Tuesday, April 11, 2006

BILLION DOLLAR LIMITED (1941)

On a recent cover to Entertainment Weekly, there is a shot of Brandon Routh as the up and coming Man of Steel in this summer's undeniable sure-shot blockbuster, Superman Returns. Not knowing his acting at all, I have nothing but the brief scenes in the all-too-scant trailer and a handful of publicity shots to go by to determine whether he will be good, or rather, super in the role; in fact, I'm going to wait until the film goes out to pass judgment on the lad. But he seems comfortable in the costume, and in general, he has the right look for the part. I suspect he will be just fine, but again, I am going to wait. However, there is one picture with which I have a problem, and it is the very EW cover that I mentioned at the start.

The pose is fine; he looms properly superheroic. And the face is set in a determined and focused glare that shouts "Danger!" to all would be super-villains. But... that spitcurl... Oy! I know that since the beginning, Superman has displayed this goofy little curl on his forehead, but I always assumed it was more an artistic interpretation of a wildly straying lock of hair, perhaps due to his constant motion and strenuous effort, and not just an contrived affectation or intentional gimmick on his part. But that is exactly what this photo makes it look like: it seems to announce that the new Superman is spending a good deal of his time locked in his bathroom, getting that spitcurl just right. In fact, this new Man of Steel might be the first Metropolo-sexual. Looks first... bad guys later...

Two inside photos make a minor case against this theory, though his immaculately coiffured looks are still just too calculated. But, then one sees a photo of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and one instantly realizes that the stakes have gone up in this time-tested romance. I have a couple of older buddies that swear, once upon a time, Margot Kidder was quite the hottie, but she has never done anything for me; and I was a child when I used to watch reruns of the George Reeves show, and at that time, Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill just seemed like moms to me. (I've since grown to appreciate them.) And this might seem strange, but Teri Hatcher just doesn't do it for me. In the comics, Lois, especially in recent years, has been played up as a major hottie, but I've always felt that were I Clark Kent, I never would have let Lana Lang out of my sights. (And that whole Lori Lemaris/mermaid thing also has kept me intrigued. Plus, he also has that really hot cousin, and then there was that Saturn Girl in the Legion of Super-Heroes...) In the comics, Lois and Clark have battled through many of the different stages of a relationship, and have even been married; I guess when it comes down to it, they are fated to be together, no matter the consequences.

In the third entry of the Max Fleischer Superman series, Billion Dollar Limited, we see the first noticeable silver screen stirrings of this budding relationship. While in the first two films, Superman rescued Lois from certain death, their brief Lois and Clark interplays don't really betray much in the way of any unresolved feelings that either might hold for each other, whether Lois is aware of who he is or not. Lois gets her story, Clark teases her about Superman, and she is oblivious to any underlying significance to his taunting. But, in this film, we see a certain look about one of them that shows that there is more going on here than a simple journalistic rivalry.

The Daily Planet is our hyberbolic guide into the story, as the latest edition of the paper, resting in its rack at a newsstand, exclaims "Billion Dollars in Gold Enroute To Mint -- Largest Single Shipment of Gold Ever Attempted". Ms. Lois Lane, I understand the "public's need to know", bu information like this is really need-to-know only. Perhaps the Mint would have been better off keeping something of this magnitude hush-hush and on the Q.T? Or perhaps ship it in smaller increments? Anything to keep away the bandits who are sure to connive and come up with some sort of crazy, violence-laden scheme to steal a billion dollars in gold.

Conveniently, the headlines are being read by one of the guards who is involved with the loading of the shipment of gold, and the newsstand is located within a train depot. The guard turns away from the papers, scanning about for trouble while keeping his machine gun at the ready, and the camera moves with his scan, and we are clued into the enormity of the operation. There are many gun-toting guards posted all about, and a crew of other guards load the bars of gold out of an armored car and into a train car. Meanwhile, elsewhere outside the same train, Clark Kent is seeing Lois Lane off, as she is riding along with the gold to its destination for the followup story. Clark's excuse is that he has another story to work on, and since he never seems to be on the front page of the paper due to Lois' hold over it, I suspect that it is an article on flower arranging for the Ladies' section.

