Friday, January 17, 2020

Firearms Friday with Elke Sommer

Born in 1940, German actress Elke Sommer spent some of her teenage years in England, and since she was fluid in both German and English, she thought about training for a career as a diplomatic translator, but upon winning a beauty contest while vacationing in Italy, she turned firmly toward modeling and acting instead.

During the 1960s and into the 1970s, Sommer was a reigning European sex symbol and she soon conquered America as well. She appeared in all manner of films--from light farces and sex comedies, to thrillers and gory horror films; from low-budget quickies, to big-budget blockbusters--and all manner parts. As the 1970s came to a close and her screen career began to cool, Sommer found success on television. She also turned to writing and painting, and she has been enjoying success as a gallery artist for more than 40 years now. She continues to take a film role every now and then, and she is currently filming the forthcoming sci-fi film "PhonY".

Thursday, January 16, 2020

'The Vampire's Ghost' stumbles at the end

The Vampire's Ghost (1945)
Starring: John Abbott, Charles Gordon, Grant Withers, Peggy Stewart, Adele Mara, Roy Barcroft, Martin Wilkins, and Emmett Vogan
Director: Lesley Selander
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An isolated trading post in Africa becomes the latest hunting ground of a world-weary vampire (Abbott).

"The Vampire's Ghost" is an interesting film that I think managed to transcend its quick-cash-grab roots. According to an interview given by screenwriter Leigh Brackett, this production was launched in response to Universal's successful revival of its 1930s horror characters--the MummyDracula, and Frankenstein--and the popularity of their new kid, the Wolf Man. Tone- and style-wise, the film occupies a middle-ground between Val Lewton's atmospheric, psychological chillers from RKO and the pulp-fictiony, supernatural dramas of Universal's monster revivals.

Long-time horror fans will enjoy this movie for its unusual African setting and its swirling mix of European vampire lore and more "exotic" superstitions and beliefs. Fans with a narrower love of vampire movies will appreciate the villain of the story, the vampire Webb Fallon, is portrayed with more personality and a different flavor than is typical of films from this period. While Fallon is indisputably a monster, his main defining characteristic is not cartoonish, cape-swirling menace but rather a sort of jaded fatigue at having seen everything that's unfolding around him happen dozens upon dozens of times in the past. From his casually telling the hero where to look for information on how to destroy a vampire, to the air of resignation when he discovers attempts to take advantage of him and thus he feels obligated to exact revenge.

The supporting characters are mostly the stock figures you'd expect in a film like this, with a fairly bland young couple (Charles Gordon and Peggy Stewart) targeted as victims of the vampire, superstitious locals (foremost among these portrayed by Martin Wilkins), a devout cleric who is key to defeating the monster (Grant Withers), and so on. These stock characters are borrowed both from the standard gothic vampire story and from the jungle action/adventure tales that usually take place in this film's setting... but, as with the character of Webb Fallon, there are a few touches that allow them to be more interesting than what they might otherwise have been. It also helps that they are all portrayed by excellent actors. I've so far failed to mention Adele Mara who brings some random (and slightly goofy) sexiness to the picture while also, ultimately portraying one of the films more sympathetic characters, because jealousy plus a lack of understanding of what Webb Fallon truly is gets her into a whole lot of trouble.

Another fascinating aspect of the film is the notion that a vampire is weak in the presence of the power of God--whether a believer is waving religious symbol in its face or not. One of the more enjoyable scenes in the whole film is watching Fallon dealing with the devout Father Gilcrist and how simply being touched by him, and being in his general vicinity, drains Fallon's energy.

Unfortunately, this mostly interesting movie loses its way during its climax and ultimately ends on a disappointing, somewhat hollow ending where Webb Fallon dies off camera (while delivering a line that's  clearly looped from a scene earlier in the film) and some plot-threads that were set up very dramatically are left dangling without resolution. The botched ending cost the film a full star on my 0-10 star rating scale.

If you like classic horror movies, I think you'll mostly enjoy "The Vampire's Ghost". It really is an interesting and well-done film up to final minutes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Picture Perfect Wednesday with Lily Gao

Lily Gao is a Canadian model and actress who has most recently been seen as the would-be U.N. Secretary General in the latest episodes of the sci-fi series "The Expanse" on Amazon Prime. (That's a show that's outside the scope of this blog, but I strongly recommend watching all four seasons of it. It just keeps getting better and better.)

Today, Ms. Gao is here to demonstrate the unifying theme at Shades of Gray.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Musical Monday with John Legend

Here at Shades of Gray, we first became aware of John Legend during the "controversy" surrounding his "updated" cover of the classic tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Like so much during the Era of Outrage, we can't decide if Legend was doing a spoof or being serious, and whether any of the folks running for the fainting couch were really as hysterical as they came across, or just playing for their 15 seconds in the spotlight.

