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Doc Savage on the Silver Screen


an review and an analysis by M.D. Jackson

The 1930's was a time of heroes, as any reader of the old pulps knows. The Shadow. The Avenger. Gangbusters. The Spider. And, of course, Doc Savage.

Doc Savage's adventures have been reprinted in paperback form and new adventures are still being written about him today. But how has he faired in Hollywood?

Doc Savage would seem to be a natural for the movies. He is a supernaturally handsome man who leads a life of thrilling adventure along with five terrific characters. Almost any of the 181 supersagas about Doc could be fodder for the Hollywood grist mill. However, he has been all but ignored by Tinseltown.

The Shadow is probably the most well-known of the pulp heroes, and that is due, undeniably, to his success on radio. (The disappointing film, The Shadow (1994) with Alec Baldwin hasn't done much but bury the character for another twenty years.) The Shadow (with the voice of Orson Welles) began as an announcer for a mystery series on NBC. Eventually his popularity increased and much was made of his mysterious identity. An entire half-hour detective show was built around the character. Only after that happened did he break into print with The Shadow Magazine from Street & Smith. Because of its success, the publishers launched a companion book, Doc Savage Magazine. Doc Savage was just as successful as The Shadow and spawned dozens of imitators.

Early on in the run of the magazine, it was decided that Doc would be tried out on radio. Lester Dent, Doc's creator and writer on the majority of novels, wrote the episodes for the radio program. It was not a success. The large number of characters did not translate well to radio. Radio actors at the time were limited in their range, and most shows only allowed one or two character parts. So the Fabulous Five becomes Doc and the quarreling two, Monk and Ham. Even then, eventually Ham was dropped from the show's roster.

No recorded transcriptions remain of the show. The only evidence that it even existed were ads for the show that appeared in Street & Smith publications and the carbons of some of the radio scripts written by Dent. The identity of the cast remains a complete mystery.

Doc Savage on radio never achieved the widespread popularity of The Shadow. Although the pulps were equally popular, it was the Shadow's radio success that fixed him in the minds of the public. Everyone knows the show's mysterious opening statement: "Who knows...what evil lurks...in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows...Heh, heh, heh, ha ha ha..." Had the radio show had not been a success, it is likely few would remember The Shadow today. His adventures were never as popular in reprints as were Doc's. Yet, it is the Shadow who appeared in several films in the 1940's and has been a popular figure in comics and has been resurrected in the Alec Baldwin film.

Nevertheless, Doc has survived without a successful radio show. It was the Bantam reprints that boosted his popularity and led to his one appearance on the silver screen in George Pal's production Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.

Pal was not, by any means, the first producer to try to bring Doc to the screen. In the late 19601s, producers Mark Goodman and Bill Toddson (the men responsible for bringing us such beauties as The Dating Game) optioned the rights to make a film adaptation of the Doc Savage books. They had planned to film The Land of Terror (Doc1s second novel) and they had gone as far as casting the late Chuck Connors (TV1s The Rifleman) as Doc before the project fell through.

George Pal, however, was a world famous producer and director of fantasy films. Pal became famous for his Puppetoons which he featured in such films as Tom Thumb. Later, he produced such classics as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. This was one of Pal1s last films and his influence in Hollywood had fallen mightily.

It was 1974 and Hollywood was no longer interested in big-budget fantasies. This was the time for hard films. Clint Eastwood was the anti-hero god of the movie-going public. Action films were fast, violent and brutal. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds were synonymous with violence and gunplay. There were no more exciting punch-ups, no more two-fisted heroes. Hollywood action films were bathed in blood and gunsmoke. The anti-hero was hard-drinking, womanizing and foul-mouthed, liked fast cars and faster women. George Pal and his soft fantasies were considered dinosaurs.

The Man of Bronze was made with a very small budget. Watching the film today, one gets the feeling that it was made with television in mind. Everything seems so small in scope. The Valley of the Vanished with its ancient Mayan city, teeming with people and giant zigarruts of gold becomes a few small grass huts in a California vineyard surrounding a small pool of molten gold, tended by a handful of Mexican extras. The hair-raising flight into the Valley, through deadly crosswinds becomes a mule ride down a sloping path. Monja, a Mayan princess of an ancient dynasty, the most beautiful and striking woman that Doc and his Five have ever seen, becomes Mona Florés, a Central American secretary played by Pamela Helmsley. King Chaik is in the picture, but in a greatly reduced capacity.

While all around them, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were stoically dealing death and Shaft, Bullet, and Dirty Harry were raking in money, Pal and the film's director, Michael Anderson, must have felt under siege. Painfully aware that Doc's brand of heroism would be laughed out of the theaters if played straight, they tried to compromise. They tried to give the picture a "campy" feel. The music, a horrific reworking of John Phillip Sousa's marches, told the audience immediately that this was not a film to be taken seriously. Paul Frees' over-the-top narration at the beginning of the film does this also. It's as if the studio felt that if they evoked TV's campy Batman series, this unusual picture, this anachronism, might find an audience.

