Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: Raiders of the Box Office Gold

“Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” -Belloq to Indiana Jones…or exploitation producers to LucasFilm?
Welcome to Video Junkie's fourth theme week (guaranteed to go at least two weeks)! We’ve done the blind, the Lovecraft and the 3-D, so now it is time for something a bit more mainstream. Chances are that if you’ve found our little detox corner of the internet, you’ve already seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and don’t need me to tell you it is a classic. Born from a mutual love of serial adventures in books and film, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS is undoubtedly the finest work from both men. It perfectly balances action, horror, humor, and thrills. It also lacks the goofier elements of the two sequels. Yeah, you read that right, Lucas only made TWO sequels to RAIDERS and I’m sticking too that! And like JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977), the film’s enormous success brought forth the imitators.

Theatrical distribution was a completely different beast back in the late 70s/early 80s and films generally didn’t live or die within a few weekends. Blockbusters were truly that in that they stayed around for months and RAIDERS was no exception. Released in mid-June 1981, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK had an incredible impact on the box office and kept pulling in millions each weekend until March of 1982! To put that in perspective, AVATAR had pretty much ended its North American run in theaters after 3 months. Even better, after ending its initial run, RAIDERS returned to theaters in July 1982 for another two month run that added an additional $13 million to the Lucas’ pockets.

Of course, RAIDERS was quite unlike Lucas’ earlier STAR WARS in that he didn’t seek to exploit it in any way, shape or form. Haha, yeah right! Dude whipped out toys, comics, novelizations, and games faster than Dr. Jones brandishing his pistol in a Cairo back alley. What kid wouldn’t want their own German Mechanic action figure that they could throw into a fan? Or play what is generally considered the crappiest Atari video game of all-time? Actually, I take that back – the infamous E.T. game still holds that distinction as I am still stuck in that pit in the forest (you know what I’m talking about, readers 30 years or older)!

But Herr Lucas wasn’t the only one doing the exploiting. When a flick draws in those kinds of numbers, you can be guaranteed anyone and everyone in show business began their own archeological digs for anything that could possibly cash in on an effort to keep up with the (Dr.) Jones. Film producers jumped on the bandwagon with glee, hoping to steal away the box office as swiftly as Belloq can take a golden idol from Indy’s hands. So join us on our globe trotting adventure as we go from the Far East to the Wild West, from the silver screen to the boob tube to uncover the raiders of the box office gold!


Naturally, television was one of the first venues to exploit the world’s Indiana Jones fever. So it is ironic that the two concepts greenlit after the success of RAIDERS actually predated the movie, in some case by decades. I’m sure if you listened closely in the summer of 1981 the Hollywood hills were alive with the sounds of producers yelling, “Get me an adventure story set in the 1930s!” Naturally, Hollywood obliged and gave us two short-lived television series in the Indiana Jones mold.


BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE debuted on the CBS network on September 24, 1982 and showcased the adventures of Frank Buck (Bruce Boxleitner), mustached “big game trapper and collector of wild animals” living outside Singapore in the 1930s. He runs his business out of a hotel and is eventually persuaded by the US Government to perform a series of missions that only he seems to be the guy for. So off he goes on his weekly adventures that usually involve love interest/sexy blonde bombshell/Government worker Gloria Marlowe (Cindy Morgan of CADDYSHACK), friendly rival H.H. (Ron O’Neal; yes, Superfly!) and agents of the sinister G.B. Von Turgo (John Zee).

Frank Buck was actually a real guy who found his initial fame as a big game hunter and exotic animal collector and quickly parlayed that recognition into greater success with the book Bring ‘Em Back Alive in 1930. A smash success, Hollywood came calling and Buck starred mondo-esque BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE (1932). This film’s success led to a series of docu-drama films with Buck as himself (including a bit in Abbott and Costello’s AFRICA SCREAMS) and the serial JUNGLE MENACE (1937), where he played Frank Hardy. I have no doubt his exploits inspired Lucas at some point when creating the Jones character, so it is ironic that the success of RAIDERS gave Buck’s legacy a new lease on life. One need only look at the show’s opening credits to see (and hear) they were getting their RAIDERS vibe on.

