Friday, April 30, 2010

The Desert Peach takes to the air!

The Desert Peach: Politics, Pilots and Puppies (Mu/Aeon 1991)
Story and Art: Donna Barr
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

In the second volume of the collected "The Desert Peach" tales, Donna Barr continues to develope the fictitious brother of Field Marshal Rommel, Colonel Pfirsich Rommel, and the misfits that make up his command staff in the Afrika Korps' 169th Support and Gravedigger Battalion. It's the most fun you'll ever have with the German Werhmacht of WW2, and one of the rare times where you'll find yourself on the side of the Germans while reading. Well, for the most part, because even here there are Nazis to dislike and outright hate.

There are three tales in the book, and every page will have you at least smiling and often giggling.

In the first tale, "Is There a Nazi in the House?", Berlin big-wigs are coming to inspect Pfirsich's base camp with the hopes of finding something to hold against his politically unpopular brother. When he tries to find members of the Nazi Party who can meet-and-greet the visitors, he discovers that no one in is command seems to ever have joined, including the battalion's most fervernt Nazi supporter. IT's a hilarious story as the officers of the Gravedigger Battalion grow increasingly paniced... until they find their single Party Member in the most unexpected place. But even once they've accomplished that, their troubles are not over, and the story only gets crazier.

In the second tale, "Flights of Fancy", Pfirsich takes to the air in his peach-colored spotter plane in order visit his brother's command camp. Along the way, he finds himself in a literal dogfight with a British Spitfire and in a metaphorical ethical dogfight with both his pilot and a German Ace intent on shooting down the British plane even if it's not necessary. The ethical quandry that Pfirisch is confronted with becomes all the more frustrating for him as the Ace in question is his long-time gay lover, a man who decidedly does not share the colonel's attitude that suffering and spilled blood should be minimized even in war-time.

Third, in "A Day Like Any Other", we are introduced to the entirety of Pfirshich's command staff, including his radio operator who has a most unusual disability, through the eyes of the battalion's new chief medical officer. (The new prisoner of war that the unit aquires also serves as yet another way for Barr to showcase the universal respect that her character has for life and human deeceny and the way he approaches everyone with the initial assumption that they share his refined and civilized values.

The book is rounded out by a short story loosely based on real events in Erwin Rommel's homelife, as well as his relationship with his wife and son Manfred. It's a cute tale that infuses a historical figure with a humanity that he is rarely credited with in ficitonal portrayls.

Some of the humor in "Desert Peach" does come from the fact that the younger brother of the more-macho-than-macho legendary Field Marshal Rommel is as flamingly gay as they come, but far more of it comes from the fact that he's a man of honor and sensitivity surrounded by brutes. A very appealing aspect of these tales is also that his high moral character rubs off on nearly everyone he meets.

It makes one wish that reality functioned as it does in "The Desert Peach," because if we were all like Pfirsich Rommel, we all would be living in peace, harmony and absolute tolerance of our differences.

While the book reviewed in this post is long out of print, you can read the stories it contains, as well as many others, by clicking here. (I don't know how long the stories will be available, though.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wrongfully accused man vs the 5th Column

Saboteur (1942)
Starring: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Alan Baxter and Normal Lloyd
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A factory worker (Cummings) is wrongfully accused of an act of sabotage at an aircraft assembly plant that claimed the life of his best friend. When no one believes that he saw the real saboteur (Lloyd), he sets out to follow the only lead he has to clear his name before the police can catch him. His investigation and deseperate flight takes him clear across the United States and brings him face-to-face with Nazi agents at the very top of American society.

"Saboteur" was Alfred Hitchcock's first all-American production, and for anyone who has watched his British pictures from the 1930s there are a number of elements that will seem awfully familiar.

Like in "Young and Innocent," the hero in this picture must locate a man that only he knows to exist in order to clear his name. Like in "The 39 Steps," the destructive agents of a foreign, fascist power are hiding behind the veneer of wealth and respectability. And like in both movies, the hero has to rely on the assistance of a young lady (here played by Priscilla Lane) who believes him guilty and is initially trying to see that he gets captured by the authories.

While the three films share similar elements, they are utilized more effectively here, almost as if Hitchcock recognized what was best about those two previous movies and refined those aspects for use here. The pace is brisker and the tension is far higher throughout, until the end where the final few minutes are slightly mishandled.

Basically, our hero is cleared of all suspicion well before the film's famous show piece encounter high atop the Statue of Liberty. I suspect the logic Hitchcock and his screenwriters were using when they decided to put the hero in a position where he would have to save the life of the man who ruined his (and who wanted to ruin the whole country) was that they would underscore his basic decency, However, that climax would have been far more suspenseful if he had to save him or never see his name cleared.

But, letting the factory worker be heroic for the sake of being heroic and for plain respect for another human being's life fits with a theme that runs through the whole movie.

