Tuesday, August 21, 2018

It's the French Revolution, Film Noir Style!

The Black Book (aka "Reign of Terror") (1949)
Starring: Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl, Richard Hart, Arnold Moss, and Jess Barker
Director: Anthony Mann
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As the power-hungry Maximillian Robespierre (Basehart) uses a series of rigged show-trials and executions of his rivals to usurp the French Revolution and make himself dictator of the emerging republic, Charles D'Aubigny (Cummings) infiltrates Robespierre's inner circle to secure evidence of his corruption and evil. When he discovers that the most damning piece of evidence--a list drawn up by Robespierre of those marked for death--has already gone missing, he begins a desperate search for this other mystery operative and gain control of the list, before he himself is revealed as a traitor. The only person he can rely on in his mission is his ex-lover Madelon (Dahl)... but is even she trustworthy in a moment when the fate of a nation turns on who has possession of a single black book?

"The Black Book" is the sort of film that usually takes place on the mean streets and seedy dives of the Big City of the 1940s. Here, however, the look and tone of film noir and the frenetic pace of a spy thriller is applied to a story that unfolds in the back alleys and dungeons of 17th century Paris. It's a film noir historical costume drama spy thriller... and it's a heck of a ride.

Three film genres are intertwined in this movie and the result is a fast-paced, visually interesting drama with so many twists and turns to its plot that, even though the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are clearly defined, by the end of the movie, you'll be wondering if good really has won out in the end... especially given one ominous note that is struck when a young soldier introduces himself as Bonaparte.

One weak spot of the film is it's dialogue. To describe it as trite and uninspired is generous, but the rapid pace and gorgeously moody visuals of the film more than make up for this weakness. I suppose one could also complain that it's not historically accurate in many ways, but that should earn the response, "it's just a movie; you should really just relax."

If you enjoy spy movies, film noir, or costume dramas, I think you'll enjoy "The Black Book". It's one of many entertaining movies in "The Fabulous Forties" boxed set.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

'Hold That Ghost' has flaws but Lou Costello makes it lots of fun

Hold That Ghost (1941)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two friends (Abbott and Costello) inherit a derelict roadhouse within which a gangster may have hidden a large fortune. Upon being stranded there one stormy night with several strangers (inlcuding Ankers, Carlson, and Davis), they discover it may be haunted by murderous ghosts as well.

"Hold That Ghost" is a spoof of once popular 'dark old house' thriller genre, which included such great early films as the original "The Cat and the Canary" and the straight-forwardly named "The Old Dark House". It is sort of a precursor to the many horror spoofs Abbott & Costello would make a decade or later involving the various iconic Universal Monsters.

Unfortunately, this film is flawed at its foundation. While all the actors are clearly game and do the best they can with the material, almost every character in this film feels flat and entirely too much of the plot only works because the characters are stupid even by comedy standards, or very forgetful. Even worse, while Abbott's character is often brusque and even mean toward Costello's character, he is often excessively so in this film. I think this may be the first Abbott & Costello film I've seen where I don't understand why the two main characters want anything to do with each other.

On the positive side, the weaknesses mentioned above are largely made up for by Lou Costello giving some really funny performances, especially relating to the running gag that he is almost always the only person who happens to see the mysterious going-ons in the creepy roadhouse the characters are stuck in. He also has a cute dance routine with Joan Davis, who, in an unusual twist for an A&B film, shows romantic interest in Costello without having an ulterior motive. Another positive of the film is the elaborate sets that make up the dilapited roadhouse and the moody lighting within it.

In the final analysis, "Hold That Ghost" isn't be best of Abbott & Costello's films, but it is still well worth your time, especially if you enjoy the creepy house horror/mystery films.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Happy birthday to Julie Newmar!

Catwoman turns 85 years old today!

The Wisdom of InspiroBot!

