Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dawn of the Photobomber

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Henry Lehrman
Director: Henry Lehrman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A camera-loving jerk (Chaplin) ruins the day of a film crew trying to document a boxcar race in Venice Beach.

"Kid Auto Races at Venice" is one of those films that show the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who's been part of a crew trying to film or take photos when members of the public are around, has had to deal with "photobombers"--and even if you haven't had to deal with them directly, you've probably seen their handiwork in photographs and evening news stand-up sequences. Even as early as 1914, attention-whoring photobombers were common enough that Charlie Chaplin lampooned them in a delightful, mostly improved, short film.

This was Charlie Chaplin's second screen appearance, as well as the beginnings of his "Little Tramp" signature character, so those Chaplin fans who have yet to see this little film will find that checking it out below will be six, well-spent, enjoyable minutes. Everyone with an interest in filmmaking, or who has worked as a photographer, should also get a kick out of it. (The proceedings become even funnier when you realize that there are real photobombers photobombing in the background while Chaplin and Lehrman are making a film the film that's lampooning them.)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Musical Monday with Mariah Carey

Then there was that time that Mariah Caray hopped in a time machine and went on television to perform her hit Christmas song "All I Want for Christmas is You" before she was even born.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

It's a Spider-Woman Sunday!

By Tradd Moore

It's winter, and Jessica Drew, the first and best Spider-Woman of them all, can't stand the cold. So she's going to leave the windswept cities of America behind...

By Frank Cho

... spread her wings and fly south...

By Bruce Timm

... to spend the next few months on a beach with her friend, Howard.

By Val Mayerik

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Last Pairing of Chase & Todd

The Nickel Nurser (1932)
Starring: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Geraldine Dvorak, Estelle Etterre, Hazel Howell, and Billy Gilbert
Director: Warren Doane
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A socially awkward efficiency expert (Chase) is hired to teach a millionaire's daughters (Todd, Etterre and Howell) the importance of being frugal with money. The young women endeavor to make his time with the a living Hell, partly by one of them switching places with their Swedish maid to he thinks he has an ally among the servants.

While Thelma Todd and Charley Chase were absolute comedy gold on-screen, "The Nickel Nurser" was the last film in which they would appear together. Todd had already been assigned to headlining her own own comedy series at the Hal Roach Studio, and she was also being "lent out" by boss Roach to other studios for parts in feature films. But, thankfully, she was also "lent" to Chase's production unit, so we got to enjoy Todd and Chase together one last time.

While "The Nickel Nurser" isn't the best film in which they appeared together--or even close to it--the scenes they share once again clearly display how they brought out the best in each other when performing together, and they are among the funniest and most focused in this otherwise chaotic picture.

The scenes where Chase and Todd play off each other--both of which revolve around the "trading places" game that the spoiled rich girls are playing--earned a full star by themselves, bringing this picture from a Low Six to a Low Seven rating. The problem here is mostly that the characters and their actions feel mostly unmotivated by anything we learn about them, and that the gags are mostly disconnected from any logic or thought-processes that a human being might have.

For example, why does Charley assume that he going to the household to teach small children about financial matters--and, more importantly why didn't the girls' father tell him he was going to be dealing with young women? And why is the butler so rude to Charley when he first arrives? There are funny bits related to these, but they are badly motivated. And the film opens with a truly mindless and pointless bit that has Charley crash though a door because he sat on a mouse trap. This sloppiness  in story-telling and illogic is not typical of the Charley Chase-helmed comedies I've seen so far.

Fortunately, things get better in the second half of the film, which also contains the scenes where Todd and Chase treat the audience to their fabulous on-screen chemistry. Charley gets locked out of his room, but needs to talk to Todd. She refuses to see him, because he is wearing only a night shirt... so of course he puts on a suit of armor that's on display in the hall. This is the sort of "logic" that is working in many of Chase's comedies--it makes sense as a solution to a problem, even if it's not the most practical one. The suit of armor is also one-half of the fuel for the film's insane climax--the other being a shotgun-wielding butler--and the way the action and gags build on each other in a tightly planned way is more like other Chase films than the first half of this picture, and it brings "The Nickel Nurser" to a close on a high note. (The climactic minutes of "The Nickel Nurser" feel like complete, unbridled chaos to the viewer, but that's only because the sequences are so carefully constructed and choreographed. In fact, given that Chase had co-writing credit on this film, and he would soon also be directing himself in his Roach pictures, I wonder if he stepped in and took control of this film to save it?)

While "The Nickel Nurser" isn't the best of Chase's films, nor the best he made with Thelma Todd, it's always good to see them together, and it makes this a highlight among the 15 films included in the two-disc DVD set Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two, 1932-1933.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas is coming!

