Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas is coming...

... in 15 days! So you better get those gift packages mailed to family members TODAY! (It may already be too late to reach some places in time!)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The first outing of a legendary comedy team

Let's Do Things (1931)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, George Byron, Jerry Mandy, Mary Kornman, Maurice Black, Charlie Hall, and Dorothy Granger
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Thelma and ZaSu (Todd and Pitts) go on a double-date with ZaSu's deadbeat boyfriend (Byron) and his boorish doctor friend from Boston (Mandy). The night goes from bad to worse when Thelma initiates a scheme to bring it to an early end, and ZaSu accidentally gets drunk on the doctor's homemade "medicine."

"Let's Do Things" was originally produced to be part of "The Boyfriends" series of comedy shorts, but it must have been immediately apparent to everyone involved that there was something special about the teaming of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, because this instead became the launch of a new series centered on them.

Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts are a working women who are friends and roommates away from the job. In an example of deft writing, their relationship is established with a few lines, even as their characters are delineated: They moved to the Big City with the idea of finding jobs that would lead them to snare wealthy and influential boyfriends. Todd is the more ambitious, organized, and clear-eyed of the two, while Pitts is a naive romantic who stumbles her way through life, both literally and metaphorically.

The characters that Pitts and Todd portray in this film (and the entire series) are obvious from their types... Pitts, a veteran comedienne who got her start in silent pictures, is the gawky, befuddled. socially inept of the pair; while Todd, a beauty contest winner turned actress, is the attractive, sharp-witted one. However, in an atypical move--and one that takes full advantage of both actresses talents, Todd isn't just the "straight man" for Pitts to play off, but is just as likely to be delivering jokes and otherwise clowning it as Pitts is. In fact, some of the funniest physical comedy in the film involves Todd getting the world's worst chiropractic adjustment, and her being tossed around the dance floor like a ragdoll... before turning the proverbial tables on her dance partner and sending him flying.

As funny and well-written the material performed by Pitts and Todd is, the humor is augmented by the fact that the boyfriend characters are not bland cyphers (as often seems to be the case in films from this period) but are instead almost as complete characters as Thelma and ZaSu which makes the gags even funnier. It also doesn't hurt that both are played by veteran comedians, George Byron and Jerry Mandy.

"Let's Do Things" is included in a two-DVD set that contains all the short films that Pitts and Todd made together. If they're all as much fun as this one, it's going to be great pleasure watching and reviewing them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Moments in History

A mad scientist goes to extremes to get ahead (or is that "a head"?)

The Head (1959)
Starring: Horst Frank, Michel Simon, Karin Kernke, and Helmut Schmidt
Director: Victor Trivas
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Frank) keeps the head of a brilliant doctor (Simon) alive so that the doctor can consult on an operation to transplant the head of Brandt's beloved--a hunchback nurse (Kernke)--onto a sexy body.

Writer/director Victor Trivas's greatest claim to fame is that his directorial debut--"Hell on Earth" (1931) was outlawed and destroyed by the Nazis in 1940, with no copies known to have survived. His second greatest claim to fame was being nominated for an Oscar for the script for Orson Welles' "The Stranger". And then there's "The Head".

"The Head" is an extremely cheezy, intentionally schlocky film that surprised everyone involved (except maybe auteur Triva) by becoming a hit across Europe and in the United States. But for all the melodrama and dodgy scripting and the prerequisite for big-time suspension of disbelief for the film to even work (but if you're not already planning on doing that, you wouldn't be watching this film to begin with), it's got stylish visuals and it delivers its story with a high degree of tension.

Unfortunately, as the film builds toward what should be a weird, over-the-top, insane climax, it starts to sputter and lose steam. It doesn't quite stall out, but the final act drags to a conclusion instead of roaring toward it, giving this otherwise dark and fun ride a slightly disappointing in. It's still worth your while if you like movies with mad scientists doing mad things.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Monday, December 3, 2018

It's the end of the road for Hildegarde Withers

Forty Naughty Girls (1937)
Starring: James Gleason, ZaSu Pitts, Frank M. Thomas, Joan Woodbury, Alan Edwards, Tom Kennedy, Marjorie Lord,  and Stephen Chase
Director: Edward F. Cline
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Oscar and Hildegarde (Gleason and Pitts) are enjoying a night at the theatre when not one but two murders happen during the show... the second one taking place on stage, in full view of the entire audience and cast and crew backstage.

This was the last of the Hildegarde Withers films, and it is also the weakest. While it's not terrible, it is far down the quality scale from where the series began with "The Penguin Pool Murders." Where there is plenty to like here, the good does not quite outweigh the bad.

First, the good: Someone working on the film during pre-production finally remembered that Oscar and Hildegarde are involved in a relationship, and they used it as a central motivator to get the story started. Also, the film has a strong supporting cast, with Tom Kennedy (basically playing the same dumb cop he portrays in the "Torchy Blane" series), Joan Woodbury (at the height of her B-movie stardom, playing an actress who was in a love triangle between the first murder victim and the show'd producer, a friend of Oscar's), and Marjorie Lord (at the very beginning of her career in a small but crucial part) shining particularly brightly. In fact, Kennedy is so amusing in this picture that I found myself wishing that he was star rather than James Gleason.

