# Inspiration

In planning the lighting and atmosphere for Skull Island in 1933’s King Kong, animator Willis O’Brien relied heavily on Gustave Doré. In 1930 special effects expert Lewis W. Physioc had said, “If there is one man’s work that can be taken as the cinematographer’s text, it is that of Doré. His stories are told in our own language of ‘black and white,’ are highly imaginative and dramatic, and should stimulate anybody’s ideas.”

“The Doré influence is strikingly evident in the island scenes,” write Orville Goldner and George E. Turner in The Making of King Kong (1976) (click to enlarge). “Aside from the lighting effects, other elements of Dore illustrations are easily discernible. The affinity of the jungle clearings to those in Dore’s ‘The First Approach of the Serpent’ from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ [left], ‘Dante in the Gloomy Wood’ from Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy,’ ‘Approach to the Enchanted Palace’ from Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ [right] and ‘Manz’ from Chateaubriand’s ‘Atala’ is readily apparent. The gorge and its log bridge bear more than a slight similarity to ‘The Two Goats’ from ‘The Fables’ of La Fontaine, while the lower region of the gorge may well have been designed after the pit in the Biblical illustration of ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den.’ The wonderful scene in which Kong surveys his domain from the ‘balcony’ of his mountaintop home high above the claustrophobic jungles is suggestive of two superb Doré engravings, ‘Satan Overlooking Paradise’ from ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘The Hermit on the Mountain’ from ‘Atala.'”

# Good and Ugly

Technical but interesting: Designer Iginio Lardani’s title sequence for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly contains only one error, and it’s in Lardani’s own credit (2:33 above).

“[A]n ‘error’ specific to optical printing caused by improper loading of the footage and mask being composited — Newton’s rings — appears in his title card alongside the text stating ‘TITLES | LARDANI,” notes film historian Michael Betancourt in Semiotics and Title Sequences (2017).

This appears to be an inside joke meant for other title designers. According to his son, Lardani had complete freedom in creating the design. Betancourt writes, “Recognizing this specific ‘error’ in the card stating ‘TITLES LARDANI’ depends on technical knowledge of the optical printing process. … given the technical perfection in the rest of the sequence, it is not just a ‘beginner’s mistake,’ but implies a conscious choice to include this compositing error in the design.”

“It is a joke only comprehensible (even recognizable) by an audience that recognizes the Newton’s rings and understands what they are — an error in the optical printing; this knowledgeable audience specifically includes title sequence designers rather than the general public. … Because it is specifically a specialized, technical mistake, its recognition will be severely limited to his peers — suggesting that they are the ones being addressed by it.”

# Set Dressing

William Wellman vowed that his 1927 dogfight movie Wings would contain no stock footage or studio fakery. But after assembling his own planes and film crew, he kept them resolutely on the ground for weeks. When Paramount asked what was missing, he gave them a bewildering answer: clouds.

“Motion on the screen is a relative thing,” he said. “A horse runs on the ground or leaps over fences or streams. We know he is going rapidly because of his relation to the immobile ground.” But a plane alone in the sky may produce no sense of motion at all unless there are clouds around it — and the skies above Wellman’s San Antonio shooting location remained stubbornly clear.

Producer Jesse Lasky later wrote, “There were days on end of perfect sunshine, and our \$200-a-week director wouldn’t turn a camera, while overhead mounted at thousands of dollars a day. I confess that we were about ready to yank him off the picture and replace him with someone who would be more amenable.”

In the end they were glad they waited — when the clouds arrived, Wellman’s cameramen took off, and Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.

# In a Word

velitation
n. a minor dispute or contest

devel
v. to beat or thrash

herile
adj. pertaining to a master

satisdiction
n. saying enough

Somebody once asked pool hustler Don Willis how good Glen “Eufaula Kid” Womack was.

Willis said, “I never saw him play.”

“What do you mean, you never saw him play? I heard you just beat him out of a lot of money.”

“I did,” Willis said, “but he never got to shoot.”

(From Robert Byrne’s Wonderful World of Pool and Billiards, 1996.)

# The Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Walt Disney loved trains. In 1947, when he showed off his Lionel set to animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, they revealed that they had ridable sets in their backyards. So two years later, when Disney bought 5 acres in Los Angeles, he set about building his own ridable railroad, 2,615 feet long and completely surrounding the house. To placate his wife, he named the locomotive after her and added an S-curve tunnel to avoid her garden.

