Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Favorite Places; Ballarat, CA

On our way to Death Valley we took the three mile or so detour on a dusty unpaved road to Ballarat, a very small ghost town that exists just outside the border of the National Park. It was late June, about one hundred and ten degrees with no could we resist?
There was no movement in Ballarat. It was around noon as we drove in looking for a parking place. There was nothing but parking places in Ballarat, so we just pulled over at a ramshackle building that boasted it was a museum. As we got out of the car a scarecrow appeared in the door to the museum calling out a welcome. He didn't offer his name and we didn't ask for it, but he was friendly, telling us we could go anywhere, poke around, look at whatever we pleased. He was the caretaker of Ballarat, a middle-aged man who needed a haircut or a good combing. His shirt looked as if he'd eaten his lunch off of it, and he told us of the recent big news; how a movie had been shot in Ballarat (two years ago?) and how the top Hollywood director had been there with the filmmakers. He couldn't remember the guy's name, but there you go.
He pointed out Charlie Manson's truck, sitting in the desert across the street. I wandered over to look at it and it had psychedelic painting inside. It reeked of the sixties and Helter Skelter. The jail/morgue/hotel was a small building that the caretaker confessed had been built long after the heyday of Ballarat. But when fact becomes legend, print the legend.
There was a constant roar of jets overhead from the Naval Air base nearbby. You couldn't see the jets but you could hear them.
The museum was a bit of a letdown, containing only some junk and a movie poster of BAD MAN FROM BALLARAT or was it THE BALLARAT KID? My daughter pointed out that some of the vintage junk in the dilapidated buildings wasn't that vintage. Plastic dish trays for example, old Sprite bottles. Still, it was a ghost town and we were happy to pay the two dollar donation inside the museum (no receipt offered or required). Heck, it was worth that just to pet the caretaker's dog, who was hot, tired, and pretty darned friendly.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Joys and Sorrows of Collecting

I try not to collect much. I'm prone to it, and feel that it's a flaw; as the junk (or even the good stuff) piles up around my room I get to where I can't even enjoy the nice things I have. It's always been a struggle to focus on the important things (i.e. paying the bills etc.) and let the minutiae go...I know people who can't do that, and I dread being one of them.
That being said, the things I have collected over my long and limited life are sort of important to me. I'm a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically Tarzan, and have put together a complete set of Tarzan hardcovers. They're by no means all first editions, although I've picked up a few here and there, and some years ago I was lucky enough to acquire a copy of the prize Tarzan novel, TARZAN AND THE CASTAWAYS, prized because it has not only a Frank Frazetta cover but very nice illustrations by Frank inside.
I also have collected (on a very LIMITED scale) the works of Robert E. Howard, picking up books by him almost as an afterthought. A few I bought when new (SOWERS OF THE THUNDER, the recent nice DelRey hardcovers) but most are way out of my league, financially. Luckily, in 1972, I found a copy of one of the jewels of Howard collectibles, SKULL-FACE AND OTHERS, the magnificent Arkham House edition from 1946. Even back then it was pricey, $17 without the dust jacket. Still, a remarkable book, and I was able to enhance it a few years back by buying a facsimile DJ which made it all the more attractive. The DJ cost more than the book did originally, in fact, and my total cash invested in SKULL-FACE...$39.
I have always been aware of the Gnome Press Conan books put out in the 1950s, even handled them at Comic Conventions when the booksellers would permit, but never could afford them. I think the cheapest I've ever seen them was upwards of $100 when I didn't have it. So I had quietly despaired of ever owning them (not that I lost sleep over this) and hoped that someday I would find one of the titles at the flea market beat to hell for twenty bucks.
Well, last weekend at our monthly flea market in Santa Rosa I was mocking (in a friendly way) the collectibles at a table some friends of mine had set up. One of them (Tracy or Troy, they're identical twins and I can't tell them apart) brought up a book and asked me how I could live without it. It was a Gnome Press Conan. TALES OF CONAN. I took it from him and drooling slightly, asked him how much? He said "Ten bucks, firm!" I pretended to examine it before tearing out my wallet, but he walked away and came back with four more, THE COMING OF CONAN, THE SWORD OF CONAN, KING CONAN, and THE RETURN OF CONAN.
I damn near fainted. None had dust jackets, but the books were in pretty good condition. Still, I wanted to haggle. "Thirty bucks for all of them?" I suggested. He got agitated. "Ten bucks apiece is already a great deal!" he protested. And he was right. So I suggested $40, he came back with $45, only willing to haggle a bit so he could move some big money items. The deal was done and they're sitting on my shelf now right next to Skull-Face and Others and others. They need dust jackets, but I've got a line on them for $22 each, so my cost per volume will be $32, not bad for books offered right now on eBay for $249. Facsimile dust jackets, but what the heck? Yes, it would have meant more to me twenty years ago, but it's still pretty cool!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


