Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Farmer and the Witch (1966, Ida DeLage, Gil Miret)

A farmer gets caught up in a feud with a witch in the 1966 picture book The Farmer and The Witch, one of several witch books authored by Ida DeLage and illustrated by Gil Miret. (This story was apparently also published under the title The Witch's Spell.)

After some back-and-forth in which the witch steals the farmer's pie, and the farmer chases her with a hayfork, the feud escalates when the witch concocts a brew to poison his drinking water!

Stirring her mixture 99 times to the left, then 99 times to the right, she recites:

Seven toadstools in a row.
Old black feather from a crow.
Wiggle worm,
Spider spin,
Drop another lizard in.
Big fat grub,
A snail or two.
Cook them up
For witch's brew.

The farmer ends up using a Halloween jack-o-lantern and the witch's left-behind cloak to make a scarecrow.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum (1982, Troll Associates)

Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Pit and the Pendulum seems an unlikely candidate for adaptation as a picture book for children.

After all, it lacks the psychological or supernatural elements of some of Poe's other popular works, and is little more than a first-person account of imprisonment and torture, as told by an anonymous narrator, who is serving punishment for crimes that are never revealed, as decreed by a panel of judges whose identity and authority is never explained.

This 32 page book, with wonderfully grim illustrations by Monroe Eisenberg (and with Poe's text adapted by David E. Cutts), serves as a you-are-there miserable experience for young people. Check it out!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Raising the Alien Bar: The Star Wars Cantina

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is an admittedly silly little potboiler from Season 2 called Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

A pair of police officers, investigating reports of a downed UFO, find mysterious footprints leading from the presumed site of the crash to a little roadside diner.

They follow the possibly extra-terrestrial footprints through the snow to the diner, only to find it occupied by a single group, traveling by bus.

No one has seen any unusual visitors, alien or otherwise, but the bus-driver notices the number of people in the diner exceeds his passenger count by one... did an alien in human disguise slip in with the group? And if so, which one is it?

After some tense finger pointing and general hysteria, the cops finally concede they can't determine who the alien is, and since no laws were broken, everyone is free to leave.

It's only after everyone else has gone that a distinguished older gentleman reveals himself to be the crash-landed Martian... he has a third arm hidden under his coat!

That alone would have been a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to this episode... but there's a twist! There are actually TWO aliens hiding in the diner! The waiter working behind the counter removes his hat to reveal a third eye... he's from Venus!

The presence of one alien was an event, special enough to build an entire plot around. But that there might be TWO aliens was such a novel idea, it gave the episode that unforgettable extra punch.

Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? stands as a good example of how aliens were typically represented in TV and film, at least in my limited experience as a kid in the 1970s. Whether there was just one individual or a whole race of them, if there was an alien in the movie, undoubtedly the entire plot centered around its very existence. Its presence was a miracle of sorts, a unique anomaly, to be feared, fought, pondered or pursued.

All of which might make you better appreciate the impact that a little film called Star Wars had on me when I first saw it back in 1977... particularly, the cantina scene, in which our heroes wander into a barroom that, unlike the Twilight Zone diner, is wall-to-wall aliens, none of them hiding.

This little Tatooine hole in the wall seemed to contain about 50 movies-worth of monsters all in one scene, and without any particular importance attached to it. In the Star Wars universe, this intergalactic freakshow was the norm!

One of the better remembered aliens, because of his glowing eyes (unfortunately he got dropped for the 1997 Special Edition version...)

Ah, Mos Eisley, where everyday is Halloween...

This off-the-shelf wolfman mask also got 86'd from the cantina in the 1997 Special Edition version...

The entire gorgeous pageant is over in a few minutes, so I had barely started to come down from a delirious monster-kid high before the cantina scene ended and the whole thing was just a memory.

Now in 1977, you couldn't just look-up screen-caps from your favorite film on the Internet. Nor was there any realistic expectation that you would ever own a film, so the prospect of being in control of the presentation, to pause, rewind, replay, a scene to examine it in finer detail was, well, science fiction.

