Thursday, January 31, 2019

'Whispering Whoopee' is lots of fun

Whispering Whoopee (1930)
Starring: Charlie Chase, Dolores Brinkman, Anita Garvin, Thelma Todd, Eddie Dunn, Carl Stockdale, Dale Henderson, and Tennen Holz
Director: James Horne
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Charley (Chase) hires three escorts (Brinkman, Garvin, and Todd) to service three members of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce (Henderson, Holz, and Stockdale) to help him close a land sale. After it initially seems his plan is doomed to failure, the party gets wilder than Charley anticipated.

"Whispering Whoopee" is a straight-forward comedy with a simple plot and mostly straight-forward, simple jokes, but every one of those jokes lands perfectly, and every cast member is great in their parts. The picture was written and filmed on a very tight schedule, as it was conceived in order to keep cast and crew working, and the Hal Roach Studio's release schedule on track, when bad weather delayed filming of the many outdoor scenes in the golfing-based comedy "All Teed Up". Given the circumstances under which it was created and filmed, it's really impressive how perfect everything seems. The pinnacle of the film is a scene where all the characters are spraying each other with seltzer water, and there's a bit in there that makes fun of synchronized swimming/ice dancing that underscores the simplicity of the movie's humor but also that the exactness in its delivery makes it exceptional. 

While Charley Chase is the lead in the film, it is also very much an ensemble comedy. Each actor gets to do their own bits, or a bit with a partner. Among Chase's co-stars, Dolores Brinkman gets some of the best lines, and she shows herself to have plenty of screen presence and comedic timing. It's a shame that she never managed to propel her acting career above the level of bit parts, because, based on what I see her, she had plenty of talent. She also plays the role in this film that I would assume would have been filled by Todd if this film had not been inserted into the production schedule the way it was; Todd is seen in fewer shots than other cast members, and of the ladies in the film she has has the fewest lines; I assume she may have been going to other sets even while working on "Making Whoopee".

Getting back to Brinkman for a moment: As things would turn out, her role in "Making Whoopee" would be her final screen appearance. Interestingly, Chase's co-star in "One of the Smiths", Peggy Howard, was also a pretty actress who never "made it", and who's last credit was in a Charley Chase film. I wonder if I will find this to be pattern as I watch more of Chase's films from the early 1930s. Together with Hal Roach, Chase was in the process of turning Thelma Todd into a hugely popular comedienne... perhaps they were trying to capture that same magic with another actress? This seems like a reasonable idea to me, since, mere months after this film was made, Todd would be headlining her own series of comedic shorts. Perhaps Chase and Roach were perhaps looking ahead to fill Todd's role in the line-up of performers working with Chase? Perhaps they were looking for someone to team with Todd in the series of films that Roach was already considering--films starring the "Female Laurel & Hardy"?

I confess that I have neither the historical knowledge, nor the drive to do the research, to elevate anything in the previous paragraph past the level of speculation. Over the next few months, however, as I watch more Charley Chase and Thelma Todd films, as well as a smattering of Laurel & Hardy and other Hal Roach productions, and do my usual superficial research into the actors appearing in them, maybe I'll find something to either prove or disprove the speculation above.

All that is tangential to "Whispering Whoopee", which is a hilarious comedy that makes it easy to see why Charley Chase was second only in popularity to Laurel & Hardy when it came to Hal Roach's galaxy of stars. It's a shame that he and his work is mostly forgotten, but it's also easy to see why: His films are more rooted in the culture of the time within which they were made than the Laurel & Hardy pictures were. Comedies driven by Chase were focused more around social situations, while those with Stan Laurel's brain behind them were more about the human condition, so the latter have stood the test of time better. Nonetheless, a 90-year-old Charley Chase film is more finely crafted and funnier than many modern comedies, and I'll take a quickie production like "Whispering Whoopee" over almost any modern sit-com I've sampled in recent years.

"Whispering Whoopee" is one of 17 short films starring Charlie Chase that are included in the two DVD set Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies 1930 - 1931. Many of them also feature or co-star Thelma Todd, James Finlayson, and other popular Roach regulars.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

No cheers for 'Cheers of the Crowd"

Cheers of the Crowd (1935)
Starring: Russell Hopton, Harry Holman, Irene Ware, Bradley Page, John Dilson, Wade Boteler, John Quillan, Roberta Gale, and Betty Blythe
Director: Vin Moore
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a publicity stunt staged to save an failing Broadway show succeeds beyond his wildest imagination, Lee Adams (Hopton) exposes his boss (Dilson) to blackmail by a sleazy business manager (Page); his reporter girlfriend (Ware) to career ruin; and an old friend (Holman) to possible jail-time.

"Cheers of the Crowd" has a nice set-up, unfolds in a steady fashion with complications and stakes-raisings happening pretty much when you'd expect them to, and then wraps itself up in a happy ending for all--except the bad guy. And yet, the film doesn't work, because this very well constructed frame has been draped with half-developed story elements that the scriptwriter appears to have been afraid of taking as far as they needed to go, or which go nowhere.

The perfect storm of these flaws is embodied in the film's rather unremarkable villain. There are some really interesting story elements hinted at in his actions and references made to other characters, but they aren't developed. Even his final fate at the end of the movie is half-baked and unsatisfactory (unlike the nice wrap-ups that every other character gets).