Disney retired the train in 1953 when a derailment left a 5-year-old girl with steam burns, but he credited the Carolwood Pacific Railroad with inspiring Disneyland, which is encircled today by a narrow-gauge steam railroad that draws 6.6 million passengers a year.

# Podcast Episode 226: The Great Match Race

America’s first national sports spectacle took place in 1823, when the North and South sent their best horses for a single dramatic race that came to symbolize the regional tensions of a changing nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Great Match Race, which laid the foundations of modern American thoroughbred racing.

We’ll also ponder a parasite’s contribution to culture and puzzle over a misinformed criminal.

See full show notes …

# For What It’s Worth

Based on an ancient Hindu game, Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders in ophidiophobic America) is at heart a morality lesson: As you progress by die roll from square 1 to square 100 and spiritual enlightenment, your way is complicated by virtues and vices. Landing on a snake (or chute) will send you back to an earlier square, and landing on a ladder will send you ahead to a later one. Each of these shortcuts is associated with a precept — “Carelessness” leads to “Injury,” “Study” leads to “Knowledge,” and so on.

In 1993 University of Michigan mathematician S.C. Althoen and his colleagues considered the game as a 101-state absorbing Markov chain. The shortest possible game lasts seven moves, the longest is infinite, and according to their calculations the expected number of moves in the Milton Bradley version of Chutes and Ladders is

$\displaystyle \frac{225837582538403273407117496273279920181931269186581786048583}{5757472998140039232950575874628786131130999406013041613400},$

which is about 39.2.

So, arguably, we might advance more quickly through life with more vice and less virtue.

(S.C. Althoen, L. King, and K. Schilling, “How Long Is a Game of Snakes and Ladders?”, Mathematical Gazette 77:478 [March 1993], 71-76.)

# La

On its 35th anniversary, THX, the sound quality assurance company founded by George Lucas, released the original score of “Deep Note,” its audio trademark, which debuted at the premiere of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and is now familiar from countless films. Essentially it’s a stupendous D chord; the U.S. trademark registration reads:

The THX logo theme consists of 30 voices over seven measures, starting in a narrow range, 200 to 400 Hz, and slowly diverting to preselected pitches encompassing three octaves. The 30 voices begin at pitches between 200 Hz and 400 Hz and arrive at pre-selected pitches spanning three octaves by the fourth measure. The highest pitch is slightly detuned while there are double the number of voices of the lowest two pitches.

“I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world,” says James A. Moorer, who wrote it. “This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool.” And now that we have the score you can do this:

# Noted

The French phrase Mort ici, j’en ai marre translates as “Dead here, I’m fed up” and sounds like “Morrissey, Johnny Marr.”

(Thanks, Ian.)

# Self-Taught

Jazz guitarist Pat Martino had a burgeoning record career by age 20, but in 1976 he began to suffer headaches, followed by mania, depression, and seizures. He attempted suicide several times, but hospitalization and electroshock therapy brought no relief. In 1980 a CT scan discovered an arteriovenous malformation that had begun to hemorrhage, and a surgeon removed 70 percent of Martino’s left temporal lobe.

After the surgery he didn’t know his name, recognize his parents, or know he was a musician. When his father played his old records for him, “I would lie in my bed upstairs and hear them seep through the walls and the floor, a reminder of something that I had no idea that I was supposed to be anymore, or that I ever was.” But when a visiting friend played a major seventh chord, Martino found that he wanted a minor ninth and took up the instrument again.

“As I continued to work out things on the instrument, flashes of memory and muscle memory would gradually come flooding back to me — shapes on the fingerboard, different stairways to different rooms in the house,” he wrote.

Aided by his father, friends, photographs, and mainly by his own recordings, he learned the instrument afresh, “to escape the situation, and to please my father.” Neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza writes, “The process of memory retrieval took him about two years. Although he never lost his manual dexterity, the necessary skill to play guitar again to his previous musical level took years to bring back.”

In 1987 he recorded his comeback album, The Return, and he’s made more than 20 albums since then. Galarza writes, “To our knowledge, this case study represents the first clinical observation of a patient who exhibited complete recovery from a profound amnesia and regained his previous virtuoso status.”

(Marcelo Galarza et al., “Jazz, Guitar, and Neurosurgery: The Pat Martino Case Report,” World Neurosurgery 81:3 [2014], 651-e1.)