Thursday, November 15, 2018

A hit that cemented several Hollywood careers

Buck Privates (1941)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nat Pendleton, Jane Frazee, Lee Bowman, Alan Curtis, and the Andrew Sisters
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A pair of conmen (Abbott and Costello) accidentially join the Army while trying to avoid the police. As if that wasn't bad enough, the cop they were trying to avoid (Pendleton) turns out to be their drill sergeant.

"Buck Privates" is one of those movies that became far more important than anyone could ever have imagined when they were making it. It was a low-budget production that was just another musical comedy that, at best, would continue to grow the comedy team of Abbott & Costello as box office draws. Instead, it became the most profitable film that Universal Pictures had made up to that point, further solidified the Andrews Sisters as pop-music shaping superstars, and launched Abbott & Costello onto their path to comedic cinematic legends.

The film itself follows a fairly standard storyline of tracking army recruits as their training helps them overcome their character flaws and learn to work with people they might dispise outside of military life. The presence of members of a WAC-precusor unit at the training camp allows for a romantic subplot, with a trio of attractive and talented actors (Jane Frazee, Lee Bowman, and Alan Curtis) carrying that storyline in between musical numbers featuring the Andrew Sisters (and even one by Lou Costello).

While some of the humor and social attitudes in the film are a bit archaic, and Abbott & Costello went onto be even funnier in future movies, "Buck Privates" is a touchstone of American culture that's still hugely entertaining to watch. While the copious stock footage used to create the illusion that the actors aren't on a movie ranch or Universal Studios sound stage gets a bit tiresome durng the film's third act, everything about this film is well-executed... and it's easy to see why so many careers sky-rocketed afterwards and why some of the songs are even well-known to this day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Beauty and the Bomb: Sally McCloskey

During the 1950s, the people of Las Vegas, Nevada, decided to unite the two things the area was famous for: Atom bomb tests and showgirls. Casinos would host parties where people could watch the mushroom clouds rise, at which they'd also crown beauty queens that were usually picked from among their staff, and North Las Vegas even held a beauty competition where they crowned a Miss A-Bomb.

One of the more curious "Beauty and the Bomb" events involve the day photographer Donald English shot pictures of ballet dancer Sally McCloskey performing an interpretative dance with a mushroom cloud in sky above the test grounds.

For some context and information about the photo shoot, click here. Also, here's a copy of a feature some of the pictures were used in (click to enlarge and read the text):

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In Memory of Stan Lee

Comic book creative and editorial giant Stan Lee passed away Monday, November 12, 2018, at the age of 95. Here's a small gallery of artwork celebrating him.

By Wee Chong
By John Romita

By Chris Giarusso
By Russ Heath

 By Colleen Doran

By Mike Weringo & Sean Parsons

By Charles Holbert, Jr.
By Jeffery A. Dobberpuhl

Monday, November 12, 2018

Musical Monday: Meet Folkline

Some of you may be aware that I used to make my living as a writer, game designer, and editor. Back then, many of my best ideas would pop into my head while listening to a song or piece of music, and the idea would often have little or nothing to do with what inspired it.

One such idea was never actually used in anything that was published but instead formed a cornerstone of a role-playing game campaign that I ran for 15 years. It was inspired by the song "Iko-Iko" (as recorded by Cindy Lauper)  and that first spark of an idea grew into one of the grandest and most expansive sagas I ever dreamed up.

But because that grand saga is still very near and dear to my heart, so is the song "Iko-Iko." I listen to it when I want to lift my spirits and bring that half-told saga to mind... and I love finding new versions of it (or older versions I'd not encountered before).
I recently came across this unusual version by Russian folk-rock trio Folkline. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sherlock Sunday: Holmes Faces Death

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Margetson, Hillary Brooke, and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is summoned to the country by his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce) to discover the secrets behind a series of murders at a convalesce home for injured military officers.

