Friday, April 5, 2024

The RED RYDER Book You Will Probably Never Read

I finished reading a book this week that you will probably never read. It concerns "America's famous fighting cowboy," the red-haired, red-shirted hero first seen in a series of short stories by writer-cartoonist Fred Harman. The comic strip was adapted into a cliffhanger serial, a series of movies, unsold television pilots, comic books, and a weekly radio program. Red Ryder was a two-fisted tornado who lived with his aunt, his sidekick Buckskin, and his ward, Little Beaver, in the western settlement of Painted Valley. In 2013, Bear Manor Media, publishers located in Albany, Georgia, published a 200 page book titled Red Ryder & Little Beaver: Painted Valley Troubleshooters

The book documents Fred Harman's newspaper comic strip heroes extensively. Having been a fan of Bernard Drew since he wrote two books about Hopalong Cassidy, you can imagine how pleased I was to discover he wrote a book documenting the history of Red Ryder. My curiosity motivated seeking out a copy to buy... and there lies the rub, as Hamlet put it. The book is already out of print and now established with an asking price at least three times the initial cover price. Initially I assumed the adage, "You snooze, you lose" applied here, but there turned out to be a back story behind all this. 

A short time after the book became available, the owners of the trademarked property contacted the publishing company issuing a formal "cease and desist" letter. Legally, anyone can write a book when the facts are presented encyclopedic in nature. And that is exactly what Bernard Drew did. But there is a difference between copyrights and trademarks and King Features Syndicate, Inc., for reasons unknown, decided the book was not in their best interests. Naturally, the publishing company offered a royalty for book sales, but the company refused them flat. A debate could have been exchanged between both parties -- possibly costing each side unnecessary expense in legal fees. The publishing company weighed the options and decided to pull the book from distribution. The adventures of Red Ryder pre-dates a baby boomer generation and combatting an aging fan base, book sales would not have justified legal expenses. Financially, this would have been a wash at best.

Intelligent reasoning could form the backbone of a debate coming from both sides, but the more important problem is evident: how necessary is it for accurate and thorough documentation for preservation sake? This book accomplished that very purpose. From a biography of Fred Harman, the origin of the comic strip, original stories in Red Ryder comic books, documentation about the radio program (more extensive than any write-up found in encyclopedias), how the character changed during World War II, public appearances in rodeo tours and parades, the reason why the television pilots failed to sell, Republic Pictures and the motion-pictures they produced, Little Beaver Town in Albuquerque, the Fred Harman Art Museum... it's all here.

Red Ryder Paint Book (circa 1952)
Which leads me to wonder why King Features Syndicate, Inc. would not want their property documented extensively? A number of literary pop culture heroes from the past have practically faded away with little -- if any -- interest. Who today can name the actor who played the title role of radio's The Adventures of Jimmie Allen? Who remembers the musical theme of Silver Eagle? Decades have passed with incorrect information about Straight Arrow, claiming he was an Indian masquerading as a white man, now relegated to semi-annual magazine articles to remind people that Straight Arrow was a Comanche Indian who dressed as rancher Steve Adams by day, and served justice against cattle rustlers as Straight Arrow... not the other way around as so many encyclopedias incorrectly state.

Sure, you can browse the internet and find historians offering bits of information ranging from details about the comic strips, including publishing dates, scans of the covers of comic books and movie posters. King Features is not making any profit from those websites. Bernard Drew's book could put a little money into the pockets of King Features. After all, isn't that the reason why they retained the trademarks? 

In another 20 years, The Adventures of Red Ryder will probably fade away and without a comprehensive treatment available at our fingertips, a future generation may know nothing about Fred Harman's much-loved character except what they read in minor write-ups in encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and John Dunning's On The Air (1998). A museum may even consider a display promoting the art and stories of Red Ryder, but exactly what will they have to pull from their reference library for consultation? 