We fans of the Tarzan movies (there seem to be less and less of us these days) got a real shot in the arm from Warner Bros. Their Archives series has issued two of the best non-Weismuller Tarzan flicks, TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960), both starring Gordon Scott as Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic ape man. Both films were made with adult audiences in mind, although children will be enthralled, and Scott's Tarzan is closer to Burroughs' concept than most, speaking good English and a more complex character than the earlier Weismuller/Barker tree swingers. Sara Shane (Angie) is right out of a James Bond movie (a couple of years before the Bond films), a sexy adventuress not too timid to sneak into the villains' boat after medical supplies for an injured Tarzan, and the villains themselves are a superb blend of ex-Nazis (the great Niall Macginnis), a troubled ex-con (Al Mulock), Slade (Anthony Quayle), an ex-rival of Tarzan, and his ambitious girlfriend (Scilla Gabel) and best of all, an Irish adventurer named Obannion played by a young Sean Connery a couple of films before Bond made him an international superstar. Inter-gang tensions wipe out most of the gang and Tarzan takes care of the rest.
TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT involves Tarzan escorting criminal Coy Banton along with several stranded travelers through the jungle/veldt while Banton's family, led by legendary John Carradine attempt to free him. Al Mulock is again along for the ride and the trip is memorable, culminating in a great fight between Banton (Jock Mahoney) and Tarzan with death as the prize (guess who wins!). The producers were so taken with Mahoney's physical performance (he had been a stuntman) that they offered him the lead in the next Tarzan epic and Scott was out of work, but not for long. He went to Italy and cashed in on that country's craze for musclemen movies.
Warner Bros. Archives is a service they provide to put films out on DVD that don't warrant a full release. They're DVDr releases and are pretty bare-bones, with no extras and plain packaging, but the films are widescreen and not bad copies. This is the first U.S. video release for either of these films. They are not cheap, but I plunked down my twenty bucks for each without blinking.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review

TRAIN FOR DURANGO (1968) D. Mario Caiano Cast: Anthony Steffen, Mark Damon, Enrico Maria Salerno, Dominique Boschero, Jose Bodelo, Roberto Camardiel, Tito Garcia, Aldo Sambrell. I recently saw the Jerksi releaseof this dvd and really enjoyed it. First off it's a great travelogue of spaghetti western locations; I recognized locales familiar from FAFDM and many others, all beautifully shot for maximum effect, Spain standing in for Mexico effortlessly. Second, it's a who's who of Spanish character actors; only Frank Brana seems to be missing of the stalwarts...well, so's Fernando Sancho, but most everybody else is here. Third, the leads all do a good job. Steffen is well cast as Gringo, a down on his luck Americano looking for a break south of the border. Mark Damon puts his shark-grin handsomeness to good use as the mysterious gunman who shows up from time to time to help out our heroes. And Enrico Maria Salerno was a revelation to me as Lucas, Gringo's Mexican sidekick. After seeing his performance I could totally see him pulling off the role of Tuco in GBU; he's sly, grinning, full of life, and not entirely trustworthy.
This is an early comedy western, and for once the comedy works. It has some pretty funny scenes which made me laugh aloud, comic characters who aren't just irritating, and the comedy rings true, especially the ending, which I thought was hilarious. This is one of Jerksi's best releases, and if you haven't seen it, you're missing out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review