It's a shame the film has such a shoddy script, because the actors all give nice performances... and they are especially admirable since much of the cast were at the end of their careers. (It's always sad to realize that Irene Ware, who was done in not due to a lack of talent or dedication, but due to being part of failed projects. She doesn't have much to do in this film, but she brightens every scene she's in.)

"Cheers of the Crowd" can be streamed without additional charge by Amazon Prime members. I'm not sure if it's worth you time, though. It's a generally uplifting move story-wise, but the execution is sorely lacking.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Drink Wilkins Coffee... or Else!

Meet Willkins and Wontkins, the first celebrity Muppets to be born of the mind of Jim Henson.

In 1957, Henson was approached by the Wilkins Coffee Company, which operated in the Washington D.C. area, to create a series of television ads that could run along with station identifications. This meant Henson had 6-7 seconds to capture viewers' attention and market Wilkins Coffee to them. The path he took to accomplishing this is something that needs to be seen to be believed--but suffice to say that a recurring theme of the ads is: Strange things happen to those who don't drink Wilkins Coffee... strange, terrible things!. (I've embedded a video, via YouTube, that compiles several dozen of Henson's Wilkins Coffee commercials below, for your viewing pleasure and amazement.)

Once you've watched just a few of the Willkins & Wontkins commercials, you'll fine this bit of trivia amusing: Jim Henson didn't drink coffee... he didn't even like it.

The two Muppets featured in the ads were so popular with televion viewers that Wilkins marketed and sold toys based on them in the early 1960s. The campaign was so successful that Henson was able to take the concept and puppets to other local coffee companies across the United States and re-film the ads using their brands in place of Wilkins.

Jim Henson, assisted by his wife Jill, wrote and performed the Wilkins Coffee ads from 1957 through 1961. Wilkins Coffee was eventually acquired by Maxwell House and the brand was retired.

Brands and corporations come and go, but Willkins & Wontkins (and their boss Mr. Wilkins) will live forever in our hearts and imaginations (and possibly our nightmares). You can read more information about the insane Wilkins Coffee ads by Jim and Jane Henson here.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Read the Review, Watch the Movie: 'Seven Footprints to Satan'

The subject of the following review was released to movie theaters exactly 90 years ago today! (The Year of the Hot Toddy is truly a year of happy coincidences. When I initially chose this movie from among the many Thelma Todd-featuring films I'll be writing about during 2019, to watch at this point, I didn't realize I would have the opportunity to post the review to coincide with such an anniversary!)

Seven Footprints to Satan (aka "Satan's Stairwell") (1929)
Starring: Creighton Hale, Thelma Todd, Laska Winter,  Sheldon Lewis, Sojin Kamiyama, William V. Mong, Angelo Rossitto, Nora Cecil, Dewitt Jennings, Loretta Young, and Charles Gemora
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While he is deep in the throes of a midlife crisis (Hale) and his girlfriend (Todd) are find themselves victims of a kidnapping during an elaborate heist at an exclusive  art auction... and then things go from bad to nightmarish.

"Seven Footsteps to Satan" is one of those films that's hard to review without spoiling it. I think it really works best if you come to it cold, not knowing really what to expect... because the impact of the film revealing what it's really about and begins to spiral into fantastic and creepy weirdness is all the greater. (You THINK you're watching a crime drama, but then....)

With that in mind, all I can say about the film is that in addition to an impressive, fast-moving and twist-laden storyline, the film sports creative camera work and editing (I especially like the way wipes are used), spectacularly elaborate sets, elegant costumes (mostly evening gowns and tuxes but the other outfits that show up are really neat), excellent monster make-up jobs, and some really fine acting from the principals in the cast.

I thought the performance by star Creighton Hale, who, once again, is a bespecled and unlikely hero, was excellent. Unlike the comedic character he played in "The Cat and the Canary", here he's quite competent and extremely brave at every turn. Actress Thelma Todd, also impresses, showing that she was as good a dramatic actress as she was a comedienne.

By the way, The film has a very large supporting cast (so large, in fact, that it sometimes feels like costar Todd is just another face in the  crowd), but among them we have Loretta Young standing out with a memorable performance in one of the film's most intense and frightening scenes, and an honest-to-god Asian actor playing a sinister Oriental Mystice, Sojin Kamiyama. (Maybe someone forgot to tell the Danish director that he should use white guys in make-up for the Asian characters.)

"Seven Footprints to Satan" was one of three silent thrillers/horror films directed by Benjamin Christensen for American studios, and until just a few years ago, it was believed to be lost. Now, however, several versions are available to watch online. None are of stellar quality, but given how many of these great old movies are gone forever (or hard to access because they've not yet been digitized and released online or on DVD), lovers of this sort of material are lucky we're getting this much.

If you like silent movies, especially ones of the more "trippy" variety, you need to watch "Seven Footprints to Satan". I highly recommend the version I've embedded below: It's the complete film, it's it was digitized from filmstock that was in relatively good shape, and it features an all-new, modern musical score that adds greatly to the experience.

By the way, if there's a film that could do with a remake, it's this one. It's got all KINDS of elements that would appeal to modern audiences, especially lovers of horror films. (Hell, I think this film may even be an ancient ancestor of the Torture Porn subgenre!)

