Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Farewell Man's Best Friend

I walked through the foyer of the church, hammer in hand looking for the banner that I needed to hang out by the street. It was Red Shield time, the major fundraising appeal for the Salvation Army in Australia, and I had to do the usual things to remind the neighbourhood we were on the can rattling war path. As I bent down  to pick up the banner, I froze as a flashback from the past raced through my mind and I began to choke back the tears. You see, I knew that within minutes I would be saying farewell to one of my closest friends.

His name was Angus, a Border Collie/Staffordshire cross, and for 12 years he had been my pet, my protection, my playmate and my friend. We had bought Angus off some close friends when we were stationed in Western Australia. He was a brown, short haired, whirl wind of hyperactive fun. He loved to chase a tennis ball and run through the waves at the sea. He enjoyed playing with  the kids and sitting with the family while watching TV. He was a keen jogger and a prolific barker. He was a zealous protector of the house and was greatly loved by those who came to know his soft and cuddly personality. Some called him Angus, others called him the 'Angus Burger', some 'The Bear', to our kids he was Angy, but to me he was my 'Little Man' and 'Buddy'. He truly was man's
best friend and I'm going to miss him.

I remember the time we caught him sharing his food with our 1 year old daughter, two heads in one bowl. I recall the moment we caught them smooching behind the curtain, two pups together, one human, one canine. Recently he demonstrated his protective side, when he came to my children's defence in the face of an angry blue tongue lizard. I've heard my daughter tell accounts of how he would bark at any of our children who would decide to take a different route from the rest of the family group while out for a walk. If you threw a ball for him you were his friend for life. He was a good companion and a loyal mate.

Angus was a great a side kick. He was Robin to my Batman.  I remember the many times we responded to tripped alarms at the various Salvation Army Citadel's I've been posted at. He would come with me in the dead of night to face either the false alarm or the broken glass.

He was Cheeta to my Tarzan. I loved taking him running with me, although it frustrated me every time he'd stop and sniff the post of a letter box to check the 'wee mail' from other dogs. He was Pokey to my Gumby. I'll miss sitting on the floor folding washing, with him lying beside me, watching Z grade monster films together. He was Devil to my Phantom. I'll miss waking up in the night and hearing him lying on the floor next to my bed snoring, matching me nostril for nostril. He was Beppo the Super Monkey to my Comet the Super Horse (OK, I'm starting to run out ideas). He loved the beach, playing with the me in the surf and fighting over the tennis ball.
He was Azrael to my Gargamel (I promise that's the last one).  If I went, he wanted to go too. If I ate it, he wanted to eat it too.  If I got up, he got up too, but sadly, at the end, he couldn't even do that.

As the arthritis slowly consumed his joints, he found doing the things he loved harder and harder. On Wednesday we took him to the vet to get treated for the stiffness and pain, by Friday he couldn't even lift his head, let alone stand up. As I slept on the floor by his side through the night, I knew within myself that this would be our last night together as a man/dog team.  As I lay there, the sadness began to settle on me like a black fog, a fog that wouldn't be lifting any time soon.

The morning brought no joy. As I walked through the foyer of the church, hammer and banner in hand, I remembered another Red Shield appeal 12 years before. I remember carrying a different hammer and a similar banner and putting them on the floor of my car and placing my new puppy Angus on the front seat. As we headed out to put the banners on fences around the town, my poor little Angus was car sick all over the front seat. I'd heard of the carrot fairy, but dear little Angus had been visited by the pen lid fairy. As I cleaned up the vomit and blue plastic with a nappy wipe, I knew that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 12 years later I was putting the banner up by myself and I knew that I was at the end of one. Over come with the memory and it's resonance with the present, I put the hammer down, left the building and got into my car. Our 11.30am appointment was drawing closer. Soon he and I would be going for our last drive together, the long drive to the veterinary clinic of no return. Soon the Dynomutt to my Blue Falcon would be gone and I would return to put up the banner by myself.
Farewell Man's Best Friend!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Ygor (or is it Igor?) Unpacked


One of the horror icons of the 20th-21st Century is Ygor (or is it Igor?), the hunchbacked assistant of Dr Frankenstein with the voice of Peter Lorrie and the catch cry of 'yes master!". I remember as a teenager reading Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and being surprised that Ygor never appeared in the original novel. In the book the creation of the  monster was the lonely work of Victor Frankenstein alone.  However strong in the popular consciousness is the figure of Ygor, the hunchedback grave robbing assistant who longs to have his own twisted body repaired so he can be like other men. But what was the origin of this figure that has become a stock character in horror films and beyond, and what elements came together to create the stock character as we have it today?

