Monthly Archives: March 2020

Hooray for Hollywood, Part 4

5 More Random Films from the American Film Institute’s 2007 List of the 100 Greatest American Films and Their Comic Connections 

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (#34) 
The first thing you notice when you re-watch 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — Walt Disney’s (and Hollywood’s) first-ever feature-length animated film — is how all the Disney elements were in place right from the start.

The plucky heroine. The deliciously evil villain. The comic sidekicks for both the hero and the villain. The cute animals. The singing. The slapstick. The happily ever after. It’s all there. Shorts like “Steamboat Willie” and “The Three Little Pigs” may have gotten Disney Studios off the ground, but it was the success of Snow White that put Disney Studios on the map, gave birth to an entire new form of filmmaking, and led to Disney becoming the entertainment giant we all know and (sometimes) love today.

Looking back from our vantage point here in the present, it’s easy to assume everyone at that time could see that Disney was working on the next big thing. Not so; even Disney’s own brother and business partner tried to talk him out of the idea of making a feature-length animated film, arguing in favor of focusing on the proven shorts instead. “Disney’s Folly” was how the project was derisively described by Hollywood types during its production. But Disney was determined, even in the face of soaring budget costs that went from $250,000 (about 10 times the budget of an average Silly Symphony short) to over $1.4 million (roughly $25 million in today’s dollars).

And then, on Dec. 21, 1937, the 83-minute film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. By the time it finished its first run in theatres in 1939, it was the highest-grossing sound film of all time (though Gone with the Wind would soon take its place); when adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing animated film of all time. (And that’s not counting the mountain of merchandise based on the film — about $8 million in 1930s dollars — that set the stage for Disney’s future success in merchandising its characters.)

So it’s easy to argue for the film’s inclusion on the AFI list based on its commercial success and its place in film history. But does it warrant a spot based on its own artistic merit? I think so. Try to imagine yourself in a 1938 audience watching the evil queen’s scary transformation for the first time, or the fluidity of movement during the house party scene, or the climactic image of the witch trying to dislodge that boulder while the animated wind and rain whip around her. The small army of storyboard artists and animators who worked for years on the film created something magical that stands up against the best animated films today.

(Although… if anyone’s asking, my favorite Disney Princess has been and will always be Belle. I don’t care how rather odd she may be behind that fair facade; I like a gal who likes to read. That Snow White, she seems nice and all but… well, she was kind of asking for it, don’t you think? She knew the queen was after her, the dwarfs warned her not to talk to any strangers, and she had a freakin’ phalanx of forest fauna trying to sound the alarm about that old crone who shows up on her doorstep. And still Snow White invites her in for a snack. Like I said, give me a gal who’s well-read enough to have a clue.)

    

You don’t have to look far to find a comic connection to any given Disney product. Right from the start, Disney took full advantage of the marketing opportunities in early comics and comic strips.

Far as I can tell, the first appearance of Snow White and friends outside the film was in the Silly Symphony Sunday strip, which ran a four-month-long adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from December 12, 1937, to April 24, 1938. With script by Merrill De Maris (who also worked on the film) and art by Hank Porter and Bob Grant, the strips would be republished in comic books several times over the decades, including a 50th-anniversary edition in 1987.

     

The earliest mention of Snow White in a comic book that I can find is from 1938’s More Fun Comics #30, in a “Talk About Talkies” text story promoting upcoming films.

2. Network (#64)
File this one under “I” for Irony: the film that tried to warn us about the dangers of sensationalizing the news is mostly remembered these days for the scene where raging anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) tells viewers to go to their windows and shout: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And because that is the moment phrase most people remember from the film, they naturally assume the whole movie is about a man in a soaking wet raincoat rallying the masses to rise up.

In reality, Beale is the sideshow. The bulk of the story focuses on Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the ratings-hungry executive who sees an opportunity in the mental breakdown of one her network’s top anchormen. When she’s not turning a man having a breakdown into “the mad prophet of the airwaves” to steal ratings from The Six Million Dollar Man, she’s making a deal with a radical leftist terrorist group (similar to the real-life Symbionese Liberation Army) to give them a reality TV show years before anyone knew what the term “reality TV” meant.

Not that she’s alone in her amoral approach to business. Robert Duvall plays an executive who, when murder is put on the table as a way to deal with a troublesome star, says he wants to “hear everyone’s thoughts on this.” And then there’s Ned Beatty, who makes the most of his short cameo as a network president with a message for the man whose televised rants are endangering his profits.

