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Monday, June 7, 2021

THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY

THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY
Taking advantage of staying home during the pandemic, my wife and I have been bingeing old movies we've never gotten around to viewing. Recently, the choice was an oddly titled, slightly schizophrenia film with Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson, The Wackiest Ship In The Army. My wife and I both enjoyed it, despite its inability to decide if it was a comedy set during the War in the Pacific, an adventurous war movie with a few laughs, or a sentimental, feel good, version of Hell In The Pacific.
 
My wife has a habit of watching movies and TV shows while keeping Google open on her phone. This means everything we view is accompanied by her running commentary on the history of the film, the background of the actors—both the leads and the bit players—and whatever trivia IMDB coughs up. She's my best friend and I love her to forever and beyond, but sometimes she's like a living director's commentary track you can't turn off.
 
However, I'm not without my own set of quirks, one of which is the inability to pass by a tangential rabbit hole without doing my version of an Alice In Wonderland routine. I was already intrigued because I vaguely remembered there had been a television show based on the movie, although I couldn't remember seeing any episodes. When I gleaned the information from the credits that the film was based on the true story Big Fella Wash Wash in Argosy magazine, I was not only being sucked inexorably down the rabbit hole, I was picking up speed.
 
In real life, the 27 yea old Lieutenant Meredith Rip Riddle (Rip Crandall in the movie) was justifiable proud when he received orders from the U.S. Navy to take command of his first ship, the USS Echo. Oddly, nobody had ever heard of the Echo, and it wasn’t long before. Riddle realizes he’s been hoodwinked when his new assignment turns out not to be a battleship or a destroyer, but a 40-year-old, twin-masted, flat-bottomed, wooden schooner of dubious seaworthiness.

An expert yachtsman in civilian life, Riddle knew he wouldn’t have a problem sailing what was more garbage scow than a battleship—but there were bigger challenges ahead. First, the crew of misfits assigned to the Echo didn’t know a jib from a jigger. Second—and far worse—Riddle finds out the ship is actually on loan from the U.S. Army, and comes with an Army major with whom Riddle is supposed to share command.
 

To top things off, the Echo turns out to have a crucial, top secret mission with hundreds of allied lives depending on its success. The plan is for Randall and his inept crew to disguise the Echo as a South Seas fishing scow in order to sail through waters heavily patrolled by the Japanese fleet. Their mission is to place coastal watchers behind enemy lines on islands under Japanese control. These watchers must hide on the islands, while being hunted by the enemy, in order to transmit the movements of the Japanese fleet.

The good news was the Echo herself as she was a sound ship despite appearances. Originally the property of the New Zealand government, the Echo had been given to the U.S. Army as a transport ship to carry cargo and supplies to Army bases in the South Pacific—which earned her an Army commendation. The better news was the aft mounted .50 caliber machine gun hidden by fishing nets on the Echo’s deck. The best news, however, was Rip Riddle himself. 
 
A native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, Riddle was a born leader and masterful at improvising on the fly. He would eventually serve in the Navy for more than 30 years, commanding six different ships—including the Echo. He also served as the chief engineering officer of the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, where he headed a staff of 600 men and 18 officers.
 
Aside from it’s original mission with the Navy to transport the Island spotters, the Echo often found herself engaged in a variety of other hazardous escapades. Once, after a hurricane hit the Pacific islands, the Echo rescued several fishermen whose canoes were blown more than 100 miles away from their villages and had been given up for dead by their families. On their return, the ship was met by the ecstatic villagers who almost all paddled out in their canoes. This caused a problem. The celebration was attracting the attention of nearby Japanese planes, so the crew members and the rescued fishermen had to fend off the well-wishers attempting to climb aboard.
 
Riddle’s misadventures would eventually find their way into the July 1956 issue of the Men’s Adventure Magazine, Argosy. Under the title writers Marion Hargrove and Herb Carlson recounted the true story of the Echo’s Navy exploits, however, it was Argosy art director Bernard White who came up with the brilliant tag line, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, as a teaser on the magazine’s cover.
 
As the lead story on page fifteen, Big Fella Wash Wash, came with two teasers to grab readers’ attention...Take a creaking, crummy old schooner, a boot camp Navy crew, and some of the barest, most bucolic aborigines in the Pacific; mix them up with a global war, and you’ve got the ingredients of a rip-roaring adventure story—and every word of it is true...If a man could make his dream of adventure come true, this could well be it—The Editors
 
The catchphrase and teaser hype did their job snagging not only readers, but also the attention of Columbia Pictures, who bought the rights to use the story as the basis for their 1960 movie comedy The Wackiest Ship in The Army, starring Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson.
 
