Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Linus vs. the Red Baron?

REVISITING the same Peanuts comic book mentioned in a previous posting, here's another page from that issue. See anything familiar here?

(Click on image for better look.)
Since the comic is missing four pages, this is clearly the second page to a story where Linus, after having seen a magazine with a picture of a man on a flying carpet right out of One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights), tries to ride his security blanket like one.

Figure it out yet?

Yes, Linus Van Pelt is wearing an aviator's helmet with goggles, and it looks a lot like the one Snoopy wore commencing with the first "Red Baron" episode of the Peanuts comic strip dated Sunday, October 10, 1965. The comic book was published about seven years prior! (Remember, that's back in 1958.)

Looking again at the biography Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis, it relates the origin of Charles Schulz's inspiration for the "RB" strips as coming from his son, Monty. Sometime during the summer of '65, the 13 year-old boy came into his father's drawing studio with a model of a Fokker triplane; as they talked about it, Schulz thought back to old WWI war movies (like Hell's Angels), and he decided to parody them. For years, Monte claimed it was his suggestion Snoopy would be the pilot of the "Sopwith Camel" (a.k.a. the doghouse); Schulz would consistently dismiss this notion until near the end of his life when he finally acknowledged his son's contribution.

Snoopy's debut as the World War I Flying Ace.
Schulz's assistant during '58, Jim Sasseville, worked on the comic books, and there's a chance he drew Linus with this headgear. If Sasseville spent enough time with Schulz on any given week, they were bound to have talked about many things; could some of their topics have included WWI movies and/or the Red Baron?

Or was Sasseville (or whoever) thinking of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh? It was only a year prior the movie biography The Spirit of St. Louis came out, starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Billy Wilder. This makes more sense.

Scene from The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).

When I first got this comic back in the late '80s, I thought the possibility of a connection between this story to the later "RB" material highly bizarre to be believed; this was before I actually could find more to read about the history of the Peanuts comic book, my only reference for it at the time being the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. Luckily, when I randomly got a biography of Jimmy Stewart at the library years later, and I read what year TSoSL was released, I remembered my comic. With another look at it, I then realized where the reference point in the comic book likely came from.

Charles Schulz did not swipe an idea from his former employee in 1965; it's merely the most oddest of coincidences.

Speaking of odd, on the next page of the story, Linus notices the man in the picture is wearing a turban; maybe one of these will help him to fly, so....

Please don't show this image to a
Republican up for re-election!
Of course, he unwittingly uses his blanket, so when he wonders where his "magic carpet" escaped to, Lucy points at the top of his head! Another attempt at lift-off with a fan running at full speed doesn't work, either. Happily, the problem gets solved, thanks to the "American ingenuity" of Charlie Brown:

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Young Avenger (1972), starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua and Fan Mei Sheng. Directed by Yueh Fung.

HOWEVER long she's on the screen in a Shaw Brothers movie, I get a lot out of a performance from Shih Szu. Even though she was brought in as a replacement for Cheng Pei-pei, we know she ultimately turned out to be her own person. Her striking beauty was equally as impressive as her dramatic range and her physical capabilities with swords or martial arts. Only a injury that occurred while on the set in the mid-'70s would take her from action parts (she was "deemed a safety hazard", according to the Shaw Brothers Reloaded site) to the standard "leading lady/victim" ones. By 1980, she'd be gone from Shaw; it was their loss.

Let's revisit her earlier times with her role as the title character in The Young Avenger. It's a typical "Shih Szu: Phase One" film, and that's a good thing.

After an exciting fight (during the opening titles) introduces us to Bao Zhu (a.k.a. "The Young Avenger", a renowned hero/assassin in the martial arts world), we go back ten years to Wan Sang Town, where the hunch-backed Liu Tou (the "Judge"), one of the three outlaw brothers known as the "Heroes of Qin Town" (Fan Mei Sheng, The Kiss of Death), arrives looking for Li Kui ("The Old Chief"), one of four brothers known as the "Heroes of Jiangnan" (Tung Lin, King Boxer). Twenty years prior, Liu's brother was killed by Li (he says it was accidental) with his mighty Dragonsword, and he now wants Li to pass on to him how to use the sword as a way to make up for the death.

