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.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans!

As we do every year on this Thanksgiving Thursday here at Shades of Gray, we're celebrating with breasts and legs... and Indians and Pilgrims and Turkey Dinners!

And what are we thankful for? We're thankful for everyone who's visited this blog over the past ten years... and we're extra thankful for those of you who keep coming back!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

That time Junji Ito traded horror for cats!

Junji Ito's Cat Diary: Yon & Mu (Kodansha Comics, 2015)
Story and Art: Junji Ito
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Junji's fiancee and her two cats move into his house, he slowly learns to love the two strange creatures that she loves... and then tries to get them to love him back.

Japan's Junji Ito is quite possibly the best creator of horror comics to ever put pen to paper, and I've lavished praise on his work in other posts, such as this one. "Junji Ito's Cat Diary: Yon and Mu" is a bit of a departure from what he's known for as it's a series of autobiographical humorous stories about him adjusting to life with cats.

The end result is mixed. The stories are all cute, very true-to-life--both long-time cat owners and newbies will nod and smile about some of the situations that Junji finds himself in--and both his moments of disappointment and joy will strike chords with any reader who has spent time around house cats. Unfortunately, his perchant for the grotesque that serves him so well in his horror comics is mostly distracting here. It's too strange and too ugly for the light-hearted and harmless material in the book; the more absurd moments where Ito is poking fun at himself tend to be the most excessively surreal and twisted drawings. (Interestingly, he shies away from such excesses in the one truly surreal tale included, which makes it more effective.)

If you like Junji Ito's horror work, I think you'll enjoy "Yon & Mu". This goes double for cat lovers, or those who became cat lovers because they were "forced" on you. (Also, be aware that the book is printed "backwards", in the sense that it reads from right to left.)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A hit that cemented several Hollywood careers

Buck Privates (1941)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nat Pendleton, Jane Frazee, Lee Bowman, Alan Curtis, and the Andrew Sisters
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A pair of conmen (Abbott and Costello) accidentially join the Army while trying to avoid the police. As if that wasn't bad enough, the cop they were trying to avoid (Pendleton) turns out to be their drill sergeant.

"Buck Privates" is one of those movies that became far more important than anyone could ever have imagined when they were making it. It was a low-budget production that was just another musical comedy that, at best, would continue to grow the comedy team of Abbott & Costello as box office draws. Instead, it became the most profitable film that Universal Pictures had made up to that point, further solidified the Andrews Sisters as pop-music shaping superstars, and launched Abbott & Costello onto their path to comedic cinematic legends.

The film itself follows a fairly standard storyline of tracking army recruits as their training helps them overcome their character flaws and learn to work with people they might dispise outside of military life. The presence of members of a WAC-precusor unit at the training camp allows for a romantic subplot, with a trio of attractive and talented actors (Jane Frazee, Lee Bowman, and Alan Curtis) carrying that storyline in between musical numbers featuring the Andrew Sisters (and even one by Lou Costello).

While some of the humor and social attitudes in the film are a bit archaic, and Abbott & Costello went onto be even funnier in future movies, "Buck Privates" is a touchstone of American culture that's still hugely entertaining to watch. While the copious stock footage used to create the illusion that the actors aren't on a movie ranch or Universal Studios sound stage gets a bit tiresome durng the film's third act, everything about this film is well-executed... and it's easy to see why so many careers sky-rocketed afterwards and why some of the songs are even well-known to this day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Beauty and the Bomb: Sally McCloskey

During the 1950s, the people of Las Vegas, Nevada, decided to unite the two things the area was famous for: Atom bomb tests and showgirls. Casinos would host parties where people could watch the mushroom clouds rise, at which they'd also crown beauty queens that were usually picked from among their staff, and North Las Vegas even held a beauty competition where they crowned a Miss A-Bomb.

One of the more curious "Beauty and the Bomb" events involve the day photographer Donald English shot pictures of ballet dancer Sally McCloskey performing an interpretative dance with a mushroom cloud in sky above the test grounds.

For some context and information about the photo shoot, click here. Also, here's a copy of a feature some of the pictures were used in (click to enlarge and read the text):

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In Memory of Stan Lee

Comic book creative and editorial giant Stan Lee passed away Monday, November 12, 2018, at the age of 95. Here's a small gallery of artwork celebrating him.

By Wee Chong
By John Romita

By Chris Giarusso
By Russ Heath

 By Colleen Doran

By Mike Weringo & Sean Parsons

By Charles Holbert, Jr.
By Jeffery A. Dobberpuhl

Monday, November 12, 2018

Musical Monday: Meet Folkline

Some of you may be aware that I used to make my living as a writer, game designer, and editor. Back then, many of my best ideas would pop into my head while listening to a song or piece of music, and the idea would often have little or nothing to do with what inspired it.

One such idea was never actually used in anything that was published but instead formed a cornerstone of a role-playing game campaign that I ran for 15 years. It was inspired by the song "Iko-Iko" (as recorded by Cindy Lauper)  and that first spark of an idea grew into one of the grandest and most expansive sagas I ever dreamed up.

