Sunday, January 29, 2017

BOOKS: 1924 The Year That Made Hitler

THE MAN KNEW A GOOD PUBLICITY OPPORTUNITY WHEN HE SAW IT
New book looks at the year Hitler became Hitler
by Don Stradley


Adolph Hitler has many distinctions - the monster of Nazi Germany, the little Word War One corporal who rose to power and lead his nation into another war, the maniacal public speaker who rallied working class Germans into believing his warped ideas about racial purity, a firebrand who seemed to will himself into the role of Germany's savior - but he was singularly himself. You simply can't make a case for Hitler being anything other than what he turned out to be. He's like the poisonous snake in  the old fable that says, "What did you expect from me? I'm a snake!" Peter Ross Range's excellent book, 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, approaches the Hitler story in a unique way and digs up some unexpected surprises. By focusing only on the year Hitler spent in prison, Range not only illuminates the way Hitler "converted his plunge into disgrace and obscurity into a springboard for success," but captures what may have been Hitler's essence. Like certain serial killers, rock stars, and idiot savants, Hitler was strangely childlike. At heart, he was like a little boy alone in his room at night, commanding imaginary crowds.

Early in Range's book we meet a pushy young Hitler, a "thirty-four year old politician known for his hot rhetoric,"  and watch as he brazenly leads his small group of bruisers in a bungled takeover of a Munich beer hall. His "putsch" fails - 21 men drop dead around him from gunshots but, in a quirk of fate, all the bullets missed Hitler. The worst that happens to him is he falls in the melee and bangs up his shoulder. And it wasn't even his sieg heiling shoulder. After a masterful performance at his trial, where he grandstanded and portrayed himself as a true German out to make history  -  a lay judge was overheard by a journalist saying, "What a tremendous guy, this Hitler!" - he was sentenced to serve time at Landsberg Prison 38 miles west of Munich. Making the best of the situation, the future leader of Germany stuffed his face with pastries sent to him by female admirers, and began work on his "overwritten manifesto," Mein Kampf.

It was during his 13 month incarceration that Hitler began to rethink his approach. Brute force, he decided, wasn't the best way to establish himself as a leader. Had Hitler not spent time in prison thinking over his failed putsch, Range surmises,"he might never have emerged as the redefined and recharged politician who ultimately gained control of Germany, inflicted war on the world, and perpetrated the Holocaust." But it's largely through observations made by Hitler's feral lackey, Rudolf Hess, that the essence of Hitler comes through. Hess, after listening to Hitler read a chapter of his book in progress, described him as being a "mixture of cold-blooded mature superiority and uninhibited childishness." Hess once wrote in a letter to his future wife that Hitler could be heard in the the prison's common room making a commotion: "He seems to be reliving his war experiences - he is imitating the sounds of grenades and machine guns, jumping wildly around the room, carried away by his fantasies."

Range has written a rich, highly readable account of Hitler's prison year. But even when you cut Hitler's life into a handy chunk you still see him through something like a fun-house mirror. Females adored him, for example, but he was described by one woman in his circle as "an absolute neuter." He was diabolically smart, but historians still debate how many books he actually read. He didn't know how to drive, but spent his final weeks at Landsberg pouring over a Mercedes catalogue, wanting to be chauffeured out of prison in style. He struggled to write his thoughts down, but could spit them out like bolts of lightning when making a speech. What's most eerie about Range's book is a quote from Dietrich Eckart, an  influential figure in Germany's anti-Semite movement of the 1920s. Describing the ideal spokesman for the growing party, Eckart said with chilling clairvoyance, "We need a leader who isn't bothered by the clatter of a machine gun...and who does not run from somebody swinging a chair at him. He has to be a bachelor...then we'll get the women!" It's as if the group mined the swampiest edges of a collective unconscious to create the man they needed; Hitler merely appeared out of the ether and stepped into the role. Somehow this reminded me of when good ol' Sam Phillips said he needed a white boy who could sing the blues. Along came Elvis, like he'd been summoned

Sunday, January 22, 2017

BOOKS: SPIDER FROM MARS (My Life With Bowie)




There's a starman waiting in the sky to bust your balls
 Bowie drummer recalls the highs and lows of touring with Ziggy Stardust
by Don Stradley


The title of Woody Woodmansey's amusing new memoir 'Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie' is a bit misleading. Since Bowie always kept an icy distance between himself and his backing musicians, there really isn't much "life with Bowie" to speak of here. Still, as Bowie's drummer during the Ziggy Stardust years, Woodmansey was in the trenches during an incredible time in music history; as such, his story should be heard.

