers to take off the white robes and the brown shirts, dress normally, get a job, take care of your family, and quietly get into positions of power - in politics, government, business, etc - and then bring about the change they want to see. From his perspective, the past year has probably been a big success and a source of validation for the movement.

    INC: How have you gotten other members of hate groups to talk to you on camera?

    MW: For Revealing Hate, I went to a neo-Nazi rally in Michigan and filmed a press conference that they held there - they weren't speaking directly to me, but were addressing the press pool at large. So I used their words in my film. More recently, for Hate in America, I secured a phone interview for our host with Frazier Glenn Miller, who had been convicted of murdering three people outside of a Kansas City synagogue in 2014. It was a phone interview since Miller was in jail. [Miller] and I spoke on the phone many times prior to that interview. The two words that come to mind for those conversations are surreal and nauseating.

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    INC: I'm sure. In your research or during production, was there anything you came across that surprised you or that you otherwise weren't expecting?


    MW: With Revealing Hate, I remember being surprised when I learned about the Greensboro Massacre. That is an incident where the Ku Klux Klan gunned down a group of protestors in broad daylight in Greensboro, North Carolina. Several people were killed, and others were gravely injured. I spoke with two survivors. That incident took place in 1979, a year before I was born, and it shocks me to this day that no one ever went to jail for those crimes - even though they were caught on camera. It's really a wild and horrendous story.

    One thing that really stuck with me from working on Hate in America was getting to know the mother of one of Frazier Glenn Miller's victims. Well, actually, she was the mother and daughter of two victims - her father and son were killed by this white supremacist. Mindy Corporon is the surviving mother/daughter, and she has channeled her grief and anger and sadness from her terrible loss into some of the most positive outreach work you could imagine. She has spearheaded interfaith initiatives to foster understanding across different religions, and her whole philosophy is that love and faith can help heal communities and families that have been torn apart by hate crimes like the one that took her son and father. She is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and remarkable human beings I have ever met. I'm proud to call her my friend - we've stayed in touch since the shoot, and to this day.

    INC: Have you connected with or stayed in touch with any other people you've interviewed through your work?

    MW: Oh gosh, yeah! That's one of the most fun parts of my job - meeting people from all walks of life, all around the globe - people I wouldn't normally run into - and really getting to know them. I stay in touch with many of them on email, and via Facebook too.

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    INC: Speaking of which, your work has covered a wide range of topics, from poaching to America's prison systems to doomsday cults. What draws you to a particular topic?

    MW: Well, in recent years, most of my independent films and passion projects have been about wildlife conservation, and anti-poaching initiatives. I really got into that subject after I took a series of eco-volunteering trips about 10 years ago, and started to learn about the uptick in poaching and endangered species trafficking. Since then, I've tried to seek out stories about species or geographic regions that are suffering from poaching but receiving less media coverage. That's how I worked on my short film Kaziranga, about rhino poaching in northeastern India, and my current film Silent Forests, about forest elephant poaching in Africa's Congo Basin. In general, I'm very drawn to stories about the intersection of human beings and animals/wildlife... both the positive and negative outcomes of that intersection.

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    INC: Is that something you think you'll stick with in the future, or at least revisit?

    MW: Yeah, that's what I'm hoping to have my career more focused on - wildlife and conservation stories, as well as animal rescue stories. Profiling the people who are trying to do work as conservationists, wildlife stewards, and animal rescuers. The hope is to help get support for their work through a wider audience.

    INC: How have social media, streaming services, and sites like Youtube changed the game on that front, for better or worse (if at all)?


    MW: Social media has allowed a way for filmmakers to promote their films, as well as their crowdfunding campaigns, to a targeted audience. Streaming services like Netflix have really changed the way the industry works and has provided a major platform for documentaries to be seen. I think it's been a great help for independent filmmakers. YouTube is starting to get in on the game more, and is working on commissioning content and creating series like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon - but they still have a ways to go till they are on that level, I think. For now YouTube is a good way to get your trailer up and visible to the world. There's more outlets than ever for good documentaries.. but there's also more competition than ever! There are so many good docs that get released every year that hardly see the light of day.

    INC: Shifting gears a little bit, do you work with a regular production posse?

    MW: I don't have the same people on every since film or TV show I work on, but I certainly have a short list of camerapeople and editors that I've worked with on more than one occasion and who I prefer to work with and heartily recommend to others for jobs. My main partner on my current doc, Silent Forests, is someone who I really love working with; his name is Zebediah Smith. He and I have been through some crazy stuff together in the far flung jungles of Africa, and through it all, we manage to keep each other (somewhat?) sane and laugh at some of the situations we find ourselves in. He has a wonderful calm demeanor, which is great for when sh*t inevitably hits the proverbial fan on a shoot, which it very often does!

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    INC: Any noteworthy examples you want to share?

    MW: Oh man. Where do I even begin...we've been on sting operations together where undercover investigators are busting ivory traffickers, and it's just complete chaos - we don't even know what's going on half the time, we just keep the camera rolling! We've bribed our way through many an airport in central Africa... we've bathed in croc infested rivers. But maybe the funniest (and possibly grossest) story is...so we had a tent in Cameroon that we were staying in, while shooting deep in the forest there. For some reason, our tent was a fly MAGNET. Hundreds of freakin' flies buzzing all over that thing, day and night. It was maddening. Things got worse when the flies started having sex all over the tent, and on our equipment bags. And then, a few days later, we notice this layer of white stuff all over our belongings and bags. We take a closer look: MAGGOTS. FREAKIN'. MAGGOTS.

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    We run down to the river and wash out all our stuff, trying to get the maggots off. It worked for almost everything, except for this nice new backpack that poor Zeb had just bought for his cameras. It had that like..mesh padding on the back, you know, for comfort? And the maggots had just burrowed in there, so deep. We couldn't wash them out, soooo...one of our porter guys suggested smoking them out, over the camp fire. Very smart! That worked great. Only problem was, they also used the campfire to smoke fish. So the bag ended up smelling like smoked fish! When we went back to the US, it smelled like a giant herring was stalking us all the way home, from plane to plane. Our plane neighbors were none too happy with us.

    INC: Is there anything about the documentary production process that was different from how you expected it to be?


    MW: I mean, I certainly learn something new on every single show, film, or project I do. Cliche, I know, but true. Docs take a lot of time and patience - it takes time and luck to capture a really great moment.. it takes time to develop a relationship with your subject...it takes time to set up a really great interview shot. There's this great quote I read from doc filmmaker Lucy Walker, which really sums it up well: "When you're making a fiction film, you have so much control, but you have to work really hard for the authenticity, whereas when you're making a documentary you have all the authenticity you want but you have to work really hard to have any control over it." I think that really sums it up well, and is something I couldn't have predicted but makes perfect sense to me now that I've worked in docs for years.

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    Lucy Walker

    INC: I like that. Speaking of which, any plans to try your hand at fiction at any point, or do you think you'll stick with documentaries?

    MW: So I've written a couple of screenplays - I like writing a lot. I've had some forward motion with them over the years - an option here, a contest win there - but none of them have been made yet. I don't think I'll ever do fiction film full time, but it would be nice to have a script come to fruition as a film at some point. Though I'd not want to direct my own fiction film - I'd want to hire an experienced director, since I have very little experience working with actors. It's a very different craft

    INC: Understood. And last, but probably most importantly, where can we go to see your work?

    MW: Well, my main website has links to a lot of my film websites and trailers. Some of my past docs are in the educational market now, so they aren't available online anywhere, but people can reach out to me or my educational distributor for more info on how to see the film. As for Silent Forests, my upcoming film, it will be going to festivals later this year and then hopefully be broadcast and/or streaming in the next year or two. People can keep in the loop via the film's Facebook page, and I will be creating a more comprehensive website soon for the film.​

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    *****
    If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more like this, or want to see certain questions asked of future guests, I'd love to hear your feedback, either on Twitter, my Facebook page, or the comments below! As of now, I'm not accepting unsolicited interview requests at this time, but that might change in the future. In the meantime, I have more reviews coming up, and hopefully more interviews, so until then!

    Also, my debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $2.99! Sign up for my newsletter to find out about special offers, works in progress, and a trivia challenge with free books as prizes!

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    Peter David and Sal Buscema craft a sequel to one of Spider-Man's most acclaimed stories. How does it hold up to the original? Read on and find out!

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    Ever since he was bitten by a radioactive spider in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 (August, 1962), Peter Parker has had to learn many hard lessons about the responsibilities that came with the power bestowed upon him. Those lessons have cost him dearly throughout his long career as Spider-Man, professionally as well as personally, but it remains one of his core, and most endearing, character traits. (At least when he's written well.) Like many heroes, one of his biggest fears is that he might critically injure or kill someone during a fight if he's ever reckless with his superhuman strength. At heart, Peter is a good person who tries to do what's right and who doesn't enjoy hurting people. Unfortunately, after everything he's suffered in his life, our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man doesn't get so friendly when he's pushed hard enough, and it can lead him to take out his bottled-up anger and resentment on his enemies. (And Lord help you if he's not trash-talking or making jokes while he's doing it. If he's giving you the silent treatment, it means you're in serious trouble - except for that one time he just had laryngitis.) Usually, though, he can snap himself out of it before he goes too far. Even when the Green Goblin murdered Gwen Stacy, his first true love, Spider-Man was able to restrain himself from killing his arch-enemy, vowing to see the Goblin behind bars.

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    And then came The Death of Jean DeWolff, a four-part storyline published in The Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 (October 1985 - January 1986). Darker and grittier than Spider-Man stories typically were at the time, the story kicked off with Jean DeWolff, a police captain and longtime supporting cast member of the Spider-Man comics, being brutally murdered by a serial killer called The Sin-Eater. Other victims followed, including a judge, an African-American priest, and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of a clash with Spider-Man. Already enraged at the callous murder of one of his few friends, Spidey went on the hunt, working with Stan Carter of the NYPD (and a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent) to bring the Sin-Eater down. Naturally, he eventually had his showdown with the Sin-Eater, thrashing him in a brutal fight. The killer turned out to be Carter himself, who'd been driven mad by a procedure he'd undergone while he'd worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. a while back. Feeling betrayed by Carter, Spider-Man probably would have killed him in blind anger if fellow superhero Daredevil hadn't pulled him back from the brink. Daredevil, whose alter-ego was a lawyer, was able to persuade Spider-Man to seek justice instead of personal vengeance, and Spider-Man relented. Even though it sold poorly initially, The Death of Jean DeWolff is considered to be one of the best Spider-Man stories ever written - I've never seen a list of top ten Spider-Man stories that didn't have this one on it, if not topping it. (Plus, it ties into the origin of Venom, one of Spider-Man's most dangerous and relentless foes. Journalist Eddie Brock wrote a story identifying the wrong guy as the Sin-Eater, and Spider-Man's capture of Carter cost Brock his credibility - and his job. He's hated Spider-Man ever since, blaming him for everything that's gone wrong with his life.)

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    The Spectacular Spider-Man #110 (January, 1986)

    The Death of Jean DeWolff and its sequel, were penned by Peter David, who at the time was working in Marvel's sales department. David's father, who escaped Nazi Germany with his parents in the 1930s, was a part-time film critic who often took his son with him to the movies. He got into superheroes thanks to the George Reeves Adventures of Superman television series as a kid, much to his parents' initial disapproval, and he did much of his comic reading in secret. David would contribute his own reviews, which kick-started his interest in writing, and he started off as a journalist before transitioning into fiction writing, although he didn't have much success early on. He eventually ended up at Marvel's marketing department, but retained his interest in writing his own stories. Even though it was deemed a conflict of interest at Marvel for marketing personnel to write comics, he nevertheless successfully pitched The Death of Jean DeWolff, which was one of his very first Spider-Man stories. The conflict-of-interest controversy eventually got him booted off Spectacular Spider-Man, but his writing talents led to a lengthy run on The Incredible Hulk, which went over quite well with fans, as did his work on Aquaman for DC. Plus, he also came up with the fan-favorite series Young Justice, that I need to get my lazy butt around to reading, as well as a Captain Marvel series. I'm barely scratching the surface of his comic book work, not to mention his novels, including the Star Trek novel Imzadi and other Trek books featuring the character Q. More ignominiously, he's also the guy Bill Jemas made the bet with that resulted in the creation of Jemas's Marville, a notoriously bad mini-series. (I've lost track of how many times I've watched Linkara's reviews of Marville on Atop the Fourth Wall.) However, we can't blame David for how Marville turned out. Long story short, David's one of those writers that when I see their name on a comic, I can be assured it'll be well-written.

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    WARNING: Here be MAJOR spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    A year after Spider-Man captured the Sin-Eater, a remorseful Stan Carter has been granted a clean bill of mental health and released. Naturally, he attracts no shortage of publicity, including a self-appointed publicist who seeks to cash in on Carter's notoriety. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Spider-Man, who has neither forgiven nor forgotten Carter's past crimes. He goes to confront Carter, intending to warn him that he'll be watching him. However, he's horrified to learn that Carter is permanently crippled and partially deaf...as a result of the injuries he received from Spider-Man during their last fight. Horrified by what he's done, Spider-Man becomes afraid of his own strength, to the point where it impedes him as a crime-fighter. The timing on this couldn't be worse, because Electro, one of Spider-Man's more powerful (if not more ambitious) recurring villains, is at large again. Spider-Man, afraid of doing to Electro what he did to Carter, fares badly in their battle - and to make things worse, Carter has to save Spider-Man's life. (This does wonders for Spidey's popularity, naturally, and he's not exactly the Big Apple's favorite person to begin with). Electro, newly encouraged by his victory over Spider-Man, decides to get more ambitious, to the point where the entire city is in danger if Spider-Man can't stop him. Meanwhile, Carter's struggling not only to make ends meet, but to repress his murderous alter-ego, and it's a struggle he may be losing.

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    Before anyone gets mad at me for what I'm about to say, I want to make something absolutely clear. I am in no way challenging or criticizing The Death of Jean DeWolff being considered one of the best Spider-Man stories ever written. It was well-told, well-drawn, and had a truly evil cliffhanger in the penultimate chapter that freaked the hell out of readers. That being said...I personally liked this story even better. I've come across lots of "justice vs. vengeance" stories over the years in a wide variety of mediums, and while The Death of Jean DeWolff was...well...spectacularly executed, it still was familiar territory. But Stan Carter - a serial killer - sincerely attempting rehabilitation, combined with Spider-Man dealing with the consequences of maiming a man when he lost control...I don't see that kind of story get told anywhere near as often. David plays fair, representing both sides of the dilemmas faced by our principled cast evenly and fairly. Even the doctors evaluating Carter's mental state and debating the merits of keeping him locked up vs. letting him go make good points on both sides, rather than David taking the easy way out and making one side a strawman. (Said debate also serves to concisely summarize the previous Sin-Eater storyline for the benefit of new readers.) Best of all, I like how David doesn't let Spider-Man off the hook for crippling Carter. Nobody's mind-controlling or emotionally manipulating Spider-Man into thinking he was responsible for something he didn't actually do. He did what he did, and now he must take responsibility for it.

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    However, it takes more than an innovative concept to make a story good. Execution matters too, and fortunately, David and Buscema deliver on that score as well. The characterization is deep and rich for all of our main characters. Spider-Man's guilt and anger come off as genuine, especially now that I have the original story for context. Despite what Carter's done, I still can't help feeling sorry for him, even though like with Spider-Man, David doesn't absolve him for his past crimes. Even Electro comes off as compelling, plagued by self-doubt and flush with arrogance after an unexpected victory. And then there's Mary-Jane Watson-Parker, who desperately tries to keep Peter grounded throughout the emotional roller-coaster he's riding throughout the story, providing a pragmatic voice of reason (as well as some much-needed light-hearted moments). Unfortunately, she's a constant reminder of why One More Day, let alone the editorial decision to end Peter's marriage in the first place, was a horrible idea, but that's not the fault of the character or the creative team. As for the artwork, I typically love Sal Buscema's cinematic approach to his panel breakdowns and how expressive he makes his characters, and he's in top form for this story. As a nice bonus, Spider-Man's climactic fight with Electro is a classic superhero/supervillain dustup, and as longtime INCspotlight readers know, I especially like collecting comics where the heroes get to fight someone from their rogues gallery. (Y'know, instead of fighting other heroes all the damn time.)

