Saturday, January 30, 2016

What I Did For Love: House on Haunted Hill

Writer Toby Roan – master of the 50 Westerns From the Fifties blog – invited various bloggers to write about films made by, or distributed through, Allied Artists.  Most of the films distributed through AA were, to put it politely, junk.  AA distributed hoards of Bowery Boys films, cut-rate Charlie Chan mysteries, Bomba the Jungle Boy flicks (a particular favorite here at The Jade Sphinx), and a seeming endless stream of westerns.

I’m sure Marshall Roan was hoping for a saddlebag full of westerns for his blogathon; and, knowing my love of westerns, it would only make sense that I comply.  So … to be utterly contrary, I decided to look at a horror film instead (!), starring arts-advocate and Renaissance Man Vincent Price (1911-1993).

There are movies that all of us saw in our childhood that we have returned to again and again.  One movie that I have been looking at all of my life is House on Haunted Hill (1959).  I am not blind (nor immune) to the many faults of this picture.  The screenplay makes almost no sense – and even less sense once everything is “explained.”  (It doesn’t even possess much of the internal logic necessary for the suspension of disbelief.)  The pacing is at times dodgy.  The special effects aren’t cheesy as much as they are silly. 

It is … irresistible.  I recently re-viewed this film before writing this piece, and just thinking about it inspires me to fire-up the DVD player once again.

The plot, briefly, is this:  eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) invites five strangers to a “haunted house” party he is throwing to amuse his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart).  He promises the survivors (or their heirs) $10,000 if they stay the night – the doors will be locked at midnight, and it would be impossible to get in or out of the house.

The five guests include newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum, who is terrific), test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), Loren’s employee Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig, who screams fetchingly), and the house’s owner, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). 

Of course, there are all kinds of wonderful spook-show shenanigans.  Annabelle hangs herself (or does she?); Nora finds a severed head in her luggage (no TSA in those days); Schroeder is taken out of the action with a blow to the noggin in a dark closet; and Watson slowly gets drunker and drunker while warning everyone that they will die horribly before the night is out.  And did I mention there was a vat of acid in the basement?

House on Haunted Hill was produced and directed by the legendary William Castle (1914-1977).  Castle specialized in budget horror and suspense thrillers; but the real key to his peculiar genius was in marketing his films.  The Tingler (1959), about a lobster-like monster that … sort of tingles you to death, premiered in theaters wired with vibrating chairs.  The process was called Percepto – and Your Correspondent saw a revival of The Tingler at New York’s Film Forum, complete with vibrating chairs.  I still haven’t recovered.  His film 13 Ghosts (1960) included special red and blue glasses to see the ghosts.  Mr. Sardonicus (1961) allowed viewers to vote on the fate of the film’s villain.

House on Haunted Hill had as its gimmick a process called Emergo – where things actually come out of the screen.  At the key moment of the climax when a skeleton menaces one of the protagonists, a cardboard skeleton came out via a clothesline in select theaters.  I saw that at Film Forum as well, where the audience hooted in delirious derision, throwing popcorn and jujubes at the skeleton.  Take that, The Force Awakens.

There is no reason for this stuff to work, but it does.  Part of it is the performances, which are unusually fine.  Ohmart, as Price’s evil, ice-queen bride, is simply fabulous.  Sexy, scheming, clearly intelligent and purring like an over-fed cat, Ohmart delivers work that would not be out of place in a bigger-budget film noir.  Speaking of film noir, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe’s friend Elisha Cook performs with an admirable amount of intense terror – this is a man drinking himself into stupefaction because any other option is too horrifying to contemplate. Cook plays hysteria without ever becoming a cartoon, and it reminds us that he was actually a terrific actor with the right material.  Mitchum adds wonderful support as the sophisticated (but tough) newspaper columnist.  See this film and wonder … why wasn’t this woman a bigger star?