There's plenty of detail in Woodmansey's memoir, but the tone is surprisingly light and airy. Readers should be advised that Woodmansey is an earthy bloke from from the small agricultural town of Driffield, and if you're looking for grandiose statements about Bowie's art and lifestyle, you won't get them. He tells the story the way you'd expect a steady drummer would tell it; he's evenhanded, keeps it tight, and doesn't go in for wild solo spots. Perhaps you'd like to hear more about the debauchery that went on in those tour buses, or more about Bowie's alleged fling with Lulu, but you won't hear it from a working class gent like Woody.  Others who might tell the tale differently - Bowie, guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder - have all croaked.

Woodmansey was a typical rock 'n roll kid, coming of age in England as the rubble of World War II was being swept away. He listened to Elvis and other early rockers on the radio, and eventually took up the drums. Strangely, neighbors swore they could hear loud drumming coming from the Woodmansey home long before Woodmansey owned his own kit. Kismet?

He was just a boy when he was first struck by rock 'n roll lightning, venturing into an old warehouse where a local bunch of scruffs known as The Roadrunners were rehearsing. As they pounded away at a Bo Diddley song, Woodmansey stood by nervously and watched. "I was mesmerized," he writes. "It was the most exciting thing I'd ever experienced." As often happens in this sort of rock 'n' roll memoir, Woodmansey would later be asked to join the band. Again...kismet?

He tried other things; he was a pretty fair track runner in school, and even worked various factory jobs. When he wasn't at odds with his stern father over the length of his hair - the old man once sneaked into Woody's bedroom at night with scissors to give the kid a trim - they were butting heads over Woodmansey's future. Fortunately, Woodsmansey listened to his inner desires and went running in the direction of the music; he not only provided the rockin' beat for Bowie, but also worked with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and others. Woodmansey's own band, the short-lived U-Boat, developed a cult following; he currently tours with the stellar Bowie tribute band, Holy Holy. As far as drumming careers, he's had a great one.

Writing with an assist from rock journalist Joel McIver, Woodmansey depicts himself as a genial lad who still can't believe the good fortune that came his way. He loves describing chance encounters with people like Elton John, or how the Spiders once stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. He doesn't shy away from his occasional blunders onstage, or how he seemed to chicken out of auditioning for Paul McCartney. Woody blows off the missed chance with a shrug: "To this day I don't know what I was thinking, but I didn't go."

Of course, people will read the book to learn more about the infamous time of the Spiders, and how Bowie dynamited the landscape of rock music during the early 1970s. The curious thing is that all of the Spiders were gritty, workmanlike geezers like Woodmansey. Ronson and Bolder, though brilliant at guitar and bass, were not cut from Bowie's artsy cloth, and the three might've been happy playing in an outfit like Blue Cheer or Foghat (Bolder, for that matter, later ended up playing bass for Uriah Heep).

The fascinating aspect of the story is that these three bluesbreakers from northern England gave Bowie what he'd needed at the right time. Prior to hiring them, Bowie was a weird folkie who'd had a modest hit with 'Space Oddity' and certainly wasn't on the fast track to anywhere. But Woodmansey recognized something in Bowie's songs that could be magnified with the proper hard rock background. He also observed that Bowie was disappointed in how his career had stalled. Bowie, Woodmansey reckoned, had "taken a knock and was struggling to find a new way to express himself." 

And so it went, with Woodmansey playing drums for four Bowie albums and, by his estimation, about 200 or so concerts, with Bowie leading the way in his Ziggy Stardust persona. But it wasn't a relaxed journey. Sure, there was a bit of rock 'n' roll excess, and the chance to play such powerful and innovative music was a dream come true for Woodmansey, but Bowie was prickly and detached. Bowie wanted the band to seem like a gang and to dress alike, but he made it clear that he was the star and they were his sidemen. Bowie was also in the beginning stages of a major drug phase; his paranoia often kept him from relating to the Spiders as anything but hired guns.

Backing band or not, the Spiders had to endure regular whiffs of danger, such as being warned to stay in their hotel because they'd come into a part of America where "hippies" might be shot. Then there was a concert in Japan that ended in a near riot when floors collapsed and kids were nearly crushed. It's as if Bowie and the Spiders were always one step ahead of total disaster.

At times Woodsmansey seems too admiring of Bowie. Granted, Bowie was one of the great ones. But Bowie was also a jerk. He treated the Spiders shabbily; some of the chapters may compel you to never spend another dime on Bowie music. Yet, he forgives Bowie, blaming the singer's erratic behavior on a growing cocaine addiction and the pressures of fame. Bowie and Woodmansey bumped into each other in Europe many years after the breakup of the Spiders. Though Bowie offered no apology, Woodmansey was quite happy to see him for dinner and a chat. "I felt the old wounds had been healed," Woodmansey says.

It's all very mature, you know. But no one would squawk if Woody had given his old boss a thump.

And Woodmansey also milks the idea of being the innocent yokel who keeps wandering into hostile territory wearing his glitter gear. By the third time he saunters into a redneck diner and says, Fuck me! I forgot how I was dressed! the gimmick has worn itself out. 

