Tuesday, January 15, 2019

'Wings in the Dark' deserves to be spotlighted

Wings in the Dark (1935)
Starring: Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Hobart Cavanaugh, Roscoe Kearns, and Dean Jagger
Director: James Flood
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Ken Gordon, a pilot and avionics innovator (Grant) is on the verge of perfecting improved autopilot and guidance systems that will allow pilots to fly and land planes in even the worst visibility conditions when he is blinded in an accident. Stunt pilot Sheila Mason (Loy) and Gordon's assistant and mechanic Mac (Cavanaugh) help him carry on his work, with Mason secretly providing the funding he needs and Mac facilitating the ruse. When the extremely proud Gordon realizes what they've been doing, will his anger kill both his long friendship with Mac, as well as the growing love he and Mason share?

"Wings in the Dark" is a fast-paced film that has a talented cast performing in a story that delivers a perfect mix of romance, humor, and suspense. While the subject matter lends itself to over to excessive sappiness and melodrama, this film mostly stays clear of those morasses, only briefly straying into the melodramatic... but with Myrna Loy doing the over-emoting, it's hard to dislike it.

Meanwhile, there's nothing to dislike about the on-screen pairing of Cary Grant and Loy. While the script sets up the eventual romance between the two characters, it's the onscreen charisma between the actors playing them that really sells it. Grant and Loy play so well off each other that it's it feels perfectly believable that they'd both, in turn, take extreme risks to save one another during the film's tense climax, because from very early in the film, they feel like the perfect couple.

"Wings in the Dark" was the first of three times Grant and Loy were paired on screen, and it is the least well known of them; Grant's star was still climbing and Loy was completing her transition from her vamp-ish roles to playing "the perfect wife". Both stars, however, give excellent performances, and they are buoyed by a fine supporting cast, with Hobart Cavanaugh (as Gordon's taciturn right-hand man), and Roscoe Kearns (as Mason's headline hungry agent and publicist) being particularly effective and fun in their parts. As for Kearn's character of Nick Williams, he is the source of most of the bad things that happen to the main characters, directly and indirectly, but he is played with such charm that you'll think as warmly of him as you do of all the other characters in the film as it unfolds. All-in-all, this is a film that deserves more attention that it's gotten over the years.

"Wings in the Dark" is one of five, relatively obscure films from early in Cary Grant career included in the Screen Legends Collection: Cary Grant. It's the first one of them that I've watched, and if the others in the set are even half as good, it was a bargain.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Beauty and the Bomb: Linda Lawson

Early in her career, actress Linda Lawson worked as a showgirl at the Las Vegas Sands. On May 1, 1955, she was crowned Miss Cue, in honor of an upcoming atomic bomb test (which was code-named Operation Cue). In celebration of Lawson's 83rd birthday, here are pictures immortalizing that event!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Princesses of Mars, Part 28

Martian Princesses are known for their aggressive support of the Right to Bear Arms.
By Deacon Black

By Andre Pinheiro
By Robb Phibb

By Walter Geovanni

Friday, January 11, 2019

That strange sound? That's Nancy Reagan spinning in her grave!

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alan Sears, Alma Rubens, and Tom Wilson
Directors: John Emerson and Christy Cabbane
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Eccentric detective Coke Ennyday (Fairbanks) turns his drug-fueled genius toward stopping the predations of a fabulously wealthy criminal mastermind (Sears). Along the way, he and a beautiful young woman (Love) take turns saving each other's lives at the sea-shore and romance blossoms... but the villain has plans for Coke's new sweetheart.

As their stars were rising, Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love appeared together in a number of films, the wildest of which is almost certainly "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". While I haven't watched any of the others, but I think I can safely make that assumption, because "wild" is joined with "weird" and "subversive" when one is looking for words to be describe this film.

"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a cartoonish spoof of Sherlock Holmes with an extreme degree of attention paid to Holmes' drug habits. Some of the film's humor is lost through the passage of time, because the exaggerated degree to which Coke Ennyday uses drugs is, according to one commentator, mocking a stage adaptation of Holmes that was well-known and very popular at the time and which had left out all drug references. The vast majority of the drug humor is so over-the-top, however,  that it is as funny and ridiculous now as it was when this film was first released 100 years and will be 100 years from today. Coke Ennyday spends the entire movie buzzing around, high as a kite... and his solution to any obstacle is to inject, snort, or otherwise consume more and more drugs. And it works.

