Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dawn of the Photobomber

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Henry Lehrman
Director: Henry Lehrman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A camera-loving jerk (Chaplin) ruins the day of a film crew trying to document a boxcar race in Venice Beach.


"Kid Auto Races at Venice" is one of those films that show the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who's been part of a crew trying to film or take photos when members of the public are around, has had to deal with "photobombers"--and even if you haven't had to deal with them directly, you've probably seen their handiwork in photographs and evening news stand-up sequences. Even as early as 1914, attention-whoring photobombers were common enough that Charlie Chaplin lampooned them in a delightful, mostly improved, short film.

This was Charlie Chaplin's second screen appearance, as well as the beginnings of his "Little Tramp" signature character, so those Chaplin fans who have yet to see this little film will find that checking it out below will be six, well-spent, enjoyable minutes. Everyone with an interest in filmmaking, or who has worked as a photographer, should also get a kick out of it. (The proceedings become even funnier when you realize that there are real photobombers photobombing in the background while Chaplin and Lehrman are making a film the film that's lampooning them.)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Musical Monday with Mariah Carey


Then there was that time that Mariah Caray hopped in a time machine and went on television to perform her hit Christmas song "All I Want for Christmas is You" before she was even born.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

It's a Spider-Woman Sunday!


By Tradd Moore


It's winter, and Jessica Drew, the first and best Spider-Woman of them all, can't stand the cold. So she's going to leave the windswept cities of America behind...

By Frank Cho












... spread her wings and fly south...

By Bruce Timm

... to spend the next few months on a beach with her friend, Howard.

By Val Mayerik

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Last Pairing of Chase & Todd

The Nickel Nurser (1932)
Starring: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Geraldine Dvorak, Estelle Etterre, Hazel Howell, and Billy Gilbert
Director: Warren Doane
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A socially awkward efficiency expert (Chase) is hired to teach a millionaire's daughters (Todd, Etterre and Howell) the importance of being frugal with money. The young women endeavor to make his time with the a living Hell, partly by one of them switching places with their Swedish maid to he thinks he has an ally among the servants.


While Thelma Todd and Charley Chase were absolute comedy gold on-screen, "The Nickel Nurser" was the last film in which they would appear together. Todd had already been assigned to headlining her own own comedy series at the Hal Roach Studio, and she was also being "lent out" by boss Roach to other studios for parts in feature films. But, thankfully, she was also "lent" to Chase's production unit, so we got to enjoy Todd and Chase together one last time.

While "The Nickel Nurser" isn't the best film in which they appeared together--or even close to it--the scenes they share once again clearly display how they brought out the best in each other when performing together, and they are among the funniest and most focused in this otherwise chaotic picture.

The scenes where Chase and Todd play off each other--both of which revolve around the "trading places" game that the spoiled rich girls are playing--earned a full star by themselves, bringing this picture from a Low Six to a Low Seven rating. The problem here is mostly that the characters and their actions feel mostly unmotivated by anything we learn about them, and that the gags are mostly disconnected from any logic or thought-processes that a human being might have.

For example, why does Charley assume that he going to the household to teach small children about financial matters--and, more importantly why didn't the girls' father tell him he was going to be dealing with young women? And why is the butler so rude to Charley when he first arrives? There are funny bits related to these, but they are badly motivated. And the film opens with a truly mindless and pointless bit that has Charley crash though a door because he sat on a mouse trap. This sloppiness  in story-telling and illogic is not typical of the Charley Chase-helmed comedies I've seen so far.


Fortunately, things get better in the second half of the film, which also contains the scenes where Todd and Chase treat the audience to their fabulous on-screen chemistry. Charley gets locked out of his room, but needs to talk to Todd. She refuses to see him, because he is wearing only a night shirt... so of course he puts on a suit of armor that's on display in the hall. This is the sort of "logic" that is working in many of Chase's comedies--it makes sense as a solution to a problem, even if it's not the most practical one. The suit of armor is also one-half of the fuel for the film's insane climax--the other being a shotgun-wielding butler--and the way the action and gags build on each other in a tightly planned way is more like other Chase films than the first half of this picture, and it brings "The Nickel Nurser" to a close on a high note. (The climactic minutes of "The Nickel Nurser" feel like complete, unbridled chaos to the viewer, but that's only because the sequences are so carefully constructed and choreographed. In fact, given that Chase had co-writing credit on this film, and he would soon also be directing himself in his Roach pictures, I wonder if he stepped in and took control of this film to save it?)

While "The Nickel Nurser" isn't the best of Chase's films, nor the best he made with Thelma Todd, it's always good to see them together, and it makes this a highlight among the 15 films included in the two-disc DVD set Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two, 1932-1933.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas is coming!

And Mary Pickford has some advice that is good for you and the poor store clerks.