However, in typical Hollywood fashion there was something lost in the translation from page to screen. In this case it was the Army major who had joint command of the Echo. Even the fact the Echo was an Army transport scow on loan to the Navy somehow missed the boat, so to speak. This left movie viewers with the wonderfully intriguing Wackiest Ship in the Army title and absolutely no idea what it meant. I can only assume the reference got left on the cutting room floor to make room for another song by Ricky Nelson.
 
Known for writing the script for the 1951 film, You're in the Navy Now, Richard Murphy directed Wackiest Ship in the Army and also adapted the screenplay from the source material. Originally, the film was to star Ernie Kovacs as Rip Crandall (the movie version of Rip Riddle) and Jack Lemmon as his bumbling ensign. But as the deadline for the start of principal photography approached, Kovacs was on duty elsewhere. There was also a concern that despite his name value, Lemmon—who actually served as a U.S. Navy Ensign in World War II—looked too old for the role as the Echo’s inexperienced ensign. The solution to both dilemmas was to give Lemmon a field promotion (more of an Army term, but appropriate) to the lead role as Lieutenant Crandall, and bring actor/singer/teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson aboard as the naïve, but mostly competent ensign.
 
Like Rip Riddle transforming into Rip Crandall, the USS Echo originally underwent a name changed to the USS Fiesta for the movie version. Fortunately, the ship was rechristened the Echo before filming started. But, like Kovacs, the real Echo wasn’t available, which meant brining in a 72 foot gaff-rigged schooner—whose real name was Fiesta—to play the part. The Echo’s standin was built entirely of teakwood in Hong Kong in 1932, and sported a 165hp auxiliary diesel engine, weighed 28 net tons, drew 8 feet of water and could make 7.5 knots under power.
 
Location filming for Wackiest Ship in the Army was done on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Hawaii, and Kauai. The U.S. Navy also provided extensive cooperation allowing the producers to film at Pearl Harbor.
 
The movie is predictable, but it stays afloat for a number of reasons—the storyline is intriguing and has a couple of unexpected twists; the action is well filmed and maintains a strong sense of tension; the supporting cast is excellent, managing to get laughs more from their facial expressions and dialogue timing with only a little slapstick; Ricky Nelson provides the perfect foil as the lynchpin between the incompetence of the crew and the motivator to get them to pull together; and then there’s Jack Lemmon, who turns in an early version of what would become his trademark style of exasperation mixed with determination. Should you see the film, absolutely—but there’s more.
 
The movie did big enough box office for NBC to try translating the concept to the small screen. Airing in 1965, the show was produced by Harry Ackerman, and directed and written by Danny Arnold. The show retained the Wackiest Ship in the Army moniker, but sailed closer to the source material than the movie—even down to the Army/Navy having joint command of the schooner—which was rechristened yet again as the USS Kiwi.
 
For the TV series, Cary Collins starred as Navy Lieutenant, junior grade Richard Rip Riddle—who has gotten his real name back and is in command when the vessel is afloat—and Jack Warden as Army Major Simon Butcher—who's in charge of shore operations. Mike Kellin who played Chief Mate Jack MacCarthy in the movie gets the same role on the television series—the only actor to make the transition from big screen to small. Though billed as a comedy, at an hour in length it had nothing in common with such service related sitcoms as McHale’s Navy or Sergeant Bilko. While the crew still got up to some screwball antics, the emphasis was on the adventure of each weekly assignment. This dual personality—is it a comedy or is it an action show—was something the TV series shared with the movie version. Fortunately, the TV series did not make use of a soundtrack to tell viewers when to laugh as was the practice for TV comedies.
 
The series was, of course, set in the Pacific theater of World War II as the misfit crew of the leaky wooden twin-masted schooner USS Kiwi are tasked with placing spies behind Japanese lines. The con-combatant fishing boat appearance of the Kiwi helps fool the Japanese as it sails through mine infested enemy waters under the false colors of the Swiss flag. A ship with two masters, however, means less than smooth sailing as Navy Lieutenant Riddle and Army Major Butcher are almost always at odds.
 
Although the show lasted only one season, it did spawn an original TV tie-in paperback written by Lee Berman and published by Popular Library in 1965—The roughest, toughest, wildest mission of the Wackiest Ship in the Army...What is the good ship Kiwi? Is she fist or Fowl? Does she belong to the Army? Major Simon Butcher is damned certain she does. Or does she belong to the Navy as Lt. Rip Riddle knows she does? On thing is sure, on this mission the Kiwi is heading into the biggest dose of trouble she’s ever seen—including the two beauties in disguise, and enemy scientist, and a secret weapon that could blow the U.S. forces right out of the Pacific.
 