The heroes and villains of "Seven Footprints to Satan"

Saturday, January 26, 2019

'Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man' is a flawed film but still lots of fun

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Arthur Franz, William Frawley, Nancy Guild, Gavin Muir, Adele Jurgens, Sheldon Leonard, Paul Maxey, John Day, and Syd Saylor
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Tommy (Franz), a professional boxer framed for murder by a mobster (Leonard), hides from the police by using an invisibility serum. He teams up with a pair of rookie private detectives (Abbott and Costello) in a desperate gambit to prove his innocence.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Abbott & Costello made a series of comedies that incorporated Universal's classic monsters from the 1930s, like Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, and, the Invisible Man. Universal had revived the properties in a series of mostly serious sequels, several of which were crossovers with the Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, who encountered Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster while searching for a cure to his condition. (Larry Talbot's character was itself a revival of a 1930s horror character, the Wolfman of London, but it been the success of the other Universal horror films, so it was "rebooted" rather than being subject to sequels.)

Unlike some of their monster comedies, "Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man" is established as a true sequel to previous films in the series with references to the origins of the invisibility serum. For viewers familiar with "The Invisible Man" (1930) or its sequels ("The Invisible Man Returns" and "The Invisible Agent"), this tie-in lends a sense of urgency as the longer a person has the invisibility serum in their bloodstream, the more likely it is that he or she will be driven insane by it.

Unfortunately, that sense of urgency never becomes what it should be, because Tommy, our invisible man wanting to prove his innocence comes across as a total jerk and more than just a little crazy from the moment he is first introduced. There is literally not a moment where he isn't rude and abrasive to everyone he interacts with. Even in scenes where he is interacting with his girlfriend and the scientist who are risking imprisonment themselves to help him--scenes where there was an opportunity to make him more sympathetic--he is so obnoxious and paranoid that one wonders why the girlfriend even wants to be around him. (There are also a couple of plotting issues--big, gaping holes in the story that leads one to wonder if a scene or two were cut... because it's hard to imagine that any script could be so sloppily written and no one noticed as the film was being made.)

Of course the drama of whether the wrongfully accused man gets cleared of murder before the serum drives him insane or not is basically just an excuse to get us from comedy bit to comedy bit. Most of the routines in the film revolve around characters reacting to seeing--or rather NOT seeing--the invisible man, or boxing gags. The former gets a little old, with the callbacks later in the film being more tiresome than funny (although the spin-off gag involving hypnotism and half the officers and support staff at a police precinct is one of the film's comedic highlights). The latter, however, keeps getting funnier and more involved as the film unfolds, with Costello cartoonishly throwing punches that are actually being landed by the invisible pro-boxer--in a bar fight, in a boxing gym, and ultimately in a the boxing ring. Costello gets to to the physical comedy and pratfalls that he so excelled at, and he does it brilliantly. Meanwhile, Abbott is also very funny as a fundamentally self-centered and greedy huckster who wold probably sell out his own mother for a buck... but he is a charming rogue and you can't help but like him even while thinking he's being a bastard.

While this isn't the strongest of Abbott & Costello's efforts, it has enough going for it that I am giving it a very high Six rating. It might have been a low Seven if the filmmakers hadn't decided to end it on gag that's nonsensical and completely illogical and out-of-step with the rest of the movie. While the supposedly romantic lead being an unlikely jerk hurt the film, it's final 30 or so seconds nearly torpedoed it the material is so bad.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A Forgotten King of Comedy (and a Queen)

During the early 1920s, comedian Harry Langdon was a star on the magnitude of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. As sound films became the Thing, bad project choices and worse business decisions had put his career on a disastrously downward trajectory.  In 1929, he joined the Hal Roach studios with a contract to star in and supervise a series of short films.

The video embedded below is reportedly the first time Langdon's voice was heard by movie-viewing audiences. This untitled short film made to announce Roach's new star to MGM's marketing department (which distributed Roach's pictures). In addition to Langdon, the film (which is really nothing more than a skit) also features Thelma Todd and Eddie Dunn.

According to comedian Joe Libby, this short film was made to announce Roach's newest star to the marketing department of MGM, which distributed Roach's productions. I had assumed was some form of preview or trailer that Roach made to be shown in theaters featuring his short films, but now I am wondering what the reaction of the salespeople was. To me, this skit should have been about half as long as it is, and even then it might have seemed to drag. I have a sense that it was ad-libbed, and the fact that you can hear Todd laughing off camera at one point may bear this out, and perhaps it was funnier if you were there at the time. Still, if this was my introduction to the "all-new, all-talking Harry Langdon", and it was my job to make his work product commercial successes, I would be wondering how I would go about doing that. And if I were to go what is in this skit alone, I am not surprised by Harry Langdon, despite being a massive star at one point, is all but forgotten today.

Langdon's employment with Hal Roach lasted eight films, none of which were, according to film historians and other commentators, very successful, commercially or as entertainment. I read that they got better as Langdon and the Roach team--specifically many of the same talents who were part of Charley Chase's unit--got used to each other, so I chose to hunt down and watch the last one made before he was shown the door. (Since Thelma Todd co-starred in it, it was also perfect review fodder during this, The Year of the Hot Toddy.)