(Although we may have to send her to sensitivity training in the new year...)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

'Redskin Blues' is full of toe-tapping music and weirdness

Redskin Blues (1932)
Starring: Anonymous Voice Actors
Director: John Foster and George Stallings
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Tom and Jerry are chased and captured by a hostile Native American warriors. Is this the end of our heroes?



Some of the cartoons starring the original "Tom & Jerry" duo are just plain awful,others have not aged well, but a few are full of funky weirdness that lasts throughout the ages and which should be as amusing to viewers now as they were 85+ years ago. "Plane Dumb", for example, is so full of racist stereotypes that it even made this indifferent-to-all-your-FeeFees GenXer cringe (although given the inexplicable and casual nature of the extreme transformation of the characters into a pair Step-n-Fetchit/Sleep-N-Eat clones, I wonder if there might not be a pop cultural reference/context/connection that's been muted by the passing decades).

When I first started watching "Redskin Blues",  which was released immediately after "Plane Dumb" in 1932, I feared I was in for another festival of racism. Our heroes are under attack by Indians, all of whom are wearing war bonnets... but this one veers off into unexpected territory, beginning with the war bonnets becoming the starting point of some surreal action and continuing straight through to an ending I am sure no viewer will see coming.

Now, I'm certain there are things in this cartoon that those out there who are looking for something to take offense at will need a fainting ouwill be clutching their pearls over, especially in the light of the cartoon's title and the fact the Native Americans are the villains of the story. (Well... as much as anyone can be a villain in this bit of nonsense.)

In the final analysis, I think there may be a couple of interesting points floating around in the madness that is "Redskin Blues"--music bridges cultural gaps, to name one--although I could also be assigning meaning to this cartoon the way I might see a wild boar riding a butterfly in one of those ink blot tests. At the very least, it's a crazy and entertaining cartoon that you can watch it right here, right now, via embedding from YouTube.


=

Monday, December 2, 2019

Musical Monday with the Scatman!

Twenty years ago, on December 3, 1999, one of the greatest performers to ever grace the pop music scene. John Larkin--better known as Scatman John--left this world. He brought us a unique fusion of club music and scat, and he so loved performing that he literally worked himself to death.



Larkin had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998, and his doctors told him to slow down and take it easy. Instead, he recorded one final album and embarked on a 24-city tour. He collapsed on stage at the end of his final concert on November 26, 1999.

Scatman John's first single (released by Danish label Iceland Records) is about how he overcame his shybness and severe stutter through his music... and carries the message that if could perservere than so can you. Today's post is dedicated to the memory of Scatman John and the example he is for all of us.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

'Palooka' is barely ring-worthy

Palooka (1934) (aka "Joe Palooka")
Starring: Jimmy Durante, Stuart Erwin, Lupe Velez, Marjorie Rambeau, William Cagney, Tom Dugan, Mary Carlisle, Robert Armstrong. and Thelma Todd
Director: Benjamin Stoloff
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Joe Palooka (Erwin), the goodhearted and terminally naive son of a legendary, retired boxer (Armstrong) is catapulted to the top of the boxing world through happenstance and the shenanigans of his shady manager and promoter, Knobby Walsh (Durante). When a sexy vamp (Velez) tempts him to party instead of train, and the true champion he defeated more through luck than skill (Cagney) engineers a rematch, things start to look pretty grim for Joe...


During the 1930s and 1940s, the "Joe Palooka" newspaper strip grew to become the most popular in the U.S. Debuting in April of 1930, it ran for almost 55 years with the final installment seeing print in November of 1984. There were several film adaptations made of the strip, of which this was the first, so it's fitting that it's an "origin tale".

Sadly, Joe Palooka (affably played by Stuart Erwin) is almost crowded out of his own movie by his manager Knobby Walsh (obnoxiously played by Jimmy Durante). All in all, this film is more a vehicle for Durante than anything else, even to the point where he even gets to ruin the film's ending with one last, incredibly lame gag.

I confess that it's a mystery to me that Durante had a long career headlining anything. He's funny in small doses, but when he gets as much screentime as he does here, he gets very, very tiresome. His dominance of this picture turns it from what could have been a pleasant little sports picture into a grating festival of pain where I found myself rooting for the "villains" (prime among them being William Cagney's Al McSwatt, and Lupe Velez's slutty, gold-digging boxing groupie) just so I could enjoy some illusion of justice being served for Durante's crimes against humanity in this picture.

As for the rest of the cast, they're all pleasant and fun to watch. The aforementioned Stuart Erwin is likable as the title character, while William Cagney is one of the more charming bad guys you're ever likely to come across in a film. One the feminine front, Marjorie Rambeau is great as Joe Palooka's tough-as-nails retired showgirl mother, while Lupe Velez is fun, as well as getting some great lines, as the career-wrecking temptress. (Guys in the audience will also appreciate a couple of gowns Velez wears that would be falling off her if not for double-sided tape. Velez obviously didn't appreciate, or perhaps trust, one of the dresses, since she was constantly figiting with it.)