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    I've seen this story included in multiple trade paperbacks reprinting the Death of Jean DeWolff storyline, but the original comics can also be found online for only a couple of bucks apiece. However you decide to acquire it, I'd consider "Return of the Sin-Eater" a must-buy for any Spider-Man fan, and even if you're only a casual reader or collector, I'd still recommend snagging these. This is a great story full of genuine emotion, in-depth characterization, and exciting superheroics. In short, it represents everything that's great about Spider-Man, and superhero stories in general.

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    Not many sequels deserve to stand side-by-side with their predecessors, but "Return of the Sin-Eater" is definitely among them. This definitely gets a high recommendation from me.

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    ***
    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $2.99! Sign up for my newsletter to find out about special offers, works in progress, and a trivia challenge with free books as prizes!​

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    How the holy hell have I not reviewed a Buster Keaton movie yet in the four years I've been doing this blog? Time to rectify that mistake with The Cameraman, the first of his films I ever saw.

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    I've previously gone into the careers of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd here on the INCspotlight, and it's finally time I covered the last of the Big Three of silent comedy. Born in Kansas into a family of vaudeville performers, Joseph Frank Keaton (1895-1966) was performing alongside them from a very early age. The Three Keatons, as the act was known, engaged in broad physical comedy, often involving a young Keaton being tossed across the set - which frequently got the act in trouble with the law, as it was seen as child abuse in some places. Keaton, however, rather enjoyed such gags, which he claimed taught him how to safely take a fall. He actually had to learn not to laugh during the acts, as he got more laughs when he kept a straight face. (This became one of his trademarks later on during his film career, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face.") It's a good thing he learned this kind of thing early on, because Keaton was reportedly accident prone as a child, losing part of a finger at the age of three after it was caught in a clothes wringer. Supposedly, Harry Houdini, who was part of the same vaudeville troupe as the Three Keatons, inspired his "Buster" nickname after seeing him take a tumble down a staircase. Keaton himself verified the Houdini story in an interview, although it is still considered to be an urban legend.

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    The Three Keatons act fell apart when Keaton was 21, on account of his father's struggles with alcoholism (something Keaton himself would struggle with when his career took an unfortunate nosedive). While in New York, Keaton happened to meet beloved silent comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who took Keaton under his wing and helped him break into the film industry. Signing on with Talmadge Studios, his big screen debut was a supporting role in Arbuckle's The Butcher Boy (1917), followed by The Rough House (1917), which Keaton also wrote and directed. Keaton would continue as a supporting player opposite Arbuckle in twelve more short films over the next three years, also working as a gag man and assistant director. The two became friends, and Keaton stuck by his friend and mentor when Arbuckle was wrongly implicated in the death of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe, a case that remains unsolved. Keaton took the lead for the first time in a full-length movie with The Saphead (1920), a remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s first film, The Lamb (1915) - and it was Fairbanks himself who helped Keaton get the role. Although already a familiar face to moviegoers thanks to his previous work with Arbuckle, The Saphead's success made him a credible leading man, and giving him the heft to form his own production company. He started off with a series of short comedies, beginning with the brilliant One Week (1920), eventually focusing on feature-length movies.

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    Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Butcher Boy (1917)
    Although he never reached the same level of success as Chaplin or Lloyd in his day, his work was popular during the Silent Era (And let's face it - coming in third place to those two is a hell of an achievement, given how many silent comedy stars were vying for audiences and box office earnings.) In addition to his ever-stoic demeanor and pork-pie hat, another of Buster Keaton's trademarks was the remarkable stunts employed in his films. He wasn't the only one to do so - Frank Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin used them as well - but Keaton's were particularly elaborate and inventive, not to mention dangerous. A stunt during the production of Sherlock Jr. (1924) involving water cascading onto him ended up injuring his neck, and he didn't learn until years later that he'd actually broken it. One of his most iconic stunts, used in both One Week and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), has a house collapsing on top of him, but he's saved by an open window being in just the right place. (Jackie Chan, who was inspired by Keaton's work, re-used this gag in his 1987 sequel to Project A.) Keaton also experimented with visual effects, employing the film-within-a-film concept to brilliant effect in the previously mentioned Sherlock Jr. Sadly, his ingenuity and creativity wasn't always rewarded with box office success, and after the expensive failure of The General (1926), Keaton was never given complete creative control of his films again. This prompted Keaton to sign with MGM - a move he would come to regret - with The Cameraman being the first film for his new home studio.

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    Cops (1922)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    An unnamed tintype photographer (Buster Keaton) happens to meet Sally (Marceline Day), who works for MGM's newsreel department. (I see what you did there, studio.) Instantly smitten, he invests all his money in a motion picture camera and tries to get a job with MGM. However, the boss of the newsreel department (Sidney Bracey) is disdainful of the off-the-streets rookie with the out-of-fashion camera. Our titular cameraman, at Sally's suggestion, repeatedly tries to find something exciting or noteworthy to film in order to land the job, but for one reason or another, luck simply isn't on his side. And even when he does manage to get something on film, his lack of familiarity with motion picture cameras leads to all sorts of goofs. Still, with Sally's encouragement, he sticks with it, and his pursuit of Sally leads to a Sunday outing together, jam-packed with all sorts of mishaps. His professional career finally takes off when - with the help of a newly acquired monkey sidekick - he snags some footage of an epic fight between two rival Chinese tongs while also getting the chance to show up MGM's top newsreel man (Harold Goodwin) and, of course, win Sally's heart.

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    Like I said earlier, this was the first of many Buster Keaton films I ever saw, and it was an instant winner with me. Although it doesn't have quite the same level of pathos as one of Chaplin's dramedies, Keaton's character is easy to sympathize with, on account of both his shyness and Charlie Brown-esque propensity for bad luck. Not only that, but other than Sally, every other person he seems to come across in this film acts like a total d*** to him. (And to Sally, who's on the receiving end of unwanted attention and sexual harassment several times throughout the movie.) Marceline Day also gives a strong performance as the sympathetic Sally, emoting just enough to sell the emotion without going overboard. Her character is also decently written, and you can see why Keaton's falls for her beyond just being attractive or the plot says so. And I like that even though Sally's not a professional photographer, the film allows her to know enough about how they work to give Keaton's character some coaching. Harold Goodwin, Keaton's rival, is more subdued than other on-screen nemeses, which actually serves to make him even less likable. Instead of making him a cartoonish, over-the-top nemesis, his snide attitude is more subtle - and more realistic, making you want to deck him all the more. Harry Gribbon has a strong supporting role as a beat cop Keaton keeps running into with hilarious results, and he makes for a more traditional comedic foil.

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    For all the focus on characterization and empathy for our characters, there's still plenty of the jaw-dropping and/or laugh-inducing Keaton stuntwork to be found throughout the movie - for instance, a scene where he runs down and leaps aboard speeding fire trucks and buses, or running through New York traffic to meet up with Sally for a date (intercut with scenes of Sally thinking he's still on the phone and continuing to "talk" to him). The gags and their setups run the gamut from simple yet clever to wildly imaginative, and all of them work. In one scene, for instance, Keaton is forced to share a small dressing room at a public pool with a jerk who forces his way in, and the two have to navigate around each other in order to get dressed. It's so easy to summarize, but the brilliant execution has to be seen. The climactic Tong war sequence (supposedly filmed in an actual Chinatown with Chinese extras, instead of white guys in yellowface), also shows this range, from Keaton handing two struggling Tong members a knife to make his newsreel footage more exciting to shooting film while on top of a scaffold, seemingly unaware that it's collapsing under him. Another scene that particularly stands out for me takes place at Yankees Stadium. Keaton, after not realizing the team is playing an away game, takes advantage of an empty field to imagine himself first as a baseball pitcher, and then as a batter. His movements are so natural and graceful, without overdoing it, that you can almost see the other players on the field or hear the crack of the bat. (It probably helps that Keaton was a hardcore baseball fan.) It's a remarkable bit of subtle physical performance.

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    Unfortunately, The Cameraman was something of a troubled production for Keaton, who had to fight for the creative control he was used to and clashed frequently with producer Lawrence Weingarten. Although he was a veteran stunt performer, he was doubled for certain stunts at the insistence of the studio, since they wanted to protect their investment. While the film ended up being huge commercial and critical success, especially noteworthy now that sound pictures were more in vogue, MGM still insisted on further creative control of his films. Although Keaton embraced the sound era, one of the few silent stars to do so, he disliked the quality of the ones he was cast in, and was especially frustrated by having to shoot them in three different languages. His sound films were big moneymakers for MGM, but the constant fighting led to Keaton's firing from the studio in 1933. He still worked continuously in film and television for the remainder of his life, both in front of and behind the camera, including as a gag man for comedies. He made a cameo appearance in the noir classic Sunset Boulevard (1950) and in Chaplin's Limelight (1952), sharing the screen with his longtime friend and rival at long last. His last film was the big-screen adaptation of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which hit theaters seven months after his death.

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    The Cameraman is pure comedic brilliance that deserves to be seen and enjoyed. If you've never seen a Buster Keaton movie - or for that matter, a silent comedy period - this is a great one to start with.

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    ***​
    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $2.99! Sign up for my newsletter to find out about special offers, works in progress, and a trivia challenge with free books as prizes!

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    I should have learned my lesson from watching The Crimson Pirate - when Burt Lancaster is the star of a swashbuckler, run away screaming. That being said, I went into The Flame and the Arrow thinking it would be just another bad post-World War II swashbuckler. I wasn't expecting it to piss me the **** off as much as it did.

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    It's a shame to have to say this about a film directed by Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977). Born in Paris, Tourneur emigrated to the United States at a young age. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a prominent director during the Silent Era, and Jacques worked on his father's films as a script clerk and extra while still in high school. Father and son returned to France in 1925 and worked in France's film industry, but the younger Tourneur returned to Hollywood in 1935. After a stint as a second unit director on such films as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Tourneur worked on a number of B-pictures and short films for MGM. However, it was at RKO that he made his mark, thanks to Cat People (1942), a B-movie salvaged by effectively employing the "what you don't see is scarier than anything we can show you" technique, and the film is now considered a landmark of the horror genre. He also directed Out of the Past (1947), starring Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, which is widely considered one of the best film noir movies ever made. Unfortunately, Tourneur couldn't work that same innovative magic with Warner Bros.'s The Flame and the Arrow, made during the point in his career when he was freelance directing for other studios. Apparently, this had been planned as an Errol Flynn movie, but Flynn's declining health meant that the studio had to look elsewhere for their star. Thus, we got Burt Lancaster.

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    Burton Stephen Lancaster (1913-1994) had only been in the film industry for a few years before starring in The Flame and the Arrow, and his status as a Hollywood legend was yet to be established. A natural athlete and talented gymnast, his showbiz career started off in the circus. He was part of an acrobatic duo with Nick Cravat, who would remain a lifelong friend. However, in 1939, Lancaster was injured and was unable to continue his circus career. After working various odd jobs, including as a singing waiter, Lancaster joined the United States army in 1942, shortly after America entered World War II. He developed an interest in theater working with the USO, and while reluctant to continue acting after his military service concluded, he ended up on Broadway to strong reviews. Hollywood naturally came calling, and although Paramount's Desert Fury (1947) ended up as his first film performance, The Killers (1946) was released first, and fortunately for Lancaster's career, it was a huge hit, while Desert Fury was...not. Lancaster's career prospered, and he was cast in various films as a tough guy or action hero, including the swashbucklers The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate (1952) - which as you can tell, I'm not exactly fond of. However, while I may not like him as a swashbuckling star, there's no question he was an excellent actor in other roles. Lancaster was a four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actor, winning for Elmer Gantry (1960). A few of his other famous films he starred in were From Here to Eternity (1953), Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall (1957), and Seven Days in May (1964), the last of which I particularly thought he was excellent in. So I have no animus toward Lancaster as an actor. I just don't like the swashbuckers he was cast in, and I especially hate this movie in particular.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    The Flame and The Arrow is set in Lombardy in the 12th century, during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barabarossa, a fact that doesn't seem to play much of a role in the story. Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a peasant and hunter who lives in the mountains with his son Rudi (Gordon Gebert), the only person Dardo cares about (although not enough to make Rudi wear pants). Not too long ago, Dardo's wife Francesca tired of peasant life and ran off with the dreaded Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as "The Hawk." When Dardo, Francesca, and Ulrich encounter each other in the town square one day, Dardo kills Ulrich's hunting hawk in mid-flight, just as a middle-finger. (Yeah, great way to make us like the hero - have him kill an innocent animal just to diss the villain. Schmuck.) As retribution and to guarantee his own safe exit from the village, Ulrich abducts Rudi, where he will suffer the cruel fate of...being raised by his mother as a gentleman in Ulrich's court. While he's at it, The Hawk tries to arrest Dardo, but he escapes capture with the help of his mute friend, a blacksmith named Piccolo (Nick Cravat). Go ahead, get all the Dragonball jokes out of your system. I'll wait.

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    Dardo and Piccolo turn outlaw and found a band of merry men that rob from the rich and...well, they rob one guy, the Marchese Alessandro de Granazia (Robert Douglas), and keep all of his loot for themselves. Okay, technically, they're robbing Ulrich, who's just robbed the Marchese of everything he has for refusing to pay his taxes - and the outlaws even get the Marchese to join their band in the bargain. (I have to admit that this is an unexpected twist I didn't see coming and that I actually really liked.) Then they raid Count Ulrich's castle and, on a spur-of-the-moment whim, abduct his niece Anne (Virginia Mayo, a great actress who deserves better than this movie) in order to exchange her for Rudi. While Dardo and his band await word from The Hawk, they keep her in their camp - chained to a tree with a friggin' collar around her neck like she's a dog. (This is the scene where the movie lost me beyond any hope of redemption, and the only reason I finished it is because I refuse to review anything I haven't seen in its entirety - and I really wanted to tear this movie a new one.) From here on out, it's all formulaic and predictable. Dardo and Anne fall unconvincingly in love, Dardo gets captured, Dardo gets rescued, Dardo saves the day. The end. (Although at least this one has a swordfight, unlike The Crimson Pirate, but it's not enough to get me to like this movie.)

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    This movie is painfully tedious to sit through, except for the scenes where Lancaster and Cravat get to pull of some admittedly cool stunts. The performances are mostly flat, which is disappointing given the cast. Like I said before, Lancaster is a terrific actor that has been in some great films, and I liked Virginia Mayo in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and White Heat (1949). Unfortunately, this movie's script doesn't give them anything to work with, and they have absolutely no chemistry with each other. Douglas, a veteran swashbuckling villain, is the only actor whose character has any depth or complexity, and his performance is the standout. For quite a long time, I was actually wondering if the Marchese was going to remain allied with Dardo or not, and just in case you really want to torture yourself and watch this, I won't spoil it for you. The rest of the performances are all forgettable, and even by the standards of child acting, Gordon Gebert's performance as Dardo's son is a chore to put up with, worthy of comparison to the best/worst of Jake Lloyd's.

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    The worst part of this movie is that Dardo simply isn't a hero I can root for. Everyone talks about how much they admire Dardo for being a free spirit, but he comes off as an arrogant, irresponsible jerk. What exactly makes his free-spiritedness so admirable and respectable in this movie? Nothing. Nada. Not a damn thing. As a result, I have no reason to like Dardo or his men. Hell, I'm not even sure they're even worthy of the word "heroes." His band seems to be out more for money than righting wrongs or overthrowing Ulrich's tyrannical reign, and the way they treat Anne is beneath contempt. While Dardo does have a scene where he recognizes he needs to be mindful of the hardships of others, it's not very convincing, and it's not enough to undo his disgraceful treatment of Anne earlier in the film. Seriously, keeping her chained to a tree via a dog collar? Even if she was an unlikable character - which she isn't - this would be unsettling. But since she never does anything cruel or villainous, and never has anything against Dardo, it just comes off as cruel on his part. If this was supposed to be funny in an "Oh Dardo, you little rascal!" kind of way, I'm not laughing. If it was supposed to show him as a scumbag who cleans up his act later on...well, they got the first part right. And I'm supposed to be cheering for this guy? I'm supposed to think Dardo's some kind of noble free spirit just because all the other characters say so, especially after seeing him literally treat a woman like a dog? Screw you with the horse you rode in on, movie! (That's not a typo.)

