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Posted in Actors, America, Bravery, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Magic, Theatre on Tuesday, 7 May 2013
This edited article about Houdini originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 245 published on 24 September 1966.
It was a typical mid-winter scene in the industrial city of Detroit. Snow lay thickly on the ground, more was falling, and the Detroit River was completely frozen over. It made a wonderful skating rink for grown-ups and children, and in that freezing temperature only a lunatic would think of breaking a hole in the ice and taking a pre-Christmas dip in the fast-flowing water.
Yet such a lunatic existed. What was even more incredible, he proposed jumping into the river, handcuffed, chained, and wearing heavy leg-irons.
The ‘lunatic’s’ name was Harry Houdini, a 32-year-old stage illusionist and escapologist, who was determined to become the most talked-about man in American show business. He had previously performed many controversial feats, but when he announced that he would leap manacled through an ice-hole, an unprecedented storm of protest broke out.
To the more sober-minded citizens of Detroit, it seemed sheer suicide. Some people asked the police to stop such wilful self-destruction. But the officers at the Police Department merely said that Mr. Houdini had borrowed two sets of their latest model handcuffs for his stunt, and they would be interested to see whether the self-styled ‘Handcuff King’ could slip them from his wrists.
Apart from appreciating the publicity, Houdini paid no attention to the arguments. To ready himself for the event, he trained in a bath filled with large pieces of ice and practised holding his breath until he almost fainted. Then, at Sunday lunchtime on 2nd December, 1906, he made his way to the Belle Isle Bridge in the heart of the city. He waved nonchalantly to the thousands of shivering spectators who lined the river banks, peered into the yawning hole, which had been specially cut into the ice, and jumped down through it.
As his head disappeared from sight, the crowd gasped – and waited for Houdini to reappear. Minutes passed, but there was no sign of him. After five minutes even the most optimistic of his supporters thought that he must surely be dead. When eight minutes had elapsed, the police were preparing to cut fresh holes in the surface, in the hope of recovering his body. It seemed that the Handcuff King had failed for the first time in a long and celebrated career.
Suddenly an arm was thrust through the hole, followed by Houdini’s head and shoulders. He was white-faced and struggling for breath. His aides rushed forward, hauled him from the water, and wrapped him in warm blankets. Then Houdini, miraculously free of all manacles, held his hands over his head like a champion boxer. A newspaper reporter hurried up to him, and asked how he had managed to keep alive. The escapologist grinned and said:
“It wasn’t so difficult. The current took me downstream and, when I had slipped from the handcuffs and leg-irons, I simply breathed in the air bubbles which lay between the ice and the water. Then I swam back up to the hole. It was a good trick, and I shall certainly do it again.”
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Posted in Cinema, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Friday, 3 May 2013
This edited article about T. E. Lawrence originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 240 published on 20 August 1966.
Lawrence of Arabia
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Turkey joined forces with Germany against Britain and her Allies. The Arab people, long under the domination of occupying Turkish armies, rose in revolt. The Arab revolt was led and inspired by one man: T. E. Lawrence, born on August 15, 1888, now popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Already familiar with the language and culture of Arabia through archaeological expeditions, at the outbreak of war Lawrence was sent to Egypt as an intelligence officer.
When Sheriff Hussein of Mecca began the rising against the Turks, Lawrence was sent to Hussein’s headquarters as British representative. He lived among the Arabs, dressed as one of them and rapidly gained their trust. The Arabs wanted complete independence from Turkey, and Lawrence assured them that, if they rose in rebellion to aid Britain and her allies, they would achieve their aim.
The success of the war in Arabia was largely due to Lawrence’s efforts. But when it was over and Arabia did not achieve full independence, Lawrence felt he had betrayed their trust in him. He retreated from the publicity and honours which surrounded the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, changed his name to Shaw and joined the R.A.F. Lawrence had a passion for fast motor-cycles. Speeding along a country road near his cottage at Clouds Hill in Dorset, he swerved to avoid two cyclists and crashed. He died five days later on May 19, 1935. Since his death, the legends surrounding this enigmatic man have steadily grown. His fame was further spread by David Lean’s film of his exploits in the desert, Lawrence of Arabia.