Robert Armstrong and Thelma Todd have small, but crucial, roles in the film (as Joe Palooka's father and the hussy who broke up his parents' marriage), and they deliver their usual strong performances. In fact, I liked Todd so much in her small role that I wish she and Velez could have swapped parts and characters. (This is probably just a reflection of my affection for Todd as a performer, as well as my unfamiliarity with the "Palooka" comic strip.)

"Palooka" is not a film I think you should go out of your way for, unless you're a Jimmy Durante fan. It may be entertaining if you have fond memories of the comic strip, or if perhaps you simply can't get enough of sports-themed movies, but the overwhelming presence of Durante taints those aspects of the film... and there are better movies about the smalltown-boy-does-good-in-sports that are more worthy of your time.


Friday, November 29, 2019

'Be Your Age' is fun, but falters at the end

Be Your Age (1926)
Starring: Charley Chase, Lillian Leighton, Frank Brownlee, Gladys Hulette, and Oliver Hardy
Director: Leo McCarey
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A corrupt attorney (Brownlee) wants control of money inherited by a recently widowed woman (Leighton), so he forces his mild-mannered and financially desperate clerk (Chase) to romance her.


"Be Your Age" is one of those films that, although I found it funny, I felt so sorry and/or embarrassed for the characters that I was hoping for a level of justice that I suspected wouldn't be possible in a comedy. Although the film glosses over it, the attorney played by Frank Brownlee's character is a vile human being who preys on his employee's family and financial troubles, and forces that employee to play with an older woman's affections. It's hinted that the attorney has romantic feelings for the widow beyond just his love her money, but I think every action he takes indicates that the money is what he loves over everything else.

As the film unfolded, I felt sorry for Charley, because he was a good guy being forced into doing horrible things because he needed to help his family; he was being made to trick an affection-starved recently widowed woman that he loved and wanted to marry her (even though it was obvious to everyone that it was her social secretary with whom he shared a mutual attraction). Meanwhile, I felt embarrassed and very sorry for the widow whose affections were being toyed with, just so a money-hungry lawyer could gain control of her wealth; she so wanted to believe Charley was in love with her that she even ignored the obvious interest that Charley and the secretary had shown in each other at the attorney's offices.

All that said, it was amusing to watch Charley Chase play a bashful character who is forced into being a gigolo and the series of misfiring romantic gestures he tried, his final desperate attempt to avoid the target of his "affections", and his cartoonish expressions of shyness were all hilarious. It was also very emotionally satisfying to see him "man-up" and come clean with the widow about why he had been romancing her--even if was actually confessing to the wrong person. All around, Chase gives an excellent performance in this film.


The supporting cast are also great in their various parts. Frank Brownlee portrays a character the viewers will love to hate--he's nasty, but he avoids the melodramatic over-the-top emoting that even at this late date in the silent period could still be seen in the portrayal of villains. Lillian Leighton plays the role of the widow with equal parts credulousness and sympathy-evoking charm, while Gladys Hulette is cute as Chase's true love interest. Oliver Hardy rounds out the main characters as the widow's adult son, Oswald, who spends the film either confused or irritated, but he's a nice addition to the cast. It was also interesting to see Hardy doing something other than the character that soon would become his signature and one-half of his pairing with Stan Laurel.

My only problem with the film--and one that caused me to knock it down at least one full star on my ten-star rating--is the ending. It's a "happy ending" for every character in the film, even the one who, from my vantage point, deserved to be beaten senseless by the rest of the cast (or someone) and left by the side of the road. Maybe I misinterpreted the attorney's motivation and desires, but I really doubt it. I hate it when villains come out ahead in films--especially comedies--because I see enough of that in real life, so I really wish "Be Your Age" had turned out a little differently.

But why don't you watch the film yourself, and perhaps even share your take on it? I've embedded it below, via YouTube, as well as provided a link to a DVD that contains the flick and 11 other short films. (Including a modern-day silent movie pastiche directed by and starring film preservationist and historian John K. Carpenter.)



Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving to my American visitors!

I wish all my American visitors and readers have a happy Thanksgiving with friends and family. And I want to say that I am thankful for the few dozen of you out there who visit regularly, whether you're American or not!



Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Join Harold & Bebe and go 'Back to the Woods'

Back to the Woods (1919)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Harry Pollard, Bud Jamison, Marie Mosquini, T. Henderson Murray, and Arthur Housman
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A city slicker (Lloyd) and his man-servant (Pollard) head into the country where they run into lions, bears, a flirtatious Native American girl (Mosquini), and gun-toting hillbillies (Jamison and Daniels).


"Back to the Woods" is a great short film that delivers an even mix of situational comedy and slapstick and features Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels not only at their best and working with some excellent material.

