Monday, December 31, 2018

The end of 2018 is almost here...

... and Dorothy Lee and Thelma White are counting down the final minute of what's been a busy year here at Shades of Gray...

... while Lilian Harvey is ready with a toast...

... and Bessie Love just keeps on partying, because she knows that 2019 is going to be even busier!

WE'LL SEE YOU NEXT YEAR (in just another minute)!

This 'Conspiracy' isn't worth uncovering

Conspiracy (1930)
Starring: Bessie Love, Ned Sparks, Hugh Trevor, Gertrude Howard, Rita La Roy, and Donald MacKenzie
Director: Christy Cabanne
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After killing a drug kingpin, Margaret (Love) is hiding from both the drug syndicate and the police, her identity as the killer still unknown. Then a crime writer turned amateur detective, "Little Nemo" (Sparks), decides to solve the case, gets onto her trail, and may expose her to cops and crooks alike.

When I reviewed "The Sawdust Ring", I said that I could easily see why D.W. Griffith was sure Bessie Love was going to be a star from the moment he first saw her, and why she did indeed become a huge star during the 1920s. In that film, she had a certain charisma that almost seemed to make her leap off the screen. In "Conspiracy", however, very little of that aura is evident... in fact, the performance she gives here barely distinguishes her from a generic "damsel in distress"-type character. (I might even argue that her performance seems a bit off, since she's playing a character who's been undercover with a drug gang for several months. Sure, she's just stabbed someone to death as the film starts, and later she's been cooped up with an obnoxious asshole for two weeks, but I would still expect something more than confusion and panic to each and every situation she encounters.)

Perhaps Love was modulating her performance to be complimentary to the boring, bland stock hero played by Hugh Trevor. Maybe she was trying to be lowkey so Ned Sparks' supremely annoying, grumpy old man character would seem even more annoying and grumpy. Or maybe she knew she was in a badly directed third-rate movie with a weak script full of squandered opportunities and only one mildly interesting twist, and she wasn't giving it her all. Whatever the reason, there are only two times in "Conspiracy" where we see glimmers of the Love that graced the screen 15 years earlier: During the obligatory insta-romance-sparking scene where she tells her tale of woe to Trevor's dull alleged man of action, and during the scene where Sparks' character threatens to turn her over to the police, and she in turn threatens to bash his brains in with a paperweight.

Still, even if Love had given the performance of her career, she probably couldn't have saved this movie which leads with its very best scenes and then steadily goes down hill. The biggest problem here, really, is that the filmmakers couldn't decide if they were making a comedy or a thriller or a melodrama; or if the central character was Margaret, Love's caught-in-the-middle woman on the run; Little Nemo, Sparks' annoying and obnoxious and played-strictly-for-laughs crime writer; or Trevor's boring feature section reporter. It also doesn't help the movie that anything remotely suspenseful happens off-screen or in a flashback (where we already know the outcome).

As terrible as this movie is, and as disappointed as I was with Bessie Love's performance, I did keep watching. Ned Sparks as Little Nemo was entertaining in a train-wreck sort of way... and I watched with captivated awe while Sparks and Gertrude Howard (as Little Nemo's beleaguered black housekeeper) played through a series of comedic (but extremely unfunny) and deeply racist exchanges. Also, Rita La Roy's femme fatal-ish character that shows up at about the halfway point as an agent of the drug ring trying to milk Little Nemo for information and seduce him into turning Margaret over to the gang when he finds her, was a lot of fun.

Unless you're a huge Ned Sparks fan (I think this was the closest this accomplished character actor ever came to playing the lead); want an opportunity to be able to tell exactly how brilliant Bessie Love is in some of her other roles; or are looking for an old movie with some racists scenes to fill you with righteous outrage, there are far better movies to spend your time on. (But if you do decide to check it out, I recommend you watch it for free on YouTube.)

It's almost 2019...

... and people are practicing their best kicks as they prepare to kick 2018 right the heck out of here!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Horror movie giants at their best

The Body Snatcher (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade, Bela Lugosi, and Edith Atwater
Director: Robert Wise
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In this loose adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, a young medical student (Wade) becomes drawn into the twisted relationship between a brilliant but coldhearted surgeon (Daniell) and a strange coachman who moonlights as a body snatcher to provide the doctor with research specimens (Karloff).

"The Body Snatcher" is a one-stop spot to discover why producer Val Lewton, actor Boris Karloff and director Robert Wise are held in such high regard by horror movie fans and filmmakers.

Lewton's touch is all over this film, and there is barely a scene that doesn't feature terror technqiues that filmmakers copy and rely on to this very day. Karloff gives one of the very best performances of his career, oozing greasy charm and quiet menace with every word and gesture. And then there's the very chilling scene where he's just choked a man to death, is sitting over the corpse, and then reaches out to stroke his pet cat. And, finally, Wise mounts a brilliantly structured film where the mystery and tension keeps mounting until the end, and every scene is perfectly paced, framed and lit. Much gets said about film noir, but the use of light and shadow in black and white horror films like this one is far more important that in crime dramas, and here Wise uses the medium to perfection.

And, of course, the stars are backed up by an excellent supporting cast, including Bela Lugosi in his final horror role for a major studio. Lugosi's role is small, but he brings a level of raw creepiness to his character, creepiness born more of stupidity than the evil that wafts from Karloff's character.

In retrospect, the fact that Lugosi dies in a very key scene in the film is something of an allegory for his career, as well as Karloff's. In the scene in question, Lugosi ends up dead on the floor and Karloff reaches out to pet a cat in a very creepy moment. This was the second-to-last film Lugosi made for a major studio, and his career and life were mostly a downward spiral from here, while Karloff's career in horror films continued to flourish.

Getting ready for the change...

Ann Miller, who has helped us mark more holidays than anyone else here at Shades of Gray, stopped by to get things ready for the Coming of 2019.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

'The Adventures of Tartu' are thrilling!

The Adventures of Tartu (1943)
Starring: Robert Donat, Valerie Hobson, Walter Rilla, Glynis Johns, Phyllis Morris, and Martin Miller
Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A British army officer and bomb expert (Donat), who happens to be a chemical engineer who is also fluent in German and Romanian, is recruited by military intelligence for a mission in German occupied Czechoslovakia. Here, is is to pose as Jan Tartu, a Romanian Nazi and chemist, infiltrate a plant where the Germans are making next-generation chemical weapons, and destroy it. Naturally, things go sideways with the mission, and while "Tartu" is improvising his way back on course, things go from urgent to dire: The Nazis aren't weeks or months away from launching a chemical weapons attack on Britain, but mere days!

"The Adventures of Tartu" is a tightly plotted and excellently executed spy thriller. There is literally not a moment of time wasted in the film, with every second spent deftly establishing characters and their relationships, or advancing and/or complicating the plot and the story. And what complications! I can't comment too much on them without spoiling them, but the way the predictable romance between leads Donat and Hobson intersects with the expected elements of a spy movie, as well as a couple of the plot complications, is wonderful and a great source of tension and suspense as the third act opens.

The already great script is brought to brilliant life by excellent, nuanced performances all around; even deeply vile characters like the lead Nazi in the film, played by William Rilla show glimpses of humanity. Every cast member is top-notch here.

Robert Donat is especially impressive since he essentially plays two different characters--Terence Stevensen of the British Army, an officer and a gentleman who loves his mother and visits her on weekends; and Jan Tartu of the Romanian Iron Guard who is a vain and self-centered womanizer. One could even say he plays a third character, since at two different points in the movie, he adopts a persona that's harder-edged than either Stevensen or Tartu, when he first has to show Nazi commanders and then resistance fighters that he "has what it takes" to be trusted by them. While I found Donat charming and lots of fun to watch in the only other film I recall seeing him in ("The 39 Steps", which happens to be another spy thriller), here I found him downright brilliant.

The final elements that makes this film a great joy to watch is the cinematography and the great sets, especially when it comes to the Nazi munitions plan and the secret weapons lab built inside a mountain. (And, boy, can those Movie Nazis build secret bases. Even James Bond villains can't match their ability to build massive and spacious underground labs!

"The Adventures of Tartu" is one of the 50 movies included in the "shovelware" set Fabulous Forties... and it's the original, superior British edit of the film. The American version is available for Streaming via Amazon Prime (and free for members); several scenes that are present just for character building are cut or shortened in the American version. I'm providing Amazon links to both below, but I want to stress that the one included in the Fabulous Forties collection is the superior film AND the digital transfer was made from a better print than the one available via Amazon Prime. (I've already posted reviews of other films included in the set. Click here to see them. and maybe decide if the set is worth your hard-earned dollars.)

While both versions of "The Adventures of Tartu" are worthwhile, and watching both is an interesting exercise, the Nine of Ten Stars rating at the top of this review is for the British version of the film; the American edit drops down to a Seven of Ten. It's still a good movie, but it's not as the original cut.

Friday, December 28, 2018

A case where the 'monster' is the hero

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Antonio Moreno and Richard Denning
Director: Jack Arnold
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A group of scientists travel into the Amazon jungle to retrieve an unusual fossil, but instead find themselves battling a very-much-alive amphibious humanoid.

I don't think I've ever seen a movie where I've been so quickly on the side of the monster, or rooted so strongly for it to kill off the cast of "heroes" as I did when I saw "Creature from the Black Lagoon".

I also don't think I've seen a movie that has irritated me quite so much as this one did.

If the morons we're supposed to be rooting for had behaved like scientists instead of big game hunters, they might have learned something about the creature, like, oh, that it was intelligent. From beginning to end, the assholes on the good riverboat Rita caused their own troubles, and they are completely unsympathetic as a result. The only member of the expedition with a brain was Richard Carlson's character, and even he seemed awfully slow on the uptake. (When the monster starts laying traps and blocking the river out of the lagoon, it's time to stop treating it like it's a shark with arms and legs, doofus.)

Despite my annoyance with every single character in the film, except the monster, whose initial mistake was one of curiosity and who later is justifiably pissed off at these interlopers who keep shooting sharp sticks and shining blinding lights at him (her?), I was very impressed with the astonishing quality of the underwater action photography and the amazing design of the creature. (And I'm even more amazed at the way the outfit allowed the stuntman wearing it to swim and seem more convincingly real than just about any other "guy in a rubber suit" monsters that have graced the silver screen.)

Unfortunately, the film has a padded feel to it, as there are several drawn-out pointless conversations, and a number of scenes that go on well past the point they should have ended. The film also suffers from a general lack of suspense, although perhaps if I hadn't been wishing for the monster to kill those idiots, maybe I would have felt a little more tension than I did.

Still, the look of the creature is fantastic, and the underwater sequences are amazingly well done. In fact, every shot of the creature swimming or fighting is a joy to watch, and the film is at its very best during a long sequence where the looks-great-in-a-bathing-suit marine biologist goes for a swim in the lagoon, and the creature is pacing her under the water, watching her with no menace but obvious curiosity.

The flaws and the strong parts of the film almost balance each other out, but the end result is a movie that's not quite as good as I expected. Maybe I had my expectations set to high, maybe it's a film that doesn't mesh well with modern attitudes--or maybe it just doesn't mesh well with my attitude.

This movie so annoyed me so much that it's the only one of the classic Universal Monsters where I haven't seen all of the original films. I'm getting around to changing that since I was gifted with a copy of the Creature of the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection. Time will tell if I keep rooting for the monster, or if the "heroes" are being bigger assholes in the rest of the series.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Thelma Todd

I was recently going through my pile of "To Be Watched & Reviewed" DVDs, and I noticed that the majority of them feature Thelma Todd. I didn't plan it this way, but appears that 2019 will be the Year of the Hot Toddy. (I'll add a "Thelma Todd Quarterly" to the line-up--with her joining Bessie Love and Milla Jovovich in rotation--to make it even more so!)

In addition to regular appearances by Thelma Todd, I am hoping and planning for 2019 to bring many more reviews of movies and comics, as well as a healthy dose of photos and art and the occasional music video and randomness.

I hope you all will join me on the other side!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

'It's a Cinch' is amusing but unremarkable... except for a really bizarre directorial choice

It's a Cinch (1932)
Starring: Monte Collins, Phyllis Crane, Tom O'Brien, and Richard Powell
Director: William B. Goodrich (aka Roscoe Arbuckle)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a dance instructor (Collins) is tricked into facing a prize fighter (O'Brien) in the boxing ring, his girlfriend (Crane) devises a plan to turn the odds in his favor.

"It's a Cinch" is a mildly amusing short film with a fast-moving story performed by a pleasant but  unremarkable cast. They are, sadly, made even more unremarkable by the degraded state of the of the film the DVD transfer was made from. The sound quality is okay, but the picture is so washed out and blurry that I couldn't even capture a good image with which to illustrate this review. (Hence, the use of a head shot of actress Phyllis Crane.)

"It's a Cinch" is perhaps of greatest interest to modern viewers because it is the last film directed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. In 1921, he had been accused of rape by a woman who died before an investigation of her charges could even be properly begun, the prosecutor decided to link the two events and Arbuckle was tried for murder.

Although he was ultimately and emphatically found not guilty by a jury (so emphatically, in fact, that the jury felt obligated to issue a letter of apology to him with their verdict), Arbuckle's career was in ruins, because he had already been tried and convicted in the media. He could no longer get work as an actor, but he turned to directing under the pseudonym William B. Good. By the time work wrapped on "It's a Cinch", however, the murder trial was far enough in the past that Arbuckle's acting career began to revive and he stepped back in front of the camera.

Why am I rattling on about Roscoe Arbuckle? Because the only gripe I have about this picture leaves me wondering about the choices he made as a director.

"It's a Cinch" opens with a scene at the dance academy where the main character is an instructor that consists mostly of lingering shots of the dancers' chests and legs. Now, I don't usually have issues with cheesecake (as there is plenty of evidence for here and here), but those shots made me feel awkward, almost embarrassed, to be watching. What's more, these shots were completely out of tone with everything else that followed in the picture. In the final analysis, that opening scene almost made me knock the film down to a Four Out of Ten Star rating, but since the film was fun enough otherwise I held it to a low average rating. (I just wish I could figure out why someone thought that opening scene was a good idea... especially from a director who'd been accused of rape and who's pseudonym was Will B. Good. And my initial reaction wasn't even colored by that; it wasn't until I was starting this review that it registered who had directed the film.)

"It's a Cinch" is one of six short comedies included in the "Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies Vol. 4" collection. The degraded quality of the original from which it was transferred is about the same as the others in the set--most have decent sound but awful picture--but this is a case where you get what you pay for. (Near as I can tell, this disc is also the first time these films have been available to the public for a long time.)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas is here!

Santa is making his rounds, but in case something goes wrong, we've arranged for back-up! Standing by are...

... Shirley Knight ...
... Vera Ellen ...

... Joan Crawford ...

... and Mary Carlisle!
Um... Mary seems to have left a few necessities behind at the North Pole staging area. Whoops.

Merry Christmas!

I hope all those who have visited 'Shades of Gray' for the reviews, pictures, and music videos over the past ten years are enjoying the company of friends, family, and other people who care about them. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you'll be back in the future!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

'Thundering Tenors' sees a party ruined

Thundering Tenors (1931)
Starring: Charley Chase, Lena Malena, Lillian Elliot, Dorothy Granger, Elizabeth Forrester, and Edward Dillon
Director: James W. Horne
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A socially inept radio star (Chase) causes chaos while trying to fit in at a high society dinner party hosted by his girlfriend's parents (Dillon and Elliot)

"Thundering Tenors" gets off to a slow start, but when it kicks into gear about five minutes in, it speeds ever-quicker down a path of growing craziness. The film is at its funniest and wildest when Chase gets into a running fight and wrestling match with a doctor played by Lena Malena in one of the biggest roles of her short career. She is called after Chase gets a fishbone stuck in his throat and the party's host calls for a doctor who lives nearby to come to his aid. The doctor, though, is a chiropractor who tries to use spinal and neck adjustments to get the bone loose, Chase doesn't appreciate her application of "medicine" and the hilarious fight mentioned above breaks out. (Interestingly, another Hal Roach-produced short released later the same year featured a similarly comic chiropractor--the inaugural teaming of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, "Let's Do Things". Either the screenwriter involved with both, H.M. Walker, found chiropractors and their "adjustments" funny, or chiropractic quackery was a common target of pop cultural mockery.)

The actors are all perfect in their parts, with Charley Chase being particularly charming and funny, with Lena Malena being hilariously physical in her fight with him. Unfortunately, those performances are undermined by inexplicable and unnecessary sound effects that someone must have thought were funny (like musical notes underscoring pratfalls, or the sound of tearing cloth as Chase undresses for "treatment" by the doctor); they don't ruin the movie, but they do make it less enjoyable. Another curious element of the film is that, despite the title, the presence of a band, and the fact that Chase is playing a supposedly famous singer, there isn't really a musical number in the film.

"Thundering Tenors" is one of 17 short films included in the two DVD set Charley Chase at Hal Roach: 1930 - 1931. It promises to be the first installment in a comprehensive collection of Chase's talkies.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Christmas is Coming...

... and rather than hang the wreath here at Shades of Gray, Dorothy Granger decided to hang *with* the wreath.

Hopefully, you're having an easier time decorating your place than we're having around here!

Friday, December 21, 2018

'Hit the Ice' has Bud & Lou at their finest

Hit the Ice (1943)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Ginny Sims, Patric Knowles, Sheldon Leonard, Elyse Knox, Mark Lawrence, Joe Sawyer, and Johnny Long
Director: Charles Lamont and Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of photographers (Abbott & Costello) accidentally become entangled in a bank heist and are mistaken for the robbers. As they try to clear their names, the actual thieves want to tie up loose ends by eliminating them when they cross paths again at a ski resort in Sun Valley.

"Hit the Ice" is a solid Abbott & Costello film. Almost every routine is perfect from set-up through execution, the plot that carries us from gag to gag is just enough to keep things moving, with the schemes of the villains providing suspense and connecting the various characters to each other as the paper thin story unfolds. The film is further lifted by the fact that, unlike in several other films that Abbott & Costello made together, their characters are written in such a way that viewers can believe that they're friends, because Abbott isn't as cruel and vicious toward Costello as his characters sometimes are. In fact, this may be one of the most cheerful A&C movies, because sympathetic character truly is smpathetic, Abbott and Costello are both portraying characters who are genuinely nice, and everyone comes out ahead in the end (except the bad guys of course); they get theirs in an extended and very funny and cartoonish skiing sequence.

As with many (most?) of Abbott & Costello's films, there's an attractive couple or two in the supporting cast that are acting out a romantic subplot. While the attractive couples are here, the romantic subplot is so light so as to be non-existent... while Costello becoming smitten with songstress Ginny Sims more or less erases her romance with band leader Johnny Long until the very end of the movie. It's a nice change of pace, and it's even nicer to see Abbott try to help his buddy impress and obtain the unobtainable girl instead of just dismissing him.

Unfortunately, for all its strengths, the weak parts of this movie are really weak... and they are all related to the film's musical numbers. Singer Ginny Sims, together with Johnny Long and His Orchestra, perform five different songs, each less interesting than the one before. The movie even more-or-less ends with them performing a song, ensuring that the final impression the movie will leave you with is boredom instead of cheerfulness--despite the great performances from Abbott & Costello. The boring musical numbers make the one sequence in the film that drags on seem even longer. About halfway though the movie, the ice-skating hijinx implied in the title arrive, but they quickly become unwelcome as Costello's pratfalls grow repetitive, the ice dancing goes on for too long, and it's all set too the seemingly never-ending and absolutely terrible song "The Double-Slap Polka" performed by Sims and Long's orchestra. The boring musical numbers cost this film a Star, and if it hadn't been for the superior material that Abbott & Costello had to work with here, they could have ruined the whole movie.

"Hit the Ice" is a really fun movie that I think lovers of classic comedies will enjoy... so long as they keep in mind that the reward for sitting through the boring songs is getting to see Abbott & Costello at their best.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Christmas Carole

Carole Lombard is trying to guess what's in the Christmas gifts. What's your favorite approach to figuring out what's in the packages under the tree?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Tuneful Tuesday with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is a modern band that plays music like that featured in many of the films reviewed on this blog. Today's song so authentic-sounding that it should have been set to a video featuring cartoon characters that are constantly bouncing to the beat.

Monday, December 17, 2018

'Horse Feathers' is high-quality nonsense

With the college football season coming to an end for 2018, it seemed like the perfect time to rewatch one of my favorite Marx Brothers films with an eye toward reviewing it for Shades of Gray. And it was.

Horse Feathers (1932)
Starring: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, Nat Pendleton, and James Pierce
Director: Norman McLeod
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A crazy university president (Groucho Marx) tries to rig the Big Football Game against a rival school... with disastrous results.

"Horse Feathers" is one of the greatest movies the Marx Brothers ever made. It is an almost non-stop barrage of wild comedy--both visual, physical, and spoken--that is book-ended by my most favorite Marx Brothers song and dance routine--"Whatever It Is, I'm Against It"--and the craziest football spoof ever committed to film. Every joke and gag comes off perfectly, and the Marx Brothers are all top form, even the straight-man of the group, Zeppo, shines as a college football star and son of the university's president.

The stellar performances from the Marx Brothers are ably supported by equally great showings from Nat Pendleton (who appears as a football player) and Thelma Todd (who proves here that she will forever be one of the sexiest commedienes in history; films like this really show what a great loss to the world her tragic and premature death  was). Todds comedic timing is absolutely perfect throughout this film, as she vamps it up as a campus man-eater and femme fatale with the scenes she shares with Chico and Groucho being among the film's brightest highlights.

There is really only one part of the film that doesn't click is the musical number performed by Harpo in an attemtp to woo Thelma Todd's character. It goes on for too long and it brings the movie to a screeching halt for over three minutes. Yes, "Everyone Says I Love You" is a nice tune and Harpo plays beautifully, but the segment is out of place... and Zeppo and Groucho's respective uses of the verses of the same song in serenading Todd don't interrupt the flow of this zany movie. (In fact, Groucho's performance and its aftermath cranks it up a notch.)

There are few films I have watched more than once--there are simply too many movies in the world--but I am glad that I now number "Horse Feathers" among them. This second viewing was time well spent.

The Milla Jovovich Quarterly

Who is that masked Milla?!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Torchy is Returned to Her Roots

Torchy Gets Her Man (1938)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedy, and Willard Robertson
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A counterfeiting ring, led by the elusive "100 Dollar Bill" Bailey (Robertson) engages in an elaborate deception to trick police detective Steve McBride (MacLane) and his superiors in the police department into thinking they are Secret Service agents conducting a sting operation and to inadvertently give them cover to operate. Meanwhile, his fiance, crime reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell), hopes those Secret Service agents will provide her with leads for her investigative article about Bailey and his career in crime, and she badgers a vacationing police officer (Kennedy) into helping her tail them.

"Torchy Blane Gets Her Man", the sixth film in this series, sees Glenda Farrell return as the character she originated... and it's great to have her back. It's also great to have the character back in full hard-nosed, dedicated crusading reporter mode, something that had faded in the two previous installments where Torchy was more a trickster and action heroine respectively.

While Farrell and the return of Classic Torchy is enough to boost this film, it is further enriched by a brazen and coldhearted villain with a clever scheme that, although I doubt it would ever work in the real world, makes for great movie entertainment. It also provides some nice old-school melodrama action during the third act with all the main characters assembled in house where a time bomb is counting down to their demise. We also get lots of Tom Kennedy's dimwitted Gahagan... and the dynamic between Torchy being the "straight-man" to his goofiness is a joy to behold. The only returning performer who doesn't shine is Barton MacLane, partly because Steve McBride is sidelined for most of the story, but also because some of the life seems to have gone out of MacLane's performance. He also appears puffier than he did in the previous three movies; perhaps he was ill, or maybe he just wasn't interested in even being on the set?

There are, however, two crucial aspects that prevent this film from being as great as it could have been. First, the film feels cheaper than previous installments, with a cramped feeling about most of the sets as well as a very sloppy use of stock footage badly matched to the sequence it's inserted into; the Torchy Blane films have always been low-budget B-pictures, but this is the first one that looks like it. Second, the story suffers from the same flaw that undermined "Torchy Blane in Panama"--Torchy ultimately ends up as a "damsel in distress" that must be rescued by her boyfriend. It's more deftly done here, but it would still have been nice if Torchy had played a more active role in the film's resolution.

"Torchy Gets Her Man" is included on DVD with the rest of the films in this classic 1930s series in the Torchy Blane Collection from the Warner Archives.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sondra Locke passes away at 74

Actress, director, and film producer Sondra Locke passed away on November 3, 2018. She is best known for appearing in a string of films with Clint Eastwood during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as her later court battles with Eastwood and Warner Bros.

Locke was romantically involved with Eastwood for 14 years, and after he abruptly ended their relationship by literally moving her and her belongings out of his house, he covertly sabotaged her career by using his influence at Warner Bros. Locke sued both Eastwood and the studio for breach of contract and fraud in cases that were ultimately settled out of court. But the damage had been done.

Due to the after-effects of Eastwood's interference, and Locke's on-again, off-again battles with cancer, between the years of 1983 (her last film with Eastwood) and 2017, the once-busy actress only appeared in six more projects (two of those being television series episodes), and her directing career never truly got off the ground.

Sondra Locke was born in May 28, 1944 in Alabama. She made her first film appearance in the 1968 film "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter", in which she played a 14-year-old and landed the part by lying about her age. Aside from her screen appearances with Eastwood in "The Gauntlet" and "Sudden Impact," this first film is what she was most famous for.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas is Coming...

... and Ann Miller wants to remind Santa what might happen if he doesn't bring her what she wants this year. (She did not, apparently, learn anything form the example of Kathy Griffin's photo-shoot with the severed head of a much-respected figure.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A killer strikes in the one of Abbott & Costello's greatest films!

Who Done It? (1942)
Starring: Bud Costello, Lou Abbott, Mary Wickes, William Gargan, Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, and William Bendix
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a pair of dimwitted, would-be scriptwriters (Abbott & Costello) witness the murder of a radio executive, they decide that if they solve the mystery on their own, the resulting fame will launch their careers.  Unfortunately for them, the killer doesn't want to be captured...

"Who Done It?" is one of Abbott & Costello's best pictures. It's like someone took a serious script for a typical B-movie murder mystery and inserted comedy routines, deftly weaving the more serious story around them. The "straight" characters in the film react with the sort of confusion, frustration, or amusement that anyone would have when faced with the sort of harebrained nonsense that follow in our "heroes" wake, as these "straight" characters go about their business of a serious plot involving murder and espionage. The film also features great cinematography with an often shadowy, almost film-noirish look that supports the dramatic elements of the film and makes the wackiness of Abbott & Costello pop even more.

Every routine presented in the film is top-notch, every actor gives a great performance, and almost every character is actually a character with something interesting about them. (There is one very disappointing exception to this, which I can't comment on without ruining the plot... but it almost knocked the movie down to Eight Stars is bugged me so much.) The only other thing that I found distracting to the point of mild annoyance was the way Costello spends the movie pulling up his pants and/or anticipating the moronic now-nearly 30-year "fashion" of having your pants hanging low.

"Who Done It?" is one of eight movies included in the two DVD set "The Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Volume 1" and it by itself is almost worth the price of the set.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas is coming...

... in 15 days! So you better get those gift packages mailed to family members TODAY! (It may already be too late to reach some places in time!)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The first outing of a legendary comedy team

Let's Do Things (1931)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, George Byron, Jerry Mandy, Mary Kornman, Maurice Black, Charlie Hall, and Dorothy Granger
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Thelma and ZaSu (Todd and Pitts) go on a double-date with ZaSu's deadbeat boyfriend (Byron) and his boorish doctor friend from Boston (Mandy). The night goes from bad to worse when Thelma initiates a scheme to bring it to an early end, and ZaSu accidentally gets drunk on the doctor's homemade "medicine."

"Let's Do Things" was originally produced to be part of "The Boyfriends" series of comedy shorts, but it must have been immediately apparent to everyone involved that there was something special about the teaming of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, because this instead became the launch of a new series centered on them.

Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts are a working women who are friends and roommates away from the job. In an example of deft writing, their relationship is established with a few lines, even as their characters are delineated: They moved to the Big City with the idea of finding jobs that would lead them to snare wealthy and influential boyfriends. Todd is the more ambitious, organized, and clear-eyed of the two, while Pitts is a naive romantic who stumbles her way through life, both literally and metaphorically.

The characters that Pitts and Todd portray in this film (and the entire series) are obvious from their types... Pitts, a veteran comedienne who got her start in silent pictures, is the gawky, befuddled. socially inept of the pair; while Todd, a beauty contest winner turned actress, is the attractive, sharp-witted one. However, in an atypical move--and one that takes full advantage of both actresses talents, Todd isn't just the "straight man" for Pitts to play off, but is just as likely to be delivering jokes and otherwise clowning it as Pitts is. In fact, some of the funniest physical comedy in the film involves Todd getting the world's worst chiropractic adjustment, and her being tossed around the dance floor like a ragdoll... before turning the proverbial tables on her dance partner and sending him flying.

As funny and well-written the material performed by Pitts and Todd is, the humor is augmented by the fact that the boyfriend characters are not bland cyphers (as often seems to be the case in films from this period) but are instead almost as complete characters as Thelma and ZaSu which makes the gags even funnier. It also doesn't hurt that both are played by veteran comedians, George Byron and Jerry Mandy.

"Let's Do Things" is included in a two-DVD set that contains all the short films that Pitts and Todd made together. If they're all as much fun as this one, it's going to be great pleasure watching and reviewing them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Moments in History

A mad scientist goes to extremes to get ahead (or is that "a head"?)

The Head (1959)
Starring: Horst Frank, Michel Simon, Karin Kernke, and Helmut Schmidt
Director: Victor Trivas
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Frank) keeps the head of a brilliant doctor (Simon) alive so that the doctor can consult on an operation to transplant the head of Brandt's beloved--a hunchback nurse (Kernke)--onto a sexy body.

Writer/director Victor Trivas's greatest claim to fame is that his directorial debut--"Hell on Earth" (1931) was outlawed and destroyed by the Nazis in 1940, with no copies known to have survived. His second greatest claim to fame was being nominated for an Oscar for the script for Orson Welles' "The Stranger". And then there's "The Head".

"The Head" is an extremely cheezy, intentionally schlocky film that surprised everyone involved (except maybe auteur Triva) by becoming a hit across Europe and in the United States. But for all the melodrama and dodgy scripting and the prerequisite for big-time suspension of disbelief for the film to even work (but if you're not already planning on doing that, you wouldn't be watching this film to begin with), it's got stylish visuals and it delivers its story with a high degree of tension.

Unfortunately, as the film builds toward what should be a weird, over-the-top, insane climax, it starts to sputter and lose steam. It doesn't quite stall out, but the final act drags to a conclusion instead of roaring toward it, giving this otherwise dark and fun ride a slightly disappointing in. It's still worth your while if you like movies with mad scientists doing mad things.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Monday, December 3, 2018

It's the end of the road for Hildegarde Withers

Forty Naughty Girls (1937)
Starring: James Gleason, ZaSu Pitts, Frank M. Thomas, Joan Woodbury, Alan Edwards, Tom Kennedy, Marjorie Lord,  and Stephen Chase
Director: Edward F. Cline
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Oscar and Hildegarde (Gleason and Pitts) are enjoying a night at the theatre when not one but two murders happen during the show... the second one taking place on stage, in full view of the entire audience and cast and crew backstage.

This was the last of the Hildegarde Withers films, and it is also the weakest. While it's not terrible, it is far down the quality scale from where the series began with "The Penguin Pool Murders." Where there is plenty to like here, the good does not quite outweigh the bad.

First, the good: Someone working on the film during pre-production finally remembered that Oscar and Hildegarde are involved in a relationship, and they used it as a central motivator to get the story started. Also, the film has a strong supporting cast, with Tom Kennedy (basically playing the same dumb cop he portrays in the "Torchy Blane" series), Joan Woodbury (at the height of her B-movie stardom, playing an actress who was in a love triangle between the first murder victim and the show'd producer, a friend of Oscar's), and Marjorie Lord (at the very beginning of her career in a small but crucial part) shining particularly brightly. In fact, Kennedy is so amusing in this picture that I found myself wishing that he was star rather than James Gleason.

And that takes us to the bad. While the writers may  have remembered that Oscar and Hildegarde are a couple, but they forgot they were intelligent people, and that they worked as a team (mostly) when solving crimes. That has been completely lost in the script for "Forty Naughty Girls". What has also been lost is any unique flavor that was present in previous installments of this series. While the Hildegarde Withers films were always B-movies, this is the first one that felt like it was just another cheap mystery/comedy, with a dumb cop bumbling his way through his "investigation" while a clever trickster actually solves the crime. (Except in this case, the trickster--Hildegarde--is just as big a bumbler as Ocsar is portrayed as.) Oscar spends the movie making wild accusations with almost no evidence--and is proven wrong either by himself or other characters, while Hildegarde pratfalls her way to uncovering clues. While amusing--especially since the comedy does play to ZaSu Pitts' strengths as a performer--it doesn't serve the characters nor the Hildegarde Withers series well. It doesn't even serve the film itself well but just drags it down.

"Forty Naughty Girls" could have been a very clever mystery where the main characters have to solve a double murder in real time, as the musical the film is named after unfolds on stage. It also had all the pieces to return the characters of Oscar Piper and Hildegarde Withers to the height of dorky coolness they were at when the series started. Heck, given the strong supporting cast, this film had all the elements to make it the best in the series. Instead, all those quality ingredients were slapped together lazily and sloppily and the end result was just another generic 1930s comedy-mystery... and instead of going out on a high note, the "Hildegarde Withers Mysteries" series ended almost as bad as it got. (It's better than "Murder on the Bridle Path", but only because it's funnier.)

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Paradoxically, the parts of this movie that haven't aged well are among its best parts

The Smiling Ghost (1941)
Starring: Wayne Morris, Willie Best, Brenda Marshall, Alexis Smith, and Alan Hale
Director: Lewis Seller
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Lucky Downing (Morris), a down-on-his-luck business-owner receives financial salvation when he is offered $1,000 to become and stay engaged to heiress Elinor Fairchilde (Smith) for one month.. When he arrives for his strange assignment, he finds himself the target of a supposed ghost that has eliminated Elinor's previous two fiances, as well as one point in a love triangle between the chilly-demeanored heiress and the sassy newspaper reporter Lili Barstow (Marshall).

"The Smiling Ghost" is an example of the "dark old house" genre where an assembly of strange characters surrounding an innocent young woman are stalked and killed by a mysterious killer. This being, first and foremost, a comedy, it picks apart and mocks the conventions of the genre, but it does so with a mischievous smile rather than a malicious one.

The story is bit uneven, with some sections being so predictable they're not interesting (let alone funny), and others being clever enough to have been included in a straight-laced thriller. The one thing that's consistent throughout, however, is the witty and finely tuned dialogue throughout the film. The jokes are funny, and each character has their own unique way of talking. Unfortunately, some of the actors and actresses delivering the lines are in some cases not up to the task.

The film's hero, for example, is a dead spot throughout. Wayne Morris is good looking and has a charming air about him, but he is absolutely, totally bland. He's present and delivers his lines, and he's obviously trying, but he just doesn't have the presence to carry the lead in the film. The same is true of Alexis Smith, who probably never should have  been cast in the role of a character who is either the victim of a haunting or some sort of lunatic who's bumping off her would-be husbands. I think she was trying ti give her character a wounded, aristocratic air, but she mostly comes off as detached and bored with being in the film. Morris and Smith drag the film down, I think, because they were cast in parts beyond their ability to manage.

On the other hand, Morris is outshined in every scene by his sidekick, Willie Best. Best is energetic, funny, in in perfect pitch with the mostly zany tone of the picture. What's more, the film makes it clear that Best isn't Morris's servant or employee, but instead a loyal friend and partner. Best masquerades as a servant, because, by the standards of the time it would be unseemly for a white "man of business" to be best friends with a black man--something which itself becomes a source of humor in the film--and the warm relationship between the two makes Morris's character more interesting. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, Best's character slips further and further into the "superstitious panicky darkie" that was a mainstay of films back then. Even while portraying this obnoxious stereotype, Best is lots of fun to watch, and, given the way the character was established, I can't help but wonder if the shift wasn't born from what audiences expected from their comedies back then. (As I observed in my review of "Lucky Ghost", even films made expressly for black audiences contained these stereotypes which cause so much indignation in modern viewers.)

"The Smiling Ghost" is one of eight obscure B-movies found in the eclectic "Warner Bros. Horror/Mystery Double Features" collection. Some of the films in the set are better than this, others are worse. I'll get around to covering all over them in this space, eventually.

Christmas is coming...

... and Grace Bradley is practicing the age-old tradition of decorating the Christmas tree in your underwear.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Princesses of Mars, Part 27

With Mars back in the news, it seems like a good time for another visit to the Red Planet and an audience with the beautiful and deadly princesses that dwell there.

By David Finch
By Walter Geovani
By Jae Lee

By Joe Jusko
By Bryan Baugh

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Lions and Bulls and Woman Drivers, oh my!

The Old Bull (1932)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Otto Fries
Director: George Marshall
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Thelma (Todd) is helping her friend ZaSu (Pitts) learn how to drive on a country back road. After ZaSu crashes into a barn, the ladies are stranded in farm country when the angry farmer (Fries) refuses to let them have their car back until they pay for the damage. When the news reports that a lion has escaped from a nearby circus, Thelma cooks up a plan to retrieve the car.

From 1931 through 1933, Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts co-starred in 17 short films from the same production company that brought us the team of Laurel & Hardy. In fact, Todd & Pitts are very much like a female version of Laurel & Hardy, with Todd being the "brains" and Pitts being the " simple, clumsy one"... although there is none of the abuse and venom between the two ladies that so often creeps into the interactions between the two gentlemen.

"The Old Bull" was the ninth film in the series, and it goes straight into the comedy with the barest of introductions of the two main characters, because I assume the filmmakers felt that viewers were familiar with Todd and Pitts's respective characters at this point. Even for viewers who weren't, once Pitts' foot gets twisted and stuck on the gas pedal, sending the car accelerating out of control, it's crystal clear who's who in the comedic line-up.

And for the whole 19-minute run-time of the film, Todd excels as a "straight man" to Pitts' goofiness and pratfalls (although Todd also gets the opportunity to do some gags of her own). The bits revolving around animals--primarily the duck that torments ZaSu on and off, and the lion that you know would eventually show up to make Thelma's stage hoax a reality--are top-notch, and they will have you laughing out loud more than once. Pitts and Todd both have perfect comedic timing, and they play well off each other.

Unfortunately, they are let down by the director and the script. The car crash sequence--where the ladies are zooming around a barnyard in the out-of-control car thanks to ZaSu's stuck foot--goes on too long. Individual moments in the sequence are hilarious, but the spans between them are each many seconds too long, making something that only lasts about a minute and half feel much longer. The sequence would have been stronger if we'd been spared some of the rear projection scenes of the ladies flailing in the car (although maybe 1932 audiences had a different reaction than a viewer in 2018 who is used to car chases and crashes enhanced with digital effects). As for the script, the film just sort of stops. While I can see the ending is a resolution of sorts, it still felt lacking, and I was left wanting more.

"The Old Bull" is one of the 17 film contained in the two DVD set Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-1932. I will eventually review each film in the set here at Shades of Gray. (I started in the middle, because I accidentally put Disc Two in the DVD player and was too lazy to get up and change it.)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Musical Monday with the Dropkick Murphys

Here's hoping you remember how you spent the holiday weekend... and that goes double if you find yourself with a new tattoo!

The song to kick off the last week of November is from the American Celtic/Punk band Dropkick Murphys.