Monday, June 18, 2018

Musical Monday: The B52's performing
"Give Me Back My Man"!

The B-52's are among the greatest New Wave bands to rise to fame during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their presentation style was also among the most retro of all of them, which means they fit right in here at Shades of Gray... especially given this video for "Give Me Back My Man" is in black-and-white.

Some of you may be aware that I frequently post random tables intended to inspire roleplaying game adventure ideas (and to just amuse) over at the NUELOW Games blog. Whether you are or not, I am bringing that practice to this blog, for, at the very least, one post.

WHO TOOK HER MAN? (Roll 1d12)
1. The Queen of the 57th Dimension.
2. The Vampire of Mulholland Drive.
3. The Sorceress of Zoom.
4. The Sirines of Shipwreck Cove.
5. The Love Witch.
6. A Sharknado.
7. Lady Satan.
8. The Mermaid of Blood Bay.
9. Anal-Probing Greys from Ganyamede.
10. Herbert West, Mad Scientist.
11. Khefra, Living Mummy Princess of Egypt.
12. Russian Hackers.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

'The Wide Open Spaces' is filled with funny

The Wide Open Spaces (1931)
Starring: Dorothy Sebastian, Ned Sparks, Antonio Moreno, and George Cooper
Director: Arthur Rossen
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A corrupt sheriff (Sparks) will go to any lengths to destroy the romance between the lovely Miss Rose (Sebastian) and the dashing John Smith (Moreno).

"The Wide Open Spaces" is a short film that lampoons just about any and every trope of westerns from the silent film and early talkies era that you can think of. It starts with a series of sight-gags and jokes revolving around gun-happy townsfolks, transitions into a series of gags based around the stereotypical wild west saloon, and ultimately settles into a spoof of melodramas with a love triangle involving the tough-as-nails-but-sexy saloon girl Rose (played by Dorothy Sebastian with perfect comedic timing), the crooked Sheriff Jack Rancid (played by Ned Sparks who does everything but twirl his mustache), and the mysterious Mexicano named John Smith (the romantic lead and mostly straight-man, played by Antonio Moreno).

While some jokes are funnier than others, there aren't any that fall flat--and that includes one involving Sebastian that I assume was somewhat shocking back in the day. One of the funniest is set up early in the picture and pays off at the very end when the evil sheriff gets his well-deserved come-uppance... while one of the most mysterious is the presence of a cross-dressing actor in black face portraying Rose's maid. This character is so strange and so out-of-place that I assume it's a reference to something contemporary audiences would have understood but is lost on me. (I have a couple ideas about what it might mean, but I can't help but feel that I'm looking at the scene with 21st century eyes and therefore imposing something on that wasn't there when it was filmed. If anyone has seen the "Wide Open Spaces" who wants to comment on cross-dressing maid in blackface, I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

All-in-all, this is another great bit of fast-moving, whacky fun from the Masquers Club... and one that I think will be as entertaining to the modern viewer as it was to audiences back in 1931.

Dorothy Sebastian is not impressed.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Have a fun time with 'The Dancing Millionaire'

The Dancing Millionaire (1934)
Starring: Dorothy Granger, Carol Tevis, Grady Sutton, Tom Kennedy, and Jack Mulhall
Director: Sam White
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her wrestler boyfriend (Kennedy) is arrested after a road-rage incident, Dorothy (Granger) decides to trade up to a rich man (Sutton) she meets at her job as a taxi-dancer. Things get complicated when the ex (who doesn't know he's an ex) gets out of jail and shows up at the restaurant where Dorothy is on a date with her new man.

"The Dancing Millionaire" is the most 'mature' of this allegedly risque series of pre-Hayes Code comedy shorts that I've watched so far, at least as far as the jokes and the character motivations go, as as Granger's character's main interest in men being what's in their wallets rather than their heart or personality. Some of the slapstick is a bit on the lame side, but the non-stop pace of this film makes that excusable. What is slightly more annoying is that Dorothy Granger appears to be doing the "high-pitched dumb chick voice" like Carol Tevis always does... and both of them doing that is a bit much. Still, this is a fun film... and a funny twist at the very end.