And Mary Pickford has some advice that is good for you and the poor store clerks.

(Although we may have to send her to sensitivity training in the new year...)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

'Redskin Blues' is full of toe-tapping music and weirdness

Redskin Blues (1932)
Starring: Anonymous Voice Actors
Director: John Foster and George Stallings
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Tom and Jerry are chased and captured by a hostile Native American warriors. Is this the end of our heroes?

Some of the cartoons starring the original "Tom & Jerry" duo are just plain awful,others have not aged well, but a few are full of funky weirdness that lasts throughout the ages and which should be as amusing to viewers now as they were 85+ years ago. "Plane Dumb", for example, is so full of racist stereotypes that it even made this indifferent-to-all-your-FeeFees GenXer cringe (although given the inexplicable and casual nature of the extreme transformation of the characters into a pair Step-n-Fetchit/Sleep-N-Eat clones, I wonder if there might not be a pop cultural reference/context/connection that's been muted by the passing decades).

When I first started watching "Redskin Blues",  which was released immediately after "Plane Dumb" in 1932, I feared I was in for another festival of racism. Our heroes are under attack by Indians, all of whom are wearing war bonnets... but this one veers off into unexpected territory, beginning with the war bonnets becoming the starting point of some surreal action and continuing straight through to an ending I am sure no viewer will see coming.

Now, I'm certain there are things in this cartoon that those out there who are looking for something to take offense at will need a fainting ouwill be clutching their pearls over, especially in the light of the cartoon's title and the fact the Native Americans are the villains of the story. (Well... as much as anyone can be a villain in this bit of nonsense.)

In the final analysis, I think there may be a couple of interesting points floating around in the madness that is "Redskin Blues"--music bridges cultural gaps, to name one--although I could also be assigning meaning to this cartoon the way I might see a wild boar riding a butterfly in one of those ink blot tests. At the very least, it's a crazy and entertaining cartoon that you can watch it right here, right now, via embedding from YouTube.


Monday, December 2, 2019

Musical Monday with the Scatman!

Twenty years ago, on December 3, 1999, one of the greatest performers to ever grace the pop music scene. John Larkin--better known as Scatman John--left this world. He brought us a unique fusion of club music and scat, and he so loved performing that he literally worked himself to death.

Larkin had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998, and his doctors told him to slow down and take it easy. Instead, he recorded one final album and embarked on a 24-city tour. He collapsed on stage at the end of his final concert on November 26, 1999.

Scatman John's first single (released by Danish label Iceland Records) is about how he overcame his shybness and severe stutter through his music... and carries the message that if could perservere than so can you. Today's post is dedicated to the memory of Scatman John and the example he is for all of us.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

'Palooka' is barely ring-worthy

Palooka (1934) (aka "Joe Palooka")
Starring: Jimmy Durante, Stuart Erwin, Lupe Velez, Marjorie Rambeau, William Cagney, Tom Dugan, Mary Carlisle, Robert Armstrong. and Thelma Todd
Director: Benjamin Stoloff
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Joe Palooka (Erwin), the goodhearted and terminally naive son of a legendary, retired boxer (Armstrong) is catapulted to the top of the boxing world through happenstance and the shenanigans of his shady manager and promoter, Knobby Walsh (Durante). When a sexy vamp (Velez) tempts him to party instead of train, and the true champion he defeated more through luck than skill (Cagney) engineers a rematch, things start to look pretty grim for Joe...

During the 1930s and 1940s, the "Joe Palooka" newspaper strip grew to become the most popular in the U.S. Debuting in April of 1930, it ran for almost 55 years with the final installment seeing print in November of 1984. There were several film adaptations made of the strip, of which this was the first, so it's fitting that it's an "origin tale".

Sadly, Joe Palooka (affably played by Stuart Erwin) is almost crowded out of his own movie by his manager Knobby Walsh (obnoxiously played by Jimmy Durante). All in all, this film is more a vehicle for Durante than anything else, even to the point where he even gets to ruin the film's ending with one last, incredibly lame gag.

I confess that it's a mystery to me that Durante had a long career headlining anything. He's funny in small doses, but when he gets as much screentime as he does here, he gets very, very tiresome. His dominance of this picture turns it from what could have been a pleasant little sports picture into a grating festival of pain where I found myself rooting for the "villains" (prime among them being William Cagney's Al McSwatt, and Lupe Velez's slutty, gold-digging boxing groupie) just so I could enjoy some illusion of justice being served for Durante's crimes against humanity in this picture.