And that takes us to the bad. While the writers may  have remembered that Oscar and Hildegarde are a couple, but they forgot they were intelligent people, and that they worked as a team (mostly) when solving crimes. That has been completely lost in the script for "Forty Naughty Girls". What has also been lost is any unique flavor that was present in previous installments of this series. While the Hildegarde Withers films were always B-movies, this is the first one that felt like it was just another cheap mystery/comedy, with a dumb cop bumbling his way through his "investigation" while a clever trickster actually solves the crime. (Except in this case, the trickster--Hildegarde--is just as big a bumbler as Ocsar is portrayed as.) Oscar spends the movie making wild accusations with almost no evidence--and is proven wrong either by himself or other characters, while Hildegarde pratfalls her way to uncovering clues. While amusing--especially since the comedy does play to ZaSu Pitts' strengths as a performer--it doesn't serve the characters nor the Hildegarde Withers series well. It doesn't even serve the film itself well but just drags it down.

"Forty Naughty Girls" could have been a very clever mystery where the main characters have to solve a double murder in real time, as the musical the film is named after unfolds on stage. It also had all the pieces to return the characters of Oscar Piper and Hildegarde Withers to the height of dorky coolness they were at when the series started. Heck, given the strong supporting cast, this film had all the elements to make it the best in the series. Instead, all those quality ingredients were slapped together lazily and sloppily and the end result was just another generic 1930s comedy-mystery... and instead of going out on a high note, the "Hildegarde Withers Mysteries" series ended almost as bad as it got. (It's better than "Murder on the Bridle Path", but only because it's funnier.)

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Paradoxically, the parts of this movie that haven't aged well are among its best parts

The Smiling Ghost (1941)
Starring: Wayne Morris, Willie Best, Brenda Marshall, Alexis Smith, and Alan Hale
Director: Lewis Seller
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Lucky Downing (Morris), a down-on-his-luck business-owner receives financial salvation when he is offered $1,000 to become and stay engaged to heiress Elinor Fairchilde (Smith) for one month.. When he arrives for his strange assignment, he finds himself the target of a supposed ghost that has eliminated Elinor's previous two fiances, as well as one point in a love triangle between the chilly-demeanored heiress and the sassy newspaper reporter Lili Barstow (Marshall).

"The Smiling Ghost" is an example of the "dark old house" genre where an assembly of strange characters surrounding an innocent young woman are stalked and killed by a mysterious killer. This being, first and foremost, a comedy, it picks apart and mocks the conventions of the genre, but it does so with a mischievous smile rather than a malicious one.

The story is bit uneven, with some sections being so predictable they're not interesting (let alone funny), and others being clever enough to have been included in a straight-laced thriller. The one thing that's consistent throughout, however, is the witty and finely tuned dialogue throughout the film. The jokes are funny, and each character has their own unique way of talking. Unfortunately, some of the actors and actresses delivering the lines are in some cases not up to the task.

The film's hero, for example, is a dead spot throughout. Wayne Morris is good looking and has a charming air about him, but he is absolutely, totally bland. He's present and delivers his lines, and he's obviously trying, but he just doesn't have the presence to carry the lead in the film. The same is true of Alexis Smith, who probably never should have  been cast in the role of a character who is either the victim of a haunting or some sort of lunatic who's bumping off her would-be husbands. I think she was trying ti give her character a wounded, aristocratic air, but she mostly comes off as detached and bored with being in the film. Morris and Smith drag the film down, I think, because they were cast in parts beyond their ability to manage.

On the other hand, Morris is outshined in every scene by his sidekick, Willie Best. Best is energetic, funny, in in perfect pitch with the mostly zany tone of the picture. What's more, the film makes it clear that Best isn't Morris's servant or employee, but instead a loyal friend and partner. Best masquerades as a servant, because, by the standards of the time it would be unseemly for a white "man of business" to be best friends with a black man--something which itself becomes a source of humor in the film--and the warm relationship between the two makes Morris's character more interesting. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, Best's character slips further and further into the "superstitious panicky darkie" that was a mainstay of films back then. Even while portraying this obnoxious stereotype, Best is lots of fun to watch, and, given the way the character was established, I can't help but wonder if the shift wasn't born from what audiences expected from their comedies back then. (As I observed in my review of "Lucky Ghost", even films made expressly for black audiences contained these stereotypes which cause so much indignation in modern viewers.)

"The Smiling Ghost" is one of eight obscure B-movies found in the eclectic "Warner Bros. Horror/Mystery Double Features" collection. Some of the films in the set are better than this, others are worse. I'll get around to covering all over them in this space, eventually.

Christmas is coming...

... and Grace Bradley is practicing the age-old tradition of decorating the Christmas tree in your underwear.