Li says It's been so many years since he's used his sword, he he can't even recall the technique, so he must decline the request to a simmering Liu. Hours later, Liu shows up at Li's house, finding the old man practicing with the Dragonsword; even so, Li claims (smooth as his moves are) he still doesn't know everything! A skirmish breaks out; Li's victorious, but Liu gets in an Iron Palm "sucker punch" before leaving, saying there'll be a rematch in ten years at the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Seconds after Liu's gone, it turns out the Iron Palm dealt a fatal wound to Li. On his deathbed, the sifu tells his student, Er Hu Zi (Ng Ming Tsui, The Blade Spares None) to take his young daughter, Bao, to her fourth uncle (known as "The Mad Monk", but these days, he's just a monk) at Dai Bei Temple to learn the Dragonsword technique so she may avenge his death.

Li's sister (Chen Yen Yen, Dead End), there to watch over him with her son, Chen Shi Lun, protests the idea, and considering how her boy would rather learn martial arts than study, it's easy to see why she feels this way. However, Bao wants to go, too, so the decision's final; she leaves the next day, cousin Chen giving her a small, porcelain Bhudda as a going-away gift before she's gone. When Li's third brother ("The Bookworm") arrives to mourn, he hears of Chen's learning issues and offers to help him out, including teaching him the Iron Fan Technique (with an actual iron fan that has deadly sharp tips).

Then, we return to the present day, where the now-adult, fully-trained Bao is walking the long journey back home. Despite being a paid assassin and ocassional bounty hunter, she leads a beggar's existence. After some battles along the way, she arrives back at Wan Sang Town. She goes to an inn to eat, but the workers do not want to serve this scruffy person, certainly not one who dares to sit at a table reserved for the inn's owner. When she flashes money, in addition to a tough attitude, they leave her be.

To her surprise, the owner is her grown-up cousin Chen (Yueh Hua, Come Drink with Me). She manages to catch his attention by throwing the little Bhudda she has saved for all those years at him; his reflexes are quick, and he catches it with his iron fan. He immediately knows who she is, and he knows why she's come back; after all, the Mid-Autumn Festival is only days away. After an emotional reunion with him and her aunt, she settles in her father's old residence and awaits Liu's return.

Ahead of his arrival, Liu has sent forces to surround the town. A spy (Liu's brother) is sent in to see if Bao is there. She sees him, and Chen quickly captures him. Along with Er Hu Zi, the two find out who he is and what's going on. Chen tries to let him go to give Liu's men the message that Bao is in town, but the vengeance-fueled lady slays him before he has a chance to leave.

Her actions aggravate an already bad situation; in retaliation, an innocent farmer is taken down with an arrow courtesy of Liu's men. Despite this, the citizens haven't forgotten how Bao's father helped them in the past, so they prepare for the advancing enemy, with Bao's fight now their fight, too.

So it goes that Liu's sneak attack on Wan Sang back fires, Chen and the townspeople taking out most of those men before Liu finally arrives. He's a little grayer, but still just as nasty; he's ready to take on the daughter of Li Kiu....

NO "SPOILERS" from here on!

Oh, that face! Shih Szu.

The most interesting observation to be made about TYA is regarding the nature of Bao Zhu. From the script by writers Ko Jui Fen and Hu Pao, we know she was sent off to learn how to use the Dragonsword in order to take revenge on Liu Tou, but at some point on her way back home, she decided to use her skills for reasons other than self defense. In the opening, she's been hired to kill the Tung brothers. Later on, she gets help from two inept robbers in liquidating men from a local triad a nearby town has a bounty on (so much money per member), letting her helpers keep the bulk of the reward. While the people we do see her eliminate are a rotten lot, there is an implication some of her victims didn't need to be killed, and she may have even gotten a little bloodthirsty at some point.