The most fascinating aspect of the film is the portrayal of the common American versus our country's elite. Throughout the film, the fugitive meets and is helped by everyday Americans who are more than willing to lend a hand to someone in trouble., even if it means risk to themselves. But whenever he encounters the rich, powerful or famous, they are either traitors who want to destroy the country they should be thanking for their good fortune, or they are dupes of those who want to destroy the country. Even the film's heroine falls into this category, as she starts the movie out as a typical celebretard who believes herself to be patriotic but who doesn't realize that "her people" are harboring enemies of America.

It seems either very little has changed since 1942, as America's elite still seems to be the place where those with the strongest hate for America and deepest love for its enemies can be found. How many rich and powerful and famous Americans are merely too stupid to see they are pawns of those who want to see America torn down once and for all instead of being actual evil and ungrateful traitors? Are Sean Penn and Danny Glover merely stupid, or are they Fifth Columnists on the magnitude of the villains at the top of the organizations in this film, just lacking in the logistical support from their buddies in Venezuela and Iran to fully bring their dreams to fruition? I hope we'll never know, but I would still wish fewer of American's elite would devote so much time and energy to tearing the country down.

This aspect of "Saboteur" makes it a film that still has something to offer modern audiences even beyond its expert pacing and well-orchestrated final confrontation on the Statue of Liberty (even if it could have been better with a slightly different structure to the overall ending).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Hitler, we hardly knew thee

On April 30, 1945, as Allied forces pressed into Berlin, Adolf Hitler chose to take the coward's way out and committed suicide. He died as he lived.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Nazi scientists plot revenge on England

Counterblast (aka "The Devil's Plot") (1948)
Starring: Mervyn Johns, Robert Beatty, and Nova Pilbeam
Director: Paul Stein
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A Nazi scientist (Johns) escapes from a British prison camp and murders and assumes the identity of a bacteriologist recently returned to Britain after decades abroad. In this guise, he continues developing deadly biological weapons as part of a plot to avenge Germany's defeat in WW2. Pressure on him grows, and risk of exposure becomes ever greater, as another scientist (Beatty) becomes suspicious, he is forced to take a well-meaning woman (Pilbeam) on as an assistant, and other Nazis start to press him to speed up his research. Will something give before a deadly plague is unleashed upon the English countryside?

"Counterblast" is a well-acted, well-written thriller. The complexity of the characters, particularly Johns' Nazi scientist, makes the film even more engaging and elevates beyond so many other similar films. Pilbeam, in one of her last roles before her retirement from screen acting, puts on an excellent show as always, as the young woman who travels half way around the world to take a position with the man she believes to be an old and good friend of her father's, only to find herself increasingly isolated and ever deeper involved in a deadly and monstrous research project. As in other roles she played, she projects a charming mix of vulnerability and independence. She is the perfect foil for the handsome, romantic Beatty... and it's easily believable that the young doctor would fall in love with her as quickly as he does.

"Counterblast" is a rarely seen post-WW2 drama, but I think it's worth tracking down, particularly if you are a fan of Nova Pilbeam (an actress whose work isn't given the recognition it deserves).

Nelson, Barry Nelson: The first James Bond

Casino Royale (1954)
Starring: Barry Nelson, Linda Christian, Peter Lorre and Michael Pate
Director: William H. Brown Jr.
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When allied intelligence agencies learn that a key Soviet operative (Lorre) has been funding his gambling habit with KGB money, secret agent James Bond (Nelson) is charged with beating him at one final high-stakes card game and then expose his theft and force the Soviet spymasters to kill him in order to save face. When one of Bond's former lovers (Christian) turns up in the employ of the enemy, the mission becomes far more complicated and dangerous.

I did not make a mistake in the plot summary above. In this, the very first screen adventure of Ian Fleming's James Bond, Britain's super-spy isn't British at all. It's a little known fact that the very first James Bond adaptation was made by American producers and directed at an American television audience. They decided that Bond needed to be an American so they could relate better to him. While it feels a bit odd to have James Bond presented as an American, Barry Nelson does a decent job with the character, being at least the equal of the other one-shot James Bond, George Lazenby from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

As would be expected from a 1950s television drama, Bond more a man of romance than randiness. Also, as would be expected from a 1950s television drama, especially when one considers that it was performed and broadcast live, the adventure is not as wild as any of the "official" Bond pictures that followed. What is very unexpected, however, is the cold brutality of the villain, La Chiffe. He is as vicious and brutal as any Bond villain that follows. In fact, I don't think Bond was tortured in such a straight-forward manner as he is in this film until the Pierce Brosnan-starring "Die Another Day" in 2002.

Cast-wise, the film is also better than expected. As mentioned, Barry Nelson plays a very good Bond, while Peter Lorre is likewise the equal of any actor who portrayed a Bond villain in the 25 other cinematic Bond adventures in the 50+ years since this was filmed. Even Linda Christian is good--perhaps she is better in live performances than traditional filmmaking, because I never would have thought she could act based on other performances I've seen from her.

