Monday, December 23, 2019

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

One of the most infamous and popular characters in modern Christmas/Holiday folklore, is Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Pretty much all kids hear about him and his story growing up. But the story of Rudolf isn't merely a fun tale centered around Christmas. It's the story of a misfit, an outcast, someone who is different, and thus doesn't fit in with "normal" people. A lot of us can identify with that, which I feel is a huge part of why the Rudolf mythos has remained so strong over the decades.

The legendary song.

Rudolf was born out of the imagination of one Robert Lewis May, in 1939. The department store Montgomery Ward had been giving out coloring books for kids for years, but wanted to save money by releasing their own story, instead of licensing out others. So they hired May to create a coloring book for them, and what he ultimately came up with, was the tale of a misfit reindeer with a shiny red nose. Originally outcast because of his difference from other reindeer, he eventually gets accepted, even celebrated, when his unique nose helps Santa save Christmas.

The book was a huge hit, becoming a repeat seller in later years. It also got turned into a popular song, which most of you are familiar with, originally sung by country-western singer Gene Autry. As insane as it sounds, that record was so popular, that it sold over 25 million copies, and was the second best selling album of all time until sometime in the 1980s (I'm going to imagine it got unseated, perhaps, by Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). The song alone is one of the top "Christmas Songs" people tend to associate with the season, along with other perennials like "Frosty the Snowman", "Silver Bells", "White Christmas", etc.

The original cartoon.

On November 11th, 1948, Max Fleischer released the first ever film adaptation of the Rudolf story. Produced at the time to help advertise Montgomery Ward, it was one of his last major projects, after such a successful earlier career with properties like Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman. This theatrical short, takes more after the original book than the song, in fact the first release didn't even include the song. But it is a great piece of animation, and a faithful, simple telling of Rudolf's story. It's widely available to watch now for free online, as it's in the public domain, and I highly suggest if you've never seen it, dedicating eight minutes of your life to experience what you could rightly call Fleischer's last masterpiece.

The one EVERYONE knows.

The more famous adaptation, of course, wouldn't come until roughly sixteen years later, in 1964. Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, who had founded the production company called "Videocraft International", later known as Rankin/Bass Productions, were just starting what would be a long and successful career for them as creators of (mostly) television content.As Fate would have it, the project which would become their first major success, would be a new adaptation of the Rudolf story. In point of fact, it would go on to become THE most enduring and popular telling of it.

Different from birth.

Narrated by the great folk music legend Burl Ives, himself known for some great Christmas songs, in the friendly guise of Sam the Snowman, the Rankin/Bass telling was based more around the by-then famous song. Rudolf, born to Santa's lead reindeer, Donner, and his wife, is immediately noticed by his parents for being different. Even Santa, who stops by to see the child, takes note of the "Shiny Nose", and Donner swears he'll grow out of it. Except that poor Rudolf DOESN'T grow out of it, prompting Donner to fashion a silly looking fake black nose, to make his son look "normal".

Meanwhile, Hermy the Elf, a completely new character who doesn't especially love Christmas or making toys like all the rest of Santa's elves do, instead has aspirations to be a dentist. This gains him the ire and derision of his fellow elves, making him a misfit as well. I'll note here, that Hermy also doesn't seem to look like the other elves, outside of being short. Most notably, he has rounded, human-like ears, instead of pointy ones. This is never addressed in the special, but one would imagine his looking different, like Rudolf, would also set him apart.

The dashing young doe, Clarice.

When it comes time for young Rudolf to play in the "Reindeer Games", where they get trained to fly and such, he immediately makes what seems to be a friend, in Fireball, the son of Comet. He also takes notice of a pretty young doe named Clarice, who seems to be the daughter of another of the famous Eight Reindeer who pull Santa's sleigh. He works up the courage to talk to her, and she tells him she thinks he's cute, which sends him leaping off into the air, flying better than any of the other young reindeer. Comet, the coach, is impressed, until Rudolf's nose, after roughhousing with Fireball, is revealed to all. He is, as the song goes, forbidden from playing in any more "Reindeer Games", all because of his looks.

I'd like to take the time to point out that in this special, Santa Claus, a character for whom I have great life-long affection, spends most of his time acting like a stressed out grump. Mrs. Claus spends her time trying to get him to eat, because he's "too skinny" at the time. And Santa, upon seeing Rudolf's nose, which he didn't grow out of, is shown expressing disappointment to Donner, even telling him "you ought to be ashamed". While I love this special, I think the portrayal of Santa is silly, as realistically, this character who is supposed to be the embodiment of jolliness and generosity, would not be so petty and low as to care about, much less shame, Rudolf's odd "malformity". But I digress.

New best friends.

Their savior, Yukon.

After Rudolf runs away, being ridiculously shunned by the other reindeer, Clarice runs after him, telling him she doesn't care about his nose. In fact, she seems to have taken quite a liking to him, though her father shows up, and tells Rudolf in no uncertain terms that "no doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!" This is the final straw, and Rudolf, after a chance meeting with the equally shunned Hermy the Elf, decides that together, they are going to run away, since they're not wanted.

This leads them out into the frozen wastes of the North Pole, and they find themselves having to hide Rudolf's nose in a snowstorm, lest they be seen, and presumably eaten, by the Monster of the North, the Abominable Snowman. Somehow surviving the night, even though they clearly have no idea what they're doing, their fortunes change when run across a new friend, a human named Yukon Cornelius, who has traveled so far north with his sled-dogs, in search of Silver and Gold. Ol' Yukon shows them the ropes, and helps them to survive, though they run afoul of "Old Bumble" once more, causing them to flee on an ice drift.