The fourth installment of Universal Pictures' "modern day" adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a loose adaptation of Doyle's story "The Musgrave Ritual." It's an effective update of the tale, and it's perhaps the most thrilling of the Universal Holmes I've seem so far. It's certainly the darkest, as it continues to deal with the contemporary (for when the film was made) issues of World War 2. This time, it deals with homefront issues, such as caring for soldiers who return from battle not just with physical injuries but mental damage as well. It's one aspect of the film that gives it staying-power and that makes it just as relevant today as six decades ago.

The film is especially effective in the way it creates the ending. It gives viewers a real sense that Holmes has outsmarted himself for once and that the clever trap he lays to get the otherwise untouchable killer to reveal himself turns into a death trap for Holmes himself. It's a very well-done twist to the story, and twice-welcomed due to the fact that Holmes' bait and trap are so cliched that I feared for what was going to come next when it showed up in the film.

Also worth noting is that the idiotic hairstyle that Holmes sported in the first few movies in this series is gone. The treatment of Watson and other characters is also notably more respectful by Holmes in this film than in several other entries in the picture. Yes, he puts Lestrade down when he's being a bonehead, but he shows more respect for Watson than is average for the series and he doesn't seem like he's constantly trying to prove how superior he is to everyone around him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Love Quarterly

Bessie Love was born Jaunita Horton in 1898. As a teenager, she moved with her parents to Hollywood where director DW Griffith provided her with her first acting job (a small part in "Intolerance" (1916) and also provided her stage name. She was popular almost immediately with movie-goers, and she dropped out of High School to pursue a career in acting full-time.

Love was a hugely popular Hollywood star during the silent era, although most of her films are lost today. Due to her slight frame and small stature, she spent 1920s mostly playing characters younger than her actual age. Although she initially made a successful transition to the Talkies, her film career was stalling as she entered her reached her mid-30s (during the 1930s). So she left the United States for England where she found success on the stage.

Every quarter, we'll feature some photos and trivia about this early Hollywood Glamor Girl. So, until the Spring, we hope you'll stay warm... although maybe in a slightly more efficient way than Bessie did.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Picture Perfect Special: Jim Steranko

Artist/writer/comics historian/magician Jim Steranko turns 80 years old today! While his body of work in comics is slight and mostly took place in the mid-1960s, it had a huge impact and continues to do so to the present. (Anyone who wants to be a comics artist MUST study Steranko's work on "Captain America", "Strange Tales", and "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD." It is some of the best comic book art every created.)

In celebration of Steranko's birthday, here's a sampling of his art.

A case of murder most funny!

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Fred Kelsey, Frank Austin, Dell Henderson, Bobby Burns, and Dorothy Granger
Director: James Parrott
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Ollie (Hardy) concocts a scheme to pass Stan (Laurel) off as the to a recently deceased millionaire, the two find themselves trapped in a creepy house with a killer and incompetent cops.

During the silent movie era and well into the 1940s, the "dark old house" sub-genre was very popular, both in straight-up mystery and horror films, and as the target of lampooning. With "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case", the popular comedy team got their piece of that action.

The result is a mixed bag. The film features spot-on satirical takes on the genre's standards--stormy weather, creepy servants, overly complicated murder methods, and "big reveals" that don't make much sense and often have no foundation in the story--but the various set-piece gags mostly meander and peter out instead of coming to a comedic crescendo. What's worse, the film comes to one of the lamest endings I have come across.

Laurel & Hardy are excellent as usual. The strongest part of the film is its opening scene where they are sitting on a pier, Hardy taking a nap and Laurel doing a little fishing. It's also the most traditional "Laurel & Hardy"-esque part of the film. The bits where they arrive at the house in the rain, and later when they are chased by a "ghost" are also highlights of the film, but everything else is a little shaky. Nothing in this film is all that bad, but I feel that part of the problem is that the underlying plot was too big for its 30-minute runtime. I think, ultimately, the filmmakers felt the same way, which accounts for the fizzling gags, scant story (there's a gathering of heirs but hardly anything is done with them), and an abrupt and awful ending. I usually complain about films being too long, but this one could have benefitted from an additional 10 minutes spent on Laurel & Hardy interacting with the greedy family members and the creepy servants.

