John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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That Crazy Foreigner Pulled a Jiu-Jitsu on Me!

When I was a kid, I had an 8-track tape that had an episode of "The Shadow" and an episode of "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy" on it. (Or, as the announcer put it, "Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong! The Aaaaaaalllll-American Boy!")

The Shadow is familiar to most people I imagine, but if you're not an old-time radio enthusiast you might not know ol' Jack Armstrong. Jack was a clean-cut teenage football player who, by virtue of his globetrotting adventurer Uncle Jim, would go on all kinds of amazing adventures around the world while exhorting "all you fellas and girls" to eat Wheaties ("with lots of milk or cream and topped with your favorite fruit"). In a lot of ways, "Johnny Quest" was basically "Jack Armstrong, the Animated Series," if you see what I mean.

I don't remember much about the episode I had when I was a kid other than the signature tune ("Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys!") and the line, "These Nazis have glass jaws." I'm not even positive that line was in the Jack Armstrong episode -- it might have been in another adventure serial that I've since forgotten. Not having the cassette any more, I can't say for sure.

However, fellow OTR enthusiast tchall was good enough to send me a CD containing most (if not all) of the extant Jack Armstrong recordings recently when I mentioned it to him, and I listened to about half of it this weekend while working on SJ and NN. Some of it, I must admit, is painfully hard to listen to it without my BS Detector going off on full Postmodern Alert.

ANNOUNCER: Say, fellas and girls, I just heard a mighty surprising fact! Did you know that respected scientists say that some of those other so-called 'whole wheat' products don't have as much of that vital, real food energy as a tasty, satisfying bowl of Wheaties? Just listen to this testimonial from a real scientist: Quote, whole wheat is important for giving you that powerful food energy that is so vital to being a real champion, enquote. Well! That just goes to show that you should go tell mother to bring home some of that extra-good Wheaties on her very next shopping trip!

ME: Blarg.

Some of the episodes are also much better than others, which I suppose is only to be expected from a series that ran every day for ten years. There's an early sequence for instance that involves Jack making his way across Antarctic ice to get a lifeline to an icebound, sinking (and later icebound, sinking and ON FIRE!) ship, which is very good and conveys a sense of real drama. Later episodes seem to have an awful lot of exposition, or spend half the episode recapping what happened in the previous day's episode.

JACK: Wow, Betty, look at that altimeter! We're flying at 30,000 feet!

BETTY: 30,000 feet! Wow!

JACK: Yeah, 30,000 feet! We're so high up that there's very little air pressure, which enables us to travel super-fast. Why, we've covered almost half the country in just a few hours!

BETTY: No air pressure? But I don't feel any different!

BILLY: That's because Jack is operating the supercharger that's keeping the cabin pressurized.

JACK: Right you are, Billy. And don't forget, it's below freezing out there.

BETTY: Below freezing! But in here it's so warm and toasty you'd never know that the sunlight outside that looks so warm and inviting is really so cold and thin!

BILLY: (laughing) Oh, you'd know all right if you opened that cabin door! The pressure would shoot out like an explosion and we'd all freeze!

BETTY: (laughing) Wow, we'd all freeze! Say, I'd better not open the door then!

JACK: (laughing) Yeah, you'd better not! I sure don't want to freeze!

ME: You wanna get on with the frickin' plot already?

...and so on.

But what really hit me when I was listening to it this weekend was a sense of creepy jingoism that I don't remember noticing when I was a kid (but may very well have been there with a line like "these Nazis have glass jaws"). Upon seeing a 'suspicious character' poking around Uncle Jim's boat, Jack and his buddy Billy keep making a note of how much he "looks like a foreigner, definitely not an American". What the visual cues are that tip them off that he "doesn't look American" aren't specified, especially considering that the particular episode is taking place in San Francisco.

When they do finally encounter the Mysterious Foreigner in question, he speaks with what sounds like a bad Indian accent, refers to himself as "this humble personage" and says "so sorry, so sorry" a lot, and performs "amazing feats of Jiu-Jitsu" (which basically consist of sleight-of-hand and grappling). Presumably, given that it was the '40s, the Mysterious Foreigner is supposed to be Japanese, but he's never explicitly identified as such and he certainly doesn't sound Japanese.

The reason the Mysterious Foreigner is after them is because they're searching for some Valuable Uranium Metal, which it's vitally important they get to first so that Some Other Country doesn't split the atom first. 0.o

BILLY: Why Jack, when I think of Some Other Country getting that Uranium Metal and maybe splitting the atom first, and then inventing planes that can go all over the world without needing to refuel, I realize just how important it is that we don't fail!

JACK: You're right, Billy. Why if Some Other Country split the atom first, who knows what could happen? We've just gotta find that Uranium Metal before that foreigner does!

ME: You guys are creeping me out, you know that don't you?

When listening to this stuff, it's important to remember that it was the 1940s and a very different world; Jack Armstrong was held up as an idol for kids because he was brave, athletic, and eager to help out and do the right thing. The fact that he was also a xenophobe who assumed that any non-WASPs were foreigners says more about the nature of the national character of the time, than it does about Jack Armstrong specifically.

It's also worth noting that Jack was very much a "live and let live" kind of guy who would be just as likely to risk his life saving an enemy as he would to save a friend. The Mysterious Foreigner is a problem because he's a Suspicious Character, not because he's mysterious and foreign. It's important to Jack that USA split the atom first because obviously USA would be a safe steward of the knowledge and use it for peace and prosperity, whereas other countries might use it recklessly to wage war.

While this latter idea particularly may draw some snickers today, it was not that "out there" an idea at the time. Once upon a time, the US got a lot of flack for its tendency to stay at home when other people thought we should be out there with guns blazing. The fact that we're currently seen as something of a global bully strikes me more than anything else as a sad irony. Jack Armstrong's jingoistic talk would never fly in pop culture today -- but on the other hand, his readiness to jump to the rescue, do the right thing just because it was the right thing, and risk his life to help people in need exemplifies the better aspects of our national character a lot better than many contemporary icons do, and all without bitterness or irony.

So yeah, there is something there worth listening to. You just have to do a little digging to find it. :)

-The Gneech
Tags: adventure, reviews

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