One of the greatest internet toys is InspiroBot, a website that randomly mixes phrases and pictures so you can create "motivational poster"-type graphics. Some may be seem insightful and profound, but most will be bizarre and make you smile or even laugh. (The conceit is that it's the world's first motivational A.I.... and if you click long enough, you'll get a surprise!)
Most of the InspiroBot's offerings are in color, but a few are in black-and-white and therefore suitabe for posting here on Shades of Gray. Here are some that I have generated during my many visits to the site... which has become a go-to activity when I'm feeling lazy or need a few grins.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Torchy Blane's 3rd adventure is a mixed bag

Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (1937)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton McLane, Tom Kennedy, Anderson Lawler, Anne Nagel, Charles Foy,  Bobby Watson, and Natalie Moorehead
Director: Frank MacDonald
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Reporters at a rival paper (Foy and Watson) arrange a hoax murder to humiliate Torchy (Farrell) and expose what they view as favoritism toward her by her homicide detective boyfriend (McClane) when it comes to information. However, the hoax becomes very real when someone uses it as an opportunity to commit an actual murder.

"The Adventurous Blonde" is the third Torchy Blane movie, and it is a mix of really bad and really good material.

On the good side, we've got a back-and-forth subplot about Torchy and Steve's looming marriage. It was inching closer during the first two films, and it seems like it might actually happen in this one... but the various reasons for it being delayed--even as the magistrate stands ready to perform the ceremony--add to fun of the film. We're also treated to lots of witty dialogue, not only from McLane and Farrell as Steve and Torchy banter and bicker their way through the movie, but from the supporting cast as well. Even dimwitted Gahagan (Tom Kennedy) gets a couple good zingers. Finally, the intersection of Torchy and Steve's professional lives serves as a plot complication with both members of the media and the police department raising questions about the propriety of a crimebeat reporter and a police detective being in an intimate relationship with each other.

The intersection of police work and journalism is also what gives rise to some of the film's worst points. First, there's the hoax murder that Torchy's rivals stage. Initially, it makes sense within the rules that exist in the breezy, pulp-fiction universe of Torchy Blane... but as it continues, it becomes less and less believable. By the time the "corpse" is being loaded onto the coroner's transport vehicle, it has become downright stupid in its execution. How could the ambulance crew not notice the corpse wasn't dead? Or were they paid off to further the hoax? And if they were paid off, why didn't they give the hoaxters a heads-up that the hoax had turned real? But even before we get to that point, the number of people involved in the hoax beyond newspaper staff--people who will be serving jail-time for giving false evidence to the police--have gotten to the number where the intended reason for it was going to fail anyway. Finally, there's the "creative detective work" that Torchy engages in during the second half of the film. It's amusing, but it's doing things the hard way... and in a way that barely makes any sense and is as unethical (perhaps evenmoreso) than the hoax that set the events of the movie in motion.

In balance, "Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde" is a fun romp, but it's not one that you want to think too hard about while it unfolds. Ultimately, the best part of the film ends up being the will-they or won't-they about Steve and Torchy's nuptuials and the many caustic exchanages between characters.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Blondes and Redheads look for 'Bridal Bail'

Bridal Bail (1934)
Starring: June Brewster, Grady Sutton, Carol Tevis, George Lewis, Sam Appel, and Matt McHugh
Director: George Stevens
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a local theater offers to pay a couple to get married in front of an audience, sisters June and Carol (Brewster and Tevis) concoct a plan to use the occassion for June to marry and elope with her boyfriend (Lewis). Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

"Bridal Bail" is a wild comedy of errors that hits the ground running and keeps building speed and layering complications until almost the very last minute. The story features the perfect storm of good intentions going sideways that makes the best of these old short films so much fun. They're even more fun when, like here, the cast is all perfect in their roles and working with snappy dialogue. Grady Sutton and June Brewster are particularly funny in this outing, which was the third entry in a series of relationship-based comedies they starred in along with Carol Tevis.