Lloyd plays another one of those love-starved/sex-starved characters that seems to have been his bread-and-butter during the late 1910s. His character is less obnoxious than in, for example, "Ring Up the Curtain" and "Hey There". which is good because if he had been he probably would have gotten shot by Bebe Daniels' character. Their interaction throughout the picture is mostly as equals, as they rescue each other from bears and the psychotic backwoodsman played by Bud Jamison. It makes the film more palatable to the modern viewer, I think.

The characters played by Lloyd and Daniels in this film are also more appealing that the ones they portrayed in "Off the Trolley" where they were equals who were equally interested in getting laid but also equally unpleasant personality-wise. While "Back to the Woods" has characters who are an example of opposites attract, "Off the Trolley" is one of perfect mates).
Aside from the character interplay between Lloyd and Daniels, the most amusing parts of the film are scenes involves them interacting with bears... and it appears to be Lloyd in some of the scenes with an actual bear.




The version of "Back to the Woods" I've embedded below is not only the one I found online that's the clearest visually, but the music track is also better and more thoughtful than much of what is provided for many of these films. Check it out--it's well worth 10 minutes of your day!


Monday, November 25, 2019

Christmas is coming!

Although the Thanksgiving turkeys haven't even been cooked yet,  it's also worth noting that there are only 30 days to Christmas! (Janet Leigh and her little helper encourage everyone to get the shopping and wrapping done early this year, so as to avoid stress.)

Musical Monday with Becca Krueger



It's Thankgiving later this week. Many people are traveling to visit relatives in other cities, states, and perhaps even other countries. By Friday night, many may be feeling like the characters in the song "Hit the Road, Jack" and feeling less than thankful. I hope this won't be case for most of the visitors to this blog... maybe this cover of the Ray Charles song and video from Becca Krueger and her band will be like a happy talisman that will keep everything nice and peaceful!





Saturday, November 23, 2019

'Done in Oil' is a pretty good picture

Done in Oil (1934)
Starring: Patsy Kelly, Thelma Todd, and Arthur Housman
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A struggling artist (Todd) is both helped and hindered by her friends (Kelly and Housman) when the three concoct a scheme to manufacture an image for her as a famous French painter who's come to the U.S.


"Done in Oil" is one of the better films teaming Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd. Instead of trying to make Kelly being loud and obnoxious funny just because she's loud and obnoxious while also subjecting viewers to clumsily executed, overlong slapstick routines, this film goes with situational comedy. In other words, this film avoids the things that drag down many of the entries in this series of films and instead takes the approach that elevated the winners. This is a movie where the comedy grows out of character interaction and satirical commentary that holds up to this day.

This is Patsy Kelly's film. Her character both creates and solves most of the film's conflicts as she bumbles through the story in a hilarious fashion. She and Housman share one of the film's most amusing scenes--where she creates a "work of art" and he critiques it as she goes. Kelly is also very funny in a bit that pokes fun at the "blackface" performances. At this point in the evolution of cinematic entertainment, the once-common practice of white actors dressing up like black people was increasingly viewed as distasteful, and Kelly doing it here is an amusing send-up of those performances. Over all, this film might contain the best performance I've seen from Kelly in this series yet.

Meanwhile, Thelma Todd serves as this picture's "straight man". She has very little to do but to be the launching pad for the antics and ridiculousness of the rest of the characters, but given how ridiculous they get, the island of stability and normality that she provides gives an important contrast. I think this is yet another testament to what a talented actress she was; she commanded the scene when she was called upon to do so, but she was equally adept at staying in the background while others took center stage. Not all actors are capable of that. (All that said, Todd did also get to show her funny side in this picture--at the very beginning as she and Kelly are ending a session where Kelly had been posing as Juliet for Todd as she painted; and toward the middle when she discovers that the ruse of her being a French painter visiting the States has attracted three actual French art critics.)

The only complaint I can mount about "Done in Oil" is that it's another entry in the series where I wish a little more care at been put into the script writing. The action in the kitchen (where Kelly and Housman are trying to stage Todd's fete with the art critics) and that in the living room (where Todd is trying to entertain and ultimately get the three Frenchmen to look at and buy her paintings) feel too disconnected. There should have been more inter-cutting between the two locations and sets of characters.

"Done in Oil" is included in the three DVD collection, together with all the other films in which Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd shared the screen.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving!

Here at Shades of Gray, we're hunting and gathering everything needed for a great Thanksgiving feast! We hope that all our visitors will be getting together with family and friends and be thankful for the time you have with one another.

Meanwhile, someone decided to remind Elizabeth Montgomery that November is National Native American Indian Heritage Month


Monday, November 18, 2019

Musical Monday with Tom & Jerry

In 1931, the Van Beuren Studios launched the Tom and Jerry series of animated shorts. Stylistically, the series inhabits a middle-ground between Felix the Cat of the 1920s and the first few years of Betty Boop cartoons... but they often manage to be more trippy than even what those series had to offer. Tom and Jerry didn't enjoy the popularity of those other characters, though, and their adventures came to an end in 1933.

