Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Monday, December 30, 2019

Musical Monday with Ghostly Kisses

"Ghostly Kisses" is the name under which singer/songwriter Margaux Sauvé releases her music. The video below's got beautiful music and arresting visuals... just what you need to get the last Monday of 2019 off to a good start!

Touch (2019)
Starring: Margaux Sauvé and Chelsea Keefer
Director: Eddie Grams
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sunday, December 29, 2019

'An All-American Toothache' is agreeable nonsense

An All American Toothache (1936)
Starring: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Mickey Daniels, Johnny Arthur, and Duke York
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Thelma (Todd) tricks her co-worker Patsy (Kelly) into having her wisdom tooth pulled by an incompetent dental student (Daniels) who also happens to be the star player of the local college football team--but who will be barred from the big game if he doesn't show himself proficient in his field of study.

"An All-American Toothache" is one of the better films that Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly made together. It's not the funniest, it's not the sweetest, nor is it the cleverest... but it is perhaps the best-structured and tone-consistent of them all. It delivers a complete story--with a beginning, a middle, and end--and while that story is complete nonsense, it is steeped in the nonsense from beginning to end, embraces the nonsense, and the characters even say "yeah, this makes no sense, but let's go with it!"

The main cast all have their moment in the spotlight, and they all play well with and off each other. Thelma Todd is once again relegated mostly to the role of "straight man" while Patsy Kelly gets to play the fool, but there isn't the sense of underlying contempt from Todd toward Kelly's character that tainted other films. This picture also benefits from the fact that instead of featuring several ill-conceived, badly rehearsed slapstick routines--something that plagued the Todd-headlined films even when she was teamed with ZaSu Pitts in the early stages of the series. Instead, it contains one single all-out brawl between dental students and the football team, with Thelma, Patsy, and a professor caught up in the melee.

"An All-American Toothache" would be the last film Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly would make together. Todd's life was tragically cut short in December of 1935, and it wasn't released until after her demise. It's also the very last film Todd can be considered appearing in. She had a large role in the Laurel & Hardy feature film "The Bohemian Girl", but producer Roach had her scenes cut and reshot because of her death. (If he had been able to foresee the morbid obsession with Todd's mysterious passing that continues to the very day, he might have left the film as it was.)

Mythos Madness: The Balls of Yog-Sogoth

This may or may not be the first post in an irregular series (which will also appear at the NUELOW Games blog) detailing mysteries of Lovecraft's Elder Gods Universe in terms of the d20 System roleplaying game.

The Balls of Yog-Sogoth are a pair of perfect spheres of a smooth, white, semi-translucent crystaline substance. One can be comfortably cradled in the palm of an average adult male human's hand. Each glows softly with a white light that originates from the orb's center. Legend holds that the balls were dropped from the elder god Yog-Sogoth itself, and so they are highly sought after by the cults devoted to the various aspects of the entity. No one really knows their true origin, however.

A cultist handling a Ball of Yog-Sogoth

If subjected to a detect magic spell, the Balls of Yog-Sogoth radiate faint alteration and divination magic. No other magic short of a wish spell will reveal any additional information about the mysterious spheres. Seekers of knowledge must discover the power of the balls through their own experimentation, or by recovering and reading sacred scrolls possessed and jealously guarded by obscure cults, or perhaps an Immortal or two.
   To use the Balls of Yog-Sogoth, a user must old them in their hands. The balls function in different ways, depending on whether a user is handling one or two of them.
    One Ball: While cradling a single of Yog-Sogoth's balls, the character will receive a mental image of a magical item that is in his or her possession, or in the possession of a friend or ally. The charcter comes to know everything about the item as if he or she had cast an identify spell upon it. It takes 1d6 rounds for the vision to materalize. Once the user has realized this use of a ball, he or she can mentally picture specific items and gain information as if he or she had cast identify upon them.
   Drawback: For each item past the first that the user identifies within a 72-hour period, there is an increasing chance (10% on the second item, 30% on the third item, 50% on the fourth item, 70% on the fifth item, 90% on each additional items) that the user will collapse into a deep coma that lasts 1d6+1 days. Upon regaining consciousness, the character must roll a Fortitude save (DC18) or feel weakened to the point of suffering a -4 penalty to Strength and Constitution scores for 24 hours.
   Two Balls: While holding one of Yog-Sogoth's balls in each hand, the character can either envision a historical figure well-known contemporary figure, or someone with whom the character is personally acquainted, be it a friend or foe. After concentrating on the mental image of the person for 1d6+1 rounds, the character receives one of the following vividly detailed visions, as if he or she was present for the events and experienced them as the person did. (Roll 1d6 to determine which kind of vision.)