The scene cuts back to the armored car, now emptied of its reserve of gold, which shuts it doors and crawls out of the train station. The camera follows it along its path out and onto the city streets, and then rests on a car sitting across from the station, and its headlights come on as it to alert us to the prescence of danger inside. Inside the car are several stern-looking ruffians (are there any other kind?) who begin to don masks over their faces. A shot outside the car shows armor-plating rising up to replace the windows, with slits for both sight and shooting weapons, and the rest of the car armors itself accordingly, with several ornamental features of the car being replaced by solid steel, including a wedge that blocks out the entire back window. Lastly, a gate opens in the front of the car, the license plate slides inside to be replaced by more steel. Surely, they are not going to a mah jongg tournament...

Back at the train, the guards have finished unloading the last of the armored cars, and they slam shut the door of the train car. The conductor yells "All aboard", and from her seat inside the passenger car, Lois waves goodbye to Clark. As the train departs, the villainous vehicle tears out at top speed after the train, nearly running Clark over in the process. He leaps nimbly to the side, but if it had hit him, this entire cartoon would be over already. As it is, the train zips along at top speed, as Lois types out her next scoop on her typewriter. The car full of villainy zips under a bridge that the train is passing over, and then pulls up alongside the train. We then see a pair of the masked figures climb from the car and up into the gap between two of the train cars. The thief unhooks about half of the train from the cars in the back holding where many of the guards are deployed; the connecting wires break apart, and those guards are left stranded on the track as the back cars slow to a halt. The guards fire their guns anyway in a last ditch effort to stop the thieves.

The two thieves run along the roof of the train until they reach the engine. Crawling through the coal bin, they see the engineer and a solitary guard by the controls. They leap on the men and a struggle ensues, but the engineer ends up getting thrown from the train. The other thief is engaged in wrestling with the armed guard, and his machine gun goes off in the melee. Lois Lane hears the gunshots, and, curious as ever, runs forward to see what is happening. The thief succeeds in separating the machine gun from the guard's hands, but both men end up falling from the train and off a high bridge that they are then crossing over. Lois succeeds in climbing through the coal bin and into the engine, where she tries desperately to pull on the brakes. But the villain's vehicle has caught up to the engine, and the remaining thieves fire at her with their weapons. Lois is surrounded by ricocheting bullets, but musters up the nerve to reach for the dropped machine gun, and turns it on her attackers, firing through the side window like a veteran. She is given a brief reprieve when the train ducks into a tunnel.

At the next depot, the driverless engine bolts through at top speed, and the station agent has the prescence of mind to report it as a runaway train via telegraph. Several stop lights and warning gates are engaged, and when a bridge is lowered in time for the train to bolt across, it is clear that the message has gotten through. Finally, a ticker report tells the Daily Planet staff, "Billion Dollar Limited Running Wild". Clark decides, very wisely, that this looks like a job for someone with superhuman abilities. I wonder to whom he is referring? Hmmm... Well, to clear up the mystery, Clark ducks out behind the Planet building, and between one of the delivery vans and a large pile of refuse, he switches into his long johns and flies off into the skies.

The villains have other cars involved in this scheme, and one of them lies in wait for the Billion Dollar Limited. They switch the tracks just ahead of the train, and when the train jumps direction, it heads straight towards a boxcar filled (and marked) with explosives. Luckily, Superman is on the case, and flies down to the tracks just in front of the dangerous boxcar. He pulls up both rails and moves them over onto the other track, and the Billion Dollar Limited is spared for the moment. The thieves notice Superman and take off after the train again. Superman walks along the roof of the car (why doesn't he just fly?), but notices an oncoming mountain. He leaps over the mountain, and lands back on top of the train on the other side of the tunnel.

