Sunday, March 31, 2019

When grifters and con artists collide!

Are Crooks Dishonest? (1918)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Harry Pollard, Bebe Daniels, and William Blaisedell
Director: Gil Pratt
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Two grifters (Lloyd and Pollard) engage a pair of fake spiritualists (Blaisedell and Daniels) in a battle of wits. Unfortunately, the grifters came to the fight unarmed.

"Are Crooks Dishonest?" is a fast-paced and uncomplicated film with the characters breezing through the antics and action with barely a wasted moment. A small part of me is annoyed by the way the second (and best) half of the film is set up by a couple extreme conincidences, but the entire cast is so charming and the film so much fun that I can overlook it. 

The best parts of this 14-minute film take place in the secret-passage laden, gadget-festooned "mystic temple" of Professor Goulash where William Blaisedell and Bebe Daniels bilk the gullible with their fake spiritualism, and where Lloyd and Pollard try co-opt their scam. From Lloyd using the trick doors to evade the police and an angry Professor Goulash; to Daniels setting out to turn the tables on Lloyd and Pollard when they try to con her out of money she stole from them earlier in the film; to Lloyd and Pollard just generally clowning around, it's all expertely executed and extremely funny.

Pollard and Daniels in particular get to shine in this film, as they share one of the funniest moments in it. Daniels is an absolute joy to watch in this film, and it's great the way her character is also the most fun of the four leads in the story. (Her reactions to the clumsy cons of Lloyd and Pollard are priceless.)

This entire film is embedded via YouTube below, and I strongly recommend you check it out. The time you spend with the rogues "Are Crooks Dishonest?" may be the best quarter-of-an-hour of you day! Even better, either the film has been carefully restored, or this was digitized from an amazingly well preserved copy, because few films over 100 years old are as clear and crisp as this one. (The look of the intertitles make me think it's the latter.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

'Cockeyed Cavaliers' has hits and misses

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)
Starring: Robert Woolsey, Bert Wheeler, Dorothy Lee, Thelma Todd, Noah Beery, and Robert Greig
Director: Mark Sandrich
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of wandering rogues (Woolsey and Wheeler) pass themselves off as physicians from the King's Court and insinuate themselves into the household of the local lord (Greig). In between hitting on his sister (Todd) and trying to help a young woman who has disguised herself as a boy (Lee) in order to avoid a forced marriage to the lord, they are constantly struggling to avoid giving themselves away by being too stupid.

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" is a movie of highs and lows. When it is funny, it is very funny. When the jokes fail to land, they crash and leave big craters.

I can't decide if it's the style of the performances in the film, or the material that gets in the way when the movie starts sliding in the direction of crappy, so it may be a combination of both. And there's one area where the costume designers and make-up artists didn't go quite far enough to make an aspect of the film convincing.

First, let's start with the script, the songs, and the jokes.

Story-wise, the script is solid, nicely paced, and consisting of several intertwining plots that provide our heroes with plenty of challenges to overcome--including their own stupidity. The romantic subplot between Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee's characters--which starts when everyone believes Lee to be a boy--is interesting and ultimately leads straight into the film's conclusion and resolution of all the various problems; and the danger posed by Robert Woolsey's inability to not be randy around the wife of the very jealous and very violent baron (Thelma Todd and Noah Beery respectively) give rise to an equal amount of comedy and tension. The pieces are all very well arranged to maximize both the comedic and dramatic value of the plot elements and the characters in them.

Unfortunately, two out of the film's three major musical numbers aren't all that great. In fact, the song that opens the movie--performed by gossiping villagers and setting up a few major plot points--was so lame that if I wasn't watching this movie as part of the "Year of the Hot Toddy" project, I might have found something else to do with my time. The second song ("The Big Bad Wolf is Dead"), performed by our heroes, the films kinda-sorta villain, and the staff and guests at an inn, is better, but it goes on for entirely too long and the parts that are supposed to be funny mostly fail to launch or fail and crash. The third and final song ("Dilly Dally")--a combination song and dance number performed by Wheeler & Lee and Woolsey & Todd, in pars and together as a group--is, however, extremely entertaining on every level. It's well worth the wait. In some ways, this song even reflects the trajectory of the movie; it starts shaky, but firms up at about the halfway point, and really delivers during the third act. (This is of course better than the opposite.)

