A True Life Adventure? Not Really!

Lemmings Committing Suicide En Masse

Lemmings Committing Suicide En Masse

We have all heard of the mass suicide of cute little Arctic lemmings, but has anyone ever seen it? You have if you’ve seen the Walt Disney True Life Adventure called White Wilderness (1958), directed by James Algar. And the reason you’ve seen it is because the filmmakers faked it. According to the Alaska Fish & Wildlife News in September 2003:

According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the lemming scenes were faked. The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers. The epic “lemming migration” was staged using careful editing, tight camera angles and a few dozen lemmings running on snow covered lazy-Susan style turntable.

“White Wilderness” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a landlocked province, and not on location in lemmings’ natural habitat. There are about 20 lemming species found in the circumpolar north—but evidently not in that area of Alberta. So the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children a couple provinces away in Manitoba and staged the whole sequence.

In the lemming segment, the little rodents assemble for a mass migration, scamper across the tundra and ford a tiny stream as narrator Winston Hibbler explains that, “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny.”

That destiny is to jump into the ocean. As they approach the “sea,” (actually a river—more tight cropping) Hibbler continues, “They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!”

The “pack of lemmings” reaches the final precipice. “This is the last chance to turn back,” Hibbler states. “Yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

Faking documentaries is nothing new to the film industry. In the famous early documentary Nanook of the North (1922), filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty had to teach his Eskimos how to build an igloo. And the women who were supposedly the star’s wives were actually Flaherty’s common-law wives, who happened to be Inuit. So much for verisimilitude!

An Actual Lemming. Cute, Huh?

An Actual Lemming. Cute, Huh?


The World’s Greatest Epitaph

And Who, Might You Ask, Was Mel Blanc?

And Who, Might You Ask, Was Mel Blanc?

If you were born under a rock in Uzbekistan, you may not ever have heard the voice of Mel Blanc. But if you’ve ever seen a Warner Brothers Cartoon that featured Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé le Pew, Marvin the Martian, or the Tasmanian Devil, you’ve heard just some of the wizardry of Mel Blanc.

Just to refresh your memory, here’s a little sample:

This afternoon Martine and I went to Hollywood Forever cemetery where many of the greats of Hollywood are buried. There you can find Rudolf Valentino, film moguls like Harry Cohn and Jesse L. Lasky, directors like Cecil B. DeMille and Edgar G. Ulmer, members of the Little Rascals like Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and Darla Hood, and literally hundreds of Russians, Armenians, and Jews who have decided to spend a part of eternity at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. There is even the grave of aspiring starlet Virginia Rappe, who died of being raped at a famous party hosted by silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

But the best epitaph award clearly goes to Mel Blanc. After his death, Warner Brothers tried to find a replacement, but no one could match Melvin Jerome Blanc. He had a million voices, all of them clearly distinguishable one from the other, and they were all great.

The Man Who Gave Us the Tingler

He Made Being Scared Fun

He Made Being Scared Fun

Last Saturday, Martine and I visited one of the three places worth seeing in Hollywood, namely the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which is almost in the shadow of he Hollywood Bowl off Highland Avenue. (The other two places worth seeing are the Egyptian Theater, especially during Cinecon, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society’s museum on Cahuenga.)

It is not the museum I want to talk about right now—though I’ll get to it later—but an exhibit I saw there honoring that great showman of horror, William Castle, director of such classics as Macabre (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), and Homicidal (1961). Although he was active since the early 1940s, it is during this relatively short period in the 1950s and 1960s that he almost pre-empted the horror genre.

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

What make Castle famous at the time was that he were his publicity gimmicks. When he released Macabre, he had to mortgage his house, so he came up with some hilarious ideas to promote the picture, such as giving every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies and had hearses parked outside the theaters.

My favorite of his films was The Tingler, filmed in “Percepto.” According to Wikipedia:

The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theatre to theatre attaching them to the underside of some of the seats (in that era, a movie did not necessarily open on the same night nationwide). In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theatre itself. The buzzers were activated as the film’s star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to “scream—scream for your lives!” Some sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler! how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.

Well, he wasn’t the only one. Several years ago, the Alex Film Society in Glendale not only showed The Tingler, but claimed that some of the seats were “wired.” I was disappointed to see that the wiring was nothing more than some aluminum foil attached to the underside of some of the seats.

It didn’t matter. Martine and I loved the film anyhow, and we loved Castle’s gimmicks. Okay, maybe we were too sophisticated to be taken in by them, but we loved the idea that he made the horror picture not only scary, but funny.

I don’t know if Castle was a “great” director, but I still enjoy seeing his films.

Supreme Competence and Moral Probity

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

There were cowboy films before William S. Hart. As early as 1903, there was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. Then there were the films of Broncho Billy Anderson who was the first film western star—those his films were also shot back East and were redolent of New Jersey.

No, it was William S. Hart who really got the ball rolling back in 1914 when he teamed up with Producer Thomas H. Ince to produce a series of oaters at Santa Ynez Canyon just a few miles from where I live. (John Ford got started around 1917 with Harry Carey, Sr. in Straight Shootin’, but Hart quickly became the better known of the two stars.)