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    Come to think of it, it's not just the treatment of Virginia Mayo's character that's troubling. Maybe it's just me, but I really didn't like the film making Francesca "wrong" for wanting her son to be with her and have a better life. Granted, it's pretty scummy to forcefully take a kid away from a parent regardless of whether it's the mother or the father (abusive parents not included, obviously), and a case could be made that she shouldn't have left Rudi in the first place if she wanted to be with him that much. Still, was there really no other way to do this without making Francesca come off as selfish for genuinely wanting her son to be with her? The way that scene is written, Ulrich seemed to kidnap Rudi for her sake rather than just to be a bad guy, even if it was partial payback for Dardo killing his hawk. Even Francesca's ultimate fate takes place off-screen with no explanation as to how it happened. Did the filmmakers have such little regard for her character that they felt it wasn't worth depicting?

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    The Flame and the Arrow was a big hit and got good reviews, and even contemporary reviews seem to regard it kindly. I respect other reviewers' opinions, and I'll allow for the possibility I'm reading too much into certain aspects of the movie. Still, for now, I consider this to be the Avengers #200 of the swashbuckling genre. I've seen a lot of movies over the years, some I've disliked and some I've outright hated. But I'm struggling to think of one I've so completely despised as much as The Flame and the Arrow. The poor quality of the film is bad enough, but Dardo's characterization and his contemptible treatment of Anne simply disgusted me.

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    If you really want to experience this film for yourself, I'm not going to stop you, although this is a rare movie I'd actually advise against seeing. There are so many better swashbucklers and costume adventure movies out there, and you're better off seeing those. Except as a lesson on how not to write a likable, compelling protagonist and a showcase for decent stunts, The Flame and the Arrow has very little to offer.

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    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now!

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    Welcome to a brand-new feature of the INCspotlight, where I interview independent authors, artists, musicians, and whoever else I feel like. (Yes, I'll still be doing film/comic/etc. reviews.) My first guest is Wendy H. Jones, a crime novelist, radio show host, literary festival founder, veteran, and much more besides! So get comfy in your chair, grab your favorite snack, and enjoy my first ever INCspotlight interview!

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    INC: First up, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

    WHJ: I am Wendy, a Scottish author writing crime books set in Scotland. I live in Dundee on the East Coast. I came to writing after a career as a nurse in both the Royal Navy and the Army. I retired with the rank of Major, a title I keep until the day I die. I write as Wendy H. Jones. The "H" is important, as you get some strange results if you do a search on Amazon without it.

    INC: So I've learned in my interview prep. How did the DI Shona McKenzie series come about?

    WHJ: They say never start a book with a dream. My entire series started with a dream, or rather a nightmare. When I woke, I though this would make a brilliant crime book and started writing. Dundee is famous for its feisty women, so I wanted a feisty female lead. Hence, DI Shona McKenzie heads up CID.

    INC: Nice. For non-Scottish readers, how else does Dundee - or the Scottish setting in general - influence the story or characters?

    WHJ: Dundee is the murder capital of Scotland. Seriously it is. However, it's not as bad as it's portrayed. Dundee is an old whaling city and has a proud history of strong characters. It is built around an extinct volcano and has a mixture of old narrow streets and new areas. Very often, old and new buildings are snuggled up next to each other, coexisting happily. Dundee is known as the City of Jam, Jute and Journalism.

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    INC: How did you go about constructing the mysteries themselves and how they're solved?

    WHJ: When I start, I now who the killer is and why they do it. The books follow two strands, that of the police, and that of the killer. The reader follows the killer's journey and gets a glimpse into their psyche and their motivations. The strands come ever closer together as the book progresses. However, the reader does not know who the killer is until the end.

    INC: What kinds of research have you had to do?

    WHJ: I had to research Scottish law, which is completely different to English law. Also, I had to research various weapons, etc. I'm surprised I'm not on a government watchlist. My local police sergeant came round my house, and we had a pleasant few hours chatting about all things crime related. I also try to travel to the places I mention in order to ensure that my setting is realistic. That's fun.

    INC: I'm sure. Getting back to Shona McKenzie herself, what else went into constructing her backstory and personality, aside from her being a feisty woman of Dundee?

    WHJ: Shona is from Dundee, but was brought up in Oxford in England. Therefore, she speaks English and doesn't understand half of what's going on. This leads to some comedic moments. I asked Shona 100 questions about herself and she answered them. This gave me a clear picture of her. She also orders me about - she started of as a wine drinker until she very firmly told me she drank whisky and it had to be Talisker. She's a bit funny, a bit sharp, but can be a right softy at times.

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    INC: Has she evolved or changed over the series? And did she have any say in that as well?

    WHJ: She started off not liking men, for various reasons explained in the book. However, a romance with the Procurator Fiscal has changed her mind on this and she is much softer because of it. She did have a say, and sometimes, despite my best efforts she can be right shirty with her boyfriend, Douglas.

    INC: What about the supporting cast? How do you decide on how to balance everyone's screen time throughout the series?

    WHJ: When it comes to a police team, there is a fine balance. They're all at a crime scene, but who gets centre stage changes at each scene. Also when they go to interview witnesses, or possible suspects, Shon is always involved, but the other team member rotates. However, I need to make sure they all get equal billing, unless there is a very good reason why not.

    INC: Do you have more control over them than Shona?

    WHJ: Not really. Roy and Jason are always fighting, Russian thugs turn up and refuse to leave, there's an ex-Lord provost who is more criminal than the thugs but measles out of everything, corrupt lawyers. They are always milling around and I can't get rid of them. Seriously, these characters have minds of their own.

    INC: You also have a new series, The Fergus and Flora Mysteries. How did that idea come about?

    WHJ: I was approached by a publisher who asked if I had an idea for a young adult series of Mysteries. I said yes and pitched it to them. I signed a contract for a three book deal.

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    INC: As a writer, what do you do differently for Fergus and Flora as opposed to Shona McKenzie's stories?

    WHJ: In many ways, it is similar, but Fergus and Flora are more mysteries than crime books. I try to keep the characters real and to make them act like real teens. One thing which is difficult is the way teens talk. I can't use modern slang, as it could be out of date by next week, never mind by the time the book is published

    INC: I'm sure many future readers will thank you for that. I understand you have your own radio series, Wendy's Book Buzz. What made you decide on a radio format for that?

    WHJ: Again, this happened much by accident. I went to the radio station to be interviewed about my life as an author. At the end, they said I was good at it, and would I like my own show. How could I say no?

    INC: How indeed? Last but not least, can you tell us about the literary festival you founded, Crime at the Castle?

    WHJ: I had been long thinking about doing a literary festival at Glamis Castle and calling it Crime at the Castle. A chance encounter with their events manager, Pauline Cowdery, led to a discussion, and the festival was born. The first event takes place on 24th February 2018. Many of the top Scottish Crime Writers, such as Val McDemid, Christopher Brookmyer, Caro Ramsay, Alex Grey, Craig Robertson, Michael J Malone, and Lina Anderson will be taking part, as will many others with a mixture of talks, interviews, and writers workshops. There is something for everyone

    INC: Impressive lineup. Anything else you'd like your potential future readers to know about you or your work?

    WHJ: I also run Equipped to Write, a coaching company to help writers with both writing and marketing, and I am an international public speaker.

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    Wendy H. Jones's books can be purchased on Amazon, and you can find out more about her books at her personal webpage. Click here for more information on the Crime at the Castle literary convention, or here for information on Equipped to Write.

    *****
    If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more like this, or want to see certain questions asked in future interviews, I'd love to hear your feedback, either on Twitter, my Facebook page, or the comments below! I'm not accepting unsolicited interview requests at this time, but that might change in the future. In the meantime, more reviews are still to come, as are more interviews, so until then!
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    Sean Connery masterminds a daring theft in The Great Train Robbery, a well-crafted caper comedy set in Victorian England.

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    Note: This review is part of the "It Takes a Thief" blogathon, focusing on cinematic heists and capers, hosted by Debra Vega of the website Moon in Gemini. As with the Swashathon blogathon, which I participated in over the summer, I'm merely one of many bloggers getting in on this, and I hope you'll check out the other participants' work - as well as Ms. Vega's own blogs on her site. I also want to welcome my new readers who are dropping by the INCspotlight for the first time as part of this blogathon. I hope you'll check out some of my other reviews - I've done more than one caper film prior to this one - as well as the work of the other contributors to this site.

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    The Great Train Robbery is not a remake of the original silent film from 1903 (although I wouldn't be at all surprised to see someone attempt that). It's an adaptation of the 1975 novel by Michael Crichton (1942-2008), inspired by true events - and is in fact directed by none other than Crichton himself. Those of you who know him as a sci-fi novelist - particularly of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park - may be surprised to see him associated with a 19th century heist story in any capacity, let alone directing a film about it. (I certainly was.) Crichton's writing background goes back to his teen years, during which he had a travel column published in the New York Times. He originally wanted to become an English teacher, studying English at Harvard, but he switched to medicine after being fed up with teaching standards. While in medical school, he published his first novel, Odds On (1966) under the pseudonym of John Lange. Other books followed under other pseudonyms (usually involving plays on his height - the guy was 6"9 - in various languages), mostly thrillers and capers. His first literary success was the sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1969), a huge bestseller. Many more books in various genres followed, often cautionary tales of various aspects of modern science, as well as corporate thrillers and adventure thrillers, and a sizable number of them were adapted to the big and small screen.

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    The Great Train Robbery isn't even Crichton's directorial debut. That would be the 1972 TV movie Pursuit, adapted from his own novel - Crichton refused to sell the rights unless he got to direct it himself. It got a good enough reception to lead him to directing feature films, his first being Westworld (1973), which he also wrote the screenplay for. (Crichton was reluctant to do a sci-fi movie, but deemed it his best road to a filmmaking career.) Westworld was a huge box-office success, as well as a pioneer in the use of computerized special effects. Next came the medical thriller Coma (1978), which he adapted from Robin Cook's novel, and it also was a big hit. When the time came for him to adapt The Great Train Robbery, Crichton chose to make it lighter and more comedic in tone than his original novel. (Upon its release in the United Kingdom, the title was changed to The First Great Train Robbery on account of a real-life theft that had taken place in 1963.)

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    WARNING: Here be MAJOR spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    As explained to us by Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), the year is 1855, and England is embroiled in the Crimean War against Russia. In order to pay its soldiers, twenty-five thousand pounds of gold are shipped east by train. However, the gold is kept in a bank before it's loaded onto the train, stored in two safes, each requiring two keys. Pierce, a gentleman thief who poses as a wealthy businessman, has his eye on the gold and a plan for getting it. He also has some help, thanks to his lady friend Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) and Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland), a veteran pickpocket and safe cracker. Pierce's plan is to snag and duplicate the four keys, which requires a combination of sweet-talking, burglary, a honey trap, and a couple of extra accomplices. However, when one of said accomplices, Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep) gets nabbed, it puts the authorities on higher alert and the security measures are changed - meaning all their efforts to replicate the keys have been for nothing. Not wanting to admit defeat, Pierce decides on a daring new plan to swipe the gold from the train...while it's moving.

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    Like the best caper movies, The Great Train Robbery has two things going for it: the intricate orchestration of how the robbery is to be committed, and a cast so charismatic, you can't help rooting for them even though they're breaking the law. It's hard to get more charismatic that Sean Connery bringing his A-game, as he does in this movie. If it was anyone else in this role, it might be harder to want Edward Pierce to succeed in the robbery, given the nature of his character. Pierce isn't a Robin Hood figure, stealing from someone who the audience is inclined to root against, or settling a personal grudge. Heck, he even murders one of his turncoat underlings at one point. He's an enigmatic character who's not one to open up to people, not even his closest confidants - and as a result, we don't really get to know him either. We don't get to peek behind the curtain at what's driving him, until the very end of the film when he's on trial. (Hey, that's what the spoiler warning is for.) It bothered me at first, but by the end of the film, I couldn't help feeling like the lack of insight was all a setup to a big joke. When pressed for his motives by the judge, Pierce simply says, "I wanted the money," which cracks up the spectators. Not only is it a pretty clear motive, but Connery's delivery of said line is so perfect and natural, and delivered with just the right pinch of mockery. It almost feels like the movie is making fun of everyone trying to over-analyze Pierce and what makes him tick. I don't know it that's intentional, but that's how it came off to me, and honestly, it works. The rest of the cast pulls their own weight as well, particularly Lesley-Anne Down in what could have been a forgettable throwaway role, but this is Connery's show all the way. And no, that's not a complaint.

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    As for the caper itself, given how many heist movies I've seen in recent years dealing with state-of-the-art technology to either prevent or accomplish a robbery, it's interesting to see a theft of this magnitude being planned when those resources simply don't exist. There's no hacking, no EMPs or simulated earthquakes, or anything like that. I'm not knocking movies that use stuff like that by any means - just pointing out a contrast. It requires a completely different type of planning and very different skill sets from the characters. It means a slower pace - too slow, at times, to be honest - but the low-tech nature of the robbery against what seems such impossible odds still make for a compelling thriller. And the climax on board the train itself is a thrill to see, thanks to some impressive stunts that you can tell were actually filmed atop a moving train. (Connery did his own stunts for these scenes, which royally pissed off his wife when she saw the movie and how dangerous said stunts were.).

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    This is the only film directed by Michael Crichton than I've seen, and I'm impressed with his attention to technical detail and sense of pacing. To borrow a phrase from John Hammond (the film version, anyway), Crichton "spared no expense" recreating London's Strand Street, which cost about ten percent of the film's entire budget. It was money well-spent, as Strand Street looks like a real location rather than a film set, and the quality of the period costumes helps to sell the illusion. The Great Train Robbery was one of the last movies acclaimed cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot before his death in 1978, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Jerry Goldsmith's musical score helps give the film a light-hearted, comedic tone, a good example of the importance of music to establish mood. (Which makes the aforementioned murder scene stand out all the more, as it stands out completely tone-wise from the rest of the film.)

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    The Great Train Robbery nabbed a decent profit at the box office, and was well-liked by critics, who praised the light tone and the detailed costumes and sets. Roger Ebert's review highlighted Connery's performance, which he compared favorably to his James Bond films. In 1980, Crichton's screenplay earned him an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. However, this would be the last time a Crichton-directed film would be a box office winner. The next three movies he directed - Looker (1981), Runaway (1984), and Physical Evidence (1989) - were all flops, and I'm not sure whether he gave up directing of his own accord or studios became reluctant to put him behind the camera again. However, a number of his novels were adapted into financially successful films, including Rising Sun (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), and Disclosure (1994). (Connery and Sutherland would have prominent roles in Rising Sun and Disclosure respectively, and Connery passed on the role of John Hammond for Jurassic Park.) He would also help develop and produce the long-running hit medical drama ER (1994-2009).

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    The Great Train Robbery has a lot to offer, especially if you're either a fan of capers or Sean Connery. I don't know how likely I am to see this multiple times, but I'm glad I watched it, and you probably will be too.

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    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now!

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    Anniversary reviews and posts are typically a time when I review or spotlight something I have a personal connection with. This particular year, in light of recent events, that holds especially true.

    A little over a month ago, I finally self-published my first novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, a swashbuckling adventure story set during the Golden Age of Piracy. It was a long road turning a half-baked idea for a pirate story into something complete and purchasable - we're talking at least twelve years. A lot of people have gotten my back on this project throughout that time, and even before I had the idea itself was born. Family and friends throughout my life have not only encouraged my interest in writing, but also enabled my passion for swashbuckling fiction, as well as the "factual" history they take place in, in all sorts of ways. Sometimes that influence was very direct (parents springing for fencing lessons and steering me toward a stage combat group), and other times it was more of a chain reaction. Regardless of how it happened, though, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag never would have come about without all of this encouragement, and I will always be grateful for that.

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    However, what I would like to focus on for this particular anniversary post is some of the works that have inspired my own, many of which have shown up - or will show up - on this blog at some point. The purpose of the INCspotlight has mostly been to hopefully introduce readers to what seem to be less well-known movies, books, comics, games, and so on. (And to indulge the occasional critical thrashing.) I do this not only because I honestly think you guys would find them interesting, but also as a means of paying it forward. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment and inspiration out of almost everything I've reviewed on this blog in one way or another, and I want to introduce them to as many people as possible so they in turn can check them out. What I especially want to spotlight today is some of these works that helped make my literary debut possible. Whether they inspired ideas or just kept me focused on writing when I needed it, (When my work was closed for four days straight due to a snowstorm, I spent my unexpected free time working on The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, and this was when it really started shaping up into something I could be satisfied with.) To maintain my momentum, when I wasn't writing, I was reading pirate books, watching pirate movies, and playing pirate video games. And it worked, because long after the snowstorm was over, I was able to maintain said that writing streak for months afterward. It faded after a while, and sometimes a healthy dose of swashbuckling fiction would be enough to reignite the spark again. And after many, many, many such doses - fueling countless hours of writing, editing, querying, and learning about self-publishing - The Brotherhood of the Black Flag was finally complete.