   1. The happiest moment of the person's childhood.
   2. The proudest moment of their youth.
   3. Their greatest achievement during their lifetime.
   4. The place the person felt most comfortable/spent most of their
        leisure time (if dead); where the person will be in exactly one day
        (if alive).
   5. The place where the person spent/spends the most time with the person
        they loved/love the most, as well as who that person is.
   6. The single event or secret that the person wants to keep hidden forever.

   Drawback: If the user tries to have more than one vision within a 72-hour period, there is an increasing chance (10% on the second vision, 30% on the third vision, 50% on the fourth vision, 70% on the fifth vision, 90% on each additional vision) that the user will collapse into a deep coma that lasts 1d6+1 days. Upon regaining consciousness, the character must roll a Fortitude save (DC18) or feel weakened to the point of suffering a -4 penalty to Strength and Constitution scores for 24 hours.
   Each additional vision within the 72-hour period is determined randomly, just like the first. If the same scene is rolled more than once, the user sees it from a different angle, perhaps even experiencing the scene as someone else did/does. Each reiteration reveals new details.

All text in this post is released under the Open Game License and may be reproduced in accordance with its terms. Copyright 2019 Steve Miller. (If you find this material useful or interesting, please purchase some of our actual products. It will encourage us to make more!)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

'Preto Branco' is a stylish modern silent movie

The other day, I made a post in which I embedded a silent movie made in 1914. Just for the heck of it, here's a silent movie that was produced and released in 2014, one hundred years later!

Preto Branco (aka "Black/White") (2014)
Starring: Inês Cândido and João Teles
Director: Magdalena Traguil
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A young woman escapes an abusive relationships in a permanent fashion.

"Preto Branco" is a brief, thoroughly modern silent movie. It's a stylish, straight-forward bit of filmmaking that uses the black-and-white media effectively, as well as communicates everything through action and scene framing. (Okay... there is one sound effect here, but I think it fall into the same category as a musical score.)

The only complaint I can mount is that I would have liked to see a little more effects work in the aftermath of the film's climactic violence. The act itself, though, was portrayed perfectly. (I have a couple additional minor quibbles, but they amount to nothing more than nitpicks.)
Why don't you take a few minutes to watch "Preto Branco" right now? I've embedded it below for your viewing pleasure!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Wonder Woman Wednesday

Wonder Woman offers you well-wishes and a toast, as we here at Shades of Gray hopes everyone out there is having the happiest of Christmases!

Christmas is here...

... and Santa's Helpers once again deployed across the world to help him keep his busy schedule! This year, Christmas was saved in part by:

Muriel Evans
Mary Martin

Virginia Grey

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

'Caught in a Cabaret' is a fun little film

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Edgar Kennedy, Harry McCoy, and Minta Durfee
Director: Mabel Normand
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A waiter at a low-class joint (Chaplin) comes to the aid and defense of a wealthy young woman (Normand) when her cowardly boyfriend (McCoy) doesn't. Romance subsequently blossoms, but will the jealous ex-boyfriend find a way to tear them apart?

"Caught in a Cabaret" is a fun little film that's marred by predictability. The moment Charlie Chaplin's character lies about who he is and what is social standing is--he claims to be a foreign ambassador--you know that eventually the truth will out and our hero will be in trouble. Nonetheless, the rest of the film is so artfully executed that the preordained ending. The scenes in the cabaret--whether it's the crowded hall full of customers and performers, or the back-room with the bickering employees and their slapstick battles--are excellently staged and beautifully framed. The cabaret's common room more than once takes on the feeling of an animated 19th century painting.

