Saturday, January 17, 2015

DOC SAVAGE: MAN OF BRONZE (1975)

TONGUE IN CHEEK IS SERIOUS BUSINESS



VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT 

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves. 

     "Tongue in cheek" is serious business, ... and it ain't easy. And perhaps therein lay a seminal ingredient of the "cult film". One thing is for certain, no one can really SET OUT to deliberately create a cult film, as by it's very definition there is something "contrary" in it's makeup; in it's very fiber. Yes, you've got deliberately "off-center" films like Luc Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT, John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and (who ever thought we'd see the day when THIS would become hip?) Dino De Laurentiis' FLASH GORDON. But they were all more or less created as grand scale pulp-ish adventures possessed of an iconoclastic / at times intentionally campy sense of humor and disposition. 

     They were films which achieved cult STATUS. But the straight-up, bonafied, dyed-in-the-wool cult film ... ? Well, just as a stereotypical cult of chanting lunatics beholden to a philosophy which just seemed to crop up yesterday afternoon down by the lake, are viewed askew by polite society at large, so were / are those who for years felt / feel a deep emotional and (even ... "gulp") artistic affinity to something like say THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, REPO MAN or THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, viewed askance by most cinematic "arbiters of good taste".

      While there is no "dictionary definition" of what constitutes a bonafied cult film, two of the most commonly occurring threads are surely a) that regardless of subject matter, they tend to play their narratives with a straight face. There may be some camp, yes. But they don't constantly wink at the audience in a post-modern manner, reminding you that this IS camp. No. The audience must be "in the know" enough to realize this is indeed not to be taken too seriously. And b) most cult films were / are generally during their original theatrical runs box office failures. And this is usually BECAUSE of definition a) - wherein the audience was NOT "in the know" enough to "catch the joke played with the straight face"; and the film was perhaps then misinterpreted as a poor realization of a drama, love story, science fiction yarn, adventure or what-have-you. 



     Years later, after seeing the film again and again at late night revival house screenings, or on cable TV, at home on video, etc., some of it's originally negative audience "catches on", catches up and realizes the "in"-ness of the earlier joke, and they too slowly begin to join the ranks of those original crazy-assed "chanting lunatics" who from the git-go sang the praises of said film. Before you know it even critics and cinema historians begin having a differing view of that which was originally written off - that film now being referred to as, ... what are some of the most common terms? - "cutting edged" and (perhaps the most oft repeated critical accolade) "ahead of it's time". Which brings us to 1975's DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE.

      The last produced film from legendary celluloid genre king George Pal (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE), directed by Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, LOGAN'S RUN), and starring Ron Ely - TV's TARZAN himself, as the titular scientist, adventurer, explorer and international trouble shooter, DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE (to date the only feature representation of literature's best loved "pre Indiana Jones" treasure-seeking enemy of evil), began on the drawing boards with a bang. But released theatrically within days of summer 1975's genre busting JAWS, it quickly sank at the box office - the chewed remains of a great white shark which, in the super cynical days of Watergate and Love Canal, was not then seen as cleverly hip in it's (actually rather quick witted) counter-culture re-shuffling of themes of justice and honor, but actually deemed quaint and hopelessly out of date; one critic at the time calling it, "... the kind of kiddie film that gives the 'G' rating a bad name".


  
     Lo and behold however, within a few short years the similarly themed and tonally executed SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, would cause a re-evaluation of Pal and Anderson's pulp adventure. Those who found themselves enjoying the new "retro" filmic adventure trend spawned by those box office behemoths, grew impatient awaiting the next installment of the adventures of Luke & Han, Indy, and Krypton's most famous son; and they began their own cinematic archeological digs; in the process discovering DOC SAVAGE, and in time granting it due honorable shelf space alongside those Lucas / Spielberg and other serial inspired "throw back" movie thrill rides. Even noted film critic / historian Leonard Maltin would sing DOC SAVAGE's praises. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

      While 1975's DOC SAVAGE to date remains the only feature length film representation of the "Man of Bronze" (this moniker because of the famously sun-baked tan across his super muscular anatomy), the character has been the subject of dozens of pulp novel, radio, comic book and other media series since his inception in 1933. The brainchild of Street & Smith publications - who wanted another pulp hero to follow on the heels of their then extremely successful THE SHADOW, the DOC SAVAGE character as we currently know him was ultimately fleshed out from the pen of former telegraph operator, and self taught writer, Lester Dent, who wrote approx. 160 of the first 180 original SAVAGE pulp novels under the Street & Smith "house name" pseudonym of "Kenneth Robeson". A 1930s era Rennaisance man: surgeon, explorer, inventor, scientist and musician, Clark Savage Jr. (our hero's birth name) was a super-hero without standard super powers. His brain his mightiest weapon, he possessed a photographic memory, was a master of disguise and the martial arts, and used his supremely gifted and disciplined mind to train his body to perform feats of near-superhuman strength.  