As you can imagine, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network was considered his masterpiece) had a lot of opinions about the state of the media and corporate America in the 1970s. He came by those opinions honestly; before writing his screenplay, Chayefsky visited network TV offices and sat in on meetings at NBC and CBS where he was surprised to learn that television executives did not watch much television. “The programs they put on had to be bad, had to be something they wouldn’t watch,” he once said. “Imagine having to work like that all your life.”

He died in 1981; one wonders what he would have thought of the state of corporate media today.

Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” speech has been referenced numerous times in film and other media. In 2006, the first chapter of Jonathan Hickman’s six-part The Nightly News pays homage to Finch’s famous line with the title “I’m as Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore.”

In the story, a shooting spree on a group of activists in New York City attracts the attention of TV journalists who rush to the scene…. just in time to realize they were the intended targets all along. This massacre is the start of a series of events instigated by a cult that sees itself as the “instrument of vengeance” for those whose lives have been ruined by the media.

In an afterword, Hickman makes it clear The Nightly News “is not a political book.” He’s not taking political sides, and he doesn’t buy into the “good vs. evil mentality that has infested intellectual debate in this country.” But what he wants to do with this first-ever comic series is to offer a “no-holds-barred dissection of corporate news and its relationship with both you and I. You know: consumers.” Sounds like someone wants us to get mad as hell. Howard Beale would approve.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (#73)
That’s the problem when you bring a cannibal to the table — as soon as he shows up, it’s hard for folks to focus on anything else.

And that’s a shame, because when it comes to Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of the Richard Harris novel, there are so many appetizing aspects of the film to savor.

To be clear, no one here is dissing the genius-level cannibal who finds discourtesy “unspeakably ugly” — Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most memorable performances in movie history. But his take on film’s most famous flesh-eater is only one pitch-perfect note in a symphony of terror, and we risk missing a lot if we focus only on the 16 minutes — yes, just 16 minutes — that he appears on screen.

If Lecter is the sideshow attraction, then Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee tasked with consulting Lecter on a serial-killer case, is the star of the show. This is her story, not Lecter’s, and the film follows her as she navigates a world of dangers — both the kind contained behind glass and the kind that isn’t.

Consider: Starling comes from humble beginnings (raised in a small West Virginia town, lost her sheriff father when she was young) and put herself through school to become an FBI agent. And even though her achievements, intelligence and determination mark her as a force to be reckoned with, the men she’s surrounded by at work and in the field never seem to acknowledge any of that.

There are several points in the film where the camera goes out of its way to show the challenges that Starling faces in a predominantly male environment like the FBI. Like the scene at the training facility where a group of running guys turn their heads and check out her and her running companion out as they pass by. Or the scene where Starling’s slight frame (Foster is 5’3″) is dwarfed by an elevator car full of burly men, and then again when she’s the lone woman in a room full of police officers. Or the creepy-as-hell doctor who tells her how beautiful she is in the middle of an interview. Or Barney, the orderly at Lecter’s hospital who likely means well but still talks to Starling — again, actual FBI agent — as if she’s a child in need of reassurance (“go on… you’ll be fine”).

Then there’s Jack Crawford, her mentor and the man who inspired her to join the FBI. Though he appears to treat her as an equal while on the case, he falters when he plays to a local police officer’s sexism by suggesting they not talk about certain things in front of a woman — something Starling calls him out on immediately after. (“It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”)

When you think about it, the only man in the film who appears to treat Starling as an equal is Dr. Lecter. In a twisted way, it makes sense — both are regarded as outsiders to the worlds they inhabit (Lecter to the rest of the human race, Starling to the law enforcement profession), both know what it’s like to feel powerless in most situations (with good reason, in Lecter’s case), and both have to rely on their persuasion skills and other means to achieve their goals because of that perceived lack of power.

This idea of equals is reinforced by Demme’s choice of camera angles: most of the time, when the camera acts as the “eyes” of whoever is looking at Starling, the camera angles down or looks at her from fa distances — techniques designed to make her appear small and vulnerable (it’s through Buffalo Bill’s night-vision-goggle eyes that we “see” Starling in one of the film’s most frightening scenes). But during these unforgettable interview scenes with Lecter, there are no tricks and no angles — just two sets of eyes staring at each other through a pane of glass, each searching for a own way to silence their own lambs.

Is this movie suggesting all men are as bad as Buffalo Bill, who literally only sees women for what they have on the outside? Of course not. But it is a bit of a slap to the face when you start counting the dudes in the film whose regard for Starling’s expertise only runs skin deep. “It rubs the lotion on its skin…”

Like I said, Hopkins’s Oscar-winning performance as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and 2001’s Hannibal is iconic, so much so that he almost singlehandedly created an entirely new class of fictional villain: genius-level psychopaths who may or may not be cannibals but are inevitably charming, eager to demonstrate their intellect and willing to help law enforcement in exchange for some “quid pro quo.”

