For, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thirty-six years ago a trend was emerging as movies began adapting comic books and churning out comic book-like fantasies at an unprecedented rate. Little did we know what was coming. This Deseret News story was published on Sept. 26, 1980, under the headline ‘Hollywood rediscovers the funnies’ (back when I was still using ‘Christopher’ as my byline).

The comics have never really been kids’ stuff – but a new surge in popularity is bound to come within the next year or so as more and more movies take them as source material.

Making movies from cartoon material is nothing new, of course, but giving them A-picture, big-budget status is.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, “Blondie” became a series of popular, but definitely low-budget, films; “Dick Tracy,” “Batman,” “The Phantom,” “Superman” and many others became 12- or 15-chapter serials; “Tarzan,” which has perhaps seen live-action filmmaking more than any other comic-strip (based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, of course), gradually appeared in cheaper and cheaper films. And, most recently, “Buck Rogers” was made cheaply for television (though the pilot, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” was released theatrically first).

In December of 1978, however, that was turned around.

When “Superman” was released with top name movie stars and expensive production values, it was a film that appealed to all ages – and it went on to become 1979’s most popular film, and climbed to sixth place on Variety’s list of all-time moneymaking movies. Never being one to pass up an opportunity to capitalize on a trend, Hollywood began cranking out more, and we are about to be deluged with a number of cartoon characters-turned-movie stars.

Probably the most anxiously awaited this year is “Popeye,” a large-scale musical-comedy directed by Robert Altman, with script by Jules Feiffer (himself a cartoonist), music by Harry Nilsson and photography by Fellini veteran Guiseppe Rotunno.


The cast is also intriguing: Popeye will be played by TV’s Mork, Robin Williams; Shelly Duvall seems perfectly cast as Olive Oyl (she was Jack Nicholson’s wife in “The Shining”), and Paul Dooley (the father in “Breaking Away”) should be a fine hamburger-munching Wimpy (“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”).

“Popeye” will open around Christmas this year, as will two competitors — “Flash Gordon” and “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

“Flash Gordon,” of course, is an effort to cash in on the space trend — but it’s also a direct spoof of the old Buster Crabbe serials of the same name. This one is played purposely for laughs and it could make a big star of the lead player, Sam J. Jones, as “Superman” did for Christopher Reeve.

As with the original, Gordon meets Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and they accidentally stumble upon Dr. Zarkov’s (Topol) rocket as it heads for outer space to encounter the evil Ming (Max Von Sydow).

“The Legend of the Lone Ranger” is a very sober re-creation of the original Western, with John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury) meeting Tonto (Michael Horse), striking up a lifelong friendship and eventually teaming up to fight corruption.

You’ll hear the strains of the William Tell Overture but don’t expect Tonto to call Reid, the Lone Ranger, “kemosabe.”


And next spring, the long-awaited “Superman II” will hit the screens, with Clark Kent’s alias taking on the three villains we met only briefly in the first film when Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) banished them to the Phantom Zone. Christopher Reeve will again star as Superman, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and most other cast members will return.

Announced future projects include movie versions of “Little Orphan Annie,” to be called “Annie,” based on the popular Broadway musical; “Alley Oop,” the ironically comical caveman; yet another “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” with Tarzan not yet cast, but Jane named as Bo Derek; “Terry and the Pirates”; “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”; “Mandrake, the Magician”; “Conan, the Barbarian,” etc.

There’s no doubt that all of this is escapist fare, but if the success of “Star Wars” and its sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” are any indication, that’s what the public wants right now.

It’s quite possible that in a few years, Variety’s list of the top 10 moneymakers will be filled with comic-strip stuff. After all, the reverse of the trend has also taken place. “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” comic strips have now appeared, and formerly defunct strips have been revived due to the popularity of the characters in other media — “Annie” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

So what’s next?

How about casting Jerry Lewis as Bugs Bunny, Dom DeLuise as Porky Pig and Richard Pryor as Daffy Duck in a new musical?