Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Betty and Grampy should be PETA mascots

A Song a Day (1936)
Starring: Mae Questel (voice of Betty Boop) and Jack Mercer (voice of Grampy)
Directors: Dave Fleischer and Dave Tendlar
Rating: Six  of Ten Stars

When Betty is overwhelmed from caring for all the patients in her animal hospital, Grampy comes up with a miracle cure.

There isn't much more story to this cartoon than what is summarized above. It's got some midly amusing jokes relating to the ailments the animals under Betty's care, some nice music, and a closing dance number (complete with the jazz hands). The best part of this installment is some very nicely done, 3D-feeling animation during the opening scenes.

"A Song  a Day" isn't the best in the Betty Boop series, but it's cute and worth the eight minutes of your life it will take to watch. And since you're already here, you should go ahead and click below to do just that!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Musical Monday with Skameleon

Skameleon is a German cover band that turns everything into two-toned ska music. Here's their version of "Wonderwall"

Happy Monday (and welcome to the beginning of the end for 2020)!

I've never been a fan of "Wonderwall" by Oasis, and it always baffled me why it was such a hit Back in the Day. That said, I really like the Skameleon cover. It's one of the songs included on their 2018 CD "Ska Makes Everything Better"... and I think it shows there's truth behind that title.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Trouble with Beauty

A Very Fine Lady (1908)
Starring: Renée Carl 
Directors: Louis Feuillade and Romeo Bosetti
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A lady (Carl) walks through town, unaware that her beauty and all the distracted men are causing chaos in her wake.

The teaser summary above pretty much sums up the entirety of "A Very Fine Lady", aside from a little bit of business at the end when the cops step into restore order in an amusing way. 

This straight-forward film has withstood the passage of time exceptionally well, with all of its jokes working as well now, more than 110 years later, than they did when the film was made. Take a few minutes to brighten your day by checking it out. 

(Heck, this film could even do with a remake--it's been a while since Benny Hill remade it on a near-weekly basis!)

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Daria Nicolodi dead at 70

Portrait of Daria Nicolodi

Italian actress and writer Daria Nicolodi, perhaps best known for her starring role in "Deep Red" (1975)
 and as the writer of "Susperia" (1977), passed away in Rome on November 26, 2020.  She was the mother of actress Asia Argento, and the life-partner of director Dario Argento.

Here are a few photos in her memory.

Dario Nicolodi in "Deep Red"

Portrait of Daria Nicolodi

Wishes for Happy Thanksgivings!

We wish a Happy Thanksgiving with family and loved ones to all our American readers, wherever in the world they may be! Even if it has be done virtually for many of us.

Bebe Daniels with a wish bone

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Pre-Thanksgiving Wonder Woman Wednesday

Wonder Woman portrait by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
We here at Shades of Gray are thankful for Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is grateful that comic book characters can't catch Covid-19, so she, her friends, and her comic-book universe fans can keep hanging out--and even have Thanksgiving Dinner together! We wish WE were comic book characters, too!

Wonder Woman and Friends, by Sebastien Dardenne
Wonder Woman by Chris Bachalo

Wonder Woman by Frank Cho
Wonder Woman hosts Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

'Guilty Hands' turns mystery tropes upside down

Guilty Hands (1931)
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis, Madge Evans, Alan Mowbray, William Blakewell, and C. Aubrey Smith
Director: W.S. Van Dyke and Lionel Barrymore
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Richard Grant (Barrymore), a former district attorney now in private law practice, conceives and commits the perfect murder to protect his naïve daughter (Evans) from a long-time client who is a sociopathic monster (Mowbray). 

"Guilty Hands" is one of those films that turns the standard tropes of detective stories upside down. Not only do we know who committed the murder and why, but the authority figure directing the investigation is also the murderer and all he's doing is shoring up the idea that his staged suicide WAS suicide and that there is no other explanation that his victim killed himself.

The tension in the plot arises from the viewers wanting Grant to get away with his crime, because the man he murdered was a piece of garbage that needed to be taken out, but also from the knowledge that Grant is a killer and he shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. There's also the minor mystery as to how Grant managed to make it appear as if he was in his rooms even as he was committing murder... a question that the one character who suspects the truth--the victim's long-time lover Marjorie (Kay Francis)--sets out to answer, even as Grant is convincing everyone, including the police, that his version of events is the only possible explanation. The stakes are upped when Marjorie finds the evidence she is looking for, but will it be enough to overcome Grant's expertly staged "suicide" and the high regard he is held in? (There are a couple other twists that keep the tension growing as the film unfolds--and the ultimate conclusion remains in doubt until, literally, the film's final moment.)

From the mysterious, somewhat disorienting opening shot and dialogue through the dramatic climax "Guilty Hands" moves along at such a rapid clip that it's 69-minute runtime feels much shorter; there isn't a second wasted on things that don't either establish characters and/or drive the narrative forward. Although this is without question Lionel Barrymore and Kay Francis's movie--they have the best scenes and lines, and when they're playing off each other, they give us the film's most dramatic moments--but the rest of the cast is also perfect in their parts. 

Madge Evans, as the young lady who is about to make the biggest mistake of her life, is so charming and likable; and Alan Mowbray, as the truly awful man who uses and disposes of women as casually as he does paper napkins, is so smarmy and downright obnoxious both give such excellent performances that the audience accepts Grant's notion that some murders are not only morally justifiable but necessary. Evans and Mowbray may not be the stars, but they provide the fuel for Barrymore and Francis's explosive performances and thus are every bit as important to the film's overall greatness. (Francis also has a scene with Mowbray that is among one of the film's highlights, where Francis and Mowbray act out a scene that solidifies just how vile a character the soon-to-be murder victim is.)

Alan Mowbray and Kay Francis in "Guilty Hands"

With all the praise I'm heaping on the actors and the story of this film, why is it only getting a Seven of Ten? Because for all the excellence here, there are some really baffling displays of technical incompetence d craftsmanship so inept that amateurs might have been embarrassed to have the work be seen by the public.

First, there are several instances of sloppy editing that causes minor continuity errors (like characters repeating the same actions twice in row), and moments of actors standing still and waiting for someone to shout "Actions!" or starting to relax after "Cut!" has been exclaimed. Second, and far worse, is the laughably bad sound design. I realize sound was new, but the frequently recurring sounds of thunder in this film sound like something you might expect to hear in a community theatre, but which is completely laughable in a film featuring major stars that was made by a major studio. In fact, the thunder in this film is so bad that it couldn't have sound more phony if it was done on purpose. It would have completely undermined the second half of the movie if not for the excellent performances and tight script.

"Guilty Hands" is one of five films in the "Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 10" collection, and it is almost worth the price by itself.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Musical Monday with the Henry Girls

The Henry Girls is an Irish band made up of three sisters--Karen, Lorna, and Joleen McLaughlin. Their sound has been described as a mix between Irish folk music and American root music. The few songs I've heard of theirs have all been very pretty, with great vocal harmonies, fiddle playing, and jaunty ukulele and harp strummings. I fell in love with them, however, when I heard their very  original covers of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Dectives". Most people covering it tend to retain the reggae touches or even ratchet them up higher. The Henry Girls went in a completely different direction, giving their cover more a ragtime, jazzy feel. And it works beautifully. Check out the song and great video below.

Watching the Detectives (2011)
Starring: The Henry Girls, Steve Batts, and Dancers from the Echo Echo Dance Company
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Other excellent covers of "Watching the Detectives" are the ones done by Toto, Steve Phillips, and Duran Duran.

And, of course, there's Costello's original 1977 version... it remains one of my favorite songs. (Although... I am still trying to decide if the Henry Girls and Duran Duran haven't managed to do better versions than Costello's recording.)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

It's 'A Close Call' with a parade of knock-offs

A Close Call (1929)
Starring: Unknown Voice Actors (but there's only one spoken line)
Directors: John Foster and Harry Bailey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A pair of mice in love are set upon by a cat who has his own romantic designs on the girl.

By the end of 1929, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse had exploded in popularity across the United States and around the world, due to the exceptional way Disney fully integrated the new technology of sound into his animated films, as well as the superior story-telling and animation presented. It should surprise no one that other production companies wanted to get caught in that wave of success and come up with their own Mickey Mouse knock-offs.

Cue the Van Beuren Corporation's team of animators. They redesigned a pair of characters--Milton Mouse and Rita Mouse--that had been popping up every now and then since the early 1920s in their animated anthology series "Aesop's Fables" in a way that left no doubt as to where Van Beuren's creative staff got their "inspiration". 

The redesigned Milton and Rita first appeared in "A Close Call" and their looks evolved over four episodes of "Aesop's Fables" until they so resembled Mickey and Minnie that audience confusion was almost assured. (It's not as bad in "A Close Call", but as you can see EXACTLY what the Van Beuren crew was shooting for if you check out "The Office Boy" (1930) by clicking here.)

Milton and Rita were far cruder (both character-wise and animation-wise) than what Disney animators were doing with their mice was doing with--as well as more sexually charged and more physically and emotionally abusive toward each other. This didn't change once they were dressed up as Mickey and Minnie, and it perhaps even got worse; at the very least, each of the four films I've seen them in were successively more chaotic and fever-dreamish than the one before. Eventually, Roy Disney initiated a lawsuit over trademark and copyright infringement against the Van Beuren Company; Disney wasn't seeking any money--they just wanted to stop these uncouth clones from damaging the public perception of their characters.

But I keep digressing away from "A Close Call", which is a fairly amusing, if poorly structured, cartoon. There's a tone shift at about 2/3rds of the way through where it feels like it should end but it keeps going.

After opening with a bit of musical fluff and an uninspired dance number performed by Milton and Rita--which is, literally, spiced up with a gag involving Milton causing Rita's skirt to fall off--it shifts into a spoof of silent movie melodramas. This part features some of the film's best moments, with the villainous cat abducting Rita, having his romantic overtures toward her rebuffed, and subsequently treating viewers to a series of melodrama villain tropes. Meanwhile, Milton Mouse starts out filling the role of the standard melodrama tough-guy romantic hero--until the stereotypical tropes get hilariously distorted and ultimately reversed. The final disposition of our villainous cat (who himself appears like a knock-off of Felix the Cat) is also somewhat shocking for a cartoon.

The second part of "A Close Call" features the wedding of the mouse couple, and it feels as if we're now watching a different cartoon featuring the same characters. It's equal parts strange and amusing, with the marriage ceremony culimating in a literal knot-tying... and "In the Army Now" is performed by the choir. It's all very amusing, but not very well connected to the first part, unless one imagines that Milton and Rita decided to get married because of the close call they experienced.

If you have a few minutes, check out "A Close Call" right here in this post.

For a detailed history of the Van Beuren Company and more background on the development of Milton discussed above, you should get a copy of Hal Erickson's very detailed, yet entertaining, book "A Van Beuren Production".