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    Ranking some of these was tough, simply because it was hard to quantify how much any of these had a direct influence on my book, or how often I turned to them for ideas or to spark a writing streak. Still, each of them played their part in some way, and I hope you'll be willing to give them a try at some point. Aside from what I owe them, they're all worth reading, watching or playing for one reason or another. Who knows, maybe these might spark some story ideas for you guys.

    So without further ado, and with much gratitude, here are the Top 10 Works That Inspired The Brotherhood of the Black Flag.


    10) Hollywood swashbucklers

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    Yeah, I'm sure this was a no-brainer to anyone who's read The Brotherhood of the Black Flag or my blog for any length of time (or known me in person), which is the only reason why this entry ranks at the bottom. (I just couldn't bring myself to single out only a couple of films for this list.) But this is pretty much where it all started, particularly The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), one of the first live-action movies I remember seeing. Robin Hood made me want to see other movies like it, from silent classics to The Mask of Zorro and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not only that, but the movies got me interested in the original novels they were based on (where applicable), as well as the "factual" history behind them. Long before I even started thinking about The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, I'd fantasized about writing my own adventure stories, jam-packed with lots of sword fights, although as you'll see in a bit, it took something else to get me to actually do it. And I'm not done with that just because Black Flag is finished - I've got more in the works.


    9) The King's Buccaneer, by Raymond E. Feist

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    A longtime favorite novel, I recently reviewed this one on Talk Like a Pirate Day - the same day my own book was published. This was my introduction to various deviations from tropes I was just starting to become familiar with, an important lesson for any aspiring writers working within genre fiction. There were other aspects of writing I learned from this, such as balancing a large number of supporting characters, establishing high stakes, and constructing various action scenes. I even got some solid guidance on how to pace scenes at sea, and the kinds of details that do and don't need to be included for the sake of keeping the narrative moving.


    8) Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton

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    I've actually considered reviewing this novel here on the INCspotlight. However, given that it was published after Crichton's death and it's clearly not a polished final draft, I don't think I could do so fairly. (It doesn't help that I'm not a huge Crichton fan to begin with.) That being said, despite some serious issues, it had enough going for it that I read it all the way through, and it would've been interesting to see how this turned out if Crichton had lived long enough to give it some more fine-tuning. More importantly, Pirate Latitudes was one of the works I used to keep myself immersed in all things piratical during that blizzard I mentioned earlier. In fact, it may have been what inspired said streak to begin with - I honestly don't remember. If that is indeed the case, then I owe a hell of a debt to this book.


    7) The Monkey Island Games

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    A cousin introduced me to The Secret of Monkey Island a long time ago, and it wasn't until years later that I finally got my hands on it and played it all the way through - as well as the next three games in the series. They're a ton of fun, loaded with hilarious jokes and clever puzzles. (And you can't go wrong with all the Insult Sword Fighting you get to do.) Like Pirate Latitudes, I marathoned a couple of the games in the series during my week being snowbound, just to keep me in the mood to work on pirate-related stuff. In the very earliest draft of The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, there were actually two supporting characters called Threepwood and Marley, named after characters from the game, who were always bickering. Sadly, I had to cut them because I couldn't think of anything to do with them, but game creator Ron Gilbert got a character named after him.


    6) The Captain Alatriste Series, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

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    While I haven't gone into a lot of detail about these books, I mentioned them when I reviewed the sadly-disappointing film adaptation, starring Viggo Mortensen. As for the novels themselves, I have mixed feelings about them, to be honest, despite how many times I've re-read all the books that have been translated into English. There's a ton of exposition to get through in each book, and the tone is pretty bleak (not surprising, given the author's background as a war correspondent.) However, the dialogue, the sense of intrigue and danger, and the way the characters play off each other keeps me frantically turning pages to find out what happens next and how our heroes can possibly survive the odds against them. There's also a good amount of action, and I've looked to them on more than one occasion for guidance and tips on writing sword fights, especially on how to balance describing the fight while maintaining a sense of urgency and danger. The King's Gold, the fourth and my favorite of the series, had the most direct impact, due to Alatriste having to pretend to be a pirate as part of a gold heist, but all of them played their part in one way or another.


    5) Firefly (2002-2003)

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    I'm not typically a huge sci-fi fan, especially TV sci-fi, and I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into Firefly fandom. I wasn't even that big of a Joss Whedon fan - all I knew about him at the time was his involvement with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his undoing of the death of Colossus in the Astonishing X-Men comics. (As much as I liked the character, I thought he had a good death, and I was sad to see it undone.) But once I gave the show a try, I was hooked by the razor-sharp dialogue and the engaging characters. Heck, one episode even had a sword fight in it. Plus, it got a lot of wheels turning for some of the supporting characters' arcs, and I got the idea to write a sea shanty for my novel thanks to the Firefly theme, "The Ballad of Serenity" (as well as the more traditional "Health to the Company"). There are other shout-outs to this show sprinkled throughout the novel - I'll be curious to see how many of them Browncoats can pick up on.


    4) Sid Meier's Pirates! (NES version)

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    It took me a long time to figure out how to play this game, as I didn't have an instruction manual for it, but thanks to Google, I got it figured out. Once I did, I played the ever-loving hell out of it. Everything you can picture a pirate doing - dueling with swords, ship-to-ship combat, raiding towns, searching for buried treasure - you get to do. You also get to make or break alliances with various countries, court (and marry) governors' daughters, and you even have a sub-plot where you're searching for various family members kidnapped by various evil Spaniards. Obviously, this made for great writing inspiration, and at least one of my strategies I used in the game made its way into The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. I've only played the Nintendo version, and I know there are more elaborate remakes out there. Time-permitting, maybe I'll give those a try some day.


    3) Highlander: The Series (1992 - 1998)

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    Highlander, both the original movie and the television series, is an engaging blend of various elements that came together to make something truly special. Not flawless, but engaging and inspiring all the same. The television series in particular sparked all sorts of ideas for historical novels set in various locations and locales, not to mention tons of sword fights to study. Given how many sword fighting scenes there are in Black Flag - including training scenes - getting to see such a variety of fighting styles, as well as commentary from the fight choreographers really helped me try and make each one unique. I also liked some of the show's recurring themes, such as the line between honor and pride, or all the different ways it looked at the possibility of redemption and forgiveness for past deeds. These are themes I toyed with a bit in Black Flag, and I plan to revisit them in other stories. One of the guest actors made such a strong impression that I modeled a supporting character on him, and even named him after David Tynan, one of the recurring writers on the show (including the episode said actor turned up in).


    2) Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini

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    Rafael Sabatini is my favorite author, and his novel Captain Blood is one of my favorite books. (I reviewed the 1935 film adaptation starring Errol Flynn a couple of years ago.) I don't recall what exactly made me decide to track it down, or other Sabatini novels, but it quickly became one of those books I read so many times that I could just open it to any page and start reading, picking up from wherever I left off, no matter how long it had been since I last read it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this was the book that made me want to tell an adventure story specifically about pirates, as opposed to the other ideas I had stewing around in my head. The specific ideas for the story and the setting came later, but Captain Blood was what got the "pirate story" ball rolling. That makes a book I already enjoy for its own merits all the more special to me. However, it wasn't what gave me my first real push into wanting to write novels to begin with - that honor falls to the next, and top, item on the list.

    And speaking of which, coming in at number one...

    1) Lunar: The Silver Star (1992)

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    Who knew that a game my dad just happened to pick out for me one day would have such a huge impact on me? I certainly didn't when I first played it - heck, I didn't even really understand how RPGs really worked until I played this one, and even that took some time. But something about it grabbed my attention and kept me playing all the way through, introducing me to all sorts of fantasy fiction tropes in the process. More importantly, though, Lunar was my introduction to fandom, and without wanting to go into too much detail, said introduction inspired me to try actually writing out my own stories, rather than just keeping them in my head. I shared them with the other people in said fandom, and the positive feedback I got inspired me to get more and more ambitious, to the point where I was ready to try going for something novel-length. And then Captain Blood came into the picture, which focused that effort into attempting the pirate story that became The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. I've also met several of my closest friends through Lunar fandom, who have also served as beta readers and friendly ears for my own writing, Black Flag included. Who knows, maybe something else might have inspired me to first start writing out and sharing my stories, but then again, maybe not. Either way, Lunar gave me the strongest urge to start writing and sharing my stories, so it gets the top spot on this list.

    HONORABLE MENTION

    The reviewers of Channel Awesome


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    I'm probably going to come off as a brown-noser for this one, but I'd be lying if I denied the impact Channel Awesome and its contributors, past and present, have had on my writing, including for The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. First of all, quite a few swashbucklers have been reviewed on this site over the years. Lindsay Ellis took apart Cutthroat Island, Film Brain shredded Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (even though he gave Welshy the chance to defend it), the Nostalgia Critic savaged The Legend of Zorro, and the Blockbuster Buster has busted more than one bad adaptation of The Three Musketeers. (I'd even include The Spoony One's reviews of the Highlander sequels in this batch.) Said video reviews, in addition to providing lots of laughs, have also served as writing prompts and kept me focused on swashbuckling fiction - especially when I don't have the time to watch an entire movie or play through an entire game. Beyond that, however, I've learned a ton from this site and its reviewers over the years about things to watch out for in my own writing. These include making sure there's payoff for whatever I establish, my characterization is consistent, or not to have too much or too little exposition - things like that. I've also gained greater awareness of certain tropes and their negative implications, and I'd like to think I've gotten a lot more careful about this thanks to this site.

    And so ends my fourth year here on Channel Awesome! Like the previous year, it's been a slower one than when I first started out, but I am still committed to keeping this blog going for as long as possible. There are so many works out there I want to share with my readers, and I'm discovering new ones all the time. In the meantime, I want to thank all of you for your giving this little indulgence of a blog your time and attention, and I hope it's encouraged you to read, watch, or play something you might not have checked out otherwise. And to those who have read and reviewed The Brotherhood of the Black Flag since its publication, I can't tell you how much your support means to me. I also want to once again thank Channel Awesome once again for giving me a platform to host this blog. I've learned a lot from the folks here at Channel Awesome, past and present, and I've enjoyed the time I've spent hanging out on the forums. Last but not least, I owe a special thank you to my Trusty Research Assistant for all his hard work!

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    If you haven't snagged it yet, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is currently on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $0.99, and will be until January 2, 2018. I'm raising the price after that, so get it now! Right now, it's only available as an ebook, but I am planning on a paperback at some point.

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    Take care, all, and here's to the next four years and beyond!
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    I can't give this breakneck classic comedy anything but love, baby - even if audiences felt differently when it was released.

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    Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) was one of the most acclaimed superstars to ever hit the big screen, winning a total of four Academy Awards for her performances - more than Meryl Streep so far (although not as many nominations). Her legacy as an actor and the doors she opened for other women in the film industry have made her a beloved icon of Hollywood. A good deal of this came from her upbringing, as she and her siblings were raised to be independent thinkers and to speak their minds, traits that some of her most memorable characters would also exhibit. Her father was a urologist who sought to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, while her mother was a suffragette and birth control advocate. Her father also encouraged athletics, and Hepburn was known as a tomboy as a child - even shortening her hair and going by Jimmy. She was also a hardcore movie fan with a passion for acting, and she would stage plays with her family and friends for her neighbors, donating the admission fees to charity on behalf of the Navajo nation. Home-schooled as a child, Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College, where she decided to become a professional actress.

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    The story of an actor transitioning from Broadway to film ought to be a familiar one by now to longtime readers, and Hepburn's led her to RKO Radio Pictures. Her first film performance was a supporting role in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), opposite John Barrymore. A Bill of Divorcement's success paved the way for starring roles, which were also successful, including Little Women (1933) and Morning Glory (1933) which earned Hepburn her first Academy Award. Hepburn, however, refused to play the Hollywood game, and she developed a reputation for arrogance. She avoided interviews or publicity photos, and preferred wearing pants to skirts or dresses. Unfortunately, this turned off audiences and critics, and her career suffered as a result. (I'm sure this sounds unpleasantly familiar to a lot of readers.) Over the next few years, her films and plays largely flopped, and sadly, Bringing up Baby's failure at the box office was another nail in the coffin - for a short while, anyway.

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    Morning Glory (1933)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a meek paleontologist with two passions: the long-awaited completion of a Brontosaurus skeleton, and his fiancée, Alice (Virginia Walker) - although Alice insists that their marriage be purely for professional reasons with no "domestic entanglements." Their museum might be in the running for a million dollar donation from Mrs. Elizabeth Random (May Robson), and Alice dispatches David to seal the deal. However, David's numerous attempts to talk with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), Mrs. Random's lawyer, are thwarted by chance encounters with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a flighty chatterbox. Said encounters result in embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions, accidentally braining Mr. Peabody with a rock, numerous brushes with the law, and the impromptu delivery of a leopard named Baby to Susan's Connecticut home. (It mostly makes sense in context.) Although Susan drives David nuts, she naturally becomes rather smitten with him, and comes up with various ways to keep him from going back to New York City, each more harrowing for David than the last. And that's just the tip of this comedy of errors iceberg!

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    Bringing up Baby certainly puts the screwball in "screwball comedy" - even Howard Hawks, the director, thought he made a mistake by not having any "normal" characters for the audience to relate to. Most of the appeal comes from our lead performers, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. This was Hepburn's first time doing comedy of this sort, but you'd never know it from her performance. Hepburn delivers her rapid-fire lines and performs the slapstick so effortlessly, you'd think this was her regular kind of role. She got a lot of coaching from cast and crew alike, and it obviously worked. As for Grant, he plays Dr. Huxley like an overly beleaguered Clark Kent, glasses and all. (In fact, for the original Superman movie series, Christopher Reeve modeled his portrayal of Clark Kent on Grant's performance in this film.) As the fall guy, Grant has a particularly rough balancing act to pull off, playing a character you don't feel bad about laughing at while still caring about him and becoming invested in him. (Fun bit of trivia: Grant's ad-libbed line "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" - spoken while wearing a lady's bathrobe - is believed to be the first time the word "gay" was used to refer to someone who is LGBTQ.) Hepburn and Grant have wonderful chemistry together, and one of the supposed reasons the film went over schedule was how often they'd crack each other up while filming.

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    The supporting cast gets to pull their own weight as well. The best of the supporting performances, in my opinion, goes to Walter Catlett, who plays the obstinate Constable Slocum. Slocum was a vaudeville comedian who coached Hepburn on her performance for this film. (She ended up not only getting him the role of Slocum, but also a greatly expanded role in the film.) May Robson will surely get some good laughs as Susan's overbearing Aunt Elizabeth, as will Fritz Field as Dr. Lehman, a psychiatrist who keeps getting ensnared in Susan's antics and making things worse while trying to help. I could have done without Charles Ruggles's character of Major Applegate, just because there are already a lot of characters in this film that I didn't even get to, and he's the least interesting of the lot. On the other hand, I'd have liked to have seen more of Alice and how Virginia Walker played off of Cary Grant as a contrast to Hepburn's more manic performance.

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    However, it's not performances alone that make a movie. There's a lot of clever dialogue throughout Bringing up Baby, mostly Susan's one-liner comebacks, but how much of it was scripted and how much came from all the ad-libbing isn't clear. The pacing sometimes feels frantic, always on the go and never really giving us a chance to catch our breaths. The visual effects are especially impressive - so much so that I didn't even know they used any for certain scenes. While Hepburn was fearless around the leopards used for the film, Grant was anything but, and he had to be doubled for certain shots involving Dr. Huxley and Baby. However, there were other tricks used to integrate the leopards into the film, such as rear projection and split-screen shots. They're pretty seamless effects; if I hadn't been scouring the IMDB trivia pages looking for my customary behind-the-scenes tidbits, I never would have known that said visuals were used at all. They're that good. Also, there's a neat bit of stuntwork in the final scene of the film that I don't want to spoil.