But he's very good at making quick, pointed observations, like his first impression of Angie Bowie flitting in and out of a room "like a mosquito on speed." Or when he samples her cooking and labels her a "shit cook; maybe that's why Bowie was so thin." Or when he discusses his interest in Scientology, writing that, "it has helped me find a life that I am very happy with, and I'm not bothered what other people think about it." It's interesting to get his input on various Bowie tunes, and how everyone from Neil Young to King Crimson was an influence during those years. He's also quite insightful when he suggests Bowie liked having three unpretentious fellows from northern England around as his test audience. "Maybe," he writes, "it was a case of 'I'll try my ideas on these northern lads, and if they can take it, maybe the audience will too.'"

There's a sense that Woodmansey hit the top early and never scaled those heights again, but it's OK.  He wasn't supposed to be Charlie Watts and play with the Rolling Stones for 50 years. He was Woody Woodmansey, a Spider for a while, and that seems to have been enough. "We experienced a lifetime in a few short years," he writes near the end. And the songs, which  have endured, enabled him to be part of some interesting projects, including the current Holy Holy gigs with old Bowie producer and occasional bassist, Tony Visconti.

It's tempting to read the book with the eye of a dime-store psychologist. Bowie, it seems, was a bit of a father figure to Woodmansey. Woody was accustomed to his own father's outbursts and unpredictability. And yes, even aloofness. From Bowie, he got the same treatment. This, I believe, is why Woodmansey was so quick to forgive Bowie. And why did Bowie kick the Spiders to the curb? Perhaps he harbored some kind of resentment towards them. He often said that he could've made it without them, and seemed determined to prove it. But maybe, deep down, he knew differently. Without their muscle behind him, he might've remained a floundering folksinger.

Bowie had to break up the band to prove something to himself. But he could've been nicer about it. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940)




Flash Gordon had a very specific job description, which involved keeping Emperor Ming of planet Mongo from becoming too powerful. There were plenty of perks that came with the job, including some snazzy rocket ships, ray guns, and battles with space creatures, but the main task was to keep Ming in line. Considering Ming was usually out to destroy Earth, Flash was a busy guy.

He was a hero in the 1930s B-movie sense. He was true blue. He saved people from certain doom. But no matter how dangerous the assignment, he was always quick to thank the people around him for being his friends. When it came to movie heroes, Flash Gordon was without a doubt the friendliest. The Marvel and DC heroes on movie screens nowadays are too moody, while James Bond is just a horny guy with an accent. Tarzan? He's friendly with apes, I guess, but he seems surly. Han Solo? Too sarcastic. Besides, you couldn't trust him with your wife. But Flash, we know, would be sure to send you a postcard after returning from Mongo. He'd apologize for not keeping in touch, and he'd promise to see you soon.

This, I imagine, is why Flash Gordon hasn't really lasted into the modern era. He remains an icon of the Depression years, when friendliness was a desired personality trait. When Universal tried to cash in on the Star Wars craze in 1980 with Flash Gordon, audiences weren't buying it. There have been occasional efforts to bring the character back in both animated and TV series form, and there's been talk of a new movie in the works, but nothing sticks. In the 1930s, though, when Larry "Buster" Crabbe took on the title role in a trilogy of adventure serials, Flash was a moneymaker.

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe: The Film Detective Restored VersionThe key reason Flash couldn't be a success now is that he lacks a dark side. The formula for today's hero involves putting a brooding misanthrope into a cape, giving him a sophomoric backstory with some feeble psychological underpinning, and letting him navigate his way through an apocalyptic cityscape. These movies make billions of dollars, which suggests modern audiences relate to these self-absorbed loners. But Flash could never be as miserable as Batman or Spiderman, because he was too busy saving the world.

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940) was the final Flash Gordon serial. It arrived in theaters as the Depression era was morphing into the World War II years, and Flash's brand of clean-cut bravery was on the way out. For that matter, villains from other planets seemed quaint, considering we had some shockingly evil villains right here on Earth. Still, it's fascinating to see this third Flash Gordon serial try to fit into the times. Ming, for instance, is not just a diabolical heel as he'd been in the first two serials; he's now described as a "dictator", and though he’s seen wearing the robe and high collar of the earlier films, he also wears a white military tunic and enough plumage to look like a German general on parade. Obviously, the Universal costume designers were watching the newsreels. 

The movie mines the war era in other ways: Ming's army of mechanical men lurch toward Flash and his friends like a mindless squadron of Hitler's goose-steppers; Ming's bombing of various Mongo nations, including the forest kingdom of Aboria, eerily mirrored the Nazi dismantling of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ironically, the serial debuted on April 9, 1940,  the same day the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway. 