Maybe I’m easy to please, but the Jack Lemon movie version of The Wackiest Ship in the Army, the related TV series, the TV tie-in novel, and the original story that started it all in Argosy magazine, have all entertained me. As for the real USS Echo—she was decommissioned in 1944, and returned to the Army, who returned her to the New Zealand Government. After a lengthy and varied career—including serving as a floating bar—she eventually ended her days as a museum in Picton, New Zealand. Unfortunately, she was poorly maintained over the years and her condition deteriorated to a dangerous state beyond repair. She was demolished in 2015—110 years after her launching in 1905.

THE OTHER MARLOWE

 
THE OTHER MARLOWE
Published in the early sixties, Dan J. Marlowe’s novels The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour are among the toughest examples of the hardboiled genre ever written. Both novels are blisteringly paced with noir-tinged muscular prose and featuring an amoral, unapologetic, criminal who wouldn’t know a sentiment if it attacked him with a baseball bat. They are perfect examples of why Fawcett’s Gold Medal paperback original imprint is so revered. 

"You don't deserve it, but I’ll give you a choice,” I said. “I was going to leave you out here, with the heat and the mosquitoes and the bugs and the snakes and the alligators. You’ll never make it in. I doubt if I could myself.” His whole face was wet as he stared at me. “You won’t go easy if you stay, so I’ll give you the choice. Stay, or take one dead center from this.” I waved the little handgun … “You’ll go out of your mind out here in twelve hours.” His chest was heaving as he tried to pump air through his constricted throat. “Take the bullet.” — From The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Marlowe’s anti-hero was originally named, Chet Arnold. When Gold Medal asked Marlowe to turn The Name of the Game is Death into a series, Marlowe needed to tweak some issues raised in the first book so the character's adventures could continue in a logical (or at least fictionally logical) manner. In the sequel, One Endless Hour, Marlowe resolves the quandary by putting good ‘ol Chet under the plastic surgeon’s knife and and giving him a cool new nameEarl Drake.

There were also other problems involved in transforming the standalone novel into a series. The biggest was the ongoing challenge of making each new villain more reprehensible than the renegade, sociopathic, felon who was the nominal hero of the violence filled tales. 

"Two guys with guts and a go-to-hell-with-you-Jack regard for consequences have about three chances in ten of pulling off a big, well-planned smash-and-grab.  If one of them can shoot like me, the odds are a damn sight better."

Despite being awkwardly labeled as the Man With Nobody's Face series, the books continued to be well written, retaining Marlowe’s callous, misanthropic narrative voice. However, this became an uphill battle when Gold Medal encouraged Marlowe to soften Drake’s granite hardness by turning him into a Matt Helm secret agent clone to cash in on the Bond frenzy sweeping the nation. Despite this change, Marlowe’s signature theme of justice through revenge prevailed.

Earl Drake's adventures continued to grow in popularity, especially after the fourth book in the series, Operation Flashpoint, won The Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

"I shot her in the throat, three times. ‘Tell your story in hell, if you can get anyone to listen,’ I told her. I stepped over her. I had work to do."

Marlowe earned his literary chops writing two-fisted tough guy novels for Gold Medal and other paperback original publishers. But the Drake books brought him financial success, critical acclaim, and notoriety. The last sobriquet came via his long term friendship and mentoring of convicted bank robber and former member of the FBI's Most Wanted list, Albert F. Nussbaum. 

Al “Bumpy” Nussbaum had gone on the lam after participating in a New York bank heist in which a guard had been killed. While attempting to lie low, the wanted felon read a copy of The Name of the Game is Death. The book resonated with Nussbaum, who had his own literary aspirations. Using a false name, Nussbaum called Marlowe asking for writing advise. It wasn’t until the FBI eventually arrested Nussbaum, that Marlowe learned who his fan boy caller really was. 

Intrigued, Marlowe began to correspond with the incarcerated Nussbaum. In return for writing advise, Nussbaum provided Marlowe with the inside dirt on how real criminals operate. This gave Marlowe’s further books an authenticity that brought them almost to the level of Richard Stark’s seminal series about the professional crook Parker. 

The story of Dan Marlowe, however, goes far deeper than his associating with an incarcerated criminal. In 1958, a middle-aged and grieving recent widow, Marlowe abandoned his business career and joined a novel writing workshop in New York. The lessons took and Avon snapped up Marlowe’s first five novels, all featuring the hardboiled Johnny Killain, a tough guy war vet working as a bellhop in New York who keeps getting dragged into a mix of danger and dames. During this time, Marlowe also published, Backfire, a standalone thriller.