This is Douglas Fairbanks' movie. From the first moment until the end, everything is driven by his insane antics--which get even more insane once he breaks out the comedic Sherlock Holmes outfit. This, being a silent movie, the gags are almost entirely visual, although a few are augmented by intertiles or labels on items, as well as puns like the business that serves as the front for the villain's drug distribution network being named Sum Hop Laundry. While co-star Bessie Love and the lead villain, played by Alan Sears, get some funny scenes together or of their own--mostly revolving around poking fun at the melodramatic conventions of silent movies--and they show themselves to be talented and charismatic performers in these scenes, viewers will be counting the seconds for Fairbanks' unrestrained energy and craziness to return to the screen. (As tempting as it is for me to relay some of the greatest gags in the film by way of enticing people to view this film, doing so would spoil their impact... all I can say is that this is a film that has be experienced cold.)

Although it's over 100 years old, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is wilder and "edgier" than many contemporary works. If anything, it's gotten even more risque, what with the "drugs are bad mmmmkay?" messaging of recent decades and several of the conventional plot devices and characters it mocks are the sort of thing that sends certain people running for the fainting couch while clutching their pearls, or for their keyboards to post angrily hysterical messages to social media and blog comment sections. I think those who appreciate absurdist, subversive humor will enjoy the heck out of this movie, even if they don't usually like silent films. The showdown between the drug-crazed, syringe wielding Coke Ennyday and the villains at the Sum Hop Laundry is something any lover of comedies needs to see at least once in their lives! (The sequence where Bessie Love's damsel in distress essentially rescues herself is also a silent movie satirical gold.)

There are several different versions of "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" that can be viewed for free on YouTube and certain streaming services. You can even watch it right now, and I hope you'll let me know with a comment if I steered you right or wrong! (I chose this particular version because I like the music.)

Trivia: A not so funny coincidence/factoid is that Alma Ruben (who plays the villain's female sidekick) was, like Fairbanks and Love, a rising Hollywood star at the time this film was made. In fact, she was more famous than Love at the time... but by 1925, Ruben's life and career was ruined by drug abuse. She died in 1931 from ailments related to her addictions.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Thelma Todd Quarterly

Ladies and Gentleman: We present to you the MAGIC OF THELMA TODD!

She'll be appearing here at Shades of Gray for all of 2019. Thanks for coming and don't forget to tip your waiter!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Keaton and Todd are absolute greatness in 'Speak Easily'

Speak Easily (1932)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Thelma Todd, Ruth Selwyn, Sydney Toler, and Henry Arnetta
Director: Edward Sedgewick
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A bookish professor (Keaton) gets news that he has inherited $700,000, and he decides it's time to live his life to its fullest. While on his way to New York, he encounters a struggling theatre troupe with more heart than talent. He become smitten with Pansy, the lead dancer (Selwyn), and he decides to be their financial backer for a Broadway show.

"Speak Easily" is a very uneven comedy that is dragged down by long stretches of unfunny or repetitive gags separated by some excellent bits. It's got a solid and talented cast that deserved better than the material they have to work with.

For example, poor Buster Keaton is the star of the film, but he still has very little do. He is more frequently than not relegated to the role of straight man to Jimmy Durante, and most of the bits he has of his own are dragged out past the point of being funny. As for Durante, he, too has to struggle with routines that drag on; there's a bit involving luggage that starts out amusing and grows tiresome and annoying by the time the film finally moves on.

The one performer in the film who gets to appear in all the films best scenes is Thelma Todd, and it's in these scenes were Keaton gets to shine his brightest, too. Todd shows up in the second act, and she is the closest thing this genial story has to a villain. Her character, Elanor, is a burlesque dancer who is willing to do almost anything to get a part in a Broadway play, from stripping down to her underwear at the slightest suggestion--which immediately convinces Durante's character, James, that she has what it takes to be in the show--to setting up Keaton's Professor Post to be blackmailed for sexual indiscretions. Unfortunately, the good professor is simply too oblivious to even realize that Elanor is trying to seduce him, and her big scheme backfires when her efforts end up with both of them so blindingly drunk the couldn't be "indiscreet" if they wanted to.

