Monday, August 8, 2022

Atragon: The Super Submarine That Flies...and Drills!

Atragon's flying submarine.
The 1963 Japanese sci fi adventure Atragon is another one of those movies that played frequently on television when I was a youngster. Like many of those films, it seemingly disappeared into the ether for several decades before popping up unexpectedly on Amazon Prime Video. Except for a few images burned into my brain (e.g., a flying submarine!), I remembered very little about the plot--which is pretty wild.

The Empress of Mu and her minions.
It starts with the near kidnapping of Makoto, the daughter of a famous scientist/submarine commander who has been missing and assumed dead since the end of World War II. It turns out that the would-be abductor is an agent of the undersea Mu Empire, which announces--via a 16mm film--that it intends to conquer the world. The Mu are confident that no country in the world can stop them. Indeed, their only concern is a super submarine being developed by Makoto's father, Captain Jinguji, who turns out to be very much alive.

The disappointing Manda.
Jingjui is still bitter over Japan's defeat in World War II and has no interest in helping the rest of the world defeat the Mu Empire--despite even his daughter's pleas. Meanwhile, the Mu attack Tokyo and revive a giant serpent creature called Manda to wreak further destruction.

Atragon unfolds much like a 1940s serial with chapters devoted to the kidnapping, the rise of Mu Empire, Makoto's reunion with her father, the attack on the Mu, and so on. Even the film's "hero," a magazine journalist played by Tadao Takashima, reminds one of an intrepid protagonist from an old Hollywood serial. The comparison is intended as a compliment, for even though Atragon boasts a choppy narrative, it's rarely dull.

A sub that can drill through rock!
Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho Studio's special effects mastermind, created the often dazzling visuals in Atragon. Jinguji's flying submarine (which can also drill through rock) and the intricately-designed undersea Mu kingdom are the film's highlights. Sadly, the dragon-like Manda, the film's climatic "monster"--comes across as a disappointing afterthought. Its marionette movements lack fluidity and its fiery ray is too derivative of Godzilla's more memorable atomic breath.

Based loosely on the 1900 Japanese novel The Undersea Warship, Atragon performed well at the international box office. It was called Atoragon in many countries, which appears to be a combination of "atomic" and "dragon" (apparently in reference in Manda). However, in the U.S., its distributor American International Pictures, referred to the flying sub as Atragon in its publicity materials. That's confusing because the submarine's name in the movie is Gotengo. But, as often the case with movies retitled for their American release, the new title has persisted over the years.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Classic Film Photo of the Week: Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue

Embed from Getty Images

Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue were married in a civil cermony at the Beverly Hills Hotel on January 4, 1964. The guests included Rock Hudson, Richard Chamberlain, Gig Young, and Carl Reiner. The couple divorced just nine months later.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Seven Things to Know About Buddy Ebsen

Ebsen as Jed Clampett.
1. In his autobiography, The Other Side of Oz, Buddy Ebsen recalls Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning pitching the show to him by reenacting scenes from the first script: "We were all laughing and wiping tears, and then I got a chilling thought. Most of the laughs were coming as a result of Granny, Jethro, Elly May, and (cousin) Pearl. Jed was not funny, it seemed. Granny and Jethro were. Jed had an occasional dry, philosophical, or naïve laugh line, but essentially he was the straight man. A guy could get lost in such a situation. The show sounded like a lot of fun, and I was supposed to be part of it, but how could I survive in it? Then the answer came: These hillbillies were rich. Worth $35 million. If Jed could always control the money, he'd never get lost."

With Lee Meriwether in Barnaby Jones.
2. When Buddy Ebsen's private eye show was being developed, producer Quinn Martin settled quickly on the first name of Barnaby. However, the last name did not come easily. Martin considered Flint or Cobb (which Ebsen didn't like). It was only after Ebsen described his character to Martin as "a cool, methodical human being, a shrewd judge of character" that Martin blurted out "Jones" and the show became Barnaby Jones.

3. Director Ron Howard originally offered the role of Art Selwyn in Cocoon (1985) to Buddy Ebsen. However, Ebsen was contractually obligated to the Matt Houston TV series at the time and he couldn't accept the part. Don Ameche went on to win a Best Supporting Actor for that role in Cocoon. Ebsen and Howard knew each from working together in the made-for-TV movie Fire on the Mountain (1981) and on The Andy Griffith Show (where Ebsen guest-starred in the episode "Opie's Hobo Friend").

4. Buddy Ebsen was not only originally cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he filmed several scenes with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr. The make-up for Dorothy's three companions proved tortuous, especially for Ebsen. His costume and make-up were altered several times, but he could barely sit down and dancing was "an ordeal of pain." However, it was the aluminum dust used in his make-up that almost killed him. He began experiencing severe cramps and shortness of breath. He wound up being hospitalized for two weeks and recuperating for an additional six weeks. In the meantime, MGM recast the role of the Tin Man with Jack Haley.

5. Ebsen played a lighthouse keeper opposite orphan Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936), one of her most successful films. Of his young co-star, Buddy once said: "Of all the moppet stars to come down the pike, the most classic, enduring, and once-in-a-lifetime package of talent and stardom was Shirley Temple."

Ebsen as Georgie Russel.
6. Buddy Ebsen was set to play the lead role in Walt Disney's Davy Crockett (1954) limited series--before Disney saw Fess Parker in Them! and chose him as Davy. Ebsen's consolation prize was playing Crockett's sidekick Georgie Russel. Due to their heights, Ebsen (6' 3") and Parker (6' 5") had to perform most of their own stunts. In a scene in which Ebsen was loading a musket, the muzzle exploded in his face: "I lost my eyelashes, my eyebrows, and a good patch of my front hairline."

7. Buddy Ebsen was married three times and had seven children: two daughters with first wife Ruth Cambridge and four daughters and a son with second wife Nancy Wolcott. He and third wife Dorothy Knott had no children. Daughter Kiki Ebsen is a singer-songwriter who has released several albums.