Posted in Cinema, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Music, Technology on Wednesday, 27 February 2013
This edited article about the cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer
It was the most exciting night that the cinema is ever likely to know, for after more than thirty years, the silent screen had found its voice, and here was the first feature film to demonstrate the marvel.
As the crowds stormed into the New York cinema on a night in October, 1927, eager to see – and hear – Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the Warner brothers, Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert who produced it, must have thought they were experiencing a fantastic dream of good fortune.
Only a few months before, as producers of silent films, they were near to bankruptcy. Then representatives of the Vitaphone Company came to see them with what appeared to be a crazy idea. Why not make pictures that talked? They had the necessary apparatus.
Today, nearly forty years later, it is difficult to think of talking pictures as a doubtful proposition. But the great entertainment medium of the cinema had been born in silence in the 1890s, people marvelling so much at the fact that the pictures moved that no one expected them to talk as well.
As the years went by the silent film became an accepted art. When lips moved in speech a printed “sub-title” was flashed on the screen giving the words that were spoken. To make the silence less obvious, and to create the “mood,” an orchestra played for the main film, and a pianist took over for the remainder of the programme.
No wonder Hollywood wanted the silent film to stay. With sub-titles written in the appropriate language a film could be understood and enjoyed in any country in the world.
Until that night in 1927 when Warners took a gambler’s throw with The Jazz Singer. It was a poor film, mostly a “silent,” but right in the middle Jolson, as the young Jewish singer, sat at the piano and spoke to his Momma telling her that he was going into Show Business. The silence was broken – and so was the reign of the silent film.
Other producers at first hoped that the talking picture would be a passing craze, but soon realized the truth. Hollywood was panic stricken. Silent film production schedules were scrapped, sound apparatus fought for, studios sound-proofed.
Al Jolson followed The Jazz Singer with The Singing Fool, a full-length talkie which not only flooded the cinema with sound, but tears as well. It was, as the trade termed it, “a weepie.” But he was established forever as the prototype black-faced “Mammy” singer of the cinema.
Vitaphone, a clumsy sound-on-disc system, eventually gave way to the more reliable Movietone with sound on film, and the cinema began to write a new chapter of spectacular achievement.
But as we look again at this scene in 1927 and the frenzy of the crowds trying to get into the cinema, we wonder (and no cinema historian can tell us) when sound would have arrived if it had not been introduced by the Warner brothers in a desperate gambler’s throw.
Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles on Monday, 17 December 2012
This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.
The cavemen are actors, the dinosaur is a model, the volcano is fake in this scene from a Hollywood film by Gerry Wood
With incredible gentleness for so vast a creature, the monster plucked the girl from the sacrificial altar on which she had been placed by a band of frightened tribesmen, and held her in its great hands.
Shouting, screaming and pummelling were of no avail. In any case, the monster intended her no harm. Its eyes glared at her intently and its nostrils quivered.
What manner of maiden was this? Or, more to the point, what manner of monster was this?
Filmgoers who have seen the new version of “King Kong” have found out the answer to this. King Kong is a film in which the makers have created an enormous ape which terrifies all who see it.
In addition to the monster, trick photography was needed to lend realism to the scenes in which the monster appears with humans.
Making King Kong was a mammoth undertaking. For his skeleton, metal – mostly aluminium – was used. So that he would be able to walk, turn at the waist and move his arms into 16 different positions, tremendous lengths of hydraulic hose and electrical wires ran through his body like arteries and veins.
For his fur, the makers obtained thousands of horse tails from Argentina. The hair from these was woven by a hundred people into netting panels which were glued on to latex and then stuck to a plastic mould that covered the monster’s metal frame.
The finished product was a mighty, terrifying monster nearly as tall as seven men. Colossal scenery had to be built to accommodate the outsize “actor”. One example of this was a huge wall from which Kong snatched a girl who was placed there as a sacrifice to him.
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Posted in Cinema, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 15 December 2012
This edited article about cinema special effects originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 798 published on 30th April 1977.