Despite the film getting better as it goes, the comedy remains uneven. It is not until we reach the climax--with a high society party, a wild boar hunt, and an even wilder chase scene--that every joke and physical comedy bit comes off well. Up to that point, some of the comedy routines fall flat because the jokes are weak and delivery feels like Wheeler and Woolsey (or whoever their "straight man" is) are performing a routine on stage. While other similar comedians--like the Marx Brothers and, later, Abbott & Costello, were literally taking routines perfected on stage and porting them into films, when watching them, I rarely have the feeling that a waiter is about to lean in and ask for my drink order the way I felt with nearly ever bit in this film. In fact, the scenes that worked the best were the ones where the comedy arose from the situation as much as it did from the back and forth between characters. For example, every scene Woolsey shares with Todd varies from chuckle-worthy to laugh-out-loud funny, especially when the action is revolving around Todd's cleavage.

In fact, I think the only thing that ruined this film for me more than the nightclub-style delivery of many of the jokes was the fact that I simple could not buy Dorothy Lee as a boy. Sure, she was in man's clothing, but the characters would have to be both blind and stupid to not recognize that she was female. This is a shame, because there are some funny jokes tied to the cross-dressing element which would have been even funnier if more of an effort had gone into making it work. I mean, would it really have been that hard to give Lee a hairstyle more in keeping with what her character was pretending to me? Or perhaps putting her in a shirt and vest that were even looser and a little longer?

There are so many things I like about this film that I wish I could have liked the end result more. Aside from the stand-up feel of some of the delivery, every actor in the film is great in their parts. It's easy to see why Dorothy Lee played opposite Wheeler & Woolsey in just about every movie they made, because they make an excellent trio. And, although she had more than come into her own as a comedienne by the time she made this movie, Thelma Todd is mostly used here as the "straight man" for everyone else to play off... and she does that just as well here as she did when she filled that role in her earliest films with Charley Chase. Meanwhile, Noah Beery and Robert Greig are equal parts funny and melodramatically villainous as the film's corpulent bad guys. The production values in this period film are also top-notch, as are the special effects and stunts during the film's climax. And I adored every second of the aforementioned "Dilly Dally" routine. Still, I can't bring myself to give this film more than a high Six Rating.

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" is one of six films in the Wheeler & Woolsey RKO Comedy Classics Vol. 2 set, which features a mix of movies Wheeler & Woolsey made as a team and individually.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Wondrous Women Wednesday!

The great George Perez announced his retirement from being an artist earlier this year, after four decades of entertaining us with his fantastic work. I'll be posting occasional galleries of his work throughout this year celebrating his career.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Musical Monday: Don't Let's Start

It's Monday, the beginning of another work week, or school week, or some other week that the majority of us probably would rather not let start. They Might Be Giants are here with the theme song for the day (like they have been since 1982).

Your Monday theme and music video: "Don't Let's Start"!

And when you're done with that pithy little ditty, They Might Be Giants wants to invite you to swing by their website and download a six song sampler of their latest effort! Click here to hop on over and get all the details!

John Flansburgh and John Linnell, Giants since 1982

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Will Their Marriage Survive 'One Week'?

One Week (1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Newly-weds (Keaton and Seely) build their dream house from a kit they've been given as a wedding present. Thanks to their lack of handiness and sabotage from her ex-boyfriend, things go less than smoothly. Will love conquer all, or will their marriage be over by the end of the week?

"One Week" was the first film Buster Keaton made after his partnership with 'Fatty' Arbuckle ended. When compared to the works that would follow--with their wild chase scenes and elaborate stunts--this is a fairly sedate movie. But it's some 25 minutes of solid hilarity, plus more than a few pratfalls and even some stunts.