This drunken scene, and its aftermath, with Keaton and Todd features a hilarious mix of spoken and physical humor and it is the highlight of the movie. In fact, the story-thread that starts with Elanor showing up in the Professor's office, through her attempts to seduce him and blackmail him, through the steps that James takes to extract him from any possibility of scandal, is so sharp and so well-done that it feels like it belongs in a much better movie. These scenes show that it wasn't that the famed silent movie star Keaton was getting old and had lost his edge (as some claimed at the time... and perhaps even today); it was that he didn't have anything good to work with. With quality material, and partner that can give as well as she got--which he had in Todd in these scenes they did together--Keaton could still deliver the physical humor that had made him famous, as well as deliver spoken jokes with perfect timing and the driest of dry wit.

While Keaton also has a few great moments toward the end of the film--during a Broadway opening  that's bound to be a disaster unless some miracle happens--the scenes he shares with Todd really are the film's high point. It's really a shame that the rest of the cast is stuck with mostly sub-par material,. because there are several instances where they show that they are all quite talented. Nowhere is this more clear that the scene where Professor Post decides to bring the troupe to Broadway. The performance they put on is such a wretched display of hammish acting, lousy singing, and bad choreography that leaves viewers in awe at how bad it is... which is proof that we are watching performers of the highest caliber. It takes a lot of skill, and even more practice and rehearsal, to be as bad as they are in that scene.

It's at once heart-breaking and touching that Professor Post is so smitten with the troupe's leading later that he can't see how bad Pansy and her fellow performers are... and it also gives Jimmy Durante's character a likable dimension to what otherwise comes across as a fairly wretched human being: James truly believes that he and his troupe could be the next big thing if only they could get a break. When the Professor offers to fund their show, James isn't motivated by greed, but rather by the excitement of making his (and his fellow actors) dreams come true and to get them the recognition he believes they so richly deserve. At no point does James's faith in his troupe waver, even when the experienced Broadway director that Professor Post hires (played by Sydney Toler, who is best known as Charlie Chan) accurately and truthfully describes the level of talent the performers have. As annoying as I find Durante as an actor, I really liked his character of James... and I really wished he'd been given  better material to work with.

(Of course, here I am laying blame on the scriptwriters and the director for the movie being  mostly weak when maybe I should be giving credit to Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd for making the scenes they have together so sparklingly brilliant. After all, they are the common denominator for the movie's best parts... and their hilarious scenes together are plenty reward for sticking around through the rest of the film.

One odd bit of trivia: When she appeared in this film, Thelma Todd was co-starring in her own series of comedy short films with ZaSu Pitts that was being produced by Hal Roach and released through MGM. One of these was titled "Sneak Easily", released in December of 1932 (and I actually posted a review of it last week). "Speak Easily" was released in August of that same year. That these titles are so similar can't be an accident--especially since the title of the short film makes little sense given its subject matter--but I can't figure out what the reason for it would be. Anyone out there have a thought about it?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Flash Gordon turns 85!

Today, January 7, 2019. it's exactly 85 years ago since Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond first graced the funny pages. Here's a gallery of photos and art celebrating Flash, his friends, and his enemies!

Jean Rogers and Buster Crabbe, the first live-action Dale & Flash

Dale (Jean Rogers), Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), Princess Aura (Pricilla Lawson),and Minions of Ming, in a scene from the 1936 serial "Flash Gordon".
Flash and Dale in Trouble (By Alex Raymond)
Flash Gordon, Prof. Zarkoff, Dale Arden and Pal.
(By Troy Burch)

Flash! He'll save everyone of us! (By Don Newton)
Flash and Dale: Ready for to the next 85 years of adventure
(By Gabriel Hardiman)

Musical Monday: Strangelove

Let's get the second week of 2019 started off right, with one of the greatest songs from Depeche Mode, orginally from the "Music of the Masses" album. (And be assured that there is nothing strange in loving Depeche Mode!)

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