Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  May 6, 2002 at 4:18 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, May 6 (UPI) -- Move over, Batman -- you too, Superman; and that goes for you as well, Incredible Hulk; here comes Spider-Man, latest comic book hero to become a movie star.

Evidently there is no end to employing comic strip or comic book heroes and

heroines for movies and TV.

These dudes have ready-made identities with nostalgic ties to the population at large who followed them in newspapers or in magazines from childhood to the present.

For that reason almost all such characters find ready audiences avid to see their childhood icons come alive on the silver screen.

It all began in the misty beginnings of animated cartoon shorts with the likes of Mickey Mouse and Krazy Kat. Remember Ignatz, the weird little brick-throwing mouse, and Offissa Pup?

The inexorable advance of harvesting comic-page conniptions has graduated from black-and-white line drawings to multimillion-dollar productions.

Although movie series of comic strip heroes seldom survive as long as their newspaper and magazine ancestors, they make a great deal more money in a shorter time frame.

They also try the patience of some adults who evidence minimal emotional response to their antics. They do, however, thrill the younger generation.

All the same, converting comics to the big screen is an old and cherished tradition in Hollywood when studio heads are looking for a quick buck.

"Superman" and "Batman" franchises are among the most financially successful action-adventure films in cinema history.

"Superman" made a TV star of George Reeves on TV and a box-office star of Christopher Reeve, while "Batman" catapulted Adam West to movie and TV stardom and made a celebrity of Burt Ward as sidekick Robin.

Movie versions of "Batman" brought fame and riches to Michael Keaton, George Clooney and Val Kilmer.

Certainly, Batman and Superman are fantasy figures capable of superhuman feats.

On the other hand there was "Dick Tracy" (1990) directed by Warren Beatty, who also starred in the title role.

It boasted a dazzling cast: Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, Dick Van Dyke, Kathy Bates and James Caan.

Super sleuth Tracy made his screen debut decades earlier in a Republic Pictures 1930 matinee series. RKO later made four feature films based on Tracy with different actors in the lead.

As early as the 1920s movies snapped up comic strip characters of the day. Among them "The Gumps," "Bringing Up Father" (Maggie & Jiggs), "The Katzenjammer Kids" (Hans & Fritz).

Early working girls who pranced from comic pages to movies were "Ella Cinders," starring Colleen Moore, and "Tillie The Toiler" (1922) with Marion Davis in the title role.

In 1930 child star Jackie Cooper, who went on to movie stardom and directing as an adult, starred in "Skippy," which was reviewed as an artistic triumph.

Mitzie Green, another child performer, starred as "Little Orphan Annie" in 1932, and Ann Gillis played that role in a 1938 film.

"Annie," the opulent, dazzling 1982 musical version of the comic strip via the Broadway stage, starred Aileen Quinn in the title role with a brilliant supporting cast of Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry and Ann Reinking.

Then there was "Joe Palooka" (1934) starring Stu Erwin as everybody's favorite boxer.

Among the most successful film comedy series was "Blondie" (1936-48) starring Penny Singleton, with Arthur Lake as Dagwood Bumstead.

Comic strip heroes are not as frequently found in movies today as they were in the last century, which featured scores of films based on the funnies.

Among them: "Flash Gordon," "Buck Rogers," "Gasoline Alley," "Li'l Abner" and "Jungle Jim."

The most successful of them all was Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan of the Apes." In all, there have been no fewer than 42 feature-length Tarzan movies made, going back to the first silent version in 1918, starring Elmo Lincoln as king of the jungle.

Several generations consider former Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the best and most definitive of the vine-swinging heroes.

Among others were Buster Crabbe (who also played the title role in the "Flash Gordon" series), Bruce Bennett, Glenn Morris, Lex Barker, Denny Miller, Jock Mahoney, Gordon Scott, Ron Ely and Mike Henry.

The most recent film in the long Tarzan skein was titled "Tarzan," a 1999 animated movie.

Doubtless Sony Pictures would like to see "Spider-Man" follow in Tarzan's franchise footsteps.

It has started out on the right foot with a topflight director in Sam Raimi and a cast starring young Tobey McGuire ("Cider House Rules") in the title role and Willem Dafoe as the arch villain Green Goblin.

Spider-Man's physicality and arachnoidian ability to cling to surfaces at impossible heights and angles as well as rapidly spinning viscous webs to ensnare his enemies and to protect himself, add a new dimension with sci-fi special effects.

Digital enhancement and state-of-the-art technology auger well for Spidey to break box office records and provide several sequels.

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