This may explain her emotional state when she's at the inn. Cousin Chen and the others have only heard so much about the scum she's taken out; her killings apparently went beyond those done in the name of "The Young Avenger", and she feels shame. Combined with the homecoming, thoughts of the impending fight with Liu, and all the blood spilt, she finally breaks down and cries. In the end, "The Young Avenger" is all too human. (Shih Szu's performance here, along with the music cues used, really caught me at this moment, giving me a slight lump in my throat. Her acting is the punctuation mark that gives her character the dimensions she has.)

Don't call Yueh Hua a "fan dancer"!

Beyond this variation in the almighty "REVENGE" theme, the script is fairly conventional. Director Yueh Fung (The Bells of Death) keeps things moving quickly and efficiently so other plot points never given any elaboration on are bypassed in order to get to the action. (Another thing to ponder: Are cousins Bao and Chen sweethearts?) If seconds or minutes have been trimmed from this, it's hard to tell where, so credit the unidentified film editor with doing a solid job.

The cinematography by Kwang Han Lu (One-Armed Swordsman, The Assassin) is impeccable; he helps set the proper mood for the picture whether in studio or outdoor locations. (He certainly catches Shih Szu's face in flattering ways; she's as lovely dirty as she is cleaned up!) The fight choreography by Hsu Er Niu is never dull; he makes Shih Szu and Yueh Hua look good with a sword and the iron fan, respectively, and uses wirework sparingly for certain jumps. A lot of the music cues were new to my ears; wherever these came from, they add a lot to the tone of the film.

The cast isn't a huge one, which helps to keep the story on the small scale it's meant to be. Fan Mei Sheng does well as the main heavy, though his abscence in-between the beginning and the end seems too long. Top-billed Yueh Hua is just playing a supporting role like he did many times for Cheng Pei-pei, but he gives his usual above-average performance. He also gets a cool weapon in the iron fan; too bad he didn't get to use it more. (It can be thrown like a boomerang, reminding me some of the "flying guillotines" found in other "old school" martial arts movies.) Along with Chen Yen Yen, Ng Ming Tsui, Tang Ti and other faces familiar to regular viewers of Shaw movies, the remainder of players lend capable support.

The whole of the film rests on Shih Szu's shoulders, and she handles it with the stamina of Atlas. She does her fight scenes with her own kind of grace and intensity; it's in those moments when she shows her vulnerable side that she stands out over the likes of Pei-pei, Lily Ho and even Li Ching. She's not dressed up here like in one of her later roles (such as The Deadly Breaking Sword), but her physical prescence is still commanding. Attractive as she is from the neck down, it's her expressive face that draws the most attention, especially those hypnotic eyes. She mesmerized me every moment she was around.

Flaws in the story aside, TYA is a compelling blend of action and drama with an ending most people won't see coming! (I still have mixed feelings about it. Anyone who has seen this already knows what I mean.) The unexpected level of subtext found in the character of Bao Zhu is most welcome, and it will bring you back for additional viewings.

As is to be expected, the IVL DVD is a nice presentation, from the anamorphic picture to the Mandarin soundtrack and adequate English subs. Great as this movie is, you won't care that it lacks real "special features"!

Simply put, with Shih Szu in a Shaw movie, you can't go wrong! Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from Play-Asia by clicking on here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Happiness is a glass jaw....

Snoopy punches Lucy
RECENTLY re-discovered in the humor archive of the Trivia Wing was this precious, precious image I think everyone who enjoys reading the Peanuts comic strip or watching the cartoons (or maybe only eating Zingers) will be ecstatic to see.

This one's a beauty! No digital manipulating was used to create this picture, and what you're looking at is an un-enhanced photo of said image.

Can you guess where it came from? (HINT: it's not from Mad magazine, a "Tijuana Bible" or The Onion.) Think about it....

Give up?

It's from the Peanuts comic book.

No, I didn't just "blow your mind"! Let me elaborate....

As the popularity of Peanuts gained momentum in the mid-1950's, Dell Publishing Company, makers of kid-friendly, "Comics Code"-approved comic books came calling to creator Charles Schulz and United Features Syndicate, his employer.