As for the rest of the cast, they're all pleasant and fun to watch. The aforementioned Stuart Erwin is likable as the title character, while William Cagney is one of the more charming bad guys you're ever likely to come across in a film. One the feminine front, Marjorie Rambeau is great as Joe Palooka's tough-as-nails retired showgirl mother, while Lupe Velez is fun, as well as getting some great lines, as the career-wrecking temptress. (Guys in the audience will also appreciate a couple of gowns Velez wears that would be falling off her if not for double-sided tape. Velez obviously didn't appreciate, or perhaps trust, one of the dresses, since she was constantly figiting with it.)

Robert Armstrong and Thelma Todd have small, but crucial, roles in the film (as Joe Palooka's father and the hussy who broke up his parents' marriage), and they deliver their usual strong performances. In fact, I liked Todd so much in her small role that I wish she and Velez could have swapped parts and characters. (This is probably just a reflection of my affection for Todd as a performer, as well as my unfamiliarity with the "Palooka" comic strip.)

"Palooka" is not a film I think you should go out of your way for, unless you're a Jimmy Durante fan. It may be entertaining if you have fond memories of the comic strip, or if perhaps you simply can't get enough of sports-themed movies, but the overwhelming presence of Durante taints those aspects of the film... and there are better movies about the smalltown-boy-does-good-in-sports that are more worthy of your time.

Friday, November 29, 2019

'Be Your Age' is fun, but falters at the end

Be Your Age (1926)
Starring: Charley Chase, Lillian Leighton, Frank Brownlee, Gladys Hulette, and Oliver Hardy
Director: Leo McCarey
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A corrupt attorney (Brownlee) wants control of money inherited by a recently widowed woman (Leighton), so he forces his mild-mannered and financially desperate clerk (Chase) to romance her.

"Be Your Age" is one of those films that, although I found it funny, I felt so sorry and/or embarrassed for the characters that I was hoping for a level of justice that I suspected wouldn't be possible in a comedy. Although the film glosses over it, the attorney played by Frank Brownlee's character is a vile human being who preys on his employee's family and financial troubles, and forces that employee to play with an older woman's affections. It's hinted that the attorney has romantic feelings for the widow beyond just his love her money, but I think every action he takes indicates that the money is what he loves over everything else.

As the film unfolded, I felt sorry for Charley, because he was a good guy being forced into doing horrible things because he needed to help his family; he was being made to trick an affection-starved recently widowed woman that he loved and wanted to marry her (even though it was obvious to everyone that it was her social secretary with whom he shared a mutual attraction). Meanwhile, I felt embarrassed and very sorry for the widow whose affections were being toyed with, just so a money-hungry lawyer could gain control of her wealth; she so wanted to believe Charley was in love with her that she even ignored the obvious interest that Charley and the secretary had shown in each other at the attorney's offices.

All that said, it was amusing to watch Charley Chase play a bashful character who is forced into being a gigolo and the series of misfiring romantic gestures he tried, his final desperate attempt to avoid the target of his "affections", and his cartoonish expressions of shyness were all hilarious. It was also very emotionally satisfying to see him "man-up" and come clean with the widow about why he had been romancing her--even if was actually confessing to the wrong person. All around, Chase gives an excellent performance in this film.

The supporting cast are also great in their various parts. Frank Brownlee portrays a character the viewers will love to hate--he's nasty, but he avoids the melodramatic over-the-top emoting that even at this late date in the silent period could still be seen in the portrayal of villains. Lillian Leighton plays the role of the widow with equal parts credulousness and sympathy-evoking charm, while Gladys Hulette is cute as Chase's true love interest. Oliver Hardy rounds out the main characters as the widow's adult son, Oswald, who spends the film either confused or irritated, but he's a nice addition to the cast. It was also interesting to see Hardy doing something other than the character that soon would become his signature and one-half of his pairing with Stan Laurel.

My only problem with the film--and one that caused me to knock it down at least one full star on my ten-star rating--is the ending. It's a "happy ending" for every character in the film, even the one who, from my vantage point, deserved to be beaten senseless by the rest of the cast (or someone) and left by the side of the road. Maybe I misinterpreted the attorney's motivation and desires, but I really doubt it. I hate it when villains come out ahead in films--especially comedies--because I see enough of that in real life, so I really wish "Be Your Age" had turned out a little differently.

But why don't you watch the film yourself, and perhaps even share your take on it? I've embedded it below, via YouTube, as well as provided a link to a DVD that contains the flick and 11 other short films. (Including a modern-day silent movie pastiche directed by and starring film preservationist and historian John K. Carpenter.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving to my American visitors!

I wish all my American visitors and readers have a happy Thanksgiving with friends and family. And I want to say that I am thankful for the few dozen of you out there who visit regularly, whether you're American or not!

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