This film belongs to Sutton and Brewster, with Tevis is in a supporting role in this outing. Still, she is excellent in her part, playing well off Matt McHugh (the boorish police officer who wants to marry June, but whom June wants nothing to do with) and George Lewis (the handsome gentleman June wants to marry), as she and the rest of the supporting cast becomes swept up in the swirling mess that June and Grady create after following through on a really bad idea suggested by Carol

"Bridal Bail" is one of four short films included on "Blondes and Redheads Volume 2" and it's worth the price of admission almost by itself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Monday, August 6, 2018

'A Slip at the Switch' is lots of fun

A Slip at the Switch (1932)
Starring: Charles 'Chic' Sale, Bud Jamison, George 'Gabby' Hayes, Charlie Hall, Monte Collins, and Phil Dunham
Director: Mark Sandrich
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A small-town rail crossing and switch operator (Sale) must fight off a couple of robbers (Hall and Jamison) and stop two trains from colliding on the track.

"A Slip at the Switch" is an early action-comedy featuring a cast who got their start appearing in silent movies. It's a fast-paced little film where gags and slapstick action are flying fast and furiously from the very beginning of the first scene to the final moment.

It's easy to see why Charles Sale was a pop culture sensation during the late 1920s until his untimely death in 1937. He is hilarious as the tenacious and brave, but dimwitted, railway worker, playing the part with perfect comedic timing and lots of energy and a screen presence that almost overwhelms that of Bud Jamison who plays a surprisingly intimidating bad guy.

"A Slip at the Switch" is one of six short films included on "Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies Vol 3" from Alpha Video. The footage from which the transfer was made was in decent shape which will make it even more enjoyable for you to take some 13-wellspent minutes to watch this one.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Fantastic Friday!

Next week, the new "Fantastic Four" #1 arrives in comics shops. I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am! As I have on the past few Fridays, here's are some glances back at the Fantastic Four that has been...

By John Byrne
By Art Adams

By Dean Kotz

By George Perez
By Art Adams
By Brian Ching

And, finally, a brief look at the Fantastic Four, brought to us by the first artist of their new series, Sara Pichelli.

By Sara Pichelli

Thursday, August 2, 2018

'Murder on the Honeymoon' needed work

Murder on the Honeymoon (1935)
Starring: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Lola Lane, George Meeker, Spencer Charters, Dorothy Libarie, Leo G. Carroll, Arthur Hoyt, and Harry Ellerby
Director: Lloyd Corrigan
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a fellow passenger dies on a puddle-jumper flight to Catalina Island, vacationing school teacher Hildegarde Withers (Oliver) suspects foul play. She reaches out to her friend Inspector Oscar Piper (Gleason), who flies out to investigate as it appears to be a contract killing with connections back to New York City.

"Murder on the Honeymoon" is the third film to star Edna May Oliver and James Gleason as bickering sleuths, and it is yet another decline from the excellence that we saw in the first one, "The Penguin Pool Murder". While the beginning and end of the film are strong, almost everything in between is underdeveloped. There are several neat plot-threads inhabited by interesting murder suspects, but they are never completely followed nor even properly developed or connected. Worse, the characters of Withers and Piper are shells of their former selves. The mature relationship that we saw begin in "Penguin Pool" is nowhere to be seen and instead we're left with a pair of mean-spirited characters that makes you wonder at times why they even like each other.

As disappointing as this movie is on many fronts, when it's good, it's really good. Although poorly developed, the mystery of the film is solid in its foundation and the way Withers and Piper solve it is logical (even if it almost gets them killed). And speaking of getting killed, the film is at its best during a sequence where our heroes are investigating a closed casino and encounter some of the suspects there; it's well-filmed and well-written and all-around tense. The same is true for a scene where Ms. Withers is literally at the mercy of a contract killer. Finally, the Big Reveal of the murderer is handled in a different and thrilling way that what is typical for mysteries of this kind--there's no "let's get all the suspects together in a room", so it comes as a surprise. (The identity of the murderer may not be surprising if you've been paying attention, but that may make the scene even more satisfying for you.)

The acting is solid all around, with the supporting cast being so strong that it's a shame none of their characters are given more time in the spotlight. The film would have been a bit stronger if we'd seen more of the honeymooners referenced in the title (Dorothy Libarie and Harry Ellerby), as well as gotten a little more development and screen time for Lola Lane's mysterious fame-seeking (?) character.