     Accompanied on his adventures by "The Fabulous Five" - a cadre of individual geniuses in their own rights (a geologist, chemist, two engineers and an attorney?), Doc owns a fleet of vehicles for air, water and all terrain travel; and he and his crew reside on the 86th floor an un-named New York City sky rise which readers of many of the later novels came to believe was the Empire State Building. And oh yes, the financial wherewithal to fund all of this came from (of course) a Central American gold mine given to Doc in the very first novel as a gift of gratitude by a group of Mayan descendants. Amazingly also, over the years many of the "steam punk"-like high tech inventions used by Doc (and even some of his villainous adversaries) became actual technological realities: things we take for granted today such as night vision goggles, automatic transmissions in autos, telephone answering machines, and even the (though now actually history) "flying wing" aircraft.

      A new generation of DOC SAVAGE fans (us among them) was born with the re-issues of the original pulp novels in paperback form by publishing giant Bantam Books during the 1960s. Remaining in print for over two decades the quintessential, and still defining, look of the "Man of Bronze" became the ripped shirt (caused by Doc's ripped musculature) rendition on these book covers realized by legendary "Argosy" / "Saturday Evening Post" illustrator James Bama; he using 1950s FLASH GORDON tv actor Steve Holland as model.


Illustrator James Bama's DOC SAVAGE

     After the death of primary DOC SAVAGE author Dent (who retained radio, TV and film rights), his estate (headed by his widow Norma) licensed the character for a 1966 / '67 feature film based on the 1934 novel THE THOUSAND HEADED MAN. Produced by Mark Goodson & Bill Todman (best known as creator / producers of the game shows PASSWORD, TO TELL THE TRUTH and THE PRICE IS RIGHT) it was to star THE RIFLEMAN's 6ft.5 Chuck Connors - who, before his acting career, was one of only a handful of athletes to play professionally for both the MLB and NBA. Because of his height and sports conditioning Connors was a physical dead-ringer for Doc. And the producers intention was to cash in on both the new character interest generated by the Bantam re-issues, as well as on the current pulp-inspired James Bond films of the day, 

     Goodson and Todman were confident their rendition of Doc would ignite the screens to great success. Their version however would never come to pass. Science fiction producer George Pal secured the character rights from the widow Dent in the early 1970s, and he, also desirous to start a Bond-like film franchise, sought to financially hedge his enterprise using a funding tactic similar to one enacted by producer Irwin Allen on his film VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, wherein "back end" costs would be covered by pre-selling the TV broadcast rights to the film as well as rights to a future TV series.

 


      
     Under the helm of director Michael Anderson, DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE filmed in mid to late 1973 in Southern California, with more than a bit of the film's stunning neo deco production design realized via shooting on actual locations such as the base of the Eastern Columbia Building in L.A.'s historic downtown (then) theater district. Scripted by Pal and Joe Morheim (at the time best known for the TV series THE MILLIONAIRE and THE SAINT), DOC SAVAGE: the MAN OF BRONZE was primarily adapted from "Kenneth Robeson"'s first novel, wherein Doc's backstory is established, with additional material from 1935's THE MYSTIC MULLAH and 1938's THE GREEN DEATH. The 6ft. 4 Ron Ely threw himself into the role. Known for performing most of his own stunts in the TARZAN tv series (which lead to two broken shoulders, various animal bites and other sundry injuries), in DOC SAVAGE he'd additionally take up the baton of Second Unit Action Director, helming a couple of the film's key set pieces including the shootout aboard the yacht of the villainous Captain Seas.

      The release troubles of DOC SAVAGE began before it's release. Pushing back it's original debut date from Spring 1974 to early Summer 1975 was seen by many as a lack of confidence in the film by it's studio, Warner Bros. And this arguably prejudiced opinions as to the film's quality long before it was viewed by critics. Opening within days of the mega-smash JAWS, SAVAGE's more old fashioned tone of Saturday matinee "innocence" was blown to bits by the high powered caliber and execution of Spielberg's at the time (call it was it was) frenetically edited re-invention of the concept of the modern film. And because DOC SAVAGE played it's hand straight (without loads of campy winking at the audience to remind them of how hip it really was) it's tone was greatly misinterpreted by audiences. 


     There was even (and continues to be) a great deal of talk (the early version of "Internet scuttlebutt" before the creation of the Internet if you will) with many asking "Who was to blame for DOC SAVAGE's campy realization - George Pal, Michael Anderson, or a post-production meddling studio?". Film critic Leonard Maltin perhaps summed up best the film's actual tone in his assessment saying, "(This) film debut of Kenneth Robeson's pulp hero was sold (and accepted) as camp; where in reality it's a straight faced period adventure that just came out at the wrong time".