The majority of Dell's comics were licensed from properties as varied as Donald Duck, Little Lulu or The Lone Ranger; they also did an array of adaptations of movies and TV shows like Lassie, Leave It to Beaver or No Time for Sergeants (the movie with Andy Griffith). Now they wanted to take a try at Peanuts; an agreement was reached sometime after initial contact.

The first comic (dated 1953-54) was a "one-shot" containing reprints of the strip. A few other Dell comics series would also include reprints until Four Color Comics #878 (Feb '58 cover date), when what author David Michaelis (in his Schulz biography, Schulz and Peanuts) called "extended play" stories [with new stories and art] began. With Schulz's workload already burdened with doing two comic strips at the same time (the other being the short-lived It's Only a Game, a strip about sports that debuted in '57), the primary work would be handled by others, while he contributed new artwork for covers only.

The main person who wrote and drew stories for Dell was Jim Sasseville (born in 1927), a friend and colleague of Schulz's from the days when they both worked at Art Instruction, Inc. in Minneapolis. Sasseville had since become Schulz's assistant, and his main duty up until the Dell books came along was inking finished artwork and lettering for IOaG. Now, he'd be "ghosting" the comic books for $100 a week. After three Four Colors, the new material graduated to its own comic, the numbering starting at number 4 (Feb-March '60).

According to Michaelis, Sasseville was a very good artist in his
own right, and his greatest asset was a unique one; after Schulz, he was one of a select few who could draw Charlie Brown's round head. (It's not easy, as this amateur artist can testify!) Though the comic book which this picture came from is the first issue (May 1963) of the Gold Key run (Dell under a new name, actually), the material inside is copyright 1958, so it's reprints of a Dell book from '58. Based on the quality of some (not all) of the art (including some renderings of Charlie Brown's head), evidence suggests Sasseville's handiwork is in here.

He might have done "The Hero", which is where this picture came from. The actual story (like all the stories in the book) is too long and lacks Schulz's humorous touches and comedic timing; the priceless illustration is the absolute highlight of the entire mess, it's so masterfully executed. Considering the "violent" content of the drawing (arguably, a touch stronger than what sometimes happened in the strip), I thought Dell would've objected to it and have the panel changed. Then again, it's a beagle belting a "fussbudget", so there's no harm or foul!

Check out the full story below! I decided on taking photos of the pages so their warped nature will simulate reading an actual well-worn comic! (NOTE: pages have been enhanced for an attempt at clarity; click on them for a better look.)

The last Dell was lucky number 13 (May-July '62). The last Gold Key was number 4 ( Feb '64), all of them reprints.

As for Jim Sasseville, Schulz eventually decided to devote all his energy to Peanuts, so he let Sasseville assume full control of IOaG; the strip ended a 63-week run in 1959. In 1960, he'd leave cartooning to be a graphic artist. He died on November 30, 2005, at the age of 78.

I think it's cool he got to work with Schulz in the capacity he did. (All written accounts I've read strongly maintain Charles Schulz never had help with the drawing and writing of the Peanuts comic strip, period!) Most of all, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the guy who drew what I consider the pen-and-ink equivalent of The Mona Lisa.

It's the best Peanuts drawing Schulz never did!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

River of Fury (1973), starring Lily Ho, Danny Lee and Ku Feng. Directed by Chang Tseng-chai.

"Dad passed away over a month ago. I've paid up all the debts. I don't want to be like Dad, farming in the countryside. I'd rather go out and see the world like Duobo."

WITH this opening line (rewritten from the English subtitles for clarity), so starts River of Fury, a drama from Shaw Brothers that features the first leading role of prolific actor/producer/director Li Hsiu Hsien, better known to many people as Danny Lee (Super Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man).

Here, he is Zhou Yezhuang; his friends call him Yezhuangzi (Mandarin for "strong country lad"). After his father's death, the son of a farmer sells the property, deciding to venture into the outside world to earn a living while having a little adventure (maybe) along the way.

He looks up a friend of his father's, Duobo (Ku Feng, The Avenging Eagle), a helmsman for a boat that carries Wang's Opera Troupe, a group of actors who travel town to town performing Chinese operas for people from the countryside. The touring company has just arrived in Yezhaungzi's hometown to do some shows.

