Thursday, February 28, 2013


I’m a big Ida Lupino fan. She was a true Hollywood maverick. She was a writer, producer and director who formed her own company. She was the first woman to direct film noir(The Hitch-Hiker 1953) She played everything from sassy comediennes, treacherous femme fatales to author Emily Bronte. While there are many Lupino films that I hold in great esteem, there are several films of Lupino's that are so good that whenever I see them turn up on Turner Classic Movies, I never miss the chance to watch them again. The Hard Way (1943) Starring Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson is one of those films. The Hard Way starts off in classic film noir style. A despondent, immaculately dressed Lupino is walking by the pier late at night. She removes her expensive white fur coat...lays it gently across one of the pilings...and jumps into the ocean. A homeless man sees her jump and calls the police. We then see in flashback the events that lead to this desperate decision.

Ida Lupino (left) and Joan Leslie in The Hard Way
Lupino plays the worn out wife of a poor blue collar slob, both working themselves slowly to death in a small industrial town with a sky so full of black smoke that you can barely see the sun. Joan Leslie plays Lupinos young sister, just graduated from high school. Lupino is a devoted sister and tries to steer Leslie clear of all the mistakes that Lupino has already made, trying to make sure she has a better life. Leslie is a perky kid with dreams of being on the stage, a diamond in the rough. One night, while watching a traveling vaudeville show, she happens to meet one of the acts...Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Morgan and Carson are a singing/dance act... two guys that don't seem all that talented, but enjoy the life. During their four day stop over, Morgan and Carson happen to see Joan Leslie in a diner, entertaining her friends by mocking Morgan and Carsons act. Both men see that she's talented and Carson and Leslie take a shine to each other. Morgan warns his friend not to get involved with "the locals". But in spite of the warning Carson falls for Leslie.

Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino in The Hard Way
Lupino sees an opportunity for Leslie through Carson and encourages a marriage between the two. Soon, Lupino has left her husband and is off with Leslie and the vaudevillians. Before long, Lupino manipulates the two men into adding Leslie into their act. Not long after that, Leslie, with Lupino behind her, starts to become a rising star, leaving Morgan and Carson in their wake. As time goes on, Lupino goes to ever greater lengths, to see her kid sister become a star. But as the two sisters climb higher on the ladder of success, the more burned out and love starved Leslie becomes.

Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino
This was a great movie. While it looks as though the film will make Lupino out to be the quintessential "evil" stage mother (or in this case, older sister) the film avoids this clichĂ©, thanks to a wonderful screenplay that leaves plenty of wiggle room for Lupino to give her character some nuance. She is so incredibly good in the role that she rises above such one dimensional pigeonholing. There is no doubt that Lupino does live vicariously through her sister. However, she is also very loving, devoted and protective of her. What could have ended up as simple manipulation by Lupino, actually comes off as Lupino being a very smart, savvy and ambitious woman who leaves her husband because she wants more for herself and her sister. Something that we didn‘t often see in film during the WW2 years. This gives Lupino even greater complexity as she weighs the right and wrong of her actions (and there is some wrong, no doubt) against what she thinks is best for her sister and, yes, herself.

Lupino tries to sway Joan Leslie in The Hard Way
When we finally see the inevitable confrontation between Lupino and Leslie, neither comes away unscathed even though the film forces Lupino to bare the brunt. Even the victims of Lupino’s manipulations seem hypocritical when Lupino confronts them with their own imperfections. Lupino gives her character this great sense of frustration at dreams denied and an even great frustration at those who judge her methods in achieving her dreams. Lupino is impatient with those who don’t understand her and have no idea about her struggles and if she could just get through to them, explain to them that she and Leslie are deserving, then maybe they wouldn’t mind her being so calculating and ruthless. Having watched a lot of Lupino films over the last few years, both obscure and the more well known, I have to say that, in my opinion, this is her greatest role. I enjoy her performance in The Hard Way more than I do in popular roles such as the gangster girlfriend Marie in High Sierra whose love for gangster Bogart is unrequited. And I like it more than the blind woman she plays to Robert Ryan’s angry cop in On Dangerous Ground. Not that these last two films aren’t great, they are, but that will give you some idea how great she is in The Hard Way.

The always classy Ida Lupino
Lupino is more complex, more subtle, more polished, more natural than I have ever seen her before. It amazes me that she didn't even get an Oscar nomination. Lupino’s performance is certainly more engaging and more complex than some other nominees of that year such as Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph. Everyone turns in solid performances, including Joan Leslie whom I always thought rather limited and certainly didn't think she had the depth to pull off a role like this. Leslie is fascinating to watch as the little sister who is every bit as ambitious as Lupino while at the same time she is more than happy to let Lupino do the dirty work while she plays the innocent. While Lupino uses Leslie to achieve her dreams, Leslie quietly and rather insidiously uses Lupino in turn. The film is also beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.

