A Near Miss...
Doc Savage's 75th Anniversary
To be honest, I almost missed this anniversary...and I really shouldn't have.
2008 marks the 75th anniversary of a character who can rightfully be considered the grandfather of American popular culture. Originally created by Lester Dent, Doc Savage has had an imprint on almost every character to arise since the 1930s - from Superman to Mission: Impossible, from the Fantastic Four to James Bond, from Batman to James West. Even modern comics like Planetary often pay homage to a character from humble pulp beginnings who has had a major impact on comics, movies, and television to the present day.
So much so that, in the 1970s, there was a Doc revival as Bantam reprinted the original magazines. (Now, you can get high quality reprints via Nostalgia Ventures). This led to a movie that will be the main focus of this month's column: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It's a movie that, quite frankly, doesn't quite get the respect it does...and really needs to be released on DVD. I even said so about a year ago.
Upon first glance, it's almost picture-perfect casting: Ron Ely (best known for playing Tarzan on television) hits the right notes as Doc. Two of the supporting actors - Paul Gleason and William Lucking - would go on to become very well renowned character actors. George Pal (who could, quite honestly, be called the Spielberg of the 1950s, making movies that were leaps and bounds ahead of then-contemporary fare) produced what was sure to be a cinema classic...and a well deserved hit. (During this time, let's put things in perspective for me personally - as a young lad, I am enjoying Marvel's color comic and black-and-white magazine, as well as checking out worn-out paperbacks from the Brighton Park branch of the Chicago Public Library. I read the Doc paperbacks voraciously, and still have a box of them tucked away, opening and enjoying the slim, yellowed volumes which told large-scale stories of superscience, supervillains...and were just plain fun).
However, the film was a resounding failure, not the least of which was....well, the slightly campy overtones. A villain in a large crib? The over-the-top John Phillips Souza music? The fact that the two actors who played Monk and Ham tended to....well, "chew the scenery" is an extremely subtle way of putting it. (Yes, I am aware that there is a fan edit of the movie that removes some of the more egregious scenes and the Souza music. No, I will not link to it in this column - part of it is that I respect Chuck too much to get him in trouble for copyright violations. But more importantly - it would violate the main premise of this month's column).
However, the Doc Savage movie needs to be seen because - quite frankly - it's one of the few "successful" adaptations of pulp material in film. It's the final film of a man who shaped much of science fiction/fantasy cinema. And yes, it was the starting ground for quite a few careers. For those who can't see past the camp, though...
Based on the graphic novel series, the recently ended Middleman is not only over-the-top, it goes through the top, and combines all sorts of in-jokes, obscure references, and just plain goofy plots (evil alien overlords posing as a boy band? A vampire puppet? A sensei in a Mexican wrestling mask?) Matt Keeslar easily channels his inner Adam West to play a kind of hyper-hero - the kind of square jawed, clean-living hero that seems extremely anachronistic in the early 21st century. (A recent episode pitted Kevin Sorbo as a 1960's Middleman whose more, er, "adult" habits served as a counterpoint to the "latest model"). It would be easy to dismiss Middleman as lightweight fluff...and it is.
What also helps Middleman is the rest of the cast - Natalie Morales portrays the Middleman's "sidekick", Wendy Watson. Actually, Morales really serves as the series' lead - we experience everything through her eyes. It straddles the line between know-it-all cynicism and, well, I-can't-believe-this-is-happening wonder. In fact, the supporting cast does a great job in keeping this show (relatively) down-to-earth. (So much so that I kind of wonder why it's on ABC Family - some of the lines, and, well, actresses' costumes seem to indicate a more "adult" series). But the show works because, despite the rather campy tone, it maintains a level of seriousness about the dangers the main characters face. Much like the Doc Savage movie (which was made at a time when camp was the prevailing tone for such movies), Middleman works to establish a strong moral sense. In a way, both movies are able to promote the idea of straightforward heroism in a serious manner...but dealing with everything else in a smirk-wink-and-a-grin way.
In a time when cynicism rules our culture - when even the most noble of us gets derided or accused of self-interest - both Pal's movie and ABC Family's series allow us to not only laugh at traditional heroism, but also embrace it. They not only entertain, but much like Batman in the 1960's, provide a really simple, almost old fashioned template for how a person should behave. Simple? Yes. Absurd? Quite. But enjoyable, entertaining, and possibly even...inspirational? In my opinion, definitely.
As of now, both are relatively difficult to find - you might be able to find Doc Savage on VHS. As of this writing, there are no plans to release Middleman on DVD (of course, there has also been no announcement as to a second season). Granted, in writing this I've broken one of my TV Party rules ("Never write about a video that the reader can't easily find or rent"), but I'm going to make an exception in this case - first, because both are great pieces that are worth the hunt.
And secondly, because Middleman shows that no matter what happens, Doc is always with us.
And there's only one Doc Savage.
But I'd like to hear what you think - please feel free to head to the TV Party forum to share your thoughts, make suggestions, and have healthy discussions. Also, for more information on comics, television, movies, and pop culture in general, please visit my blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com
Coming in the next few months: The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. Our first anniversary column. 20 Years of Batman on film. And...well, that would be telling.
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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