Getting past the bad news of his friend's death, Duobo is more than happy to have Yezhuangzi aboard and help him out, saying, "I'll count you in no matter what business I have." In this case, on dry land, Duobo's business is opium smuggling. More on that later.

In the meantime, Yezhuangzi has fallen for the lead actress in the troupe, Ge Yiqing (Lily Ho, The 14 Amazons), their feelings firmly established as mutual when Yezhuangzi rescues some underwear of Yiqing's from the river after it accidentally falls in while being laundered.

When the boat comes to the next town, Duobo takes Yezhuangzi along on one of his excursions, and the young man finds out about Duobo's smuggling (the primo merchandise kept hidden in a wine jar on the boat). Duobo says it's easy money, compared to what he gets for running the boat, and he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life steering a boat. Yezhuangzi goes along with the notion with some reservations, feeling some of the itch Duobo has for the easy money.

Later, sometime after Yezhaungzi and Duobo save Yiqing from a spurned playboy (Fan Mei Sheng, The Water Margin) during a performance, Yezhuangzi declares he wants to marry Yiqing, buy some land, and settle down with her. With Duobo and Master Wang (Yeung Chi Hing, Vengeance!) along as support, he goes to see her mother (Ou Yang Sha Fei, Whose Baby is in the Classroom?). She doesn't think much of the poor farmboy, preferring her daughter should either be acting in bigger theaters for more money or marry into big money. When Duobo offers that Yezhuangzi will give a betrothal gift of $3,000 [HK] to her, she's as pleased as Yezhuangzi is shocked. How will he pay back Duobo?

In part, he'll go on a smuggling run for him, that's how. Duobo sends him off on a trip with the jar full of opium (giving him a gun for safety) while the actors have a two-month booking at a big theater in Shenjia Beach. Yezhuangzi will earn $500 [HK] for the task.

In his absence, a wealthy townsman named Liu (Tien Ching, Delightful Forest) sees Yiqing perform, and he's immediately attracted to her. So much so that he offers Master Wang even bigger theaters for the group to work in, sweetening the deal by agreeing to absorb the loss Wang will endure when the troupe breaks the 2-month contract. Wang accepts, and Yiqing becomes a star, becoming more popular than she's ever been. Most importantly, Liu quickly becomes engaged to Yiqing, much to her mother's delight.

Inevitably, Yezhuangzi returns weeks later to find his whole world turned upside down; of course, Yiqing will have nothing to do with him, but the real twist of the knife is when Yiqing's mother smugly gives him back the betrothal money. Duobo tries to help Yezhuangzi drown his sorrows by taking him to a brothel and getting him a prostitute.

Then, an associate of Duobo's suddenly arrives at the brothel, warning him the police apparently tailed Yezhuangi, finding two telltale ferry tickets in with his clothes, as well as the opium stash, on the boat, and they'll be arriving there shortly to arrest him. Duobo decides to let Yezhuangzi be the scapegoat rather than face justice himself. Yezhuangzi (who doesn't get it on with the prostitute, his heartbreak for Yiqing still strong) is taken into custody without incident.

After serving a two-year sentence, Yezhuangzi is released from jail, and with freedom comes a ride to Duobo's large mansion first thing (that's how big Duobo's opium business got while he was away). Also there waiting for him is Yiqing; she dumped Liu a while back (he wouldn't leave his wife for her), and with her mother now dead, she's free to get back together with him.

Yezhuangzi wants nothing to do with either of them, Duobo in particular, especially once he found out (while in the stir) how he was set up as a patsy. Duobo offers no true apology in return, and when he then has the utter nerve to ask Yezhuangzi to rejoin him in the business, it seems like a last confrontation between the two former friends is about to go down very soon.

After that . . . NO "SPOILERS"!

With a screenplay by Ni Kuang that's taken from a novel by Hsu Lu, RoF is a short (80 minutes) but solid drama with well-placed dashes of of martial arts and exploitation that aren't overdone. (The story actually takes place in contemporary times; I didn't really pick up on this until the scene when photographers in suits with 35mm cameras arrive at one of Liu's theaters to snap pictures of Yiqing.)