The King (1930)
Starring: Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, and Dorothy Granger
Directors: James W. Horne and Charles Rogers
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When the frivolous-minded and childish King (Langdon) is seduced by his advisor's slutty wife (Granger), the Queen (Todd) takes extreme measures to stop the extra-marital shenanigans before they fully start. Naturally, her plan backfires spectacularly.

   Thelma Todd in costume (but definitely not in character) while filming "The King" 
"The King" leads me to believe that either Harry Langdon's short films for Hal Roach have an undeservedly bad reputation, or his final film for Hal Roach is a masterpiece when compared to the rest. It's not perfect, but there's never a dull moment. Even the several gags that don't quite work are not dragged out to the point where they become tedious, which is more than I can say for many comedies that I've watched.

That said, one thing that really stood out about this picture is that it didn't seem to have what I think of as the "Hal Roach Style." There's a certain similarity between the way stories unfold and the way the actors perform in the Laurel & Hardy-led shorts, the Charley Chase-led shorts, and the Thelma Todd-led shorts I've watched that isn't present here. This is probably a result of Langdon having his own style and working habits that didn't fit the "Hal Roach Style", and this may been why Langdon's films didn't go over well with audiences back then, why Roach cancelled Langdon's contract, and why these films are held in such low regard today: Harry Langdon was a square peg that Hal Roach tried--and failed--to fit into a round hole.

Maybe, Hal Roach pulled the plug on Harry Langdon's films too soon, because some of the funniest bits in the film are a melding of the Roach Style with the general feel of the rest of "The King." One of these scenes--both of which take place in the royal bedchamber--may be the first time that Thelma Todd got to show how adept she was at doing physical comedy while still managing to remain poised. During the time this film was made, Todd was being allowed to fully spread her wings as a comedienne for the first time. She had already held her own in films shared with Charley Chase, and here she shows that she could shine just as brightly along side the very different performance style of Harry Langdon. If Langdon's other Roach films are as bad as I've been led to believe, maybe this one shows that he was finally figuring out how to work with Roach's other talents. Or maybe the others he did weren't as bad as is claimed; I will have to seek out and watch one or two of them to see for myself.

But--back to "The King". Aside from the fast pace and the non-stop wackiness, this is also one of those comedies that adults and children can enjoy equally but walk away with different impressions of the story and the characters.

For adults, Harry Langdon's impish character is both funny and infuriating, and even while we're laughing at his antics, most adult viewers will be able to understand why the Queen is so agitated. I've seen her referred to as shrewish, but that's not how she comes across to me. I get the sense that she's fed up with her husband's crap and is trying to keep him from embarrassing her, himself, and the high position he occupies. Little kids, on the other hand, will most certainly identify with the King and view the Queen as the parent getting in the way of his fun.

"The King" is not a perfect film, but it's full of laughs and never dull. If you like off-the-wall comedies, I think you'll enjoy this one. I really recommend you check it out if you've heard some of those blanket statements about how awful Harry Langdon talkies are. And to make it easy, I am providing you with the opportunity to watch it right here via YouTube. (As of this writing, none of Langdon's films for Hal Roach are available on DVD.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Picture Perfect Wednesday: George Perez

Legendary comics artist George Perez recently announced that he is retiring, due to failing eyesight and other health issues. He's been at the drawing board for more than forty years. I'll be devoting a number of Picture Perfect Wednesdays to Perez this year, celebrating the decades of beauty and exciting story-telling he brought to the pages and covers of American comic books.

We're going to start with a look at the history of and relationship between Batman and Robin (and Alfred the faithful manservant) as portrayed by Perez in the late 1980s. (Click on the pictures to see larger versions and fully enjoy the many details in the artwork.)

And, just because... here's a drawing Perez did of the classic Barbara Gordon Batgirl.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Musical Monday: Wildside

Ladies and Gentleman... something from the days when Mark Whalberg was Marky Mark and he hung out with the Funky Bunch. (I don't know what meaning of "funky" they were referring to.)

Enjoy the music--the sweet, sweet rap music!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Complete 'Tomie' in One Big Book

Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition (2016, Viz Media)
Story and Art: Junji Ito
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

High school girl Tomie is found dismembered by an unknown killer. When she later shows up at school, alive and well and insisting she doesn't know anything about being murdered, it's the beginning of an ever-expanding web of madness, violence, and murder.

"Tomie" is the best known and most commercially successful work by Japanese horror comics writer and artist Juni Ito. It lasted for 20 installments in the magazines "Halloween Monthly" and "Namuki", running from 1987 to 2000, and has so far been adapted into seven live-action horror films (the first in 1999 and the most recent in 2011). It has been translated into English and published in collected volumes a number of times, most recently by Viz Media.

The series revolves around its title character, who, although she is mostly absent in a few of the stories, is always at the center of a maelstrom of lust and violent murders. Invariably, Tomie herself ends up murdered herself... but she never stays dead for long. (While I would normally consider that a spoiler that aspect of the series is given away on the cover of the collection this review is about.)

Whether she's a demon, the manifestation of an angry spirit, or some sort of evil parasitical creature that feeds off lust and homicidal violence, Tomie is both the beauty and the beast in this series. She uses her beauty to fill men and women with obsession and spur them onto committing murderous acts against each other and Tomie herself, all in an attempt to possess her, or to keep others from possessing her.