In the comics, a handful of villains received post-Silence makeovers as dangerous types whose own personalities and publicly funded accommodations bear an eerie resemblance to those of a certain Baltimore-based carnivore. In 2005’s Gotham Central, for instance, a case brings Gotham’s finest to a jail cell to consult with Alvin Desmond, AKA Dr. Alchemy, who even says “quid pro quo” and insists he’ll know when they’re lying to him.

Then there’s Jeph Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s most excellent Batman: The Long Halloween, where the formerly daft Calendar Man is given similar lodgings to Lecter and speaks in riddles when Batman asks for advice about holiday-themed murders.

“February. Surely, we’ll have caught the killer by then.” Oh, James. You eternal optimist, you…

4. Modern Times (#78)
So why a tramp? Of all the comedic personas Charlie Chaplin could have come up with, why did he decide on The Little Tramp? As Chaplin tells it, his iconic character was created by accident in 1914 when he was working at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. From a 1933 interview:

“A hotel set was built for (fellow Keystone comic) Mabel Normand’s picture Mabel’s Strange Predicament and I was hurriedly told to put on a funny make-up. This time I went to the wardrobe and got a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small derby hat and a large pair of shoes. I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen. To add a comic touch, I wore a small mustache which would not hide my expression… The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul, a point of view. I defined to Mr. Sennett the type of person he was. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.”

Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a romantic, a bumbling but generally good-hearted fellow who usually gets the best of any authority figure who tangles with him. He’s also an outsider; although he wasn’t always portrayed on screen as a vagrant, the Little Tramp is defined by his status as a loner, an outcast — as someone who watches respectable society from afar and often yearns to become a part of it, but despite his efforts he never quite succeeds.

You can see this aspect of his personality in 1936’s Modern Times, the last film in which Chaplin appeared as the Tramp. Chaplin starts the film as a factory worker employed on an assembly line, seen by the factory owner as just another cog in the machinery and forced to endure such humiliations as a malfunctioning automatic feeding machine (to eliminate lunch hours and improve productivity, natch).

The repetition of his job finally causes him to snap and he’s sent to a mental hospital; after he’s cured, he’s thrown in jail when he’s mistaken by police for the leader of a communist demonstration. There’s a girl, several attempts by the Tramp to get arrested and put back in jail, a brief career as a department store security guard, a shack that’s “no Buckingham Palace,” and a brief chance at happiness before it’s yanked away, leaving a once again homeless and jobless Tramp and his girl to walk off into the sunset together.

Chaplin wrote Modern Times as a commentary on the desperate conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions made worse (in Chaplin’s view) by modern industrial methods that prioritized profits and efficiency over the welfare of workers. This is most clearly seen in the factory scenes, where “the Factory Worker” (as he’s called in the credits) is yelled at by the factory owner via a giant TV screen for taking a break — right before the famous scene where he is pulled through the gears of the giant machinery.

In the 2019 film Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) sneaks into a charity event at which Gotham’s elite are watching a screening of Modern Times. At first glance, it might seem odd that rich Gothamites in the 1980s would turn out to watch a film from the silent era, even a classic one, but director Todd Phillips had his reasons for choosing it. “I think you’d have to watch Modern Times because we believe there is some Chaplin in Arthur that I think is really important,” he said in an interview.

For starters, they both have the desire to make people laugh, plus there’s the fact that both Chaplin and Fleck both come from traumatic childhoods and disadvantaged backgrounds. (Born into extreme poverty, Chaplin was sent to workhouses twice before he turned 12; his mother was committed to an asylum when he was 14 and his father died young from alcoholism.)

Then there’s the fact that Chaplin’s character in Modern Times and Fleck are both outcasts who have a hard time finding their place in societies where the poor are struggling and getting more desperate while the rich are shown as indifferent to their suffering, even hostile to their efforts to improve their living conditions.

Also, for most of the film Chaplin’s character is trying to get arrested and return to the comforts of a jail cell that protects him from the confusion and madness of the outside world. Without spoiling anything for anyone who hasn’t seen Joker, there’s a similar trajectory for Fleck as well.