By Milton Knight
There were 26 Tom and Jerry cartoons released. The good ones are very good, but the bad ones... oh, my God! The bad ones are so bad that even the audiences of the 1930s must have been bored or perhaps even offended by them. They are so bad, in fact, that I will probably post about at least one of them over at Movies You Should (Die Before You) See; it will be the first post over there in years, but at least one of the Tom and Jerry cartoons is such an unfortunate mix of innovation and racism that it deserves comment.)

Right now, though, I'm going to give my thoughts on the best Tom and Jerry cartoon I've watched so far. It's embedded below, so you, too, can watch it right here. I think you'll find it will brighten you day!



Piano Tooners (1932)
Starring: Margie Hines (various voices)
Director: John Foster and George Ruffle
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A pair of zany piano tuners step up to save a opera diva's recital and end up turning it jazzy.


"Piano Tooners" is a cheerful cartoon with fun musical numbers and playful visuals that will keep you smiling from from the opening song through the grand finale where the big-boosmed diva literallyblows the roof of house. In between, we're treated to dancing, piano-playing mice, one of the weirdest music recital ever put on film, a maid transforming into a jazz singer, and Tom and Jerry's innovative piano-tuning techniques.

The experience of watching is further enlivened by a steady stream of visual side gags that come and go in the blink of an eye, as well as miscellaneous comedic nonsense that ranges from cute to risque. I was particularly amused by all the gags involving the diva, and I found the bits with the mice very cute.

But take a look for yourself. Let me know what you think of it, either here or on my Facebook page!



Sunday, November 17, 2019

Please welcome our new sponsor...


'An Unseen Enemy' is a little creaky but still worth watching

The Unseen Enemy (1912)
Starring: Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Grace Henderson, Elmer Booth, and Harry Carey
Director: D.W. Griffith
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Recently orphaned sisters (Gish and Gish) may be the victims of more than just robbery when their corrupt maid (Henderson) and her safe-cracking boyfriend (Carey) decide to steal part of their inheritance.


"The Unseen Enemy" was a surprising treat. While its a historically important film in that it's the debut picture of future silent movie super-stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, it's also a thrilling little drama that has held up surprisingly well. While viewers will have to have some level of tolerance for the sometimes overly dramatic acting styles of the day, this is a film with  well-drawn characters, a multi-pronged and fast-moving plot, a nicely staged action sequence involving speeding automobiles... all of which leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Although Griffith manages to deliver a story that has everything (romance, comedy, drama) in less than 1/3rd the time it takes most modern crime dramas with stories like this, it's not a perfect effort. In addition for viewers to a need to have tolerance for some over-the-top acting at a couple points, the dramatic scene shown in the picture I've used to illustrate this piece ends up being a tad more silly than suspenseful. It starts out tense, and there's a couple moments during the sequence where Griffith manages to recapture the suspense, but there's an easy way for the girls to get out of the threatening situation they're in, and even when they try to take it, Griffin cops out and makes it so they don't succeed.

I'm aware that these days one is supposed to react with faux outrage when the names D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish are mentioned, and we're supposed to run for the fainting couch at the merest suggestion that one should watch a film Griffith directed or one that Gish appears in--because, you know, of the terrible, TERRIBLE sin against all of humanity that is "The Birth of a Nation". However, since I have a greater interest in the art of film than I have in over-the-top hystrionics that would even embarrass Elmer Booth (the most prolific over-actor in "An Unseen Enemy"), I appreciate Griffith as a man who had a talent for cinematic storytelling and who recognized potential when he met with actors. (Sure, it would have been easy for him to see the talent in the Gish sisters, who came to him already seasoned stage actresses, but he also saw the greatness in Bessie Love who had no acting experience and was just looking for a summer job.)

I recommend you check out "An Unseen Enemy", right here and now, as I've embedded it below.


Friday, November 15, 2019

'On the Loose' is worth catching

On the Loose (1931)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, John Loder, Claude Allister, Billy Gilbert, Otto Fries, Dorothy Layton, Oliver Hardy, and Stan Laurel
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A chance encounter with a rich Englishman (Loder) gives a pair of young women (Pitts and Todd) hope that they'll finally have dates that doesn't take place at the Coney Island amusement park. They hope in vain, because, to a pair of wealthy Brits, there's nothing as exciting and exotic as a trip to an American amusement park.


