Saturday, December 17, 2016

What a Character Blogathon – David Wayne

This post is an entry in the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Paula at Paula's Cinema Club, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled.

David Wayne is best known as a character actor with a career spanning five decades. Often, he was cast in supporting roles as the likable second banana. Wayne's first major success came in 1947 winning a Tony for Finian's Rainbow. The next year, he joined the newly formed Actors Studio in New York. 

His first major film role role was the friend/neighbor of married couple lawyers Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Adam's Rib (1948). David Wayne plays a Kip Lurie a singer/songwriter who incessantly flirts with Katharine Hepburn, much to the chagrin of Spencer Tracy. He even writes a love song to her. Throughout the film, Wayne stays close in hopes of luring Hepburn away from Tracy. When the couple has marital issues as a result of a being on opposite sides of a vicious but very funny legal battle, Wayne is there to pick up the pieces. Despite this being only his second major film role, David Wayne easily holds his own with screen giants, Hepburn and Tracy. His character is both charming and conniving. It led to numerous other roles for Wayne as a likable cad.

In 1953, David Wayne played Freddie Denmark, the owner of the apartment that Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall sublet in How to Marry a Millionaire. He plays a businessman on the run from the IRS, due to his financial adviser, stealing his money and leaving him holding the bag with the government. Despite not being the best looking man in the cast, his charm  and wit are enough to win him the affections of Marilyn Monroe. 

In The Tender Trap, David Wayne plays Frank Sinatra's life-long friend, who comes to visit Sinatra in New York because he is bored with his suburban life, and wife and kids, back in Indianapolis. Sinatra is quite the playboy, and Wayne is looking to play the field. He ends up falling for one of Sinatra's castoffs, Celeste Holm. In Holm, he sees all of the excitement missing in his marriage. Ultimately Holm convinces him that the excitement he desires her would eventually dwindle if they got together and lived as man and wife. He realizes that he really does love his wife back in Indianapolis and returns to them. Again, he plays the role with wit and charm and makes you overlook the fact that he is a cheating husband on the make.

His most well-known roles tend to be of this type, but if you look a little deeper, he was a very skilled actor capable of powerful performances. In addition to work in film, David Wayne did live theater and television roles throughout his career. On television, he appeared on numerous shows including, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Batman (played the villain the Mad Hatter), Barney Miller, St. Elsewhere, and The Golden Girls, as well as regular roles on Ellery Queen (1975-1976) and House Calls ((1979-1982).

I recently watched his episode of The Twilight Zone "Escape Clause" (season 1, episode 6). Wayne plays a hypochondriac who makes a deal with the devil to become immortal. This is not the good-natured scamp you are used to. Before making the deal, he is petty and paranoid. Afterward, he uses his immortality to stage accidents where he knows won't be hurt to defraud entities such as the subway system with accident claims. It's not a side of him you see often. Naturally, it being The Twilight Zone, it doesn't work out for him.

David Wayne (center left) in The Front Page, with Dick O'Neill (left, partially cut off),
Charles Durning (center, right), and Allen Garfield (right)

In the 1974 Billy Wilder remake of The Front Page, David Wayne plays Bensinger. You may remember the role of Bensinger from His Girl Friday (also a remake of The Front Page (1932)
). The role of Bensinger is largely the same, though it being the 1970s, David Wayne plays the character decidedly gay. Nothing like a 60-ish David Wayne going gay. It was a highlight of a fairly forgettable film. 

I saved the best for last. In one of his few starring film roles, David Wayne plays the child murderer in the 1951 remake of M, Fritz Lang's classic German thriller. Normally, I wouldn't even want to watch a remake of a film as good as M (1931), but I watched more out of curiosity than anything else. The 1951 version holds up surprisingly well. For one thing, being set in 1950s Los Angeles, it feels more real and in certain ways closer and more disturbing. The other more important reason the 1951 film holds up is that David Wayne's performance in the Peter Lorre role is absolutely chilling. The whole way through, you are telling yourself, I can't believe this the same guy from Adam's Rib. If I was an actor, the last thing I would want is to try to reprise a role as good as Peter Lorre's performance in M. How could you live up to it, but here David Wayne does so admirably.

While I was writing this, I thought about something. We tend to think about type-casting as a negative, but type-casting is what makes great character actors, whether that is the curmudgeon, the snarky nurse, the mild-mannered bookworm, or in David Wayne's case, the affable but unscrupulous friend. These actors bring these traits with them and plug them into the roles assigned. David Wayne could play the nice, but self-serving next-door neighbor or childhood friend as well as anyone. Yet, give him something real, a role with teeth, and he could blow you away. David Wayne was a great character actor, but also a great actor, period. You can't ask for much more than that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review – The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull

I stumbled on the The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull while I was trying to pad my Amazon Wish List for Christmas. I'd found a couple of books that I wanted including a collection of anecdotes about old Hollywood. In the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section about two or three clicks back was a novel that caught my eye, Citizen Hollywood, historical fiction set in Golden Age Hollywood. To be honest, I've never read any historical fiction, ever, but this sounded interesting. 

Turns out Citizen Hollywood was the third book in a series now up to six (Hollywood’s Garden of Allah). I poked around a bit and found the title of the first book. I was in the mood to start something new, so I went out to look for it. I just hoped I'd be able to find the first book. I don't like reading things out of order. There's a good indy bookstore I frequent, Mysterious Galaxy. As the name implies, they specialize in mysteries and science fiction, so I thought I'd try B. Dalton first. They didn't have it, in the three fiction sections I tried. There was no one at the info desk, and the guy who looked like he worked  there seemed to be trying not notice me. I gave up and went to Mysterious Galaxy. They didn't have it either but were happy to order it. I'd just as soon give them my business anyway. It showed up the day before I planned to take the train up to L.A., a good way to jump into a new book.

