Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies Part Three

Magazines, Television, and Other Media

Today what people seem to remember the most about the kung fu craze that seized the United States from 1973 to 1974 are the various Hong Kong kung fu movies released during that time (well, that and the song "Kung Fu Fighting..."). This is slightly inaccurate, as the kung fu craze was a fad that actually affected several media. I have already discussed the kung fu craze in comic books of the period, now I wish to discuss the kung fu craze in magazines.

With the arrival of the kung fu craze in 1973, there also rose a number of magazines devoted to kung fu. Some of these were serious magazines dedicated to the study of the martial arts. Others were essentially fan magazines dedicated to kung fu movies and TV shows. Some could be described as being somewhere in between. Regardless, there were an inordinately large number of kung fu magazines on newsstands in 1973 and 1974. And while a few were relatively short lived, a few remain with us today.

Of course, magazines dedicated to the martial arts are nothing new. The karate magazine Black Belt was first published in 1961. Karate Illustrated has been published since 1969. In fact, it was the publisher of these two older martial arts magazines who would publish one of the new magazines in 1974. Mito Uyehara first published Black Belt in 1961. He would later launch Karate Illustrated in 1969. First published in early 1974 was a new magazine from the Uyehara publishing empire--Fighting Stars. Fighting Stars differed from both Black Belt and Illustrated Karate in that it focused upon celebrities and their involvement with the martial arts. And often these were not celebrities one would expect. Not only were Bruce Lee and later Sonny Chiba often the subject of articles, but so too were Dean Stockwell, William Shatner, Elvis Presley, and many others.

Another new magazine which arrived during the period was Inside Kung Fu, which is still published to this day. It was first published in December 1973. As it remains today, Inside Kung Fu was a magazine dedicated to the serious study of the martial arts. Even the British were not left entirely untouched by the kung fu craze and there would be martial arts magazines that arose in the United Kingdom at the time. Kung Fu Monthly would be the first major success for Dennis Publishing Ltd, Currently they publish Maxim, The Fortean Times, Blender, and several other titles.

Of course, many kung fu magazines during the period were strictly fly by night affairs, lasting only one or two issues at most. An example of this is one published by Marvel Comic's "Curtis Magazines" imprint. Lasting exactly one issue, The Deadliest Heroes of Kung Fu featured instructional articles by Frank McLaughlin, an article on the film Enter the Dragon, an article comparing Bruce Lee and David Carradine, and various other articles. Unlike Marvel's other black and white titles, it featured no comic book stories.

Such was the power of the kung fu craze that it even received coverage in mainstream periodicals. The April 1974 issue of Oui featured an article entitled, "How the Master of Oriental Martial Arts Brought Hollywood to Hong Kong." The June 11, 1973 issue of Time featured a profile on Run Run Shaw of the Shaw Brothers Studio. The New York Times published an article on the Hong Kong kung fu films in their June 16, 1973 issue.

While the world of magazines embraced the kung fu craze, television ignored the phenomenon for the most part. This is strange, given the fact that it was on television that the show which sparked the fad, Kung Fu, debuted. And while Kung Fu was a popular show, the networks did very little to actually capitalise on the kung fu craze. Beyond Kung Fu itself, only one prime time show of the period ever featured martial arts to any extent. That was the TV show Get Christie Love, which debuted as a made for TV movie on January 22, 1974 and became a regular series on September 11 of that year. Get Christie Love was as close as television would ever get to blaxploitation. Teresa Graves played Christie Love, a tough undercover cop who was more inclined to use martial arts than her gun. Get Christie Love only lasted one season. Its failure may have been due to the fact that blaxploitation was on its way out by the end of 1974, not to mention the fact that network standards at the time forced Get Christie Love to be much tamer than most blaxploitation movies at the time.

Prime time television's only other flirtation with kung fu would be a failed television pilot that aired as a TV movie on March 20, 1974. Men of the Dragon featured a group of kung fu experts fighting to save one of their number from a white slavery ring in Hong Kong. The movie was produced by Barney Rosenzweig. who had produced episodes of Daniel Boone and later produced Cagney and Lacey.

While the networks never capitalised on the kung fu craze in prime time, they did have one considerable success on Saturday morning. Indeed, short of Kung Fu itself, Hong Kong Phooey may well be the most famous American TV show touching upon the martial arts. It premiered on September 7,1974. Hong Kong Phooey was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon featuring the irrepressible Scatman Crothers as Penrod Pooch, the mild mannered janitor at the police station. When danger called, Penrod Pooch would become Hong Kong Phooey, a superhero who depended upon his skill in kung fu to fight evil. Hong Kong Phooey would battle such villains as The Claw, Dr. Nowhere, Grandma Goody, Professor Presto, and Dr. Disguiso. Sixteen episodes of the series were made and it ran a total of two seasons. It would return again for a season of reruns in 1980.