With these craft learning efforts out of the way, Marlowe dug down to write The Name of the Game is Death, which would remain his claim to fame and recognition despite an arm length list of further books. 

The Drake books, all titles after One Endless Hour starting with the tag Operation (Flashpoint, Checkmate, Hammerlock, Death Maker, Stranglehold, etc.), became solid sellers along with a number of the other standalone novels Marlowe cranked out.

The acclaim for these books brought Marlowe into the highest regard of The Mystery Writers of America fraternity and other social organizations. He became active in Republican politics. And, despite his less than manly appearance, he became an alcohol fueled womanizer. He was the toast of the New York mystery genre scene.

In 1978, as the market for the style of books he wrote evaporated, the sixty-four year old Marlowe moved to Hollywood to take on the movie business. Sharing an apartment with Nussbaum, the now paroled bank robber, Marlowe ran into the brick wall of Hollywood’s legendary disinterest in anyone or anything who wasn’t young, beautiful, and hip. He also began to be betrayed by his mind as loss of memory, glaucoma, and the ravages of a stroke even made typing difficult.

Even his name worked against him, as Marlowe was often confused with Raymond Chandler’s iconic creation, or with the more successful writer, Stephen Marlowe. Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the aging, infirmed, forgetful Dan Marlowe. The cold machine of the movie business didn’t care how popular his books once were, blanking Marlowe at every attempted entry.

While Nussbaum was in prison, Marlowe had sold some of Nussbaum’s short stories under his own name, channeling the profits back to the incarcerated felon. Now, the tables had turned as Nussbaum was beginning to have more publishing success than the fading Marlowe.

According to Kelley, the 1967 novel The Raven is a Blood-Red Bird was the only time Marlowe and Odell were both acknowledged in the copyrightNever again thereafter would Odell be credited on any of the dozen novels he worked on with Marlowe. Marlowe fronted all those books, using his more-marketable name. He even accepted an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1971, for Operation Flashpoint, without publicly acknowledging Odell’s hefty contribution.

Kelley also exposed Marlowe’s strange sexual fetishes, including  spanking, and the fact Marlowe wrote a number of pornographic novels under a pseudonym—despite his public condemnation of such pure filth.

During the eight years Marlowe lived in Hollywood, often with or under the care of Nussbaum, his life deteriorated around him until his death in 1986. Plagued by amnesia, debilitating migraines, and the after effects of a stroke, his ability to write deserted him. 

As Kelley describes it; Marlowe was trapped in a noir plot eerily similar to that of Never Live Twice, his 1964 thriller in which amnesia blanks out the mind of government operative Jackrabbit Smith, who has to fight his way back to his old life, blasting bad guys and spanking a woman psychologist along the way.

The further decent of Marlowe’s tragic latter days is covered meticulously in the pages of Charles Kelley’s fascinating in-depth biography. It is well worth reading, especially for hardboiled aficionados of the Gold Medal writers, of which Marlowe was a stellar representative. 

Despite Marlowe’s complex ethical and sexual behaviors, there is no denying the brilliance of The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. Both books will remain the standard against which all other hardboiled fiction must be judged.

THE EARL DRAKE NOVELS
•The Name of the Game is Death (1962)
•One Endless Hour (1968)
•Operation Fireball (1969)
•Flashpoint (1970)
•Operation Breakthrough (1971)
•Operation Drumfire (1972) 
•Operation Checkmate (1972) 
•Operation Stranglehold (1973)
•Operation Whiplash (1973)
•Operation Hammerlock (1974) 
•Operation Deathmaker (1975)
•Operation Counterpunch (1976)

Friday, January 22, 2021

THE FISTS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD...

THE FISTS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD
In honor of REH's birthday, I am
rerunning this column from 2017
The minute I stepped ashore from the Sea Girl, merchantman, I had a hunch that there would be trouble. This hunch was caused by seeing some of the crew of the Dauntless. The men on the Dauntless have disliked the Sea Girl’s crew ever since our skipper took their captain to a cleaning on the wharfs of Zanzibar – them being narrow-minded that way. They claimed that the old man had a knuckle-duster on his right, which is ridiculous and a dirty lie. He had it on his left. ~ Robert E. Howard, The Pit of the Serpent

Although best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and other sword and sorcery characters, Robert E. Howard (REH) had a lifelong interest in boxing, attending fights and avidly following the careers of his favorite fighters. Even though as a child he was bookish and intellectual, in his teen years he took up bodybuilding and eventually entered the ring as an amateur boxer. 