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus in 1818 and the popularity of the book was such that by 1823 it had already been adapted for the stage. It was in this play, entitled Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, that the  origins of Ygor seem to have begun with the introduction of the character Frits, a bumpkin character who assists Victor Frankenstein in his ghoulish work and whose dramatic function is to provide a moral commentary on the work of his master ( It seems that this character Fritz became a mainstay of the theatrical portrayals of Frankenstein, so much so that when Universal Studios bought the rights to Peggy Webling's theatre adaptation Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, and used it as the basis of their 1931 film (, the character of Fritz also made the transition to the silver screen.

Frankenstein (1931)
The role of Fritz, portrayed by Dwight Fry, was now depicted as a walking stick using, but nimble, hunchback who assists Henry Frankenstein in his body snatching and laboratory work. The character is a manic and sadistic figure who takes great joy in tormenting the monster and eventually meets his fate at the hands of the creature. It is also Fritz who, when sent to obtain a brain for the monster from the Goldstadt University, inadvertently steals the brain of a criminal and thus sets the monster on his murderous and misunderstood path. It is here that we see the original cinematic template for the character of Ygor first appear, however there were still some elements of the character that is familiar in popular culture still missing. Dwight Fry would also appear in the 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein as Karl, one of two grave robbers turned assistants to Baron Frankenstein and Dr Pretorius in their creation of a mate for the monster. However neither of these characters were hunchbacks in the Ygor tradition.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).
Ii was in 1939 that the next step in the evolution of Ygor took place with the release of Son of Frankenstein. The film told the story of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the son of Henry Frankenstein who returns with his family from abroad to take up residents in his ancestral home in the village of Frankenstein. It is here that he meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the misshapen grave robber who has become a hunchback after a botched hanging for his crimes. As the story unfolds, Wolf, after finding the body of the monster, succeeds in reviving it, only to have it used by Ygor to murder all those who sentenced him to the gallows. The story comes to an end when Wolf shoots Ygor before saving his son Peter from the Monster, pushing the monster into a sulphur pit. Baron von Frankenstein then decides to return to his home overseas, handing the castle over to the good people of Frankenstein.

However, like the Monster, you can't keep a good hunchbacked homicidal maniac down. Ygor returned in Ghost of Frankenstein having survived Wolf von Frankenstein's bullets and the destruction of Castle Frankenstein by the villagers. In the ruins, Igor finds the body of the Monster (now played by Lon Chaney Jr) still encased in sulphur, and having dug him out, leads him through the country side to the town of Vasaria and the home of the second Frankenstein son, Ludwig. Ludwig is also a doctor, one who specialises in diseases of the mind, and eventually, through a series of twists, ends up unknowingly replacing the monsters criminal brain with that of Ygor's instead of that of his dead colleague, Doctor Kettering. As Ygor rises from the operating table, enjoying his new found strength, he suddenly goes blind as his new body rejects his brain, the monsters blood type being different than Ygors. The film ends with the Ygor/Monster setting the lab on fire, as he stumbles blindly in the flames smashing every thing he touches. From this point on Ygor and the Monster would be one, with his personality soon reverting to that of the mindless shambling brute it had been post Bride, albeit with seemingly restored sight.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Although Ygor was now one with the Monster, it didn't mean that the stock character of the hunchback was gone from the Universal Horror series. With the hunchback's function being introduced by Fritz, his name being added by the character of Ygor, there was only one thing left for all the pieces to fall into place, the hunch backs personality. This would come in the form of Daniel (J Carroll Nash), the hunchbacked assistant of the Mad Scientist Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff), whose goal is to recreate the work of Dr Frankenstein. J Carrol Naish's portrayal brings to it all the things we expect from the role, the Peter Lorre-esque voice, the catch phrase of 'Yes Master', his work as a lab assistant and the vain hope that his master will one day build for him a new body. Here there are also shades of Quasimodo, as Daniel longs for the affections of a beautiful gypsy girl who in turn only has eyes for Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr). It is here in Daniel that the Ygor stock character truly manifests for the first time fully and establishes the model that many others would copy.