The cinematic camera creates illusion
“You rat,” snarled the cowboy. “Nobody cheats me at cards and gets away with it.”
In alarm, the crooked gambler sprang to his feet and edged away from the table.
Next second, a fist like a battering ram thudded against the crook’s jaw. Gracefully, the crook took off and sailed backwards through the window of the Western saloon.
As he struck the window, it shattered with a tremendous crashing of “glass”. The crook continued in flight until he landed on an accurately placed mattress on the other side of the window.
Then he bounced to his feet with the agility of an athlete and brushed the “glass” from his clothes.
“Was that okay?” he said to a watching man. “Or shall we try it again?”
“It’s okay,” said the man. “That’ll do.”
A film was in the making, and the part of the crook was being enacted by a stunt man, a specially trained person who performs daring feats for films.
However, the feat was not as dangerous as it appeared, for the “glass” in the window was actually made of a resin which is very brittle and shatters on impact without hurting the stunt man.
This is one of the effects created for films which belies the old saying that the camera cannot lie. For the camera can be made to show things which are apparently impossible.
For instance, you cannot smash a bottle over a man’s head and expect him to get away without a scratch, unless the bottle is made of resin.
Neither can you expect an actor to rush through a battlefield enveloped in flames just because the author’s script calls for such a dramatic death.
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Posted in America, Aviation, Cinema, World War 2 on Thursday, 13 December 2012
This edited article about Paul Mantz originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 796 published on 16th April 1977.
After WW2 the stunt pilot and government propagandist, Paul Mantz, acquired some 220 Liberator bombers, shown above in bombing raids over Germany, by Graham Coton
Thrills on the screen . . . we take them for granted today. But in the early days, when both filming and flying were young many daring pilots risked their lives to recreate aerial excitements for filmgoers.
One such pilot was Paul Mantz, who made a legendary career flying for some of the most dangerous sequences in the best-known Hollywood film aviation epics.
Until Mantz entered the scene during the early 1930s, flying stunts were dangerously and haphazardly executed, mostly by second-rate pilots. The death toll was high.
Like all great aviators, Mantz dreamed of flying during his schooldays. In 1927, he became an Air Corps Flying Cadet, soon gaining a reputation for spectacular aerobatic techniques. His flamboyant style and bravado led to trouble when he buzzed a train full of top military officers on their way to a graduation ceremony at Cadet Mantz’s camp.
Returning to civil flying, he was quickly setting records all over the U.S. One such feat was performing 46 outside loops in a Fleet aircraft fitted with a special carburettor.
By this time aviation films were big business in Hollywood and stunt pilots were in great demand. Usually newsreel pilots, these men were barnstorming, reckless individuals with no proper codes of safety. Mantz joined the Motion Picture Pilots Association and turned stunt flying into an art. His first job was flying a biplane through an open hangar in the film “Air Mail”. In spite of careful planning, a cross-wind caught the small plane, nearly smashing it into the hangar wall.
On another occasion, Mantz and another stunt pilot locked wing tips while filming. Unable to untangle their machines, the two pilots coolly landed their aircraft still locked together.
Clocking up over 20,000 flying hours and earning something in the region of ten million dollars during his flying career, Paul Mantz only suffered one minor injury until his death in 1965. Jumping from a runaway aircraft whilst making “Grand Central Airport”, he broke a collarbone.
By World War II, he had progressed to directing his own flying sequences and running a profitable charter business ferrying top Hollywood and government personalities across the U.S. He was made Commanding Officer of the Army Air Force Motion Picture Unit.
Known as the Culver City Commandos, he and his crew worked from old studios and from Pacific and European air bases producing documentary and propaganda films for the Forces. They received a citation for “Project 153″, a top secret training film for Super Fortress pilots bombing Japan in the late stages of the Pacific War.
At the end of the war, Mantz became the possessor of the world’s largest private air force when, for little more than 50,000 dollars, he bought up millions of dollars worth of surplus aircraft including 75 Flying Fortresses, 228 Liberators and 22 Marauders.