If you like spy thrillers, I think this movie is worth checking out. That goes double if you're a big-time Bond fan, as this historical curiosity shows that there has been more than one "reboot" of the James Bond "franchise" since its beginning.

(This version of "Casino Royale" is included as a bonus feature on the 2002 edition of the David Niven- and Ursula Andress-starring "Casino Royale" from 1967. (I will be reviewing that version eventually on the Watching the Detectives blog.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A graphic novel for the girls of the house

Writer: Andi Watson
Art: Josh Howard
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After teenaged goth chick Lottie is busted trying to get into a night club using a fake ID, her parents send out of London to spend summer with her grandparents. Here, she gets a little variety in her life--learns about golfing and fishing, manages to win a cake decorating contest, and discovers that it is possible to survive without a cellphone--and learns that friends and possible romance can be found in places she never thought to look. She also becomes involved in a solving a mystery when a woman is murdered on her grandparents' golf courseher to spend the summer with her grandparents in the country... and her grandfather appears to be the most likely suspect.

"Clubbing" was one of the inaugural entries in the "Minx" line of graphic novels. These are books targeted at young teenage girls, and, as such, I am about as far away from being the target audience as possible.

However, a well-done book isa well-done book, and I enjoyed "Clubbing" quite a bit. Like any well-done juvenile fiction, the book can be read and enjoyed by kids and adults alike,

The basic storyline is one that I remember reading in countless mystery books when I was a kid, so juvenile fiction is apparently still juvenile fiction. The "big city kid goes to the country" is used with great effect here, particularly as writer Andi Watson ellicits such a perfect portrait of a spoiled rich girl who is somewhat out of her element. Kids and adults will both develop a strong liking for Lottie, smiling at her victories and feeling sorry for her during one particular scene where she tries to make friends and fails. (Some of her antics may be funnier to kids than adults, but they're consistently entertaining, and there's never a dull moment to be had.)

While the basic storyline is typical of juvenile fiction (I'm making an assumption here--it's been decades since I read my last "Hardy Boys", "Jimmy Bond", or "Secret Seven" novel, and I've let the whole Harry Potter thing pass me by, but since the Minx line is supposed to be all hip and cutting-edge and appealing for girls in their early teens, I think it's a safe bet that a talented professional like Watson was writing something appropriate for the target audience andthat therefore kids' lit is still kids' lit), Watson throws a twist into his tale at the end that I did not see coming. It's both funny, creepy, and he wrote which is one of my favorite lines from any fiction I've read recently, be it comics or "real" literature: "And that's the last I saw of Gran--as she was trying to hug an extra-dimensional horror."

(I don't think I'm spoiling too much by quoting that line... or by saying that this graphic novel put a twist on life in a quiet British village that's similar to that found in the movie "Hot Fuzz".)

As for the artwork, Josh Howard has a cartoony style that is both appropriate for the story and that should appeal to most readers. He also has a sense of layout and story-flow that few modern artists possess--it's a clear, easy-to-follow visual story-telling method that is remarkable because it doesn't call attention to itself. Howard is practicing graphic storytelling as it was done during the heyday of American comics, and it's nice to see such craftsmanship in a book that's supposed to be hip and new. If more up-and-coming artists and their editors and publishers had paid attention to these sorts of fundementals over the past 20 years, maybe American comics would be as big a business as they deserve to be.

"Clubbing" is a fun read that once again proves that comics can be used to tell all sorts of stories, and I think this is one that should appeal to just about every member in a household (except maybe the 9-year-old boy who thinks girls are yucky). The final page of the book sets up the potential for a sequel, and I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Charlie Chaplin mocks fascism,
bucks Hollywood mainstream

The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and Jack Oakie
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A Jewish barber (Chaplin) is mistaken for the Great Dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) and the opportunity to free a nation from tyranny is created.

"The Great Dictator" was Charlie Chaplin's first film that featured a full soundtrack, and it is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. It is a spot-on skewering of Hitler and Mussolini and a sharp criticism of fascism made at a time when much of America's intellectual elite could still be heard saying nice things about it. It was also made at a time when Hollywood's powerbrokers were concerned about making movies that might offend the fascist regimes of Europe for fear of their bottom lines.

This movie is one of the few true classic films that have ever been made. Although its exact political context is gone, the message is carries--a defense of freedom, peace, and equality--remains as relevant today as it was then.

The warning it carries is also relevant, because just like in 1940, the "intellectual elite" and the powerful media moguls are once again refusing to use their platform responsibly and speak out against an obvious threat to peace and freedom that grows steadily worse with each passing week... and whose actions claim hundreds of innocent lives all around the world every week. No, I'm not speaking of Barack Obama or his predecessor George Bush... I'm speaking of Islamo-fascism and its terrorist foot soldiers.

If only there were filmmakers who would point fingers at the real evils that are threatening peace in the modern world instead of attempting to ingratiate themselves with it and appease it. Oliver Stone should not be white-washing Hitler in accordance with the agenda held by his buddies in Iran HIS version of "The Great Dictator". Amercian newspapers shouldn't be censoring or ignoring cartoons that mock Islamic fascists--they should be printing more of them.

Filmmakers across the free world should watch "The Great Dictator". They should attempt to do what Chaplin did, or they should hang their cowardly heads in shame. Scumbags like Danny Glover, Sean Penn and Oliver Stone should be FORCED to watch it until they break down like some character in Clockwork Orange.

(Regardless of your opinions of geo-politics, past or present, you need to see this movie, which unfolds like a nifty little fable. Chaplin is fabulous in a dual role of a Jewish barber who just happens to be an exact twin for the and the fascist dictator of Tomania, Hyenkle. Chaplin's Hitler impersonation is hilarious, and the legendary scene where he dances with a globe of the world in full Fuehrer get-up in one of cinema's Top Ten Greatest scenes. That said, this classic film is currently out of print. I wonder if it hits too close to home for whoever presently controls the rights to it, that whoever it is can see that the Hollywood mainstream and powerful are just as cowardly and misguided now as they were in the 1930s and 1940s.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spies and/or ghosts threaten sea voyage

Mystery Liner (aka "The Ghost of John Holling") (1934)
Starring: Cornelius Keefe, Edwin Maxwell, Astrid Allwyn, Boothe Howard, Zeffie Tilbury, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Howard C. Hickman, George Hayes, and Noah Beery
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A passenger liner is used for a covert experiment that will allow ships to be remote controlled and thus revolutionize modern sea warfare (modern here being 1934). But, agents of "hostile foreign powers" threaten the project, the ship's captain (Beery) has gone insane, and a shadowy figure is creeping about the ship murdering people. Will Major Pope (Maxwell) save the day by untangling the mystery and unmaking a double-agent who is closer to the experiment than anyone suspects?

"Mystery Liner" has all the elements of being a really fun "detective thriller meets mad scientist" tale, but it's too talky, has just a touch too many subplots for a film that only runs an hour, and gets bogged down in the middle and becomes very, very boring. A couple of twists near the end will revive the interest of viewers who stick with it, but they really aren't interesting enough to warrant sitting throgh the lead-up.

With average camera work and staging, blah acting all around, and uninteresting, flat characters, the only strong part of this film is the core story concepts, and they're not interesting enough to lift it above a very low 4 rating.

(Triva: This film was based on a story by Edgar Wallace, a very popular mystery/thriller writer during the first quarter of the 20th century. Hundreds of films were made that adapted his work, and I think I've seen around a dozen. None have been all that good, however.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

500+ pages of quirky tales of battle action

Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank (DC Comics, 2008)
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Art: Russ Heath, Joe Kubert,
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

During the 1960s and 1970s, writer Robert Kanigher turned out some truly masterful war stories for DC Comics. Of the ongoing series he created and penned, one of the oddest was was "The Haunted Tank" from G.I. Combat.

"The Haunted Tank" followed the adventures of US Army Lt. Jeb Stuart and the crew of the Stuart-model tank as it battled its way across Africa and Europe during the height of World War II. The combination of a Stuart tank commanded by a Jeb Stuart drew the spirit of legendary Civil War General J.E.B. Stuart and he became the crew's guardian spirit, helping them out of impossible jams and giving Lt. Stuart cryptic, helpful hints when particularly dangerous situations were about to arise. Only Lt. Stuart can see and hear him, and this leads to him occassionally appears as if he should be shipping out on a Section 8 discharge. But, no one can deny that Stuart's tank sometimes does the impossible.
The best stories here are really, really good, but there are also a number of them where Kanigher uses a formula that eventually gets tiresome; basically, the General makes a vague prediction and then the tank crew encounters two or three situations that fit the prophecy before finally running into the real danger. It's possible that if one was reading the stories several months apart that the similarity between them would not be as evident, but when they are collected like they are here, it gets a little dull.

Still, these tales are in the minority; for the most part, "The Haunted Tank" was a series that consistantly offered readers some great offbeat war stories... and even when the stories themselves were a little weak, the very detailed, very realistic art by Russ Heath and Joe Kubert is always amazing to look at.

"The Haunted Tank" is a great book for fans of World War II stories (so long as you keep in mind that it IS a comic book--some of the "blazing battle action" is as far-featched as the notion of a tank with a guardian spirit) and for admirers of great comic book art; Kubert and Heath are two of the greatest talents to ever work in the medium.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New faces a-plenty when
'Bulldog Drummond Comes Back'

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Louise Campbell, John Barrymore, Reginald Denny, J. Carroll Naish, and Helen Freeman
Director: Louis King
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) is preparing to marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), his past comes back to haunt him in a major way. Phyllis is kidnapped by Valdin and Soldanis (Naish and Freeman), a sinister pair of characters with very personal reasons for wanting to torment Drummond. As he is drawn into a deadly game of riddles and clues where Clavering's life is the prize, he calls upon his friend Algy (Denny) and loyal manservant Tenny (Clive) for help, and to keep Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore) from accidentially causing Clavering's death.

"Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" is the weakest of the Paramount-produced Bulldog Drummond films, but not through any fault of the actors. Every performer featured is excellent and they play their roles with great style and good humor or deadly menace (depending on what side of the Good/Evil line the characters fall on). The problem here is the script... the situations presented never seems believable or sensible, even when viewed through the screwy lense that captures the world of Hugh Drummond and his pals. As a result, everything seems frivolous and pointless.

Still, the film is great fun to watch. With John Howard replacing Ray Milland in the role of Drummond, the energy and charm of the character is ratcheted up several notches, bringing a rapidfire pace to the film that will be a hallmark of the series for the six.

E.E. Clive also comes fully into his own as Tenny in this film, establishing a scene-stealing dry wit that gives rise to some of this film's funniest moments. He also plays fabulously off the other actors, and he makes a much better on-sceen partner to Howard than he did to Milland.

Louise Campbell, who takes over the role of Phyllis Clavering, is not quite as beautiful as Heather Angel, but, like Clive, she establishes the Phyllis Clavering character as she will appear in the future films--not quite as fully realized as Drummond and Tenny, but the foundation is put in place: As a spunky, self-reliant heroine who can give Dummond and the boys a run for their money. (And she does this while still remaining feminine and mostly proper. As one of the original "spunky heroines", Clavering is an interesting and fun character.)

Barrymore's first outing as Colonel Nielsen is greatly entertaining, although a bit out of character. His persuit of Tenny and Algy in a series of provides as many highpoints to this episode as Tenny and Drummond's banterings.

The rest of the cast performs expertly, as I mentioned above, with Naish being particularly strong in his first turn as a bad guy in the series (he shows up again in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa").

The great performances by the cast, and some snappy dialogue, almost lifts "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" to the high-end of average... almost but not quite.

Friday, April 16, 2010

War can be a queer thing

Desert Peach: Beginnings (Atlantic Books, 1989)
Writing and Art: Donna Barr
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"Desert Peach: Beginnings" reprints Donna Barr's earliest chronicles of the quirky adventures of "Peach," the flamingly gay younger brother of famous WW2 German General Erwin Rommel. Like his brother, "Peach" Rommel is a capable commander and loyal to Germany, but he is of a far more gentle disposition and is more interested in hanging out with the boys than he is in waging war against the Allies.

In this first collection, we get to meet the Desert Peach, key members of his unit, their Allied prisoner (who is treated more like one of the gang than an enemy) and a variety of other odd and funny characters. We even get to meet the Desert Fox, Rommel himself, as his visits his brother. The highlight of the book is a surfing expedition off the North African coast as the Rommel brothers ride some waves on home-made surfboards... only to be menaced by American submarines.

"Desert Peach: Beginnings" is a different kind of WW2 comic book. It's presents funny and in some ways even touching tales of likeable and decent German military men in the middle of the Nazi cesspool of the Third Reich. And given the nature of the historical Erwin Rommel, the protrayal of him and his fictional brother "Peach" doesn't seem all that far fetched. It's a well-drawn and well-written change of pace from the usual tales set in the period.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Invisible Man takes on the Nazis!

It's 65 years since Nazi Germany was broken and tossed on the scrapheap of history. I'm marking that great acheivement with a mini-blogathon.

Invisible Agent (1942)
Starring: Jon Hall, Cedric Hardwicke, Ilona Massey, Peter Lorre, and J. Edward Bomberg
Director: Edwin L.Marin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After he is threatened by Axis agents, Frank (Hall) decides to put the invisibility formula invented by his grandfather to use in the War Effort. He parachutes into Germany, teams up with a beautiful allied spy (Massey) and sets about destroying the organizers of a Fifth Column operation in the United States (Hardwicke and Lorre).

The sexy deep-cover agent for the Allies (Ilona Massey) looks on as the Invisible Agent makes himself visible
"Invisible Agent" is the second real sequel to "The Invisible Man". It's also an average WW2 propaganda film that shows the the Axis to be as foolish, evil and treacherous as can be imagined, while the Allies are brilliant and right-minded. Sort of.

While the Nazis are as nefarious as possible--decietful, backstabbing Hitler-worshipping sycophantic cowards every last one of them--our hero is also a bit hard to root for. Frank, as the invisible super-spy, is either dumb as a post or the invisibility forumula has a different effect on him than it had on those how used it in "The Invisible Man" and "The Invisible Man Returns". Instead of turning into the sort of megalomaniac who would try to get to Hitler and replace him as the leader of the Riech (which Griffin from the original film would almost certainly have done), Frank instead plays pranks on the Nazis at inopportune times--endangering both himself and deep-cover double-agent Massey--and falls into deep, coma-like sleeps at even worse times. Is it the invisibility formula at work, is Frank a moron, or is it just bad writing? Whatever the explanation, the Invisible Agent isn't much of a hero to root for... unless you're a 13 year old (who are probably the target audience for the film).

The target audience might also be the reason why it feels like a couple of punches were being pulled in this movie. While the Nazis are definately decadent scum in this movie, their evil doesn't even come close to approaching that displayed in indepdent productions from the time like "Hitler, Dead or Alive" or "Beast of Berlin", films that share many thematic and propaganda-content elements to this movie. Either, the fantastic elements of an invisible spy led Universal to choose to target it at a younger audience--and thus toned down some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazis--or maybe the very fact that Universal was a major film studio and corporation with international interests even in the 1940s and the two other films I mentioned were made by small operations limited the studio's desire to make a film that savaged the Axis as fully as it deserved.

The film is fun enough and the invisible man effects are decent--as is the idea that the invisible man here chooses to make himself visible using cold cream and a towel draped over his head instead of somehow finding yards worth of bandages everywhere he goes. The actors also give good performances, with only Peter Lorre failing to convince; he plays a Japanese intelligence agent and he is about as unconvincing as I would be if cast in the part of a Somali pirate captain. I can only imagine how bad the "Mr. Moto" films must be....

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Tax Time

This image was borrowed from Click on the link to check out thousands of similar amusingly captioned photos.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

East Side Kids vs Fifth Column Propagandists

This post is part of my month-long observance of the 65th anniversary of the Nazi Germany's defeat in WW2.

Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
Starring: Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Sammy Morrison, Bobby Jordan, Billy Benedict, Bobby Stone, Ava Gardner and Bela Lugosi
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a gang of inner-city kids decide to fix up a house as their gift to a newly wed couple, they run afoul a cell of Nazi propagandists covertly working out of a purportedly haunted house next door. Hi-jinx ensue.

I suppose I might have liked this movie if I was more familiar with the characters. I've seen listings for numerous "East Side Kids" movies, and I understand they are a spin-off from an early feature. Perhaps with a clearer understanding of who these kids are, I'd find them a little less annoying and a little more interesting.

As it is, I only got some mild chuckles out of this picture, mostly because almost every character is dumb beyond words. But it's not a funny kind of dumb like what you get from an Abbott & Costello or Mel Brooks picture, but rather a brain-hurting "I can't believe anyone can be that stupid" sort of dumb. I get the feeling the writers expected the audience to be amused first at the industriousness of the boys, then at their hijinx in the "haunted house", and then at the back and forth as they fight against the Fifth Columnists.

Speaking of the Fifth Columnists, if infiltrators and sabateurs were as stupid as the ones in this film, no espionage or terrorist rings would be able to function. Sure, these dastardly villains had invested a lot of time and money in making their hideout seem haunted, but once discovered they could either have a) stayed safely in their hidden room until the activity died down, or b) carried their printing press and papers out the secret tunnel and to the far end of the back yard where no one would have seen it until a truck could be brought in to take it away. But, if they'd been smart, there wouldn't have been a movie.

These Nazi agents aren't even particularly sinister, even if they are led by Bela Lugosi. In fact, Lugosi is wasted more here than in any other film I've seen him in, except perhaps the 1940s version of "The Black Cat."

Unless you're the world's biggest fan of the East End Kids, this is a movie you can skip. The only other reason to possibly see this movie is for the moment when Bela Lugosi puts William Beaudine's reputation for never doing more than one take a scene to the test. During one of the film's gags, Lugosi utters a four letter word ("shit"), partially masked by a sneeze. Beaudine nonetheless stayed true to his nickname of "One Shot" and Lugosi's obscene language was immortalized for the ages.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The fairer sex plays the dirtiest game

I continue to mark the well-deserved ass-kicking Nazi Germany received 65 years ago.

Miss V From Moscow (1942)
Starring: Lola Lane, John Vosper, Howard Banks, William Vaughn, Kathryn Sheldon, Paul Weigel and Noel Madison
Director: Albert Herman
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a top female Nazi spy is killed by the Allies, a Russian agent that bears a striking resemblance to her (Lane) is sent to Paris to infiltrate the Nazi intelligence apparatus. But when she draws the attentions of a love-struck Wehrmacht colonel (Vosper), an over-sexed downed American bomber pilot (Banks) and the suspicions of Gestapo operatives (Sheldon and Madison), her mission and very life are placed in jeopardy.

"Miss V From Moscow" is a fun little spy movie where many chuckles will be had at the interchanges between the beautiful Russian spy who is passing herself off as one of Hitler's favorite agents, and the German Army Colonel who is smitten with her, partly because of her beauty but mostly because of her connection with his beloved Fuhrer.

One scene is both hilarious and chilling, when Miss V and Colonel Heinrick attend a speech by Hitler. Heinrick is so enraptured during that scen that one keeps expecting him to throw his underwear at the stage, or perhaps even faint after squeeling like a school girl, but he is also not really listening to what Hitler is saying. The scene would perhaps be even funnier if it wasn't for the fact that it is probably an accurate portrayal of how much of the German people reacted to Hitler.

For the most part, though, the humor arises from the Russian agent using double-entrendres to respond to Heinrick whenever he prasies Hitler--giving what to Heinrick sounds like equally adoring and loving comments.

Aside from Lola Lane and John Vosper, no one really stands out. The rest of the cast are decent enough but they are playing as part of the background, not rising above the supporting roles that they play. (Howard Banks is extremely annoying as the "dashing airman", but I blame 1940s cinematic tropes more than I blame the actor for this; he's basically filling the role of "wise-cracking trouble-maker" that would be a reporter or a private detective if this wasn't a movie about a lady spy.)

This is a fun, fluffy flick if you have a taste for old-time low budget movies, but it's not worth going out of your way for. It's not bad, but it's also not especially good.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bulldog Drummond meets the love of his life

This is the first of eight Bulldog Drummond films produced by Paramount in the late 1930s. It's a series of light-hearted action/adventure tales linked by the constantly rescheduled wedding of Drummond and the love of his live, Phyllis Clavering. Click here to read some background on the series and its cast at companion blog Watching the Detectives.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)
Starring: Ray Milland, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Guy Standing, Reginald Denny, Porter Hall, Fay Holden, and Walter Kingsford
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" opens, daredevil adventurer Captain Hugh Drummond (Milland) is returning from an extended trip abroad. Over the objections of airport officials, he lands his private plane in thick fog before jumping into his sports car and speeding off to his country estate. Along the way, he comes across Phyllis Clavering (Angel), and before the night is out, he has to decide if she's a damsel in distress, or a mentally unstable woman, as her sinister wards (Hall and Holden) would have him believe. Before this most unexpected adventure is over, Drummond finds himself not only captured by a ring of spies, but finds himself heads-over-heels in love with Calvering. But will either of them live long enough to make good on the promise of romance?

"Bulldog Drummond Escapes" spends its first few minutes introducing the viewers to the main character and the supporting cast, and then proceeds to present a story that is not only engaging, but which features subplots that will continue to develop over the next five sequels, such as Algy's relationship with his wife and his struggle to balance a life of adventure with his friends Drummond and Tenny with that of a responsible husband and father; Colonel Nielsen's ongoing attempts to force Drummond to just behave like a normal citizen and stop sticking his nose in government business; and Drummond and Clavering's marriage plans that are forever interrupted by various bad guys and disasters.

Despite the fact that the first "Bulldog Drummond" films appeared in the 1920s, you would be well served to ignore those and just start your viewing with "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" and the other Paramount-produced films that follow it, particularly if "Bulldog Drummond at Bay" is any indication of the quality of the films that came before the Paramount series.

What makes this film, and its sequels, so much fun is the interplay between the characters and the snappy dialogue. The relationship between Tenny and Drummond is particularly fun.

Cast-wise, everyone does a fantastic job. Milland is adequate as Drummond, but he is greatly bolstered by excellent performances from E.E. Clive (as the ever-unflappable manservant Tenny) and Reginald Denny (as the ever-stressed and freaked-out Algy, who is trying to help Drummond out of his latest jam while supporting his wife as she gives birth to their first child). Heather Angel's character of Phyllis Clavering is something of a non-entity in this film, but she does as good a job as can be expected with the part... and she's as cute as ever.

With its fast-paced, well-constructed script and solid characterizations of a likeable group of people who are joined together by a sense of adventure, fun, and mutual respect, "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" is a good start to an excellent series of films.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Kicking Axis Butt, One Nazi at a Time...

This review is part of an observation of the 65th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat.

Showcase Presents: Sgt Rock, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2007)
Writers: Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney
Artists: Joe Kubert, Jerry Grandenetti, Russ Heath, et. al.
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Showcase Presents; Sgt Rock, Vol. 1" reprints in black-and-white format almost 550 pages of the earliest stories featuring DC Comics' most popular (even if the Enemy Ace has been the most celebrated by critics) war comics charater Sgt. Frank Rock of Easy Company.

This book is a great read if you're looking for down-to-earth, well-told stories featuring an extraordinary soldier, and it's an even better read if you're a fan of Joe Kubert and insterested in seeing how his work looked as he reached the height of his artistic powers.

And, of course, Nazis getting their butts kicked in almost every way imaginable.

It's fascinating to watch Sgt. Rock and Easy company evolve over the years. Early on, Rock was more of a narrator than the character the stories were about, but later he becomes the central figure and often shares the stage with a soldier or two that he and battle mold into a better soldier and even a better American at times. It's also interesting to see Easy Company evolve, as Kanigher starts adding a supporting cast to the series. (Some of the characters are bit goofy, and down the line, well past the point covered by this book, the supporting cast of Bulldozer, Wildman, Ice Cream Soldier, and Flowerchild get a bit much... but it's still neat to watch the strip's foundation be laid and watch it evolve over the three years of stories presented here. Even more interesting is the "prototype" Rock who appears at the very beginning of the book. It's a Bob Haney-penned story featuring a very different character but still one that paved the way to the series, much like the one-shot horror tale by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson led to the "Swamp Thing" series, even if the two were unrelated except for the creators.

Although the earliest stories in this book are close to 50 years old now, they've all stood up extremely well to the passage of time. They are as exciting and fresh as the day they were first published, with Robert Kanigher doing some greeat work--and only rarely falling into his oft-repeated rhythm of "story theme, three crises for the characters where the story's theme is repeated in thge bluntest possible ways, and a resolution that features the theme in a funny, ironic, or poignent way), so the stories here are varied. The book also holds up nicely to just sitting and reading, because, unlike his Enemy Ace material, he doesn't feel obligated provide a detailed introduction to Sgt. Rock in each and every story.

"Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock, Vol. 1" is another of DC's low-cost packages that gives readers easy access to some of the greatest American comics ever published. If you like comics, and you've never read these stories before, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It's a book featuring two of the genres masters--Kanigher and Kubert--producing fantastic work.

For a consise overview of the publishing history of Sgt. Rock, click here to visit the Toonpedia.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Jesus smote zombies for our sins

Jesus Hates Zombies (Alterna Comics, 2009)
Writer: Stephen Lindsay
Artists: Various
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After flesh-eating zombies overrun the Earth, God sends his Only Son to save a small group of faithful. Unfortunately, Jesus is, once again, sent to Earth under-equipped for the job ahead of him, and he must fight his way through zombie hoards as he treks across the United States. This is one mission where there is no Love to be had from the Christ, because Jesus HATES zombies!

"Jesus Hates Zombies" is a collection of short stories drawn by various artists and written by series creator Stephen Lindsay. The art varies tremendously in quality, but, as a lover of the old-time anthology comics, I still appreciated the format. (Not enough to cut the editors any slack; some of the art really is at such a low level that I can help but wonder if it was drawn by someone's Significant Other.)

The stories, however, are of consistently high quality. While the idea of Jesus wandering a "Dawn of the Dead"-style world looking for the final pure souls so that he may bring them God's word while sending zombies back to their graves is fun in-and-of-itself, Lindsay manages to infuse every story with dark comedy that had me smiling at every page and even laughing out loud at more than one occassion. Jesus' initial arrival on Earth, his acquisition of a car, and his later acquisition of a zombie sidekick (appropriately enough named Lazarus) are all funny high points of a very funny book.

However, there are a few almost sad moments as well, such as the one where Jesus encounters zombies in an abandoned amusement park (in a tale that may remind some readers of the hit movie "Zombieland"*, but they should be aware that Lindsay's story was originally published in 2007.)

And then there's the horror. You can't have a zombie comic book without SOME horror. Here, the most chilling moments arise when Jesus thinks he is at the end of the quest but instead finds himself facing something very different than lost sheep waiting for his help; and the story where he's trying to get a good night's sleep and instead is cornered by hungry undead. But even the horror is delivered through a snappy script and funny artwork.

*Sidenote: As I watched "Zombieland," it reminded me both of this graphic novel and of "Zombies Calling," another great graphic novel of comedic zombie antics. I wonder if it was a case of great minds thinking alike, or if someone on the "Zombieland" writing team likes reading the sorts of books that get reviewed here at "Shades of Gray"?]

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dr. Mabuse returns from pop culture limbo

The Return of Doctor Mabuse (1961)
Starring: Gert Frobe, Daliah Lavi, and Lex Barker
Director: Harald Reinl
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Chief Inspector Lohmann (Frobe) finds his vacation plans interrupted when he is called in to investigate a bizarre murder. When he himself is targeted for death, he finds the case getting stranger and stranger, with clues pointing to a conspiracy that reaches from the quiet halls of a local church, to a nearby prison, to mobsters from faraway Chicago... and perhaps even to the involvement of the megalomaniacal criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse.

"The Return of Dr. Mabuse" is a light-weight crime thriller with Saturday matinee cliffhanger and James Bondian overtones, including a villain with a plot to conquer the world through the application of weird chemicals, science, and brainwashing. It's an entertaining film, if a bit predictable, and one that is probably enjoyed more by kids and those "young and heart" than by jaded viewers who find kicks in picking films apart. (Although I think even jaded viewers will be entertained by the Delivery Truck of Doom, and will enjoy guessing at what character is Dr. Mabuse in disguise.)

One major downside to this film is that the acting seems a bit wooden, but I'm not sure how much of this is the fault of inferior actors used for the English dubbing. Frobe is certainly a better actor than one gets the sense of here, and I recall his previous outing as Inspector Lohmann as being even better than his turn as the Bond villain, Goldfinger.

Trivia: This film revived a pulp fiction villain that had slipped into into obscurity, but which had first been brought to the screen in films directed by legendary German filmmaker Fritz Lang between the years of 1922 and 1933. During the 1960s, six Mabuse films were released, before the evil doctor once again retreated into one of the many dark recesses of the pop cultural universe.
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