Friday, August 24, 2018

The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook

With the American Circus a dying breed, it warms my heart to see that there are a number of good folks who are taking the time to dig into archives, newspaper files and track down family relatives to compile reference guides documenting and preserving the big top. Keith Webb and Joseph F. Laredo recently published The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook with dozens of rare and previously unpublished photographs. 

Little did I know that the circus was featured in the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic, Saboteur, the great animal trainer Clyde Beatty would join forces with the Russell Brothers Circus, and that silver screen cowboys made professional appearances over the years: including Hoot Gibson, Reb Russel, and a brief appearance by Ken Maynard.

Hollywood celebrities were also part of the program from time to time, often to promote their motion-pictures. The circus sometimes crept into the participation of film production. The elephants in the circus were transported to the Iverson Movie Ranch for Tarzan's New York Adventure. Johnny Sheffield, known as "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," was among the endless parade of movie personalities dining in the Russell Brothers cook hour on tour, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, and others. Maureen O'Hara apparently possessed a tomboy streak so she took to the animals. There is a story about John Barrymore drinking too much at the circus, and how the circus helped with the war cause during the Second World War.

The book is available at

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Lone Ranger and The Mystery Ranch

In 1936, three years after The Lone Ranger made his debut on radio, the publishing company of Grosset & Dunlap contracted with George W. Trendle to produce a series of books based on characters of The Lone Ranger and Tonto. It can be assumed that the books sold very well because a total of 18 were published from 1936 to 1956.

The first was penned by Gaylord Du Bois, and titled simply: The Lone Ranger. After reading the novel, both Trendle and Striker were disappointed. This was not at all the character portrayed on the radio program. Striker edited (and slightly re-wrote) the novel for a second edition, hence why there are two versions of the novel, each one credited to a different author. From that day forward, Striker began writing The Lone Ranger novels. (The later ones did not originate from Striker's typewriter.)

I haven't read all of the novels but having read more than half of them I can attest that two of them are must-reads. I'll focus on one of them, the second novel (and the first written by Striker following his disapproval of the way Du Bois handled the first novel): The Lone Ranger and The Mystery Ranch (1938), because it's one of the renditions of the Texas Ranger massacre, without the later creation of Butch Cavendish.

In the novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto are on the trail of the Night Legion, the notorious, ruthless gang of criminals responsible for an untold number of crimes across the States and territories, and responsible for the Texas Ranger massacre that forced the sole survivor to don a mask and set out to seek justice. The Lone Ranger and Tonto stumble on the dying testimony of Joe Frisby, overhearing a plot complicated by two halves of a treasure map. After rescuing two young women arriving from the East, Sally and Marge Whitcomb, from an ambush plotted by members of the Night Legion, The Lone Ranger deposits the girls at the ranch owned by their uncle, a known reclusive, whom they haven't seen in more than a decade. After discovering that Uncle Whitcomb’s place is also nicknamed The Hoodoo Ranch, and someone there leaked information to the leader of the notorious gang, the hooded leader, The Lone Ranger and Tonto agree to keep an eye on the ranch for the girls’ safety.

Fran Striker
Meanwhile, a council of war is gathered in the office of Sheriff Cook, who recruits a number of deputies to help purge the town of Sundown of the notorious gang. The horrors of the Night Legion have swept across the countryside but with The Lone Ranger in the area, the Sheriff is certain the gang will be apprehended. When Sally finds a blue vest worn by one of the men who killed Joe Frisby, she sneaks off the ranch to alert the Sheriff. Marge, attempting to cover for her sister, is escorted off the ranch by her uncle and soon learns that he is the hooded leader that has masterminded the numerous crimes across the plains. He plans to eliminate the girl after he discovers where she and her sister hid the remaining half of the map. Without possession of her piece, Joe Frisby’s half of the map is worthless. Upon learning where she hid it in the house, he returns to the ranch.

The Lone Ranger, meanwhile, has discovered a cellar underneath the house where an old man is being starved to death. He is the real uncle and the leader of the notorious gang has been masquerading as the girls' uncle. During their confrontation, The Lone Ranger shoots the killer’s gun out of his hand and beats a confession out of the criminal as to the whereabouts of Marge. The much-feared boss becomes a sniveling coward, begging and pleading for mercy. After learning that she was being kept against her will in Flynn’s Cave, the law races out to apprehend the gang members and rescue the girl.

While the plot is simple enough, the back story is more complex: this novel was loosely based on the radio broadcast of November 2, 1933. (more about this in a few moments and I promise you, it'll be a corker...)