In the final analysis, "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" is worth checking out if you LOVE Laurel & Hardy or the "dark old house"-type movies. More casual fans of either can find far better instances of either to check out. That said, if you're an Amazon Prime member, you can watch it for free as part of your subscription package, and others can rent it (and two other Laurel & Hardy films) for a very reasonable price.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ending a series on a low note

Wig-Wag (1935)
Starring: Dorothy Granger, Jack Mulhall, Grady Sutton, Jane Darwell, and Carol Tevis
Director: Sam White
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After his fiance (Granger) breaks their engagement just before the wedding, Jack (Mulhall) decides to win her back by making her jealous. To do this, he convinces his friend Grady (Sutton) to dress up like a woman and pretend to be his new bride.

Aside from the very first installment, this is the weakest entry in the "The Blonde and the Redhead" series. It's almost as if the series came full circle, but in the worst possible way.

The problem with "Wig-Wag" is that it wants to rely on slapstick humor, but what it offers in that department is executed without energy and in a very feeble fashion. I don't know if it was under-rehearsed or ad-libbed on the set, but the performers weren't leaning into it. Nor was the production department for that matter; sometimes, slapstick is made funnier with exaggeration through sound effects... but that wasn't done here.

The filmmakers would have done viewers a service if they'd focused more on dialogue and characters here. I suppose they did as much with homosexuality and gender roles as they could in the 1930s, but the scenes where the cross-dressing Grady is in "danger" are the most amusing, especially the awkward kissing scenes. These scenes also contain the only truly funny lines in the film, with the "She's the biggest thing to come into my life" being prime among them. (And Sutton is BIG in this picture, given they put an already tall man in heels.)

As for the actors, they seem to be giving it their best, considering what they're working with. Jack Mullhall and Dorothy Grangers are the stars here, with Grady Sutton supporting them nicely; he is mostly serves as the straight man, which is an odd phrase to say about a hulking cross-dresser. Carol Tevis' role is the smallest she's had in any of the episodes, whether it be screen-time or role in the plot. She could have been left out entirely, and it wouldn't have made a difference.

"Wig-Wag" is the fourth and final short included on the second DVD collection of these RKO short films. It's the most risque of them humor-wise, but, as mentioned, it's also one of the worst when it comes to execution. Still, this is a collection worth checking out, as it also contains two of the best entries in the series, "Bridal Bail" and "Contented Calves".

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Torchy Blane is a Whole New Woman!

Torchy Blane in Panama (1938)
Starring: Lola Lane, Paul Kelly, Tom Kennedy, Anthony Averill, and Larry Williams
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A violent bank robber (Averill) passes himself as a member of the Leopard Lodge to conceal his identity and hide among its members onboard a cruiseship bound for Los Angeles via the Panama Canal. Ace reporter Torchy Blane (Lane), her police detective boyfriend, Steve (Kelly), and a rival reporter (Williams) board the ship in the hopes of identifying the robber before he escapes with the stolen money. Bumbling detective Gahagan (Kennedy) is also aboard, as a member of the Lodge and Steve hopes he'll be able to spot the fraud.

In this, the fifth entry in the "Torchy Blane" series, Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane are replaced by Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in the roles of Torchy Blane and Steve McBride. This recasting is partly to blame for this being the weakest film in the series yet, but even more blame can be placed on the writers of the screenplay.

First, Paul Kelly is a decent actor, but he's not quite right for the part of Steve McBride, because his slighter frame makes him less of a presence. It also doesn't help that the writers have given the character a streak of sexist immaturity that hasn't been present until this film: For much of "Torchy Blane in Panama"'s running-time, viewers have the sense that Steve and the reporter he teams up don't want Torchy's girl cooties disrupting their male bonding (which include an ongoing and obnoxious prank on Gahagan).

Second, while Torchy is more of an action heroine in this film than she's ever been before (she parachutes from an airplane, she scales the sides of ships and walls, throws punches, and more!), she ultimately ends up as a damsel in distress who must be rescued by Steve from the film's villains. She's as witty as ever, and Lola Lane makes of a good replacement--even if it's odd to suddenly have a brunette playing the lead character in a series that's made a big deal out of the fact she's a blonde--but she is let down by the script-writers who didn't seem to know how to write a woman who didn't need to be rescued.