In some ways, "One Week" is a collection of brief comedic sketches. The film is divided into sections, each covering a day in the week of the title, each featuring a little bit of plot, a gag or two, maybe a stunt, and all tied together by the couple working together to build their future home together. As the days unfold, the problems with their construction project escalate, in no small part due to interference from the bride's ex. One of the seven days is a Friday the Thirteenth, so on that day, things get really crazy for the newlyweds and their new home.

Humorous highlights of the film include a fun little bit where Keaton and Sybil trade places on the ground and first floor of the house in an instant; Keaton trying to get the chimney onto the roof; a piano delivery gone awry; a storm that has a most unusual effect on the house; the film's climax on the final day of week, which I can't even comment on without spoiling it; and one of the funniest bits of fourth-wall humor I've ever come across. There's also the scene where Sibyl takes a bath, which I partially covered in this post.

Perhaps even more important than the comedy bits are the way that Keaton and his co-creator Eddie Cline deftly fit enough character development of the newly-weds into the scenes that viewers see how much they love each other and subsequently become invested in the success of their do-it-yourself home construction project. For me, their first fight as husband and wife was one of the film's most dramatic moments and it made me smile broadly to see it resolved.

"One Week" is a movie I feel is well-worth your time and attention. I've made it easy to watch it by embedding it for you to watch right here. Just click, sit back, and be ready to laugh.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Picture Perfect Special: 'Charley Chase - Nude'

Over the past two months, one of the top search results that are bringing people to this blog is "Charley Chase - Nude" (or some variation of that). Well, seeing that I love to have an audience, and you get an audience by giving people what they want, I thought I should deliver what the web-browsing public is seeking.

While I can't post nude pictures, here's a nice one of Charley Chase in underwear, legs spread. 

On the other hand, here's Charley's reaction to those web searches.

(Featured pictures are stills from or promotional shots for "I'll Tell You One" and "Looser Than Loose".)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

'Looser Than Loose' has a timeless quality, plus Charley Chase and Thelma Todd at their best

Looser Than Loose (1930)
Starring: Charley Chase. Thelma Todd, Dorothy Granger, and Dell Henderson
Director: James W. Horne
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Charley's quiet evening with his fiancé (Todd) is interrupted when his boss calls and orders him to round up a couple of escorts and entertain the firm's biggest client (Henderson) with a night of drinking and dancing. Charley (Chase) lies about the nature of the entertainment he's supposed to line up, and his fiancé insists on joining him as his date. Things go from awkward to awful when the client likes Charley's fiancé better than the escort (Granger) and insists they swap dates.

"Looser Than Loose" is another film that shows how wonderful Charley Chase and Thelma Todd were together on-screen. As I've stated in previous reviews, they seem to bring out the best performances in each other, and where they each occasionally overwhelm other actors they share scenes with, they don't do so to each other. I haven't seen all of the Chase/Todd pairings, but so far, this is the best one. They play off each other brilliantly in their first scene together--Todd in particular seems to be in fine form, with her

The way Chase and Todd balance each other out on screen is shown prominently in "Looser Than Loose". Here, we see Chase and Todd interacting extensively with each other, and then with other performers--Chase with Dorothy Granger, and Todd with Dell Henderson. Henderson is mostly passive in the scenes he shares with Todd, so it's hard to gauge how well they might play off each other, but Granger is absolutely overwhelmed in her scenes with Chase. She's emoting and gesturing and generally being very active, but she doesn't have the sort of magnetic screen presence that Chase has, so he ends up crowding her out by just being his usual on-screen self. This never happens when he is performing with Todd.

As for the story and comedy action of the film, it's a fast-paced affair that sees Chase yet again poking fun at middle class societal standards and hypocrisies of the "Jazz Age"--standards which don't seem to have shifted all that much when it comes right down to it. The script for "Looser Than Loose" could be reshot with a modern spin with very few changes. (The stunt-laden, car-crash filled, chaotic scene of prohibition-era booze-lovers fleeing what they think is a police raid would need a different motivation, but other than that I don't think any other changes would be needed.)