The Hart hero was almost always a loner, half-civilized if at all, but radiating an awakening sense of moral probity. While he was in the process of making his decision, God help any bad guys who tried to do him in in the meantime.

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

This was certainly true of Travelin’ On (1922), which I saw this morning at Cinecon. He is simply J.B., an illiterate loner who rides into a crude Arizona town run by Dandy Dan McGee, a saloon keeper who runs all the vices from his Palace of Chance. When a preacher, his wife and daughter pull into town in their wagon, they witness a fight between two toughs, which the preacher tries to stop. Some time later, Hart rides into town and runs afoul of Gila, one of McGee’s cronies, whom he makes short work of.

Both McGee and J.B. fall in love with the preacher’s wife. When Hart sees McGee make a move on her, he threatens to kill him the next time he sees him. Of course, he does, but not before he takes the rap for a stage robbery committed by, of all people, the preacher—and then he rides off alone, after saving the preacher from being justly hanged for his crime.

I never seem to tire of seeing Hart’s films. I visit his ranch in Newhall once or twice a year and see to some extent how his character was formed. He married a younger star named Winifred Westover and had a son named William S. Hart Jr. (whom I knew). He never remarried and lived on his ranch with his sister until his death in 1948.

It was around the time this film was made that Hart was upstaged by other Western stars, most notably Tom Mix. Mix was good, but there was something about Hart that was unique.


Two Christs for Modern Man

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

After two centuries of Christian art,the West has produced thousands of images of Jesus Christ—almost none of which connects to people who are alive today. The Son of God is usually portrayed as a man who was born to be tortured to death on a cross, but not as a man who could gather around him twelve apostles and hundreds of followers.

One notable exception are the vignettes with Bernard Verley (above) as Christ in Luis Buñuel’s film The Milky Way (1969). The scene pictured above is at the marriage ceremony in Cana, when the Redeemer performed his first public miracle.

The other image is one I saw at the Getty Center today: It is the Italian painter Correggio’s “Head of Christ,” pictured below:

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

I like the look of consternation on Christ’s face as he contemplates what lies ahead while he is wearing the crown of thorns. This is the Christ who, the previous night at Gethsemani, had said: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He may be God, but the look on His face is 100% pure human.


Great Will Hunting

Poster for State Fair (1933) with Will Rogers

Poster for State Fair (1933) with Will Rogers

Every August around this time, the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation and California State Parks stage an outdoor screening of one of Will’s films. Last night it was the original version of State Fair (1933) directed by Henry King and starring Will and Janet Gaynor, with Lew Ayres and Sally Eilers. The Foundation called it “Movies in Will’s Back Yard”, as it took place on the putting green adjoining the Will Rogers Ranch.

As Lew Ayres said about Will, he’s not really an actor at all: he’s just a character. He would never select a role that would call for anything but allowing him to be himself. The result was a series of great pictures made in the early 1930s before he died in an Alaska plane crash in 1935. My favorites are A Connecticut Yankee (1931), Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), Life Begins at Forty (1935), and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935).

Despite the fact that he “couldn’t act,” Will Rogers was the best-paid actor in Hollywood just before his death. (It must have been because people liked him so much that they couldn’t care whether or not he was a genuine actor.)

He was also America’s number one columnist. Somehow, he managed to pull off the neat trick of having both Republicans and Democrats love him. Now that Robin Williams is gone, who is there alive who can make that claim?

Every year around this time, I write a post about Will Rogers because I admire him so much. Let me leave you with this little quote from one of his talks:

The average citizen knows only too well that it makes no difference to him which side wins. He realizes that the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have come to resemble each other so closely that it is practically impossible to tell them apart; both of them make the same braying noise, and neither of them ever says anything. The only perceptible difference is that the elephant is somewhat the larger of the two.

My Brother Sets Me Straight

Now I Know What I’m Going to See There!

Now I Know What I’m Going to See There in Peru!

Last night, my brother left the following comment on my status on reading Nigel Davies’s book The Incas on Facebook: “How about The Dinky Incas”? That set me back for a minute. Who in blue blazes were the Dinky Incas? Well, there was only one way to find out: I Googled it. Then it all came back to me. There was an animated television series around 1959-1960 called “Clutch Cargo,” starring a ruggedly good-looking hero with an enormous jaw named Clutch Cargo who flew to strange locales with a small freckle-faced boy named Spinner and a dachshund named Paddlefoot. They engaged in the type of exotic adventures I recall from reading Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comic books.

By the time my brother was of an age to enjoy the limited animation adventures of “Clutch Cargo,” I was already a teenager who was much too sophisticated for that type of stuff. Dan, on the other hand, was eight or nine years old and watched every episode.

Now You, Too, Can Follow Their Adventures

Now You, Too, Can Follow Their Adventures

The series on the “Dinky Incas” was about a missing archaeologist who was on a dig in Peru which resembled, more than anything else, a Mayan pyramid in the jungle. (The real Incas didn’t build pyramids and they preferred the higher-elevation altiplano to the jungles of the Amazon.) Clutch, Spinner, and Paddlefoot run into two unsavory characters who try to do away with them, because, of course, they’re after all the gold and jewels. But Clutch and his sidekicks take care of them right quick, as you can see for yourself if you have twenty minutes to watch the whole series, which is available by clicking here.