The Bumble.

King Moonracer, of the Island of Misfit Toys.

They wind up on a hidden island, The Island of Misfit Toys, where toys seemingly unwanted for various defects, live because allegedly no child would want them. They are introduced to the island's ruler, King MoonRacer, a magical winged lion, who tells them of the toys' plight. They resolve that they should eventually return home, and tell Santa about the toys, in hopes that he'll find homes for them. Rudolf, still believing himself to be a danger to others, takes off on his own, returning home first, only to find that his parents and Clarice have gotten lost somewhere, out looking for him.

What a hero.

Finally being recognized.

He tracks them down, only to find that they are endangered by the Abominable himself, who Rudolf stands up to, only to get knocked out. Ultimately, the day is saved by Yukon, who seemingly perishes falling over a cliff with the monster. The reindeer return home, in time to find that Christmas is in trouble, because the worst snowstorm in years is making it so Santa won't be able to fly his sleigh to take presents to the world's children. But wouldn't you know it, he sees Rudolf's glowing nose, and EUREKA, he realizes that it could act as a lamp to light their way! Christmas is saved, and Rudolf, who has been unjustly ostracized all along for something he can't help, is finally not only accepted, but is the hero of the day.

The NEW lead reindeer.

The Misfit Toys.

They also manage to keep their promise, and stop by the island, to pick up the Misfit Toys, whom Santa finds homes for. They even learn that Yukon survived, because duh, "Bumbles Bounce", and that Hermey, who had stayed behind to look for him, used his dental accumen to remove the poor monster's teeth, rendering him harmless. Not only harmless, but friendly, as he helps put he star on the North Pole Christmas Tree! All's well that ends well, and everyone seems to live happily ever after.

Sam the Snowman.

Voiced by Burl Ives.

As a kid, like many kids I'm sure, I saw this special at an early age. Early enough, in fact, that I had already seen it multiple times by the time I was in pre-school, and knew how it went. So when they showed it at school, I stated matter-of-factly that I had "already seen it", and was allowed to go play with toys while the other kids watched, even though I still watched some of it anyway. Pre-school snootiness aside, I've always been a fan of this Rankin/Bass Production, as I was of many of their other creations (including the 80s shows Thundercats and Silverhawks). I remember being afraid of the Bumble monster, and even at a young age dreaming of finding "my own Clarice".

In its own way, this special is a masterpiece. The stop-motion animation, handled as most of their animation was in Japan, while certainly not up to the standards of theatrical excellence that Ray Harryhausen set, is still rather good. The characters are memorable, as are the songs, mostly sung by Burl Ives, including one of my favorite Christmas standards that he made famous, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas". I actually remember my grandmother owning some Burl Ives tapes, one of which was a Christmas album, which I would listen to often as a child. His voice, in many ways to me, was the "Voice of Christmas" as I was growing up.

Lending a helping hand.

All in all, the story of Rudolf itself, I think endures because it is a tale of difference, and being accepted for your differences. The Rankin/Bass special, has played on TV every single year (sometimes multiple times), since it's debut in 1964, which makes it the longest running Christmas special of all time. A pretty cool distinction if you ask me, though to be fair, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, have also been shown pretty much every year since their debuts as well.

To me, as a life-long fan of stop-motion animation, I'm glad that the Rudolf special endures, because it allows the art-form, as well as the great special itself, to be seen by new generations of kids. And I think that's important, personally. If I ever get to have children, while they are of course free to like whatever new stuff they want (even if I hate it), I am absolutely going to raise them on all of the classic things that I myself love. I'm going to share my passions with them, and this special, and others like it, will be a part of that. And it goes without saying, that yes, my kids will be allowed to believe in Santa. I think it's ridiculous, even mean-spirited, to not allow that. Santa, and the Christmas Season in general, meant so much to me as a kid. It's such a time of wonder, and fun, and I think every kid, regardless of culture or religion, deserves something like that.

Anyways, I hope that you all have a Holly Jolly Christmas, or whatever you celebrate. And if you get a chance, give the old Rudolf special a spin, especially if you have kids who have never seen it before!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Growing up as a child in the 80s and early 90s, the legendary figure of Sinbad the Sailor, was something of a hero of mine. I don't remember at what age I first saw a Sinbad film, but it must have been young enough, because when I was freshly 6 years old, I got my first dog, a fluffy white terrier mix that I named Sinbad. Clearly, the character was in my kindergarten age consciousness enough, that I chose that name, and was aware who the mythical sailor was.

I'm going to venture a guess, that the first Sinbad movie I ever saw, was not one of Ray Harryhausen's masterpieces. Instead, it was probably a film that I'll get to in a few moments. To start with, of course, the stories of Sinbad, for the unfamiliar, originated as late entries into the infamous "1001 Arabian Nights" story collection. The same collection that characters such as Aladdin, and Ali Baba came from. If you actually look at the old stories, much like actually looking at the stories of Greek heroes like Jason, Heracles or Perseus, you'll see a character who looks far less virtuous and heroic than what we know and think of in modern media. Let's just say that I'm glad I didn't read his stories as a kid, for I likely wouldn't have been nearly as big a fan of him.

Animation innovator Ub Iwerks' take on the character.

Fellow innovator Max Fleischer's unique, villainous take.