Extremely few copies were printed and sold before the book was pulled from distribution, so if you are reading this take note: buy your copy today at the lowest price you can find. Five years from now you can brag that what you have on your bookshelf is extremely rare and value. It will certainly continue going up in price over the years. Someone is already offering one for $1,000; thankfully I paid a lot less than that! As for the author, his efforts were not in vain. Authors find amusement witnessing hefty price tags of their own books, after they go out of print. For Bernard Drew, this just happened a lot sooner than expected.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Return of DICK TRACY

DICK TRACY is making a return in a six-issue series of new comics this April, and with a new take. Prior comics reprinted the newspaper strip which had a style and format of its own. This time a group of talented artists and writers are involved with a completely new rendition, darker and more adult in tone. To be fair, Chester Gould wanted to make the character and his adventures hard-boiled and raw… but over the years the primary focus was on the colorful characters. So it comes as no surprise that new writers wanted to do their own rendition in a format that Chester Gould would have approved. 

"The world of Dick Tracy is rife with complex characters, twisted motives, and dangerous corners - and we really want to lean into the essence of what Chester Gould created without trying to imitate Dick Tracy's creator," said Alex Segura in a statement. "What Michael, Geraldo, Chantelle, and I are cooking up uses all the ingredients fans are familiar with - hopefully creating something that feels fresh and vibrant while honoring what's come before. We don't just want to tell a fun Dick Tracy story - we want to craft a great crime saga, too."


"Our goal in making a new Dick Tracy comic isn't to be kitsch or try to recapture what Chester Gould did so masterfully - I can't even presume to have that gift," added Michael Moreci. "Instead, we want to take the essence of what makes it work and recalibrate it for both new and old audiences alike."


"This isn't your grandfather's Dick Tracy - though it will absolutely have all the elements you know and love," said Chantelle Aimée Osman. "Having the opportunity to introduce Chester Gould's beloved character to a whole new generation of readers is an honor, and Alex, Michael, and Geraldo are absolutely the creators to bring Dick Tracy, Tess Trueheart, and all your favorite villains into the twenty-first century."

"Dick Tracy is definitely one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time with a unique rogues' gallery," said artist Geraldo Borges. "The story written by Alex, Michael and Chantelle allowed me to play with Chiaroscuro, a strong black and white contrast. And talking about contrast, it will be awesome seeing the yellow and bright Dick Tracy coat and his cartoonish villains, side by side, with dark streets and a grounded book." 


Dick Tracy #1 is published by Mad Cave Studios, in partnership with Tribune Content Agency and New Wave Comics, on April 24.


Thursday, March 14, 2024

WORLD OF GIANTS: The 1959 TV Series

During a secret mission behind the Iron Curtain, a freak accident involving an exploding rocket shrinks American secret agent Mel Hunter (played by actor Marshall Thompson) to the size of six inches. But instead of ending his career, “The Bureau” he works for takes advantage of the pocket-sized operative to infiltrate areas closed off to the average G-man. Hunter is aided by his full-sized partner, Agent Bill Winters (played by Arthur Franz). 


World of Giants was a short-lived TV series that lasted a mere 13 half-hour episodes, too few to warrant reruns on television. As a result, the series fell into obscurity except from fans of science-fiction TV programs that made this program – over a period of time – a Holy Grail. Finding 16mm prints of this series was few and far between. Some collectors of vintage television will confess that over the decades they could only come across one or two episodes.


All of which makes this new DVD release something to jump for joy. Thanks to a company called ClassicFlix, all 13 episodes have been restored from archival prints and now available in gorgeous quality. I just spent the last two weeks watching these episodes, rediscovering how much fun it is to watch standard 1950s television production for syndicated series like World of Giants


Touting a $4,000,000 budget (according to Variety), CBS tapped prolific production company Ziv-TV to produce World of Giants, which started shooting in early 1958—with an expected fall network debut. Production was later halted when CBS was unable to obtain sponsorship for World of Giants, causing the network to delay the series premiere by a full year. But when shooting wrapped in 1959, World of Giants was still without a sponsor and CBS scrapped the idea of network distribution entirely which allowed the program to go into first-run syndication starting in 1961.