"On the Loose" is what more of these Thelma Todd-starring short films should have been like--more situational comedy and less slapstick. More of them should also have quiet scenes like the one featured here where we just have the lead characters chatting with one another. Little moments like that makes the characters more appealing. If more films had followed the pattern of this one--presenting a complete story with a beginning , a middle, and end, and focused on characters and situational human instead of lamely executed slapstick routines and incompletely written scripts--this could have been a great series of films instead of a mediocre one with flashes of greatness every now and then. (Patsy Kelly, who replaced ZaSu Pitts after the first batch of films, might have seemed less obnoxious if she'd had material to work with.)

As for the cast, Hal Roach (doing double-duty as both studio boss and director on this one) gets excellent performances out of everyone. Thelma Todd in particular shines in this picture, giving a nuanced performance that adds a tremendous amount of fun to every scene she's in. ZaSu Pitts delivers one of her typical, competent and amusing performances; she's also doesn't have to do any awkwardly staged, badly executed physical bits.

Meanwhile, British actors John Loder and Claude Allister provide some great moments as the gentlemen who sincerely believe they are showing their dates the greatest and most unusual time they have ever experienced. (Allister repeatedly ending up between couple Otto Fries and Dorothy Layton is a very funny running gag, and it's literal punchline is one of the film's high points.)

One thing I found fascinating about this film is the amusement park setting. I remember some of the things portrayed as being present in "fun houses" when I was a kid, as well as the shooting galleries. With some of the others, I was amazed that such rides/activities could even exist in the 1930s they appeared to be so prone to getting participants injured. I haven't been to an amusement park or traveling carnival in 25-30 years, so I found myself wondering if any of those sorts of games and activities even exist anymore. Maybe I need to get out more!

"On the Loose" is one of the films included on the two-DVD collection of all the films Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts co-starred in



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Art of Terese Nielsen


Here's small gallery of pencil sketches by fantasy artist Terese Nielsen. She is perhaps best known for her gorgeous illustrations on "Magic: The Gathering" cards.











You can visit Nielsen's website and see finished paintings here.

Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Communicate with Aliens: Part One

Anna-Marie Hefele, resident alien language expert

Watch the video embedded below, imitate the techniques of Anna-Marie Helefe, and you will be speaking (and gesturing--because it's important to do both) a widely used alien language in no time.



Check back for How to Communicate with Aliens: Part Two, during which Anna-Marie will explain what exactly she's "saying."

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Doughboy Double Feature!

High Cs (1930)
Starring: Charley Chase, Carlton Griffin, Thelma Todd, Otto Fries, Harry Schultz, Lucien Prival, and the Ranch Boys band
Director: James W. Horne
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A WWI doughboy (Chase), who'd rather sing than fight, tricks the Germans into thinking the war is over so he can recruit one of their soldiers (Fries) into his musical quartet.


"High C's" is different than most other Charley Chase films I've watched so far. First, it's more loosely structured than any of the others. Rather than the film being structured around a tightly plotted sequence of jokes and gags that build upon each other until the film's finale this one breaks into three distinct sections that are only loosely connected. It's still a well-enough crafted story, though.

There's also more music in this film than any of the previous ones I've seen from Chase, which actually explains the different structure of the film. It's not so much a comedy short as a mini-musical, as such it's built around the musical numbers rather than gags.

Despite being different than what I had expected, I enjoyed "High Cs" immensely. Charley Chase was on the top of his game, and the supporting cast were all equally excellent. Thelma Todd, who portrays Chase's love interest, was a joy to watch as always when she's paired with Chase; and Carlton Griffin and Lucien Prival were great fun as the villainous, self-important officers on the Allied and German sides of the trenches respectively.

This isn't the strongest of Charley Chase's films, but it's still got good music and some really funny moments. The sequence where they fake the end of World War 1 just to capture and recruit a German soldier into the band, as well as the closing song, are must-sees for fans of old-time musical comedy.




Rough Seas (1931)
Starring: Charley Chase, Carlton Griffin, Thelma Todd, Frank Brownlee, and the Ranch Boys band
Director: James Parrott
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The war is over and Charley (Chase) is being shipped back to the States and civilian life. But he needs to find a way to get his French girlfriend (Todd) and his pet monkey safely onboard the transport ship without his commanding officer (Griffin) knowing.


"Rough Seas" is a sequel to "High Cs", and it, too, is a mini-musical comedy. It picks up all the story threads from "High Cs", and brings along all the supporting characters from the first film, while adding a couple new complications. I was particularly impressed at the attention to detail shown in continuing to develop a somewhat morbid gag from the first film around the tenor whose voice was ruined because he got shot in the Adam's apple. It was another example of how the Charley Chase films should be remembered among the best Roach productions, because they were crafted with a level of care that became increasingly hard to find as the 1930s wore on.

Overall, this is a simple film where the ship-board antics of Chase's character as he tries to keep himself, his monkey, and his stowaway girlfriend out of the cross-hairs of his superiors are mostly a vehicle to get us from musical number to musical number. What plot we do have is a sweet little love story between Charley and Thelma (who, although she has less to do in this film than the monkey, the chemistry she shared with Chase once again leaps off the screen), which also exposes the truly vile nature of Carlton Griffin's officer character; it's satisfying to see him finally get put in his place.