There were clear signs that the series was at its end. Where Universal had once lavished money on the franchise - the first Flash Gordon serial was as costly as one of Universal's A-list pictures - it now scrimped, recycling costumes, sets and footage from both Flash Gordon (1936) and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars(1938). In his 1975 memoir, Crabbe recalled Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe as "nothing more than a doctored up script from earlier days."

Another big change was the recasting of several characters, including Flash's female interest, Dale Arden. Jean Rogers had played the role in the first two serials, creating a large fanbase of teen boys thanks to her skimpy outfits. She was, to some degree, the Princess Leia of her time. When Rogers left Universal for MGM, Carol Hughes stepped in as Dale, but the role was diminished; Hughes wore more conservative costumes than her predecessor and seemed limited to only a few lines, the main one being, "Be careful, Flash!" 

Of course, there were still moments of innovation, such as the opening crawl to announce each episode (which would be borrowed by George Lucas for Star Wars) and a menacing tribe of Rock people who speak a strange language (achieved by human voice recordings played backwards, a trippy idea at the time). 

The third serial also introduces Captain Torch, played with a Leo Gorcey smirk by Don Owen; he's a burly Mongo thug who seems to be Göring to Ming's Hitler.  And Emperor Ming, played with sinister aplomb by Charles Middleton, remains one of the great movie heels of cinema history. If it's possible, he's more of a megalomaniac here than ever, especially in the climactic showdown when he hisses, "I am the universe!" 

The music, as is always the case in the Flash Gordon serials, is pure sonic uplift. As in the first two,  'Les Preludes' by the great Franz Liszt is heard soaring over the opening titles and throughout the chapters, interspersed with snatches from the Universal archives, everything from Heinz Roemheld's The Invisible Man, to Franz Waxman's The Bride of Frankenstein. Movie buffs can have fun just picking out the pieces they recognize.

But the film does seem to rehash many of the usual Flash Gordon tropes. Ming still wants to make Dale his bride, no matter who plays her, and Flash and his party encounter one menace after another. But one noticeable change in this installment is that, aside from a giant Gila monster who doesn't really figure into the plot, there are fewer strange creatures - no sharkmen, no horned gorillas - and the perils Flash must overcome are in the form of avalanches, fires, and Ming's bomber pilots. This change was likely a conscious attempt by Universal to present a more mature Flash. There's even a scene where Flash delays saving Dale and Dr. Zarkoff because he's in charge of a special antidote for Ming's "death dust" and must first drop it off atop Mount McKinley. Flash shows a steely hardness here, saying something to the effect of Dale and Zarkoff are only two people; I have many more to save! But a mature Flash wasn't what the public wanted; box office receipts were disappointing, and the series promptly ended.

Crabbe didn't spend much more time in space, spending the next leg of his career in cut-rate westerns and dramas. By the 1950s he’d left Hollywood for New York, and was hosting a kid's show on WOR-TV. Most of the time he showed his old Flash Gordon movies. Over the decades, the three serials were chopped and channeled into shortened versions, re-titled, and syndicated again for many years, well into the 1970s and '80s. There was something comforting about coming home after a late night and seeing one of the episodes on a UHF or PBS channel. (It didn't matter if I'd missed the previous week's chapter; all I needed was to hear the hum of the old rocket ships and I'd be strangely contented.)

Crabbe was born to play Flash Gordon. He hadn’t even wanted the role – as described in his memoir, Self Portrait, he’d stopped in at the auditions to see how things were going, and was offered the part on the spot – but not many other actors had the athletic ability as well as the All-American charisma needed to play Flash. At times, Crabbe has the same sort of presence as the young Ronald Reagan, but he's more coiled, more daring. You couldn't see Reagan as Flash, especially at the end of the final chapter, when Flash parachutes from his rocket and lets it sail directly into Ming's castle, 9/11 style. Flash Gordon may have been a boy scout, but he had the nerves of a suicide pilot. Still, he'd shake your hand before every mission, and tell you what an honor it was to know you. You almost didn't mind being punched in the face by such a nice guy.

Illustrator Alex Raymond created Flash Gordon to compete with the Buck Rogers cartoon strip. (Crabbe played Buck Rogers, too, in 1939, but was forever associated with Flash.) At first, Flash was seen as a Rogers knockoff, but Depression era kids embraced him. He took you into outer space and made you forget your worries for a while. The strip continued on in various forms for many decades, but Flash was never as beloved as he was in the 1930s.

At a time when America seemed on the brink of dissolution, Flash Gordon was perfectly positioned to make us look to the future, and to give us something to think about besides soup lines and failing businesses. When the Depression ended, so went Flash from our movie screens. But he was there when we needed him, and that counts for a lot.

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Watch the fist six chapters of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe on The Film Detective's movie app via Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV. Collectors can enjoy the entire serial on our nicely restored two disc DVD.