Monday, April 10, 2006

THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS (1941)

I have never been within a crowd where something was flying directly overhead in the skies, and various people on the ground started pointing at it, and then started saying out loud what they thought it might be. Usually, if there is a bird or a plane up in the air, people are going to ignore it, unless it is either Rodan, a skywriter, or is about to crash. If it is Rodan, they are going to run screaming and not take the time to say, "It's a bird!" The skywriter will inevitably cause boredom by the time the second word puffs out of his craft; and the people will run screaming, as with Rodan, should it be the crash scenario. At no point will anyone in that crowd thrust their finger up at the sky in the direction of the object and shout, "It's a plane!"

And if Superman were flying about above their heads? In The Mechanical Monsters, the second film in the Superman cartoon series from Max Fleischer and Paramount in 1941, "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" is shouted right at the beginning of the film as a streak of brilliant color bolts across the screen, leaving the name of the superheroic character framed triumphantly right at the very moment it is spoken. This is the first time those famous words are heard onscreen (they have done away with the origin story opening already), and as an intro, they couldn't get a sharper one. It sets the mood immediately, and as the bombastic theme song kicks in, there is the quick, tight description of the character, which leads to the image of our hero standing proudly before our eyes. This time, the narrator takes the time to inform us that Superman is "Empowered with x-ray vision...", and there is a crackle of blue voltage that surges around his eyes. (More on this later...)

There is the sound of breaking glass, and the scene opens on the shattered window, bars and all, of the National Bank in Metropolis. There is a droning, humming noise, and we see the shadow of what appears to be an airplane, propeller and all, moving away from the bank and then down the boulevard. The scene then cuts to a room where the lower half of a man is seen sitting down, and he is operating some kind of control switchboard. When he pulls on a floor-based lever, a hydraulic gate opens in a nearby wall and is lowered into the floor. The shadow of the airplane then appears to move through the open door along the gate and across the room. It circles about the room once and then the shadow starts to stretch out as the figure creating it seems to be landing, and what once seemed to be an airplane's tail and rudder turns out to be the feet of a large mechanical construct -- a robot.

There is a propeller set about its neck, and with its arms outstretched, one sees two large iron plates on each arm that serve to turn the limbs into wings. Once it alights upon the floor, the operator pushes a button, and the propeller slowly ceases operating and retracts into a pair of neck apertures. The iron plates on the arms likewise disappear. A light flashes on top of a large case behind the robot; the top of the case opens up, and the back of the robot slides open like a bin. Inside the bin is a large profusion of cash money, and the robot pours the stolen loot into the open case. The operator pushes yet another button, and the robot closes its back, where we see that it has a large numeral "5" written on it. The robot stomps ponderously across the floor past the operator, and over to a nearby wall where there are four other similar mechanisms slumped against it. The robot leans against the wall with his brethren like a spent marionnette, and the scene goes to black.

We then see the front page of the next edition of Metropolis' great newspaper, The Daily Planet. The headline reads, "Mysterious Mechanical Monster Loots Bank!" That's right, you want to keep things on an even keel. Don't want to alarm anyone. A story below the hyperbole is either a clever trap to capture the thief, or the work of a really bad publicity department with terrible timing. It reads, "House of Jewels -- Exhibit Opens To-day -- 50,000,000 Dollars of the World's Rarest Gems on Exhibition". Just when you think, "Boy, they really should wait to open this thing until Superman stops this Mysterious Mechanical Monster!", there is a sub-headline to the story stating, "Extreme Precautions have been taken to Guard against Mysterious Mechanical Monster". Oh, well, as long as they have taken extreme precautions, like say, asking Superman to guard the exhibit. Otherwise, they are asking for it.