      And we couldn't agree more. While certainly possessed of an occasional "camp" element (it's endearingly rollicking John Phillip Sousa-inspired and adapted score; and the animated twinkling in Doc's eye upon first meeting the lovely Pamela Hensley - later of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY and MATT HUSTON, are a hoot), it certainly doesn't devolve into the practice much more than say the average Indiana Jones film. Yet opening in the midst of a more cynical "anti-hero" wave populated by the likes of DEATH WISH, FRENCH CONNECTION II and SHAFT IN AFRICA, DOC SAVAGE's more "old school" sensibilities were at the time unfortunately not seen as "hip retro" as much as "out of date" and "hackneyed". 

     Had the exact same film opened three years later one wonders if it may not have been considered part of the "new wave" movement towards more larger than life, archetypal-like cinema as evidenced by the successes of SUPERMAN, SUPERMAN II, STAR WARS, RAIDERS and even the more pulpish Bond films THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER. Those "cult members" who fell in love early with the charms of George Pal's filmic rendition of Robeson's hero, were heartbroken that, even though just before the end credits, they were promised Doc would return in an all new thriller - THE ARCH ENEMY OF EVIL, poor box returns did what no villain could in close to half a century - put Doc out of commission, at least on film.



     While Joe Morheim had scripted a follow-up film (which can today be found online), Pal's days with DOC SAVAGE ended with the 1975 film; and the legendary producer himself would pass away five years later in May 1980. DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE was first released by Warner Home Video on VHS in the mid 1980s in a "clamshell" - the large plastic cases denoting a family film (and so packaged as to keep the tape within from being destroyed by playful children). At this time it would also enjoy release on the now defunct LaserDisc format. Both editions have been long out of print. 

     In 1994 Warner re-released the film with standard VHS packaging; and copies of this version - while also long out of print, can today be found on Amazon and other outlets ranging from $3 - $12 dollars. All of these releases were in the "Pan & Scan" display format. In 2009 however, the film was made available for the first time on DVD in the U.S. via a limited release as part of Warner Home Video's DVD-R "pressed upon demand" Archive Collection. Nicely re-mastered this is the best DOC SAVAGE has looked and sounded since it's original theatrical debut. In recent days the film has also been made available to rent or buy digitally via Amazon Instant Video.



      As for the future of DOC SAVAGE in the movies? The character's increasing popularity (since 1966 there have been seven different comic series from Gold Key, Marvel, D.C., Dark Horse and more; it was Doc Savage and not Howard Hughes who invented the jet pack in Dave Stevens' original THE ROCKETEER graphic novel; and BUCKAROO BANZAI AND THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS were the 80s hipster version of Doc and the Five) has kept him in the crosshairs of not only his enemies, but those of tinsel town as well. In 1999 screenwriter / director Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION / THE MIST) and screenwriter / director Chuck Russell (THE MASK, ERASER) intended to bring a new version of DOC SAVAGE to multi-plexes with a grand scale adventure starring Arnold Schwareneggar. But the actor's ascension to the Governor-ship of California pulled the plug on that rendition. 

     In 2013 it was announced that writer / director Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON, KISS KISS BANG BANG, IRON MAN 3) was given the green light on a new big screen Doc yarn. And, as per the novels, Black's version is to take place in the 1930s.  He wants everyone's fave hero to be accompanied by his ever present "Fabulous Five". And it's also said the present day cinematic pulp-maestro wants none other than THOR's Chris Hemsworth for the lead.

We'll keep you posted. Until then ...

"Tune in next week for another exciting episode"! 



                                                                                                                           CEJ

Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl   

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved. 

2 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "After the death of primary DOC SAVAGE author Dent (who retained radio, TV and film rights), his estate (headed by his widow Norma) licensed the character for a 1966 / '67 feature film based on the 1934 novel THE THOUSAND HEADED MAN."

    In fact, Condé Nast licensed Doc Savage to Goodson-Todman thinking that it had all of the media rights when in fact it only had the printed word rights, which were all that Street & Smith ever cared about, it being a publishing company, only to discover that the film, radio and syndicated comic strip rights had been given to Dent in lieu of a pay raises.

    When it became clear that Norma Dent now owned the film rights, CN tried to intimidate her into relinquishing them for a pittance. This so rankled her that she refused to even speak with CN again until George Pal intervened, brokering a fair settlement between them on 20 Jul 1971 (five years after the 1966 movie project fell through) that allowed Pal to option those rights for his proposed film & TV series.

    ReplyDelete