In those days before VHS and DVD, when you bought a ticket to a film, you were paying for admission to an event that you had no hope of replicating later at home (the film blog Scanners recently ran a good article reminiscing on this very subject), so if you wanted to relive the experience of entering that otherworldy watering hole, you either harassed your parents into taking you to another screening of the entire film, or sought out whatever details you could from supplementary sources.

That's how a book like Star Wars: The Making of the Movie (a "Step-Up Book" by Larry Weinberg, 1980) became an invaluable resource.

Star Wars: The Making of the Movie summarizes the film's plot and exposes some of the behind-the-scenes movie-magic that made it possible.

Even though it was clearly aimed at very young readers (so young they needed big words like "oxygen" spelled out for them fo-NET-ik-lee), it was still a popular read with the older kids because it provided a few frozen moments from the fleeting cantina scene.

You even got a good close-up look at the monsterized holographic chess game that we merely get a glimpse of in the film.

But this book wasn't published until 1980, a good three years after the film premiered. A more immediate bromo for cantina-withdrawal was 1978's The Star Wars Storybook, which offered a beautiful full-color two-page spread.

The official Marvel comic-book adaptation provided an artist's rendering of the cantina denizens, including this sensational cover depiction of an all-out brawl that never happens in the actual film.

It also gave fans their first glimpse of this mysterious "Jabba" character, never seen in the original film. This interpretation of Jabba, based on a random background alien (after Lucas was unable to realize the character through more elaborate special effects and cut the scene from the film) was rendered obsolete once Jabba made his big-screen debut in Return of the Jedi.

Topps Star Wars cards were a potential source of imagery, but frustratingly, it wasn't until the fifth "orange" series, 265+ cards into the run, that close-up pics of the cantina creatures started appearing with any regularity. (See the complete set here.)

Kenner action-figures let us get up-close and personal with a select few cantina regulars, and also provided their names (only Greedo is called by name in the film). Aside from Greedo, just three aliens made the cut, with names that would have looked right at home on a B-monster movie marquee: Hammerhead, Walrusman and Snaggletooth.

Oodah poodah, Solo?

Hammerhead was by far the coolest alien in the bar... and who knew he was hiding such great feet under that table?

The ravenous expanded-universe has since fleshed out the details of all the cantina inhabitants, providing back-stories and species-names for every character (and sucking some of the fun and mystery out of them as well). Snaggletooth, for example, has since been decreed a "Snivvian" named "Zutton". I don't know--I kind of like the monsterish and straightforward "Snaggletooth."

The clothing style and color-scheme for most of these figures seems to be a hair off... just a hair.

Amazingly, the iconic Cantina Band was never realized in action-figure form in the original Kenner line-up, but you could purchase a painted representation of them as part of the Creature Cantina playset.

This alternate playset, Cantina Adventure, was sold exclusively at Sears stores, and came with all four of the cantina action figures (including the highly collectible "blue Snaggletooth", an off-model variation that was designed from a vague photo-reference and quickly discontinued.) Some cantina creatures and a droid are depicted on the flat backdrop.

Then in November of 1978, something incredible happened. Call it a Christmas miracle, if you like, but the exciting and elusive world of Star Wars finally came home by way of The Star Wars Holiday Special. While set on the forested Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk, the special included a stop-over at every 10-year olds favorite coctail lounge...Finally, I was able to revisit the Mos Eisley cantina from the comfort of my own home, and without paying for a ticket.

Even though this was a poorer, made-for-TV version, (camped up with the addition of comedian Bea Arthur as a bartender, and looking more like it belonged in the universe of Sid & Marty Krofft than that of the big-screen Star Wars), I ate up every second of it.

For more than you ever wanted to know about The Star Wars Holiday Special, check out this fansite.

FUN FACT: Lecturer and author Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero With A Thousand Faces influenced George Lucas in writing the Star Wars stories, named the cantina scene one of his favorite film moments of all-time. He did this during a series of interviews with Bill Moyers, which was broadcast under the title The Power of Myth, and is available on DVD.

UPDATE 2-16-11: Just happened upon this hilarious cantina-themed embroidery. Find out more about it here.