The Garden on Sunset was a pretty fast read, I got through about a third of it on the train up and back and finished a couple days later. The story centers on the struggles of three characters (what follows is just a little more than what you'd find on the back cover, so don't worry about spoilers):

  • Marcus Adler comes from a small town in Pennsylvania. After his father catches him with his pants down, literally, with another man, he comes to the only place he can think to go, the home of silent film star, Alla Nazamova. She had visited him in the hospital when he was sick as a kid and told him to look her up if he ever came to Hollywood. He arrives to find that her house has been turned into a hotel, the Garden of Allah.
  • Kathryn Massey has recently left home as well, all of 9 blocks away, to get away from her domineering mother. She meets Marcus when she trips over Marcus, tying his shoe, sending the two of them into the pool. They soon meet another new arrival at the Garden of Allah.
  • Gwendolyn Brick is a native of the other Hollywood, the one in Florida. She has come to Hollywood after her mother died, and her brother has joined the Navy. 

The trio end up living at the Garden of Allah, a place where Hollywood's elite and wanna-be elite gather for the legendary parties around the pool. The Garden on Sunset covers about a 7-year period from 1927 (the winter before the release of The Jazz Singer) to roughly mid-1934 (people are talking about the Catholic League of Decency, end of the the Pre-Code era, by the end of the book). At first, that seems like a long time for a 300-page book, but all three of them are trying to make it in Hollywood, and almost the entire book is them getting jobs, meeting people, making contacts, and trying to make their way in Tinsel Town.

It's a fun read, as the trio hobnobs with the likes of Tullulah Bankhead, Ramon Navarro, Errol Flynn, and George Cukor. They all are trying make it different ways. Marcus and Kathryn are both writers. After seeing The Jazz Singer and an off-handed remark about Hollywood needing writers if talkies take off, Marcus decides he wants to write pictures. Kathyrn is more into journalism and spends much of the book stalking William Wilkerson, trying to land a job at the newly created trade paper, the Hollywood Reporter. Of the three, Gwendolyn wants to act and has the toughest time, having to navigate the mine field of agents, producers, and talent scouts, most of whom are more interested in getting laid than discovering the next big star. 

Through all of this, the trio finds themselves at places like the Cocoanut Grove, The Brown Derby, a gambling ship, speakeasies, and cattle calls, not to mention the ever-present Garden of Allah parties. I was often tempted to google people they met and things that were happening, but mostly resisted. The couple of times I did succumb, I found what was going on in the book jived with what the Internet was telling me. 

The one thing I found a little weird about the book was that it took you up to, but not including the sex. Characters would start a sex scene and then the next paragraph they were done. You would be like, did I miss something? In a way, I can see why the author did it this way. People are pretty hung up on sex, and considering you have both gay and straight characters, maybe he thought it would be weird to have both gay and straight sex scenes in the same book. 

It's not a big deal to me. I just seemed odd, but not enough to keep me from recommending the book. It did give a you the feel of what it was like to be in Hollywood in its heyday in an entertaining way. I glanced at a couple reviews, and it seems that the other books in the series are good as well, so I ordered the next two. It's a fun read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone into old movies.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Arrival, Best Science Fiction Movie Since Moon

On Monday, I got a chance to see The Arrival in an advanced screening. It is the best science fiction movie, I've seen since Moon. I really hope it does well, but sadly, I have a feeling that modern audiences who are used to being spoon fed dumbed-down plots, will not know how deal with a movie that makes them think. 

I'm not sure how much I can say about the film without giving too much away. In The Arrival, twelve alien ships have landed at various points in the world. Amy Adams is a top linguist, charged by the US military with learning how to communicate with the aliens on the ship that landed in America. She is teamed with Jeremy Renner, a mathematician, who thinks that that the universal nature of science and physics is the key to communicating. Forest Whitaker is the Army colonel in charge of the project. There are good performances by all. 

Since there are twelve ships in different locations, each government takes a slightly different approach to interacting with the aliens. At first the governments involved cooperate and share information, but become suspicious of what others might be learning from "their" aliens. 

The Arrival has a twist ending that I don't even want to hint at. While the aliens are shown, these and the ship interior are pretty much the only special effects in the film. It's not about special effects. It's about the nature of communication. The film really makes you think and as such, it's one of the best new movies I've seen in a long time. Go see it. Just don't expect any running laser gun battles.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Missed My Chance at the Twilight Zone

This actually happened to me this morning. I was buying the Sunday paper. I gave the woman two bills and the rest in change, but I gave her the wrong amount. What I thought was a quarter was a nickel, so she handed it back to me. I dropped the nickel on the counter and handed her a quarter. It turns out the nickel landed on its side. But I didn't think. I picked it up before I could read anyone's mind.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Teapot Racing 2 – Tanks, Perfect Solution, Sort of

Meet El Guapo, a Teapot Racer made on a tank
roughly the size of a Hot Wheels car
What, you may ask, is Teapot Racing? Simply put, it is mounting a teapot on and Remote Control (RC) vehicle and racing it on an obstacle course. This is the second in a series of posts on Teapot Racing. The last post talked about the difference between Toy-Grade and Hobby-Grade vehicles. In short, you have two basic types of RC vehicle (these also apply to tanks):
  • Toy-Grade –  Toy-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in places like Toys"R"Us, Target, and Walmart. Toy-Grade RC vehicles have the main advantage of being inexpensive. They can also be underpowered, but the better Toy-Grade cars can have the opposite problem, too much power for their own good. The biggest problem with Toy-Grade vehicles is lack of control.
  • Hobby-Grade – Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in brick-and-mortar and online hobby stores. Hobby-Grade RC vehicles can be extremely expensive, but what you get for that extra money is both power and precise control. Hobby-grade tanks tend to be even more expensive than conventional vehicles and are probably going to be harder to find secondhand.
If you haven't done so, you might want to check out my RC Basics post here.