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    Despite strong critical acclaim and ticket sales in some parts of the country, Bringing up Baby was a box office disaster, and Hawks going over-budget and over-schedule probably didn't help matters any. RKO ended their contract with Hawks early, firing him from directing the upcoming Gunga Din (1939) - which starred an-apparently-unscathed-by-this-movie Cary Grant. As for Hepburn, like I said earlier, she had already gained a reputation as box office poison, and Bringing up Baby's failure cemented that rep. She returned to Broadway to star in The Philadelphia Story, which was a huge success. She ended up buying the film rights to the play and selling said rights to MGM, on the condition she starred in it. The Philadelphia Story (1940), which also co-starred Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, was a success on all fronts, and paved the way for a new Golden Age of her career. In 1942, she co-starred with Spencer Tracy for the first time in Adam's Rib (1942), the beginning of a long partnership - and friendship. Her last theatrically released movie was Love Affair (1994). As for Bringing up Baby, history has vindicated this film, as it's now regarded as a comedy classic - among the best ever made. It was theatrically re-released in the 1940s, where it made a decent profit, and got an extra dose of popularity when it was shown on TV in the 1950s.

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    For modern audiences, Bringing up Baby might be something of an acquired taste, but it's worth giving a try. Katharine Hepburn fans more used to her more serious or snarky roles are sure to enjoy her performance here. Give it a try and see for yourselves.

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    ***
    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now!

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    A young prince must pose as a pirate as part of a daring rescue mission in The King's Buccaneer, a novel from Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Cycle.

    It's Talk Like a Pirate Day once again on the INCspotlight, and this year's is an important one for me, as it happens to be the day my own novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, officially becomes a published work! (Yes, it's a pirate novel. Yes, the timing was on purpose.) And to celebrate, I want to spotlight one of the novels that made Black Flag possible (even though King's Buccaneer is fantasy and Black Flag is historical fiction). I first came across it by chance at my local library when I was in middle school, and thought it might be a fun read. As I said in my review of The Face in the Frost, I wasn't that much of a fantasy reader when I was younger - not because of lack of interest in the genre (far from it), but because every fantasy novel I seemed to come across was a multi-volume series that required a time (and/or financial) commitment I simply wasn't able to make at the time. The King's Buccaneer, on the other hand, seemed to be a self-contained story, so I was more willing to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to finish the book before having to return it. I kept meaning to go back to it, finally snagging it when I started college. This time, now that I had own copy and more control of my time, I was able to read it all the way through - something I would do so many more times over the years, as it's one of my all-time favorite novels. It even went with me around the world when I participated in the Semester at Sea program, reading it repeatedly during rare quieter moments. (I've had to replace that copy since, due to wearing it out from re-reading it that many times.) I've gotten to the point where I can open up the book at random and start reading without needing to go back for context.

    Born Raymond E. Gonzales III in Southern California in 1945, Feist grew up an avid fan of classic adventure fiction, including some favorites of mine - Sir Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda and Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. (Both of those books have also inspired my own writing, just as The King's Buccaneer did.) While attending college at the University of California in San Diego, Feist became a fan of fantasy fiction via computer and tabletop role-playing games. His friends, the Thursday Nighters, either came up with either their own Dungeons & Dragons campaign or a new table-top role-playing game altogether - I've heard both, depending on what source I'm using, and I'm not sure which is accurate. Either way, the setting for this game was the world of Midkemia, where Feist would later set the majority of his famed Riftwar Cycle. The series began with Magician (1982), which started off as the story of a young orphan boy named Pug who wanted to be...um...a magician. Magician (which was released in two parts: Apprentice and Master) was the first book of a trilogy known as the Riftwar Saga, which also comprised of Silverthorn (1985) and A Darkness at Sethanon (1986). Although Pug was originally the main character, the trilogy slowly shifted its spotlight to other characters: Tomas, Pug's childhood friend who gains immense power from a suit of armor that once belonged to the godlike Valheru; Arutha conDoin, the future prince of Krondor; his half-brother Martin Longbow, who had been raised by elves; Jimmy the Hand, a daring young thief who becomes Arutha's squire; and last but not least, Amos Trask, a soon-to-be-former pirate.

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    The story continued across nearly thirty books published over just as many years, comprised of numerous smaller sagas that told their own self-contained story, while also setting up the pieces for later and greater conflicts. Some of the novels have also been adapted into comic book format, and there have even been two PC games (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor, which Feist himself later adapted into the novels Krondor: the Betrayal and Krondor: Tear of the Gods). As for where The King's Buccaneer fits into all this, it's one of the novels in the sub-saga Krondor's Sons, telling of the adventures of Prince Arutha's sons as they come of age, each in their own way.

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Prince Nicholas, the youngest son of Prince Arutha, is nearly an adult, and his father is worried about whether he's ready for the responsibilities that come with his rank. Not only is Nicholas quiet, shy, and reserved by nature - unlike his hellraising older brothers Borric and Erland - but he's been treated with kid gloves on account of the deformed foot he was born with. His friend and squire, Harry of Ludland, has a tendency to get Nicholas into trouble, but the young prince's sense of caution and indecision still troubles Arutha. Amos Trask, now admiral of Krondor's fleet, suggests sending Nicholas to his half-brother Martin, now duke of Crydee, to season him a bit. Nicholas becomes Martin's squire, while Harry squires for Martin's taciturn son Marcus. Nicholas soon settles into his new routine, while developing a rivalry with his cousin Marcus over the affections of Abigail, lovely companion to Marcus's sister Margaret. However, one night, a pirate horde attacks and destroys Crydee, ruthlessly slaughtering thousands and abducting Abigail and Margaret, along with numerous other villagers. The now-reclusive sorcerer Pug is contacted for aid, but after thwarting a magical attack, he reveals that the prisoners are hostages to ensure he - and the royal fleet - don't attempt to pursue the raiders. In order to safely hunt down the masterminds behind the raid, Trask devises a cunning plan - the rescue party will pose as pirates. Their mission will lead them to infiltrate a pirate haven, endure a monstrous storm at sea, cross a distant continent, and venture into the clutches of an ancient enemy with a plan more insidious than any of them could have possibly imagined. And Nicholas will be forced to make some hard choices to protect those he loves.

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    The King's Buccaneer has pretty much everything you'd expect to see in either a fantasy/adventure novel. We're treated to a wide variety of locations, from your standard Western medieval castes and villages to pirate havens, harsh seascapes, desert camps, and evil-infested palaces. Likewise, while there's not a ton of action scenes in the novel, there's a good amount, including both one-on-one duels, castle and ship raids, and desert skirmishes, not to mention the obligatory storm at sea (although this one is at least a magical storm). And of course, there are some standard fantasy elements, such as dragons, magicians, death-cults, and ancient gods. The story may have a "been-there-done-that" feel for seasoned fantasy readers, but as a newbie still learning the genre tropes, it was all fresh and interesting. It gets bloody at times, and there's a substantial amount of fanservice, but we're not talking Game of Thrones here. Interestingly, while Feist plays some of the standard genre tropes straight, he also plays with some. The most noticeable one is that very few of the book's romances start and end where you think they will, and the first person a character is attracted to isn't necessarily the one they'll end up with. (I've seen this in Feist's other Riftwar books.) While I appreciated not needing to have read the previous books in the Cycle to follow The King's Buccaneer, it did make me want to, on account of how invested I became in the characters and the world I'd been introduced to. I've still got a long ways to go before I finish the entire Cycle, but reading the whole thing is certainly on my bucket list, and I've re-read (or plan to re-read) all of the ones I've made my way through so far.

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    More importantly than the story, the characters were for the most part easy to invest in and connect with, and that's what keeps me coming back to this book time after time. Trying to capture what makes the characters and story engaging and exciting while keeping the summary succinct and spoiler-free is one of the harder balancing acts I've had to attempt on this blog. Nicholas makes a great protagonist, easy to empathize with, particularly his compassionate nature. It's that compassion that drives his fear of failure, not his ego or fear of disappointing his family, but his desire to save and protect lives, and not make any reckless decisions that can get people killed. (Also, kudos to Nicholas for telling Harry to stop harassing the palace's serving girls - and kudos to Harry for listening.) In retrospect, maybe it would have been interesting for him to make a mistake and learn from it, but the book already packs a lot in, especially with some of the decisions he has to make for the greater good. His reserved nature also makes it fun to see him try and act like a badass pirate or mercenary captain, sometimes more successfully than others. Fortunately, he also uses his brains as well, particularly when it comes to making friends and alliances.

    The supporting cast is pretty big, and some don't even show up until the third act, but their presence is justified, and I can't think of anyone who feels superfluous. They're all given at least some characterization and distinctive personalities, enough to make them engaging. Amos Trask in particular lights up any scene he's in, and has some of the best banter and one-liners. Harry easily could have been an annoying sidekick character, and while he starts off as something of a one-note character, he's a steady voice of reason for Nicholas, and one of the few people he can open up to. Marcus and the half-elf Calis are among the less likable characters due to their more stoic natures, and Calis is very much a Mary Sue on par with Orlando Bloom's depiction of Legolas (to be fair, The King's Buccaneer came first), but there's still some decent substance to them. And then there's the enigmatic Nakor, who rivals Trask in ability to steal any scene he's in, and who has more substance to him than one might think. There aren't as many female characters as male, and Abigail is the one character who started to get on my nerves after a while, although that seems to be deliberate on Feist's part. Still, Margaret's consistent defiance is a welcome counter-point, and the feisty street-thief Brisa has some great moments.

    As for the writing, The King's Buccaneer is solid overall, and I especially like Feist's dialogue. The plot has a lot of moving parts to it, but everything fits together, with little in the way of hanging threads, and as I said earlier, Feist manages to balance everyone's screen-time despite the size of the cast. Pacing-wise, the first two thirds of the book are solid, keeping the story moving at a steady pace, without rushing things or neglecting to establish character. The final third, however, is a bit more of a rocky read than what came before, introducing a bunch of new characters and throwing a lot of exposition at us, but it picks up again toward the end (although I had to re-read certain scenes a few times to follow everything). While none of the action scenes are particularly long, there's a good amount of them spread out through the book, the highlight being Nicholas's saber duel with Captain Render. The only thing it truly lacks is a strong, interesting villain. Captain Render, the leader of the pirates that attack Crydee, is a rather generic villain, even if he has a memorable character design, and he gets whacked about halfway through the book. As for the masterminds behind this plot, they mostly stay in the shadows, and their point person barely shows up. Although to be fair, there are so many characters to develop and explore among the protagonists that trying to work that same magic with an antagonist might have bogged things down too much.

    Whether you're into high fantasy or not, The King's Buccaneer is definitely worth your time, and like I said before, you can read it and appreciate it on its own - although if you want to read the Riftwar Saga first, by all means, do so. It's perhaps an unconventional choice for a Talk Like a Pirate Day review, but that's part of why I write this blog - to put the spotlight on various works I've discovered and enjoyed over the years so that other people can have the chance to do the same. Besides, I owe a great deal to this book, both for the immense pleasure I get out of reading it and for its role in inspiring my own writing (I'm holding off on how for a later INCspotlight post). So I hope you'll give The King's Buccaneer a read and, if you like it, recommend it to others.

    ***​

    At long last, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now officially published! It's available in ebook format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now! (And yes, a paperback version will be coming along at some point.) All reviews are appreciated, as that's how we rookie authors build up our readership, and I'll be taking all feedback into account for future works. It's been a long road to get here, and I want to thank everyone who has made it possible, from friends and family to my awesome editor and cover artist, and all my INCspotlight readers for all your support!

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    A mad artist sets out to create his greatest masterpieces at a hideous cost in House of Wax, a classic horror flick starring Vincent Price.

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    In the early 1950s, Hollywood had been dealt a serious blow by the advent of television, with box office attendance dropping by tens of millions between 1948 and 1951. Naturally, the studios went looking for new ways to lure back the crowds who could now enjoy entertainment from the comfort of their own home. One attempted gimmick was screening movies in 3-D, a fad which only lasted for the first half of the decade. 3-D movies had their first success with 1952's Bwana Devil, an independent production distributed by United Artists. In the wake of Bwana Devil's success, Warner Bros. decided to try their own 3-D project. , a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which had starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. (Ironically, House of Wax's director, André De Toth, was blind in one eye, and couldn't actually see the 3-D effect.) The fad only lasted a few more years, but it's made a comeback these past few years. Personally, I'm indifferent to seeing something in 3-D, although for certain blockbusters such as How to Train Your Dragon and Doctor Strange, it works quite well.

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    House of Wax is also significant for its impact on the career of legendary actor Vincent Price (1911-1993), who is no stranger to the INCspotlight, although I haven't had much of an opportunity to talk about his background until now. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Price was the son of a candy-making company president and grandson of the guy who patented tartar-based baking powder, which established the Price family fortune. Price first became interested in acting while attending Yale, and performed on stage for the first time in England, where he'd attended the University of London's Courtald Institute. He had a prominent role in the Gate Theater's production of "Victoria Regina," a play so successful that it ended up on Broadway, and Price along with it. Like so many of his contemporaries, Broadway led to Hollywood, where Price made his screen debut in Universal's Service de Luxe (1938), a comedy directed by Rowland V. Lee. He worked steadily in film over the next decade or so in a variety of genres, as well as on the radio. One of his more notworthy pre-superstardom roles was Simon Templar, aka The Saint, on the radio series The Saint from 1947 through 1951, succeeding Edgar Barrier and Brian Aherne in the role of Leslie Charteris's "Robin Hood of modern crime." (This is the same Saint that Roger Moore and Val Kilmer would later depict, although Kilmer's version has nothing in common with Charterisis' character other than the name.) He even shared the screen with big box office draws such as Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn, although not becoming one himself until House of Wax came along.

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    For all of Price's acclaim as an actor, his off-screen activities are also interesting to note. In addition to his acting talents, Price was also a connoisseur of wine, art (his Bachelor's degree from Yale was in art history, and he spent a year as an art teacher), and gourmet food (and he authored several cookbooks). Price was also politically active, speaking out against racial, religious, and anti-LGBTQ bigotry and labeling them as poisons that emboldened America's enemies, and he was an honorary board member of the organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). In 1957, President Eisenhower's administration nominated him to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (much to the surprise of Price, who was a registered Democrat), and Price used his position to champion Native American rights.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) has a rare gift for artistry, particularly carving beautifully lifelike wax figures that he considers to be his friends. His museum is the toast of 1890s New York, but it's not enough for his greedy business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts). Burke wants more sensational, macabre waxworks to bring in even more audiences, which Jarrod refuses. In retaliation, Burke tries to burn down the museum to collect on the insurance, and although Jarrod tries to stop him, Burke succeeds in destroying the museum, leaving Jarrod to die among the flames with his creations. However, Jarrod survives, and years later turns up with a new wax museum, this time delivering the gruesome thrills Burke originally wanted. Despite having sustained serious injuries, Jarrod is able to once again create remarkably lifelike sculptures with the aid of his assistant Igor (Charles Bronson - yes, that Charles Bronson). However, a string of murders coincides with Jarrod's new museum, including Burke and his lady friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). When Cathy's body vanishes from the morgue and a wax sculpture that bears a remarkable resemblance to her shows up in Jarrod's gallery, her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) becomes suspicious. She naturally decides to investigate, leading her to a gruesome discovery.

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    I've always had something of a soft spot for House of Wax. It was one of those films that kept popping up on classic movie stations when I was younger, and I'd watch it with my dad when it did. However, fond childhood nostalgia aside, House of Wax still holds up, even if it's predictable as hell and not the least bit scary. (I didn't even think so when I was a kid.) Vincent Price's performance is mostly what carries this movie, and it's no wonder he specialized in these types of roles of most of the rest of his career. His drawling, cultured tones and his low-key malevolence make him as much fun to watch as he's clearly having performing this role. However, for all his delightfully hammy malevolence, the opening scenes successfully establish him as a tragic figure, someone you can empathize and feel sorry for, even as he does terrible things. It helps that Roy Roberts plays Burke as utterly detestable, blind to Jerrod's artistry and consumed by greed, making it easier to sympathize with Jarrod. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable - even Carolyn Jones, who would later play Morticia Addams on The Addams Family didn't leave much of an impression (other than annoying me with her high-pitched giggle). So it's a good thing Price has the talent to pick up the slack. Phyllis Kirk, however, does what she can with what is basically a throwaway role - and given her ambivalence to being in this film in the first place (she kept trying to get out of it, not wanting to be type-cast as a scream queen), I have to give her credit for putting some genuine effort into her performance. (She later admitted that once shooting actually started, she had a lot of fun making this movie.)