The novel helps describe the characters not as they are seen in the Clayton Moore television program, but as Striker envisioned them when he wrote the novel, and the radio dramas. In chapter one, Tonto was described as smaller than The Lone Ranger, with a bronzed, high-cheek boned face. His long, black hair was parted in the center of his head and drawn back tightly to be fashioned in a war-knot at the back of the neck. As for The Lone Ranger, Striker described him not physically, but as others saw him in the West in the following narrative:

"His daring acts of courage in the name of Justice made him known throughout the West. To many of the pioneers he existed as an almost legendary character. Only a small portion of those who knew of him had seen him, and none of these had ever seen his face unmasked. Many times, his safety had depended upon his knowledge of a cave or other place of hiding. Many outlaws had sworn to kill the masked rider for his work in bringing countless desperadoes to justice and breaking up untold rustling gangs and outlaw bands. Even lawmen wanted The Lone Ranger. Only a few had been convinced that this strange figure was not an outlaw, and those few thanked God for the man who had no thought of personal glory or reward… for the man whose only purpose in life seemed to be to help the deserving and punish the lawless in a region where laws were few and those few, seldom enforced."

One of the most fascinating benefits from reading the Striker novels are the trivial matters which geeks like myself find amusing. Examples? After burying a dead man, whom Tonto and The Lone Ranger found hanging from a tree, the masked man pays his respects in an unusual way.  

"The shallow grave was finally prepared, and the body, wrapped in one of The Lone Ranger’s blankets, was gently lowered to its final resting place. Then, hat in hand, The Lone Ranger did a rare thing. In the darkness, he removed his mask. For an instant, while his clean-cut face was lifted toward the sky in silent prayer for the departed soul, and while Tonto’s head was bowed, the moon again broke through the clouds. Tonto echoed the white man’s 'Amen.'"

Chapter two offers a description of The Lone Ranger’s guns, including the fact that it had ivory butts. The same chapter revealed the notorious outlaw gang, The Night Legion, and how Tonto used miraculous cures to save The Lone Ranger (pp. 12-13) and Chapter 13 (pp. 113-114). Chapter five revealed Tonto’s friendship with The Lone Ranger.  

"Tonto’s hand showed white across the knuckles from the way he’d gripped the branch in tension! Though the Indian had yet to kill his first man, and though he knew it was against the principals of The Lone Ranger, his companion, to shoot to kill even the most evil of outlaws, he had been ready to shoot the Boss, if his masked friend has been killed."

Chapter 13 reveals that The Lone Ranger and Tonto rarely woke after the sunrise. The Lone Ranger’s cry of "Heigh-Yo Silver!" was explained at the end of the same chapter, as he shouted loudly to his great white horse when escaping custody of the Sheriff and his deputies, who temporarily assumed he was a bandit until his cry of escape gave the Sheriff cause to tell his men to hold back their fire.  

"His modesty made The Lone Ranger totally unaware of the way his ringing cry had spread throughout the region. He had no way of knowing Sheriff Cook’s new attitude toward him. As far as The Lone Ranger knew, his sudden burst for freedom had made both him and Tonto outlaws, sought by the men of Showdown for the murder of Joe Frisby. Now, he must be more careful than ever as he tracked down the Boss of the Night Legion."
Chapter 17 revealed the color of The Lone Ranger’s eyes: grey. Chapter 19 revealed The Lone Ranger was right handed. The final chapter in the book revealed The Lone Ranger’s anger towards the man responsible for the massacre of his close friends. After beating the Boss into a corner and revealing the criminal as a sniveling coward, begging and pleading for mercy…  

"The Lone Ranger had no place in his heart for mercy of sympathy. Hanging would follow in due course, but first, there was an unholy satisfaction in feeling his fists punish the hateful creature whose sadistic nature brought torture and death to so many fine men of the West."

The closing chapter reveals The Lone Ranger’s intent to continue the good work they accomplished from this adventure.
    “We have the Night Legion,” the masked man told his Indian companion, “but there are so many countless other outlaws to be run down and there are so many people who need Justice, that… well, good friend, I think as long as we’ve made the name Lone Ranger mean something, we can continue to help people!”
    Tonto nodded, agreeable to anything his tall white friend suggested.
    “I’ll not unmask just yet! I want to carry on, just as the Texas Rangers would, if the Night Legion hadn’t wiped them out.”