The first two depictions of Sinbad on film, were actually cartoons. The first, produced by Ub Iwerks studio after he had (temporarily) parted ways with Walt Disney, was a 1935 theatrical short, which featured the typical "Disney-like" whimsy that Iwerks brought to his productions. A year later, Disney's primary competitor on the theatrical short front, Fleischer Studios, led by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, released their own, more unique take on the character. Max Fleischer had been an innovator on the animation scene, pioneering advanced techniques like Multi-Plane and Rotoscoping. With his biggest success of the time, predating his great Superman cartoons, Popeye (along with Betty Boop and others), he was giving Disney a run for his money. And when he saw that Disney was preparing a feature-length animated film, something risky and unheard of at the time, he saw that his own dream of an animated feature was possible.

So he took his top star, Popeye the Sailor, and set him up against his rival, Bluto, playing the part of a more vain, villainous take on Sinbad the Sailor. A duel, if you will, of which great sailor was better. The 1936 Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, was a double-reel cartoon, clocking in at about sixteen and a half minutes. Fleischer would continue to use Popeye in other short films, where he would continue to experiment and up the ante, in stories based on Ali Baba and Aladdin, working his way towards his 1939 feature release, Gulliver's Travels. Of the three extended Popeye "specials", however, the original Sinbad one was and remains the most popular. Personally, what stands out in the Sinbad Popeye cartoon, aside from the usual humor, was Bluto's great turn as a boastful, bully Sinbad, and his island of various animals and monsters. The one thing the two very different Sinbad cartoons had in common, was the giant mythical monster bird known as Roc, said to be big enough to carry off elephants in its claws. The Roc featured in one or more of the original Sinbad stories, and would be important in a certain future film.

The first live action Sinbad.

Sinbad would first see representation in a live action film, in the more comical 1942 Arabian Nights, from Universal Studios. There, he was played by Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame, of all people, and was more of a minor character. His first, true debut to feature movies, was in the 1947 RKO film, appropriately titled Sinbad the Sailor. Starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the titular role, with Maureen O'Hara as the beautiful Shireen, this story is much tamer than the later Sinbad adventures. The plot focuses on Sinbad learning of the treasures of Alexander the Great, and his adventures trying to find them. There is little to no real magic or supernatural happenings in this film, which makes it lesser in my eyes (and many other fans', most likely). But it's still a solid film for what it is, and Fairbanks makes a good Sinbad. A few years later, in 1955, RKO released another movie entitled Son of Sinbad, which featured western cowboy star Dale Robertson in the role of the legend's alleged son. It too featured no real magic or epicness. I wouldn't see either movie until my adult years anyway, which is just as well.

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!

While it came it several years later than the movie we're here today to discuss, the first Sinbad movie I probably saw as a child, on TV, was 1963's Captain Sindbad. I'm not entirely sure about the alternate spelling of the name, perhaps they just wanted to be different. But all the same, THIS was the kind of Sinbad tale the character deserved. While it lacks, and seriously could have benefited from stop-motion magic like Harryhausen's, this MGM production is still packed with all of the magic, and wonder, and adventure you could want in such a fantasy feature. Starring Guy Williams as "Sindbad", the tale includes threats such as an arena battle with an invisible monster, a deadly Hydra, and a magically guarded tower. I think this film deserves its own article someday, but for now, it's enough to say that it is likely this that left the impression on me as a child, and inspired me to name my dog after the hero.

The cover of my VHS copy.

As I've explained in previous articles, my love of both Godzilla and Harryhausen films, really both exploded thanks to our finally getting a VCR player around 1989/90 or so. Just as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster was likely the first of his films that I got to own, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was definitely the first (and only) Sinbad movie I owned in my childhood. I would get to see Captain Sindbad again on TV somewhere around this time, and I would see Harryhausen's two other Sinbad greats (The Golden Voyage and Eye of the Tiger), along with his others epics like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, thanks to my childhood obsession, TNT's MonsterVision.

But while I love all of those movies dearly, both in equals parts because of childhood nostalgia, but also because it's a truly great and wonderful film, 7th Voyage to this day is still my favorite Sinbad film, and live action fantasy film in general.

The film's two starring heroes.

Ray Harryhausen had, up until this film, pretty much exclusively done science fiction movies, including standouts The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. He started teaming with producer Charles H. Schneer on the 1955 monster film It Came From Beneath the Sea, and they began regularly teaming from then on. So it was Schneer who helped bring about this first true fantasy epic Sinbad tale to the screen. Nathan Juran, who had worked with the pair on their previous project 20 Million Miles to Earth, was hired to direct, while composer Bernard Herrman, who had done great work with Alfred Hitchcock, and would go on to score other Harryhausen films like Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts, would bring the action to life with fantastic music.

To play the titular hero, they cast actor Kerwin Matthews, in his first starring role. They cast the young Kathryn Grant as Princess Parisa, Sinbad's love, and Torin Thatcher, in a marvelous turn as the mysterious magician Sokurah. As the Genie of the magic lamp, they cast child actor Richard Eyer, who had previously starred in the only other film to feature the great Robbie the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame), 1957's The Invisible Boy. All told, the cast, the music, the production, the locals and sets, and of course Ray's stop-motions magic, were all on point. The film released in 1958, becoming a financial success that would not only boost Ray Harryhausen's career, but also help lead to something of a surge in fantasy films.

Sinbad, and tiny Parisa.