The only thing that keeps this film from getting a Seven on my 0-10 scale is that an important plot element of the first half of the film seems to be just dropped for no reason and with no explanation. (It's entirely possible that a piece of the film is missing, but it seemed really odd to me that Chaplin's dog just vanishes at one point...)

Aside from that one (major) flaw, "Caught in a Cabaret" is an excellent early Chaplin film, and a fine example of Mabel Normand's deft directorial touch. I invite you to take a few moments and watch this great little film right now!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas is almost here...

… and Loretta Young found a spot here at Shades of Gray that hadn't been decorated yet.

If you're not done decorating for Christmas yet, you better get to it!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

'After the Dance' feels incomplete

After the Dance (1935)
Starring: George Murphy, Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd, and Wyrley Birch
Director: Leo Bulgakov
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An innocent song-and-dance man (Murphy) is sent to prison for manslaughter after his shady partner (Todd) refuses to clear his name. A series of events prompts his escape from prison, and he finds an opportunity to rebuild his life and show business career with a new partner (Carroll). All is going well until the woman who sent him to prison re-enters his life.

"After the Dance" is a strangely constructed movie that feels like it is missing large chunks. It starts in medias res with our hero already having accidentally killed a man while defending his dance parter. We get no introduction to any of the involved characters, and the way he gets jammed up for the murder comes out of left field and is never explained. It's like five or ten minutes of opening scenes and establishing who the characters are is missing.

Similarly, as the movie is reaching its climax, the hero's past catches up with him, and the evil vixen from the movie's beginning once again ruins his life, we once again have the feeling that we've missed parts of the film. Not only does the movie not such much end but stop, it does so without ever explaining fully why Thelma Todd's character is such an evil bitch, because the film's instigating event is never explained in any detail.

It's a sad fact of Thelma Todd's career that most of her main dramatic roles of the talkie era took place in films that either had weak scripts (such as "Corsair"), have come down to us in modern times in a state butchered by censors or damaged by the passage of time (such as "Cheating Blondes"), or which is mysteriously flawed like "After the Dance". Given when it was released--at a time when Hollywood's move toward self-censorship had gained full steam and the censors were hacking and slashing, left and right and center--and the pristine condition of the print used to make the DVD I watched, I'm guessing that the incomplete nature of the story here is the fault of censorship. So... yet again, we are left with Todd giving a fine performance in a flawed vehicle. Once again, we can only imagine what she might have become as an actress if her life hadn't been tragically cut short in December of 1935. We will never know what she might have brought us if she had played more dramatic roles as she grew as an actress. ("After the Dance" was one of the last films she made.)

Todd isn't the only actor in this film who gives a performance better than it seems to have deserved. Everyone shines in their parts, and this could have been an excellent film if it had only been complete. George Murphy isn't the most charismatic actor, nor the lightest-of-foot dancer, but he's good enough... and what he lacks, Nancy Carroll more than makes up for with her energy and grace. They make the song and dance numbers that anchor the film very enjoyable.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Celebrating the Rise of Skywalker!

Today is the official release day for "Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker", and to celebrate, we're presenting a gallery of art featuring some of the great characters from the galaxy far, far away!

By Gary Erskine

By C. Love
By Colleen Doran

By Russ Manning
By Gene Day

By Gene Day

By Tony DeZuniga

By David Golding

By Randy Martinez
By Randy Martinez
By Carmine Infantino & Gene Day
By Arthur Adams
By Art Hodges

By Bill Sienkiewicz
By Admira Wijaya
By Odoro

Thursday, December 19, 2019

'The Christmas Dream' brings Holiday Cheer

The Christmas Dream (1901)
Starring: Uncredited Actors
Directed by Georges Méliès
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A child dreams about more than just fairies and sugar plums on Christmas Eve.

"The Christmas Dream" consists of a series scenes of Yuletide merriment and magic, as dreamed by a child. Some of them are standard Christmas scenes (such as church bells being rung and a sumptuous feast for rich nobles being shared with a beggar). some are variations on standard Christmas imagery (angels delivering presents by dropping them down chimneys, and dancing fairies magically turning a wintery landscape into a Christmas tree), and others are just plain strange (such as some sort of weird Christmas parade with Punch & Judy-style jesters and a line of can-can dancers; I think maybe it's the 12 Days of Christmas song brought to life, but I'm not sure).