Earle Graser, radio's The Lone Ranger
Remember I mentioned this novel was adapted from the November 2, 1933 radio broadcast with Earle Graser playing the role? (The early radio broadcasts were never titled.) Well, check this out for similarity. 

Plot: Molly and Madge Stebbins arrive in Texas from Louisiana to manage their Uncle’s Bar Square Ranch, only to discover their uncle had recently died and suspicion mounts that he was stealing and re-branding other ranchers’ cattle. Tonto keeps tabs on Senor Pablo Casabo, whom The Lone Ranger suspects kidnapped and hid Uncle Dan and is keeping him captive till he can secure the ranch for himself through a signed deed. The Masked Man, meanwhile, rides to Mexico to fetch evidence against Casabo and returns to find the girls have been evicted against their will. Angry, The Lone Ranger barges into the house and against eight men, the Masked Man sought deadly vengeance with his guns and made arrangements for the girls to return home… thanks to the arrival of Uncle Dan, who confesses that he was kept prisoner and forced to sign the land over.

Keeping in mind that phraseology from the past can often be interpreted as "politically incorrect" by today's standards, I'd like to think that we're mature enough today to understand that slang from the thirties was the norm at the time. For historical purposes, I am reprinting a few script pages below without any form of editing. Here, you'll see what might be the only time The Lone Ranger took the law into his own hands with his ivory-handled guns. And a side of The Lone Ranger that has rarely been explored anywhere else.

ANNOUNCER:   And so the two girls are forcibly taken from the house and the ruthless, unscrupulous Pablo Casabo moves in.  The Lone Ranger is returning from his trip into the Mexican territory and has finally reached Tonto, who is filled with news..

TONTO:    They take gals from house.

RANGER:    Who did.  Casabo?

TONTO:    Ugh.  Tonto, me watch, me no can do help.

RANGER:    Where are the girls now?

TONTO:    They go, widdow Taylor... they stay there.


TONTO:    Nope.  Not hurt, but mad.

RANGER:    They refused to go back east eh/

TONTO:    Ugh.  Young un, she say her cowboy him come back mebbe some day.

RANGER:    Um, Tonto, I would not want a finer girl than Madge Stebbins.

TONTO:    Ugh.  But what you do?

RANGER:    Who is in the ranch house now?  Casabo?

TONTO:    Ugh!  Him an’ Greasers, mebbe eight, mebbe nine.

RANGER:    All of them living there?

TONTO:    Ugh.

RANGER:    Alright!  Tonto, I’ll want BOTH guns now.








RANGER:    Is the mask snug and tight?

TONTO:    HEAP SNUG !  Silver, him see you.  Look him ears!


SOUND    Distant whinny.

TONTO:    Silver, him know him ride to action.


SOUND    Hoofs approach.


SOUND    Start hoofs fast, and fade.
MUSIC    Interlude.

ANNOUNCER:    Casabo sits in his newly acquired home with a great sense of satisfaction at the ease with in which his plot has carried thru.  His safety is assured by the eight men that live in the house with him, all of them handy with knife orgun.  Whena single man with a masked face brust open the door, Casabo felt perfectly sure of the fact that his own life was safe..


PABLO:    Ah, you come to see me senot?

RANGER:    Casabo, you’re going to be KILLED!  Draw your gun, so I wont have to shoot you without giving you a chance to defend yourself.  You’ve robbed, lied, cheated swindled, stolen and killed and you’ve been warned by me before.

PABLO:    But I do not know you senor..

RANGER:    These guns, will send a silver bullet into that vile heart of yours!



SOUND    Distant shot.


SOUND    Shot.


SOUND    Shots ad libbed to fade out!
MUSIC    Interlude.

ANNOUNCER:    One after another of the henchman of the Mexican leader draw aim at The Lone Ranger, the heavy guns with their bullets of Silver were unerring and when the both guns held nothing but empty chambers The Lone Ranger, strode from the house, the victor, due to the uncanny speed of his fire and the deadly accuracy of his aim.  In the home of the widow, the girls are approached by a white haried man, who walks with a limp.  It is a full week after the shooting affair---

DAN:    Aint yew the Stebbins gals?

MADGE:    Yes, I’m Madge and this is Molly.

DAN:    Wal bless my soul Molly, yore the image o’ yore Maw...


DAN:    Yup.  That’s me gals!


DAN:    That thar now, I know what’s happened tuh ye, an’ what yuh been told, I was took prisoner by that thar crook an’ he tried tuh make me sign away what I was aimin’ tuh give yew gals, but I wouldn’t do it, an’ whilst his men was tryin’ tew force me tuh sign papers an’ things, this yere Pablo, he FORGED my name tuh show yew gals, an’ then a feller wearin’ a mask, an’ ridin’ a white hoss...