Like the other entries in this eight-film non-series series, which have been issued on a pair of DVDs under the title "Blondes and Redheads" and which are linked thematically and by Carol Tevis and Grady Sutton who appear in all entries, "The Dancing Millionaire" a slapstick romantic comedy of errors. The writing isn't as sharp as in the two others I've watched, but the it's still lots of fun.

Trivia: Almost everywhere you look on the Internet--including at IMD--the summary of this film is wrong. They even get it wrong on the back cover of the DVD I link to above. Just about everyone seems to think "The Dancing Millionaire" can be summarized as follows: "A thuggish gangster, trying to prove that he's "sophisticated", gets the girls to help him to win a local dancing competition."... But there is neither a thuggish gangster, nor a dancing competition anywhere in the film.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

The second June in June is the most frequently-featured June here at Shades of Gray, June Collyer. She has even been the inspiration for a couple rollplaying game scenarios by the prorietor that were published by NUELOW Games.

June Collyer was born in 1906 to socially prominent and wealthy parents in New York City. She set her heart on acting at a young age, and got her first professional roles as a teenager and became a leading lady in silent films as of 1927.

Unlike many other early movie stars Collyer's career survived the advent of sound, and she continued to star in dramas, comedies, and thrillers until the mid-1930s, when, after a decade as a leading lady, she retired from film acting. There is no clear reasons for her retirement, although the prevailing theory seems to be that she gave up acting to raise her children... a theory that seems to ring true given that in 1950, she resurfaced on the small screen playing the TV wife of her real world husband for five years on "The Stu Erwin Show."

June Collyer passed away in 1968, just a few months after her husband of 36 years had died.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

'No Hands on the Clock' is flawed but still fun

No Hands on the Clock (1941)
Starring: Chester Morris, Jean Parker, George Watts, Astrid Alwynn, Lauren Raker, Dick Purcell, and Rose Hobart
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A missing person case in Reno turns into a tangle of mistaken identities and murder involving a dysfunctional family and bank robbers... and it's disrupting the honeymoon of a private detective (Morris) and his bride (Parker), not to mention threatening to end their marriage before it even gets off the ground.

"No Hands on the Clock" is a light-hearted murder mystery that is dragged down by a mystery plot so complicated that it's difficult to follow. It's not neccesarily a bad plot--and I think it was probably perfectly fine in the novel this film was based on--but this film has too short a running time to give enough room for the motives for kidnapping and murder of the many characters to be given enough context and explanation.

But, honestly, the plot is almost secondary to the antics of the quirky detective, Humphrey. played by Chester Morris, and his wife Louise, played by Jean Parker. They're fun to watch as they exchange one-liners and witty remarks, although I couldn't help but think this marriage is going to end in a quicky Reno divorce with the level of disrespect Humphrey has for his wife, and the rampaging jealousy Louise has regarding he husband talking to other women, even when he's obviously doing so while "on the job."
The film is also fun to watch, because Morris and Parker are supported by actors and actresses who are cast as perfectly as they are in their various roles. Dick Purcell shines almost as brightly as Morris and Parker in a small but crucial role as a notorious gangster. The only sour note is a strange performance given by Astrid Allwyn, in what would be her final film appearance of note. She has a fake smile frozen on her face and she is never looking at the actors with whom she shares a scene but always slightly away from them, staring into space with a gaze as fixed as her smile. I don't know if she was reading cue cards just off set or what was going on there, but she gave a performance more fit for radio than the screen, and she stole her scenes in a bad and distracting way whenever she appeared. (I could understand what she was doing if her character was supposed to be blind that wasn't the case.)

