Saturday, July 28, 2018

'Fifty Miles from Broadway' takes you to a different time

Fifty Miles from Broadway (1929)
Starring: Harry Watson, Olga Woods, and Reginald Merville
Director: Bradley Barker
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A showgirl (Woods) decides to retire from the stage and marry her childhood sweetheart in the small town they both grew up in. Upon returning, the young lovers find their fathers are still engaged in a feud that's lasted for 20 years.

"Fifty Miles from Broadway" is a mini-musical that crams three songs, three production numbers, and several vaudeville-style back-and-forth comedy bits into less than 20 minutes. The film is so stagy in its presentation--from the acting styles to the way actors enter and exit scenes to pretty much anything else you can think of--that it's not even a full step removed from a straight recording of an actual stage performance.

Usually, I am bothered by excessive staginess in films, but in "Fifty Miles to Broadway" it's a clear stylistic choice rather than actors who don't now how to perform in a media different from theatre and/or silent film. The only weak point in the film is, sadly, at the very beginning the star-crossed overs sing a duet about how they're returning home... and Reginald Merville turns out to be a pretty bad singer. Story-wise. there's also the unfortunate fact that Harry Watson's character is lusting after his son's fiance and isn't subtle about it. All the other characters--including the object of his lust, who agrees to his request to put on one of her skimpy Broadway outfits and perform for him. The 1920s must have been a very different time indeed.

Of course, there's the drawback that this is yet another film transferred from a worn videotape or a decaying print. It's not the worst I've seen, but there literally ins't a moment in the film that isn't blurry (as the still frame used to illustrate this review demonstrates).

If you enjoy musicals, vaudeville and early talkies, I think you'll find "Fifty Miles to Broadway" entertaining, one weak number and an old pervert aside. (By the way, if you do watch it, and you know who played the father with the long beard--the girl's father--let me know. I can't find a full cast list for this picture it's so obscure.)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fantastic Friday!

The first Fantastic Four incarnation I encountered was that drawn by the team of John Buscema (pencils) and Joe Sinnott (inks). Sinnott is perhaps the artist whose work has graced more pages than anyone one else since he inked the the title steadily from 1965 through 1981. In addition to being teamed with Buscema, Sinnott inked Jack Kirby, George Perez, John Romita, Rich Buckler and more.

While, as a whole, the John Byrne era of the Fantastic Four is my favorite, visually it's the John Buscema/ Joe Sinnott team that will always be the definitive Fantastic Four for me, because they are the art team that brought their adventures to life when I first fell in love with Reed, Sue. Ben, and Johnny.

There's a new chapter in the long history of the First Family of Comics starting next month. August 2018. Will it come close to matching my favorite periods in FF history? I hope so. Meanwhile, here's a look back with portraits of the Fantastic Four by the four fantastic artists who made them look their best.

By Joe Sinnott
By John Buscema
By John Byrne

By Jack Kirby (who started it all)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Princesses of Mars, Part 25

And so we return to Barsoom to gaze upon the lovely and lethal princesses who rule there.

By Jason Mettcalf
By Joyce Chin

By Frank Frazetta
By Bruce Timm

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Having fun with the creative set

How Comedies are Born (1931)
Starring: Harry Sweet,  Harry Gribbon, Tom Kennedy, Doris McMahon, Jill Dennett, and Bud Jamison
Director: Harry Sweet
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Writers and actors get together for a brainstorming session, hoping to hatch the next hit movie.

"How Comedies are Born" is a fun little spoof of creative brainstorming sessions. Having been part of a number of these back when I was a full-time writer, I can attest to the fact that there's a lot of Truth here, even if its exaggerated for laughs. What there's also a lot of is gags, slapstick, and jokes revolving around beer--and beer-based slapstick routines--and snappy dialogue full of playful and not so playful insults. Some of the jokes were probably old even when this film was first released, but I think that was the point  of including them, so it's excusable. It all adds up to some very fun 18 minutes.

Unfortunately, in order to enjoy this film, you'll have to look past the awful quality of the print used for this DVD. It was plainly taken from a well-worn third- or four-generation (at least) videotaped copy--complete with the blurry image and static lines that come with that--and little or no effort was put into cleaning it up. I understand that distributor Alpha Video offers low-cost DVDs of old movies, so one can't except a lot of effort, but I still think it's a shame the picture quality isn't better.

"How Comedies are Born" is one of six short films included on "Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies Vol. 4."

Monday, July 23, 2018

'Billy Joe Van Helsing, Redneck Vampire Hunter' feels distressingly fresh

I recently looked in some boxes that have been sitting untouched for years. Inside were comic books that haven't been looked at since I read them 20-30 years ago. Many of them are black-and-white comics, which, although I grew up reading comics in that format overseas, were something unusual and noteworthy in the US comics industry during the 1980s through the mid-1990s.  I'm going to be writing about some of them here at "Shades of Gray""... some of them quite obscure. (As with all posts, click on the illustrations to see larger versions.)

Billy Joe Van Helsing, 
Redneck Vampire Hunter #1
Writers: Bill Kieffer, with Joe Migliore
Artists: Joe Paradise, Rob Hawkins, Donna Franklin, Tad Ghostal, John Skikus, Robert Roman, and Debbie David
Covers: Fred Harper (front), James Hopkins (back)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In 1994, Maine-based publisher Alpha Productions published the first (and only) issue of "Billy Joe Van Helsing, Redneck Vampire Hunter" It's a 32-page anthology title that satirized horror, politics of both the left-wing and right-wing variety, comics fan culture, and Stars-and-Bars-waving, beer-drinking rednecks. The title character is a Southern good ole boy who's carrying on the family business of vampire hunting. What's most fascinating to me about the book is how much of the humor holds up, nearly 25 years later.

"Billy Joe Van Helsing, Redneck Vampire Hunter" #1 contains four stories of varying lengths and three pin-ups. The primary artist is Joe Paradise, who had a hand as penciler, inker (or both) in three of the stories. All the stories were written by Bill Keiffer.

The tone of the book is blunt and sophomoric, and it seems pretty evenhanded in its mockery of both political wings. The stereotypes being played with are exactly the ones you see today when Left and Right conjure cartoonish insults of each other... and this goes for the spoofing of comics fans as well (which takes place when Billy Joe goes to a comic book convention).

The featured stories are "Here Comes Billy Joe Van Helsing, Redneck Vampire Hunter" which introduces us to our hero and his girl Maxi... although in this story, he is trying to convince her that she's made a terrible choice is dumping him for a guy who is not only a vampire but a (gasp) liberal; "The Devil and David Duke" where our hero sets aside his distaste for the KKK and its leaders like Duke to destroy a vampire who may become the next Vice President of the United States since he's Duke's running mate; "Horror of the South" where a quiet evening at home with Maxi turns awkward when her sister shows up to visit; "Li'L Billy Joe", a one-pager which spoofs the Hostess Fruit Pie ads that us Gen Xers read growing up; and "Southern Discomfort" in which Billy Joe goes to a comics convention and meets The Grad, a character from Alpha anthology series"Lethargic Comics." (That series ran 14 issues, from 1994 to 1996.)

Billy Joe Meets Klansman David Duke. 
Billy Joe goes to a ComiCon and meets the Grad

To my eye, the art and writing in this comic book is the low-end of average for what was typical in a small-press comic during the mid-1990s. Therefore, I think it's probably more reflective of the sad state of American pop culture and politics that the humor in "Billy Joe Van Helsing, Redneck Vampire Hunter" #1 holds up so well than any particular genius on the part of writer Bill Kieffer. We like to pat ourselves on the back and gladhand those who share our views, and pretend that we're better people than we were 25 years ago, but as soon as we spot someone who's not in lockstep with us culturally and politically, out come the same invective stereotypes and bigoted slurs. Every decent American agrees the likes of David Duke are scumbags, and that he and those like him on the contemporary stage should be mocked and sneered at, we also agree that it's A-Okay to toss around fat-jokes, sexist jokes, gay jokes, and stupid-Southerner-jokes so long as we are deploying them against those bad people over there who don't agree with us.

That said, no one but hardcore Gen X comics fans will know what a "Marvel Zombie" is. Am I right?

One of the Billy Joe Van Helsing pin-ups.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

'Fly Away Baby' is a fun mystery

Fly Away Baby (1937)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton McLane, Gordon Oliver, Raymond Hatton, Tom Kennedy, and Marcia Ralston
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In order to unravel the mysteries surrounding the murder of a jeweler, scoop-hunting reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell) joins two other reporters (Hatton and Olivier) for on-the-spot coverage of an around-the-world-record flight attempt. The other reporters are keeping secrets... but is one of them a killer?

"Fly Away Baby" is the second film in the "Torchy Blane" series, and like the first one, it clocks in at about an hour... and it makes good use of every second of running time, with a tightly delivered story, a lively cast delivering sharp and witty dialogue, and nice cinematography and sets that make the film look like it has a bigger budget than it did.

The relationship between Torchy (Glenda Farrell) and her police detective boyfriend Steve (Barton McLane) is again a nice center to the picture. It's also nice to see recurring supporting characters get some meaty scenes, like Tom Kennedy's dimwitted cop (who quits his job for reasons that become clear when he, too, shows up as part of the junket following the around-the-world flight).

The only serious complaint I have about the film is that it takes too long to get the characters in the air and overseas, and then doesn't spend enough time along the way. As a result, the climax feels a bit rushed and a lot deus-ex-machina with a heavy dose of "characters gotta do stupid things, or the story won't resolve in time" or the story won't resolve it time. This may sound like a bit of a contradiction to my comment above about the film making good use of its run-time, but it basically does: There is't a second of padding here and the clumsy plotting doesn't actually make the film any less entertaining. It does knock it from an Eight Rating to a low Seven.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fantastic Friday!

Looking back on the Fantastic Four that was, along with two of their greatest frenemies--Doctor Doom and Prince Namor--in anticipation of the Fantastic Four that will come on August 8, 2018!
By Sandy Plunkett & Kevin Nowlan

By Steve Rude

And here's a group portrait of the First Family of Comicdom, by their co-creator!
By Jack Kirby

Thursday, July 19, 2018

'Irish Luck' sets a path for Darro & Moreland

Irish Luck (aka "Amateur Detective") (1939)
Starring: Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland, Sheila Darcy, and James Flavin
Director: Howard Bretherton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Hotel bellhop and wanna-be detective Buzzy (Darro) becomes involved in a case of murder and stolen bearer bonds when he takes it upon himself to prove the innocence of a guest (Darcy) who is suspected of murder.

"Irish Luck" was the first film that teamed Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland. In 1930s racially segregated America, it was a bold move to produce a film led by a comedy team consisting of one black and one white actor. It was a move that paid off, though, as the eight films the pair made together were among the most successful Monogram released.

With "Irish Luck," the formula for most of the films to follow was established: Darro and Moreland were a pair of working class buddies, usually in some service industry and usually with big dreams, who find themselves in the middle of a dangerous conspiracies and murder plots. Through luck and tenacity (and usually some late minute help from the authorities), they solve the mystery and save the day.

One of the neatest aspect of many of these films is that unlike most others from this period where black characters were embarrassingly subservient to white characters and generally slow-witted, the Darro/Moreland characters are presented as equals and close friends. In at least half the films, Moreland is usually the voice of reason that Darro ignores and then drags him into whatever harebrained scheme ends up getting them involved in their misadventure. In fact, more often than not, Moreland is the smarter of the two, and in almost everyone of their films, Darro is a bad influence upon him present in so many other comedies.

With "Irish Luck", Moreland's character stands at a halfway point between the slow-witted Step-and-Fetchit character so common in comedies from the 1930s and 1940s, and the friend and equal standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Darro that we see in some of their other films... but there is still a warmth of friendship that shines through. I suspect these films were written this way, because Darro and Moreland were, reportedly, friends in real life.

Some of the portrayals of Moreland's character aside, the script for "Irish Luck", by Mary McCarthy, is very well done. The writer swiftly and elegantly explains the history between Buzzy and the police detective played by Dick Purcell in an exchange between characters that seems completely natural. She also keeps the mysteries at the heart of the film engaging while still playing fair with the viewers by leaving clues to its solution where we can spot them along with the characters.

"Irish Luck" is a strong start to Darro and Moreland's Monogram team-up that's well worth the hour it'll take you to watch it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Musical Monday: Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling used creative videos on YouTube to promote her innovative music and performance style... and from there rise to become a hugely popular and best-selling musian, both solo and with various collaborators. You can read more about her here. Or you can just enjoy this neat video from the Dancing Violinist.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

'High Toned' is pretty low-brow

High Toned (aka "High Tones") (1930)
Starring: Ford Washington Lee and John William Sublett (Buck & Bubbles)
Director: Paul Powell
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The Wildcat (Sublett) returns home after serving in World War I  to find his job and his girl have been taken by a monacle-wearing immigrant from the West Indies.

Back in their day, Buck & Bubbles were a hugely successful black song-and-dance/comedy duo, and one half of it, John William Sublett, is credited with inventing a particular style of tap-dancing and being someone Fred Astaire sought out for dance lessons. However, their talents aren't well represented in this film, which, according to marketing materials from the time, is one of six adaptations of Hugh Wiley short stories about an African American who was in the US Army during WWI. There's almost no dancing in the film--just a single brief bit of softshoe shuffle--and the jokes are minimal and mostly unfunny. In fact, this short film has the length, pacing, and overall feel of a substandard sit-com from the 1980s. I suppose in that sense it was ahead of its time, but unless you're a fan of substandard sit-coms or Race Films, there might not be a whole lot to interest

One thing to be aware of if your one of this breed of 21st humans who are outraged (OUTRAGED!) by anything offensive or racist, this is a film you want to stay away from as it contains just about every negative stereotype about blacks that you would find in a film from this period. Even if you do decide to brave it, you might want to just stop the DVD player as the climax is wrapping up. While I found the way the film used the "blacks are superstitious and cowardly black people" stereotype interesting--native American blacks use it against the Haitian interloper--it might be the thing that will cause you to have a nervous breakdown.

"High Toned" is one of six short films included on "Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 4:  How Comedies Are Born".

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fantastic Friday the Thirteenth!

Can even the Fantastic Four withstand the sinister forces at work on Friday the Thirteenth? Not if Doctor Doom has anything to say about it!

By Caudio Castellini

But... in answer to the question... OF COURSE they can withstand the sinister of forces of Friday the Thirteenth! They're the Fantastic Four! They get knocked down, but they get right back up again!

They are the once and future First Family of Comics! They are the Fantastic Four!

By George Perez

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Monday, July 9, 2018

'Smart Blonde' is a wise viewing choice

Smart Blonde (1937)
Starring: Glenda Farrell. Barton McLane, Addison Richards, Tom Kennedy, Jane Wyman, and Winifred Shaw
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Newspaper reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell) and her boyfriend, Homicide Squad Lt. Steve McBride (McLane), unravel the mysteries surrounding the murder of an out-of-town investor poised to buy the businesses of Fitz Mularky (Richards).

"Smart Blonde" is a breezy mystery flick with just the right amount of suspects and story for its brief one-hour running time. Another strong element of the film is that the romantic relationship between Torchy and Steve is long-established before the beginning of this story, which is a nice change of pace. Too often, these films shoe-horn an insta-romance into the picture, but here the writers were smart enough to avoid that contrivance.

(Of course, to some degree, the source material can be thanked for that. In the story this film was adapted from, Torchy is a man who is best friends with MacBride.)

Aside from the well-cast, well-written central characters, the supporting cast is made up of similarly charming actors playing interesting characters. Stand-outs are Tom Kennedy, as Steve's small-brained, big hearted chauffeur, and Jane Wyman, a a chatty hat-check girl.

If you like 1930s mystery films that throw a "battle of the sexes" into the mix, I think you'll find "Smart Blonde" right up your alley... and a refreshing change in several ways.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Fantastic Friday!

In August, Marvel's First Family returns to print. I'm going to be posting weekly art selections in anticipation of the arrival of what I hope will be great relaunch of what have been my favorite Marvel characters since I first encountered them as a kid.

By Ron Lim
By Alan Davis & Juan Torres

By Hermes Manuel Alejandro Quevedo

Thursday, July 5, 2018

'Flirting in the Park' is a weak start

Flirting in the Park (1933)
Starring: June Brewster, Carol Tevis, Grady Sutton, Eddie Nugent, Brooks Benedict, and Donald Haines
Director: George Stevens
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Two office ladies (Brewster and Tevis) spend a Saturday afternoon trying to one-up each other while on dates in the park.

"Flirting in the Park" was the first in a string of short films starring June Brewster, Carol Tevis, and Grady Sutton, all of which have been collected on a two-volume DVD series titled "Blondes and Redheads." When I first started watching and reviewing these films, I wondered why the Alpha Video releases didn't present them in order, but instead led off with films from the later period of the series.
Now that I've watched "Flirting in the Park", I understand why.

While "Flirting in the Park" starts out with some nice workplace comedy, not to mention a look into office life nearly a century ago, the viewing experience quickly sours. It's great to dislike the villainous manager who sexually harasses June (played by June Brewster) and then forces her to work Saturday afternoon when the rest of the staff gets to leave early, but it's not great when the characters we're supposed to like turn out to be petty, mean, and shallower than parts of the lake they go boating on. If this had been the first film in the series I'd seen, I don't know if I'd bothered with any others, until the day where my pile of unwatched DVDs was almsot empty. (A day that will likely never come because I have YEARS of backlog to go through.)

Much can be forgiven for characters who are funny, and that's the biggest problem here: There's very little that's funny in this film, even in the office where the film was at its most amusing. The only character here who has any charm to it is the one portrayed by Carol Tevis. She's socially awkward, but wants to be a guy magnet like her friend June... or at least be SEEN as such by June (even after June steals back the date that Carol stole from her early in the film). Carol also has the only really funny bit during the later part of the movie, a gag revolving around her showing June how good she is at flirting. (I don't want to give anymore details, because I don't want to ruin the only truly good part of this film.)

It's a shame that this otherwise good cast is stuck playing such unpleasant, unlikable characters. This goes double for June Brewster, and, despite my distaste for the character she was playing, I found myself thinking it was a shame she was more more successful in her career. (After struggling along in mostly  minor and supporting roles from between 1932 and 1938, she gave up on acting and married a vice cop turned gaming mogul... who went onto become a founding figure of modern day Las Vegas. The parts she played in this film series may well be the biggest she ever had.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Waiting for the fireworks to begin!

If you're going set off your own fireworks, or go to a show put on by an organization, I hope there's better safety practices than Piper Laurie is instituting for her Night of Boom and Celebration.

Mae-be Fourth of July Cos-Playing?

Mae West is cos-playing the Statue of Liberty on this Independence Day!

(This picture originally appeared in the July issue of Vanity Fair in 1938, pretty much exactly eighty years ago!)

Happy Fourth of July!

We hope all our American visitors have great Independence Day, even if you might not be able to celebrate it with some gender-reversing cos-play like Olga San Juan, Noel Niell and Nancy Porter did!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Left behind by time: 'Julius Sizzer'

Julius Sizzer (1931)
Starring: Benny Rubin, Gwen Lee, Maurice Black, Matthew Betz, and Lena Malena
Director: Edward Ludwig
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Immigrant twin bothers (Rubin, in a dual role)--one innocent and naive, the other a notorious gangster-- are targeted for assassination by a rival gang.

So this is what films like "Hot Shots" and "The Naked Gun" will look like to viewers in 2068 when the contemporary pop cultural references the jokes are based around have all but faded from collective memory.

"Julius Sizzer" is a parody of gangster movies that derives its humor from puns, sight gags, recent immigrants to the United States mangling English and Yiddish, a smattering of literary and Shakespeare references, and an assumption that the viewer is familiar with "Little Caesar", which was a popular novel and hit movie from the day. For those who aren't familiar with the main target of spoofing here, this short film comes across as a mildly amusing bit of absurdist humor that uses old-time gangsters as a framework.

Whether you're familiar with "Little Caesar" or not, "Julius Sizzer" is fast-paced enough, and has enough gags that it'll keep you entertained throughout its 18-minute run-time. The title character and his weapon of choice are particularly amusing both times they come into play. Every actor gives a fine performance--and you can feel that Rubin and Lee are having fun as they butcher the English language in their scenes together.

My only major complaint with the film is that every character in the story gets a resolution but the treacherous gun moll, Cleo (played by Gwen Lee). After setting the films climax in motion, she just drops out of the story. Additionally, the scene where the innocent Sizzer brother is rousted by police detectives hoping to catch the wicked Sizzer brother goes on for just a little too long... but it's the only one that commits this error, so it's just a minor issue over all.

If you like the classic Abrahams-Zucker films referenced above, I think you'll enjoy "Little Sizzer." When rating this film, I wavered between a Six and Seven rating. I ultimately settled on the lowest Seven, because, although flawed and out of its time, I found the film very entertaining.