Thursday, April 22, 2021

Hussy breaks clown's heart in 'Circus Capers'

Circus Capers (1930)
Starring: Anonymous Singer and Voice Actor
Directors: John Foster and Harry Bailey
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A circus clown has his heart broken when he discovers that his bareback-riding girlfriend is also carrying on with the ringmaster (who tries to kill him).

A scene from "Circus Capters" (1930)

"Circus Capers" was one of four or so short films presented under the "Aesop's Fables" banner that featured a pair of amorous mice who just happened to (purely by coincidence and not-at-all-intentionally [wink-wink, nudge-nudge]) look very much like Walt Disney's Mickey and Minnie characters. 

While Milton and Rita (as the Van Beuren characters are named) looked like their more famous counterparts, they and their adventures were far raunchier: While I can imagine Mickey having a rival for Minnie's affections, I can't picture her being as slutty as Rita is in this cartoon. And the Walt Disney Company couldn't picture it either, and a successful lawsuit against Van Beuren eventually put an end to Milton and Rita's antics.

As for "Circus Capers" specifically, the plot is pretty much described in its entirety in the teaser summary at the top of this review. I could pad it out with punny double-entendres to describe the action and the characters, but I'll spare you that and instead just note that the strongest part of the cartoon is when the broken hearted Milton sings the at-the-time well-known song "Laugh Clown, Laugh"; it's actually one of the better renditions I've come across. The ending was also one that I appreciated very much, as I think Milton behaved exactly as he should when Rita tried to get him to her back. On the downside, the cartoon suffers from slip-shod animation that results in characters changing shapes and sizes for no reason other than poor quality control. It's a shame, because, with a little more effort this could have been quite good instead of merely average. (That said, I loved the supremely goofy lion-tamer bit; it takes an unexpected turn, and it make me laugh.)

But don't just take my word for how good or bad "Circus Capers" is. If you have ten minutes, you can watch it for yourself by clicking below..

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

International Wanna-Be Dancer Day!

On next Thursday, April 29, it's International Dance Day... but today, we celebrate International Wanna-Be Dancer Day. Here are a few noteworthy wanna-bes!

Milla Jovovich

Gloria Talbott

Ann Sothern as ballerina
Ann Sothern

Bessie Love
Bessie Love

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

I didn't love 'Love Happy'

Love Happy (1949)
Starring: Harpo Marx, Vera Ellen, Chico Marx, Ilona Massey, Groucho Marx, Paul Valentine, Melville Cooper, Raymond Burr, and Marilyn Monroe
Director: David Miller
Rating: Five of Ten Stars 

A struggling Broadway play gets drawn into the game of cat-and-mouse of a psychopathic jewel thief (Massey) and an oddball private detective (Groucho Marx) when the theater's gopher (Harpo Marx) happens to take diamonds she was smuggling in a sardine can while on a shoplifting spree.

Harpo Marx and Vera Ellen in "Love Crazy" (1949)

There are two historically noteworthy things about "Love Happy". First, it was the last time that the three-man center of the Marx Bros. comedy team appeared together in a film. Second, it was the first film appearance for future star Marilyn Monroe. Beyond that, there really isn't to recommend this film for anyone but the most entertainment-starved viewers--even huge Marx Bros. fans will be saddened by how the passage of time appears to have dulled their comedic edges. The frenetic pace and escalating insanity that was present in their great films from the 1930s is almost completely absent here, with just some faint echoes of it hovering around Harpo's character.)

Reportedly, the film was originally conceived to revolve entirely around Harpo Marx, and he also came up with the the story--which could be why the strongest echoes of what the Marx Brothers had once delivered is found around his character. While Chico is here, his character serves no purpose (other than to make references and a couple musical performances that remind us of much better Marx Brothers vehicles). Similarly, Groucho's role in the film is entirely incidental to the main action, and, although his character serves a purpose in the story, nothing would be lost--other than a few mildly amusing jokes--if it wasn't present at all. Although there's a widespread belief that both Groucho and Chico were added late in the development process, the only character that feels completely irrelevant is Chico. In fact, if most of his lines had been given to the Vera Ellen character, the film would have been much stronger for it. It would have put a greater emphasis on the relationship between Vera Ellen and Harpo Marx's characters, which would have made the film feel more coherent, as well as giving the two best performers and characters in the film more screen-time together.