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    House of Wax also holds up technically, even without the 3-D effect. The makeup effects are decent (to the point where Price lamented he was banned from the studio commisarry while wearing it), and the cinematography makes good use of shadows during the scenes that are supposed to be creepy. One of the scenes that still stands out for me is Burke's destruction of Jarrod's gallery. The way the camera lingers over every immaculately-crafted sculpture as it's consumed by fire, backed by David Buttolph's score, is heart-rending, and does as much to make you feed for Jarrod as Price's acting does. (You'd never even know that the spot fires on the set got out of control when shooting this scene. De Toth had the cinematographers keep filming to avoid the expense of recreating the set and wax sculptures from scratch.) Also, while House of Wax isn't scary, it does create some exciting tension during the big climax. The weakest moment in the film is the scene from before Jerrod reveals his new wax museum, consisting of a carnival barker aiming a paddle-ball at the audience, accompanied by some dancing girls - a scene that only exists to show off 3-D technology. If you're not watching this in this format, it does nothing but bring the narrative to a screeching halt for a few minutes. (I've never seen it in 3-D, so I don't know if I'd feel any differently if I saw it in that format.)

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    I don't know whether it was on account of the 3-D or the film's own considerable merits, but either way, House of Wax was a blockbuster success at the box office, Warner Bros's biggest success in years. (Price attended a screening and freaked out the people sitting in front of him when the movie was over when he asked if they liked it.) Contemporary critics deem House of Wax to be among the best horror films of the 1950s, if not the genre as a whole, and I can see why. Even if it's not scary, it's enjoyable to watch, in no small part thanks to Vincent Price. Price, naturally, went on to play numerous villains in film and television over the next few decades, his favorite roles including Egghead on the Adam West Batman series, and Professor Ratigan in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Director Tim Burton was a huge fan of Price, and not only did Price provide voice work for his short film Vincent (1982), but Burton wrote the role of The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990) specifically for him. His last on-screen appearance before his death was the TV movie The Heart of Justice (1992). After his death, The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), for which he'd provided voice work, was released after a decades-long troubled production history.

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    House of Wax will most likely be campy fun for modern audiences, rather than chill-inducing horror, but it's definitely worth seeing. Vincent Price's engaging performance will surely keep you entertained, even if nothing else does.

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    * * *​

    My first novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, is now available for pre-order in ebook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble! The official publication date is September 19th, but you can get it now for only 99 cents! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

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    John Barrymore once again returns to the INCspotlight as one of the world's most infamous womanizers in Don Juan, a landmark of the soon-to-no-longer-be-silent cinema.

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    Note: This review is part of Swashathon, a blogathon focusing on swashbuckling cinema, hosted by Movies Silently. Please be sure to check out the other reviewers participating in this - there are a lot of great films and film reviewers waiting to be discovered! I also want to thank Movies Silently for providing this opportunity (and to point out that a sizable number of the screencaps I'll be using in this review came from said website). And to those reading the INCspotlight for the first time thanks to Swashathon, I've previously reviewed a number of silent films and swashbucklers alike, and I hope you'll peruse some of my older reviews (and return for newer ones to come).

    Also, I'm taking the opportunity at the end of this blog to make a very special announcement I've been waiting a long time to make.

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    The legend of Don Juan (aka Don Giovanni) goes back centuries, inspiring plays, operas, and poems by some of history's greatest artisans. Naturally, the original story differs quite strikingly from the several Hollywood versions. Don Juan is originally depicted as the embodiment of vice and wickedness, a wealthy womanizer and hedonist who kills the father of one of his conquests. Later, he invites a statue of the man he killed to a dinner party he's throwing, and in most versions of the story, said party ends quite badly for our lustful libertine. Famed Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina was the first to put Don Juan's story on paper in 1630 with the play El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), and France's Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by the pen name of Molière) followed suit with his own production of Dom Juan (no, that's not a typo) in 1655. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put his own take on the legend with his opera Don Giovanni (1787), which is now an opera staple and considered to be one of his greatest works. However, it was Lord Byron's unfinished epic poem Don Juan (1821) that allegedly had the most impact on Hollywood, as it depicted the character in a more romantic, favorable light, while also critiquing sexual double standards. There have been other notable writers and composers who have also been inspired by the Don Juan story, including George Bernard Shaw, Richard Strauss, and Albert Camus, to name but a few. (Even famous fictional characters have gotten in on the Don Juan action - in Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, the titular Phantom has written his own opera about him.) Barrymore's Don Juan, directed by Alan Crosland, isn't even the character's first foray into the big screen. There was a Mexican production as early as 1898 helmed by Salvador Toscano, Mexico's first filmmaker, and another from the Netherlands in 1913.

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    Playbill from the 1788 Vienna premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni

    Crosland's film, however, holds the distinction of being the first to use synchronized sound, including sound effects and a musical score, as opposed to live music. (In the silent era, live performers provided the musical soundtrack - this could range from one guy on a piano to a full orchestra.) Filmmakers had been attempting to combine sound and visuals since the very beginning of the medium, with limited success at best. Thomas Edison attempted using a gramophone that was synched to the film Nursery Favorites (1913), but the film ended up being projected at the wrong speed, throwing off the synch with the sound. D.W. Griffith had some success using it for the opening segment of Dream Street (1921), but abandoned the pursuit of sound pictures, fearing spoken dialogue would turn off international non-English speaking audiences. It was actually the invention of radio that spurred renewed attempts to integrate sound into movies. Warner Bros., only a minor studio at the time, was a major pioneer in the pursuit of sound pictures, although initially, it was only intended to be used for musical accompaniment, not spoken dialogue. At Don Juan's premiere, the movie was preceded by a number of screened musical performances designed to show off this technological innovation, as well as a filmed speech by MPPDA head Will Hays (and yes, you actually hear his voice). Some of the highlights of these musical performances include Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser, which should sound familiar to anyone who's seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera, Doc? ("Wetuuurn my wooooove..."), and tenor Giovanni Martinelli performing the famed aria "Vesti la Giubba." (You'd recognize it from countless films and TV shows, trust me.)

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    And speaking of Alan Crosland (1894 - 1936), his bio is also worth taking a look at. Born in New York City and educated as a child in England, Crosland started out as a journalist. He eventually got a gig at the New York Globe, writing articles for movie magazines on the side, as well as some stage acting. He later joined up with the Edison Company as an actor and stage manager, later transitioning to directing - Crosland would end up directing Edison's last movie, The Unbeliever (1918). After this, his filmmaking career was cut short by his getting drafted into World War I, during which he served with the Army Photo Service. He resumed his career after the war ended, working with the independent studio Select until 1922. Over the next several years, he bounced around between studios, including Goldwyn-Cosmopolitan, where he earned wide acclaim as a director for Under the Red Robe (1923), before joining up with Warner Bros. Crosland was on the front lines of Warner's make-or-break transition to sound, directing not only Don Juan, but the following year's The Jazz Singer (1927), the first movie to feature spoken dialogue. Dapper and quick-witted, Crosland's other claim to fame as a director was his ability to get along with just about anybody, even some of the most difficult people in Hollywood to work with - Erich von Stroheim, Al Jolson, and brothers Lionel and John Barrymore (the latter of whom Crosland would direct in three more movies after this one). Crosland kept directing movies throughout the talkies era he helped usher in, until his death in a car accident in 1936.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    We start off with a rather twisted origin story that does a lot to explain how Don Juan turned out the way he did. His father, Don José de Maraña (John Barrymore), was a Spanish nobleman and possessively devoted to his wife, Donna Isobel (Jane Winton). When he learned of her infidelity, he naturally didn't take it well. And by not taking it well, I mean he buried the lover alive, kicked Donna Isobel out of his castle, and vowed to never trust women again - all witnessed by a tearful Juan (Yvonne Day). As the years passed Don José devoted himself to all-out debauchery, romancing numerous women at once, and apparently teaching a pre-teen Juan (Philippe De Lacy) to do the same. Unfortunately for Don José, one of his mistresses was jealous over the lack of attention she was getting, and after snogging young Juan, she stabbed Don José. With his dying words, Don José instructed Juan to take love from women whenever he wanted to, but never love or trust women in return.

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    The film time jumps to years later, after the now-adult Don Juan (now also played by Barrymore) has completed his studies and set himself up in Rome, dominated by the ruthless Borgia family. Our horndog protagonist has acquired quite the reputation as a lover, to the point where he has to depend on his servant Pedrillo (Willard Louis) to keep his affairs (often literally) in order. Said reputation earns him the attention of none other than Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor), sister to Cesare Borgia (Warner Oland), and she invites him to a party in the hopes of making him one of her conquests. However, Juan is more interested in Adriana della Varnesse (Mary Astor), infuriating the jealous Lucrezia. It doesn't help that Adriana's father, the Duke della Varnesse (Josef Swickard) is a supporter of the Orsinis, enemies of the Borgia family - and Juan thwarts an attempt on the duke's life. Not only that, but Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love), a Borgia loyalist and kinsman, has his eye on Adriana - and her family's fortune. However, such triflings aren't about to get in Don Juan's way, kickstarting his road to redemption and true love, as well as an inevitable clash with the Borgias.

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    There's a lot to talk about with this particular film, particularly the problematic characterization of its protagonist. The film's depiction of Don Juan, mostly a creation of screenwriter Bess Meredyth (who also worked on the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro), is not your typical Hollywood swashbuckling hero - anti-hero is probably a more appropriate label, and at times, he can be outright villainous. He certainly has his redeeming qualities, such as his saving the life of Adriana's father, and it's certainly entertaining to watch him talk his way out of death at the hands of Duke Margoni - whose wife, niece, and mistress have all enjoyed Don Juan's attention on the same morning. (Pedrillo had the unenviable task of keeping them separate from each other.) However, rather than coming off like a lovable rogue or bewitching romantic, there's something predatory about his womanzing. His pursuit of women is all about self-indulgence (and the influence of his father), rather than a romantic search for the ideal companion. While most of this seems to be consensual, when Adriana promises to reward him for saving her father, he takes as a license to - there's no way to sugar-coat this - attempt to rape her. It's a disturbing scene to watch, and he drives a desperate Adriana to attempt suicide rather than allow Don Juan to have his way with her. This ends up shocking him out of his behavior and leads to his reformation, but does said redemption let him off the hook? Opinions will most likely differ on this. Don Juan's characterization can also be viewed as a cautionary parenting tale - even before Don José's discovered his wife's affair, he frequently referred to her as a prized object, rather than someone he actually loved. (Not to mention the callous way Don José teaches Juan to regard women.)

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    For the most part, it's John Barrymore's screen presence and charisma, not to mention his considerable acting talents (even if he does tend to ham it up), that make the character compelling, rather than the writing or characterization. I also have to give him props for how convincingly he plays both Don Juan and Don José as completely separate characters. As Don José, he's an imposing, devilish figure, who glowers and rages to such a degree that it's a wonder the sets don't have bite marks all over them. As our protagonist, however, he's much more languid, barely blinking in the face of threats from jealous husbands or the Borgias. (Also, his mustache has an odd tendency to change thickness across scenes and sometimes disappear altogether.) Not that he doesn't have his hammier moments, but for the most part, his portrayal of Don Juan comes over as more of as a dry, sardonic type. Barrymore's also capable of demonstrating remarkable subtleties in his performance at times, particularly in Don Juan's moments of introspection and self-loathing. For all his reputation as a hammy film actor, it's easy to forget how good and versatile he could actually be on screen. I just wish he had a more compelling character to work with in Don Juan. Nothing really seems to drive him except the pursuit of women until he decides to redeem himself, and like I said earlier, said pursuit is more predatory than romantic.

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    Don Juan also boasts a strong supporting cast giving entertaining (if not exactly restrained) performances. Willard Louis was already a veteran of stage and screen (including playing Friar Tuck in Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Robin Hood) by the time he was cast in Don Juan, and unfortunately, it turned out to be his last role. He passed away during production of this film, which he was making at the same time as The Honeymoon Express (also 1926). As a final role, Pedrillo provides some comic relief early on in the film as Juan's beleaguered servant. Mary Astor's performance is a complete 180 from the beguiling femme fatale she would later play in The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart. She's the very picture of youthful innocence and naïveté who recoils in horror at the debauchery she so frequently is forced to behold and smiles tenderly at what may be her first attraction to a man. Nigel de Brulier, who's been in numerous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. films (as well as the serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, portraying the wizard Shazam) has a rather odd role as the Marquis Rinaldo, whose wife kills herself when he discovers her affair with Juan, driving him insane. (And to top it off, Juan callously frames him for his wife's murder. Dick.) His subplot doesn't really go anywhere, aside from a bit of dramatic irony later on, but de Brulier's manic energy keeps these scenes from dragging too badly. It's different from his more subdued, malevolent depiction of Cardinal Richelieu in Fairbanks's The Three Musketeers (1921). Come to think of it, most of the cast seems to be playing against type in this film, even the villains.

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    And speaking of villains, they deserve a paragraph to themselves as well. Our evil trio is clearly enjoying themselves as hammy, over the top bad guys. Warner Oland, who would later appear in The Jazz Singer and star in a series of Charlie Chan movies, plays Cesare Borgia well enough, although he's somewhat overshadowed by the other two villains. Montagu Love is almost unrecognizable in this movie as Count Donati, and I did one hell of a double-take when I realized it was him. I've seen him various classic swashbucklers - The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Sea Hawk (1940) - usually playing a rather stiff, austere character of cold dignity. Here he plays a classless, leering brute - and quite a formidable one when swords are drawn. (More on that in a bit.) However, it's Estelle Taylor (who previously played Miriam in Cecil B. DeMille's original Ten Commandments from 1923) that provides the bulk of the villainy, as its her jealousy and desire for Juan that most drives the plot. And fortunately, Taylor has the acting chops to make Lucrezia a vibrant, repulsive villain. As an extra bonus, we have future screen legend Myrna Loy as Lucrezia's crafty maid, and an uncredited Gustav von Seyffertitz (who played Professor Moriarty opposite Barrymore in 1922's Sherlock Holmes - which I reviewed a couple of years ago) as Neri, Cesare Borgia's astrologer and torturer.

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    Like many silent epics, Don Juan is a lavish spectacle, stuffed to the gills with opulent sets and costumes, and cinematographer Byron Haskin uses plenty of wide-angle shots to show their scope and scale. (Barrymore's wardrobe - and more disturbingly, Philippe de Lacy's as the 10-year-old Juan - would make Jareth from Labyrinth jealous.) In addition to the visual appeal, Crosland and art director Ben Carré clearly understood how to use set design to establish characterization - compare the grotesque ostentation of the Borgia's palatial home to the simple elegance of Adriana's quarters. While the film has its issues when it comes to Don Juan's characterization, the title cards have some clever lines, and it's mostly well-paced, the subplot with the Marquis Rinaldo aside. One thing that may surprise today's audiences is how risqué it is - way the hell tame by modern standards, true, but far bawdier than perhaps most people realized films from the 1920s could get away with. Besides Juan's sleeping around, there's a lot of fanservice provided by numerous dancing girls (one of whom strokes 10-year-old Juan's leg, which is kinda creepy), and Lucrezia even has a line overtly mocking Adriana for being flat-chested. The musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is nothing special, although to be fair, music as part of storytelling in a film wasn't really a thing yet. The music was there to show that it could be done, and that's about it. The same applies to the few instances of sound effects within the film - a hand knocking heavily on a door or the click of blades during the climactic duel (not always perfectly synched).

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    Now let's get to talking about the swordplay, which was choreographed by the legendary Fred Cavens. If you're looking for swashbuckling thrills, those don't come until the third act of the movie, and even those defy the typical swashbuckling tropes. When Don Juan crosses swords with Count Donati, it's not a heroic attempt to save Adriana from being married to Donati against her will. The wedding has already taken place, and Don Juan, driven mad by the ringing of the church bells, gate-crashes Donati's bawdy wedding celebration to murder his ass. The sword fight that follows, for all of its grace and flair, is a vicious one, with both Barrymore and Love selling that they're out for blood - and there's quite a bit of it, as both of their characters get cut up before the delivery of the coup de grace. The cinematography, which includes panning shots of the combatants circling each other as they slash and parry, adds to the frenetic energy of the duel. It's a great fight, one that made it onto my top 10 list of favorite movie sword fights back in the early days of the INCspotlight. There's some more swordplay at the end when Juan crosses blades with a number of Borgia henchmen on horseback, but it's the duel with Count Donati that's the swashbuckling highlight.