He converted one of his ten Mitchell bombers into a flying camera ship. With this he was able to coordinate and photograph aircraft in combat, giving his film an interesting and exciting continuity. Mantz also converted three Mustangs as racers and became the only pilot to win the famous U.S. Bendix Air Race three times in succession from 1946 to 1948.
The end came in 1965 in the scorching heat of the American Desert near Yuma. “Flight of the Phoenix” was a film about a group of pilots who crash land, and to survive, they convert the wreckage of their cargo plane into a single-engined monoplane to fly to safety. A special Phoenix was constructed for the flying sequences and Mantz was employed to pilot it for the cameras. In one particular scene he took off too low . . . far too low. The heavy plane broke its back and cartwheeled with Mantz trapped inside. Mantz died and with his passing Hollywood lost a legendary figure who brought thrills to many movie goers . . . thrills for which he paid the ultimate penalty.
Posted in Cinema, English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, Theatre on Monday, 29 October 2012
This edited article about George Archer-Shee (The Winslow Boy) originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 773 published on 6th November 1975.
Sir Edward Carson K.C.
The postal order for five shillings (25p) that Cadet Terence Back of Osborne Naval College in the Isle of Wight received from his parents was, needless to say, just what he wanted. Carefully Terence put it into his locker. Two hours later he went back to get it – and discovered it had gone.
Terence didn’t know it at that moment, but his postal order was about to make history. Solemnly he reported its loss to his housemaster, and the search began at once for what at Osborne College seemed completely impossible: a thief.
It was not long before Miss Anna Tucker, the clerk at Osborne Post Office, was asked if she could provide any clues about cadets who had taken postal orders to her post office on the day of the theft.
Miss Tucker was extremely hazy. She remembered one boy had come in to buy a postal order for 14 shillings and sixpence (about 78p) and handed her 16 shillings with which to buy it.
“That’s quite a lot of money for you to have,” she said chattily.
“I know it is,” the cadet replied. “I drew it from my savings at the College. The Chief Petty Officer let me have it.”
At this moment another customer came into the shop and Miss Tucker turned away to serve him. Later that day she sold a second postal order, this time for 14 shillings and nine-pence to a second cadet from Osborne – a boy who, in his uniform, looked very much like the first boy.
“Yes,” Miss Tucker said, desperately trying to recall the events of that day. “I did cash a five-shilling postal order for one of the two College boys who came into the post office. I can’t remember what the boy looked like – except that he also bought a postal order for 15 shillings and sixpence.”
Although she admitted that all this was not now distinct in her mind, the College authorities decided they had something to go on. They already knew which boy bought the fifteen shillings and sixpence postal order, so they put him with five others on an identity parade.
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Posted in America, Animals, Cinema, English Literature on Tuesday, 23 October 2012
This edited article about King Kong originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 771 published on 23rd October 1975.
An aggressive gorilla may have inspired Merian C. Cooper while he was filming The Four Feathers in Africa
Everyone knew that King Kong was merely a Hollywood monster, created from an animated model and blown up to an enormous size by the art of the camera. But there was something about him that was unlike any other monster.
Nineteen-thirty-two was the year of the “Coming of Kong”, when the skyscraper-sized gorilla from an “unknown island” west of Sumatra, was captured, brought to America, and set loose upon the city of New York. His exploits sent shivers of fear through people in every part of the globe – even though they knew that Kong was not a real animal and had been dreamed-up and then constructed and animated by the Hollywood myth-makers of the time.
The publicity drummed-up for the film equalled the noise made when King Kong beat ferociously upon his expanded chest, and it set a new, highly-profitable and much-imitated style in monster movies. However, in all the worldwide ballyhoo, one significant fact was not overlooked. This was that until the middle of the 19th-century the gorilla was looked upon as a mythical creature, whose reported existence in the African jungles was scoffed at by naturalists and laymen alike.
It was left to writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to make gorillas – and apes and orangoutangs – the heroes, heroines and villains of some of their fantastic short stories and novels. Indeed, ever since Sir Arthur (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) published his adventure novel, The Lost World, in 1912, people had been fascinated by the thought of a place in which dwelt prehistoric monsters.