The reason I reprinted the script was because the recording is not known to exist in recorded form. The radio drama, however, was recreated on stage at the 2010 Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. Leah Biel played the role of Madge and Roy Thinnes from TV's The Invaders played the role of Tonto. The convention policy is to do recreations of "lost" radio programs, as a necessary part of historical preservation.

In closing, if you ever find a copy of The Lone Ranger and The Mystery Ranch (1938), I recommend you buy it and read it. Grosset & Dunlap books vary in price. Finding one with the original dust jacket will cause the price to go up. However, if you prefer to find one without the original dust jacket (and yes, that's easy to do), you can easily find a copy for $10 or less, which is a great price. (Avoid the 1980s paperback reprint. It's briefly edited and costs about the same as the G&D original anyway.)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mae West: Between the Covers (Book Review)

"In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out: I have been misunderstood."
           -- Mae West

Mae West: Between the Covers, edited by Michael Gregg Michaud, is not a biography of Mae West though first impression from the outside was that this was a 540-page biography. I welcome a biography that can dig up more facts than the prior volumes but this is not that type of book.

The name Mae West conjures up a sex symbol whose status diminished as a result of the Hayes Code,  but few remember that she broke box office records, earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" with She Done Him Wrong, and fought against William Randolph Hearst who insisted his editors avoid mention of her name in his newspapers. In private, she was different from her screen counterparts: he led a quiet, moral life. It was West herself who confessed, "I am a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment, and I give it to them." 

It is this last remark that makes up the majority of the book -- reprints of vintage magazine articles of the times, chronicling her career as it was documented on the newsstands beginning with an article from Liberty magazine, August 10, 1927. As most serious scholars and historians will attest, many articles in magazines and newspapers of the times were fluff pieces -- with quotes and information provided by the movie studios and their publicity departments. In short, we take what was on the printed page with a grain of salt. 

The earliest articles in this book provide interesting information on the stage plays she starred and co-starred, including one from 1929 that appeared in the International Police Bugle, printed and circulated in Detroit, Michigan. The year of 1933 featured numerous articles warning readers to be prepared for the Mae West that was coming to a theater near them, with such headlines as "Broadway's Most Daring Actress Drops Into Hollywood" and "Look Out! Here's Mae West!"

The supposed daring jewel heist from which Mae West was a victim is documented in the January 1933 issue of Movie Classic, Lew Garvey's fascinating article "I Fired Mae West for Doing the Shimmy," and "Mae West's Personal Maid Tells All" from January 1934 verified she was headline news of the time. Of amusement was a rash of articles from late 1933 and early 1934 suggesting sh knew more about sex than the average reader, with such articles as "Sex is Beautiful, Mae West Sex-plains It All," "Mae West Tells How to Handle Men," "Mae West Discusses Men and Sex Appeal" and "It's the Caveman Within Us Calling for Mae" that suggest she would say almost anything to hype her latest motion-picture.

For a fan of old-time radio, such as myself, the March 1934 issue of Radio Stars featured "Can Mae West Beat the Radio JINX?" The articles venture to May 1977 when After Dark printed an article about her personal and screen career.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read. If you love reading those old magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, you will enjoy this book. If I had but one complaint... there is no index which would have been great when someone like me wants to look up Cary Grant or Edgar Bergen to see how her name was reported alongside those personalities.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Christopher Robin (2018): Pooh has Pathos

In an era where superheroes destroy half of Manhattan in an effort to save the human race from an alien invasion, and young children cheer on as Jedi knights duel lightsabers on the silver screen, Christopher Robinmay be Disney's attempt to close down the Winnie the Pooh franchise to make way for more promising marketing potential. Christopher Robinwill not even come close in box office dollars compared to Soloor The Avengers: Infinity War, and one has to wonder if this was the studio's attempt to reboot a franchise that was destined to make way for Intergalactic fisticuffs. 

There are numerous movies that fall into a genre that has yet to be defined: husbands and fathers who are too busy with work to focus on the real importance of living. An element of fantasy creates intervention with the curmudgeon, long enough for them to catch a glimpse in the mirror and make amends. James Caan in Elf, Robin Williams in Hookand even James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life fall into this category. The latest entry in the Disney live-action film franchise based on lovable animated cartoon characters is Christopher Robin, and is not a motion-picture for children. The first third of the movie is so depressing that one almost wondered what type of storytelling was attempted. But a film addressing the psychological exploration of a man's mind during trial and tribulation would have been welcome had the film stayed on course.