I was first exposed to Teapot Racing at Gaslight Gathering this year, so I'm not really an expert, but I figured I could share what I learned making my first Teapot Racers. At Gaslight, there were only six cars competing. My car turned in the second fastest time, but also had the dubious distinction of being the only car to drive off the stage. I kind of suck at driving the things. As we were leaving the event, Madame Askew, who officiated mentioned that RC tanks tend to do well in Teapot Racing.

Having done it only once I could immediately see where she was coming from. A big part of the fun of making a teapot racer is making it look the part, but ultimately you are going to need to drive the thing, and driving means navigating the course. You're going to need to navigate two types of obstacle at a minimum:

  • Ramps – Figure on at least two ramps. These will usually be a wide slanted one that you drive up and down and make a U-turn on and two straight ramps of the same height placed end-to-end (up one side and down the other), possibly with a small gap between them that you need to jump.
  • Slalom – These are obstacles placed on the ground that you need to drive between. 
The ramp is probably going to be made of 3/4 inch plywood, which means there is going to a bump where the plywood meets the floor. You're Teapot Racer needs to get up that as well as the slope of the ramp itself. At Gaslight Gathering, the course was set up on the outdoor stage, about 12 feet by 24 feet, I'm guessing. The slalom was four obstacles placed about 30 inches apart and offset by about 6 inches. My Teapot Racer (based on a Toy-Grade RC four wheeler) had to back up and go forward several times to make it. This is also where I drove off the stage, but that is mostly due to me being a doofus driving an RC car. 

In theory, a tank should account for both of these types of obstacle well. Tank tracks climb quite well. In fact, they should be able to drive over just about anything and handle ramps with ease. Also, the way tanks turn is turn is by switching the direction of the tracks on opposite sides of the vehicle.  They should be able to rotate in a circle without moving forward or back, perfect for even the tightest slalom.

In practice, it's a bit more complicated. First off with tanks, you still have the issue with Toy-Grade vs. Hobby-Grade. Now, if Hobby-Grade cars are expensive, Hobby-Grade tanks are real expensive, and because they are so expensive there are less of them around, both in the local hobby store and secondhand. I went to two different hobby shops recently. One specialized in ground vehicles, and they didn't have any tanks. The other carried ground vehicles, planes, helicopters, and drones. They had two tanks that looked like they were barely better than Toy-Grade. The people working couldn't tell you anything about them beyond what was written in the box.

That leaves Toy-Grade tanks. A big problem is that tanks almost always come with other stuff besides what make it go. This one fires airsoft bbs:

This one fires Nerf darts:

This one fires lasers:

This one has a spycam. I think this is real big among the upskirt crowd. I'm sure Donald Trump has dozens of these running around every time he hosts a beauty pageant:

Not to mention construction vehicles:

If you're a hacker, you can buy the tracks and build yourself from this tank chassis:

Finally, this one you can drive in the water and literally turns into a boat. Oddly, this is one of the better options.

There may be cars that have tank controls that would be good options as well. Unfortunately, I haven't found any being made right now, beyond really tiny ones.

What makes tanks so well suited to Teapot Racing? Tank tracks, obviously. But also tank controls, provided they use true tank controls, two up-down joysticks/switches that control the left and right tracks separately. 

  • ↑ – Forward
  • ↓↓ – Reverse
  • [Left track neutral right track up– Turn right
  • [Right track neutral left track up– Turn left
  • ↑↓ – Spin right
  • ↑ – Spin left

Some Toy-Grade tanks have a hybrid controls.

  • Forward and Reverse on the same control
  • Left and Right on the same control
On the surface this might seem simpler, but it could be problematic. If you have the ability to move one track at a time, that might make it easier to turn just a little because only the track on the one side is doing anything (the other track is doing nothing). But if the turn control always does both tracks in opposite directions, that could make it harder to turn only slightly. For example, say the tank has a powerful motor, this means that spin would be spin in circles way fast, making it next to impossible to spin just a quarter or and eighth of a turn.

Want a demo. The Teapot Racer at beginning of this post can show what I'm talking about. It is surprisingly fast for its size. Control. Not so much. It's just too powerful for it's own good.

I really wasn't being serious with this. I was mostly wanted to get proof of concept, that I could carve something that looked like a teapot out of Styrofoam (this was my second attempt). This brings me to another issue with tanks, tank tracks fall off, especially on Toy-Grade tanks. Aside from the above, being overpowered, it throws off the tracks on just about any surface but tile, hardwood, and similar surfaces.

What follows is a cross section of is currently available and my best guess as to how I think it would perform (1 to 5 stars) based online reviews and videos. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are a ton of tanks out there. The biggest issue I have is finding a review or video of the model you're looking at. I've provided links for ordering and videos of what they look like in action:

  • GoolRC 777-215 Tank-7 Mini RC Tiger Tank R/C Toy with 49MHz Transmitter  – This is what I used for the mini Teapot Racer above. Its big problem is lack of control and throwing off its tracks. I give it two stars, mostly because it is cute. It probably deserves just one star. **

  • iPlay RC Battling Tanks -Set of 2 Full Size Infrared Radio Remote Control Battle Tanks - RC Tanks – This comes as a set of two tanks that work out to about $20 apiece. They just seem to be slow and underpowered to me. Plus as a set of two, if they don't work out well, you have two worthless tanks instead of one. I'll give this two stars as a much more realistic option over the GoolRC Mini Tiger above. **

  • Tamiya Remote Controller Kit 2 – This is the same chassis as the build your own above but sold as a kit with a grabber arm. There should be a cheaper version without the arm, but I couldn't find it when writing this when I know I found it a couple of weeks ago. You could build without the arm. No idea how well it runs on non-smooth surfaces. It does seem pretty underpowered to me. Also a wired remote seems lame to me. I'll give it two and a half stars because it should be easy to attach a teapot to, provided it's built without the grabber arm. ** 1/2

  • Tamiya Remote Control Rescue Crawler – This probably deserves two stars, but the extra tank tracks are way cool. Still, I have no idea how you would attach a teapot, because the arms would get in the way. Again, drawbacks are it doesn't seem very powerful and it has a wired remote. The super cool design pushes it up a notch. ***

On the last two, you may run across a number tank chassis kits, with or without motors. The big problem is getting a remote control to talk to a tank chassis.