The latest English-language edition of "Tomie" collects all the stories that Junji Ito did with the character, in one big 700+-page book. They are a fascinating read, because you get to see how Ito's improved as an artist from his first professional work (which was also the first Tomie story) through to when he perfected his style. Reading all these stories also gives you a survey of the themes that are common in this writer/artist's tales--obsessions turning into madness, horrific bodily transformations, and mysterious terrible horrors that arrive unexpectedly and remain forever unexplained. This complete collection also lets readers see that the Tomie stories come full circle, in the sense that the series opened with a series of linked stories that mixed science and the supernatural, and it ends with a series of linked stories that mix science and the supernatural.

Sandwiched in between these are other multi-part stories, and many single episodes... all of which are deeply horrific. In some other reviews of I've done Ito's work ("Gyo" and "Uzumaki", the latter being his greatest work so far), I've stated that he is among the very few creators whose horror comics are actually scary on the level that a movie can be scary. That great talent is on display time and time again in this book. If you are a fan of well-made horror films, and you haven't experienced Junji Ito, you are missing out, big time. A few of the "Tomie" stories are the typical twist-ending, poetic justice type affairs that make up the bulk of horror comics, but the vast majority of them are far beyond that.

Some of the most chilling stories I've read from Ito are included in this volume, and my most favorite are "Revenge" (where a search-and-rescue team find a naked girl in a snow storm, and solve a mystery), ""Little Finger" and "Boy" (stories that show Tomie at her monstrous), "Gathering" (where Tomie tries to break a man who is immune to her powers), "Moromi" (where a pair of men try to dispose of a dismembered Tomie in a creative fashion... with disastrous results), and "Waterfall Basin" (where strange happenings in a village culminate in a bizarre nocturnal parade).

Another aspect that I've always liked to the Tomie stories, and which is front-and-center in a number of the ones in this book, is the way that pieces of Tomie will grow into a full-fledged Tomie who then goes out in the world to wreak havoc. She's almost like a virus that keeps spreading. ("Gathering" reveals that someone can resist the Tomie Virus... but that even those who fight it off will be impacted by it. It also shows that as long as there is vanity, lust, and greed in the world, Tomie will never be stopped.)

"Tomie" is a must-read for horror fans... and that includes those who otherwise might be put off by the art style that is usually associated with Japanese comics. Ito's visuals fall closer to what until the past decade or two was the standard story-telling techniques in American comics. The only drawback I see to the book is that it is presented to read from right-to-left and back-to-front--opposite with how Western books and comics read, but in keeping with the original Japanese version. I still don't care for such half-assed translations, but it's long since become the standard, and I'm willing to accept it when it gives me access to great works such as the stories in this collection.

One final note: Junji Ito's favorite Tomie story ("Painter") was one that I could take or leave. It contained almost all the elements that are found throughout the various tales--which is why it may be Ito's personal favorite--but I thought it was average for this book and way below average for Ito's output in geneal.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Hillbilly Comedy Double Bill!

Early in his career, during the Silent Film Days, Charley Chase made a comedy or two where he was a city slicker trying to get by in hillbilly country. He must have found something appealing and/or inherently funny about backwoods, rural culture, because he returned to that well at least twice more during his career. I cover those films today.

One interesting similarity between the two films I comment on in this post (in addition to the hillbilly settings) is that each features a dance number where Chase does a gag involving a disability. In both films, the cast performs a Virginia Reel, with Chase clowning around while dancing with his leading lady. Chase also performs a folk song in each film; in "The Real McCoy" he also plays half a dozen or so instruments--ranging from a fiddle to a mouth-harp--and in "One of the Smiths" he harmonizes with himself thanks to a drunken hallucination by one of the characters, and, of course special effects. (And on a complete side-note, a film where everything is set up for Chase to perform a song--without being roped into it like he is in both of these--is "Thundering Tenors", but he DOESN'T perform a song in that one.

The Real McCoy (1930)
Starring: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy, and Eddie Dunn
Director: Warren Doane
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Charley, a speed-loving driver from the big city (Chase), and a Highway Patrol Officer Cicero (Kennedy) are stuck in a remote mountain village after their chase leads them to a crash. They declare a tempoary truce, because Charley falls in love with a local girl, Thelma (Todd), and sets about pretending to be a mountain man so he can woo her.

I loved how tightly scripted this film was. Each gag is meticulously set up through something a character says or does, and often-times a gag is the set-up for an even bigger gag that follows. What's more, almost every joke and gag actively furthers the plot in some way. There is literally not a second of screen time that's wasted in this film. For example, a scene that developes the romantic relationship between Charley and Thelma also sets up the circumstances under which he is eventually unmasked as an interloper in the mountain community.

Not only is the script tight, but it gives each significant cast member something to do that plays to their strengths. This generally means that they are "straight-men" to Chase's antics, but their parts allow them to shine to the point where his main supporting players--Edgar Kennedy and Thelma Todd--feel like they are co-stars. Chase was the first filmmaker to fully use Todd's comedic abilities, and in every film they made together, she gets to do some schtick... and do it while looking pretty. Here, she takes part in a bit involving a skin cap and a skunk, and later in a sequence where the two of them must escape from angry townsfolk. She is mostly reacting to Chase in the scenes, but she hams it up in a most amusing fashion while doing it. Chase is the star of the film, but his best scenes are shared with Todd.