Holiday shananigans aside, Legend has a number of pretty songs in his catalog, and we're kicking off the week with one them. It also features a stylish video, which you can watch below.
If this pretty love song is new to you, as it was to us, we hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

'The Garage' at 100 years

The Garage (1920)
Starring: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harry McCoy, Molly Malone, and Dan Crimmins
Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Fatty and Buster (Arbuckle and Keaton) have a particularly chaotic workday at the combination gas station/firehouse where they work.

I am making this post exactly 100 years after "The Garage" was first released. Is it still worth watching today?

The answer to that question is an emphatic "YES!"

When this film was made, Buster Keaton had been a supporting player in short films directed by and starring Roscoe "Fatty Arbuckle" for three years; Arbuckle had given Keaton his break in film, and the two had become close friends. It was clear to both that it was time for Keaton to strike out on his own, and with this film, viewers got a taste of what Keaton would soon deliver once he struck out on his own. Keaton is the co-star of this film with Arbuckle, and he even gets some of the funnier solo bits and he is the driver of a couple of the better routines.

Story-wise, the film also holds together nicely, with the gags and stunts feeding smoothly into each other, as well as arising from, or prompting, plot-furthering character interaction. The presence of a female character who is both very much her own master and not the love interest or would-be love interest of either of the main characters also enhances the film, because it is a nice change from the common pattern in so many of these short films.

This fast-paced film can literally be described as provide a laugh-a-minute... but don't just take my word for it. I encourage you to take a little less than half an hour out of your day to enjoy a comedy that had stood the test of 100 years, and which will still amuse 100 years from now: it's embedded below via YouTube.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

An important anniversary in world history

In December of 2020, it will be 400 years since the Pilgrims arrived in North America, landing somewhere near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. As the year unfolds, you will undoubtedly see an ever-increasing number of articles about the good ship Mayflower and its 102 freedom-seeking passengers (and the shrillness will probably be ever-increasing as well), I thought I'd get ahead of the game with this post.

Here's Debbie Reynolds, reinacting the historic moment when the Pilgrims made landfall in America...

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Love Quarterly: Shawl of the Babushka

During the mid-1920s and early 1930s, Bessie Love was a popular movie star. Away from the adoring public, however, she led a secret life as the superhero Love Bug and defended Earth against supernatural evil. During her adventures, she collected a number of magical treasures. One of these was the shawl of the babushka. In this post, we reveal another of Bessie's secret adventures while describing this unique magical item in terms of the d20 System roleplaying rules.

In 1946, Bessie Love (in her guise of the Love Bug) battled Baba Yaga to save children abducted from a village in eastern Ukraine. At the end of that adventure, she walked away with a shawl that Baba Yaga had woven and enchanted for her most loyal servants. At one time, 13 of these were known to exist; two were destroyed during the encounter that Love had with Baba Yaga and three witches, but ten more may still exist. The secret to making this item is known only to Baba Yaga
   The shawl of the babushka is a triangular piece of cloth that is roughly 3 feet wide and 7 feet in length. If subjected to detect magic, it radiates faint transmutation magic.
    The fabric is a red so deep that it is almost black. It is embroidered with flowery patterns in bright yellow and blue and green, but if those patterns are carefully studied (1d6+2 rounds) and a successful Knowledge (Arcane) skill check is rolled (DC20), it becomes apparent that mystic symbols of demonic origin are concealed in harmless-seeming floral motif. The purpose of the symbols isn't clear. (Only high-ranking demonlords and Baba Yaga herself know the meaning of the symbols, but see below for more.)

Powers of the Shawl of the Babushka
When worn, a shawl of the babushka grants the following protections and powers to its wearer:
   *Immunity to normal hot- and cold-weather conditions. The wearer is comfortable in the hottest and coldest places on Earth.
   *Immunity to be located by any magical means, except through the personal and direct actions of a god.
   * +4 bonus to saving throws made to resist damage from elemental magic.
   * Use charm person as a spell-like ability at 20th-level effectiveness twice per day.
   There is one final power that is not revealed by identify or anything short of a wish spell. It can only be explained by Baba Yaga, a demonlord, or learned through experimentation.
   * Become one of three different human females: A plump and friendly-seeming old woman; a bent, boney, hag-like old woman; and an extremely attractive young woman. Although the character using this ability retains all of his or her own statistics, levels, and class abilities, this transformation does not register as a magical one; for as long as the character wears the shawl, he or she is the woman that he or she has chosen to be. Aside from a vague similarity in facial features (Spot check of DC18 for anyone to notice), there is nothing else to give away the character's transformation. The transformation remains in effect until the character is no longer wearing the shawl.
   The transformation is brought about with a successful Willpower saving throw (DC12) and a full round action. Until the character realizes that there are three different forms that can be adopted, the woman that he or she changes into is rolled randomly on the following table:

Random Shawl Transformation (Roll 1d6)
1-2: Plump Old Woman
3-4: Withered Old Woman
5-6: Beautiful Young Woman

Drawbacks of the Shawl of the Babushka
The shawl of the babushka is a magic item made by Baba Yaga specifically for her most loyal human minions, typically witches. Wearers to whom she has gifted it wouldn't necessarily view these effects as "drawbacks".
   * Whenever the character uses the charm person spell-like ability, the GM rolls 2d6+1. On a roll of 4 or 13, Baba Yaga gains the ability to see and hear everything the character does for an hour, even if the shawl is immediately removed. She also knows exactly where the character is located.
   * Whenever the character transforms into one of the female forms, the GM rolls 2d6+1. On a result of 13, the character is physically replaced by a succubus for 1d4+2 hours. While the character is trapped in the demonic plane, no harm will befall him or her, but he will be warned against trying to cross Baba Yaga, as well as being offered the opportunity to gain the Chosen feat as a bonus, or otherwise makes offers to tempt the character to serve them. (Even if the character refuses all offers, the demons will always be cordial and polite to the temporarily planeshifted character; they will even happily explain everything about the shawl and its powers.
   The interaction with the demon generally takes place in a richly appointed, parlor with comfortable couches and easy chairs. If the character is rude or aggressive, the demons try to remain friendly and polite but they will leave him or her alone if the character persists. If the character attacks them, he or she is immediately transported to a sweltering, dark void for the duration to the swap.

All text in this post is presented under the Open Game License and may be reproduced in accordance to its terms. Copyright 2020 Steve Miller.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Musical Monday with MØ

Welcome to another Musical Monday Morning at Shades of Gray!

This week's selection is by MØ, a Danish singer/songwriter who has been steadily growing in popularity in Scandinavia since the early 2010s, and even poked her head out into the rest of world with songs appearing in the Billboard 100 and UK top pop charts in 2017. (Click here to read more.)

Friday, January 3, 2020

Firearms Friday with Alexis Smith

It's the beginning of  a new year, and the beginning of a new post series! Every other Friday, there'll be a picture or two of a weapons-brandishing actress or model in this space.

Alexis Smith was a dancer-turned-actress whose career in movies and on television spanned more than 40 years. She is perhaps best remembered for "Day and Night (1946), "Undercover Girl" (1957), and a recurring role on the TV series "Dallas" during the 1984 and 1990 seasons.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

'Rocketeers' is something of a misfire

Tom and Jerry: Rocketeers (1932)
Starring: Anonymous Voice Actors
Directors: John Foster and George Rufle
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Tom and Jerry build an experimental rocket intending to go to the Moon. After the rocket misfires, out heroes instead find themselves exploring a strange world at the bottom of the sea and frolicking with mermaids.

The title made me excited for this one, and I hoped I was in for surreal sci-fi weirdness similar to "Astronomeous" or "The '?' Motorist". Instead... well, let's just say I was disappointed. This Tom and Jerry installment has the crisp, fluid animation that I so love in this series, as well as a hefty amount of the cartoon physics and physical transformations that I love in many of the cartoons from the late 1920s and early 1930s, but I just couldn't enjoy this one.

I can't really point to something that made me cringe or that I found boring--I just wasn't engaged with the one I the way I've been with some of the other "Tom and Jerry" installments. Maybe it's because I can't watch it through th eyes of a 6 year-old, and so I couldn't get past the notion of Tom and Jerry surviving, not to mention singing and dancing and playing the piano, on the bottom of the ocean as easily as they would on land. Maybe it's because the music wasn't as good in this one as in some of the others. I don't know... I just couldn't get into this one the way I did with "The Piano Tooners", for example.

That said... "Rocketeers" did contain both the most horrific scene I've ever encountered in a cartoon, as well as one of the cutest. The first involves Tom and Jerry merging into a single, singing creature, while the second is them dancing and singing with mermaids. The unbridled insanity of cartoons from the late 1920s and early 1930s is both the stuff of dreams and nightmares...

Why don't you take a few minutes out of your day and check out "Rocketeers" for yourself? I've embedded it below for your convience and viewing pleasure. I would also love to hear your opinions!
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