The direction from Chang Tseng-chai (The Casino, Sex for Sale) is smooth and assured; he gets high-caliber acting from all the actors under his guidance. He makes the movie look like an "A" picture thanks to excellent photography, the music score (stock cues, most likely) adding to the atmosphere of the proceedings.

Danny Lee takes the familiar country bumpkin stereotypical role of Yezhuangzi and gives it some dimensionality; his earlier scenes with Lily Ho are charming, with flashes of bashfulness that I didn't expect at all. He handles all scenes with such a naturalness that it makes me wonder why he didn't move on to another studio sooner to do bigger-budgeted pictures more worthy of his talent.

Nothing's wrong with Lily Ho's work in this; she's fine (and foxy) as Yiqing. She has great chemistry with Danny Lee, and the highs and lows of the relationship are comparably carried well by her. Her Chinese opera scenes are a special treat, considering she had previous experience performing in actual ones.

The ultimate Shaw actor, Ku Feng, does an extraordinary job of making Duobo seem to be an otherwise upright person who turned drug smuggler to help make ends meet; he is practically a mentor to the farmer's son, so when he lets Yezhuangzi take the bum rap (mere minutes after getting the kid a hooker!), this predictable turn is given a special texture through Ku Feng's nuanced acting.

The rest of the cast provide equally strong support to the leads, including [the recently deceased] Ou Yang Sha Fei in her finely-tuned portrayal of a stage mother. (Some will debate it, but I'll contend she's the real villain in this story.)

Though RoF is only a drama, there are a couple of martial arts scenes included here; they're choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping and Yeun Cheung Yan. Danny Lee and Ku Feng do the work very capably, both of them showing a lot of athleticism that's all the more astounding when you see everything Ku Feng does.

As always, IVL's DVD has the nice anamorphic Shawscope picture, good audio (in Mandarin), passable English subs and the typical special features.

The brevity of the film doesn't hamper what is a well-told story that exhibits no signs of being padded out. The drama was riveting enough that I did not find myself constantly watching the time or twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the fighting! Fans of Shaw martial arts films who've considered buying any of the other genre movies they did won't go wrong if they start with this one.

Highly recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from Play-Asia by clicking on here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Revisions: They drive me "Charlie Brown"!

I forgot to add a COMMA?!
EVERYONE strives to improve themselves in some sort of a way. The people who do this without putting much thought into it? They're the lucky ones.

Then, there's Brother Fang!

I have no problem dealing with correcting factual errors or inserting additional information on a post to the degree of a significant rewrite, especially if it helps to give a point I have more substance to it. (If you've looked at my Heroes Two entry more than once over a span of time, then you may have experienced this already.) What gets at my insides is writing itself.

I'm fortunate now to be able to make paragraphs on a computer (and annoyed at how simple it was to do that I didn't figure it out sooner), but I'm still dealing with the spelling, grammar and literary flow of the English language, and the proper punctuation of same!

I know this is "only a blog", and in this particular media, little lapses of any fashion are the norm, but I often try to express myself beyond my current boundaries, so writing is an exercise I work at. It's mental aerobics, and I'm getting my brain back into condition. You're ringside observers to the process with each posting I publish, so I thank you all for being patient readers, no matter how many times I tinker with my writings. (Even Roger Ebert makes errors, recently writing on his blog that Jodie Foster appeared in The Parent Trap! He meant Freaky Friday, and he corrected himself within hours of the posting on Facebook.)

At times, my revisions do feel like a "Charle Brown" (a.k.a. "AAUGH!") moment, like the times he struggled with a pen while writing a pen pal, lost ballgames, or never summoned up enough nerve to talk to the "Little Red-haired Girl". Like Chuck, a lot of my frustrations are all in my head, so I need to get past my anxieties.

Having recently journeyed from Pennsylvania to Indiana (as of yesterday), I'm feeling positive the new locale may be beneficial for my relating to everybody more items from the wonderful place that is the Trivia Wing. If all goes right, I'll have fewer and fewer "Charlie Brown" moments!

Here's hoping.

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.