(Todd would be Chase's primary leading lady during 1930 and 1931, after which studio boss Hal Roach gave her a comedy series of her own. Todd headlined nearly 40 films in this series between 1931 and her untimely death in 1935, and she proved herself a master of every type of comedy, proving that Chase's eye for talent was a sharp one.)

One of the Smiths (1931)
Starring: Charley Chase, Peggy Howard, Leo Willis, Eddie Baker, and James Finlayson
Director: James Parrott
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An employee of a company that manufactures trumpets and other brass musician instruments (Chase) is dispatched to the remote mountain town of Beaver's Dam to locate and repossess dozens of instruments that have been delivered there and not paid for. Upon arriving in the town, he finds the citizens to be musically inclined, but none are playing the missing brass instruments. A local girl (Howard) warns him of the dangers of investigating this matter, but when he persists, she helps by vouching for him as being one of the Smith Boys from a neighboring town. Will the mystery of the missing instruments be solved... and will our hero escape from hillbilly country alive?

"One of the Smiths" breaks into two distinct parts--Charley's journey to the town of Beaver's Dam, followed by adventure in the town itself, with some bridging business in between. The first section is mostly made up of a hilarious bit where Chase tries to fit himself and his luggage (which includes a tuba, because his intended cover is as a traveling salesman of musical instruments) into a small upper berth in a train's sleeper car. It only gets funnier once he manages to get situated and falls asleep, inadvertently causing even more chaos. This part of the film is mostly prop humor, and it's very well done.

After a stunt involving the moving train (which I won't go into details about because it'll ruin some of the fun), and Charley's meeting with the cute country girl Sally (Peggy Howard), the rest of the action takes place in Beaver's Dam. The humor here is varied, and Chase gets to show that he's equally adept at verbal humor, prop humor, and physical gags. He also gets to showcase his talent as a singer when he has to prove his his identity by performing a song to the assembled townsfolk, since his assumed identity comes from a musical family. Eventually, his cover is blown, and he has to flee to stay alive... but not before finding out what happened to those musical instruments.

As mentioned above, this film was one of several trips that Charley Chase took to hillbilly country in the service of comedy. "One of the Smiths" has numerous similarities to the film he made just a year prior--folk music, folk dancing, clannish locals out the lookout for Revenuers, just to name a few--but unlike "The Real McCoy" which felt like an ensemble piece, this is very much Chase's film, with him standing as its single and clear star. The most surprising appearance is that by James Finlayson, who has perhaps the smallest role I've ever seen him in (he still plays it to the hilt and is very funny), but even Chase's leading lady in this picture does little more than look pretty.

Even though "One of the Smiths" is pretty much the Charley Chase Show, or maybe BECAUSE it's the Charley Chase Show, it's still a fast-moving, very funny, and well-constructed comedy. When I realized it was so severely divided into two halves, I was expecting to be irritated by dangling plot threads and unresolved character issues by the end, but I was instead pleasantly surprised. Chase had a reputation for his films being carefully plotted and precisely executed, and he lives up to that reputation even here, as the final scene brings both halves together neatly.

Trivia: Peggy Howard (who plays country girl Sally in "One of the Smiths") makes her final screen appearance in this movie. Her screen career was short--she only has three Hollywood credits listed at IMDB--and her role here was the most significant. Thelma Todd was in those other two films, so it's possible that Howard and Todd were friends, or that Todd thought she was the right actress to replace her as Charley Chase's leading lady and recommended her to him. However Howard came to appear in this film, it was the end of her Hollywood aspirations.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

'Wings in the Dark' deserves to be spotlighted

Wings in the Dark (1935)
Starring: Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Hobart Cavanaugh, Roscoe Kearns, and Dean Jagger
Director: James Flood
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Ken Gordon, a pilot and avionics innovator (Grant) is on the verge of perfecting improved autopilot and guidance systems that will allow pilots to fly and land planes in even the worst visibility conditions when he is blinded in an accident. Stunt pilot Sheila Mason (Loy) and Gordon's assistant and mechanic Mac (Cavanaugh) help him carry on his work, with Mason secretly providing the funding he needs and Mac facilitating the ruse. When the extremely proud Gordon realizes what they've been doing, will his anger kill both his long friendship with Mac, as well as the growing love he and Mason share?

"Wings in the Dark" is a fast-paced film that has a talented cast performing in a story that delivers a perfect mix of romance, humor, and suspense. While the subject matter lends itself to over to excessive sappiness and melodrama, this film mostly stays clear of those morasses, only briefly straying into the melodramatic... but with Myrna Loy doing the over-emoting, it's hard to dislike it.

Meanwhile, there's nothing to dislike about the on-screen pairing of Cary Grant and Loy. While the script sets up the eventual romance between the two characters, it's the onscreen charisma between the actors playing them that really sells it. Grant and Loy play so well off each other that it's it feels perfectly believable that they'd both, in turn, take extreme risks to save one another during the film's tense climax, because from very early in the film, they feel like the perfect couple.

