Sunday, March 16, 2014

Female Comic Strip Character Movie No. 2: BRENDA STARR

Brenda Starr and Brooke Shields as Brenda
"She looks like the Sunday comics, She thinks she's Brenda Starr"
 Blondie - Rip Her To Shreds Lyrics | MetroLyrics"

I'm going to say something up front that will make me the most hated person on the Internet (which I was for the first two or three years of my blogging career). I like the 1989/92 movie Brenda Starr more than the 2008 mega-hit The Dark Knight. Of course, everyone who reads this blog, and its predecessor, knows I hated the The Dark Knight before it was ever released. Then again, most of people decided to hate Brenda Starr before it was released to American theaters in the summer of 1992. Looking back, over twenty-five years after being made, the movie may have been ahead of its time.

For one thing, it is not just a movie about a comic strip character, it takes you into the world of Brenda Starr. It takes place in the 1940s. This sort of makes it a precursor to the 1990 Dick Tracy movie. There was a definite attempt to design something that looks like a comic strip world, which would latter be done to a greater effect by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher in their Batman films. Granted, the transitional effects look similar to the Wonder Woman TV series, but it works.

Another thing that make Brenda Starr revolutionary, it was probably the first movie to be influenced by a popular music video. The movie started production in 1986. The year before was the year that the Norwegian band A-ha had a number one hit internationally with "Take On Me." The video to that song features a woman diving into a newspaper comic strip to try to save the lead singer of the band from a gang of villains. It featured rotoscoped animation of the groups lead singer and some actors playing the gang.

Brenda Starr begins with an illustrator complaining about the comic strip and the character being stupid. An animated version of Brenda (voiced by Shields) snaps back that she is tired of listening to his gripping. At that point, she disappears from the panel. Which leads the artist named Mike (played by Tony Peck, Gregory Peck's son) to try to "go in and look for her."

Mike follows Brenda as she tries to find an ex-Nazi scientist played by Henry Gibson (How many Nazi parts did he play in films?), who has invented a additive that turns water into a powerful fuel.  Brenda wants get the first interview with the scientist to save the newspaper she works for, The Flash, from bankruptcy and scoop her rival, Libby Lipscomb (Diana Scarwid) of The Globe.

After visiting with President Truman (Ed Nelson), The Flash's editor, Francis Livright (Charles Durning) introduces Brenda to the mysterious eye-patch-wearing billionaire Basil St. John (Timothy Dalton). Basil tells Brenda that the scientist is in hiding in the Amazon jungle, which is where Basil lives and grows black orchids (They counteract a genetic disease that Basil has). The room has been bugged by the Globe and a gang of Russian spies, who want to find the doctor for themselves.

Dang! She's hot!

Brenda is kidnapped by the Russians and taken to, kidnapped by pirates on the Amazon, forced to walk a tightrope in a circus at gunpoint, water-skies on alligators, all while changing from one snazzy looking Bob Mackie outfit to another. Mike tags along, much to Brenda's chagrin, with Basil frequently showing up just in time to rescue Brenda, much to Mike's chagrin.

In the end, Brenda saves the paper, gets the scoop, embarrasses Libby, receives another black orchid from Basil (who vanishes again) and Mike decides that drawing Brenda is a bad job after all.

Reading some of the other reviews of this movie on other various websites I've come to the conclusion that most of the reviewers were not familiar with the Brenda Starr comic strip, they were also wanting some sort of dire, heavy-handed serious film like The Dark Knight, they don't know the tumultuous history of this film and (the majority of the reviewers) they hate Brooke Shields. I got the feeling some of the reviewers never watched this movie before they trashed it.

First off, the actors actually look like the characters from the comic strip. The actress who played Brenda in the 40s movie serial didn't have the soft features that Shields has in common with the comic strip Brenda (Brenda Starr was modeled after Rita Hayworth).

The character of Brenda's co-worker, Hank O'Hare, as played by actress Kathleen Wilhoite (Gilmore Girls, E.R., LA Law) actually looks like Hank O'Hare did in the comic strip. In the mid 70s made-for-TV Brenda Starr movie (staring Jill St. John as Brenda), the actress who played Hank O'Hare looked more like Katy Perry in the "Last Friday Night" video.

Several reviewers claim the the producers of Brenda Starr had "contempt" for the comic strip. My contention is no, they respected the comic strip enough to try to make the film look like the world featured in the comic strip, right down to stars in Brenda's eyes (see photo above). The reason, I feel the Columbia movie serial and the 70s made-for-TV movie fail is producers made a movie about a newspaper reporter named Brenda Starr, where as the producers of the 80s/90s film made a movie about a comic strip character named Brenda Starr. The only other comic strip or comic book oriented films or TV shows to do this before Brenda Starr went into production was the 1980 Flash Gordon movie and the 1966 Batman TV series. The best example of a movie doing this is the 1990 Dick Tracy movie with used only seven colors to imitate the look of newspaper funnies print.

I say "went to production" and give vague dates on Brenda Starr because it was actually made in 1986, but due to legal issues it wasn't released until 1989 in Europe and 1992 in the United States. This is partially another reason for some of the negative reviews on the Internet as well as when it was released. It is view as a ripoff of Dick Tracy because of the 40s setting, when in reality it was made four years before it. An extra bit of trivia: After filming finished on Brenda Starr, Timothy Dalton began filming The Living Daylights, his first James Bond film.            

Quite a bit of the criticism of Brenda Starr comes from that old fanboy bugaboo of the use of humor. They think that you have "contempt" for the comic if you poke fun at some of the aspects of comic. Two of the funniest jokes in the movie revolve around Brenda self-righteous attitude toward Mike's cursing and his having a "belly button." The last part is an in-joke, because (according to creator Dale Messick) the syndicate would erase Brenda's belly button if it was showing.

I honestly believe that in the future people will change there opinion of this film. It is incredibly underrated as an adaption of a comic strip.  It doesn't try to force Brenda into a serious, scary real world.  To paraphrase what she tells Mike near the end of the film, Brenda Starr stays in the Sunday funnies where she belongs.

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