There’s no plot to speak of in this film, just lots of Christmas cheer. For a Méliès film, it's also very light on special effects, with only a couple simple (compared to what he does in other films) tick photography shots. It's not his most remarkable work, but it's worth checking out if you're in the mood for something with a different sort of Christmas Spirit. What's more, you can watch it in this very post, by clicking below!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Milla Jovovich Quarterly

Is Milla looking into a second career as a cab driver or a rocketship pilot? We don't know, but we do know that while this may be her last appearance in these parts during the 2010s, she'll be back for the Roaring '20s Redux!

Monday, December 16, 2019

In memory of Thelma Todd

For all of 2019, I've been reviewing at least one film featuring actress Thelma Todd each week, and posting quarterly photo galleries from Todd's modeling sessions, having declared it The Year of the Hot Toddy. During this time, I have focused entirely on the legacy of entertainment this talented actress left behind, which, sadly, seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Today is December 16, and on this day in 1935, Todd passed away. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning, in a car that was idling in a closed garage. Whether her death was accidental or homicide, we'll never know, but it has eclipsed everything else that she brought to the world. Aside from this single paragraph, we here at Shades of Gray will always remember Thelma Todd for her performances instead of her death. We will always remember her lighting up the screen with some of Hollywood's stars, such as....

William Powell and Gary Cooper
Chester Morris
Cary Grant
Buster Keaton

Bela Lugosi, Marjorie White, William Collier Jr, Ona Munson & Joe E Brown
The Year of the Hot Toddy may be coming to an end--we have two weeks and two reviews left--but plan to continue to remember Thelma Todd in 2020 and beyond. In this space, you will find reviews of her films every few weeks, plus photo galleries every few months in the Thelma Todd Quarterly post series, and we will close the coming year with post like this one highlighting the many great actors she appeared along side. We hope you'll continue to join us in celebration of this great and beautiful actress's life instead of morbidly dwelling on her death.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

'The Balloonatic' doesn't exactly soar

The Balloonatic (1923)
Starring: Buster Keaton and Phyllis Haver
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Kline
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A young man (Keaton) becomes stranded in the wilderness after accidentally taking off in a balloon. Will the more out-doorsy girl (Haver) he encounters be his salvation, or will she be the death of him?

"The Balloonatic" is one of Buster Keaton's lesser efforts. It's a series of loosely connected skits that sees our hero move from a bad day at the amusement park to a worse time in the wilderness, with the connecting element no so much being Buster but the far more interesting character of the young woman he first tries to put the moves on at the amusement park (and gets a black eye and bloody nose for his fresh behavior) and then later crosses her path again in the wilderness. But, as fun as Phyllis Haver's character is, the film is still feels disjointed and directionless.

This isn't the first Buster Keaton short I've watched that felt like its elements didn't quite connect properly ("The Frozen North" springs immediately to mind as the worst "offender" so far), but it is the first that felt like it lacked heart, as well as being short of elaborate stunt-based comedy that's made his other shorts so spectacular.

For a film titled "The Ballonatic", this is flick is very grounded. Most of the gags are modest, the stunts little more than prat-falls, and the balloon isn't much more than a device to get Keaton's character from the amusement park into the wilderness. While here is a little business onboard the drifting balloon, I really wanted a little more airborne dangling action, so while this colors my opinion of the movie as a whole, it's also fact that there are several routines that are predictable and therefore feel like they've gone on for too long by the time the pay-off arrives; and that Keaton already did similar bits in other films, and did them better. (The fishing routines in both "Hard Luck" and "Convict 13" are funnier than the one here.)

That said, the film does feature some very funny interactions between Keaton and Haver (with her rescuing him, and he later trying to rescue her but her ultimately having to give up on being the damsel in distress and deal with the threat on her own). Keaton also has some very funny bits with a canoe, both in and out of the water. There's just nothing as wild or exhuberant as what viewers experience in some of Keaton's other films. The relationship between Keaton and Haver's characters is one of the most interesting ones in any of Keaton's shorts, but it doesn't quite make up for the shortcomings. This isn't a bad film--it's lots of fun--but it isn't as good as Keaton's other works.