TASTE OF VENGEANCE turns out to be one of star Gianni Garko's lesser westerns, which is a shame, because this is a great-looking film. Some locations familiar to spaghetti western fans are revisited, the cast is full of familiar faces like Frank Brana and Lorenzo Robledo, and the always charismatic Garko leads the way as Bryan, a decent man crazed by the rape and murder of his wife by renegade Union deserters. No longer a believer in justice he turns against his rescuer, Daniel, the man who dragged him out of his burning house, and takes up a life of crime. Daniel, on the other hand, becomes a sheriff and vows to bring Bryan in. As they say, complications ensue. One of the problems with Taste of Vengeance is that Garko is just too good as the villain; you tend to like him more than Sean Todd (Ivan Rassimov), the good guy, who frankly is written a bit bland. Music is nothing to write home about, and some of the English dialog sounds stilted. Garko gets crazier and crazier and by the dramatic shoot out at the end I really didn't care too much how it ended up. One point; at the beginning Bryan takes a bullet to the stomach as his home is invaded. He passes out and when he wakes up, having been tended to by Daniel, his wound has miraculously healed, and is never mentioned again. Sloppy film-making, but partially redeemed by a strikingly filmed ending. For SW enthusiasts only.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review

THREE SILVER DOLLARS a.k.a. Dai nemici mi guardo io! (1968) Cast: Charles Southwood, Julian Mateos, Mirko Ellis
As a long time fan of Eurowesterns, I'm inclined to find something of value in even the most pathetic of efforts. THREE SILVER DOLLARS, though, took me two sittings to get through. It's an average film at best, with very little to recommend it except to the die-hard SW fan. Charles Southwood stars as Alan, one of his first roles, and it's easy to see why he was chosen as the lead; he's handsome in a traditional movie way, blonde, even features, a touch of charisma. He looks like a slighter Richard Harrison, and should have been better as a star of westerns; perhaps he just wasn't that interested in a film career. Julian Mateos is okay as Hondo, a Mexican cell mate of Alan's who wants to team up with him on his search for the gold, the three bucks in the title being the key to the treasure. There is an okay theme song which is used again and again, and Mirko Ellis rants and raves as the villain, the mysterious El Condor. The dubbing is particularly bad on this one, as the love interest, a half-Mexican girl, sounds like a street-wise film noir broad. Also, incredibly, the line "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" is used seriously. I guess it's a sign of a bad movie when the best thing about it is the silver dollar props they used. Southwood is seen to much better effect in SARTANA'S HERE; TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN, teamed up with George Hilton.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

American Western Review

RIDE LONESOME (1959) D. Budd Boetticher Cast: Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Best, Karen Steele, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn
This is a film I came to late in life. I don't remember it ever being on tv in the bay area, and of course it's never had a video release here in the U.S. I kept hearing about the Boetticher/Scott westerns and finally got a couple from a friend over at the SWWB during my days of heavy trading. Of course I was blown away by it, even though it wasn't widescreen.
Scott plays Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who captures Billy John (James Best) a young giggling killer with connections. The youngster sends word to his big brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) to come to his rescue and as Brigade is taking him handcuffed to Santa Cruz, where he killed a man, they encounter Boone (Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn in his first film role) at a waystation where Mrs. Lane, the station master's wife (the picturesque Steele) has been left alone. Brigade soon finds out that Boone and Whit are after Billy John too, not for bounty but for the amnesty promised for his capture. The two men have spent time on the wrong side of the law and want to go straight.
A simple premise and the film which features intermittant action turns into a fascinating character study. The two outlaws are immensely likeable as is Brigade, of course. Mrs. Lane, and we the viewers, can't imagine them squaring off over the valuable prisoner, but as they near Santa Cruz and Frank and the boys are gaining on them we gradually begin to understand Brigade's motivations and the superb climax is set up.
Brigade is luring big brother Frank to the hanging tree where years before he had hanged Brigade's wife. Frank is a different man now; a man can change, but Brigade's desire for revenge hasn't changed. He will hang Billy John from the same tree unless Frank stops him. Van Cleef is very good in a small role. You sense his new-found decency, but he can't change the past, and he can't let his young brother hang.
This sets up the memorable final shot, second only to the final shot of THE SEARCHERS in my opinion, Brigade standing alone before the blazing hanging tree as the music swells and the camera follows the smoke up to the empty sky and THE END appears.
This is one of those films that I fall into every time it's on. I don't want to watch it, it's just something I have to do. Now that I have the dvd I'll pop it in just intending to watch bits and pieces but invariably watch the whole darn thing. It's that good and compact, a pleasure to watch, and probably my second favorite American western!