During the height of the pulp magazine era from the late ‘20s through the ‘30s, REH used this background to make a good living banging out boxing tales for the likes of Fight Stories Magazine, Action Stories, Sport Story, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, and others. REH actually claimed his fictional fight tales—especially The Iron Man, and the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan—to be among the best of his works. Primarily humorous in nature, Howard’s most popular and in demand boxing stories featured Sailor Steve Costigan. These tales were both creatively and financially critical to Howard’s development as a writer.

Costigan was a lovable, hard-fisted, and innocent semipro pugilist who regularly squared-off against dastardly villains in exotic ports of call. Tales featuring Costigan were at times laugh out loud funny and brilliant examples of what, in writing circles, is referred to as an unreliable narrator. Written in first person, the voice of Sailor Steve Costigan is full of malapropisms and creative, near-swear invective.

As the undisputed champion of the merchant marine Sea Girl, Costigan has a heart of gold, fists of steel, and a head full of rocks, all of which get him—and his bulldog Mike—tossed into constant trouble. Costigan is lovable for two reasons. First, he is just not smart enough to do anything other than punch his way clear of trouble. And second, when he starts punching, every reader feels the joy of the underdog overcoming the odds with the solid landing of every blow. 

No matter how ridiculous the situation he places Costigan in, REH never ridicules the character, always putting Costigan on the side of the angels. Readers know they should always bet on Costigan coming through victorious in a fight, and they would be more than willing to share a beer with him afterward. Not too many readers would want to share suds with the brutal Conan or the dour Solomon Kane. Costigan is accessible, a larger than life everyman.

Not all of REH’s boxing stories are funny. Aside from essays exploring what attributes REH believed made a great boxer, his other boxing tales were alive with the sound and the fury of the real world of the square circle. In particular, his novelette Iron Man, is a revered saga for those followers not just of REH, but of boxing enthusiasts in general.

Over the years, REH’s boxing fiction has been reprinted in various incomplete collections. However, between 2013 and 2015, the ultimate collection of REH’s boxing fiction was amassed by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press and published in the four volume Fists of Iron collection. This has finally given these overlooked works their rightful place in the Howard pantheon. 

These beautifully bound and numbered, hardcover editions sport stunning, pulp inspired wrap around covers and contain every story, partial story, and scrap of idea Howard produced in relation to the sweet science of boxing. Editors, Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, and Christopher Gruber each contributed insightful and extensive introductions to the volumes, in what was clearly a labor of love and appreciation for REH’s work.

The complete compendium of Fist of Iron has not only become a highly sought after collector’s item, but has preserved the two-fisted tales that helped a generation of readers to fight through the Great Depression and the tough years to follow. Even today, REH’s boxing fiction reads with immediacy and storytelling power. If you’ve never met, or never heard of REH’s boxing characters Sailor Steve Costigan, Kid Allison, Mike O’Brien, or Dennis Dorgan, now is the time to lace up your gloves, put up your dukes, and climb into the ring.
 
  
 
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NOTE: I would be remiss at this point if I did not mention a collection of boxing tales inspired by REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan Tales. Mark Finn, one of the editors behind the Fists of Iron collection created a series of short stories featuring a two-fisted character as a homage to REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan. As the editor of the Fight Card series of novels (now 50 strong), I had the pleasure of editing and publishing these stories in the collection, Fight Card: The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey. 
 
Channeling the best of REH’s boxing tales, The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey are a terrific blend of weird, historical, and humorous boxing stories to be read and enjoyed.
 
As for Sailor Tom Sharkey himself, he is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers to enter the legendary squared circle during the Golden Age of Boxing. Standing a mere 5’ 8”, Sailor Tom Sharkey is one of boxing’s most feared opponents…Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Kid McCoy, and Jim Jeffries all agreed he was their fiercest opponent and gave them their toughest fights. A colorful boxer both in the ring and out, he retired in 1904 after several legendary and controversial failed attempts to win the championship belt.
 
That’s the story you know, but it’s not the end of Sharkey’s story—not by a long shot. The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey collects the rowdy, bawdy, burlesque, tall Texas tales of Sailor Tom Sharkey’s shenanigans after he hung up his professional gloves. 
 
There’s Sharkey’s brush with Hollywood’s “It” Girl, Clara Bow. There are chills as Sharkey and Kid McCoy face down a maniacal bandit. And the heat gets turned up when Sharkey rides the rails with Jim Jeffries and the Vaudeville Carnival into a clash with mad scientists and mummified menaces. And for the softer side of Sharkey, you can watch as he plays Santa Claus to a bunch of Tammany Hall orphans and ends up with a tiger by the tail—literally. These are the untold tales of the wildest tale-teller of boxing’s golden age…