This was the second-to-last Charley Chase film that Thelma Todd would appear in. She was quickly becoming a popular comedienne, and producer Hal Roach didn't want to "waste" her in supporting roles. Even as this film was being made, the stage was being set for her to co-star with ZaSu Pitts in her own series. The films she headlined 40 films, but few were of the quality of the ones she made with Chase.



Thursday, November 7, 2019

Another macabre trip for Betty Boop

Is My Palm Read? (1933)
Starring: Mae Questal (the voice of Betty Boop) and Billy Murray (the voice of Bimbo)
Director: Dave Fleischer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Professor Bimbo and his crystal ball reveal Betty's past as a baby, and her grim future on a ghost-haunted desert island.


Much is made of Betty Boop's sexiness, but, to my eyes, these cartoons are more about being spooky than sexy. Sure, she ran around in a tiny dress that sometimes got pulled off her... but she was always being menaced by ghosts, demons, hillbilly rapists, and more! I'm far from an expert, but my sampling of Betty Boop cartoons from the 1930s seem more creepy than sexy to me, with only two not featuring some sort of supernatural element. Some even have the feel and pacing and logic of bad dreams and nightmares. (Okay, they have the feel and pacing and logic of MY bad dreams... so maybe that says more about my psychological state than it does about the cartoons....)

"Is My Palm Read" is another Betty Boop adventure that sees her (and recurring supporting characters Bimbo and Koko) menaced by ghosts. While Betty's captivity within a haunted hut on a desert island is initially just a psychic vision, the ghosts manage to somehow break out of Bimbo's crystal ball toward the end of the cartoon. In doing so, they somehow transform the reality of the cartoon from an urban setting to the desert island from the vision. How or why is impossible to discern, and the characters just seem to take it in stride--they do, after all, live in one of the most surreal worlds ever committed to film. However, while this sudden merging of psychic vision and reality leads to an amusing chase scene, it makes no sense in any context.

While I feel a bit foolish for expecting a Betty Boop cartoon to make sense, this move was just a little too dream-like, too surreal, and too chaotic for me; it made me go "waitaminnit" and got me thinking about the mechanics of the story instead of just enjoying it. I don't think that was the intention the director and animators, so I think it's a flaw in the execution here.

That said, it's really the only flaw. It's a flaw that takes away from the overall enjoyment of the cartoon, but not from the excellent and lush animation it features, nor from the catchy tunes  it delivers.

How about you take a few minutes out of your day to watch "Is My Palm Read?" and tell me whether I'm right or wrong in my take on it. You can check it out below, courtesy of YouTube.



Trivia: There are at least four different edits of this Betty Boop cartoon available for viewing online, on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and elsewhere. The version I have embedded here is, as far as I can tell, the most complete and closest to what was originally released into theaters in February of 1933. Most versions available to not feature the sequence with Betty as a baby, and at least one has a slightly different musical score. (The opening titles song does not have lyrics, for example.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Thelma Todd Quarterly

We don't have anything cute or pithy to say here. We just hope you enjoy these unusual portraits of a beautiful and talented actress who was taken from this world entirely too soon.


(For more images from this same photo-shoot, click here. They were in the first Thelma Todd Quarterly post of The Year of the Hot Toddy, so it seems fitting that we begin to wrap things up with pictures from the same series.)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Musical Monday with Kate Bush


"Hounds of Love" is one of Kate Bush's all-time classics, whether we're talking about the song or the fantastic music video that goes along with it. Someone who "always thought it would look fantastic in black and white" went ahead and de-colorized it! The result is indeed fantastic! It looks a lot like many of the films that have been written about on this blog, including ones you watch in posts here.


Hounds of Love in Black and White (2015)
Starring: Kate Bush and Gow Hunter
Director: Kate Bush
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars




Saturday, November 2, 2019

A spa with the cure for the common cold?

Red Noses (1932)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Blanche Payson, Germaine De Noel, and Wilfred Lucas
Director: James Horne
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Thelma and ZaSu (Todd and Pitts) are suffering at home with colds, but their boss (Lucas) needs them at the office, because he can't close a business deal without their help. He arranges for them to go for a treatment at a health spa that is guaranteed to cure them and get them quickly back in the office.



"Red Noses" is another entry in the Thelma Todd-starring comedies that feels like a good idea that lost its way. Sending our heroines off to a health spa is a great concept and the end result here is mostly amusing, but it's another example of where not enough attention was paid to the story, nor even the gags. It's a shame, because the cast--led by Pitts who takes most of the abuse at the hands of the physical therapists at the spa--all do an excellent job; they're all playing the sorts of characters they're old hands at, and they're all in top form.