Vincent Price, however, completely owns House on Haunted Hill.  Though he had made horror pictures before (including House of Wax and The Fly), this is the film where Price finally honed his screen persona.  Tongue planted firmly in cheek, this is mischievous villainy; one could say that he served his nastiness on wry.  It’s not that Price delivers a camp performance (and, though that charge has been leveled against him, he never really did); but, rather, Price had a genius for making the audience complicit with him.  Price was a heavy who twinkled, and he carried out his most evil machinations on the balls of his feet.

He uses all of his many gifts to great effect here.  His silken, velvety voice brings the right touch of ironic menace to such lines as, “these miniature coffins were my wife’s idea – she’s so amusing;” or, my favorite, “remember the fun we had the night you poisoned me.”  In addition to his voice, he uses his imposing height, his infallible sense of comedic timing, and his look of blasé sophistication.  It really wasn’t until this film that he fully owned his own screen persona, and watching Vincent Price blossom is the chief delight of House on Haunted Hill.

Somehow, House on Haunted Hill has fallen into the public domain, and can be seen readily online.  Here is a Youtube link:  Spend an hour and fifteen minutes at The House on Haunted Hill.  You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Low Tide, by Simon de Vlieger (c. 1652)

Here is a suitably calming image to close out our week of snow, flooding, bad weather and a media Spike-d by phony outrage.

This lovely painting, done on board (as are the majority of de Vlieger’s work), can now be found in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg.  Painted when de Vlieger was around 50 years old, Low Tide is an atypically calm moment in the painter’s oeuvre, and a restorative balm for the end of our week.

Once again, the artist underscores his mastery of the sea by demonstrating his mastery of the sky.  Water is notoriously difficult to paint.  Most non-painters take it to be little more than a dab of blue paint, perhaps buffeted by some white to delineate waves. 

Water, however, is best represented as an inversion of whatever is above it.  Those finest representations of water are those that mirror the sky above.  De Vlieger’s sky is a medley of cool blues, off-whites and warm-ochre clouds (reflecting the setting light).  He then copies this color scheme in the calm, reflected ocean pools surrounding the distant ships and the nearby shoreline.  De Vlieger also creates mirror images of the ships, which almost seem to shimmer in the gloaming; especially clever is one that seems as though it’s reflecting off of the muddy sand.

What do we see in this picture?  Fishing ships (note the nets) at low tide, day over.  The sun sets brilliantly in the distance, the lit sky is quietly celebratory.  As with Seascape in the Morning, there is almost an undercurrent of grace to the moment.  A fisherman treks through the wet sand, looking at the beached boat pulling up its nets.  Here is a stunning realization of the quiet beauty of our every day lives.

It’s important to note, in this last entry for the week, de Vlieger’s capability at capturing fine details.  We saw from his drawing of the Ruins of Brederode that his initial thoughts were of light and dark, value and color.  But take a moment to look at the boats here.  The sails are not Impressionist dabs of color, but real hunks of canvas with different folds, weight pulling them from different directions.  Note the rigging, the beached anchor, the fine network of ropes in the distant-left ship.  These are not throwaways, but carefully captured detail that bring the picture more fully to life.

Though in a minor key, this is no minor picture.  Its sweet solemnity, its sense of closure and quietude, along with the evocation of light and color against actual objects, creates a minor masterpiece.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Near the Ruins of Brederode Castle, by Simon de Vlieger

Continuing with our weeklong look at artist Simon de Vlieger, (born 1601), we see here one of his pen, ink and wash drawings of Brederode Castle.

The castle, also called the Ruins of Brederode, can be found in Santpoort-Zuid.  The castle was built sometime in the second half of the 13th Century by William I van Brederode (1215-1285), a descendant of the lords of van Teylingen.  The castle was part of the estates given to the Brederode family by the count of Holland.

Brederode means broad wood, and references the woodland that was cleared away to build the castle.  The castle was initially little more than a tower, but Dirk II van Brederode had the tower pulled down in 1300 and built a proper castle in its place.

That Brederode is in ruins is no surprise.  During the 1426 siege of Haarlem, the southern part of the castle was destroyed.  In 1492, the castle was plundered by German soldiers.  In 1573, Lancelot van Brederode was beheaded by Spanish soldiers, and the castle was set afire. 