In fact, it is this timeless quality to many of Charley Chase's comedies that has me increasingly viewing him as one of the most underrated comedians and story-tellers of the early talkies era. (Chase may not have written the dialogue for his films, nor been the official director, but he was, by all accounts, very much in control of the subject matter and the general thrust of the scenes and gags in his films.

"Looser Than Loose" is one of 17 Charley Chase-starring short films in included in the Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies 1930-1931, and he shares the screen with Thelma Todd in most of them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Sybil Seely

Sybil Seely was a silent movie comedienne who spent most of her career under contract to Mack Sennett and appearing as a "Bathing Beauty" in some of his films. Her best movies, however, were the short films she made with writer/director Buster Keaton while "on-loan" to him. Keaton enjoyed working with her, but five films were all they were able to make together before she retired from acting in 1922.

The first of the movies Seely made with Keaton was "One Week", a tale of a newly-weds putting up a pre-fabricated home on a lot they were given as a wedding present. In the film, Seely takes a bath... so this film sees her literally being a bathing beauty.

And here are some stills from the part where Sybil drops the soap...

What happens next? Click here to find out! You'll be able to watch the entire film there, as well as read my review of it! (I will be posting reviews of all of the Keaton/Seely films here at Shades of Gray.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

'The Scarecrow' shows why Buster Keaton
is a legendary comedian and filmmaker

The Scarecrow (1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Joe Keaton, and Luke the Dog
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A pair of friends sharing a one-room house (Keaton and Roberts) are both in love with the farmer's rebellious daughter (Seely)... and both will go to great lengths to win her hand in marriage.

"The Scarecrow" opens with a scene that deftly establishes the relationship between the two main characters, roommates Buster and Joe, but it revolves around a gag that isn't terribly funny. As a result, I didn't have high hopes for what was going to follow, but then the film got into gear and ended up becoming one of the funniest things I've seen.

From the Rube Goldberg contraptions that permeate the main characters' living space, through the business involving the titular scarecrow, and the film's three spectacular chase scenes, viewers are treated to 15 minutes of amazing prop-based and physical comedy. The longest chase involves Keaton being pursued by a dog he believes is rabid and if you don't find it hilarious then you are probably dead inside--or just plain dead. (I included the dog among my list of stars at the top of this review, because it performed as well as its human co-stars!)

But don't just take my word for how funny this film is. Watch it, right now, because I've embedded it below, via YouTube.

Monday, March 18, 2019

'Big Brown Eyes' is worth looking into

Big Brown Eyes (1936)
Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Bennett, Walter Pidgeon, and Lloyd Nolan
Director: Raoul Walsh
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A police detective (Grant) and his manicurist girlfriend turned-firebrand-newspaper-reporter (Bennett) alternatively bicker and work together to catch a mysterious jewel thief and to find out who fired the shot that accidentially killed a baby in the park.

The script for "Big Brown Eyes" was based on two different short stories, and the stitches show, because there are a number of story elements that don't quite fit together. The most obvious being the clever and refined jewel thief who happens to also be the insurance investigator who is assigned to catch himself (Walter Pidgeon, who takes an excellent turn as the bad guy in this picture) working with a pair of dimwitted henchmen that he doesn't really need. However, the excellent performances given by each and every castmember more than make up for the shortcomings of the script.

From beginning to end, this is a fun movie. The irrational jealousy of Joan Bennett's character toward Cary Grant's when it's obvious he's meeting with a woman as part of his investigation is a little irritating, but, like the above mentioned glitch with the script, it's a flaw that can be forgiven because everything else about her performance and her character is so good. Grant, meanwhile, plays a character that is a little different from what we're used to seeing him as, but he does a flawless job. The two of them make a nice on-screen couple, which is another reason it's easy to forgive the foolish jealousy of Bennett's character.

A personal reason for why I enjoyed this film, which is totally divorced from anything that actually appears in in it, or was intended by the filmmakers, is that in my imagination, the story here serves as a nice "prequel" to the Torchy Blane series--with the characters here being younger, more impulsive versions of the couple featured in those movies.