The core of the plot, sees Captain Sinbad and his crew, caught in a storm, which has blown them far off course. They are trying to reach Baghdad with the Princess Parisa on time for their wedding, which will also help avert a war with her country of Chandra. The storm blows them off the shore of mysterious Colossa Island, where they disembark to gather food and fresh water. Unfortunately for them, they run afoul of a giant Cyclops, who is chasing an enigmatic magician called Sokurah, for he has stolen from them the prized and powerful magic lamp. He uses the lamp to create a barrier between Sinbad's men and the Cyclops, to aid both their and his own escape, but the Cyclops has other ideas, hurling a great boulder over the barrier, capsizing their rowboat, and causing Sokurah to drop the lamp into the sea, which the Cyclops then retrieves.

Beside himself with grief, the sorcerer is obsessed with getting that lamp back, as the genie's power is immense. To that end, he offers Sinbad a bag full of precious gems, worth a fortune, stating there is many times that treasure hidden by the Cyclops back on his island. But Sinbad refuses to turn the ship around, knowing they are already running late for he and Parisa's wedding. The wedding is set to take place, but Sokurah, unable to convince the Caliph of Baghdad to grant him an expedition back to his island, casts dark magic to make Parisa shrink to the size of a living doll. This causes her blustering father to declare war on Baghdad, and Sinbad manages to convince the exiled magician to stay and help them return Parisa to her rightful state, not knowing it was Sokurah who has caused it.

The monstrous bird, Roc.

Naturally, the last ingredient for the potion to cure her, happens to be the shell of a Roc egg, which can only be found, you guessed it, on Sokurah's island of Colossa. With Sinbad's old crew mostly refusing to go back to that accursed place, Sinbad is forced to recruit criminals from Baghdad's prison, offering them freedom in return for making the voyage. Many agree to go, but as the voyage nears its destination, they try to mutiny, only failing because of a nearby island, whose demons' wails drive men mad, and drive their ships to smash on jagged rocks. Sinbad and company are freed to save the ship, and within little time, they are back on Colossa, gigantic crossbow in tow, to help them fend off any Cyclops.

The genie, Barani.

Not to give away too much of the plot, you could probably guess that when Sinbad's dwindling crew manage to secure a piece of Roc's eggshell, that bastard Sokurah snatches Parisa, in a bid to force Sinbad to come to his hidden castle and give him his precious lamp. Before this, however, Parisa had braved to venture inside the lamp itself, meeting the genie, who looks like a little boy. He is a slave to the lamp, though there is a prophecy inscribed which states he could possibly be freed some day. Parisa promises to try and free him, if he'll teach her the words to summon his aid, which she in turn taught to Sinbad. It is thus with the Genie's help, that Sinbad finds Sokurah's castle, and rushes to the final confrontation.

One thing that stands out about this film, to people who follow mythology and folklore, is that Harryhausen took some liberties with a couple of the film's primary monsters, namely the Roc bird and the Cyclops. He chose to give the Roc two heads, both the hatchling they run across and the angry parent, perhaps to make it more imposing. Though if you ask me, a ginormous bird with one head would be pretty terrifying. And for the Cyclops, he altered their Greek myth form, of essentially just being gigantic one-eyed people, to instead being more inhuman, satyr-like beings with cloven hooves, and a horn crowning their heads. Departure or not, I love his version of the Cyclops, and I think it is one of the single most iconic movie monsters of all time.

One of Ray's gorgeous concept drawings.

From concept to reality.

Additionally, while not AS iconic in most fans' minds as the infamous skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which came five years later, 7th Voyage features a duel with a single animated skeleton warrior, seen above, which would serve as Ray's prototype for the later, more ambitious scene. Still, nothing like this fight between Sinbad and the Skeleton had ever really been done before, and Kerwin Matthews had to train with a fencing master, to the point of getting down dance-like timing, to be able to act as if he were fighting an opponent who was not truly there. This was, of course, decades before such things would be attempted with the aid of computer graphics. Not only did Matthews have to get all of his movements precisely correct, but Ray had to match the skeleton's movements up precisely as well. The final product, is one of the coolest scenes in movie history, which still looks great and stands up to this day.

That sly devil, Sokurah.

To me, as a child, I was absolutely entranced by this movie, just as much in '89/'90 as I'm sure kids/people were when it originally released in 1958. That's not only a testament to how good Harryhausen's special effects were, but also a testament to how good the movie in general is. Trust me, I have seen some movies with cool stop-motion effects, which as MOVIES go, are garbage. But to my mind, everything about 7th Voyage stands out. The pacing and cinematography are on point, the casting and acting are great, and the story itself, while simple and fairy-tale-like, is also just really entertaining. And it needs to be said that Bernard Herrman's magical score fits the mood of every scene perfectly. From the very opening of the Columbia logo, the main theme of the film kicks in and really grabs you, holding on throughout. Scenes such as the magic snake dance in Baghdad, feature such wonderfully imaginative and fitting musical flourishes and refrains, and the score never feels off or out of place. Like a good movie score should, it helps tell the story as much as the visuals and acting do.

Perhaps the most iconic scene of the film.

Of course, while I loved the entire film and watched it a ton as a kid, at that age, the part that naturally stood out the most to me, "monster kid" that I was, were the monsters themselves. And the climactic battle between a Cyclops and Sokurah's protective dragon, was the main event! I liked, and still like, the Cyclops. But even as a child, I've always had a thing for dragons, which perhaps led to my love of dinosaurs, and Godzilla, etc. One of my favorite childhood films, even though it was goofy, was the original Pete's Dragon, with me of course wishing I had a dragon friend like him. So it probably goes without saying then, that I rooted for the dragon in this fight.