Finally, I'm going to do three more, which I think are the best options:
  • Sided armored off-road crawler All-terrain four-wheel drive high-speed remote control toy car with lights, Blue – At $30, this is my personal top pick, but this may be my own bias, because it is the only one beside the tiny Tiger tank above that I have actually driven. The small flat design should be relatively easy to build a platform on for your teapot. It's not super fast or powerful. On the racer I'm making, I'm doing my best to keep the weight down with a tiny aluminum teapot and balsa wood platform, so the lack of power should be less of a problem. It is fairly easy to control, and it doesn't seem to have enough power to throw the tracks off. ****

  • New Bright 1:14 Race Car Fast Forward Green - Badzilla – This also appears to be the same thing as a New Bright Trak Attak, that I found at Walmart in store for about the same price. This is a lot faster than the Side armored off-road  crawler. I think it does have a tendency to throw off the tracks, but I think you have to push it real hard, so I don't think that is going to be an issue. I'm giving it the same four stars as the Side armored one because the body might be an issue when you get down to attaching the teapot. It should have enough power that weight would be less of a concern. ****

  • Air Hogs, Thunder Trax RC Vehicle, 2.4 GHZ – This might be your best bet. I think that Air Hogs is one of the top names in Toy-Grade RC. This one is fast, has plenty of power, and you can drive it into the water, where it turns into a boat, kind of a useless on a Teapot Racer, but still. This is the most expensive of these last three and you should be able to find them anywhere. I saw one in Target yesterday for $65. Also this is likely to be cheaper come Black Friday. It doesn't have true tank controls, but still seems to be fairly precise. Not sure how you would attach a teapot, but it has the power to carry it. I read a number of reviews and no one mentioned throwing the tracks. This should rock and roll, just wish it wasn't a boat. **** 1/2

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review – Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

If you're not in Southern California, Hawaii, or Japan, it's unlikely that you've ever heard of Bookoff. Bookoff is a Japanese chain of used book stores that also sells music and movies and has started to open stores here in the states. I go there because it reminds me of the days when you could go to Tower Records and spend and hour or two browsing books, music, and movies, before piracy put the final nail in the coffin of the music/record store industry.

I don't go there often, because I have a tendency to overspend and at the rate I read, I have more books than I will ever get through in the rest of my lifetime. Still, when I go to Bookoff, I usually go straight to the shelf dedicated to movies. There's always a book or two I can't resist. A few months ago, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt was one of them. It sat on my shelf until last night (Halloween night). I'd spent the better part of the day/evening watching horror movies back-to-back-to-back. I couldn't handle another. Despite this, I kept the TV on, to some cable network showing Frankenhooker. I think Mr. Oswalt would approve. I ended finishing it up by lunchtime the next day. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect. I know that I love his stand-up and the improvised rant  he did about Star Wars for Parks and Recreation showed a depth of knowledge and geekiness, that I couldn't help but admire.

If he was planning a similar rant on classic film, I was all in.  It wasn't that, well, only partly that. It was more of a personal memoir about a certain period of his life, almost a coming of age story, about him coming to terms with what it means to be a standup comic and find a place in the entertainment industry, all the while trying to cram as much film into his head in an attempt to eventually direct films. 

Silver Screen Fiend centers around about a four-year period of Oswalt's life between 1995 and 1999 when he did little but perform standup and watch mostly classic films. It opens with  a double feature at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole and how this was the start of his downward spiral into hardcore film addiction. Now, hardcore film addiction sounds like something from one of his comedy bits, but as you go through Silver Screen Fiend, you come to realize that he's not really joking.

The first chapter sets up how he got to the point in his life which led him into his descent into screen fiend madness. It was smart and insightful and always interesting, but I find didn't much in that first chapter that was funny, like he promised in the intro. It was almost like watching the first part of a movie, where you're just getting introduced to the characters and their place in the world before the real action starts. The rest of the book is interspersed with laugh out loud funny observations and anecdotes.

The subtitle sums up the entire book, Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. In his effort to become a success as a stand-up comic, writer, actor, and would-be director, he immersed himself in two things, performing stand-up comedy and going to the movies 3 or 4 times a week. All of this is told through great stories about his short stint as a writer for MADtv and the LA alternative comedy scene, told with insight and self-deprecating humor, and tied into the classic films he was watching at the time.

One of my favorite things was the story about his first movie role in Down Periscope (1996). He played Stingray Radioman (not a name of a person, but the guy on the submarine Stingray who operated the radio). As much of the film was set in a submarine, he was in the background much of the time, turning the knobs on a fake radio on submarine set that one of the producers said was the same one used on Run Silent Run Deep. He had one line, "Radio message for you, sir. It's Admiral Graham." He was in the background much of the time and wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, so he would think of things to use in the role. He would be drinking coffee. Maybe the coffee tastes really bad, so he would take a drink, make a face, and put the cup down like it contained nitro glycerin. At which point, the director, David Ward, who wrote and won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Sting, stopped and said, "Patton, don't do that."  He'd seen enough well-meaning background actors, trying to breathe life into their parts to know that he meant no harm, but he still was distracting from what was really going on in the movie.

