Friday, June 22, 2018

It's an after-school killing with 'Murder on the Blackboard'

Murder on the Blackboard (1934)
Starring: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Gertrude Michael, Frederick Voeding, Bruce Cabot, Tully Marshall, Regis Toomey, and Barbara Fritchie
Director: George Archainbaud
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Murder hits close to home when one of Miss Withers' colleagues (Fritchie) is bludgeoned to death in the school where she teaches. As she and her friend, Inspector Oscar Piper (Gleason) investigate, it turns many of the school's faculty and staff had reason to commit the carefully planned murder... and even to make an attempt on Miss Withers (Oliver) herself!

"Murder on the Blackboard" is a fast-paced, bare-bones mystery film full of witty dialogue that wastes no time in getting going; operates with a minimum of characters--just enough to obfuscate the identity of the murderer but no so many to make the film feel overcrowded--and locations; and not a moment wasted with filler material or even subplots. (Well, there are a couple kinda-sorta subplots that tie directly into the solution of the mystery, but they are more accurately "stub-plots" they are so minor and barely developed.)

There was one big drawback to the economic nature of how this film was executed and that is that we didn't get any of the quieter moments that showed the mutual romantic attraction developing between Hildegarde and Oscar. I thought that was one of the more appealing aspects of the first film in the series, because it was unusual to see characters like these get to be anything but the gruff cop and frumpy old maid sleuth. All that's left in this film is a sense that they grudgingly respect each others intellect, despite their constant bickering. Also missing from this film is the chance for Oscar to show that he's actually a good cop and a solid detective... it's almost entirely Hildegarde's show and she solves the mystery all on her own.

Speaking of solving the mystery... I also found the "key clue" to be more than just a little far fetched. I can't really comment beyond that without spoiling the mystery, but I can't even imagine the notion that it was a clue occurring to anyone, let alone using it to zero in on the killer's identity... except in a case where the writer told the character to have the idea in the first place.

"Murder on the Blackboard," despite not being as "The Penguin Pool Murder" is still extremely entertaining  and well worth the roughly 70 minutes it will take you to watch it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

The third June for June's Picture Perfect Wednesdays is June Kenney. Hers is a story of near-misses when it came to stardom.

Born in 1933, June Kenney began acting on stage at the age of 4 and appeared in several  several musical short films after being spotted by a talent scout. Warner Bros. was at one time seriously considering signing her to a contract and making her the next Shirley Temple, but her parents didn't want to relocate to California.

Eventually, Kenney's family did relocate to Southern California and settled in West Hollywood. She continued to perform on stage, and in her late teens, she was again spotted by a talent scout. This led to her being cast in a leading role in a television soap opera in 1954... but the show was cancelled before it even aired when the main sponsor pulled out. As a result, she spent the next few years playing bit-parts on television, in movies, and in commercials.

In 1957, Kenney was cast in the starring role of "Teenage Doll" by B-movie King Roger Corman. From that point forward she was locked onto a career path that consisted of one low-budget thriller, horror, or sci-fi film after another.

Kenney deeply wanted more from her acting career, but she could not break out of the B-movie rut she found herself in. She retired from screen acting in 1962, but continued to work as a voice-over actress and eventually became an executive in radio.

Kenney currently lives in Parumph, NV, a town made famous as the long-time home of overnight radio legend Art Bell.

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.