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    Between the production values and the sound synchronization, Don Juan was the most expensive film Warner Bros. had ever produced at the time. While it was a huge box office hit, and the critical praise was favorable, it was only a moderate financial success in the end on account of how much it had cost to make. Don Juan's technical accomplishments were quickly upstaged by The Jazz Singer, and Errol Flynn's Adventures of Don Juan (1948) would also end up overshadowing Barrymore's, as would Johnny Depp's Don Juan deMarco. Fortunately, Don Juan was one of the first films made available by Warner Archives on DVD, and if you're into silent cinema, it's well worth snagging. In addition to the film itself, the DVD also includes all of the musical shorts and Hays's speech that preceded the film when it was theatrically released. (While the sound quality isn't anything spectacular, it's still good music, and it's fun to imagine people seeing and hearing this technical innovation for the first time in their lives.) As for me, while acknowledging its troublesome main character, I still enjoy this film, mostly on account of its witty script, entertaining performances, and the sheer spectacle of it.

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    For all its faults, particularly by modern standards, Don Juan is an entertaining part of film history that has a lot to offer, particularly for classic swashbuckler fans.

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    And while we're on the subject of swashbucklers...

    On September 19th, I will finally be making my literary debut with my novel The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, set during the Golden Age of Piracy. (And no, it's not a coincidence that September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.) It is currently available for pre-order as an ebook through Amazon.com, and I'm working on making it available in other formats (NOOK, etc.) as well as a paperback version. For updates as they come, please like and subscribe to my Facebook Author's Page, or follow me on Twitter.

    A lot of work has gone into making this book possible, and I'm truly grateful to the many, many people who have supported me in this effort - from my beta readers, editor, and cover artist to friends and family who have provided moral support - in the dozen years it's taken me to get this thing ready for publication.

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    Swashbuckling movies introduced me to historical fiction and the history behind it. The Lunar role-playing games inspired a stronger interest in epic fantasy. And the Adam West Batman series (1966-1968) introduced me not only to the Caped Crusader, but possibly superheroes altogether.

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    A lot has been written about this show, about its origins, inception, and legacy, so there really isn't much left for me to say on that. Instead, I'll go into my long-standing history with the show. I remember seeing this series pop up on various stations at different points of my life, starting very early on in elementary school. I didn't know anything about superheroes other than seeing them on other kids' lunchboxes, t-shirts, etc. Still, when I originally saw the show, I liked it for the action, the villains, and the cliffhanger endings. (Trailers for the Batman movie left me confused as to why it was so different from the show.) When I got older, I still liked the action and the villains' performances, as well as finding the humor in how eye-rolling this show could be at times. (I did, however, go through a time when I resented the show for what it did to the image of superheroes for a time, but I got over myself.) Courtesy of syndication, I've literally seen all 120 episodes of this series multiple times, and I'm one of the legions of fans thrilled that this show finally got a DVD release. (I point-hoarded on my credit card for a loooong time in order to snag this, and I was ecstatic when I finally was able to.)

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    So this show's intersected with my life on various occasions over the years, and naturally, it hit me pretty hard to hear of Adam West's passing over the weekend. (I'm especially sorry I missed the chance to see him at last year's Awesome Con, but the timing just didn't work out.) I wonder if I still would have been a comic book fan if not for this show, or if something else would have come along and made me one. Even if the latter is true, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of this show over the decades, and even if I don't owe it anything else, I at least owe it that. So for all its faults, I'm glad to see it still has its fans and its been getting new attention in recent years, between the show's release on DVD and even the Batman '66 comic book series, which I'm a big fan of. It'll be interesting to see how the show lives on and what future generations will think of it.

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    Naturally, with this many episodes, there are some that stood out from the others, and some I've re-watched more than others. Given the cliffhanger nature of the series, each entry on this list is technically two episodes, but given that they're clearly meant to be watched together,

    So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Favorite Episodes of the Adam West Batman series!

    10) "Fine Feathered Finks" and "The Penguin's a Jinx"

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    The second two-parter of the series, these episodes mark Burgess Meredith's beloved tenure as The Penguin on this show, and are adapted directly from Batman #169 (after years of hunting, I finally snagged this issue at a miraculously affordable price on eBay). Both the comic and the show involve a brilliant Penguin scheme - The Penguin's run out of ideas for crimes, so he plants a bunch of random clues in the hopes that Batman will "figure out" what he's planning and how - in other words, The Penguin tricks Batman into unwittingly planning the Pengun's entire crime and its execution. It's a creative storyline, and it was fun to see a story adapted directly from the comics (something that would only be done occasionally).

    9) "The Joker Goes to School" and "He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul"

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    The earlier episodes of this series had some weak spots when it came to writing and pacing, but they also had some stand-out moments, this two-parter in particular where the Joker sets out to corrupt Gotham City's high-schoolers. Also, the villains were a little less harmless at the beginning than how they were later depicted. The Joker (Cesar Romero) has devised a scheme to corrupt Gotham's youth into lives of crime, and he's more ruthless than he would later get, willing to poison a high school girl to get her out of the way. (In a later episode, he would express concern that gas from a death trap might kill innocent passersby.) Also, we get to see a bit of emphasis on Dick Grayson as a character in this show for what may be the only time in the series, and Burt Ward gets to flex his acting muscles a bit. And for all of Batman's square-jawed straight-edged personality, there's an endearing earnestness to him when he cautions a group of high schoolers against taking the easy way out in life.

    8) "The Minstrel's Shakedown" and "Barbecued Batman?"

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    I was kinda "meh" on this one as a kid, but seeing it again, it's better than I remembered it being. Van Johnson is surprisingly menacing as The Minstrel (I'm actually sorry he didn't appear more often), and it's kinda refreshing to see the Caped Crusader to take on a villain they've never heard of before and don't know what to expect from. Chief O'hara's out of nowhere supposition that maybe Batman and The Minstrel are in cahoots, leading to an argument with Commissioner Gordon, gave both of these supporting characters a chance to shine performance-wise, and now that I think about it, that would have made for an interesting dynamic for the series as a whole.

    7) "Instant Freeze" and "Rats Like Cheese"
    (Man, talk about desparate for a rhyme...)

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    Mr. Freeze was originally a one-shot comic book villain named Mr. Zero, but thanks to this show (and probably the name change), he's now one of the more noteworthy Batman villains. He made three appearances in this series, each time played by a different actor - George Sanders, Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach. Of the three, while Preminger is the most iconic, Sanders was my personal favorite. He's an excellent actor, and while I didn't know who he was when I first saw these episodes as a little kid, I've become much more familiar with his work through discovering classic films. For all the requisite hamming it up the role required, Sanders could be both ice-cold sinister, but also express moments of genuine pathos, a hallmark of the better writing at the beginning of the series. (Also, this two-parter is a rare instance of an origin being given to a Batman villain.)

    6) "The Spell of Tut" and "Tut's Case is Shut"

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    Any installment of a series or genre that gets me into said series/genre typically makes any Top 10 list, and the second half of this cliffhanger was the very first episode of Batman I ever saw. The King Tut episodes, with Victor Buono as Egyptologist turned supervillain King Tut, always drive the ham factor of this show up to the max, which makes them a heck of a lot of fun to watch. (Buono himself said that he loved playing King Tut because it allowed him to overact as much as he wanted to.) This time around, Tut is using extracts from ancient insects preserved in amber to develop a mind-control potion that will bend all of Gotham City to his will. I still remember seeing Robin standing on a receding plank above a crocodile pit (and having no idea who Robin was but still being drawn in by his impending doom), my very first memory of this show.

    5) "A Piece of the Action" and "Batman's Satisfaction"

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    The very first time I saw this crossover with the Green Hornet TV series, I didn't know who Bruce Lee was, let alone who or what The Green Hornet was - I didn't even know there was a Green Hornet show. I did learn about Bruce Lee eventually, though, not to mention the Green Hornet show (which not only got me into the radio series, but may have been my gateway to martial arts cinema, and that's a whole 'nother chain reaction right there...) Once I had this context, I got really excited whenever these two episodes aired on reruns. It's fun to see Adam West and Van Willaims play off each other (and for Batman and The Green Hornet to fight each other). The idea of Robin standing up to Kato, though, is laughable under any circumstances - Burt Ward was a highly skilled martial artist, with a black belt in tae kwon do, but the original idea for Robin to beat Kato in a fight was too ridiculous even for this show. (It ended in a draw). The villain, Colonel Gumm, was pretty stupid, as was his stamp counterfeiting scheme, but the Batman/Green Hornet stuff more than makes up for this. (Like with Batman, I can't help wondering if I still would have been into martial arts films if I hadn't been introduced to The Green Hornet via the Batman series.)

    4) "Hizzonner the Penguin" and "Dizzonner the Penguin"

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    Thanks to the last few presidential elections (the 2008 election in particular), these episodes have moved up a few notches on the favorites list. The Penguin has decided to run for mayor, and his charming con man personality give him a solid shot at the job. (Yeah...) To counter this, Batman is talked into running for mayor, but his focus on issues and substance leaves voters cold. (Do I really need to add any bitter snark here?) It's brilliant political parody, still relevant today, and The Penguin's troll logic during his debate with Batman is hysterical. Bonus points for Batman apparently sacrificing his life to save Robin's during the big cliffhanger resolution, which was a jaw-dropper when I was young.

    3) "Death in Slow Motion" and "The Riddler's False Notion"


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    A lot of fans don't like these episodes for some reason, mostly because they felt The Riddler was the wrong choice of villain. In the comic book story these episodes were adapted from ("The Joker's Comedy Capers," Detective Comics #341), the villain was The Joker instead of The Riddler, and I've heard a lot of people say it should have stayed that way. Fair point, but I still enjoy these episodes just because I'm a silent film fan. It's not perfect - Robin catching a Batarang with his teeth as he falls of a building is right up there with Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge, and there's not as much in the way of fisticuffs as I'd like. Still, it's a fun tribute to silent films, and you can't go wrong with a Frank Gorshin Riddler episode. (Fun fact: not only does famous silent film star Francis X. Bushman guest star in these episodes, but Neil Hamilton, who played Commissioner Gordon in the series, had a long and illustrious career in silent films.)

    2) "That Darn Catwoman" and "Scat! Darn Catwoman"

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    I don't think I've enjoyed any other depiction of Catwoman more than Julie Newmar's performance in this series - not even the comic version. You could tell how much she relished her performance, and she had great chemistry with all of her co-stars, West in particular (obviously). This one, however, was the best of all her storylines throughout the series, thanks to her taking mental control of Robin and setting him against Batman. Even now, I still consider it to be one of the few episodes that actually managed to be exciting, thanks to Catwoman seemingly having all the cards in her favor. Combine that with a climactic final chase that ends rather shockingly (and Lesley Gorre performing "California Nights," which I rather like). and you have a near-perfect episode.

    And coming in at number one...

    1) "The Zodiac Crimes," "The Joker's Hard Times," and "The Penguin Declines"

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    This was the first three-parter in the series, and it was fantastic. The Joker and The Penguin (missing from the middle episode) team up to commit one crime for every sign of the zodiac. Not only was this a more ambitious crime than usual, but Batman finds himself smitten with The Joker's henchwoman of the week, Venus (Terry Moore) - she and West played off each other quite well. The second death-trap's cliffhanger death trap is among the most infamous, with Robin being swallowed by a giant clam - hilarious now, but as a kid, it was quite a shock - I really did think Robin was a goner this time. Top it off with a climactic battle in the Bat-Cave with The Joker, The Penguin, and a small army of goons, and you'll see why these episodes stand above the rest.

    HONORABLE MENTION

    "Beware the Gray Ghost," Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994)


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    Yeah, I know, I'm cheating on this one, but come on - how is this episode not about the Adam West series? In this episode of the Emmy-winning animated series from the 1990s, Adam West guest-stars as Simon Trent, who played a superhero on a TV show called The Gray Ghost, which Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) was a huge fan of as a kid - currently out of print. When a serial bomber re-enacts one of the episodes of the show, Batman turns to Trent for help. Trent actually ends up joining Batman in action, in full Gray Ghost regalia. Naturally, there are some parallels to how West's post-Batman career turned out, which gives emotional weight to West's own performance, which is stellar. Rather than being a mockery of the Batman show of the 1960s, this pays homage to it and to all the modern day fans who continue to enjoy it and be inspired by it in various ways.

    Everybody has their own take on who the definitive Batman was. Mine has changed over the years, but there's no denying who was the very first. Rest in peace, old chum...and thanks for everything.

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    This July, the INCspotlight will be participating in Swashathon, a blogathon dedicated to swashbuckling cinema in all its glory. Hosted by the web blog Movies Silently, Swashathon will be a roundup of newly-written reviews of swashbuckling films, from the silent era to modern-day entries. Long-time INCspotlight readers and those following my Author page on Facebook undoubtedly know of my fondness for this genre, so my wanting to get in on this is probably no surprise. (My choice of film to review has been on my list to review for this blog since I first had the idea to write said blog in the first place - and no, it's not pictured here.)


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    However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about me, but to call attention to the other bloggers that will be participating in Swashathon. I'm always looking for new swashbucklers to watch and read, and I'm hoping Swashathon will give me the opportunity to discover some new movies to track down. (As much as I love swashbucklers, I'm sure there's a ton of great ones out there I still haven't gotten to.) Not only that, but I'll be curious to see other people's takes on some of the ones I've seen, pick up new insights and see these films from different perspectives that will make me appreciate them even more. I hope that all my readers, old and new, will be equally curious to discover (or re-discover) a genre I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember. And if this sounds like something any of my fellow bloggers want in on this, now's the time! A lot of great movies have already been claimed, but if you put your own spin on them, take an approach nobody else is, your odds are pretty good. (They have to be new reviews, though.) If swashbucklers aren't your thing, I think they do other blogathons focused on various topics, so keep your eyes open so you don't miss your chance!

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    So when Swashathon comes around (July 14 - 17), I hope you'll take the time to not only check out my own contribution, but also discover new films to watch and film bloggers to follow. Also, whether you're a longtime fan of silent movies or looking to get into them, make sure to check out Movies Silently - there's a ton of reviews and interesting articles on all sorts of aspects of silent cinema. They post pretty regularly on twitter too - numerous tidbits of silent film history, celebrations of birthdays of silent stars, debunking rumors, that sort of thing.

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    Hopefully I'll get in another review before then. If not, I'll see you back here in July! 'Till next time!

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    Two of martial arts lore's greatest heroes team up against the Qing Dynasty in Heroes Two, the first film in Chang Cheh's famed shaolin cycle.

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    With millennia of legacy behind it, it's probably no surprise that many kung fu movie protagonists come directly from China's rich history and folklore. The titular protagonists of Heroes Two are no exceptions - Hung Hsi-kuan and Fang Shi-yu. (They're also known by their Cantonese names of Hung Hei-gun and Fong Sai-yuk. The subtitles and dubbing on the version I watched both use the Mandarin names, so I'll be following suit for this review). Hung (1745-1825) was a tea merchant who became a lay disciple of shaolin, which meant that he studied martial arts there, but wasn't training to become a monk - which was quite common in the shaolin sect. Under the tutelage of Abbott Jee-sin, Hung learned the hei hu quan (Black Tiger Fist) style, and would later create his own - hung gar. Details of the exact lineage are murky, but consensus appears to be that he taught hung gar to fellow student Luk Ah-choi, who would later train Wong Kei-ying in this style - and according to some sources, Key-ying's son, the famed Wong Fei-hung himself. And then there were all the figures of early Chinese cinema that were students of Wong Fei-hung's disciples (including Lau Charn, father of legendary director Lau Kar-leung, who studied under Lam Sai-wing), and on it goes.