Within the next couple of years of my young life, as TNT started their marathons, and other stations played late-night monster movies as well, as I said before, I was able to see Captain Sindbad again, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Tiger's Eye. But while I think those are all excellent films, and I love them all a lot, to my mind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still the best of the lot. As awesome as Tom Baker and Margaret Whiting are as Koura and Zenobia, or even Pedro Armenderiz as the vile El Kharim in "Sindbad", to me Torin Thatcher as Sokurah is the perfect villain. He may not even be as purely evil as those others, but his obsession with power and specifically with owning the magic lamp, push him to deliciously dastardly ends.

The Princess saving the day.

Or, for example, while the other Sinbad movies feature some genuinely gorgeous, and even cool leading ladies, for my money, Princess Parisa rocks. Not only was she beautiful, but she wasn't your typical damsel in distress. When she is shrunken to tiny size, and her whole world is ruined and her father flies off into a warmongering rage, she doesn't freak out or cry, she keeps her cool and even comforts a mourning Sinbad. And twice during the tale, it is she, using her size to their advantage, who displays great courage and resourcefulness, saving Sinbad and his crew from a cage, and later braving the magical unknown to try talking to the Genie of the lamp. She is also incredibly honorable, as even though they could use the Genie's magic late in the story, she remains steadfast in her promise to try and free him instead.

For that matter, as much as I love ALL of Harryhausen's monsters, especially the ones from the Sinbad films, none of them are AS classy or as classic to me, as the Roc, and the Cyclops, and the Dragon. And while I think that all of those Sinbad actors, from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 40s, to Guy Williams, John Phillip Law, and Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne), are good and they all owned the role in their own way, they ALL made good Sinbads. I would still argue that Kerwin Matthews was the best in the role, and at the very least, he's my personal favorite Sinbad, and always will be.

Ray and his babies.

While in many ways, the later two Harryhausen Sinbad epics, both of which feature a Doctor Who (Golden has Tom Baker and Tiger has Patrick Troughton), are even more elaborate and epic films with arguably superior effects work, 7th Voyage still stands above them as the most charming, whimsical, and complete of Ray's unofficial "Sinbad Trilogy". And while a majority of film fans and historians seem to agree that Jason and the Argonauts is Ray's greatest work, and I myself call 1981's Clash of the Titans, sadly his final feature film, to be his magnum opus, his masterpiece. I would still ultimately say that to ME, for my money, in my heart of hearts, 7th Voyage is his best overall film. And again, at the very least, it is MY personal favorite Harryhausen movie.

It actually stands the test of time in my Top 5 Favorite Films ever, which have fluctuated in position a bit, even since I wrote that article talking about them. For one thing, Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal arguably belongs in my Top 5, instead of merely Top 10. If you were to ask me right now, while the movies themselves remain the same, the position for my Top 10 favorites of all time, would look more like this:

1. The Hobbit (1977)

2. The Dark Crystal (1982)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
5. Big Trouble in Little China (1985)

6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)

7. Ghostbusters (1984)

8. Throw Mama From the Train (1987)

9. The Goonies (1985)

10. The 'Burbs (1989)

But 7th Voyage has, and will continue no matter what, to remain in my personal Top 5, even over a Godzilla film, for the rest of my life.

As I always seem to say, if you've never seen this film, or ANY Harryhausen movie for that matter, then please, do yourself, your kids, your pets, everyone a favor, and watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It is, in a word, delightful. And if the word "wholesome" should ever be attached to any fantasy/adventure epic, this would be it as well. It is, I'm not afraid or ashamed to state, at least as far as I'm concerned, the best (live action at least) fantasy film ever crafted.

THE master of movie magic and special effects, 1920-2013.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Attack of the Sweet Tooth: Memories of Halloween Candy

Just in the nick of time for the big night itself, here's the one thing most kids remember....

Trick or Treat!

I've talked a lot over the years, every October in fact, about various things Halloween related. I've talked about movies and games, costumes and cartoons. I've even talked about the spiritual and historical significance of a day that, to me, happens to be just about the "holiest" day there is. But one thing that every kid who has ever celebrated the big night remembers, THE one thing that every kid who has ever been lucky enough to "Trick or Treat" remembers, is also the one thing most associated with the  (commercial aspect) of the holiday. For many adults, it's (sadly) either drinking in a dumb costume, or (more awesomely) watching horror and monster movies. But let's be real here. For kids, and just in general, the ONE thing that stands out in most people's memories of Candy.

For better and for worse, "Trick or Treating" and Halloween candy are the things that stick with us our whole lives, no matter what else changes. Even when the ToT-ing stops, because kids get "too old" (if you ask me, NO ONE should be too old, but certainly not teens), they still remember the candy. And most adults buy candy to give out to kids, as a guise to have that sweet, sweet tooth-rotting goodness for themselves as well. I myself have briefly touched on the subject before, but I thought that candy was important enough, and synonymous enough with the holiday, that I'd be remiss if I didn't write a piece dedicated to it, and more specifically, to my memories of it.

Everyone's favorite?

Pictured above, you can see what is perhaps the most iconic "Halloween Candy". Meaning it is perhaps the most closely associated with the holiday, and with "Trick or Treating". That doesn't mean that everyone loves the stuff. In fact, many don't. I myself am somewhat ambivalent to it. I liked it and ate it as a kid, but I wouldn't say it excited me, and they were hardly my favorite. That being, so-called "candy corn", and the pumpkin variants there-of. There were, in my childhood as I recall, other "flavors", sort of, such as ones with chocolate flavored tips. I'd say that they aren't terrible, though they do seem to be the butt of many Halloween candy related jokes. But love them or hate them, there is no denying that there really is no specific candy more associated or more iconic of Halloween, than this stuff.