Doyle placed his beasts from a forgotten age on a high plateau in South America, and in 1913 a group of American explorers set out from Philadelphia to sail up the Amazon. Their yacht, the Delaware, was the property of the University of Pennsylvania, and it was announced that “in the interest of science and humanity” they sought Conan Doyle’s “lost world, or some scientific evidence of it.”
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Posted in Cinema, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Literature, Superstition, Theatre on Tuesday, 16 October 2012
This edited article about Bram Stoker’s Dracula originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 768 published on 2nd October 1975.
Bram Stoker, who was secretary to the actor, Sir Henry Irving, went with Irving on a theatrical tour of North America in the autumn of 1895. Stoker, a former civil service clerk at Dublin Castle, had long been interested in law enforcement. And, when the company reached New York, he was excited to meet the Chief of Police, Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt invited the 48-year-old Irishman to attend a trial of charges made against policemen, and Stoker was soon immersed in the city’s underworld. He visited police shelters where the penniless and the homeless – “living skeletons most of them,” he wrote – huddled together for warmth.
Afterwards he discussed the “inhuman conditions” with Roosevelt, who made a profound impression upon him. “A man you can’t cajole, can’t frighten, can’t buy,” he noted. “Must be president some day.” (In fact, Theodore Roosevelt became the 25th president of America six years later). In the course of their conversations, the police chief suggested that Stoker should one day write a book about a “super-criminal – or, better still, a supernatural one.”
Stoker took the idea back to London with him and, one night about a year later, he went to bed after enjoying a large supper of dressed crab. He then had a “truly terrible nightmare” in which he saw before him a “kind of master-ghoul”. Later Stoker described his vision as:
“A tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache . . . His face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils: with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily around the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive almost meeting over the nose . . . The mouth was fixed and cruel-looking.”
Inspired by this nightmare, and by the long occult discussions he had with Sir Henry, he decided to write a book about a “king vampire” – a re-animated corpse that lived by sucking human blood. He had previously published some short stories and “horror serials”, and a legal book, “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland”. But, by no means did he think of himself as an author.
Hours of laborious research in the British Museum provided him with a name for his vampire. For a model he took Vlad Drakula, a 15th-century, Middle European tyrant known as Vlad the Impaler from his habit of “spiking” the bodies of visitors to his castle and then eating his meals among them as they agonizingly died.
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Posted in Adventure, Cinema, Espionage, Literature, Scotland on Friday, 22 June 2012
This edited article about The Thirty-Nine Steps originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
Richard Hannay on the run in Scotland – a scene from The Thirty-Nine Steps
Richard Hannay awoke, cold and stiff on a bare Scottish hillside shortly after dawn. Below his hiding place, police were beating the heather for him.
Above, was a circling aircraft, manned by unknown enemies out to kill him.
In Hannay’s pocket was a black book containing details of a German plot to destroy the British Fleet. The book had been given to him by an American newspaperman who was later found murdered in Hannay’s London flat.
Alone and friendless, Hannay was being hunted by the police for the murder he hadn’t committed. The members of a secret spy ring, known as the Black Stone, were also after him because of his knowledge of their plan to immobilize the Fleet.
Hannay had decided to escape to Scotland and hide out on the lonely moors until he could reveal his knowledge to the British Government.
But the chase had hotted up. Hannay sought cover in a lonely farmhouse, only to find himself in the Black Stone stronghold! By a stroke of luck he was able to use his enemies’ store of high explosives to blast his way to freedom.
Evading his searchers, Hannay finally reached Sir Walter Bullivant, high up in the British Government, with his vital news.
Now the chase was reversed. The only clue to the spy ring’s escape route was an entry in the book . . . ‘Thirty-nine steps – I counted them – High Tide, 10.17 p.m. . . .’
Inquiries revealed that the description applied to a certain staircase on the Kentish coast.
Hannay and the police arrived as the ringleaders of Black Stone prepared to leave the country. And, after a struggle, the spies were captured.