It didn't work, of course. Perhaps Pal wanted to play the whole thing straight. Maybe Michael Anderson tried to convince him otherwise. Perhaps the studio, Warner Brothers, took the film out of their hands and did the only thing they knew how to do...screw it up. I don't know.At its core, The Man of Bronze is an attempt to bring a serious and faithful adaptation of Doc Savage and his Fabulous Five to the screen. And in that respect it works, and works beautifully. Underneath the campiness, the limitations of a low budget, and the clumsy film-making, is a golden kernel of truth. Doc and his companions live and breath exactly as they were written forty years previously. Even down to the details. Johnny (played superbly by Eldon Quick) wears a pair of glasses, the left lens of which is a powerful magnifier. No mention is made of this in the script. The producers didn1t have to put it in, but they did. Someone was paying attention. Someone cared about and loved the old Doc adventures. In the film, Doc says "Do a Barney Oldfield," a 1930's term for a U-turn. Renny (well played by William Lucking) says "Holy Cow" several times during the film, just as he did in the pulps. Ham is a sartorial fanatic and has the sword cane, tipped in an anesthetic compound. Monk carries his pet pig, Habeus Corpus, everywhere he goes.

Also in keeping with the books, but completely backwards in Hollywood's way of thinking back then, Doc retains his policy of never taking a life, of not womanizing (although he does have at least one passionate screen kiss) and not drinking or swearing. This, unfortunately, made the film a laughing stock in Hollywood.

The 1930's decade itself is reproduced in a half-hearted way. There is little to tell us that we are in the 1930's but a subtitle. What little period detail there is is thin and cartoony. The cars are period, as are the buildings, but the costumes are merely 1970's clothes redressed to look older. The collars are too wide and the jacket are cut in a modern way. The only things missing are bell-bottoms. Again, budgetary factors could be the cause, or perhaps the production was not fully committed to setting the film in the Depression Era.

A contemporary film, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, is set fully in the period. The 1930's atmosphere is thoroughly convincing. Another picture, Wim Wender's Hammett, also takes the period in time and renders it in a completely believeable fashion. Although considered "A" pictures by Hollywood, neither film had a budget as mammoth as those of the productions of today, yet still managed to create the feel of the 1930's. Doc Savage may have suffered from prejudice. It was a comic-book type film, and needed only a comic-book period dressing.

In an interview, George Pal stated:

We were tempted to bring the series up to dateĞit was suggested that we doĞand it just didn't work. The characters don't belong to today; they're 1930's characters and that means they're charming and interesting...we treat them actually just the way they were written...so we deliver them just the way they are. Now, if they begin to look "campy" that1s not because we tried to make it campy but because the material itself [is].

The quote is revealing. It seems to indicate that Pal's views of the 1930's were colored by a kind of misty nostalgia, ie: that 1930's characters were "charming and interesting". They are not treated as real people who could have existed but are seen as "...actually just the way they were written".

That much is true. Doc and his five appear on screen much as they are in the novels. Doc is the Doc of the original pulps, and not James Bama's wrinkled, crew-cut muscleman. In some shots, Ron Ely as Doc, resembles the early Walter H. Baumhofer covers from the original pulps. Similarly, Eldon Quick as Johnny, William Lucking as Renny and Darryl Zwerling as Ham, closely resemble the characters as pictured by the illustrators of the pulps. Paul Gleason as Long Tom however gets a short shrift. It seems as if the producers were unclear as to what to do with him, giving him a peaked cap and a funny scarf.

More disappointing, but not for lack of trying, is Michael Miller as Monk. As he is written, Monk is a short, squat man who most closely resembles a kind of gorilla. He has bristly red hair all over his body and speaks in a squeaky, high pitched, nasal-like voice rather like "...a rusty nail being pulled from a piece of wood". Miller is short, and has Monk's bristly red hair, and hairy eyebrows. His voice, too is as close to Monk's as one can get. His body however does not resemble a gorilla. Monk is described as being muscular and wide, but not fat. Miller is merely a fat man. This is even referred to in the movie, as Ham (Zwerling) taunts Monk by telling him that exercise might "...remove some of that ugly fat." Close, but no cigar.

The 1930's depicted in the movie, then, is an extension of that "charming and interesting" nostalgic view. It is not really the 1930's. It is merely the 1970's dressed up. How disappointing that is, when one considers that merely ten years later a film was made that brought the genre of the pulp adventure hero to top box office returns, in a way more faithful to the original pulps than either the 1940's Shadow movies or Pal1s film.

Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, although admittedly a paen to the old movie serials of the 1930's, exemplifies all of the characteristics that were present in the early pulp adventures. Indiana Jones would have been a perfect hero for a 1930's adventure magazine. He is an adventurer, a two-fisted hero who experiences daring escapes and travels to far-off lands.

The difference between Indiana Jones and the pulp heroes is that he is placed in a specific historical context, something that one can only do correctly with the benefit of hindsight. In 1936, one could not slur the burgeoning Nazi party as do the Raiders films, without provoking a political backlash, something the magazine editors in the 1930's were keen to avoid. In the 1980's, however, we can use the Nazis as villains, and they make more credible villains than many that inhabied the pulps.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also succeeds over the previously mentioned films in that its depiction of the 1930's, much like that of Chinatown or Hammett, is firmly set in the Depression era. This is a more real 1930's and not a mere comic-book interpretation of it. The characters seem more real when placed in it and the trappings appear like real objects and not just window dressing.

It also helps that the characters are treated as real, living, breathing human beings, and not "charming and interesting" period cut-outs. Indiana Jones, although an extraordinary character, and still clearly in the pulp tradition, is made human and believable by Harrison Ford1s straight-forward performance. Everything is treated seriously but not without a sense of humor. Comic touches come from the characters and reactions to situations and are not superimposed over top, like the subtitles in the martial arts battle in The Man of Bronze.

One may, of course, argue that Doc Savage as he was written for the pulps is a more outrageous character than Indiana Jones, and is therefore more susceptible to comic-book treatment. But a closer look at the Raiders films revels that they are as filled with pulpism as any Savage adventure: cardboard villains bent on world domination, racial and cultural portrayals that have been criticized as racist. The difference seems to be in the degree to which these things play within the film. The amount of realism off-sets the occasional unbelievable tid-bit.

Nearly a decade later after the first Indiana Jones film, Disney released a picture about a pulp-inspired character who, in many ways, is more outrageous and comic-book than Doc Savage himself, and yet The Rocketeer played straight without resorting to campy send-ups.

Based on Dave Stevens 1981 comic book of the same name, The Rocketeer is a beautifully reconstructed pulp adventure film. It is also firmly set in the 1930's, even more so than Raiders. Music, costumes, scenery and just an excellent eye for period detail, all combine to make The Rocketeer a virtual window into another age. Some of the attitudes and dialogue are modern but these do not jar. The whole thing is wonderfully constructed and paced exactly like those old pulps which is coincidentally the same pacing and structure that audiences have come to expect from modern special effects and adventure movies.

The Rocketeer also uses historical hindsight. Its villains are Nazis who are on a goodwill tour of the US with their zeppelin. Their chief spy in America is actor, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who has more than a passing resemblance to Errol Flynn, who, it has been revealed, was, in fact, a Nazi agent in Hollywood in the 1930's. Again, neither of these elements would have been included in a pulp adventure from the 1930's but can be added now for the same of versimilitude (the same reason Clarke Gable and W. C. Fields show up as characters in the picture).

The actors (notably leads Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connely and Alan Arkin) look and feel like period pulp characters. They are not cartoons, nor are they merely "charming and interesting". They are fully rounded characters who look like they belong within that time. Other notable perfomancers in the film are William Sanderson and Tiny Ron, as the Towering Lothar, whose make-up looks much like the villains in Dick Tracy but never gains that silliness of those characters.

However, The Rocketeer has another connection to Doc Savage. The original graphic novel by Dave Stevens actually has Doc and his five, most notably Monk and Ham, show up and take an active part in the story. For copyright purposes, Stevens couldn1t identify these characters for who they really were. Doc is mistaken for Howard Hughes and Monk as bodyguard, Col. Mayberg and Ham as Noah Deitrich, Hughes' lawyer.

The film sadly, but for obvious reasons, does away with Doc and his five companions, replacing them with the real Howard Hughes and a duo of bad tempered FBI agents. This enhances the film, but disappointed the many Doc fans (myself included) who were also fans of the comic.

However, it also begs the question: if films can be made based on pulp-type adventures and pulp-type characters, why can't someoneĞdirector, producer or studioĞmake a film about Doc and the five today, using similar techniques, special effects and seriousness as Raiders or The Rocketeer? Even a television series that adapts the original novels seems like an attractive idea if it could have similar production values as these films. I think that now would be the time for a Doc Savage to show up on film or television, but of course, taken seriously, not camped up.

Until then, one can always buy or rent the George Pal film, available now in most video stores, and watch the first half (the better) of the film. Or just go back to the originals and enjoy them in their pure form and imagine the possibilities.


For more about Doc Savage visit Chris Kalb's excellent site Welcome To The 86th Floor!

For a good laugh about the film do visit Bob Besco's hilarious site The MSTified Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze



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