While "Murder on the Honeymoon" is another step down in quality when compared to the launch of this series, it's still entertaining enough for you to take the time to watch. It's firmly at the low end of average, but it has just enough going for it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Mary Carlilse has passed away

Mary Carlisle was born on March 3, 1914. She made her first film appearance at age 14, after being given a screen-test at the request of Universal Studio honcho Carl Laemmle, Jr. Her young age prevented her from playing any other roles until 1930--after which her career took off.

From 1930 through 1939, Carlisle was in 60 films, playing everything from bit parts to leading roles. She was almost always cast as the cute romantic interest or the pretty, loyal friend, but by 1940 she had grown unhappy with the typecasting rut her career had fallen into. Unable to break free from it, she retired from acting in 1943.

Carlisle passed away today, August 1, 2018 at the age of 104. Here is a small gallery of photos of her in rememberance. You can read more about her life and career by clicking here.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of NASA's founding... Space Girls!

Last week, it was 60 years since NASA was created via funding from the United States congress. The Space Girls are thrilled, because it couldn't have been done without them.

By Gary Martin

By Frank Cho
By Joe Jusko

Saturday, July 28, 2018

'Fifty Miles from Broadway' takes you to a different time

Fifty Miles from Broadway (1929)
Starring: Harry Watson, Olga Woods, and Reginald Merville
Director: Bradley Barker
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A showgirl (Woods) decides to retire from the stage and marry her childhood sweetheart in the small town they both grew up in. Upon returning, the young lovers find their fathers are still engaged in a feud that's lasted for 20 years.

"Fifty Miles from Broadway" is a mini-musical that crams three songs, three production numbers, and several vaudeville-style back-and-forth comedy bits into less than 20 minutes. The film is so stagy in its presentation--from the acting styles to the way actors enter and exit scenes to pretty much anything else you can think of--that it's not even a full step removed from a straight recording of an actual stage performance.

Usually, I am bothered by excessive staginess in films, but in "Fifty Miles to Broadway" it's a clear stylistic choice rather than actors who don't now how to perform in a media different from theatre and/or silent film. The only weak point in the film is, sadly, at the very beginning the star-crossed overs sing a duet about how they're returning home... and Reginald Merville turns out to be a pretty bad singer. Story-wise. there's also the unfortunate fact that Harry Watson's character is lusting after his son's fiance and isn't subtle about it. All the other characters--including the object of his lust, who agrees to his request to put on one of her skimpy Broadway outfits and perform for him. The 1920s must have been a very different time indeed.

Of course, there's the drawback that this is yet another film transferred from a worn videotape or a decaying print. It's not the worst I've seen, but there literally ins't a moment in the film that isn't blurry (as the still frame used to illustrate this review demonstrates).

If you enjoy musicals, vaudeville and early talkies, I think you'll find "Fifty Miles to Broadway" entertaining, one weak number and an old pervert aside. (By the way, if you do watch it, and you know who played the father with the long beard--the girl's father--let me know. I can't find a full cast list for this picture it's so obscure.)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fantastic Friday!

The first Fantastic Four incarnation I encountered was that drawn by the team of John Buscema (pencils) and Joe Sinnott (inks). Sinnott is perhaps the artist whose work has graced more pages than anyone one else since he inked the the title steadily from 1965 through 1981. In addition to being teamed with Buscema, Sinnott inked Jack Kirby, George Perez, John Romita, Rich Buckler and more.

While, as a whole, the John Byrne era of the Fantastic Four is my favorite, visually it's the John Buscema/ Joe Sinnott team that will always be the definitive Fantastic Four for me, because they are the art team that brought their adventures to life when I first fell in love with Reed, Sue. Ben, and Johnny.

There's a new chapter in the long history of the First Family of Comics starting next month. August 2018. Will it come close to matching my favorite periods in FF history? I hope so. Meanwhile, here's a look back with portraits of the Fantastic Four by the four fantastic artists who made them look their best.

By Joe Sinnott
By John Buscema
By John Byrne

By Jack Kirby (who started it all)