But because that grand saga is still very near and dear to my heart, so is the song "Iko-Iko." I listen to it when I want to lift my spirits and bring that half-told saga to mind... and I love finding new versions of it (or older versions I'd not encountered before).
I recently came across this unusual version by Russian folk-rock trio Folkline. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sherlock Sunday: Holmes Faces Death

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Margetson, Hillary Brooke, and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is summoned to the country by his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce) to discover the secrets behind a series of murders at a convalesce home for injured military officers.

The fourth installment of Universal Pictures' "modern day" adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a loose adaptation of Doyle's story "The Musgrave Ritual." It's an effective update of the tale, and it's perhaps the most thrilling of the Universal Holmes I've seem so far. It's certainly the darkest, as it continues to deal with the contemporary (for when the film was made) issues of World War 2. This time, it deals with homefront issues, such as caring for soldiers who return from battle not just with physical injuries but mental damage as well. It's one aspect of the film that gives it staying-power and that makes it just as relevant today as six decades ago.

The film is especially effective in the way it creates the ending. It gives viewers a real sense that Holmes has outsmarted himself for once and that the clever trap he lays to get the otherwise untouchable killer to reveal himself turns into a death trap for Holmes himself. It's a very well-done twist to the story, and twice-welcomed due to the fact that Holmes' bait and trap are so cliched that I feared for what was going to come next when it showed up in the film.

Also worth noting is that the idiotic hairstyle that Holmes sported in the first few movies in this series is gone. The treatment of Watson and other characters is also notably more respectful by Holmes in this film than in several other entries in the picture. Yes, he puts Lestrade down when he's being a bonehead, but he shows more respect for Watson than is average for the series and he doesn't seem like he's constantly trying to prove how superior he is to everyone around him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Love Quarterly

Bessie Love was born Jaunita Horton in 1898. As a teenager, she moved with her parents to Hollywood where director DW Griffith provided her with her first acting job (a small part in "Intolerance" (1916) and also provided her stage name. She was popular almost immediately with movie-goers, and she dropped out of High School to pursue a career in acting full-time.

Love was a hugely popular Hollywood star during the silent era, although most of her films are lost today. Due to her slight frame and small stature, she spent 1920s mostly playing characters younger than her actual age. Although she initially made a successful transition to the Talkies, her film career was stalling as she entered her reached her mid-30s (during the 1930s). So she left the United States for England where she found success on the stage, and, later, televsion.

Every quarter, we'll feature some photos and trivia about this early Hollywood Glamor Girl. So, until the Spring, we hope you'll stay warm... although maybe in a slightly more efficient way than Bessie did.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Picture Perfect Special: Jim Steranko

Artist/writer/comics historian/magician Jim Steranko turns 80 years old today! While his body of work in comics is slight and mostly took place in the mid-1960s, it had a huge impact and continues to do so to the present. (Anyone who wants to be a comics artist MUST study Steranko's work on "Captain America", "Strange Tales", and "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD." It is some of the best comic book art every created.)

In celebration of Steranko's birthday, here's a sampling of his art.

A case of murder most funny!

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Fred Kelsey, Frank Austin, Dell Henderson, Bobby Burns, and Dorothy Granger
Director: James Parrott
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Ollie (Hardy) concocts a scheme to pass Stan (Laurel) off as the to a recently deceased millionaire, the two find themselves trapped in a creepy house with a killer and incompetent cops.

During the silent movie era and well into the 1940s, the "dark old house" sub-genre was very popular, both in straight-up mystery and horror films, and as the target of lampooning. With "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case", the popular comedy team got their piece of that action.

The result is a mixed bag. The film features spot-on satirical takes on the genre's standards--stormy weather, creepy servants, overly complicated murder methods, and "big reveals" that don't make much sense and often have no foundation in the story--but the various set-piece gags mostly meander and peter out instead of coming to a comedic crescendo. What's worse, the film comes to one of the lamest endings I have come across.

Laurel & Hardy are excellent as usual. The strongest part of the film is its opening scene where they are sitting on a pier, Hardy taking a nap and Laurel doing a little fishing. It's also the most traditional "Laurel & Hardy"-esque part of the film. The bits where they arrive at the house in the rain, and later when they are chased by a "ghost" are also highlights of the film, but everything else is a little shaky. Nothing in this film is all that bad, but I feel that part of the problem is that the underlying plot was too big for its 30-minute runtime. I think, ultimately, the filmmakers felt the same way, which accounts for the fizzling gags, scant story (there's a gathering of heirs but hardly anything is done with them), and an abrupt and awful ending. I usually complain about films being too long, but this one could have benefitted from an additional 10 minutes spent on Laurel & Hardy interacting with the greedy family members and the creepy servants.