Now if you want to talk BAD Halloween candy...

How bizarre.

How insidious...

How gross!

From top to bottom, what we have here are: Wax Lips, Candy Cigarettes, and Circus Peanuts. I will start by saying that as far as the candy cigarettes go, I don't clearly remember if I myself ever actually got any for Halloween. And I'd imagine most responsible parents wouldn't be thrilled if their kid got any, either. I DID however, get these multiple times as a little kid, from my chain-smoking grandmother no less. They basically taste like sweetened chalk, and as if it weren't obvious, were created, most likely, by some cigarette company or another, as a means of getting some "early starters", so to speak. To give kids the idea that smoking is "cool", and start them young. I myself, while I'm sure deep down my grandmother absolutely didn't want me to ever start smoking (even though she had no problem smoking AROUND me for the first 10+ years of my life), she still bought me these on occasion when I was basically toddler or pre-school age. And you know what? I definitely imitated what I saw my grandmother doing, puffing on them and pretending to smoke them, before I'd actually eat them (because they weren't all that good as candy). And I DEFINITELY thought they were pretty cool at that age, and thought I was cool to be "smoking" them. So I know first-hand, while I've never taken up actual smoking because it's fucking disgusting, the affect these forsaken objects can have on impressionable children.

As for the others, well...what is there to say about Wax Lips? I seem to vaguely remember OTHER, non-lip-shaped wax "candies" as a kid, but these are the ones that stick out, and the most famous. I clearly remember these popping up in store displays during my childhood Octobers, and while I didn't love them by any means, I did seem to get them more than once. To be perfectly honest, it isn't really accurate to say that Wax Lips taste "BAD". Because they don't. They just kinda don't taste...much at all. They certainly have a flavor, of sorts. Waxy. But as far as sweetness goes, while it's THERE, it's very subtle.You're basically just chewing wax, after holding the thing between your lips and pretending they were YOUR lips for a bit first. Whoever came up with these things, I'd put them right up with with "My Pet Rock" (I had more than one of those as a kid too), as being the most successful, truly DUMB ideas in history.

Lastly, we have the scourge known as "Circus Peanuts". Even as a kid, while I liked most candies I ever encountered at least a little, and while I DID eat these many times, I never genuinely liked them much. The main reason for this is...they're just not very good. Granted, SOMEONE, somewhere on planet Earth must think they're great, because they're still around, still manufactured, to this day. But I couldn't tell you why, except that some people must have weird ass taste. Speaking of taste, if you've never encountered these things in your own life, they basically taste like, to put it bluntly, stale marshmallows. Which is basically what they are, as far as I'm concerned. They have the flavor and texture of a marshmallow that has maybe been sitting out for a long time, and they're kinda tough, and kinda chalky, and just really...bleck. Moving on...

An early childhood favorite.

Child Crack.


For a few more odd or obscure Halloween items, I present to you: Necco Wafers, Pixie Sticks, and last but certainly not least...Popcorn Balls. As far as the Neccos go, they really were a favorite of mine as a kid. Some of my very most favorite things when I was between the ages of, let's say, 3 and 6 years old, were Fig Newtons, Squirt soda, and Necco Wafers. I especially loved the "chocolate" flavored ones, that you could find in their own exclusive package. To be perfectly honest, Necco Wafers aren't especially great. They are, as one might imagine, fairly chalky, and the flavors are fairly subdued. I'd say that they taste less strongly, and probably less pleasant, than something like Sweet Tarts, a similar product. But for some odd reason as a child, I really really liked them.

Pixie Sticks are something I'm sure most kids are familiar with, and to put it simply, they are really just sugar in a closed-off straw. That's really basically it. Some kids absolutely love these things to death, and it's not hard to see why, because it's essentially skipping the bullshit and trappings of what candies of any sort really are. and just giving the common base element straight: sugar. Which is why they are also essentially childhood crack. I myself didn't LOVE them, oddly enough. As a kid, I guess I preferred the trappings and the bullshit, I liked various shapes and flavors, and apparently didn't just want to eat straight sugar.

The last, is something that I have a feeling younger kids nowadays are likely less and less familiar with. They still sell them in some stores, and I'm going to take a stab in the dark and imagine that there MUST still be some adults out there who might hand out home-made ones to "Trick or Treaters". But Popcorn Balls are a genuinely odd duck. They aren't BAD as a concept. And sometimes, if you're lucky, they're not bad as a reality either. It's just that when you get a bad one, you get a BAD one. They're generally supposed to be what they look/sound like: a bunch of popcorn, stuck together in a ball shape by some kind of sugary glaze. If you're unlucky, you'll get ones that taste stale as hell, as I feel like I must have. Because while I definitely liked popcorn as a kid, I really never cared for these damn things. And regardless, I feel like most kids were probably disappointed, when they got non-candy items like these, in place of that sweet childhood gold they were REALLY after.

More traditional hard candies.

Gum Drops.

Various candy bars.