"Wings in the Dark" was the first of three times Grant and Loy were paired on screen, and it is the least well known of them; Grant's star was still climbing and Loy was completing her transition from her vamp-ish roles to playing "the perfect wife". Both stars, however, give excellent performances, and they are buoyed by a fine supporting cast, with Hobart Cavanaugh (as Gordon's taciturn right-hand man), and Roscoe Kearns (as Mason's headline hungry agent and publicist) being particularly effective and fun in their parts. As for Kearn's character of Nick Williams, he is the source of most of the bad things that happen to the main characters, directly and indirectly, but he is played with such charm that you'll think as warmly of him as you do of all the other characters in the film as it unfolds. All-in-all, this is a film that deserves more attention that it's gotten over the years.

"Wings in the Dark" is one of five, relatively obscure films from early in Cary Grant career included in the Screen Legends Collection: Cary Grant. It's the first one of them that I've watched, and if the others in the set are even half as good, it was a bargain.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Beauty and the Bomb: Linda Lawson

Early in her career, actress Linda Lawson worked as a showgirl at the Las Vegas Sands. On May 1, 1955, she was crowned Miss Cue, in honor of an upcoming atomic bomb test (which was code-named Operation Cue). In celebration of Lawson's 83rd birthday, here are pictures immortalizing that event!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Princesses of Mars, Part 28

Martian Princesses are known for their aggressive support of the Right to Bear Arms.
By Deacon Black

By Andre Pinheiro
By Robb Phibb

By Walter Geovanni

Friday, January 11, 2019

That strange sound? That's Nancy Reagan spinning in her grave!

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alan Sears, Alma Rubens, and Tom Wilson
Directors: John Emerson and Christy Cabbane
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Eccentric detective Coke Ennyday (Fairbanks) turns his drug-fueled genius toward stopping the predations of a fabulously wealthy criminal mastermind (Sears). Along the way, he and a beautiful young woman (Love) take turns saving each other's lives at the sea-shore and romance blossoms... but the villain has plans for Coke's new sweetheart.

As their stars were rising, Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love appeared together in a number of films, the wildest of which is almost certainly "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". While I haven't watched any of the others, but I think I can safely make that assumption, because "wild" is joined with "weird" and "subversive" when one is looking for words to be describe this film.

"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a cartoonish spoof of Sherlock Holmes with an extreme degree of attention paid to Holmes' drug habits. Some of the film's humor is lost through the passage of time, because the exaggerated degree to which Coke Ennyday uses drugs is, according to one commentator, mocking a stage adaptation of Holmes that was well-known and very popular at the time and which had left out all drug references. The vast majority of the drug humor is so over-the-top, however,  that it is as funny and ridiculous now as it was when this film was first released 100 years and will be 100 years from today. Coke Ennyday spends the entire movie buzzing around, high as a kite... and his solution to any obstacle is to inject, snort, or otherwise consume more and more drugs. And it works.

This is Douglas Fairbanks' movie. From the first moment until the end, everything is driven by his insane antics--which get even more insane once he breaks out the comedic Sherlock Holmes outfit. This, being a silent movie, the gags are almost entirely visual, although a few are augmented by intertiles or labels on items, as well as puns like the business that serves as the front for the villain's drug distribution network being named Sum Hop Laundry. While co-star Bessie Love and the lead villain, played by Alan Sears, get some funny scenes together or of their own--mostly revolving around poking fun at the melodramatic conventions of silent movies--and they show themselves to be talented and charismatic performers in these scenes, viewers will be counting the seconds for Fairbanks' unrestrained energy and craziness to return to the screen. (As tempting as it is for me to relay some of the greatest gags in the film by way of enticing people to watch it, doing so would spoil their impact... all I can say is that this is a film that has be experienced cold.)

Although it's over 100 years old, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is wilder and "edgier" than many contemporary works. If anything, it's gotten even more risque, what with the "drugs are bad mmmmkay?" messaging of recent decades and several of the conventional plot devices and characters it mocks are the sort of thing that sends certain people running for the fainting couch while clutching their pearls, or for their keyboards to post angrily hysterical messages to social media and blog comment sections. I think those who appreciate absurdist, subversive humor will enjoy the heck out of this movie, even if they don't usually like silent films. The showdown between the drug-crazed, syringe wielding Coke Ennyday and the villains at the Sum Hop Laundry is something any lover of comedies needs to see at least once in their lives! (The sequence where Bessie Love's damsel in distress essentially rescues herself is also a silent movie satirical gold.)

There are several different versions of "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" that can be viewed for free on YouTube and certain streaming services. You can even watch it right now, and I hope you'll let me know with a comment if I steered you right or wrong! (I chose this particular version because I like the music.)

Trivia: A not so funny coincidence/factoid is that Alma Ruben (who plays the villain's female sidekick) was, like Fairbanks and Love, a rising Hollywood star at the time this film was made. In fact, she was more famous than Love at the time... but by 1925, Ruben's life and career was ruined by drug abuse. She died in 1931 from ailments related to her addictions.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Thelma Todd Quarterly

Ladies and Gentleman: We present to you the MAGIC OF THELMA TODD!