One of the biggest flaws with the script on the story front is that this is another film that just sort of stops without really ending. So much emphasis was put on how important it was that the Thelma and ZaSu be present at the business meeting that the film feels incomplete without some sort of callback to that. It seems that even the filmakers felt there was something missing at the end of the film, because, while our heroines make a perfectly acceptable getaway from the health spa (after their requests to leave have been repeatedly denied because the spa's policy is that you're either cured of your ailment or you're due a refund), it's followed up with Thelma and ZaSu walking in front of the worst worst back projection I've ever seen.

 The treatment regiment the girls are subjected to at the spa also seems a bit strange, given that they are there with the express purpose of being cured of a cold. As funny as some of the physical gags are, shouldn't they be sitting in steam rooms or soaking in hot baths augmented with various herbs and spices? The resulting film would have required more thought on the part of the writers, but most of the better gags would still have fit into the film, including the Turkish massages the girls are subjected to.

And speaking of the gags, they run the gamut from under-developed, to just right, to dragging on, something which I, again, contribute to a lack of effort being put into the script. There's a bit of mud-throwing that doesn't really go anywhere (except serving for long-walk set-up for a cross-dressing scene and ensuing brawl.. which did add up to something funny). The bits involving Turkish massages are pretty flawless, while those involving exercise equipment drag on and on (except for one strange device that is basically Thelma Todd strapped to a bouncing chair).


In general, though, the film moves fast enough, and is funny enough, that the misfired and overly milked bits of physical comedy can be excused. In the end, this is an uneven but entertaining comedy and a nice way to waste 20 minutes.

There is one aspect to this film that I can't quite get a bead on, though, and I can't tell whether it's a subtext that's there or if it's because I live in a day and age where EVERYTHING is sexualized. Are Thelma and ZaSu more than just friends in this film? Are they a couple? There are two jokes that seem to say outright that they are (never mind the fact that they're sharing the same bed as the film opens). As the editor and publisher who green-lit turning the Science Sleuths gay, it's an odd position for me to be in....




Thursday, October 31, 2019

Picture Perfect Halloween with Vampirella

Vampirella has made a new friend, and she's bringing him with her to a Halloween party near you!

By Art Adams

Have a Silly (Symphony) Halloween!

Enjoy this classic cartoon from the early years of Walt Disney! (Hells Bells was first released in 1929).







 And if these evil cultists knew how goofy Hell really is, I doubt they'd bother with this Halloween summoning ritual. (Art by the great John Buscema.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

'The Mad Ghoul' is worth knowing

The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Starring: George Zucco, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Turhan Bey, and Robert Armstrong
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

College chemistry professor Alfred Morris (Zucco) re-discovers a formula for a gas that ancient Central Americans used turn people into pseudo-living zombies, as well as a means for reversing the transformation. He uses his assistant, Ted (Bruce), as an unwitting human test subject while trying to put the moves on Ted's opera-singing fiance (Ankers)... but when the antidote for the gas turns out to only be temporary, Morris's life and Ted's psuedo-undeath become a lot more complicated.


"The Mad Ghoul" is a horror film from Universal Pictures--the studio that bought the world "The Mummy", "Dracula", and "Frankenstein"--that sounds like a film from Monogram or PRC, with its mad scientist with an even madder scheme, a young couple being threatened by evil, and a crusading reporter who is going to stop the monster the police have been unable to catch.

What the writers and director does with those elements are a great change of, though: The crusading reporter ends up, the young couple's romance is revealed to have been over even before the film starts, and the mad doctor's mad scheme keeps getting more insane, first because he was cocky and had to cover up a failed experiment and then because he wanted to remove all rivals for the woman with whom he believes he shares a mutual attraction. (Some of my favorite parts of the film is when George Zucco and Evelyn Ankers' characters are talking past each other; Zucco thinks they are expressing their love for each other while Ankers thinks she's just unloading her sorrows to a sympathetic ear. These scenes feature some nice acting and even better writing, because they perfectly communicate the notion that Zucco's character later expresses, after he realizes he was mistaken: "Sometimes we see what we want to see.")

The cast of "The Mad Ghoul" all provide good performances. Zucco is in particularly fine form, playing the crazed heavy he specialized in but with a tiny bit of nuances thrown in. Robert Armstrong is also fun as the "I'm smarter than the cops" newsman who populates films of this type, and while I saw his brutal end coming before it actually happened, I was a little sad to see him go. Meanwhile, Ankers and Bey play the kinds of characters they portrayed in many other films, and they do it with their usual skill. Finally, David Bruce, in one of his few starring roles, is good as what initially comes across as the standard, fairly bland romantic lead, but becomes an increasingly interesting and nuanced character as the film unfolds.

Picture Perfect Vampirella

Halloween is almost here, and so is Vampirella... whether you are ready or not!

By Jason Robinson

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