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    Fang Shi-yu, on the other hand, may be a purely fictional character, created for wuxia (martial chivalry) stories. His father was a wealthy merchant, and he learned martial arts from his mother, a daughter of one of the famed Five Elders of Shaolin. When he was still an infant, legend has it that his mother subjected him to a harsh medical treatment that made his body as hard as metal, similar to the myth of Achilles's famed invulnerability. A highly skilled martial artist, Fang was also brash and quick-tempered, and provoked a feud between the shaolin and wudan sects. He was supposedly killed either during or after the Qings destroyed the shaolin temples. (I had a whole section on that planned for this review, but I cut it for length - I'll have plenty of occasion to come back to the depiction of the Qing Dynasty in martial arts cinema).

    Filmmakers, by and large, seem to favor Fang Shi-yu as a protagonist, as opposed to Hung Hsi-kuan. I can't say for certain how far back Fang's cinematic history goes, between a lack of adequate information and the possibility of lost films we don't even know about. However, there were movies about him as early as 1938, starring Sun-ma Si-tsang. Sek Yen-tsi depicted him in a series of films that ran for several decades, beginning in 1948, and Hung Hsi-kuan was a supporting character in several of these, each time portrayed by a different actor. Meng Fei depicted Fang several times in low-budget Taiwanese movies, and famed Shaw Bros. star Alexander Fu Sheng - more on him in just a bit - would go on to portray him numerous times in later Shaw Bros. movies. Still, Hung Hsi-kuan's has had his time to shine here and there. In addition to being a supporting character in some of the previous Fang Shi-yu movies I mentioned, Hung had his own television series, The Kung Fu Master (1994), in which he was portrayed by Donnie Yen. Jet Li has not only played Fang in Fong Sai-yuk and its sequel (both in 1993), but also played Hung Hsi-kuan in Wong Jing's The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) - which seems more of a Lone Wolf & Cub ripoff than anything else.

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    Jet Li as Fang Shi-yu/Fong Sai-yuk in...um...Fong Sai-yuk (1993)

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    Jet Li as Hung Hsi-kuan/Hung Hei-gun in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994)

    Last but not least, before I get to talking about Heroes Two itself, I need to go into a little bit of detail about its cast - namely Chen Kuan-tai and Alexander Fu Sheng, two of Shaw Bros.'s biggest stars. Unlike most of Shaw's talent pool, who learned their fighting skills at the studio's acting academy, Chen had an extensive martial arts background, including tournament competitions, and had worked as a firefighter before going into the movies. In fact, one of Chen's first films was one of the last of the original Wong Fei-hung movies, a series that lasted for 99 films. Following that, he joined up with Shaw Bros., and made his mark while being loaned out to Ng See-yuen for Ng's directorial debut, The Bloody Fists (1972). (Shaw recalled Chen during production of The Bloody Fists, requiring the use of a masked stand-in for some scenes.) Chen starred or co-starred in a number of Shaw's most prestigious kung fu movies, working with all of their top directors, for as long as the studio was around. He's still making movies to this day, including supporting roles in Wilson Yip's Dragon Tiger Gate (2006), starring Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse, and RZA's The Man with the Iron Fists (2012).

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    On the other hand, Cheung Fu-sheng (1954-1983) - better known as Alexander Fu Sheng - was a relative newcomer by the time he starred in this film at the age of 19. Fang Shi-yu seemed to be a role he was destined for, as there are many ironic similarities between the two. His father was a businessman who moved his family to Hawaii for a few years, where Cheung began his martial arts training. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enrolled in Shaw Bros.'s Southern Drama School, intent on becoming an actor. Chang Cheh, one of Shaw's top directors, noticed him immediately and had him train with Lau Kar-leung for six months before casting him as the lead in Police Force (1973). Heroes Two was his next film, the first of many classic kung fu epics he would act in for Shaw Bros. Thanks to his natural agility and looks, he became of of Shaw Bros.'s most popular stars, with some saying he was the next Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, in another tragic parallel with Fang Shi-yu (not to mention Bruce Lee), he died young, killed in a car accident at the age of 28.

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    Okay, that's more than enough exposition. (You should have seen the original draft - I cut a lot out, saving it for future reviews.) On to the review!

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!


    The Ming Dynasty has fallen to the Manchus, and the Shaolin temples have fallen as well. However, Hung Hsi-kuan (Chen Kuan-tai), a famed rebel, manages to escape the Qing forces. General Che Kang (Zhu Mu) is determined to see him dead, as is his top henchman, the brutal Lord Teh Hsiang (Wong Ching). Fortunately for our hero, Hung is more than capable of returning the favor to any solider that gets in his way, leaving an impressive body count in his wake. Another shaolin loyalist, the impulsive Fang Shi-yu (Alexander Fu Sheng), is also on the run, and encounters one of Che's henchmen, Mai Hsin (Feng Yi). Mai plays it smart and tells Fang that there's a murderous bandit on the loose killing innocent people, and asks for his help in capturing him. Fang agrees, and Fang and Hung meet in battle, with Hung being captured thanks to some backstabbing. When Fang leans the truth, he must regain the trust of his fellow rebels and rescue Hung from Che Kang's clutches - and small army of goons.

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    I'm not typically a big fan of Shaw Bros.'s martial arts films outside of a small handful, and Heroes Two definitely falls into that handful. As is typical of a Chang Cheh movie, the story is a simple one, revolving around the concept of camaraderie and brotherhood between patriotic heroes. (Chang directed more than 100 movies for Shaw Bros., specializing in "heroic bloodshed" movies such as this one, and he deemed it necessary to stick to formulas in order to have such a prolific output.) And thanks to the performances of Alexander Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-tai, it works. Fu Sheng makes for a very engaging Fang Shi-yu, a light-hearted smart-aleck who is way too easily duped, but whose earnest efforts to make things right make him sympathetic. Chen Kuan-tai doesn't really get to do all that much in this movie aside from fight and be a prisoner, but his strong screen presence and solid chemistry with Fu Sheng make what we see of him all the more enjoyable. As for our villains, Zhu Mu and Wong Ching certainly look and act menacing, and we get to see Fung Hak-on and Feng Yi, veteran henchmen of many a kung fu movie, among the movie's mini-boss squad. Fong Sam makes the most of what little she gets to do as the one female character in the movie, a rarity for this genre. Hers is the most down-to-earth performance - as is typical of the genre, the rest of the cast, even the best performers, have a tendency to ham things up.

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    Although the film makes plenty of time for character establishment and to establish the relationships between them, there's still a ton of fight scenes in this movie, choreographed by Lau Kar-leung, who frequently collaborated with Chang Cheh. For the most part, they're pretty good when our leads are taking on a bunch of Qing henchmen - or each other. Alexander Fu Sheng's grace and flexibility contrasts well with Chen Kuan-tai's raw power and ferocity. Unlike Hollywood fight scenes, the takes are long and shot with wide-angle framing so as to capture the fighters' movements. (In an interview, Chen Kuan-tai stated that action shots could contain anywhere between 15 - 60 specific moves. One such 60-move shot required nine takes to get right.) It's only when they go up against the main villains that the action falters. Zhu Mu and Wong Ching look formidable, but their moves are painfully stiff and slow, and they don't come off as impressive fighters as a result. (Maybe I'm just spoiled by the likes of later villain actors.) I'm also disappointed that Fung Hak-on, who plays one of the main underlings, doesn't get to show what he can do in this film as a fighter - he's just a punching bag. I've seen this guy credibly go up against Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen, so I was hoping he would have picked up some of the slack from the other bad guy actors, but nope. If the villains had been better screen fighters, Heroes Two might have knocked Heroes of the East (1979) from it's "favorite Shaw Bros. movie" spot.

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    Heroes Two has its technical merits as well, as do most Shaw Bros. films. It's a grand spectacle to look at, thanks to detailed sets, lavish costumes, and dozens of extras, all vividly shot by cinematographer Kung Mu-to. A student of Japanese jidai geki and chanbara cinema, Chang Cheh borrows one of their techniques during the final battle, using a red filter to de-emphasize the blood and gore when a redshirt gets killed by an enemy mook. Wang Fu-ling's musical score is catchy (almost too catchy - I've had it stuck in my head ever since I watched this), reminiscent of an old Hollywood Western. Long-time readers know I'm quite picky about pacing, and Heroes Two strikes the kind of balance that I like. The action scenes are exciting enough that they don't drag, and the ones with the villains who can't screen fight that well are thankfully short, and the character building scenes keep me invested without feeling like filler in between people getting beaten up.

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    Hitting theaters in January 1974, Heroes Two made decent money at the Hong Kong box office, and as I said before, it launched a whole series of Chang Cheh films about the survivors of the shaolin temple continuing their fight for freedom. Among kung fu movie fans, particularly of Shaw Bros. movies, Heroes Two is well regarded, and even though it won't go on my favorites list, I'll probably want to see it again at least a couple of times at some point. If you're interested, it's been released on DVD with both English dubbing and a Chinese language track with English subtitles, whatever you prefer. It's also available for viewing for free if you have an Amazon Prime account, although there's only an English dubbed option.

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    Hardcore kung fu movie fans will surely enjoy Heroes Two on account of its plentiful action and the chance to see Shaw's top talent at work. If you're a newbie, it makes for a decent introduction to the genre. Either way, it's worth a watch.

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    Jimmy Stewart is at his most charming in Harvey, a delightful little comedy about a man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit.

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    Of all the stars the Golden Age of Hollywood produced, James Stewart (1908-1997) is among the most beloved and renowned. Born in Indiana, Stewart got his start as an actor while attending a boarding school in Pennsylvania. joining a drama club and choir among other extra-curricular activities. Although he spent his first summer break back home working construction, he would spend the following two summers on stage with his friend, a stage magician - not as an actor, but musician, as he'd learned to play the accordion and piano as a child. At his father's insistence, Stewart attended Princeton instead of the United States Naval Academy, becoming the only freshman allowed to perform in Princeton's Triangle Club. He majored in architecture, but doubted whether he'd be able to find work in that field in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that kicked off the Great Depression. Some college friends of his got him a gig with a summer stock group called the University Players, although he mostly worked as crew, building and designing sets while getting the occasional bit part. The Players made their way to New York in 1932 for a Broadway gig, and Stewart went with them, rooming with fellow future Hollywood star Henry Fonda, who would be a lifelong friend of his. Stewart began getting more and better roles in a variety of Broadway productions from 1932 through 1934, and he made his film debut in 1934 in the Warner Bros. short Art Trouble (1934), starring Shemp Howard. However, it was his performance in the Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934) that earned him a shot at a screen test - and a contract - with MGM

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    Despite his acting talents, Stewart found it hard to snag decent roles on account of his natural shyness and stuttering voice (later to be hallmarks of his more famous early roles), and at first, he was used more often for screen-testing other actors. His first film with MGM, The Murder Man (1935), had him playing a supporting role opposite Spencer Tracy, but it wasn't well-received. His next few films were hit-or-miss, spread out over several different genres, including playing nicely against type in After the Thin Man (1936). However, things started to change for Stewart when MGM loaned him out to Columbia at the request of Frank Capra, who thought he'd be ideal to star in You Can't Take in With You (1938). The film was a huge critical and box-office success, even winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards (as did Capra for Best Director). In 1939, Stewart and Capra teamed up again for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also a big hit, earning Stewart his first Academy Award nomination. Next came his first Western, a genre he'd be closely identified with later on, Destry Rides Again (1939). More hits followed, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), his only Oscar win (and one he felt was undeserved). Although his father repeatedly tried to get him to quit acting, Stewart nevertheless sent him his Oscar statuette, which he proudly displayed in his store.

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    James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

    However, it wasn't his father's wishes that compelled him to leave Hollywood for a time, but the impending outbreak of World War II. (As much as I'd love to cover Stewart's distinguished military service, I I think that's best saved for a different review, just for pacing purposes - this section's getting pretty long as it is.) After the war, Stewart struggled not only with rebuilding his Hollywood career, but also with PTSD - something he was able to channel into his vivid performance in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), his first role in five years and one of his best remembered. Unfortunately, It's a Wonderful Life was a commercial flop, as were his next few movies. He returned to the stage to take over the leading role in Harvey, a hugely successful play penned by Mary Coyle Chase. Stewart stayed with the production for three years, and when Universal decided to bring it to the big screen, Stewart came along with it, as did Josephine Hull, who played his long-suffering sister. Harvey's stage success meant a huge payout for the film rights, but it was money well spent, given the quality of the film.

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    It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Not many people have a rabbit as a best friend - particularly a pooka, a benevolent but mischief-prone figure from Irish lore, who manifests itself as an invisible six-foot-tall talking rabbit. Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), a wealthy, middle-aged eccentric claims to be such a man, referring to his dear friend as "Harvey." Dowd takes great pleasure in introducing Harvey to everyone he happens to strike up a conversation with, and not surprisingly, most people are put off by a middle-aged man with an imaginary pal. His sister, Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull), is increasingly despondent over the impact Harvey is having on his niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne)'s social prospects, and she decides to have Elwood committed. However, when she tells Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) about Harvey, Sanderson believes she's the crazy one and ends up committing her instead. A clever comedy of errors of all sorts ensues, as Dr. Sanderson and his nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow) and short-tempered orderly Mr. Wilson (Jesse White) try to track Dowd down. In the midst of the chaos, we discover that maybe Harvey isn't as imaginary as everyone thinks he is...

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    The role of Elwood P. Dowd seems like it would be a very easy one to overplay, even for the best of actors. Fortunately, this is Jimmy Stewart we're talking about, who strikes the right balance a role like this requires. It's not just how he talks and listens to Harvey, but his artful movement and body language, which does a lot to sell his belief that Harvey is right there with him. Another thing that makes his performance - and the film as a whole - work for me is how well Stewart brings out Dowd's naturally gentle, kindly personality. He conveys a sincere interest in meeting new people, wanting to get to know them over a drink or dinner, and listening to whatever they may have to say. It makes him a very endearing, likable character, the kind of person you wish there were more of in real life.

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    The rest of Harvey's cast pull their own weight quite well, and I don't think there's any dead weight among them. Josephine Hull is hysterical as Veta, especially in the aftermath of being mistaken for a mental patient. However, she also has her sweeter moments as well, particularly at the end of the film. (Stewart said that Hull had the hardest role, having to believe and not believe in Harvey at the same time.) Charles Drake and Peggy Dow are the straight men of the show, the calming voices genuinely concerned with Dowd's well-being and wanting to understand him better. I wouldn't say they have the most smoldering chemistry with each other, but what we get is certainly serviceable, and most likely appropriately limited by the demands of their scripted personalities. However, they also demonstrate perfect comedic timing in numerous scenes, and they pull it off so naturally, with nothing even close to a knowing wink to the audience. Cecil Kellaway's performance as Dr. Chumley, the straitlaced administrator of the asylum, also has a lot of warmth to it, especially when he discovers the truth about Harvey.

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    Aside from the performances, Harvey holds up well on a technical level as well. It strikes that perfect sweet spot between not rushing and not dragging. At Jimmy Stewart's suggestion, cinematographer William H. Daniels used wide shots whenever Harvey was "in frame," which I thought was a clever touch. However, like everything else about the film, it's a subtle one, and one I don't think I'd have picked up on had I not known that little detail beforehand. The filmmakers had considered having Harvey appear at the very end of the movie, but this decision was quickly scrapped. The first time this had been tried on stage was also the last, due to the scathing audience feedback. As for the comedic elements, I've found that it's hard to talk about the brilliance of a really good comedy, particularly when it comes to timing and deadpan delivery of some clever lines, so you'll just have to take my word on that part. (This is one reason I don't review more comedies.)

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    Harvey wasn't a bomb, but it wasn't a huge hit either, and the cost of the film rights to the play ate up quite a bit of the film's profits. It did attract strong critical acclaim, with Stewart earning his fourth of five Academy Award nominations, and Josephine Hull taking one home for Best Supporting Actress. However, one critic felt that it was too easy of a role for Stewart, who was basically playing his same-old screen persona. This may have been what prompted Stewart to take on more challenging and darker roles later on, including Westerns and numerous Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. His performance in Harvey remained among his favorites, however, and when it was released on VHS in 1990 (which went on to be a huge seller), he recorded a special introduction to the film. If you want to catch it, it's been released on both DVD and blu-ray, and it looks like you can snag it at a decent price - and, of course, there's always TCM if you have it.

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    I really can't think of a better way to describe Harvey other than "sweet." It's a delightful little comedy with lots of charm to it, and one I definitely recommend.

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