Of course, kung fu naturally appealed to young boys, so many toys sought to capitalise on the craze. Many of these were cheaply, quickly produced products. I can remember the Christmas of 1973 among the toys I received was an action figure of a kung fu fighter whose right arm would perform a "karate chop" when his back was pressed (I have no idea who manufactured it). Not every kung fu toy manufactured in 1973 and 1974 were cheap knock offs simply meant to capitalise on the craze, as some fairly well known companies would jump on the bandwagon as well.

Indeed, no less than Hasbro decided to capitalise on the kung fu fad with their "Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe," issued in 1974. The Kung Fu Grip G. I. Joe had hands made of a softer, more pliant plastic that allowed him to grip objects better or, for that matter, imitate kung fu moves. In 1974, Matchbox/Lesney Products was then manufacturing their Fighting Furies pirate action figures. Among the playsets they included was one called "Kung Fu Warrior (I guess they figured the pirates might visit Far Cathay at some point...)."

Mattel also sought to capitalise on the kung fu craze. In 1974 their major action figure was "Big Jim," an action figure initially devoted to sports. The original Big Jim could be dressed as a football player, a baseball player, a basketball player, and so on. As a sports oriented action figure, among the earliest outfits made for Big Jim was a karate ghi. It should come as no surprise then that in 1974 Mattel issued a Kung Fu Studio for Big Jim, Of course, as time passed Big Jim would focus less on sports and more upon adventure. Later in 1974, then, Dr. Steel was introduced as an opponent for Big Jim. Dr. Steel was an Asian action figure with a dragon tattoo on his chest and a silver right hand. He was obviously meant to be a martial artist of some sort. Later, when Big Jim became a superhero with his own superteam, "Big Jim's P.A.C.K. (Professional Agents Crime Killers")," Dr. Steel would become a member.

The kung fu craze was truly a multi-media phenomenon, affecting movies, comic books, television, magazines, and, ultimately, even music. Singer Carl Douglas had recorded the song "I Want to Give You My Everything," meaning to use it as his next single. In need of a B-side for the single, he wrote the song "Kung Fu Fighting." "Kung Fu Fighting" was recorded in only ten minutes, with the thought that it was only going to be the B-side. His label would have other ideas, however, as they made "Kung Fu Fighting" the A-Side of the single and "I Want to Give You My Everything" the B-Side. Released in late 1974, "Kung Fu Fighting" made it all the way up the Billboard Hot 100 to the #1 spot on December 7, 1974. It remained in the top spot for two whole weeks. Carl Douglas attempted to follow up his success with another martial arts themed song, "Do the Kung Fu," to no avail. It peaked at #48 on March 1975. "Kung Fu Fighting" would be a one-hit wonder. As it was, when it was released, the kung fu craze was in decline.

The End of the Kung Fu Craze

The kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 did not end all at once, as some fads do. Instead it gradually faded away, as the topic of kung fu ceased to be the centre of attention of one medium after another. The first to be affected may well have been the medium in which the craze had been its strongest, motion pictures. For the majority of 1973 Hong Kong kung fu movies could be found in the top fifty of Variety's box office charts. By February 1974, no Hong Kong kung fu movies remained in the top fifty. This would hold true for the entire year of 1974, with one notable exception. The Bruce Lee movie Way of the Dragon was released in the United States as Return of the Dragon on August 7, 1974. It became another smash hit. Throughout 1974 a few American and British movies, primarily blaxploitation films, continued to capitalise on the kung fu craze. In the end, however, by late 1974 and early 1975, the kung fu craze could be said to be over with regards to motion pictures.

The comic book industry was slower to let go of the kung fu craze than other media. Their earliest kung fu oriented characters emerged around December 1973, although new martial arts oriented characters would continue to debut until well into 1975. While the comic book industry embraced the kung fu fad wholeheartedly, the television industry very nearly ignored it. And what few signs on television that there had ever been a kung fu craze would be gone by 1976. Kung Fu, the TV show that had started it all, and Get Christie Love would both leave the air in 1975. Hong Kong Phooey would remain for another year, ending its initial network run in 1976.