Thirdly, while the "Torchy Blane" films have always been B-pictures, this is the first one that feels like a 1930s cheapie comedy/mystery. The story focuses more on the clownish antics of Gahagan than ever before, cruel jokes on other characters for no good reason are considered par for the course, and the cops, in general, are so dumb that you're surprised the manage to remember to breathe. While Torchy is ultimately reduced to a damsel in distress, she's still the smartest person around, because the cops are so damn dumb.
"Torchy Blane in Panama" is a major step down quality-wise from previous films, but it still entertaining. The dialogue is just as witty in previous films, and there are a few moments of genuine tension. Lola Lane also makes a decent Torchy, but she is ultimately let down by a script that's too much generic 1930s laff-bag, and too little Torchy Blane.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Bryan Baugh Horror

It's Halloween, and artist Bryan Baugh brings us a Picture Perfect Wednesday for Monsters. The girls might think differently of it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween is almost here...

... and maybe this freaky song and video from Die Atwoord can help get you in the mood, with its equal part silly, sexy, and scary!

Space Girls Meet the Monsters!

It's almost Halloween, and monsters are prowling even in space. Who will win? Space Girls or Space Monsters?
By Alan Quadh
By Bryan Baugh

By Arthur Adams

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Halloween is Coming... and the Mummies Need Women!

From ancient times through today, mummies have been out there stalking women. Why? Who knows. Maybe it's Heather's doing. After all, Heather has two mummies.

By Tom Mandrake & Tony Ojed

By George Appel

By Bryan Baugh

By Tom Mandrake

Monday, October 15, 2018

Movie Monday: A Shot in the Dark

Here's a brief trip down film noir lane to get your Monday off to a good start!

A Shot in the Dark (2015)
Starring: David Macintosh, Holley Bucknam, Reuben Taylor, and Jack Nye
Director: Jeffrey Nye
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Halloween is coming...

... and Norm Breyfogle provides some portraits of heroes fighting to stem the tide of monster attacks!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Witness the birth of the modern zombie

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Starring: Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Reilly, and Kyra Schon
Director: George Romero
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the dead rise to eat the living, a small group of people board themselves up in a house and attempt to hold out against an army of hungry zombies.

"Night of the Living Dead" is perhaps one of the most effective horror movies ever made. While its budget constraints are occassionally evident, and the acting leaves something to be desired at times, it still emerges as one of the scariest, most intense, films ever, with near-perfect pacing, great camera work, and sparse but effective set design and special effects. It's also arguably the most influential film of modern times, and many creators of horror and suspense films from the past 20 years probably owe quite a bit to Romero for inspiriation.

The key to the films success is that it incorporates a bit of the morality play aspect that exists at the core of most horror movies with a complete sense of claustrophobia and a certain doom. Although a national (possibly worldwide) disaster in unfolding, the action of movie is mostly confined to a single house, and the threats that those barricaded within come not only from the undead hoard outside, but also from each other as their various character flaws are explosed and amplified due to their situation. (Of course, it also features one of the most disturbing zombie flesh-eating scenes that have ever been put on fillm... if you've seen the film, you know what I mean, and if you haven't yet, you will know as soon as the moment happens.)

Despite recognizing this as a true classic fillm, I also admit it's not perfect. In addition to the acting, there's a couple of plot holes. I recently watched the movie again, and I still find the opening cemetary sequence strange beyond words, and I still am not certain what Barbara's ultimate fate is. (One thing I am certain of is that it's not a racist movie. I watched the film again, because I heard how it was supposed to have racist undertones throughout--undertones that are fully exposed at the film's climax--and since I'd never noticed that, I figured I'd watch the film again. Well, I'm here to tell you that anyone who finds racism in this movie is probably a racist themselves who are engaging in a bit of projection.)

This film is one of the most commonly found in the massive DVD multipacks, and it is a highlight of every package it's in; it plus one or two additional movies you're interested in will make the set worth its purchase price.

If you haven't seen this classic and are a fan of zombie movies and horror movies in general, this is a must-see. It's the original of the "modern zombie" and a damn fine movie to boot.