Luckily for the House of Jewels, Superman is there to guard it, only he is there in the guise of Clark Kent, Mild-Mannered Reporter. As he eyes the mountain of sparkling, glittering insanity, however, he bumps into his rival (and secret love interest) Lois Lane. When he asks what she is doing there, Lois replies nonchalantly, "Oh, just getting the woman's angle on this story!" Suddenly, there is the piercing sound of a whistle, and the reporters turn to the door, where outside one of the guards shouts, "The Mechanical Monster!" Another shouts, "Look out!" Flying at the House of Jewels swiftly down the street is the robot. The guards pull out machine guns and try their best to bring the metallic being down, but it swerves through the air lightly, and then lands in front of the guards, easily deflecting each and every bullet. It advances on them, and as they continue firing their guns at point blank range, the robot wades through them and through the glass doors of the House of Jewels. Lois pulls Clark out of the way, not knowing who he really happens to be, and the robot walks up to the jewel pile (why they are not further protected from the public by an alarmed window I do not know), opens the bin on its back, and starts scooping the loot into the bin.

Outside, Clark tells Lois to wait outside the phone booth while he phones in the story to their editor Perry White, but Lois has always been an impatient type. She rushes off to investigate the robot, and when she sees how the robot works, she steps up on a chair and climbs into its storage bin. When Clark pops back out of the booth and realizes she is gone, he spies the robot flying up and out of the House of Jewels. His instinct tells him that Lois is probably in trouble, and he jumps back into the booth to change into Superman. (Naturally, he says so in his usual way.) He emerges, and flies straight up (in a fabulous shot loaded with remarkable detail), rushing past the buildings of Metropolis and high into the skies above them.

He locks target on the robot flying ahead of him, and once his eyes go through an eerie switching process, he uses his X-ray vision (a power not used in the first film, but mentioned in the prologue of this one so that the audience would not go "Wha--?" when he used it) to see through the robot's metal casing and determine whether Lois is actually inside of it. She is indeed, and so, he swoops down on the robot to pry open its back. But his attack sets off an alarm at the operator's switchboard (actually reading, "Interference"), and the operator causes the robot to turn completely over. Not only does this get Superman off its back, but it forces the bin to open, and Lois has to hang on for dear life from the edge of the bin, while the precious jewels go flying down through the skies to the ground below. Superman is flung far down into some high tension wires in a valley, and then he also hits the ground. The robot flips back over, and Lois is trapped yet again inside, but at the very least, safe from falling.

The door-gate opens on the villain's lair, and the robot returns home. Both the operator and the robot, of course, are unaware of her prescence, and she is dumped (rather gently, actually) into the storage case. Lois, fearless as always, and with her eyes on the prize, remarks, "What a story this is going to make!" She peers about and sees that there are nearly two dozen of the mechanical beings in slumped about the room, helpless without their puppet master's machinations. The villain sees her for the first time, and demands to know where the jewels have gone. She says, "You'll read about it in tomorrow's paper!" He advances on her with hands full of evil intent... and the scene cuts to Superman struggling with freeing himself from the tangle of high-tension wires. He tears each of the wires in half, totally unaffected by the massive amount of electricity coursing through his body. He then leaps back into the air to search for Lois.

There is then a wonderful pan through the immense operations of the villain, starting first in his operations room, and then down a series of stairs into an underground cavern, where he has numerous rooms carved into the rock for various functions, including the building of his robots, and finally, to the place where he smelts his iron. He has Lois tied up and hanging on an elevator directly over a large pot of lava-like ore, where she shall surely meet her maker when she dips into it. He starts the torture device, and it starts its slow click-click-click down to Lois' doom, but then the villain hears a monstrous pounding on the walls of his abode. However he did it, Superman has come to Lois' rescue, and he smashes the door down easily, jumping into the middle of the room. The villain dives for his controls, and turns all of the robots on. Superman is surrounded, and as the robots advance on him, they each spit fire at him from a pair of spigots on the lower parts of their heads. The intense flames knock Supes to the floor, and the robots take turns pounding him into that same floor. We then see Lois' clicking ever so slowly down to her molten fate, and then the scene cuts to Superman as he finally gets to his feet and starts giving the robots what-for. They resist his punches at first, but he is finally too much for them, and mechanical body parts start flying all about as Superman continues to make a giant scrap heap. He then picks up the remains of about three of the beings and tosses them at the control board, causing it to erupt in a huge explosion.