Through all of this, his love for film shines through, despite the insanity and weirdness of the entertainment biz. Eventually, he comes to realize that while he is telling himself that spending every chance he can get in a dark theater watching movies preparing him for a film career, in reality, he is using film to avoid having a life outside of comedy and film fiendishness. Still, we get the benefit of his broad knowledge of film and the humor of his experiences in the world of modern film and television. 

The final chapter is partly a reprint of a blog he did as a tribute to the former owner of The New Beverly Sherman Torgan, when he died in 2007. He programmed a month's worth of films that Torgan could watch in the afterlife, none of which were ever made, but might have been had the cards fallen different or the people lived longer. It's an incredible list. Every film is something I would love to see. 

The Appendix is a list of every film he saw in the theater from that Sunset Blvd./Ace in the Hole double feature in May 1995 to Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in May 1999. Set in two columns it runs over 20 pages, often two or three films a day. Though mostly classic film, the list is interspersed with first-run films from the period just about everything worth and not worth seeing from Saving Private Ryan and As Good as It Gets to Spice World

As a film aficionado, Silver Screen Fiend makes me feel good about myself. He is so much a bigger film geek than me. At the same time, it makes me feel bad. He is so much a bigger film geek than I could ever hope to be. According to IMDB, Patton Oswalt has never directed a film, what he was dreaming of sitting in a dark theater all of those hours. I hope he gets a chance to. I'm sure it will be worth watching.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Teapot Racing 1 – RC Car Basics

What, you may ask, is Teapot Racing? Simply put, it is mounting a teapot on and Remote Control (RC) car and racing it on an obstacle course. The official New Zealand rules (they made it up) are given here. My first attempt at a teapot racer is shown to the right. I will cover what went into this racer more thoroughly in a future post.

This is the first in a series of posts on Teapot Racing. This post covers some basics of RC vehicles, mostly, cars and trucks, not including tanks (tanks, while highly suited to Teapot Racing, are kind of a separate animal). I will do a separate post on RC Tanks later.

RC vehicles generally fall into two categories:

  • Toy-Grade –  Toy-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in places like Toys"R"Us, Target, and Walmart. Toy-Grade RC vehicles are pretty much always Ready-to-Run (RTR), meaning you have everything in the box to make it work with the exception of household batteries (batteries not included). Toy-Grade RC vehicles are almost always relatively inexpensive (under $60, but can go up into the $100 range). Generally, they cannot be upgraded nor repaired when broken. 
  • Hobby-Grade – Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in brick-and-mortar and online hobby stores. Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are sometimes packaged as RTR as an enticement to newbies, a box that has the vehicle, the radio controller, batteries, battery charger, etc., so you are good to go. However, most Hobby-Grade vehicles and accessories are sold separately, so you can mix and match the vehicle and the radio etc. to get exactly what you want. Hobby-Grade vehicles start between about $120 and $250 and can run into the thousands of dollars. Hobby-Grade are generally way better quality. Upgrades can be made with relative ease, new bodies, more powerful motors and batteries, different tires, suspension, and even the gearing in the transmission can be changed. Also, if you break something, you can almost always find replacement parts.
Let's look at these a bit more closely, and how they pertain to Teapot Racing.


Just because an RC vehicle is Toy-Grade, that doesn't mean that it is not relatively fast or ill-suited to Teapot Racing. My teapot racer above is Toy-Grade. The host vehicle is the following, from Amazon with free shipping for about $40.

Three King 1/18th 4 WD Monster Crawler Truck
By itself, it had plenty of power and 4 wheel drive to make it up the ramps on the Gaslight Gathering Teapot Racing obstacle course, but it didn't turn well enough to make the slalom part without a lot of forward and backs (though it was very tight, almost any vehicle would have difficulty). Put a light-weight (small aluminum) teapot on it, plus a driver (Pop! Bride Of Frankenstein figure), bumpers, headlights, etc., and the handling suffered drastically. It still had the power for the ramps, but the extra weight almost bottomed out the little springs in the shock absorbers and made it list to one side or another making it challenging to drive in a straight line.

The big issue with Toy-Grade RC vehicles is they only do one or two things well, and the cheaper ones, not even that. In the case of my car, it climbed quite well. It was made to drive well on dirt, over small rocks, and go up and down rough terrain. Make precise turns, driving slowly and smoothly, not so much. Other vehicles might be really good at spinning in circles in place, but be next to impossible to turn just a little bit.

The biggest issue with almost any Toy-Grade vehicle is control. Most Toy-Grade vehicles do not have the ability to make subtle changes. Forward is full-speed forward. Reverse is full-speed reverse. Turning is all the way right, all the way left, or no turn at all. If you want to go slow you need to tap the forward and reverse. Similarly, to turn just a little would involve tapping left and right. 

Now, I did say most Toy-Grade vehicles work this way. In my research, I ran into two Toy-Grade vehicles that did not have this issue. They had what is called Digital Proportional Control or something similar, meaning if you push the control a little bit, they would act accordingly, i.e., push the forward control a little bit, and it goes forward slow, rather than nothing, nothing, full speed. Unfortunately, I don't think either is being produced anymore. The two vehicles are:

  • Air Hogs Hypertrax – Fast, lots of power, and tank tracks, it turns on a dime and the tank tracks would have no problem with any obstacle on the Teapot Racing course. At $35 retail, this would be the perfect parent vehicle. Just one problem, try to find one for $35. New in the box, on ebay and Amazon, you're looking at a $150 plus. You can find the car with no radio for about $20 on ebay, which makes me suspect that people bought them to get a Hobby-Grade radio for about half of what it was worth. 
  • Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro – With four oversized tires and Digital Proportional Control for both speed and steering, this would be perfect as well.  Again, just try to find one. Now the Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro is not to be confused with its smaller sibling, the Tonka XT Ricochet Trickster (no Digital Proportional Control) but still readily available. Again, you can find the Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro at wildly inflated prices or vehicle without the radio at a reasonable price. 