From left to right--Lupino, Jack Carson Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan in The Hard Way

The story is also interesting in that it is loosely based on the life of Ginger Rogers, her first husband and Gingers mother. Even though the Hollywood community of the day knew it was based on "someone in Hollywood", it didn't come out until years later when director Vincent Sherman spilled the beans (one has to wonder if Rogers knew who it was about, as she was offered the Leslie role and turned it down) While not a musical per se, there is plenty of great music in this from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Not just a great Lupino film, but a great film period.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Hard Way on Tuesday March 5th at 10:00 pm.  Don't miss this rarely seen gem!

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Gail Simone and Acme Comics manager Jermaine "Lord Retail" Exum
So today I took a little drive to Acme Comics in Greensboro North Carolina where comic book icon Gail Simone was doing a signing. This was my first trip to Acme Comics. Having seen quite a few comic shops between my native California and the east coast I have to admit that I was highly impressed with this store. There was a great vibe and a large, diverse group of customers milling about, chatting away and buying lots of comics. Located in the northern part of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad (a grouping of three cities; Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem). Located among a group of stores that seem to have more in common with a trendy downtown area than with your average mundane strip mall. Just down the line is a music store, a bar called the Boo Radley Tavern and a neat video cafĂ©.

Acme Comics in Greensboro NC
I made the trip to Acme Comics today to meet prolific writer Gail Simone. She was in high spirits and happily chatting with fans. It was a great relaxed event where fans were able to chat at length with Simone. While in line, I spoke with a father and young daughter. It was the wide eyed daughters first trip to a comic shop where she had plans to buy her very first comic! I asked who her favorite character was and she told me it was Iron Man. When I asked her if that was because she was a fan of the film, her father informed me no, it was because he was a Iron Man fan. He seemed very proud that she was following in her fathers footsteps. However, after seeing how happy she was to get her picture taken with a woman cosplaying as Batgirl, I had to wonder if she would disappoint good ol’ dad and walk out with a Gail Simone penned issue of Batgirl. I loved listening to this father and daughter talk and was reminded that every comic is someone’s first comic. I envied this little girls experience being in a comic shop for the first time and remembered my own first experience in a comic shop. I was glad that her first experience visiting a comic book store was at Acme Comics.

This young lady was thrilled to meet Batgirl and Gail Simone during her very first trip to a comic shop!
The store has a great atmosphere. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day for it. I had a fun conversation with one of the stores friendly employees, the blue Mohawk sporting Cody who explained where everything in the store was located and shared several highlights of the stores history including a visit from Powers writer Brian Bendis. I also met store manager Jermaine Exum aka “Lord Retail”. Exum started out at the store as an unpaid volunteer in the mid 90s and worked his way to store manager 2 years later. His creative marketing ideas helped keep the store thriving when all the others were dropping like flies.

When visiting Acme Comics, say hi to Cody!  Hi, Cody!
Manager Jermaine "Lord Retail" Exum(left) with customers

This year, Acme Comics, the winner of the Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary and has plans to host a comic con in the area called “Comic Book City Con” later this year with a guest line up that will include Mark Waid and Jonathon Hickman. I hear that Acme Comics puts on a heck of a Free Comic Book Day and I have every intention of returning to visit this fun store.  Oh, and thanks to Gail Simone for signing my copy of Back Issue #54!