Pictured here, are, besides Candy Corn, what I'd consider more "traditional" types of Halloween candy. Hard candies were, when I was a kid in the 80s and early 90s, a fairly common thing to get for Halloween. I have no idea what "Trick or Treaters" get from people now, but if what my roommate buys to give out every year is any indication, I'd imagine they get a lot less of these types, or the weirder fare that I've already shown, and a lot more of the name brand candy bars and stuff that most stores tend to sell in huge (often expensive) packs now. Granted, not all hard candy, or Gum Drops or what-have-you, are great. But I think there is something to be said for variety, and for the air of mystery involved in your Halloween candy, versus basically getting the same limited set of stuff from most houses. As an aside, I'd like to point out that for a certain duration of my pre-teen and early teen childhood, I fuckin' LOVED Butterfinger bars. But as I got older, I got really tired of them sticking in my teeth constantly, and frankly, I fell out of love with their "not really peanut buttery" flavor.

Childhood Gold.

The King of Off-Chocolate Taffy Stuff.

Weird, fun, and delicious!

Peanuts stuck to caramel = genius.

The only flavors that existed when I was a kid.

Cool, minty, refreshing!

THE best, for Halloween, Christmas, or any time.

So, this cavalcade of candy pictures embodies most of my top favorites to get as a kid. THESE were the true gold I was after, and ever-hopeful for, when I would go "Trick or Treating". On a random side-note, as a kid I always associated the York Peppermint Patties with the Peanuts (Charlie Brown) character Peppermint Patty. Eating them always made me think of her. Weird, but hey.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, it goes without saying, are godly. I have loved them my whole life, hands down. But while some may find it odd, I have always, ALWAYS preferred the "mini" cups pictured above, instead of the bigger, normal ones. Not that I didn't LIKE the bigger ones. But I just always liked the small ones better. I guess to me it was a perfect chocolate-to-peanut-butter ratio. I've always liked Reese's Pieces (made famous in the film E.T.) as well, though I don't know if any of you have noticed, the peanut butter in those things does NOT taste the same as in the cups. And I've always preferred the cups. They remain one of my top favorites to this very day.

Starburst were more of a childhood favorite, with me liking them less as I got older. Not that I DIS-like them now. But a combination of eventually becoming diabetic (not because of candy), and eating candy less and less in general, saw them drop off as I hit adulthood. But let me tell you, four flavors or not, in the early-to-mid-90s, these things were my jam. And yeah, I probably did like the pink ones best, though to be fair, I really did like the yellow, where some claim not to.

Tootsie Rolls are also something that I came to love less as I got older. Not because I grew to dislike the flavor, I still like how they taste, that weird, off-chocolate taffy type flavor. But similar to Starburst, I just ate them gradually less and less, till now I hardly ever touch them. But again, as a kid, I absolutely adored these things. I've always preferred the smaller, "bite sized" ones, but the longer ones, and especially getting the rare "KING Sized", was pretty exciting. I also remember the non-chocolate flavors they had, such as vanilla, and a few fruit flavors. Those were all pretty good, though I never loved them nearly as much as the traditional chocolate.

As far as Nerds go, I'm sure people exist who don't, but WHO honestly doesn't love these things?  They were pint-sized bits of hardened, flavored sugar. In the shape of silly creatures no less. And came in boxed that usually had two different flavors, so somehow you felt like you were getting more "bang for your buck", to so speak. I seem to remember these things coming into existence during my lifetime, and it would seem I'm correct. I really don't remember having them till the late 80s, at the earliest, but it would appear that they came into existence in 1983. If you've never had Nerds, do yourself a favor, go grab a box, if only to experience them once in your life. It's a Bucket List sort of deal. And who knows, you MAY just love them.

Payday bars were something I don't really remember getting until the 90s, my later childhood years, though it seems they've been around quite a long time. If you've never had one, it's pretty simple: peanuts, literally rolled around a stick of caramel. To be perfectly honest with you, I have never LOVED caramel. It is good in small measure, WITH certain other things. But it's never been my favorite on its own. However, Payday bars are the ONE exception, considering most of what the bar is, is caramel. But to be perfectly fair, and to give credit where it is most certainly due, it is the PEANUTS that bring the party to your mouth. The salty, peanut-y goodness, is what makes all the caramel bearable, and the caramel is just there to get those peanuts into your gullet. The two flavors go great together, I'll admit. But it really is the peanuts that make the bar.

And last but DEFINITELY not least, are the phenomenon known as "Assorted Mini Hershey Bars". These things were a staple of both Halloween and Christmas during my childhood, and I looked forward to them every year. Regular, plain-ass milk chocolate Hershey is pretty decent, and something I'm nostalgic about, at least in "Kiss" form (Hershey Kisses were something I really only got or associated with Christmas as a kid). But it was the three OTHER kinds that you wanted, always. Krackle and Mr. Goodbar are basically the same thing with a different added ingredient. Krackle is milk chocolate with Rice Crispies (the cereal) basically, and they're pretty swell. My preferred of the two, though, was Mr. Goodbar, which instead had peanuts. I guess I just like peanuts.

Food of the Gods.

But my FAVORITE, by far, perhaps in part because they always seemed more rare than the others, were the "Special" Dark Chocolate ones. Either in bar, or in my adult years especially in "Kiss" form, I will admit, I adore Hershey's Dark Chocolate. It is my favorite KIND of Dark Chocolate, in point of fact. Both because I am nostalgic for it from my childhood, but also because I just like the way it tastes. I have, just to let it be known, had other, more expensive and fancier, even EUROPEAN kinds of Dark Chocolate. And it has been brought to my attention by chocolate snobs, that Hershey's (or if they're extra-snotty ANY American-made chocolate), is "garbage". But hey, you know what? Fuck those people. Because I love Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate, and I prefer it over the fanciest Euro shit I have yet to ever put upon my taste buds. I'll stand by that one, hardcore: Hershey's Dark Chocolate fuckin' ROCKS!