But why don't you check out this film for yourself, below. Afterwards, you can let me know if you agree or disagree with my take on it.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

'Counsellor at Law' is undeservedly obscure

Counsellor at Law (1933) 
Starring: John Barrymore, Bebe Daniels, Onslow Stevens, Isabel Jewell, Melvyn Douglas, Doris Kenyon, Thelma Todd, John Hammond Dailey and Vincent Sherman
Director: William Wyler
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

George Simon (Barrymore) is a workaholic and a highly successful attorney who clawed his way up from the gutter to an office high atop New York City in the Empire State Building. Over the space of a few days, he finds his professional and personal life crumbling to ruins.

"Councellor at Law" is a swift moving drama whose origins as a stage play are clearly evident throughout its run-time. While that's usually a negative in these reviews, this film is the exception that proves the rule. All the film's action takes place within the high-cielinged, art-deco rooms that make up the Law Office of Simon & Tedesco, so the limited locations and characters moving about as if they're following blocking on a stage and arriving stage left and existing stage right isn't a distraction. It also helps that the entire cast is made up of actors who are film veterans--some of whom got their start as child actors during the silent film days, like Bebe Daniels--and therefore are all giving cinematic-oriented performances rather than being stagey and projecting and emoting so the audience in the back rows can pick up on what's going on.

John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels, the film's stars, give particularly impressive performances. They both give perfect examples of what "show, don't tell" means. Daniels' character never expresses the deep love and respect she has for her boss, Simon, nor how much it pains her to see how blind he is to the disrespect and disregard he gets from the blue-blood wife (Doris Kenyon) he loves above everything else. Bebe had, literally, grown up on movie stages and at this point had more than 20 years of film acting behind her--and it shows. Similarly, Barrymore's best moments in the film come in near-wordless scenes, and the moments in the picture when he lost all hope and is contemplating suicide are some of the most impactful bits of filmmaking I've come across. (Barrymore's acting is top-notch, but he is ably supported by a director and technical crew who understood how to take full advantage of the black and media they were working in.)

While Barrymore and Daniels shine the brightest here, the supporting cast is also spectacular. Among the most remarkable performances are Thelma Todd in a small, but important role, as one of George Simon's shady clients with a case against an even shadier person who as wronged them; Doris Kenyon as Simon's snobbish wife whose actions demonstrates that he only has value to her so long as she can exploit his love for her and desire for acceptance in her social circles, with Melvyn Douglas taking a turn as a blue-blood leech with with lecherous designs on the wife underscoring this point; and Onslow Stevens and Isabel Jewell, as Simon's law partner and the office receptionist/switchboard operator respectively, providing office and period flavor for the story.

All in all, this film is an example of all the good things works from this period has to offer. It's got cool art-deco sets (since it's set during the 1920s, probably right around the time the stock market is getting ready to crash); a flawed hero who is obviously the embodiment of the film's major social and political messages but who is the creation of writers who have enough respect for the audiences intelligence that he isn't also a funnel-shaped mouthpiece for those messages; and snappy dialogue that moves scenes from lighthearted to dramatic with blinding speed.

I only have one real complaint about this film, and it relates to an otherwise excellent sub-thread about office romances/sexual harassment that runs through the film. While one of the clerks is constantly and crudely hitting on the receptionist, a young lawyer in the firm is just as constantly and politely asking Bebe Daniels' character on dates. She constantly rebuffs him with escalating hostility, because she is increasingly distraught over how everything is falling apart for George Simon, as well as Simon's obliviousness to how he is being badly used by people he thinks are on his side. Ultimately, the young lawyer has had enough of her coldness, stops pursuing her, but he hands her a letter of some sort during their last exchange. We never find out what's in that letter, and I really wanted to know what that was because that subplot (out of the many in the film) remains unresolved at the end.

"Councellor at Law" is an undeservedly obscure film. If you appreciate early talkies, or have been impressed with John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels in other roles, you need to see it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Christmas is coming...

... and Esther Ralston is putting the final touches on the decorations here at Shades of Gray! Have you gotten yours up yet?

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

An attention-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