In the end, there is just enough bad in "No Hands on the Clock" to outweigh the good. It's flawe, but still fun, and comes in on the low end of average.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Danger on the Air' is saved by its stars

Danger on the Air (1938)
Starring: Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, Peter Lind Hayes, Lee J. Cobb, Berton Churchill, and Jeff Prouty
Director: Otis Garrett
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a radio network's biggest, and most obnoxious, sponsor dies under mysterious circumstances, an ad executive (Grey) and sound engineer (Woods) turn amateur detectives to unravel the mystery and bring the murderer to justice.

On the one hand, "Danger on the Air" feels as light-weight as the balloons floating about the radio station throughout this picture. On the other hand, it feels like it's trying to do too much in its short running time (70 minutes), because it is crammed full of characters, nearly every one of which has a reason for wanting the murder victim dead.

The airy, light feeling comes from the snappy, well-crafted dialogue, of which not a single line or word is without  reason--either to advance the plot or to provide characterization. The great interplay that Nan Grey has with just about ever actor she shares a scene with also adds to the film's sense of breeziness. This is especially true for scenes with co-star Donald Woods and the soon-to-be murdered Berton Churchill.

Speaking of Berton Churchill and Nan Grey, they both play characters that I think go a long way to making this movie appeal to modern audiences. Churchill's character of Cesar Cluck is a lecherous, self-promoting businessman who uses any and all means available to crush his competition and forces himself upon every pretty woman he meets because he feels it's his right. Meanwhile, Nan Grey's character, Christina McCorkle is an independent-minded professional woman in charge of her own ad agency who takes no guff from anyone; she may be partners with her brother in the venture, but it's clear who's in charge. When Cluck turns on the "charm" and tries to sexually assault her, she treats him like Harvey Weinstein should have been treated by his victims--she decks him with a sold punch to face. The men in the movie, who have all been kowtowing to Cluck cheer for her actions. Grey's character, and almost every action she takes, is one that should appeal to modern viewers and is as big a part of making this movie as enjoyable as it is as Grey's bright presence on the screen.

Unfortunately, for all the good it has going for it, the movie suffers from trying to do too much in a short running time. It is crammed full of too many characters, each of which get at least a line or two, each of which is referenced by other characters repeatedly, and each of which has a motive for killing the murder victim. Unfortunately, most them are middle-aged men in dark suits, so even the most attentive viewer will had a hard time telling who's who. What's worse, in the end, because of the abundance of characters who all blend together, the stereotypical "gather all the suspects for the big reveal" just adds more confusion to the overall storyline when the killer is ultimately revealed. Although a foundation for the motive is well established, it still feels like the solution comes out of left field.

Usually, I find myself needing the structure of the mystery and the interplay between actors to be of almost equal importance in films of this kind. In this case, however, I found the leads to be so strong--and Grey in particular--that they more than made up for the deficiencies elsewhere. I don't recall seeing films with Woods before, and I've never been as impressed with Grey as I was here (heck, the only other place I remember her from is "Daughter of Dracula", although I am fairly certain she's been in other films I've watched and written about). I will have to seek out more movies with both in the future to see if they shine the way they did here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

We're going all Junes on the June Picture Perfect Wednesdays! First up is June Lang!

Born in 1917, June Lang began acting professionally in her early teens after lying about her age to a casting director. During the 1930s, she climbed the studio system ladder, starting in supporting roles in B-pictures and serials (such as "Chandu the Magician", along side Bela Lugosi, under her true name June Vlasek), and eventually starring along side the likes of Laurel & Hardy (in "Bonney Scotland") Fredric March (in "Road to Glory"), and Shirley Temple (in "Wee Willie Winkle").

Lang specialized in playing wholesome, perky women, but when she married mob boss Johnny Roselli--in love and unaware of his criminal connections--the ensuing publicity tarnished her image and essentially ended her career in 1940. Even after divorcing him in 1942, she was unable to reestablish her career, and she all but retired from acting in 1947. She passed away in 2005.

Read more about June Lang at the Internet Movie Database by clicking here.