The best parts of the film are all the scenes involving Vera Ellen; she's a bubbly, cute, and talented dancer playing a bubbly, cute, and talented dancer. Her song-and-dance production number at roughly the halfway point through the film is a definite highlight. Her scenes with Harpo are also great, even if a little sad since it's clear that he loves her, but she's got him squarely in the "Friend Zone." The plot elements advanced in those scenes are also among the most engaging in the film, both when they cross-over with the jewel thief plot, or are just there to advance mushy romance. Sadly, the film is so poorly scripted that neither Vera Ellen's character's relationship with Harpo, nor the main romantic subplot with Paul Valentine are given a proper resolution. Instead, after a wanna-be madcap chase around the theatre and across the rooftop involving the Marx Bros., the film's villains, the diamond necklace and some costume jewelry being passed back and forth, the film ends on the character portrayed by Groucho Marx. Some take this as evidence to the theory that he and Chico were forced into the film late in the process, but production notes and correspondence implies that Groucho was intended to be part of the project from the outset. He has some funny lines, but the fact the film ends on him--and in a way that is completely nonsensical and disconnected from just about everything that's been established previously in the film--is the final and most obvious sign of how poorly written this film is.

The low quality of the script also manifests itself in the fact that even otherwise funny gags are allowed to drag on to the point they become dull--like Harpo shoplifting; the bad guys (one of which is played hilariously by future Perry Mason Raymond Burr) pulling an impossible amount of items from Harpo's jacket; and the climactic rooftop chase where multiple antics on the part of Harpo and other characters start funny and end up tedious. The continuity issues and the attempt to augment comedic performances hampered by bad writing with dumb sound effects (which pretty much ruins some of Ilona Massey's scenes) only make the experience of watching this film more miserable.

I thought Vera Ellen and Harpo were so charming in this film, and their scenes together so enjoyable that I couldn't bring myself to give it the Four Rating that "Love Happy" probably deserves. I wish everything else around them had been better (and that their characters had gotten the proper story wrap-up they deserved.)

Monday, April 19, 2021

Musical Monday with Patty Smyth & Don Henley

"Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough" is a beautiful and very sad song was a big hit in 1992. It remains a personal favorite here at Shades of Gray.

It's a song that's gained more relevance in this age of Covid-19; many relationships--even some that have lasted for decades--have been crushed under the weight of the lockdowns and the general disruption of our daily lives.

Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough (1992)
Starring: Patty Smyth and Don Henley
Director: Scott Calvert
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Sunday, April 18, 2021

'Doctor Cupid' is predictable but still well-done

Doctor Cupid (1911)
Starring: John Bunny, Carlyle Blackwell, and Edith Storey
Director: Unknown
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A young poet (Blackwell) disguises himself as a doctor to get around the overly protective father (Bunny) of the woman he loves (Storey).

A scene from "Doctor Cupid" (1911)

Although mostly forgotten today, John Bunny was a comedian who became an international screen star during the early days of film. Reportedly, he tended to stay away from slapstick and physical comedy and instead focused on more character- and relationship-based material. That is certainly the case in "Doctor Cupid", which is one of only a handful of the roughly 300 films he appeared in that survive to the present day.

"Doctor Cupid" runs a little over 12 minutes and it doesn't waste a second with its fast-moving, proto-sitcom story that straddles the line between comedy and melodrama. The characters all take the unfolding events very seriously, but there's a sense that the audience isn't necessarily supposed to, from Bunny's obtuse character nodding off during a poetry reading to his daughter becoming literally love-sick when she is forbidden to see the man she barely knows yet has decided is the love of her life. There's the occassional over-emoting that one expects from films of this period, but generally the actors deliver performances that are more in line with what you'd expect from a well-performed stage production. Overall, everyone does an impressive job, especially since there is not a single moment where an actor seems unsure of where they're to direct their energy or where they're supposed to stand in the shot. (There's one bit where Edith Storey's back is to the camera for an awkwardly long period of time, but other than that, the framing of each shot and the actors positioning within it is well above average in competence for films of this period.