One last connection? The song at the end of Modern Times that plays as the Tramp and his girl walk down the road is called “Smile” — Chaplin composed the music and Nat King Cole recorded the first version with lyrics (by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) in 1954. With a title like that, it’s no wonder Warner Bros. chose it for a trailer about a movie starring the Clown Prince of Crime. “Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking…”

5. Toy Story (#99)
Yes, yes — we all know Toy Story made the list because it was the first fully computer-animated feature film. That’s cool and all, but let’s talk about something a little more fun — like existential despair and our crippling fears of abandonment.

As the film begins, Sheriff Woody is riding high: he’s the favorite toy of Andy and the top dog (sorry, Slinky) in his owner’s bedroom. That all changes when Buzz Lightyear of Star Command arrives on the scene. All the other toys ooh and aah at his nifty gadgets (“How come you don’t have a laser, Woody?” “It’s not a laser! It’s a little light bulb that blinks.”), and a quick room-changing montage set to a Randy Newman ditty confirms that Andy thinks he’s pretty swell, too — even giving Buzz Woody’s former place of honor on his bed.

As Woody’s insecurity turns into jealousy, the film takes us on a series of misadventures involving a gas station, a theme restaurant and the home of a delightful young scamp who mutilates his toys for fun, with the two toys learning to work together to get back home. It’s a classic buddy movie with a happy ending in a groundbreaking format… but I would argue that’s not the only reason this movie deserves to be on the Top 100 list.

Good stories entertain us; great stories speak to our universal hopes and fears. In Toy Story’s case, the story told over the four Toy Story films to date speaks to our deepest fears about abandonment and loss of identity.

The toys in Andy’s room do not exist in an emotionally healthy space. They live in constant fear of change, and with good reason — every birthday, Christmas and yard sale brings another chance for any of them to be replaced, sent to the attic or even (gulp) tossed in the trash. Worse, they learn that any scratch or popped stitch makes them less desirable to their owners; the words “unconditional love” don’t come into play much in their world.

Through all four Toy Story movies, we see the toys act as both children and parents to the children who own them: they look to their owners for love and validation and derive security from being part of a “family”… while at the same time they strive to anticipate their owners’ needs, putting aside their own desires and working “behind the scenes” (much like a parent) to ensure their kids have the kind of happy childhood that prepares them for being a grown-up. Along the way, we also meet toys (Jessie, Prospector Pete, Lots-O-Fun Bear, Gabby Gabby) who show psychological trauma from being abandoned by their kids, or from never having had the chance to complete their own “true purpose” in life.

I’ll cop to it — I maybe bawled a little bit at the end of Toy Story 3. Not the incinerator scene, the scene where Andy passes on his toys. The kid in me thought about all the toys I lost or gave away and wanted to see them again, while the parent in me saw a lot of myself in the toys watching Andy drive off without them. Every day, I see my own kids becoming a little more independent, and I know there will come a day when they won’t need me by their side out in the world, and it makes me a little sad that I can’t keep them young and with me forever.

But that’s okay. This is the way it’s supposed to be. You do your job, and you move on when it’s time to discover a new chapter in your life. We are not just the jobs we perform or the roles we’re “supposed” to fill; we are what we choose to be. Because if there’s one thing our toys have taught us, it’s that there are no limits to who or what we can be when we play this thing called life. “To infinity — and beyond!”

Tracking down the first example of computer-made comic art is a tricky business. If you think about it, people have been creating art since the first computers were invented; think of the many examples of ASCII art that creative types developed in the earliest newsgroups and chat forums.

Far as I can tell, the first attempt to create a comic strip was “Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici e il Sergente di ferro” (Young, Elite Mechanics and the Iron Sergeant), a seven-page story appearing in a 1984 issue of the Italian magazine Frigidaire. Anticipating some of the style and plot points of The Matrix, the strip was part of a movement in that country to push the boundaries of digital art at a time when the Apple Macintosh’s 128K of RAM was considered cutting edge.

A year later, First Comics published Shatter — “the first computerized comic!” as it screamed in Chicago font at the top of its first issue. Sadr Al Din Morales — “Shatter” to his friends — lives in a Blade Runner-esque 21st-century Chicago renamed Daley City. In this future, virtually all employment is temp work, with jobs advertised by online-computer job listings. The plot kicks off when Shatter takes a new assignment as a temp police officer to investigate the murder of a corporate executive.

Shatter was written by Peter Gillis and illustrated directly on the computer by Michael Saenz, who used a Macintosh Plus and MacPaint to draw every page. From Geek.com: “This was before pen tablets were common, so he used the default Mac one-button mouse as well. The Mac Plus’s one-color screen measured a measly 512×342 pixels, so Saenz could only draw 2/3 of a page at a time.”