While the exact causes of the kung fu craze, like any fad, cannot wholly be known and are probably very complex at any rate, the reason for its end is easy to guess. Quite simply, in the years 1973 and 1974 Asian martial arts suffered from a serious case of overexposure. From March to December 1973 around 15 different Hong Kong kung fu movies hit the top fifty of Variety's box office chart. And then one must consider that beyond the imports from Hong Kong, martial arts often figured in blaxploitation movies made at that time and a few other action movies as well. On the newsstands there were magazines and comic books dedicated to kung fu. And the entire time Kung Fu could be seen each week on ABC. The simple fact is that in all likelihood the average American simply became burned out on the entire topic of kung fu.

Of course, the end of the kung fu craze did not mean the end of martial arts in movies. Considered somewhat passé by 1974, martial arts would make a slow comeback in the late Seventies. In 1978 Chuck Norris starred in his first film, Good Guys Wear Black. It grossed $18,328,000, a very respectable amount for that time. The Circle of Iron, based on a concept by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant, was released in January 1979 and did respectively well at the box office. By the early Eighties martial arts films had made enough of a comeback for a new craze to emerge. Starting in 1981 with the cheap, B-movie Enter the Ninja, many in the United States would be gripped by an absolute furore for ninjas. Still later, earlier in this decade, the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would start a short cycle in which wuxia films were being imported to the United States.

Ultimately, however, the greatest impact of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 has not been in the various martial arts fads and cycles which have followed it, but in the way in which it would change the American entertainment media forever. Prior to World War II Asian martial arts appeared so little in American and British films that instances of such can almost be counted on one hand. Following World War II, during the Fifties and Sixties, Asian martial arts were featured more frequently in films, although they were almost always portrayed as exotic and deadly arts known only to a few experts. Following the kung fu craze of the Seventies, it would not be unusual to see martial arts appearing in mainstream, American and British films, from The Karate Kid to The Matrix. New martial arts stars would emerge in the United States, such as karate champion Chuck Norris, aikido expert Steven Seagal, and karate champion Jean-Claude Van Damme. Asian martial arts stars, such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, would repeat their success in the United States.

While television felt little of the impact of the kung fu craze when it was unfolding in 1973 and 1974, it would ultimately feel that impact nonetheless. Just as Asian martial arts found their way into mainstream action movies, so too did they find their ways into mainstream TV shows. The Master was a short lived, 1984 series starring Lee Van Cleef that attempted to capitalise on the ninja craze of the time. Walker, Texas Ranger brought Chuck Norris's karate expertise to the small screen. Martial arts movies began to fill late night and weekend television schedules in the way that cheap horror movies and exploitation movies once did. Buffy the Vampire Slayer often utilised Asian martial arts in its fight scenes. At one time The USA Network aired Kung Fu Theatre every Sunday afternoon. Even Saturday morning shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers,Xiaolin Showdown, and others, would incorporate Asian martial arts in some form. In fact, Asian martial arts would become so much an established part of Hollywood action movies and TV shows that Walker, Texas Ranger could exist in a world where every single law enforcement officer and criminal was a martial arts expert and not have it questioned by most TV viewers.

The kung fu craze would also alter the nature of comic books forever. Prior to the kung fu craze characters who knew some form of Asian martial arts were few and far between. Following the kung fu craze superheroes such as Batman and Daredevil would become masters of kung fu and, generally, other martial arts as well. In fact,the change in the character of Batman alone could be seen in the contrast between the fighting techniques he used in the old, Sixties, Adam West Batman TV show and the 1989 movie Batman. In the Sixties TV series, Batman simply used old fashioned, Western fisticuffs against supervillains. In the 1989 movie, Batman delivered kicks and punches to criminals that were obviously influenced by Asian martial arts.

Although it would only last for a relatively brief period, the kung fu craze of the Seventies would ultimately have an impact that few fads ever do. In the end it would change American films, TV shows, and comic books in ways that few crazes or cycles ever have before or since. While many of the movies, magazines, and other paraphernalia from the era may have been forgotten by the average person, the influence of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 is still being felt.
While my knowledge of kung fu movies and comic books is fairly good, this multi-part article did require more research than most I have written. I am then indebted to the following sources for a good deal of information.

The web site Kung Fu Cinema, which features a wonderful, multi-part history entitled "The Origins of Kung Fu Cinema" by Jean Lukitsh

"The Kung Fu Craze: Hong Kong Cinema's First American Reception" by David Desser, from The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity, edited by Poshek Fu and David Desser. (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

As usual, various issues of The New York Times, Time, and Variety. And as always, The Internet Movie Database (IMDB)

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