There may be others out there that are available with Digital Proportional Control, but I haven't found any.

If you're on a budget, you may have no other option than Toy-Grade. Just know going in that if it breaks and you can't fix it with duct tape and zip ties, you're done. Bring your broken toy into the Hobby shop, and they are going to laugh at you. Bring a broken toy with a teapot attached to it back to Toys"R"Us, they're going to go, whoa, cool, and then laugh at you.

My best advice is to do your research before you buy. Read the Amazon reviews. Stay away from anything that someone said broke quickly. There are also a lot of video reviews out there. If you find a reviewer you like, check to see if they have more reviews. You might be able to get more of an apples to apples review on two models you are trying to decide between. Vehicles with tank treads are probably a good call, but most tank-tread vehicles come with things you don't need, guns that shoot Nerf darts or Airsoft bbs, spy cameras, or lasers to have tank battles with your buddies. In any case, you are paying for stuff that does nothing to help your Teapot Racer get through the course. As I said earlier, I will do a separate post dedicated to tanks.


  • Readily available in toy aisle of local big box stores
  • RTR, so everything you need is in the box
  • Inexpensive


  • Most don't handle well at low speeds or turn precisely
  • Handling gets worse when you add weight, a teapot for instance
  • May not be able to fix it if it breaks


Hobby-Grade is a whole 'nother ball game. I won't say that components are infinitely upgradable. Presumably, there are a finite number of parts for any vehicle, but trust me there are a lot. Want to go faster? More powerful motors and batteries. Want to climb better in the dirt? Maybe some sand tires or lower gears in the transmission for more torque. Don't like the way your radio works, change it, though that may require a new receiver on the car. The newer radios can even download software upgrades. Want better handling, put on stiffer shocks. Break something, go to the Hobby Store, they might have the parts in stock and you're back up. Not in stock, order it and have it in a couple of days. 

Of course, all of this comes at a price. These things all add up quickly. You might want to go with one of the RTR packages. That way you get everything you need at a somewhat reasonable price. Just make sure you know what you are getting. If something seems way cheap, there's probably a reason. Maybe the car is running on AA batteries rather than more powerful rechargables. Ask about the radio, is it Digital Proportional Control? They will know what you're talking about. The guy in the Walmart toy department, not so much. 

Is there good news here? Well, maybe. Hobby Grade RC has been around forever, and there are tons of them out there. You might already know someone who's into it. Maybe they can lend you one for a couple of weeks. Or sell one of their old ones. They turn up at garage sales, thrift shops, and swap meets, not to mention craigslist and ebay. If possible, verify that it works, and the radio does what it's supposed to. If it isn't running, make sure it is as complete as possible, look around for things like extra batteries and the charger. Buy the car and radio and miss the charger lying next to it, you may be paying $50 for a replacement. If it's obviously broken, don't worry too much, it probably can be fixed. 

Be wary if it looks more like the husk of a vehicle than complete. Sure, you should be able to find the parts to get it going, but all those parts add up.  That's the mistake I made. I found the car to the right that was only $20, but I'm going to be in pretty deep to get it going. The same guy had a non-matching radio for another $20. The guy at the Hobby Shop was able to get it talking to the car with a new crystal and receiver for another $30. Still, I think it will be a kick-ass little car for about $120 that is way way better than a low end new one. 

So how do you tell a Hobby-Grade vehicle from a Toy-Grade one? Well, if you look at it and it looks like you could break it with your bare hands, it's not Hobby-Grade. Hobby-Grade vehicles can be crazy fast and often crash, so they are built tough. Hobby-Grade people are always messing with their stuff, so they want to be able to take off the car body easily. Hobby-Grade cars will usually have tiny cotter pins or some other way to take off the body. Toy-Grade will usually use tiny screws. Look at the shock absorbers. Often Hobby-Grade will have oil-filled shocks. If you can see oily residue on the shocks, that should be Hobby-Grade. Look for manufacturer names, like Hasbro and Mattel (Toy-Grade) vs. Traxxas and Losi (Hobby-Grade). 

A few more notes:

  • Some RC cars run with gas or nitro-powered engines rather than electric motors. These can be insanely fast, but since most Steampunk cons are held in hotels, I can't imagine that there are many hotels wanting you running unlicensed combustion engines on the premises. If it looks like it has a tiny motorcycle engine in it, instead of an electric motor, you probably don't want that.
  • RC aircraft run on different sets of frequencies, so if you find a second-hand radios with names that include words like air and flight, steer clear. 
  • If you go Hobby-Grade, try to find a good hobby shop for parts and support, some place where you feel comfortable and where they don't make you feel like an idiot for asking stupid questions.

Regarding the last point, if you're in San Diego, I highly recommend, Krazy Kevin's RC Hobby in Chula Vista. Kevin spent an hour and a half getting my nonmatching radio to talk to my car. They specialize in ground vehicles and have been around for about 20 years. When I told him about Steampunk and Teapot Racing, his first question was, why not use a steam engine. I looked at him like he was crazy, but he said you can get little tiny steam-engines and in theory, you should be able to make power an RC car. I gotta talk to this guy some more.


  • Way better control since most have Digital Proportional Control
  • More power and better suspension to handle the weight of the teapot
  • Upgradable and parts when broken can be replaced


  • Way expensive
  • Not necessarily RTR; may need to mix and match parts
  • Possibly, way more than you need; do you really need a teapot that goes 40 mph

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

µ-Blog – Multitasking

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

I like to multitask. It makes me feel like I am getting more done. I'm probably not, but it makes me feel better to pretend I'm doing multiple things at once. Sometimes this goes awry.