Not to be forgotten.

"Back in MY day..."

I'd like to give a quick shout out to the "round candy-shelled drops of goodness" variety of candies, lest I be accused of forgetting. I've already mentioned that I liked, and still like, Reese's Pieces, though as previously stated, the "peanut butter" within those candy shells, simply does not taste the same, nor as good (to me), as in the cups. I also loved (and still like) Skittles, which of course, to my memory, during my childhood in the 80s and early 90s, what you see above is what you got. I may be wrong, but I'm PRETTY sure that all I ever saw or had as a kid, was the regular ass Skittles. All the billion other flavors didn't start coming on until the later 90s, I think. And the cartoon ad for the M&Ms, I included to illustrate the same. To my recollection, the only varieties of M&Ms, the BEST varieties of M&Ms, that existed, up until the mid-90s and my early teen years, were regular and peanut. Peanut, perhaps not surprising and part of an obvious trend here, are my favorite kind. Well...almost...I also happen to REALLY love the Dark Chocolate kind.

Anyone who would ever do this, should be shot.

So I can't wrap this sugarpocalypse up, without first talking about the way you GOT this candy on Halloween night, as a kid. To me, though as with most things my experience was odd or limited thanks to my grandmother, "Trick or Treating" was a magic all its own. I'm sure most kids feel some fashion of the same way. The whole ordeal, the entire package experience, was pretty great. You got to dress up in some goofy, or weird, or if you were really lucky, cool costume. If you were UNLUCKY, as I was a couple of years, you were either poor as fuck, and/or your parental figure is just lazy or has bad taste, and won't let you pick your own costume. In that case, you might get stuck with a SUPER shitty costume, like that of a crappy clown, or cowboy. But I digress, regardless, the dressing up part was, while hardly the MAIN event of the evening, pretty damn cool. Then you got to go out, AT NIGHT (or in the evening), when the weather was finally getting colder (if you, like me, lived in California, at least). You got to go around, in my case always with adult supervision (which sucks when you're a kid, but as an adult, I get it), to various neighborhoods, in my case always of total strangers. You got to see other kids' costumes. You got to, if you were lucky, see various manner of cool (and sometimes even scary) Halloween decorations, which could range from cheap and tacky, to incredibly elaborate. And best of all, to most kids anyway, you got to go up to people's doors, and ask them for FREE candy, which they usually gave you.

It was all at once both thrilling, and a bit scary, to go knock on complete strangers' doors, hoping they'd give you that sweet glory you were dreaming of. The mystery and anticipation of it all was, in a way, half of the fun. The general "rule" was, that if a porch light was on, USUALLY, this meant you were welcome to knock. If not, then no-go. But this wasn't universal, as some of the folks who were more into it than others, who went all out with decorations, would have the light off to be "spookier", and so you had to kind of go with your (or your grandmother's) gut, when it came to reading the situation. All in all, from what I can remember, I seem to recall good, mostly positive vibes from my "Trick or Treating" experiences.

In fact, probably the worst I had, was the last year I did it, October 1995, when I was almost 14. Two of my friends and I, also young teens, went "Trick or Treating", like any other year, expecting to have the same fun experience. Except that, while we DID still get some candy, and to be fair maybe we picked a bad neighborhood, we ran into a FAIR few houses that would either be a bit snotty but still give us candy, or some that outright REFUSED to give us any. In all of those cases, it was always the same shit: "Aren't you a little OLD to be doing this?" And frankly, I'd just like to state, for the record, that that attitude and practice of ostracizing teenagers who want to keep "Trick or Treating", is complete bullshit. The idea that giving out candy should ONLY be for younger kids? Incredibly lame. But worse yet, is the accompanying snottiness, as if they're trying to shame young teens for "being too old" to still want free candy and have fun. It's like, what would society rather have? Teens out committing crime, doing drugs, and who knows what else? Or would they rather let teens who WANT to still "Trick or Treat", do so with open welcome, treating the TEENS with just as much friendliness and kindness as the younger children. What a concept, right?

Last but not least, as the picture above alluded, is a phenomenon that I myself, thankfully, never experienced. Though because my grandmother was an over-protective hawk about most things, I still lived under the spectre of the fear that it COULD happen. And that is, the fact that apparently, while most treat it as an "Urban Myth", there ARE in fact some heartless, sadistic, shitbag assholes out there, who will actually try to basically "booby trap" the candy they give out. By putting sharp things, or even something like POISON, hidden in the candy. To deliberately hurt innocent kids who are just trying to have fun on a special night. The very idea, that grown ass adults would find it amusing to try and ruin Halloween for kids, but worse yet, actually seriously HURT these kids? That is beyond fucked up. I won't linger on the subject, but let's just let it be known, anyone who would do that to kids, or anyone really, should at the very least, have every bone in their body broken.


So with that, I'll end this diabetes-inducing article. I likely have more candy memories than I've shared, many other sweets that I experienced growing up, like taffies, and Twizzlers, and gummies, and "Chocolate Truffles" (hot DAMN), etc. etc. etc. But I think I've left a pretty good amount laid out there as it is. If you're an adult, I'd say to make sure, if you're going to bother, to try and make the "Trick or Treating" experience as safe, and welcoming, and friendly, and fun, for the kids as possible. And if you're taking kids "Trick or Treating" yourself, obviously, it goes without saying, to make sure they have fun, but also that they stay safe! I hope everyone has a great, electricity powered, safe, and fun-filled Samhain night. And as always, make sure to watch (or show others) some classic Halloween-type cartoons and movies!