The thieves, meanwhile, have a backup plan, and dynamite the bridge just ahead. The train falls straight down off the disintegrating tracks, but Superman flies swiftly down to the floor of the valley below, catches the front of the train in mid-air, and before it can crash, he uses his powerful legs to push off the ground and spring up, whipping the entire train up into the air behind him, and back onto the tracks on the other side of the bridge safely. The runaway continues hurtling at high speed down the tracks, but another car full of crooks catches up to the engine. One of its crew climbs out of a sunroof and throws a bomb on top of the engine. It lands on top of the smokestack, but when Superman tries to grab it, the bomb falls down inside of the engine. Superman immediately grabs Lois and flies off just as the engine erupts in a huge explosion. The train engine and the coalcar are blasted off the tracks, but the rest of the train is left unscathed by the blast.

However, the explosion occurred on a hill, and the remainder of the train begins to roll backwards. It hurtles unchecked down the rest of the hill, around a couple of turns, and straight past Superman and Lois. Supes zooms after it and catches it by the hitch, slowing it to a crawl. He pulls hard on the train, and turning into the Little Superengine That Could, he starts to pull the train step by agonizing step back up the hill.

It seems he will succeed, but the thieves are waiting for him with boxes full of tear gas. They toss the bombs at him, and he starts to cough and tear up. Eventually, he starts to stumble and falter, and soon enough, the train momentarily pulls him back down the hill, as he scrapes along the tracks. But he steels himself, and gets back up on his feet. He pulls again, and slowly picks up more and more speed up the hill. The thieves pull out machine guns and fire square at the insignia on his chest. Of course, they should know by now that this will be of no use against Superman. He never lets up on his efforts as the bullets ping off his body, and soon he is running with the train, acting as its de facto engine. He pulls the train for umpteen miles until he brings it to a final stop inside the Government Mint.

The next day, a headline appears in the Daily Planet declaring, "Superman Saves Billion Dollar Gold Shipment -- After Bringing Masked Gangsters To Justice, Superman Disappears -- Public Mystified". Clark has been scooped by Lois yet again, but he teases her by saying, "Uncanny how Superman turns up just when you need him!" Lois is staring off into space moonily over her typewriter, clearly smitten already with the hero. "I didn't even get a chance to thank him", she mumbles dreamily, and Clark turns to the camera and smiles.

Dave Fleischer is so often thought of as the man behind the jokey, though often lightly brutal, adventures of both Popeye and Betty Boop, that it is slightly shocking to the inexperienced to see this darker, more violent side to his work. Rest assured, despite the thought of Superman representing the lighter aspect of superheroic adventurers, especially when compared with his immediate rival, Batman, this series is not sweetness and light at all. The stories are non-stop action, sometimes very stark and grim, and there is a lot of gunplay and destruction that simply can't occur without inflicting a lot of casualties. In this adventure, even Lois picks up a weapon, and is clearly knowledgeable and experienced in its use.


And now, Superman is clearly knowledgeable and experienced in the use of a comb. And product. And eyebrow tweezers. He has that spitcurl looking for all the world like Wilbur's piggy rear at the State Fair in Charlotte's Web. It is slightly reminiscent of Harry Potter's lightning bolt scar, and maybe the filmmakers are going for that resemblance. What Routh looks like to me, though, the more that I look at this cover, is Martin Short. That's right -- Martin Short! The picture is fine, until I look at that annoyingly perfect and zig-zagging spitcurl, and I start to imagine an SCTV or SNL spoof of a superhero picture, with Marty S. playing a Superman who is scrawnier and smaller than the people he is rescuing, and he has to struggle just to get out of the phone booth in which he is changing into his costume. But, he has this magically perfect spitcurl, and nothing is going to stop him! Instead of Jimmy Olsen, Mr. Short can play that character, too, as Ed Grimley ("Oh, I should summon him with my signal watch, I must say!") And then Jiminy Glick can show up as Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, and then Lex Luthor can also be played by Short as Jerry Lewis, and...

And, actually, this sounds like a fine idea for the next film. The hell with Superman Returns! Kate Bosworth can stay, though... I think I may have found a Lois Lane, after all...

Billion Dollar Limited (Max Fleischer, 1941) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 8

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