Horribly horribly awry.

I was getting ready for bed. I was taking a pee. I decided to grab my toothbrush. Somehow, I fumbled the grab, and the toothbrush slipped out of my hand. Now, it's one thing to drop your toothbrush. It's entirely another thing to drop it in the toilet. It's completely entirely another thing to drop it in the toilet, when there's pee in it. It's totally completely entirely another thing to drop it in the toilet, when you're still actively peeing. 

Then of course what do you do? I just can't stop peeing right in the middle of a pee. My body doesn't work that way. I suppose I could have clamped it shut, put a kink in the hose as it were, but I didn't think to that. All I could think of was how do I bend over enough to grab the toothbrush without peeing on the floor. Ultimately, that one task proved too much for me. I had no other choice, but to continue peeing on my toothbrush. Suffice it to say, I was very glad I had a spare one. 

I've learned one thing from all of this: Writing a blog post, even a very short blog post, where forms of the word pee appear about 15 times really makes you need to pee. I'm out.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

µ-Blog – Starting to Worry

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

Our neighborhood borders a largely Latino neighborhood. There's a street where about every block is a store selling pinatas. They have them hanging from the awnings out front. Every one of them had one of these (right).

To me, this can only mean one thing, The Latino community is starting to embrace Donald Trump, as evidenced by making somewhat grotesque statues out of paper, filling them, and having small children beat them with a stick until they break open spilling their treasure on the ground. Make America great, indeed.

All I know is Hillary better watch her butt.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Happy 5th Birthday, #TCMParty

Today is #TCMParty's 5th birthday. I was kind of late to the party. In fact, I was kind of late to Twitter. I joined Twitter in October 2011. Most social media platforms have a heyday. It's safe to say that Twitter was well past its heyday in late 2011. I honestly don't remember why I joined Twitter. I do know that I didn't do very much with it in the first year or so and often wondered why I bothered.

I stumbled on #TCMParty one night when I was watching TCM. I noticed tweets in my feed with the #TCMParty hashtag, and it dawned on me that they were talking about the movie I was watching at that moment. It didn't take long before I joined in. 

My first tweet containing the #TCMParty hashtag was in February 2013, about On the Waterfront:

#tcmparty Why don't you drop dead now, so we can test the theory. Great line

At the time, I had done about 400 tweets. Of the more than 20,000 tweets since then, about three quarters have been on #TCMParty. It's been a great ride, lots of fun times, great people, good friends, and amazing talk on the movies I love, ranging from snarky to informative to heartfelt to intelligent.

Happy birthday, #TCMParty. Many happy returns.

Friday, August 26, 2016

µ-Blog – Bette Davis vs Brangelina

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

The following showed up in my Facebook feed recently. It was quoted from a famous Hollywood feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford:

REPORTER: Miss Davis, is it true that Joan Crawford would sleep with the producer in order to get a good part? 
BETTE DAVIS: My dear! Joan Crawford would sleep with the producer to get a good part -- in her HAIR!

Oh my God, that is so much better anything from any modern celebrity feud.

Bette Davis: A gazillion
Brangelina: Nil

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Remember the Alamo???

Yesterday, I was out and saw the most odd bit of graffiti I think I have ever seen in my life. It was written on the side of a building that houses a thrift shop. Why would anyone write a graffiti message that was the battle cry harkening from an event that happened 180 years ago, Remember the Alamo. It just didn't make any sense. Maybe if I was in Texas, there would be some modern but now defunct thing named the Alamo that needs to be remembered. But I'm here in San Diego, and we don't exactly embrace things, Texan. I can only think of two explanations for this anomaly.

Possibility 1 is that somewhere in Texas in the 1830s, a Texican with the rage from the Battle of the Alamo still hot in his blood managed to step into some space-time displacement portal. He was transported both through time and geographically through space to San Diego in 2016. Confused and disoriented, he still feels the need to spread to the word about the infamous event at the Alamo. He would have money, coins very likely, which could be sold as antiques or for the value of silver or gold they are made from and converted to modern currency. Using this modern currency, he could buy a Sharpie and inscribe the message that is burning in his heart. 

Possibility 2 is that a modern person, a supporter of a certain billionaire presidential candidate, has been listening the hateful rhetoric of this candidate. This person has come to think that the problems in this country are not caused by the very rich manipulating the system to give them advantages ordinary people could never dream of. This person has come to think that our current woes are caused by Latino immigrants coming across our Southern border and is using, Remember the Alamo, as a way of protesting this.

I like to think that Possibility 1 is the reason for the graffiti. I'll admit that time travel seems highly unlikely. But someone adopting a nearly two-century-old catch phase as a way of shifting the blame from the very rich to the lowest rung of our society seems equally bizarre to me. I hope that Texican manages to find his way back to where he came from.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Well, That Explains Reno

Note this post does contain spoilers on the 1934 Pre-Code film, This Man is Mine. It's a great film, well worth watching. While I do give away plot details, I don't think it would ruin your enjoyment. It's more how things unfold that make it good rather than what actually happens.

As a classic movie person, I'm well aware of the significance of Reno, Nevada, in old movies. In short, Reno means divorce.  Much of what I know about divorce in the first half of the 20th Century comes from old movies, specifically, The Women. Most of the major characters in The Women go to Reno to get their divorces, and divorce is a major theme in the film.

I honestly don't know what the Hays Office (Motion Picture Production Code) had to say on divorce. Clearly, it was openly mentioned as in The Women. His Girl Friday also refers to Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant being divorced, with Rosalind Russell speaking of spending six weeks in Reno. All I know is that when I'm watching an old movie, if Reno is mentioned, I know that means divorce.