House of Dracula (1945) and Beyond
1945 saw the release of House of Dracula that once again featured a hunchback character, this time a female nurse Nina (Jane Adams) who works with this film's mad scientist, Dr Edelman (Onslow Stevens). However it was else where that the influence of the Universal Studios' hunchback characters began to show their impact and the Igor stock character began to feature. In the film House of Wax (1953), Charles Bronson played a mute but unhunched assistant called Igor. In 1962, Bobby (Boris) Pickett's Monster Mash album featured a song Irresistible Igor with other tracks on the album featuring dialogue by an Igor peppered with the 'yes master' catch phrase. The 1967 movie, Mad Monster Party?, a spoof which featured the voice talents of Boris Karloff among others, there was a butler/servant called Yetch (Allen Swift), who, although not a hunchback, spoke with a Peter Lorre style voice  and addressed Dr Frankenstein with 'Yes Master'. The absence of a hunchedback in this character may have much to do with the fact that the Hunchback of Notre Dame also appears in the story, and to have two hunchbacks might have caused confusion. The Mel Brooks' tribute to the Universal Frankenstein films, Young Frankenstein (1974), also featured an Ygor (or is that Igor?) played by Marty Feldman, a who walked with a stick like Fritz, 'Yes Mastered' in the Daniel style and even had a moving hump that kept changing sides.

Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) had a whole family of Daniel-esque hunchbacks and the animated Igor (2008) featured a whole social class of Igors and tells the story of an Igor (John Cusack) who seeks to become a scientist himself. Things came full circle in the Universal Studios' tribute to their monster mash films of the 1940's, Van Helsing (2004) where Dr Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) is assisted by Igor (Kevin J. O'Conner), a 'yes master'- ing hunchback with a  treacherous demeanour, Fritz, Ygor and Daniel rolled into one.

At the end of the day it becomes clear that although some characters spring into fiction fully formed, others, like Ygor (or is it Igor?), are the product of gradual accumulation of elements in the public consciousness, something that is extremely obvious when we track the development of the stock character of Ygor from the theatrical addition of the bumpkin Fritz to the Frankenstein mythos in the 1820's, through the Universal Horror films of the 1930's and 40's to the films of the current era.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Billy The Kid Unbound

Billy The Kid's Gang.
I have always found the intersection between fact and fiction  to be an immensely interesting place to explore. I'm always excited when a real flesh and blood individual or historical event is found to be behind popular legends and heroes. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Hunchback of Notre dame and even Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have in recent years been claimed by some to be loosely based or inspired by real historical personages. Other figures from history get the mythical make over and emerge into pop culture almost unrecognisable, and often infinitely more interesting and heroic than they were in reality. To find such a figure one need look no further than the individual known as Henry Antrim, or was it Henry McCarty, or even William Bonney ?
The real Billy the Kid
What ever his real name, he was better known as Billy the Kid, outlaw, killer of twenty one men before the age of twenty one. Also known as the Left Handed Gun, Billy the Kid and his pals, Doc Scurlock  and Charlie Bowdre, were involved in what came to be known as the Lincoln County War, a feud between two rival merchant companies with in the county. What made things difficult for Billy was that one company was backed by corrupt politicians, and sadly not the one he was working for. The Lincoln County War erupted in 1878 when John Tunstall, one of the business men that Billy the Kid was allied with, was shot dead by a group of men working for the rival company known as the House. Soon, deputised by a Justice of the peace, Billy and his friends set out with warrants to bring Tunstall's killers to justice. Unfortunately for them, the House also had their own Justice of the Peace and legally deputised lawmen also seeking to bring Billy and his friends, now calling themselves the Regulators, to justice. Very soon it was all out war in Lincoln County. The bloody conflict between the two groups continued  from February 18th until July 19th of that year. Following the war, Billy remained at large until July 1881, when he was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 21. In the wash up of history it appears that Billy wasn't quite as legend has painted him. Very unlegend like, Billy the Kid moved to Lincoln County to work in a cheese factory, he didn't really kill twenty one men (only nine or less, which is so much better) and wasn't really left handed (the most famous photo of Billy was printed in reverse up until recently). In fact it seems, that like many other figures of history, it was his enemies that spread the stories that made him infamous, an infamy that would paint them in a better light and make him a bigger target. But over time, like many outlaw characters, Billy has made the leap from villain to folk hero, something that has been aided by the general fondness that many people in the region had for him and the contempt that many felt towards Sherriff Pat Garrett for shooting his former friend. There has also been a sense that Billy the Kid was made a scape goat by political corruption and that there were many on the other side that had committed far more heinous crimes but were never brought to justice. 