Gail Simone at Acme Comics, giving yours truly her autograph!  I love comics!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Most fans of pulp magazines, comic books, serial adventures and radio know who the Shadow is. The vengeful vigilante with the black cloak and hat and the red scarf to hide all features except for the hawk nose and piercing eyes that was as much a trademark for fans of his pulp adventures as his maniacal laugh was for fans of his radio adventures. Introduced each week to the sound of Camille Saint-Saens “Le Rouet d'Omphale”, the Shadow was a mysterious figure who sought to wipe out crime with the help of his underground cabal of agents who did his bidding. When the Shadow first debuted, he was simply an eerie voice who introduced radio show mysteries that were part of the “Detective Story Hour”, a radio show that spun off from a popular pulp magazine called “Detective Story Magazine.” This early narrator version of The Shadow debuted on July 31, 1930. In less than a year, the “Shadow” became the main star of the show he introduced. On April 1, 1931, The Shadow got his own pulp magazine with stories written by Walter Gibson aka Maxwell Grant. Of course it didn’t’ take long for the imitators to follow. Soon came The Spider, The Avenger, Green Hornet, The Black Bat and many others, all of whom were the forefathers of the comic book hero.
 Frank Readick Jr. is the early voice of The Shadow
Right around the same time that The Shadow was making his debut in pulp magazines as the more fully realized interpretation we know today, there was another mystery writer in the UK who was just as prolific as Walter Gibson. His name was George Goodchild(1888-1969) aka Alan Dare aka Wallace Reid aka Jesse Templeton. Goodchild created a character called “The Reckoner” in a novel called The Splendid Crime renamed “The Public Defender” for its US release. The Reckoner had a lot in common with The Shadow and with a character whose creation the Shadow inspired--Batman. The Reckoner used agents with specific talents to help him in his campaign against crime as did The Shadow. The Reckoner‘s alter ego was a millionaire playboy, just like Bruce Wayne. While The Reckoner didn’t have a trademark laugh to send chills down the spines of his victims, he did have a calling card with a picture of the scales of justice along with the words “See You Next Week” which let his victims know that he would come calling on them again to dispense justice. He also had some cool gadgets such as an exploding wallet.

Shirley Grey and Richard Dix in The Public Defender
The Shadow and the Reckoner were created an ocean apart and too close together in time for one to be an imitation of the other. Gibson and Goodchild both were prolific mystery writers in the early 30s and Goodchild had created several detective heroes prior to the Reckoner. What made The Reckoner interesting and perhaps even relevant today was that he went after corrupt financiers and bankers with the style of a modern day Robin Hood. The Reckoner was an identity created by millionaire playboy Pike Winslow who wanted to get revenge against and bring to justice a group of corrupt bank executives who framed an innocent man for their crimes. That innocent man just happened to have a daughter that Winslow Pike loved. In the movie adaptation of “The Public Defender”, Winslow is played by Richard Dix. Helping Winslow in his efforts to bring down the corrupt bankers are “The Professor” played by Boris Karloff. The Professor is the “talent”, the guy who does the research and gets all the info that Winslow needs to bring down the bankers. The Professor is Winslow’s “Alfred.” Then there’s Winslow’s other partner Doc played by Paul Hurst. Doc is a dead ringer for Shadow sidekick and cab driver Moe “Shreevy” Shrevnitz. Doc is the “muscle”. He helps run interference so that boss Winslow can skip over the flunkies on his way to the top dog. Doc is Winslow’s Robin.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in the Oscar winning "Cimarron"
Over the course of the film, the main villain turns the tables on The Reckoner, framing the vigilante for murder. Unfortunately for Winslow, his unsuspecting friend Inspector O’Neil is quickly closing in on the real identity of The Reckoner. This movie starts out kind of slow and I almost gave up on it as just another mediocre early 30s melodrama. But then we find out that Dix is a kick ass, Robin Hood Shadow hybrid of a vigilante who has Boris Karloff as a sidekick! How could I not watch that? I was glad I stuck with this fun little pulp movie adaptation. I liked seeing Karloff as a hero (albeit a devious looking one) and I enjoyed the similarities to other pulp heroes who were just a year or so away from being created. Dix’s foray into the world of pulp didn’t end with The Reckoner. He would go on to star in The Whistler film series. The Whistler owed much to the Shadow’s early roots. Like the early version of the Shadow, the Whistler was a mysterious figure who narrated stories of criminals who learned the hard way that crime did not pay. But instead of a maniacal laugh, the Whistler…um…whistled.

Richard Dix loses his mind in Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship(1943)
1931 was a good year for Richard Dix. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in the film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron. Cimarron won a then record 7 nominations and won three for production, writing adaptation and art direction. Richard Dix is an interesting actor to watch and over time I have become a fan. You might not “get” Richard Dix if you only watch one or two of his films. He’s an acquired taste and often comes off as kind of wooden. But he has given some rather complex and poignant performances over the course of his far too short career. If you really want to see why I’m a fan of Richard Dix, take a look at his transformation from conscientious objector to bloodthirsty killer in the WW1 film Ace Of Aces(1933). Watch his frightening performance as the homicidal ships captain who slowly goes insane in The Ghost Ship(1943) or watch him in It Happened In Hollywood(1937) as the kind hearted cowboy turned Hollywood silent star whose loses it all with the onset of talkies, struggling to keep his integrity and be worthy of the adoration of his young fans even as he entertains the idea of a life of crime. Turner Classic Movies shows the occasional obscure Richard Dix film now and then. Check out his films if you get the chance. He might just grow on you.