The stories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods was clearly the imagination of a nine-year-old boy who, with no friends to play with, kept himself preoccupied with fairytale creatures that existed only as stuffed toys. As Robin grew up and forgot about his friends, they ceased to exist. After being reminded of Pooh through a cartoonish drawing he made as a child, Pooh wakes to find himself alone in the woods -- and sets out to find his friends. As Robin's boyhood memories come back to him, so do Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo. A number of quick cuts and questionable "displacement" of real-life artifacts establish that Pooh and friends are mere fantasy in the mind of Robin. One momentarily questions whether Christopher Robin (played by Ewan McGregor) is suffering from a breakdown as a result of a major deadline due Monday at work.

Over the years there have been motion-pictures centering on fantasy cartoon characters who get sucked into our world, defined as "the real world," establishing a difference between the two worlds, and vice versa. (Fat AlbertThe Smurfsand others come to mind.) They were dreadful because the suspension of disbelief is difficult to maintain with celluloid. Thankfully the computer graphics for Winnie the Pooh and friends is magnificent; acting by everyone in the cast is satisfactory under the circumstances. But asking people in the real world to interact with fictional characters during the final third of the movie is where the film, as depressing as it might have been up to that point, is flawed. Perhaps there had to be a Disney-esque ending to this movie... but I suspect the resolution, though somewhat expected in this genre, could have been applied without the whimsical humor.

Until the recent Star Wars and Marvel acquisitions, Winnie the Pooh was the second highest-grossing merchandise for the Walt Disney Company (with Mickey Mouse number one). As Winnie the Pooh himself says in the film, "I would have liked it to go on for a while longer." If this be Pooh's swan song, this would be a satisfactory final chapter.  

Friday, August 3, 2018

Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four

In 1994, Roger Corman produced a low-budget movie based on Marvel's popular comic book series, The Fantastic Four, starring Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab and Michael Bailey Smith. This marked the first of what would be four live action renditions. Regardless of the fact that the three movies to follow had huge million-dollar budgets, fan boys at comic cons generally agree that the 1994 film is perhaps the best of them. Yet, the Roger Corman film was never released theatrically in theaters, commercially on VHS or DVD, and continues to sit on the shelves gathering dust. In fact, the only way anyone can watch the movie is to buy a VHS or DVD bootleg. Even worse is the fact that the movie was produced with no true intention to release the film - ever!

In the mid-1980s, German film producers, Constantin Films, bought the screen rights from Marvel Comics for an initial $250,000. Among the terms of the contract was that the studio had to produce a movie within ten years or the screen rights would revert back to Marvel. Just before the ten-year option ran out, and in order to meet the terms of the contract, executives at Constantin hired Roger Corman and hurriedly put this film into production. According to the story, executives at Marvel were not impressed at the low-budget results and in order to avoid damaging the brand the studio quietly bought the few existing film prints and negatives from Constantin Films to avoid the possibility of a theatrical or video release. Both Roger Corman (who produced the film), director Oley Sassone and the cast and crew of the film were not consulted or informed of this move, as there were indeed plans in place for a small theatrical release. (A movie trailer was made with this in mind.)

Constantin Films was able to maintain another ten-year option on the screen rights, secured funding from 20th-Century Fox, and the big budget 2005 version was the end result. A 2007 sequel and a terrible 2015 reboot followed.

While the movie was a means to tap dance around a contractual clause, fan boys today have managed to secure a primitive form or preservation by mass duplicating copies of the 1994 movie on VHS and DVD. It is estimated that every fan of The Fantastic Four, across the country, have a copy of this movie in their collection. (I had the good fortune to watch the movie at a fan gathering in Michigan a number of years ago.) If executives at Marvel or Constantin wanted to keep the movie locked away, their plan failed. To believe the film could be suppressed at this point would be futile. 

So you can imagine my pleasure when I learned that two years ago director Marty Langford produced an 84-minute documentary titled Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four, providing the view from the ground of what it was like to pour your heart and hopes into something that was never going to be seen by the general public. Practically every actor, writer, producer, director, stunt man and crew technician was approached and interviewed for commentary, providing background into the film that today you can find easily on YouTube. It is pop culture documentaries like these that I find enjoyable. Now available on DVD through, I recommend this to anyone who loved the 1994 Roger Corman gem.