If you're in the mood for a bit of light entertainment that occupies a space between a sitcom and a French farce, I think you'll enjoy "Doctor Cupid"; you can watch it right here, right now, as it's embedded below. (And if I steer you wrong, feel free to sound off by leaving a comment beneath this post.)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

'Sweet Childe': An example of the Boobs & Blades comics craze.

Sweet Childe #1 (New Moon Studios, 1993)

Script: Vinson Watson
Art: Harold Cupec
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After being ignored by her spiritual leaders, set upon by sexually harrassers, and coming under threat of a murderous ex-boyfriend, Tasha is given a magic amulet by a strange old lady. From then on, when she is set upon by a male predator, she transforms into a blood-thirsty, killing machine that leaves no menacing males (or even friendly ones) alive.

From about the mid-1980s and through most of the 1990s, busty women in little clothing who ran around disemboweling their opponents were all the rage. Such characters existed before, and they exist to this day, but for 10-15 years, they were everywhere. They were so prevalent that they'd take over comics where they were initially secondary characters (Lady Death in "Evil Ernie") or existing characters would literally be mutilated and transformed into sword-wielding babes in skimpy outfits (Psylocke from "Captain Britain" and "X-Men").

One example of this comics trend was "Sweet Childe" from New Moon Studios. I came across it in a pile of underground and alternative and self-published comics from the 1980s and 1990s that was recently donated to the Shades of Gray cause (so there will be even more reviews of black-and-white comics coming to this space).

Art from "Sweet Childe" #1

Story-wise, I'd say it's about average for the Boobs & Blades fare of that period. The general content and tone seems inspired equally by slasher films and 1980s exploitation flicks, with characters also drawn from the pool of stock figures from those genres. Where "Sweet Childe" stand apart, however, is that I don't remember any other title being quite so dedicated to its viewpoint that nearly all men are predators just looking for a woman to abuse or rape... and even those who aren't actually are, because if they have consensual sex with a woman who they hook up with in a bar, well, that just proves that they're predators who deserve to be killed. 

That last part bothers me--that one of Tasha's victims is a guy with him she picks up on the bar, goes back to a hotel with, and has mutually agreed upon sex. She and the man are both very clear on what they are looking for. And yet, she brutally murders him for having sex with her. This makes no sense in the context of the rest of the issue. Maybe it's because I like a little bit of a "morality tale" aspect to my horror stories, but this makes no sense to me and seems out of key with everything else that happens in the issue. If the transformed/possessed Tasha (the "Sweet Childe" of the title?; I am realizing I'm not sure why the book is called that) is a Furie out to avenge the evils of men against women, why does she then become the very evil predator she is supposed to be targeting? Maybe Watson was setting Tasha/Sweet Childe up to be the villain of her own series (as was the original intent with Marvel's Punisher? The final page makes me think this might be the case, but it could just be sloppy writing. Actually, the way the victim's connection to other characters is revealed, I'm thinking this might be the case more than anything.

Art-wise, it's a bit below average. One problem is that Cupec's art appears flat and static, despite the violent action that dominates the book. Maybe this wouldn't have been a problem if a good colorist had worked on the pages, but this is black and white, and Cupec doesn't use enough black to make things pop, or he uses it badly. 

The biggest problem, though, is that the action is sometimes hard to follow both in individual panels and pages and across pages. Harold Cupec's choice of PoV in a number of panels is odd and it causes disruption in the flow of the story because it's often unclear how the events in one panel led to what is happening in the one following--and this sometimes leads to a cascade failure where it becomes unclear what's happening from one page to the next.  There's a mass-slaughter sequence onboard a subway train where this becomes a huge problem as it turns into a perfect storm of all of Cupec's weanesses.. It also doesn't help that he tries to do some Tim Vigil-style gore... but he's no Tim Vigil. (That said, I adore Tasha/Sweet Childe's facial expression in the last panel. It may be the best moment in the whole book.)

Page from 'Sweet Childe' #1

Given the widespread popularity in some quarters of the notion that all men are evil rapists just looking for the right opportunity to show their true colors, I suppose "Sweet Childe" might hold some appeal to modern readers--if it was available anywhere or had made it past the first issue. I've not been able to find evidence of either being the case; I can't find any information on the title nor its publisher nor the publisher's parent company anywhere on the Web.

I am torn between awarding this title a Low Five or High Four on the 0 - 10 scale used here at Shades of Gray. I probably would not have bothered getting issue #2 of "Sweet Childe" (or even #1, frankly) Back in the Day unless I'd been at a convention and either liked a conversation/encounter I had with the creators, or it was given to me for free. That said, part of me is curious to see where "Sweet Childe" might have gone if it made it to issue #2 and beyond. Was our "heroine" going to be the villain in her book, as the final page seems to hint at? And why is the series called "Sweet Childe" when no one in the story seems to fit that name? Would there have been answers to those questions? Probably not, but the fact that I was even motivated to ask them tells me there's a spark of something here, even if the creators weren't fully able to fan it into life. That's worth some consideration, so I am erring on the side of generosity.

If, in the unlikely event you come across a copy of "Sweet Childe" out there, or remember reading it, feel free to hop on and share YOUR take on it.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Happy Birthday to Gina Carano!

Gina Cerano

Gina Carano, martial artist turned actress--pretty much a female version of Chuck Norris with the added fun of Twitter Controversies. (In 2012, she even won the Chuck Norris Award for Best Female Actor for her performance in "Haywire" (2012).)

Carano was born on this day, April 16, in 1982. Here are some pictures in celebration.

Gina Corano

Gina Carano

Gina Carano

Gina Carano

Thursday, April 15, 2021

It's no bull...

 ... that Elizabeth Montgomery was born on this day, 88 years ago.

The Avengers: A Surfeit of H2O

A Surfeit of H2O (1965)
Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Noel Purcell, Albert Lieven, Geoffrey Palmer, Talfryn Thomas, John Kidd, and Sue Lloyd
Director: Sidney Hayers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A doomsday prophet (Purcell) and a winery with secret, highly scientific production methods are at the center of the mystery when agents John Steed (Macnee) and Emma Peel (Rigg) are tasked with uncovering how a man drowned in the middle of an empty field.

This is another excellent episode that features a tight script; a brilliant mix of sci-fi and investigative secret agent action; and an assortment of interesting and quirky characters that make it tricky to pinpoint who the bad guys are and what they are actually up to until the Big Reveal. It also features another nice "damsel in distress" riff along the same lines as what we had in "The Gravediggers", but with a stronger sense of danger than comedy. There's also a great bit with Steed's steel-plated trick bowler as an adjunct to that business.

Character-wise, the wisecracking between Steed and Mrs. Peel is topnotch, and some of the incidental characters here are so interesting and well-acted that I sorry to see them meet a violent end, or I wished there could have been a reason for them to make reappearance in a future episode--Noel Purcell's doomsday prophet Jonah Barnard being prime among these. The different approaches that Steed and Peel take to investigating the mysterious deaths also lend a great deal of entertainment value to this episode--Peel remains methodical and cautious in her approach, while Steed starts out that way but quickly starts resorting to antics to see what he can stir up. At the end, though, it's a combination of the two approaches that leads to the good guys ultimately winning the day. Peel's dignified unflappability also leads to one of the most amusing (and possibly one of the most British) witness interviews ever committed to film. Another nice bit in this episode is the way Steed and Peel turn firmly to science to help them figure out what's happening with the weather around the winery--which also gives the writers an opportunity to show that Mrs. Peel is also knowledgeable in the field of meteorology.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel

As great as this episode is, it's another instance of where the creators don't quite pull off the ending. It's got a dramatic set-up and the location in which it unfolds should make it one of the deadliest fights our heroes have ever been in--since they are exchanges punches with the bad guys at the very heart of a mad science experiment that has claimed three lives that we know of--but it's almost like the actors, director, and writers have forgotten what's happened earlier in the episode.

All in all, though... some 55 years after it first aired, "A Surfeit of H2O" is still highly entertaining and well worth the time you'll spend watching it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Jane Birken Quarterly

It's time for another visit with Jane Birkin. What is she getting up to?


Your guess is as good as mine.

Jane Birkin in a cape with a statue

I don't know what she's doing here, either...

Jane Birkin on a ladder