In the final analysis, "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" is worth checking out if you LOVE Laurel & Hardy or the "dark old house"-type movies. More casual fans of either can find far better instances of either to check out. That said, if you're an Amazon Prime member, you can watch it for free as part of your subscription package, and others can rent it (and two other Laurel & Hardy films) for a very reasonable price.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ending a series on a low note

Wig-Wag (1935)
Starring: Dorothy Granger, Jack Mulhall, Grady Sutton, Jane Darwell, and Carol Tevis
Director: Sam White
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After his fiance (Granger) breaks their engagement just before the wedding, Jack (Mulhall) decides to win her back by making her jealous. To do this, he convinces his friend Grady (Sutton) to dress up like a woman and pretend to be his new bride.

Aside from the very first installment, this is the weakest entry in the "The Blonde and the Redhead" series. It's almost as if the series came full circle, but in the worst possible way.

The problem with "Wig-Wag" is that it wants to rely on slapstick humor, but what it offers in that department is executed without energy and in a very feeble fashion. I don't know if it was under-rehearsed or ad-libbed on the set, but the performers weren't leaning into it. Nor was the production department for that matter; sometimes, slapstick is made funnier with exaggeration through sound effects... but that wasn't done here.

The filmmakers would have done viewers a service if they'd focused more on dialogue and characters here. I suppose they did as much with homosexuality and gender roles as they could in the 1930s, but the scenes where the cross-dressing Grady is in "danger" are the most amusing, especially the awkward kissing scenes. These scenes also contain the only truly funny lines in the film, with the "She's the biggest thing to come into my life" being prime among them. (And Sutton is BIG in this picture, given they put an already tall man in heels.)

As for the actors, they seem to be giving it their best, considering what they're working with. Jack Mullhall and Dorothy Grangers are the stars here, with Grady Sutton supporting them nicely; he is mostly serves as the straight man, which is an odd phrase to say about a hulking cross-dresser. Carol Tevis' role is the smallest she's had in any of the episodes, whether it be screen-time or role in the plot. She could have been left out entirely, and it wouldn't have made a difference.

"Wig-Wag" is the fourth and final short included on the second DVD collection of these RKO short films. It's the most risque of them humor-wise, but, as mentioned, it's also one of the worst when it comes to execution. Still, this is a collection worth checking out, as it also contains two of the best entries in the series, "Bridal Bail" and "Contented Calves".

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Torchy Blane is a Whole New Woman!

Torchy Blane in Panama (1938)
Starring: Lola Lane, Paul Kelly, Tom Kennedy, Anthony Averill, and Larry Williams
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A violent bank robber (Averill) passes himself off as a member of the Leopard Lodge to conceal his identity and hide among its members onboard a cruiseship bound for Los Angeles via the Panama Canal. Ace reporter Torchy Blane (Lane), her police detective boyfriend, Steve (Kelly), and a rival reporter (Williams) board the ship in the hopes of identifying the robber before he escapes with the stolen money. Bumbling detective Gahagan (Kennedy) is also aboard, as a member of the Lodge and Steve hopes he'll be able to spot the fraud.

In this, the fifth entry in the "Torchy Blane" series, Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane are replaced by Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in the roles of Torchy Blane and Steve McBride. This recasting is partly to blame for this being the weakest film in the series yet, but even more blame can be placed on the writers of the screenplay.

First, Paul Kelly is a decent actor, but he's not quite right for the part of Steve McBride, because his slighter frame makes him less of a presence. It also doesn't help that the writers have given the character a streak of sexist immaturity that hasn't been present until this film: For much of "Torchy Blane in Panama"'s running-time, viewers have the sense that Steve and the reporter he teams up don't want Torchy's girl cooties disrupting their male bonding (which include an ongoing and obnoxious prank on Gahagan).

Second, while Torchy is more of an action heroine in this film than she's ever been before (she parachutes from an airplane, she scales the sides of ships and walls, throws punches, and more!), she ultimately ends up as a damsel in distress who must be rescued by Steve from the film's villains. She's as witty as ever, and Lola Lane makes of a good replacement--even if it's odd to suddenly have a brunette playing the lead character in a series that's made a big deal out of the fact she's a blonde--but she is let down by the script-writers who didn't seem to know how to write a woman who didn't need to be rescued.

Thirdly, while the "Torchy Blane" films have always been B-pictures, this is the first one that feels like a 1930s cheapie comedy/mystery. The story focuses more on the clownish antics of Gahagan than ever before, cruel jokes on other characters for no good reason are considered par for the course, and the cops, in general, are so dumb that you're surprised the manage to remember to breathe. While Torchy is ultimately reduced to a damsel in distress, she's still the smartest person around, because the cops are so damn dumb.
"Torchy Blane in Panama" is a major step down quality-wise from previous films, but it still entertaining. The dialogue is just as witty in previous films, and there are a few moments of genuine tension. Lola Lane also makes a decent Torchy, but she is ultimately let down by a script that's too much generic 1930s laff-bag, and too little Torchy Blane.