She'll be appearing weekly here at Shades of Gray for all of 2019. Thanks for coming and don't forget to tip your waiter!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Keaton and Todd are absolute greatness in 'Speak Easily'

Speak Easily (1932)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Thelma Todd, Ruth Selwyn, Sydney Toler, and Henry Arnetta
Director: Edward Sedgewick
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A bookish professor (Keaton) gets news that he has inherited $700,000, and he decides it's time to live his life to its fullest. While on his way to New York, he encounters a struggling theatre troupe with more heart than talent. He become smitten with Pansy, the lead dancer (Selwyn), and he decides to be their financial backer for a Broadway show.

"Speak Easily" is a very uneven comedy that is dragged down by long stretches of unfunny or repetitive gags separated by some excellent bits. It's got a solid and talented cast that deserved better than the material they have to work with.

For example, poor Buster Keaton is the star of the film, but he still has very little do. He is more frequently than not relegated to the role of straight man to Jimmy Durante, and most of the bits he has of his own are dragged out past the point of being funny. As for Durante, he, too has to struggle with routines that drag on; there's a bit involving luggage that starts out amusing and grows tiresome and annoying by the time the film finally moves on.

The one performer in the film who gets to appear in all the films best scenes is Thelma Todd, and it's in these scenes were Keaton gets to shine his brightest, too. Todd shows up in the second act, and she is the closest thing this genial story has to a villain. Her character, Elanor, is a burlesque dancer who is willing to do almost anything to get a part in a Broadway play, from stripping down to her underwear at the slightest suggestion--which immediately convinces Durante's character, James, that she has what it takes to be in the show--to setting up Keaton's Professor Post to be blackmailed for sexual indiscretions. Unfortunately, the good professor is simply too oblivious to even realize that Elanor is trying to seduce him, and her big scheme backfires when her efforts end up with both of them so blindingly drunk the couldn't be "indiscreet" if they wanted to.

This drunken scene, and its aftermath, with Keaton and Todd features a hilarious mix of spoken and physical humor and it is the highlight of the movie. In fact, the story-thread that starts with Elanor showing up in the Professor's office, through her attempts to seduce him and blackmail him, through the steps that James takes to extract him from any possibility of scandal, is so sharp and so well-done that it feels like it belongs in a much better movie. These scenes show that it wasn't that the famed silent movie star Keaton was getting old and had lost his edge (as some claimed at the time... and perhaps even today); it was that he didn't have anything good to work with. With quality material, and partner that can give as well as she got--which he had in Todd in these scenes they did together--Keaton could still deliver the physical humor that had made him famous, as well as deliver spoken jokes with perfect timing and the driest of dry wit.

While Keaton also has a few great moments toward the end of the film--during a Broadway opening  that's bound to be a disaster unless some miracle happens--the scenes he shares with Todd really are the film's high point. It's really a shame that the rest of the cast is stuck with mostly sub-par material,. because there are several instances where they show that they are all quite talented. Nowhere is this more clear that the scene where Professor Post decides to bring the troupe to Broadway. The performance they put on is such a wretched display of hammish acting, lousy singing, and bad choreography that leaves viewers in awe at how bad it is... which is proof that we are watching performers of the highest caliber. It takes a lot of skill, and even more practice and rehearsal, to be as bad as they are in that scene.

It's at once heart-breaking and touching that Professor Post is so smitten with the troupe's leading later that he can't see how bad Pansy and her fellow performers are... and it also gives Jimmy Durante's character a likable dimension to what otherwise comes across as a fairly wretched human being: James truly believes that he and his troupe could be the next big thing if only they could get a break. When the Professor offers to fund their show, James isn't motivated by greed, but rather by the excitement of making his (and his fellow actors) dreams come true and to get them the recognition he believes they so richly deserve. At no point does James's faith in his troupe waver, even when the experienced Broadway director that Professor Post hires (played by Sydney Toler, who is best known as Charlie Chan) accurately and truthfully describes the level of talent the performers have. As annoying as I find Durante as an actor, I really liked his character of James... and I really wished he'd been given  better material to work with.

(Of course, here I am laying blame on the scriptwriters and the director for the movie being  mostly weak when maybe I should be giving credit to Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd for making the scenes they have together so sparklingly brilliant. After all, they are the common denominator for the movie's best parts... and their hilarious scenes together are plenty reward for sticking around through the rest of the film.

One odd bit of trivia: When she appeared in this film, Thelma Todd was co-starring in her own series of comedy short films with ZaSu Pitts that was being produced by Hal Roach and released through MGM. One of these was titled "Sneak Easily", released in December of 1932 (and I actually posted a review of it last week). "Speak Easily" was released in August of that same year. That these titles are so similar can't be an accident--especially since the title of the short film makes little sense given its subject matter--but I can't figure out what the reason for it would be. Anyone out there have a thought about it?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Flash Gordon turns 85!

Today, January 7, 2019. it's exactly 85 years since Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond first graced the funny pages. Here's a gallery of photos and art celebrating Flash, his friends, and his enemies!

Jean Rogers and Buster Crabbe, the first live-action Dale & Flash

Dale (Jean Rogers), Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), Princess Aura (Pricilla Lawson),and Minions of Ming, in a scene from the 1936 serial "Flash Gordon".
Flash and Dale in Trouble (By Alex Raymond)
Flash Gordon, Prof. Zarkoff, Dale Arden and Pal.
(By Troy Burch)

Flash! He'll save everyone of us! (By Don Newton)
Flash and Dale: Ready for to the next 85 years of adventure
(By Gabriel Hardiman)

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