With production halted at one point in time, the format of the series went through an overhaul – and somewhat better than the earlier entries in the series. The initial four episodes followed the same formula week in and week out. Bill Winters, six-feet tall, would usually be knocked out by the criminal and subjected to some danger – such as the building caught on fire. Mel Hunter, six inches tall, would have to phone in to the department to fetch a rescue party, but often found himself defending against a wild animal. In one episode it was a cat, in another a dog, in another a possum… you get the idea.


After production resumed, an overhaul was devised to the program. Actress Marcia Henderson was added to the weekly cast as Miss Brown, a secretary for both secret agents, who maintained a doll house for Mel, fetching him coffee and food three times a day, and adding a comedic-romantic element to the series. 


World of Giants might have promoted high production values, but the average cost of each episode was $27,000. The episodes were directed by such luminaries as Nathan Juran (20 Million Miles to Earth), Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds), even though they directed episodes of other TV programs. Production designer and art director Robert Kinoshita was involved. He was known for his creation of iconic sci-fi robots such as “Robby the Robot” (Forbidden Planet) and for art direction on Lost in Space.


Like many programs of the 1950s, supporting cast included the occasional surprise: Peggie Castle, Gavin MacLeod, Tom Brown, Berry Kroeger, Bill Walker, Pamela Duncan, Ziva Rodann, Douglas Dick, Maria Palmer, Narda Onyx, Edgar Barrier, Nestor Paiva, Gregg Palmer and Allison Hayes all make appearances. The episode with Allison Hayes was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. 


ClassicFlix went to considerable expense to gain possession of the 13 archival prints and then restore them to gorgeous quality and pay the licensing fees. For that reason, they deserve a boost in sales. Looking for a birthday gift to give a friend this year? Grab a couple of these from Amazon and help get those sales numbers up.


Thursday, March 7, 2024

THE LIFE OF RILEY (1949 movie)

For cinephiles, one of those hidden surprises comes in the form of a movie that turned out to be above average – and one the viewer was not expecting. A perfect example is The Life of Riley, a motion-picture produced in late 1948 and released in April of 1949. Based on the popular radio program starring William Bendix, Rosemary DeCamp, Lanny Rees and John Brown, who also agreed to reprise their roles for the big screen. 


Irving Brecher, who co-created the radio program in the early forties, and wrote most of the scripts, also directed this movie for Universal-International. The story concerns a well-meaning factory employee who is struggling financially and finding himself in scenarios that is embarrassing to his close friends. His career gets a lift when he receives a promotion, but this causes resentment among his fellow workers who believe it is due to the fact his daughter is engaged to the factory owner's son. When Junior, Riley’s son, discovers that the daughter’s happiness is at risk to the jerk of a wealthy son, Riley comes to the rescue. 


The Life of Riley radio program was originally conceived by Irving Brecher and Groucho Marx, a situation comedy originally conceived for Groucho to play the lead. The comedian went another direction, however, leaving Brecher to find another actor – William Bendix – to play the lead. 


At the time this movie was being produced, the television counterpart went up on NBC television with Jackie Gleason in the lead. The sponsor of the radio program, Pabst Blue Ribbon, wanted to expand the potential to television. Contracted for 26 weeks, Gleason played the role on television admirably, helping to boost sales for the beer company, while Bendix played the role on radio. A number of reference guides inaccurately claim Bendix could not get out of a studio contract at Paramount, but the real reason he was unable to play the role on television for that brief spell was because Bendix was busy filming the motion-picture. Following the completion of the 26 weeks, Gleason went off to do bigger, greater things, while Bendix made himself available for the television rendition, ultimately playing the role on both radio and television. 


The 1949 motion-picture has yet to be released commercially on DVD and this is a darn shame. The script is top-notch, not the type of story you expect from an adaptation of a radio situation comedy, with an ending that almost brings a tear to your eye. And, along the way, some radio in-jokes such as Howard Duff reprising his role as Sam Spade as Junior listens to a non-referenced radio detective program adds to the fun. If you can find this movie to watch, I recommend you make the effort. Your will be rewarded.


Interesting trivia: The screenplay was adapted into a hardcover novel, released in the same year as the movie, and is now a pricey collectible.