But Billy has gone beyond being a historical figure and moved into the realm of pop culture icon. He has broken the chains of history and leapt into a whole new realm of existence created by Hollywood and other purveyors of wild west dreams. In fact you know the character has truly made the leap when they break loose of their original historical or fictional setting. The characters become unbound and are free to feature in new narratives in ways in which they are still somewhat recognizable. Billy is now able to fight for justice with more clarity than he did in real life, he is able to fight  Dracula  (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), battle the mad creations on Victor Frankenstein (Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities, Issues 1-4, Dark Horse Comics, 2005) and travel through time to the 20th Century with Bill & Ted (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Where many feel reality let William Bonney down, the realm of fiction is making up for it.

Jeff and Billy
It was in this new realm that I came across the movie Billy the Kid Trapped  (1942) starring Larry 'Buster' Crabbe as a white hat wearing Billy the Kid. Directed by Sam Newfield (Nabonga (1944), White Pongo (1945)  and Jungle Siren (1942), it's a fun, straight forward Western  featuring Glenn Strange, the last of the Universal Frankenstein Monsters, as  Boss Stanton, the mastermind behind the sinister goings on. In this movie, Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre have been replaced by nice guy Jeff Walker (Bud McTaggart) and the comical Fuzzy Jones (Al St John), two likeable gunslingers who accompany Billy through his adventures in the Wild West. The film opens  with Billy and his friends waiting to be hanged for the murder of Art Lake, a murder they claim they didn't commit. Things really start to move when the trio are rescued from jail by a group of unseen men and it becomes apparent that someone is committing crimes masquerading as Billy and his gang. With the help of the local Sherriff , John Masters (Ted Adams), who becomes convinced of their innocents, the gang leave New Mexico and head to Mesa City to catch the guilty party and clear their names. There they meet the beautiful post mistress Sally Crane (Anne Jeffreys) and begin their campaign to clean up the town, catch the imposters and clear their names. Eventually it becomes clear that the political boss of the town, Boss Stanton, has deliberately set Billy and his friends up to take the blame for his gang's lucrative criminal activities, including the murder of Art

Lake. It's just as the Kid and his friends try to confront Boss Stanton that Sherriff Masters appears and pretends to arrest the Kid and his gang. It soon becomes clear that while the Kid has been investigating Boss Stanton, Sherriff Masters has been rounding up Stanton's henchmen. Together they hatch a plan to kidnap Boss Stanton's corrupt town judge (Walter McGrail) and send for another to come and convict Stanton and his gang once they have arrested them. Fortunately for Billy and his friends the plan works and soon they are cleared of the crimes that had been committed by Stanton's gang, including the murder of Art Lake.

Anne Jeffreys
Billy the Kid Trapped is the Buster Crabbe's 3rd outing as Billy the Kid and the 9th instalment in the 19 film Billy the Kid series produced by PRC. The first six films featured Bob Steele in the role of Billy Bonney before passing the white hat to Crabbe. Although the Kid of these movies is heavily fictionalised, several themes true to the life of the real kid flows through Billy the Kid Trapped. In this version there is a senses of an individual trying to do what's right but finding themselves trapped by political corruption and made a scapegoat for the crimes of others. There is also the idea of needing to seek legal authority outside of the local area to try and combat the corrupt legal authorities locally. Whether it be the politicians and merchants of the House or Boss Stanton, his gang and the crooked judge, Billy the Kid is once again forced to seek justice when those who are appointed to do so fail in the shadow of the mighty dollar. Maybe this is the strength of the image of the Kid, the one who seeks justice when justice fails, and the reason why this image has become unbound.