I remember one time watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a non-classic movie friend. At one point, he asked me, "Wait, a second, I thought she was married." I had to explain that she also said she had just got back from Reno (code for divorce). Well, I always assumed that divorce was illegal in most states (it may have been in some states), but obviously not in Nevada. 

This morning, I was watching a Pre-Code film, This Man is Mine, and learned something new about divorce in the 1930s. In the film, Ralph Bellamy is married to Irene Dunne. Bellamy has an affair with an old flame (Constance Cummings) and asks Irene Dunne for a divorce. Irene Dunne says, she will give him the divorce, but only if they wait six months (figuring that Constance Cummings will move on to someone else in that time). 

Toward the end of the movie, Irene Dune changes her mind and decides to get the divorce. But instead of going to Reno, she files for divorce in New York. It is clear from the ensuing dialog that New York divorce is quite a different animal than a Reno divorce. A New York divorce meant a trial and witnesses and proof of infidelity, specifically dragging Constance Cummings character's name through the mud as the other woman. 

I assume that most normal people at the time couldn't afford a Reno divorce. Then again, the newspapers wouldn't care when Joe the plumber got a divorce. However, they would care for a wealthy society person, and the details would be quite a scandal for public figures. Hence, the Reno divorce, not a legal necessity, but a way of ending a marriage without all of the sordid details being made public. This is a nuance that I had never known before. 

Apparently, this was a nuance that my wife was unaware too. "Well, that explains Reno," she said as we were watching it unfold. That explains Reno, indeed.

Monday, August 22, 2016

µ-Blog – TCM/Ball State Slapstick Course

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

Last night, I was watching TCM, and a promo came on for a new course in slapstick, Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies. I'm assuming this will be similar to the Into the Darkness: Exploring Film Noir course last Summer. Now, my first thought was Film Noir is a meaty subject. What could you really do with slapstick? Then again, the Exploring Film Noir course was awesome. I have every confidence that they can pull off something great with slapstick. 

With that in mind, that just leaves one question. When I finish, do I put it on my resume? I am out of work right now. I can just see how it would play out.

Interviewer:  I see you have completed a course in Exploring Slapstick in the Movies.

Me:  Why, yes I have. Do you have a cream pie handy?

For more details on the Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies course, see

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Lady Eve and Sleight of Hand

Last night, Film Geeks San Diego took over the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park for a screening on the Preston Sturges Screwball Comedy, The Lady Eve. On hand to introduce the film and provide context to the card cheating in the movie was sleight-of-hand artist, Jami Ian Swiss. Now, I tend to not be real big on magic. I can't imagine going to a magic show, but Jami was great. I entered the lobby, and he was doing card tricks for the 25 or 30 people already there. 

Since I had just come in, he ask me to think of a card and tell him what it is. He then made it appear on the top of the deck. Of course, there is a trick. He pulls the card from somewhere and puts on top of the deck. But he did have his sleeves rolled up to mid forearm. Also he has no idea which of the 52 cards I'm going to pick and has to get access to it and somehow place it on the top of the deck, all without any of the 30 or so people standing all around him seeing how he did it. All of this makes it a pretty damn good trick.

He then turned to my 16-year-old daughter Jasmine and did an equally good trick for her. Her reaction was priceless. That alone was worth the price of admission. She didn't know what to say, which if you've ever met Jasmine, is a rare thing indeed. Since he got such a great reaction out of her, he proceeded to do two more tricks on her getting equally good reactions there as well. We then went into the theater.

The Lady Eve is a great film, one of Preston Sturges' best and one of the best Screwball Comedies you'll find as well. I never really thought about it being a con film, mostly because it works so well as a comedy. In his introduction, Swiss spoke of how well and accurately the con elements are handled. Sturges who wrote as well as directed the film really did know a little something about cheating at cards. Jami Ian Swiss pointed out that the con in con man comes from the word confidence. Confidence men work by getting their marks to believe in them, and the story they are selling, a huge part of the film.

*** Spoiler Alert *** Minor spoilers to the plot are contained in the following paragraph.

In the film, Barbara Stanwyck (Eve) and her father, Charles Coburn are confidence men who set their sights on Henry Fonda (Hopsie), an ultrarich beer baron/Ophidiologist (snake expert), who cares more for snakes than the beverage that made the family fortune. Eve does the unthinkable. She falls for her mark and decides to protect Hopsie from her father. When Hopsie learns the truth about Eve and her father, he is hurt and breaks off their engagement, despite the fact that they really do love each other. Eve decides to get revenge on Hopsie for spurning her, but ultimately cons into realizing that he really does love her.

*** End of Spoiler Alert ***

How could I not think of this as a con movie? The answer is simple. It works so well as a Screwball Comedy that you don't really think about the fact that the entire movie, Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck are actively trying to take Henry Fonda to the cleaners. 

The Lady Eve is one of those great old movies where the cast is great from top to bottom. Henry Fonda is perfect as the likable innocent dupe. Charles Coburn is also brilliant as the card-cheating father of Barbara Stanwyck. Of course, Stanwyck is wonderful as well and has great chemistry with both Fonda and Coburn. Rounding out the cast is William Demarest as Fonda's crusty, but well-meaning man servant. Finally, in a small role is Eugene Pallette, playing Fonda's father. It's the type of role that Pallette played over and over again, but could do so well that you never tire of it.

The Lady Eve has everything you'd want from such a film, good story, great performances, and humor that ranges from subtle to extremely broad, but all handled perfectly. The Film Geeks are hoping to do a series of con films next year and if The Lady Eve is any indication, it will be great. More info on the Film Geeks can be found on their facebook page. In addition, here's a sample of Jamy Ian Swiss' act from the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: