Friday, August 31, 2018

'Blondes at Work' has Torchy Blane at her best

Blondes at Work (1938)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Thomas E. Jackson, Tom Kennedy, Frank Shannon, Rosella Towne, and Donald Briggs
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Crime reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell) gets extra creative (and even more ethically dubious) in her pursuit of scoops once her fiance, homicide detective fiance Steve McBride (MacLane), is ordered by his superior (Shannon) to stop favoring her over other reporters.

"Blondes at Work" is the fourth entry in the Torchy Blane series, and it's the best one so far. The script is well-crafted; the dialogue is sharp, all the characters are intelligently written with no one taking brainless actions just so the plot can move forward, and even minor characters get their moments to shine. Every performance in the film is top-notch, with series regulars Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedy, and Frank Shannon giving particularly impressive performances. Thomas E. Jackson, who spent the 1930s and 1940s playing police detectives is a nice addition to the cast as Steve's right-hand man and the unfortunate person charged with keeping Torchy on a leash and out of investigation.

Speaking of the investigation, unlike the previous films, the murder mystery here is entirely secondary plotwise to the interaction among characters while Steve and his detectives try to navigate an increasingly ugly public relations and political situation that's being stirred up by Torchy's aggressive pursuit of a story the police department is trying to freeze her out of. Although she actually harms their ability to close their case more than once, I never felt that her behavior was out of line or unrealistic in the context of the lighthearted pulp-fiction universe the characters live in. I felt that way at several points during the previous film in this series, "Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde", so that's another testament to the quality of the script. I did wonder if she would have any friends at the end of it all, given how she treated them--with poor, trusting Gahagen (Steve's less-than-brilliant driver, played by Tom Kennedy) getting the worst of it. Even that thought, however, was addressed neatly within the story... Torchy ended up paying a price for crossing the many lines she crossed in a way that gave her friends an opportunity to admit that maybe she went too far and for her friends to forgive her.

The only complaint I have about this highly entertaining film is that the murder mystery that both Steve and Torchy were investigating was ultimately resolved off-screen. It works within the context of the film, but it was still a little disappointing. (The resolution isn't a surprise, which is something else that makes the script praiseworthy; the basic solution to the "whodunnit" is out in the open the whole time.)

If you have an hour to kill, watching "Blondes at Work" is a fine way to do it.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Marie Severin passes away at 89

On August 30, 2018, artist Marie Severin passed away. She spent the bulk of her career working at Marvel Comics (from the 1950s through the 1990s) where she was a colorist, penciler, and more. She is best remembered for her work on issues of "The Incredible Hulk" and for her satirical comics in "Not Brand Eech". She also designed the original Spider-Woman costume.

Here are a few of her drawings in memory.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Love Quarterly

Bessie Love was a hugely popular star of silent movies and early talkies who dropped out of high school to pursue a film career. She had moved from Texas to Hollywood with her father, who was a cowboy-turned-chiropractor, and mother, and she entered the film biz upon the urging of family friend and actor Tom Mix.

I'll offer more trivia about Bessie Love in future installments of The Love Quarterly, but I'm not sure I'll ever top the bit about her father being a Texas cowboy who became a California chiropractor. Meanwhile, here are a couple more photos of Love that demonstrate the unifying theme off this blog.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A chess writer becomes involved in a deadly (and goofy) game of wits with a killer

Scared Stiff (1945) (aka "Treasure of Fear")
Starring: Jack Haley, Ann Savage, Veda Ann Borg, Buddy Swan, Lucien Littlefield, Arthur Aylesworth, and Barton MacLane
Director:  Frank McDonald
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A hapless chess editor (Haley) becomes the prime suspect in a murder while getting caught up in a scheme to steal a valuable and historically significant chess set.

"Scared Stiff" is a light and fluffy comedy mystery that you're bound to forget five minutes after it's over. It's lots of fun while it's unfolding, but there isn't anything particularly remarkable about its story, its characters, or anything else really.

What makes this somewhat unremarkable film worth watching is the cast, particularly the leads of Jack Haley and Ann Savage. The characters' past relationship (as well as a mutual attraction that is stifled by shyness and social propriety respectively) is established with some deft writing and some skilled acting on Savage's part. Haley, meanwhile, plays the befuddled, goodhearted character I previously saw him do in "One Body Too Many" and its even more fun to watch him here than in the previous films as he gets to play off several cantankerous and threatening characters, as well as the charming Ann Savage and the aggressive man-eater portrayed by Veda Ann Borg.

Another character that adds to the fun is the sadistic child prodigy played by Buddy Swan. I don't usually wish for child characters to get murdered, but here I was rooting for the killer to put him out of everyone's misery. This character's absolute loathsomeness is a testiment to both the writing and the acting that went into making him.

On the downside, the film's climax is a bit of a misfire--it's almost as if the writers ran dry on the last few pages and weren't quite sure how to tie up the kookiness of the previous hour or so. Tied into this is the disappointing way the subplot that brought the chess reporter out of his usual element is resolved. He was given the field assignment because every other staff writer was out chasing leads about an escaped convict, but entirely too little comes of this in the end, especially considering the part of the escapee was played by Barton McLane (of the Torchy Blane series).

In the final analysis, the good outweighs the bad here, and a strong cast makes a completely forgettable film worth watching.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Russ Heath passes away at 91

On August 23, 2018, another one of the great comic artists passed way: Russ Heath.

Russ Heath may not be as famous as he deserves to be, because he drew very few superhero comics. The closest he came were a few Batman stories (which he himself described as "failures" in a 2007 interview) and a handful of Punisher stories. He spent most of his seven decades as a professional comics artist (and just plain old illustrator for that matter) drawing everything BUT superheroes--war, horror, satire, adventure, western, science fiction, fantasy, romance... he did it all.

Here's a gallery of illustrations in memory of an artistic giant. (For the record, I LOVED those issues of "Legends of the Dark Knight" that Heath himself thought were failures.)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

'Murder on the Bridle Path' disappoints

Murder on the Bridle Path (1936)
Starring: James Gleason, Helen Broderick, Louise Latimer, John Carroll, Owen Davis Jr., Christian Rub, Leslie Fenton, John Miltern, Willy Best, and Sheila Terry
Directors: William Hamilton and Edward Killy
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When the murder of a young woman (Terry) is disguised to look like a riding accident, Police Inspector Oscar Piper (Gleason) once again receives assistance from his friend and amateur detective Hildegarde Withers (Broderick) in sorting truth from lies and shady characters from murderers.

"Murder on the Bridle Path" is the fourth film in the Hildegarde Withers series and the first one to feature an actress other than Edna May Oliver in the role of sleuthing school marm Ms. Withers. It's also the weakest entry so far.

While the replacement of the self-described "horse-faced" Oliver with the "moon-faced" and younger Helen Broderick is an immediately noticeable change, it's not actually the problem that does the movie in; Broderick actually does a good job as the acerbic school teacher. No, what damages this movie beyond saving is its script.

The Hildegarde Withers movies are detective movies, but they are also comedies. While the detective side of things is passable, the attempts at comedy are absolute and total disasters. I don't think I have seen a movie where almost every single laugh line is a complete dud--and the only remotely funny one is responded to  by a character with "are you trying to be funny?" (To which I actually said to the screen, "Yes! And he's the only one who's succeeded so far!")

Another drawback is that Oscar Piper is portrayed as an absolute moron in this film. It's like the character, who was previously shown to be a good and intelligent police officer that sometimes goes for the first obvious suspect due to pressure from his superiors, was replaced with the stock stupid cop character that so often infests B-movie murder mysteries. This is even worse than the unfunny quips, because even if you can't write comedy to save your life, you can at least get established characters right when working on a series.

On the positive side, Helen Broderick is actually a nice replace for Oliver, since she has Hildegarde Withers' crisp and caustic attitude down pat. Broderick was also an accomplished comedic actress, so this SHOULD also have been a positive. Unfortunately, the material she has to work with in this film is so unfunny that you can't tell. Perhaps her comedic gifts saved this film from being even more miserable than it is... but I think it's more likely that it proves that even a good actor can't save bad material (no matter what the saying says).

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Rachel Bilson

Actress Rachel Bilson comes from a family that's been involved in movie making--mostly as writers and directors--for four generations. She grew up around movie productions and has said that this made her career choice a natural one.

Bilson's first major role was on the television series "The O.C." (2003-2007) where she was cast in what was initially to be a small recurring role. However, the show-runners liked her character and performance so much that they expanded her role. She was a co-star by the time the second season began, and she was the show's female lead for the fourth season.

Beginning in 2018, Bilson co-starred with Eddie Cibrian in the ABC mystery-comedy series "Take Two." She plays Sam Swift, a once popular television actress who is rebuilding her life after a series of drug- and alcohol-related scandals ruined her career and landed her in rehab. She initially teams up with private detective Eddie Valetik, who is himself rebuilding his life after his career as a police detective ended badly, as a publicity stunt, but later finds that she prefers helping people in real life to make-believe. Bilson is also the show's producer.

"Take Two" currently airs Thursday nights on ABC. I find the show to be lots of fun, and I think that if you enjoy the sort of light-hearted mysteries that I so often review on this blog, you will like it, too. As of this writing, it is unknown if Sam and Eddie will be back for a second season... but I certainly hope they will be!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

It's the French Revolution, Film Noir Style!

The Black Book (aka "Reign of Terror") (1949)
Starring: Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl, Richard Hart, Arnold Moss, and Jess Barker
Director: Anthony Mann
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As the power-hungry Maximillian Robespierre (Basehart) uses a series of rigged show-trials and executions of his rivals to usurp the French Revolution and make himself dictator of the emerging republic, Charles D'Aubigny (Cummings) infiltrates Robespierre's inner circle to secure evidence of his corruption and evil. When he discovers that the most damning piece of evidence--a list drawn up by Robespierre of those marked for death--has already gone missing, he begins a desperate search for this other mystery operative and gain control of the list, before he himself is revealed as a traitor. The only person he can rely on in his mission is his ex-lover Madelon (Dahl)... but is even she trustworthy in a moment when the fate of a nation turns on who has possession of a single black book?

"The Black Book" is the sort of film that usually takes place on the mean streets and seedy dives of the Big City of the 1940s. Here, however, the look and tone of film noir and the frenetic pace of a spy thriller is applied to a story that unfolds in the back alleys and dungeons of 17th century Paris. It's a film noir historical costume drama spy thriller... and it's a heck of a ride.

Three film genres are intertwined in this movie and the result is a fast-paced, visually interesting drama with so many twists and turns to its plot that, even though the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are clearly defined, by the end of the movie, you'll be wondering if good really has won out in the end... especially given one ominous note that is struck when a young soldier introduces himself as Bonaparte.

One weak spot of the film is it's dialogue. To describe it as trite and uninspired is generous, but the rapid pace and gorgeously moody visuals of the film more than make up for this weakness. I suppose one could also complain that it's not historically accurate in many ways, but that should earn the response, "it's just a movie; you should really just relax."

If you enjoy spy movies, film noir, or costume dramas, I think you'll enjoy "The Black Book". It's one of many entertaining films in "The Fabulous Forties" 50-movie boxed set.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

'Hold That Ghost' has flaws but Lou Costello makes it lots of fun

Hold That Ghost (1941)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two friends (Abbott and Costello) inherit a derelict roadhouse within which a gangster may have hidden a large fortune. Upon being stranded there one stormy night with several strangers (inlcuding Ankers, Carlson, and Davis), they discover it may be haunted by murderous ghosts as well.

"Hold That Ghost" is a spoof of once popular 'dark old house' thriller genre, which included such great early films as the original "The Cat and the Canary" and the straight-forwardly named "The Old Dark House". It is sort of a precursor to the many horror spoofs Abbott & Costello would make a decade or later involving the various iconic Universal Monsters.

Unfortunately, this film is flawed at its foundation. While all the actors are clearly game and do the best they can with the material, almost every character in this film feels flat and entirely too much of the plot only works because the characters are stupid even by comedy standards, or very forgetful. Even worse, while Abbott's character is often brusque and even mean toward Costello's character, he is often excessively so in this film. I think this may be the first Abbott & Costello film I've seen where I don't understand why the two main characters want anything to do with each other.

On the positive side, the weaknesses mentioned above are largely made up for by Lou Costello giving some really funny performances, especially relating to the running gag that he is almost always the only person who happens to see the mysterious going-ons in the creepy roadhouse the characters are stuck in. He also has a cute dance routine with Joan Davis, who, in an unusual twist for an A&B film, shows romantic interest in Costello without having an ulterior motive. Another positive of the film is the elaborate sets that make up the dilapited roadhouse and the moody lighting within it.

In the final analysis, "Hold That Ghost" isn't be best of Abbott & Costello's films, but it is still well worth your time, especially if you enjoy the creepy house horror/mystery films.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Happy birthday to Julie Newmar!

Catwoman turns 85 years old today!

The Wisdom of InspiroBot!

One of the greatest internet toys is InspiroBot, a website that randomly mixes phrases and pictures so you can create "motivational poster"-type graphics. Some may be seem insightful and profound, but most will be bizarre and make you smile or even laugh. (The conceit is that it's the world's first motivational A.I.... and if you click long enough, you'll get a surprise!)
Most of the InspiroBot's offerings are in color, but a few are in black-and-white and therefore suitabe for posting here on Shades of Gray. Here are some that I have generated during my many visits to the site... which has become a go-to activity when I'm feeling lazy or need a few grins.

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