The Frank Buck resurgence, however, was short lived as the show only lasted 17 episodes and ended after one season. In the end, it wasn’t a wild animal or evil spy that took out Buck. It was the even more sinister triumvirate of Fonzie, Laverne and Shirley that killed our intrepid hero out (yes, they programmed it against the most popular shows at the time).


Of course, it would be difficult to find a person who even remembers that show. The other RAIDERS television knock off made much more of an impression on the minds of young viewing audiences. Say the title TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY to anyone who was a kid in the early 1980s and you will most likely elicit a response along the lines of, “Oh yeah! I remember that show.” The show actually debuted the same month as BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE. In fact, it debuted 2 days (!) before ALIVE on September 22, 1982 on ABC in the battle to steal Indiana Jones’ thunder. And who says Hollywood is out of original ideas?

TALES centers on Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), a freelance former fighter pilot and part-time gambler who run his flight business out of a hotel run by “Luckie” Louie (Ron Moody) in the Pacific in 1938 (hmmm, sounds familiar). Along with his mechanic Corky (Jeff MacKay) and one-eyed dog Jack, Cutter finds himself wrapped up in a game of international espionage when he accommodates bubbly headed singer Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O’Heaney). Hitler has sent Nazi agents Monocle (Jonathan Hillerman) and Willie (John Calvin) to the area to find the location of the fabled Gold Monkey, a 100-ft statue made of impervious gold. Willie, who poses as the local priest, has teamed with Princess Kogi (Marta DuBois) to double the effort to find this precious metal that they want to make into indestructible bombs for Der F├╝hrer. What they don’t know is that Sarah is actually a U.S. spy and that unaware Jake will do whatever it takes to save the dame.

Produced by MAGNUM P.I. creator Don Bellisario, TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY is actually a project he had developed for years. But like ALIVE, it took the success of RAIDERS for Hollywood to see that it was a viable (i.e. $$$) idea. Make no bones about it though; they were definitely hoping to snag that Indy audience. One need only look at the opening scene where two Nazis (played by Norbert Weisser and a young William Forsythe) get their brains bashed in by some crazy monkeys. So, yeah, we had Nazis in search of a precious artifact, but its different because they added Japs too! TALES did manage to set itself apart though, thanks to some unique characters, witty scripts and great performances by the cast (Ron Moody was replaced by Roddy McDowall after the pilot). Particularly engaging is Collins, who could have taken the easy way out and done Harrison Ford-lite but opts to make the Jake Cutter character more freewheeling. There is also a lighter tone (the Nazis only die, they don’t melt and explode) with some deft humor including a running gag of eye patch wearing Jack the dog being pissed that Jake lost his glass eye gambling.

TALES featured solid production values all around, including some amazing sets and gorgeous location photography in Hawaii. Bellisario’s Hawaii-set MAGNUM P.I. was big at the time and RAIDERS was still in audiences’ minds, so this must have been a HUGE hit, right? Nope. The show suffered the same fate as ALIVE and was “one and done” after a season of 21 episodes (including the 2-parter pilot). Of course, programming it opposite ratings powerhouse DALLAS wasn’t the wisest move. If only Jake Cutter had shot J.R.! The series, however, made an indelible impression on young audiences, enough to create faded memories and warrant a DVD release of the entire season in June 2010.

1 Reactions:

  1. Good read - I don't recall Bring 'Em Back Alive but I definitely watched Tales of the Gold Monkey. I didn't realize they finally got around to releasing that on DVD so I'm glad you mentioned that. I had looked for it 3-4 years ago and came up empty and see I just didn't stick with it quite long enough. So now I gotta go pick up the set. Thanks!


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