In 1679, Wofert van Brederode, last of the Brederode, died, and the ruins became the property of the Dutch Republic.  In the 19th Century the ruins were one of the first buildings to be restored by the government, becoming the first national monument in the Netherlands.

While this is not a finished drawing, de Vlieger manages to suggest the sense of ruin that pervades the place.  The grand towers of the castle loom in the distance, with the simpler village walls and houses in the foreground.  It’s unlikely that de Vlieger is making some kind of statement in this sketch, but, rather, that he planned to use it for a more finished work.

De Vlieger manages light and shade with a simple gray wash.  However, he manages to etch more concrete details with a fine pen, suggesting the movement of scrub in the foreground, and the shaggy quality of hay on the cottage roof.

Just a moment to reflect on the importance of sketching:  artists think with their hands, as well as with their brains and their optic nerves.  To make a sketch to reference for future work is one of the core methods of an artist, and it can teach us a great deal about how they think.

Clearly, de Vlieger thought in terms of light and shade, value and tone.  There are a few clearly delineated details, but the focus is on composition and light.  These values would provide the key for his finished, and highly polished, paintings.

More de Vlieger tomorrow!

Brederode Castle Today

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Seascape in the Morning, by Simon de Vlieger (1640-45)

After the storm comes the calm, both in real life and in art. (I’ve come to believe that art may be more important than life, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

We continue our weeklong look at painter Simon de Vlieger, who was born in Rotterdam in about 1601.  Above is Seascape in the Morning, executed by de Vlieger around 1640-45.  It is, simply, spectacular.

De Vlieger knows, as do all great artists, that the success of any seascape is not the depiction of the water, but, of the sky above it.  The sea, whether calm or stormy, is the vehicle for something much greater and more dramatic – the sky is all of its many magnificent manifestations.

It is the sky through which de Vlieger decides to tell his story.  Read from right to left, this seascape clearly tells the story of deliverance after travail.  To the right of the painting, where the sky is darkest, you see seaman working on their damaged boat.  A smoky fire burns (probably for either tar or pitch, used for sealing the boat beams), and the wooden structure for reeling in boats is clearly decaying from sea air and water rot.

In the foreground left, we see a boat of seamen, either rowing towards shore, but perhaps to one of the waiting boats in the distance.  A figure stands alone among them; this figure clearly stands in an attitude of prayer.  Whether this is a prayer of thanksgiving or a prayer of deliverance is unknown, but it would appear (from the attitude of the right-most rower) that they are heading ashore.

But, look at the ships in the middle distance.  A fully-rigged ship is heading towards the rising sun, and other ships become indistinct ghosts the closer they get to the distant horizon.

That the horizon is benevolent is evidenced by the columns of white light that penetrate through the clouds.  These rays of light illuminate the clouds, brightening them, and radiate clear beams of light that reach into the sky.  The quality of light is not unlike those that emanate from halos in religious iconography, and whether de Vlieger does this intentionally or unconsciously, the effect is the same.  It is morning, and we have survived to make another day.

This is an oddly … religious painting.  Without the benefit of any Christian iconography, de Vlieger paints a stunning story of trial and transcendence, or human suffering and the hope for heaven.  As so many of us continue to dig out from under the snow, it is a comforting image to retain.

More de Vlieger tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dark Landscape, by Simon de Vlieger (1640)

We thought the current weather makes a perfect opportunity to look at the work of under-appreciated artist Simon de Vlieger, starting with this suitably dark and brooding landscape, painted in 1640.

Many readers aren’t familiar with painter Simon de Vlieger, who was born in Rotterdam in about 1601.  (In a 1648 letter, he described himself as 47 – so 1601 or so would be right.)  Very little record of his early training as an artist survives, but historians believe he may have been a pupil of Jan Porcellia (c. 1584-21632).

He married Anna Gerridts van Willige in 1627, and the couple would return to Rotterdam throughout their lives, buying a house on the Schilderstraat in 1637 that served as an occasional retreat.  They moved in 1634 to Delft, where De Vlieger joined the Saint Luke’s Guild of painters.  

The peripatetic De Vliegers would become citizens of Amsterdam in 1643.  The artist’s decision to move there was undoubtedly related to a commission he received to provide two designs for the festivities honoring the arrival of Marie de Medici into the city on August 31, 1638.  He would also receive important commissions between 1638 and 1645 from the city of Delft for tapestry designs, for etchings, and to paint the organ doors for the Grote Kerk in Rotterdam, for which he received the considerable sum of 2,000 guilders on January 7, 1645. 

Although he may have lived in Rotterdam sporadically during these years, in September 1644 he sold his house there. Early in 1648 he received a commission to design the stained-glass windows for the south side of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, a project that earned him 6,000 guilders.  In January 1649 De Vlieger left Amsterdam and bought a house in Weesp, a small town 10 miles southeast of the city. He died there in 1653.

The artist was one of the most important and influential painters of the 17th century, and while the scope of de Vlieger’s commissions indicate his considerable success as an artist, his currency in contemporary art history is surprisingly low.  De Vlieger painted mostly dramatic seascapes – filled with stormy seas and grotesque outcroppings of rock.  Born long before the advent of Romanticism, de Vlieger can still be seen as a spiritual brother of the Romantics.  He cannot paint the placid, the peaceful or the ordinary; his imagination is larger-than-life, melodramatic and uncanny.

For today’s picture, we exchanged a seascape for a dark and stormy landscape.  If ever there was an evocative picture that speaks volumes with minimal detail, it would be this.  Look at what de Vlieger achieves with his restricted palette of blues, whites, and a little ochre.  The overcast sky promises storms and cold weather, while the trees – both living and dead – list to one side in the coming wind.  The massive roots of the trees are spread wide, as if wrapping a powerful grip into the earth itself to keep from blowing away.

The wind also affects the meagre scrub at the side of the road.  This powerful sweep of wind is underscored by the minimally depicted bird, whose wingspan and trajectory illustrate the wind.

Other brilliant touches abound.  The left-most tree spreads its dead fingers against the light-most part of the sky, while the leafy trees occupy the darkest; hence the details of both are not lost to the viewer.  The tree dead-center actually bucks the wind, shifting the other way to some degree.  Its mid-height branches almost give the tree the semblance of human resistance, as if its arms were spread and it refused to be swayed.

De Vlieger counterpoints the trees with the solitary figure making his way through the windy night.  There is a hint of a cane carried in his hand, which also accentuates the sturdy efforts of the trees around him.

More de Vlieger tomorrow!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Batman The War Years: 1939-1945, Edited by Roy Thomas

This stunning companion volume to Superman The War Years: 1938-1945 is equally satisfying to buffs of vintage comic books and antiquated super heroics.  Once again, comics historian Roy Thomas provides a thoughtful and provocative introduction, as well as overviews of each section, sharing historical context and insight into various editorial decisions taken at the time.

Batman The War Years: 1939-1945 shares the same powerful design (this is one beautiful book), and also contains about 20 original comics, covers and newspaper stories.  While much of this material has been reprinted elsewhere and more authoritatively, this volume provides an excellent overview of this period in Batman’s life.  It is also a delicious look at the world of comics during the War years -- if you are interested in the world of 1940s heroics, look no further.

While Superman could not obviously join the war effort because of his superpowers (how could writers, even in the realm of comics, maintain a fraction of plausibility when Superman could end the war in moments?), Batman and Robin were excluded by virtue of their secret identities.  Beneath the cowl and mask, Batman and Robin were mere mortals – their efficacy as crusaders would be lost.  Additionally, as masked vigilantes working largely at night, they were invaluable to the home front, tracking down spies, saboteurs and Fifth Columnists.  (One wonders what Robin discussed with his friends during recess…)

When not battling Nazis and “Japs,” Batman and Robin had more recherché adventures, such as preventing Atlantis from allying with the Nazis or appearing before the U.S. Senate to provide hardened criminals a chance to work on the war effort.  (Even the Joker contributed his own brand of twisted genius against the Axis Menace; your ideology is uniquely twisted if the Joker finds it objectionable.)  I must confess that I was delighted by the selection of stories, and charmed by the fearless storytelling.

Several writers and artists contributed to these tales, including Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, George Roussos, Don Cameron and Jack and Ray Burnley.  And the stories and art have not been altered to appease our Politically Correct times, so if you like your vintage entertainment unadulterated, look no further.

Finally, a brief word on the Batman to be found in this volume.  Few figures loom larger on the pop cultural landscape than Batman.  But it’s important to remember that Batman, like Superman before him, are not fictional constructs created – and closely held – by an individual author.  Rather, these are corporate entities, fashioned to morph and change over time to remain culturally relevant.  There has been much hoo-haw over the years about which depiction of Batman is the truest or most correct, but such an idea is silly and pointless.  The Batman of the War Years is already dramatically different from the earlier Batman of the late 1930s, who will also be different from the Batman of the 1960s, and the 1980s.  There is no correct representation of Batman, as Batman is, more correctly, a representation of his times.

The Batman in this book is a smiling, scout master Batman who was friendly, capable and accessible.  If you are looking for the psychotic bully that is popular today, look elsewhere.  Despite a world war, global catastrophe and real challenges here on the home front, the America of the 1940s was a much more optimistic place than the America of 2016.  There’s a reason it’s called The Greatest Generation, and that optimism and can-do attitude in the face of extraordinary adversity may well be the reason.  Perhaps it’s time we got Bat to basics…

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Superman: The War Years 1938-1945, Edited by Roy Thomas

We’ve spent so much time with Superman this week that I couldn’t resist a look into a book I picked up at the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, Superheroes in Gotham.  It is Superman: The War Years 1938-1945, edited by comics historian Roy Thomas.  It is, in short, terrific.

This deluxe, coffee table book has design style to spare, and one has to get past how wonderful looking it is before making any effort to read it.  It may be crammed with kid’s stuff, but it’s glorious kid’s stuff, and can by savored by all and sundry without any shame.

The War Years collects about 20 comics, mostly culled from Action Comics and Superman, along with covers, comic strips and even some ads.  All of this is divided into four sections, each with an introductory essay by Thomas, putting the tales in their historical context.

The comics themselves are great fun.  The art would be considered crude by today’s standards, but it had an energy and brio that is sadly missing from today’s product.  Some of the stories are drawn by Superman co-creator Joe Schuster, and this steely-eyed, square-jawed avenger is quite a change from the softer, more sensitive Superman of today.  Other artists included in this collection are Ed Dobrotka, Fred Ray and Wayne Boring, each of whom brings something unique to the table.

The real challenge for Superman’s writers during the 1940s is how to position a near god-like figure who can do no wrong in the context of a world conflict, without having him in some way resolve it.  Included here is the classic strip where Clark Kent fails his enlistment eye-test, thanks to his reading the chart in the next room.  In other stories, the Man of Steel explicitly states that he did not join the world war because America’s soldiers could do the job without him, and he was better utilized fighting saboteurs and scientifically-created monsters at home.  This, of course, is simply another example of how America at the time prized the concept of the Everyman, the average American Joe who was equal to most any occasion.  This figure – so central to the American psyche of the time – has been lost, thanks largely to Identity Politics, Political Correctness, and other cancerous notions born of the 1960s.  In the 1940s, Superman was a projection of our best selves, in 2016, he is a tragic reminder of what we once were.

The Superman found in these pages – so soon after his creation – is part social reformer (Kent is a militant FDR Democrat), and part super-soldier.  He pulls no punches, and the stories are stronger for that.  Also fascinating is Lois Lane.  While Feminism would like to claim that images of strong women did not exist before the likes of Gloria Steinem, Lane was a strong-minded career woman who was Superman’s equal in nearly every department.  Talented, smart, fearless and adventuresome, Lane is another reminder of perhaps how we had it right before the social upheavals of the 1960s.

While the comics and others materials are themselves quite wonderful, the other great delight of this book (other than its champion design) is the commentary by Thomas.  Informative, casual, and complicit with the reader, he pulls off a wonderful balancing act of great insight and lack of pretention.  The whole book is a fun read, and Thomas is an important part of the experience.

Highly Recommended!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hollywoodland (2006)

Our recent trip to the New York Historical Society and our glimpse of the costume George Reeves (1914-1959) wore during his titular stint on The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), got us thinking about that noteworthy and rather sad talent.

There are many today who sneer at Reeve’s performance as Clark Kent/Superman, most of them too young to have seen the show during its original run, or even in reruns.  A quick view at the comments section of science fiction junk-news site, for instance, would reveal pimply basement-dwellers labeling Reeves as creepy, fey, lightweight or overweight.  This is, of course, a sad commentary on contemporary science fiction buffs.  In a world where Superman films are grim, ponderous affairs, where superheroes are treated with a weight and reverence denied even the greatest of literary classics, certainly the talents of a man like Reeves would be unwelcome. 

However, sometimes it’s the times, and not the levels of artistry, that are off track.  Reeve was the perfect Superman for what was fundamentally a different (and better) America.  In the absence of identity politics, and buttressed by an intelligent and informed middle-brow, middle-class, it was possible to attack comic book material with both sincerity and fun without slipping into pretention and flummery.

Reeves was a player with an easy smile (indeed, a high-octane smile), a gentle demeanor and a true Everyman accessibility.  His Superman was decent, kind, concerned and engaged.  He was also distinctly American, back when American idealism and values actually, to some degree, existed.  One well remembers Reeves as an angry Superman chasing away a mob of rednecks who wanted to murder some rather child-like people from the Earth’s core.  “You’re acting like Nazi Stormtroopers!”

Better still was Reeves’ take on Clark Kent.  Rather than the high-voiced milquetoast heard on radio, and later essayed by his successor, Christopher Reeve (1952-2004), Reeves’ Kent is a confident, capable investigative reporter, more than equal to most any occasion.  One often wondered why Superman was needed at all – with this Kent on the job, things were already on track for a just resolution.  (This is essential if one is going to understand Superman rather than, say, Batman.  The benign, decent and crusading Clark Kent is the real human being, and Superman merely the disguise.  Batman, though, is the real human being, or what is left of one, and Bruce Wayne merely a convenient fiction.)

The great tragedy of Reeves was his untimely death, deemed a suicide, though clouded by mystery to this day.  This incident has haunted many Baby-Boomers for decades, (for instance, Frank Dello Stritto writes about it eloquently in his recent book, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It), and has fueled the speculations of countless armchair detectives.

So it is no surprise that Hollywood would eventually attempt to tell the story itself.  The resulting film, Hollywoodland, written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, is a hit-and-miss affair, but it does manage to remain affective and poignant.

To tell the story, Bernbaum creates a fictional frame to tell the actual facts: a down-on-his-luck private eye named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith).  She is convinced that Reeves would never have killed himself; Simo takes the case to win back the affection of his ex-wife (Mollly Parker) and son (Zach Mills). 

The trail leads him into the world of Hollywood high-rollers Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), general manager at MGM, and his wife Toni (Diane Lane), who was Reeves’ longtime lover.

Brody is miserably miscast as the gumshoe, a part more suited to the melancholy talents of someone like the late Robert Mitchum (1917-1997).  (The framing device of Simo never really takes off, either, and one wonders why Bernbaum thought it necessary.)  Hoskins maintains a dangerous edge of menace and animal cunning … it would be an intrepid (or stupid) man who tangled with him.

Lane is nothing short of magnificent as Toni Mannix, a bottomless pit of doubt, need and self-pity.  Her hungers and humiliations are uncomfortably real, and it’s stunning for an adult actress to allow herself to appear so naked and vulnerable.  Why this performance wasn’t considered Oscar-worthy is a great injustice.

However, the film belongs completely to Ben Affleck (born 1972), who plays Reeves in flashback.  While not as winning or innocently charming as Reeves himself, Affleck successfully channels the late actor’s nonchalance, his easy manner and his doughy sensuality.  An inherently decent man in an indecent place, Reeves’ life spirals out of control as he loses his career, his self-respect, and his own self-image.  It’s a complex and ingratiating performance, and Affleck has never been better.

Finally, the reason Hollywoodland works so well is the reason so many superhero films are disappointing: this film relies upon complex human relationships and often contradictory emotional attachments.  It’s an internal drama, rather than an empty spectacle, and it details the inner turmoil of a real super man.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Superheroes in Gotham at the New York Historical Society

The oldest museum in New York City is also one of its finest: The New York Historical Society.  This terrific venue on the Upper West Side just across the street from Central Park routinely creates stunning exhibitions, all of them in some way connecting to New York.

The museum also regularly provides film shows (the life’s blood of any museum – there is nothing better for cultivating a crowd of ‘regulars’), free lectures, and special events and days for children; it is, in short, as much as a cultural center as an exhibition space.  The smartest museums have come to realize that even the finest exhibitions draw only so many people; it is continuing programs and attractions that drive membership and attendance, and the NYSH has managed this balance with a savvy mix of dignity and razzmatazz.

There is a terrific show at the NYHS right now that shouldn’t be missed.  Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our interest in the history of comic strips and comic books, as well as our soft-spot for those Titans in long underwear, superheroes.  Deftly curated by Debra Schmidt Bach and Nina Nazionale, Superheroes in Gotham argues that superheroes and New York are inseparable.

The show opens, of course, with the first and greatest of them all, Superman.  Created by youngsters Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, Superman’s adopted base of operations, Metropolis, is clearly a stand-in for the Big Apple.  (In fact, some of the earliest stories are set in New York, rather than Metropolis.)  We move quickly onto Batman, where Gotham City is certainly New York’s seedier sections, at night.  (An old DC Comics editorial guide used to insist that writers think of Metropolis as New York around Rockefeller Plaza, and Gotham as New York, under 14th Street.)

The show then charts the rise of heroes who are explicitly New Yorkers, including Brooklynite Captain America, Queens-boy Spider-Man and Iron Man, with his Manhattan home and Lone Island offices.

For a small show (three good-sized rooms), Bach and Nazionale have densely packed their treasures.  On hand is the original costume of George Reeves (1914-1959), worn during his run on television’s The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman suit from the series, Batman (1966-1968).  There is stunning production art created for the Batman series, original drawings of Superman by artist Schuster, pages of original Spider-Man art (by controversial artist Steve Ditko), as well as Jerry Siegel’s typewriter, incubator for the very first superhero stories.

Also on hand are original animation cells, film posters, schoolbooks featuring doodles and/or finished drawings by comic artists while still schoolkids themselves, and a host of other treasures, including the Batmobile used by Adam West (born 1928) in the television series. 

It’s not surprising that the genre was born here in Gotham.  This Metropolis was the home to many of its creators; in fact, of the first generation of creators, Will Eisner (1917-2005), Stan Lee (born 1922), Bob Kane (1915-1998) and Bill Finger (1914-1974) had all attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

The exhibition underscores beautifully how essential to the overall myth of the superhero New York City has become.  Larger-than-life heroes need a suitably large background canvas, and New York has so often been shorthand for the grandiose, the dramatic and, sometimes, the absurd.

There is also a raw energy on hand here that comics (and superheroes) no longer seem to possess.  It is as if the cauldron of the Great Depression, a gleaming art deco city (home to the world’s tallest building), and a still-possible American dream galvanized a legion of First Generation Americans to actually create our myths for us.  These have since been corrupted into mere corporate commodities, made slick and unmemorable by loud, over-produced films and stridently-seeking-relevance comic books.  But that crude power found in the original works is astonishing to behold.

If comics and superheroes are both as exciting and oddly poignant to you as they are to us, then this is a show not to be missed.  It runs until February 21, and more information can be found here: