Friday, June 29, 2018

'Ticklish Business' is a snappy early talkie

Ticklish Business (1929)
Starring: Monte Collins, Vernon Dent, Addie McPhail, Phyllis Crane, and William Irving
Director: Stephen Roberts
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The psychotically jealous wife (Crane? McPhail?) of a would-be professional songwriter (Collins) would rather squash his career before it starts than risk him being around sexy chorus girls. Even if she has to kill him and the buddy (Dent) who's always encouraging him.

Phyllis Crane played the psycho wife in "Ticklish Business". Or did she?
"Ticklish Business" is a nearly forgotten film that was in the first wave of pictures made with sound in mind from start to finish. In it's ca. 20-minute running-time, it's got two songs, a musical number, a gag involving a piano, and lots of snappy dialogue. It also features remarkably naturalistic performances. I'm used to films from this period featuring a combination of the exaggerated physical acting of a silent picture and overly stilted, stagy delivery of the spoken lines, but with the exception of a couple reaction shots, neither is present here. In fact, the performances here would have been right at home in a sit-com from the 1970s or 1980s.

I think the only weak spot of "Ticklish Business" is that every attempt it tries at physical humor falls completely flat. While the physical routines weren't good to begin with, I suspect I may have viewed them in an even dimmer light, because during them, Collins and Dent reminded me of Laurel & Hardy, and they come up short by comparison.

"Ticklish Business" is one of six comedy short films found on the "Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies Vol. 4" DVD from Alpha Video. Sadly, while it has a near crystal-clear soundtrack, the film from which the DVD transfer was made was degraded and blurry to the point where most faces of the actors are impossible to make out. This is why I am unsure of who played the jealous wife and who played the flapper chorus girl who rouses her wrath; they're both brunettes and their facial features are mostly blurred in the film. (I went looking online for a better copy of the film to view, but was unable to locate one. It appears that Alpha Video may well have made this film widely available for the first time in several decades.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

For this final June Picture Perfect Wednesday, here's a June who did things backwards: June Knight.

June Knight was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California Girl, born in Los Angeles in 1913. She was a sickly child, and dance and gymnastics were used in her treatment and to help build her strength. It worked, and by the age of 19, she was in New York City at the start of a success Broadway career as a singer and dancer.

Numerous acting coaches and talent agents believed that June had both the poise and beauty to be a movie star. She appeared in a dozen movies during the 1930s, but she never found the part that made a lasting impression on movie-goers. She continued to seek roles in films through the late 1940s, but not cast in anything past 1939.

Born on the West Coast, at the heart of movie industry during the 1930s and 1940s, Knight was successful in East Coast theater, basically doing things backwards from other actors and actresses who migrated westward after treading the boards.

June Knight passed away on June 10, 1987.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Musical Monday: The Chauffeur & Duran Duran

"The Chauffeur" is a song off Duran Duran's second album, "Rio." As far as I know, it never climbed any charts, but it is nonetheless a song that's reportedly near and dear to Simon LeBon's heart. It's also a song with a weird video. It's a moody bit of black-and-white film work that has just enough boobage and sexuality to earn itself an R-rating (if such things were applied to music videos).

Yes, Ian Emes directed an extremely interesting and engaging music video. But what does it mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Feel free to offer some in the comments section to this most!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The gang's here, but should you be?

The Gang's All Here (1941)
Starring: Frankie Darro, Mantan Moreland, Marcia Mae Jones, Jackie Moran, Keye Luke, and Laurence Criner
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An unemployed truck driver, Frankie (Darro), and his friend Jeff (Moreland) take a job with a company who's deliveries are being targeted by hijackers. Luckily for them, Frankie is too stubborn to become a victim.

If there ever was a film that lacks focus, it's "The Gang's All Here". The story (which involves brutal hijackings and murder in the service of a plot that puts what could have been a sympathetic character squarely in the corner with the purely evil villains) is one that belongs in a thriller or crime drama, not a film populated by comedians laughing it up.

Speaking of the comedians, there is very little humor here that modern viewers will find funny, as it's mostly based around negative racial stereotypes about black people. I believe this to be a near-certainty, because, unlike other films featuring Mantan Moreland and Frankie Darro, the racist humor isn't turned on its head and made subversive by the fact that Moreland's characters have tended to be the smartest in the films... and if Darro (or anyone else really) paid attention to him, things would never get as bad they do. However, in "The Gang's All Here", Moreland and the other black character that appears in the film--his evil counterpart that's working for the bad guys (played by Laurence Criner)--are just as slow-witted and lazy as the characters around them assume they are. Even the relationship between Darro and Moreland's characters feels off in this one, with Moreland never rising above anything but subservience to Darro.

It doesn't help the film that Darro's character is something of a dimwit himself who is easily provoked by insults or tricked with flattery due to a severe case of Short Man Syndrome. Between Moreland and Darro's characters, we have a pair of dullards as the heroes.. comedic stereotypes who have somehow wandered into the spots where a tough guy and a comic relief sidekick should have been. Interestingly, though, the total inappropriateness of Darro and Moreland's characters for the story they're in ends up elevating an otherwise very minor character to role of the story's ultimate hero: an unassuming Chinese man (played by Keye Luke) who appears to be just hanging around to learn the trucking business. Like a couple other characters, he has secrets that come out in the course of the film, Unlike the two black characters, while Luke's character is partly played for laughs, and partly presented as being smarter than Darro and Moreland combined, he is never presented as a negative stereotype... and this also helps him fill the vacuum left by the absence of a hero.

For all its flaws, however, "The Gang's All Here" still delivers a tightly plotted and swiftly paced thriller (however accidental it may be), which is not the case for many Monogram productions that set out to be thrilling and instead ended up boring. If you can see past the racist humor, and if you've liked Darro, Moreland, and/or Luke in other films, I think you might find this one worth you time. (Not as worth-your-time as "Up in the Air", "On the Spot", or even "You're Out of Luck", but I don't think it will disappoint.)

Friday, June 22, 2018

It's an after-school killing with 'Murder on the Blackboard'

Murder on the Blackboard (1934)
Starring: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Gertrude Michael, Frederick Voeding, Bruce Cabot, Tully Marshall, Regis Toomey, and Barbara Fritchie
Director: George Archainbaud
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Murder hits close to home when one of Miss Withers' colleagues (Fritchie) is bludgeoned to death in the school where she teaches. As she and her friend, Inspector Oscar Piper (Gleason) investigate, they learn that many of the school's faculty and staff had reason to commit the carefully planned murder.

"Murder on the Blackboard" is a fast-paced, bare-bones mystery film full of witty dialogue that wastes no time in getting going; operates with a minimum of characters--just enough to obfuscate the identity of the murderer but no so many to make the film feel overcrowded--and locations; and not a moment wasted with filler material or even subplots. (Well, there are a couple kinda-sorta subplots that tie directly into the solution of the mystery, but they are more accurately "stub-plots" they are so minor and barely developed.)

There was one big drawback to the economic nature of how this film was executed and that is that we didn't get any of the quieter moments that showed the mutual romantic attraction developing between Hildegarde and Oscar. I thought that was one of the more appealing aspects of the first film in the series, because it was unusual to see characters like these get to be anything but the gruff cop and frumpy old maid sleuth. All that's left in this film is a sense that they grudgingly respect each others intellect, despite their constant bickering. Also missing from this film is the chance for Oscar to show that he's actually a good cop and a solid detective... it's almost entirely Hildegarde's show and she solves the mystery all on her own.

Speaking of solving the mystery... I also found the "key clue" to be more than just a little far fetched. I can't really comment beyond that without spoiling the mystery, but I can't even imagine the notion that it was a clue occurring to anyone, let alone using it to zero in on the killer's identity... except in a case where the writer told the character to have the idea in the first place.

"Murder on the Blackboard," despite not being as good as "The Penguin Pool Murder", is entertaining  and well worth the roughly 70 minutes it will take you to watch it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

The third June for June's Picture Perfect Wednesdays is June Kenney. Hers is a story of near-misses when it came to stardom.

Born in 1933, June Kenney began acting on stage at the age of 4 and appeared in several  several musical short films after being spotted by a talent scout. Warner Bros. was at one time seriously considering signing her to a contract and making her the next Shirley Temple, but her parents didn't want to relocate to California.

Eventually, Kenney's family did relocate to Southern California and settled in West Hollywood. She continued to perform on stage, and in her late teens, she was again spotted by a talent scout. This led to her being cast in a leading role in a television soap opera in 1954... but the show was cancelled before it even aired when the main sponsor pulled out. As a result, she spent the next few years playing bit-parts on television, in movies, and in commercials.

In 1957, Kenney was cast in the starring role of "Teenage Doll" by B-movie King Roger Corman. From that point forward she was locked onto a career path that consisted of one low-budget thriller, horror, or sci-fi film after another.

Kenney deeply wanted more from her acting career, but she could not break out of the B-movie rut she found herself in. She retired from screen acting in 1962, but continued to work as a voice-over actress and eventually became an executive in radio.

Kenney currently lives in Parumph, NV, a town made famous as the long-time home of overnight radio legend Art Bell.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Musical Monday: The B52's performing
"Give Me Back My Man"!

The B-52's are among the greatest New Wave bands to rise to fame during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their presentation style was also among the most retro of all of them, which means they fit right in here at Shades of Gray... especially given this video for "Give Me Back My Man" is in black-and-white.

Some of you may be aware that I frequently post random tables intended to inspire roleplaying game adventure ideas (and to just amuse) over at the NUELOW Games blog. Whether you are or not, I am bringing that practice to this blog, for, at the very least, one post.

WHO TOOK HER MAN? (Roll 1d12)
1. The Queen of the 57th Dimension.
2. The Vampire of Mulholland Drive.
3. The Sorceress of Zoom.
4. The Sirines of Shipwreck Cove.
5. The Love Witch.
6. A Sharknado.
7. Lady Satan.
8. The Mermaid of Blood Bay.
9. Anal-Probing Greys from Ganyamede.
10. Herbert West, Mad Scientist.
11. Khefra, Living Mummy Princess of Egypt.
12. Russian Hackers.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

'The Wide Open Spaces' is filled with funny

The Wide Open Spaces (1931)
Starring: Dorothy Sebastian, Ned Sparks, Antonio Moreno, and George Cooper
Director: Arthur Rossen
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A corrupt sheriff (Sparks) will go to any lengths to destroy the romance between the lovely Miss Rose (Sebastian) and the dashing John Smith (Moreno).

"The Wide Open Spaces" is a short film that lampoons just about any and every trope of westerns from the silent film and early talkies era that you can think of. It starts with a series of sight-gags and jokes revolving around gun-happy townsfolks, transitions into a series of gags based around the stereotypical wild west saloon, and ultimately settles into a spoof of melodramas with a love triangle involving the tough-as-nails-but-sexy saloon girl Rose (played by Dorothy Sebastian with perfect comedic timing), the crooked Sheriff Jack Rancid (played by Ned Sparks who does everything but twirl his mustache), and the mysterious Mexicano named John Smith (the romantic lead and mostly straight-man, played by Antonio Moreno).

While some jokes are funnier than others, there aren't any that fall flat--and that includes one involving Sebastian that I assume was somewhat shocking back in the day. One of the funniest is set up early in the picture and pays off at the very end when the evil sheriff gets his well-deserved come-uppance... while one of the most mysterious is the presence of a cross-dressing actor in black face portraying Rose's maid. This character is so strange and so out-of-place that I assume it's a reference to something contemporary audiences would have understood but is lost on me. (I have a couple ideas about what it might mean, but I can't help but feel that I'm looking at the scene with 21st century eyes and therefore imposing something on that wasn't there when it was filmed. If anyone has seen the "Wide Open Spaces" who wants to comment on cross-dressing maid in blackface, I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

All-in-all, this is another great bit of fast-moving, whacky fun from the Masquers Club... and one that I think will be as entertaining to the modern viewer as it was to audiences back in 1931.

Dorothy Sebastian is not impressed.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Have a fun time with 'The Dancing Millionaire'

The Dancing Millionaire (1934)
Starring: Dorothy Granger, Carol Tevis, Grady Sutton, Tom Kennedy, and Jack Mulhall
Director: Sam White
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her wrestler boyfriend (Kennedy) is arrested after a road-rage incident, Dorothy (Granger) decides to trade up to a rich man (Sutton) she meets at her job as a taxi-dancer. Things get complicated when the ex (who doesn't know he's an ex) gets out of jail and shows up at the restaurant where Dorothy is on a date with her new man.

"The Dancing Millionaire" is the most 'mature' of this allegedly risque series of pre-Hayes Code comedy shorts that I've watched so far, at least as far as the jokes and the character motivations go, as as Granger's character's main interest in men being what's in their wallets rather than their heart or personality. Some of the slapstick is a bit on the lame side, but the non-stop pace of this film makes that excusable. What is slightly more annoying is that Dorothy Granger appears to be doing the "high-pitched dumb chick voice" like Carol Tevis always does... and both of them doing that is a bit much. Still, this is a fun film... and a funny twist at the very end.

You can find "The Dancing Millionaire" with several other entries in the "Blondes and Redheads" series on DVD. I recommend picking it up. Some are better than others, but they all have something worthwhile about them.

Trivia: Almost everywhere you look on the Internet--including at IMD--the summary of this film is wrong. They even get it wrong on the back cover of the DVD I link to above. Just about everyone seems to think "The Dancing Millionaire" can be summarized as follows: "A thuggish gangster, trying to prove that he's "sophisticated", gets the girls to help him to win a local dancing competition."... But there is neither a thuggish gangster, nor a dancing competition anywhere in the film.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

The second June in June is the most frequently-featured June here at Shades of Gray, June Collyer. She has even been the inspiration for a couple rollplaying game scenarios by the prorietor that were published by NUELOW Games.

June Collyer was born in 1906 to socially prominent and wealthy parents in New York City. She set her heart on acting at a young age, and got her first professional roles as a teenager and became a leading lady in silent films as of 1927.

Unlike many other early movie stars Collyer's career survived the advent of sound, and she continued to star in dramas, comedies, and thrillers until the mid-1930s, when, after a decade as a leading lady, she retired from film acting. There is no clear reasons for her retirement, although the prevailing theory seems to be that she gave up acting to raise her children... a theory that seems to ring true given that in 1950, she resurfaced on the small screen playing the TV wife of her real world husband for five years on "The Stu Erwin Show."

June Collyer passed away in 1968, just a few months after her husband of 36 years had died.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

'No Hands on the Clock' is flawed but still fun

No Hands on the Clock (1941)
Starring: Chester Morris, Jean Parker, George Watts, Astrid Alwynn, Lauren Raker, Dick Purcell, and Rose Hobart
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A missing person case in Reno turns into a tangle of mistaken identities and murder involving a dysfunctional family and bank robbers... and it's disrupting the honeymoon of a private detective (Morris) and his bride (Parker), not to mention threatening to end their marriage before it even gets off the ground.

"No Hands on the Clock" is a light-hearted murder mystery that is dragged down by a mystery plot so complicated that it's difficult to follow. It's not neccesarily a bad plot--and I think it was probably perfectly fine in the novel this film was based on--but this film has too short a running time to give enough room for the motives for kidnapping and murder of the many characters to be given enough context and explanation.

But, honestly, the plot is almost secondary to the antics of the quirky detective, Humphrey. played by Chester Morris, and his wife Louise, played by Jean Parker. They're fun to watch as they exchange one-liners and witty remarks, although I couldn't help but think this marriage is going to end in a quicky Reno divorce with the level of disrespect Humphrey has for his wife, and the rampaging jealousy Louise has regarding he husband talking to other women, even when he's obviously doing so while "on the job."

The film is also fun to watch, because Morris and Parker are supported by actors and actresses who are cast as perfectly as they are in their various roles. Dick Purcell shines almost as brightly as Morris and Parker in a small but crucial role as a notorious gangster. The only sour note is a strange performance given by Astrid Allwyn, in what would be her final film appearance of note. She has a fake smile frozen on her face and she is never looking at the actors with whom she shares a scene but always slightly away from them, staring into space with a gaze as fixed as her smile. I don't know if she was reading cue cards just off set or what was going on there, but she gave a performance more fit for radio than the screen, and she stole her scenes in a bad and distracting way whenever she appeared. (I could understand what she was doing if her character was supposed to be blind that wasn't the case.)

In the end, there is just enough bad in "No Hands on the Clock" to outweigh the good. It's flawe, but still fun, and comes in on the low end of average.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Danger on the Air' is saved by its stars

Danger on the Air (1938)
Starring: Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, Peter Lind Hayes, Lee J. Cobb, Berton Churchill, and Jeff Prouty
Director: Otis Garrett
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a radio network's biggest, and most obnoxious, sponsor dies under mysterious circumstances, an ad executive (Grey) and sound engineer (Woods) turn amateur detectives to unravel the mystery and bring the murderer to justice.

On the one hand, "Danger on the Air" feels as light-weight as the balloons floating about the radio station throughout this picture. On the other hand, it feels like it's trying to do too much in its short running time (70 minutes), because it is crammed full of characters, nearly every one of which has a reason for wanting the murder victim dead.

The airy, light feeling comes from the snappy, well-crafted dialogue, of which not a single line or word is without  reason--either to advance the plot or to provide characterization. The great interplay that Nan Grey has with just about ever actor she shares a scene with also adds to the film's sense of breeziness. This is especially true for scenes with co-star Donald Woods and the soon-to-be murdered Berton Churchill.

Speaking of Berton Churchill and Nan Grey, they both play characters that I think go a long way to making this movie appeal to modern audiences. Churchill's character of Cesar Cluck is a lecherous, self-promoting businessman who uses any and all means available to crush his competition and forces himself upon every pretty woman he meets because he feels it's his right. Meanwhile, Nan Grey's character, Christina McCorkle is an independent-minded professional woman in charge of her own ad agency who takes no guff from anyone; she may be partners with her brother in the venture, but it's clear who's in charge. When Cluck turns on the "charm" and tries to sexually assault her, she treats him like Harvey Weinstein should have been treated by his victims--she decks him with a sold punch to face. The men in the movie, who have all been kowtowing to Cluck cheer for her actions. Grey's character, and almost every action she takes, is one that should appeal to modern viewers and is as big a part of making this movie as enjoyable as it is as Grey's bright presence on the screen.

Unfortunately, for all the good it has going for it, the movie suffers from trying to do too much in a short running time. It is crammed full of too many characters, each of which get at least a line or two, each of which is referenced by other characters repeatedly, and each of which has a motive for killing the murder victim. Unfortunately, most them are middle-aged men in dark suits, so even the most attentive viewer will had a hard time telling who's who. What's worse, in the end, because of the abundance of characters who all blend together, the stereotypical "gather all the suspects for the big reveal" just adds more confusion to the overall storyline when the killer is ultimately revealed. Although a foundation for the motive is well established, it still feels like the solution comes out of left field.

Usually, I find myself needing the structure of the mystery and the interplay between actors to be of almost equal importance in films of this kind. In this case, however, I found the leads to be so strong--and Grey in particular--that they more than made up for the deficiencies elsewhere. I don't recall seeing films with Woods before, and I've never been as impressed with Grey as I was here (heck, the only other place I remember her from is "Daughter of Dracula", although I am fairly certain she's been in other films I've watched and written about). I will have to seek out more movies with both in the future to see if they shine the way they did here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

We're going all Junes on the June Picture Perfect Wednesdays! First up is June Lang!

Born in 1917, June Lang began acting professionally in her early teens after lying about her age to a casting director. During the 1930s, she climbed the studio system ladder, starting in supporting roles in B-pictures and serials (such as "Chandu the Magician", along side Bela Lugosi, under her true name June Vlasek), and eventually starring along side the likes of Laurel & Hardy (in "Bonney Scotland") Fredric March (in "Road to Glory"), and Shirley Temple (in "Wee Willie Winkle").

Lang specialized in playing wholesome, perky women, but when she married mob boss Johnny Roselli--in love and unaware of his criminal connections--the ensuing publicity tarnished her image and essentially ended her career in 1940. Even after divorcing him in 1942, she was unable to reestablish her career, and she all but retired from acting in 1947. She passed away in 2005.

Read more about June Lang at the Internet Movie Database by clicking here.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Musical Monday: Leo's 'Hurt'

I think the only person who's done this song better than the multi-talented Norwegian rocker Leo Moracchioli is Johnny Cash... and I'm including the original performance by Nine Inch Nails when making this judgement. It's spookier and more intense that Leo's usual high energy and wild performances, but it's still fantastic.

This is the third in a series of posts with music videos by Moracchioli. I'm a fan, and I hope you will become one, too. For literally hundreds more fantastic covers from this talented artist, check out his YouTube Channel.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Love is blooming in 'Rough Necking'

Rough Necking (1934)
Starring: June Brewster, Carol Tevis, Grady Sutton, Spencer Charters, and George Chandler
Director: George Stevens
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

After her domineering father (Charters) forbids June (Brewster) from seeing her boyfriend Grady (Sutton), her younger sister Carol (Tevis) convinces Grady to disguise himself as a woman and visit June right under their father's nose. Complications arise when both the father and a male house guest (Chandler) decide to make romantic overtures to the cross-dressing Grady.

"Rough Necking" is one of those comedies where it's a Bad Thing to think too hard about the events that are unfolding. The situation is very funny in the moment, but I foresee jailtime (or at least probation) for two of the characters when all is said and done.

Although that somewhat mood-spoiling thought was in the back of my mind, I still found this film to be very funny. The laugh-lines are plentiful, the physical comedy is well-choreographed and hilarious, the content is exactly as baudy as the punny title implies, and the ending is about as perfect as it can be. (But, like I said, I would hate to be some of these characters the following day.)

"Rough Necking" was the fifth in a series of comedic short films starring Carol Tevis and a troupe of performers. It has been made available to modern audiences on the Blondes and Redheads: Lost Comedy Classics DVD along with three other installments in the series.