The villain, however, has high-tailed it to his underground caverns, and shuts and locks an immense door behind him. It is no match for the might of Superman, and he easily punches through it like so much butter. The villain pulls a knife and threatens to cut the rope holding Lois aloft if Supes makes one more move. Superman does so, and the villain responds as promised. But, Superman's inhuman swiftness allows him to zip straight through the elevator just as it hits the molten ore, and Lois is rescued. Or so they think. The villain pulls a lever and the huge vat of ore is dumped over on its side and down to where Superman and Lois rest below. Just as the ore seems sure to melt them, Superman spreads out his cape (which many people do not realize is just as strong as he) and holds it out over Lois, protecting her from the ore. They leap up and out of the cavern, but Superman grabs the villain on the way out, and zips up into the air with both of them. As they hurtle back down to earth, there is a dizzying shot of the city below, which spins and spins and then turns into the next edition of the Daily Planet. It reads, "Superman Destroys Mechanical Monsters -- Inventor Jailed, Millions in Stolen Jewels Recovered". Of course, the story is once more attributed to Lois Lane, and she yet again gives a nod to Superman. Clark is silent but bemused as the picture ends.

[A side note: there is also another sidebar in the Planet stating, "Superman Vanishes Again", which raises the question of why, if there is so much crime, disaster, poverty and pain in the world, Superman would ever vanish at all. He is superhuman. I know he has a psychological need for human contact, and I also know that he needs sleep so he is able to dream, but isn't he wasting valuable rescuing and thwarting time by holding down both a mundane job and bogus identity? Besides, when he "plays" Clark Kent, he gets all smirky when people mention Superman or announce that they are in trouble, knowing full well that he can easily save them. Is smugness a good quality for a superhero?]

When the trailer for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow came out two years ago, and the skies in the trailer became infested with giant flying robots, and other robots landed and took to marching through the streets, I was glad to be one of the lucky few who realized exactly where this particular vision probably was inaugurated in the filmmaker's mind. No matter what you think of Sky Captain (I, for one, enjoyed the film enough to see it thrice in the theatre, I own the DVD, and my IMDB rating for the film is a registered and solid 7. This means I think it's the bee's knees.), and no matter if you think it is a little too dependent on our collective consciousness of matters pulpy and trivial (I do, a little bit), you have to give it credit for having the moxie to try something different from a normal action or even science fiction film (it is precisely this same reason why I dug The Rocketeer so much), and also points for experimentation with digital imaging. I am no fan of CGI, but since Sky Captain is actually and mostly an animated film (except for the actors and basic props), it actually comes off as more realistic than most CGI. Stylization gives an excuse for the somewhat muddy and dark look of the film. And much of that stylization? And the robots? The Mechanical Monsters and the Superman cartoon series.

The problem here is that the robot scenes in Sky Captain has almost superceded my memories of the Superman cartoon, to the point where it is almost disappointing now to see only one robot paraded down the streets of Metropolis, or flying through the air in the wonderfully staged scene against the House of Jewels guards. (There is a great POV shot of one of the guards firing desperately and futilely at either Robot #5 or 13 -- there is a bit of a gaffe here, where his number changes from shot to shot.) But, once you view Monsters anew, you quickly forget about the other later film that was inspired by it, and enjoy the original version for its dashing adventure and still amazingly designed visual epic sweep.

As for that whole bird-plane-Superman debacle: if Superman were far off in the sky, and he looked more like a bird, and then he got a little closer and everyone thought he was a plane, at no point is anyone going to look like a dope and point at him and say either "It's a bird!" or "It's a plane!", because then everyone will assume the speaker's either waiting for the short bus or is a wiseass. Only when Superman is close enough to be made out for what he actually is will anyone say, "It's Superman!", though, given the idiocy in our society, there will be a large portion of the crowd who haven't been keeping up on current events, and they will think he is a demon or an angel or an invading alien (which he sort of is, really)... or, hell, even Jesus.

It's a good thing no one in the crowd thought he was a frog, because then, due to the laws of poetry, it would have turned out to be little ol' Underdog. (Which is not a bad thing to be, either. That Sweet Polly Purebred is a haw-tay...)

The Mechanical Monsters (Max Fleischer, 1941) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 8

[By the way, many movie sites, including IMDB, post the title as Mechanical Monsters, but the film itself actually has the article "The" clearly on the title card. So there...! Nyah! And kudos to Bosko Video for their excellent collection of all 17 films... and for putting the "The" on the back of the DVD case, as well.)

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