"Big Brown Eyes" is one of the film included in the five-movie set Screen Legends Collection: Cary Grant. This may be one of the lesser known films that either Joan Bennett or Cary Grant made, but if you're a fan of either actor, it's worth seeking out... and it alone is almost worth the price of the Screen Legends Collection.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

It's the day when Green Means Go--Get as Drunk as Possible! (It's also okay to drive snakes out of wherever you find them; just don't drink and drive!)

Saturday, March 16, 2019

One film, three rising stars shining brightly

Nevada (1927)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thelma Todd, William Powell, Ernie Adams, Ivan Christy, and Philip Strange
Director: John Waters
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A gunslinger, Nevada (Cooper), and his sidekick, Cash (Adams), take jobs as ranch hands in an effort to settle down and live the quiet life. Instead,  Nevada becomes entangled in a romantic triangle between the lovely Heddie (Todd) and her fiance Clan (Powell), as well as the hunt for a gang of cattle rustlers who have an uncanny ability to stay a step of head of all efforts to stop them.

If you like classic westerns, I think you'll like "Nevada" even if you aren't prone to watching silent movies. It's got all the elements you expect to find--which isn't surprising since its script was based on a novel by Zane Grey--as well as a fast-moving and multi-layered plot with a climax that remains in question almost up to the point of conclusion. There was also a nice balance between drama and humor, and the major characters were all given enough depth for the viewer to care about the danger they're in as the story unfolds

There aren't many full-length silent movies that I find I have the patience for, but this was one of them. The rich story helped, but the quality of the acting was even more important. There is very little of the overacting and mugging for the camera that was so common in silent movies, and even present in talkies for a number of years after they appeared. The leads all get the characters' moods and attitudes across with just the right amount of projection, and there is a naturalism to the performances that seems rare in silent films. Another high point of the film were the intertitle cards. All of them were pithy, and several were downright hilarious. They show what a great loss to both journalism and screenwriting when Jack Conway, the writer of the cards, died at the early age of 40.

Another presence in this film by someone who died very young is Thelma Todd. "Nevada" was Todd's first starring role, and she seems to have been a natural. She is so good in this film it's like she walked straight from her life as a school teacher in the New England to being a fullblown movie star in Hollywood. Although future superstars Gary Cooper and William Powell were also at the beginning of their careers, both were still far more experienced than Todd, and she holds her presence on the screen as effectively as they do in their shared scenes. After watching "Nevada," more than ever, I think Todd's early death--when she was just 29 years old--robbed the world of what could have been one of history's great film stars.

Speaking of Cooper and Powell, they are also excellent in this film. Both play the sorts of characters they will play throughout their careers--although there are a couple twists and reversals in that usual type here. Cooper seems especially good when playing off Todd or Ernie Adams. Powell is, as always, a great deal of fun to watch... and his character all but steals the movie's third act.

One problem with the film is that some of the actors are so similar in appearance and costuming that they're difficult to tell apart. Specifically, I thought Philip Strange was William Powell (and/or visa-versa), so I was very confused when he suddenly went from Thelma Todd's brother and owner of the ranch to her would-be husband and owner of the neighboring ranch. Checking the credits list dispelled the confusion, but someone in the casting department made an especially bad choice with that one. (Usually, when I can't tell one actor from another in films this old it's because the image is too degraded. While the version of "Nevada" I watched wasn't the best quality, that wasn't the reason I couldn't tell Strange and Powell apart. They really do look like twins in the picture.)

According to IMDB, there are only two intact copies of "Nevada" known to still exist, and both are in poor shape. Fortunately, at least one of them has been digitized and is available for everyone to enjoy on YouTube. You can watch the movie right here, right now, if you have the time.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Love Quarterly: Bessie's Secret Life

This is another of those infrequent posts where my loves collide--my love of old-time movies and pulp fiction... and my love of writing roleplaying game material. (If you find this post interesting and/or useful, I invite you to buy one of my many books. It will encourage me to make more. Comments are also welcomed!)

In 1915, 17-year-old Juanita Horton's family was struggling to make ends meet, so her mother told her to go down to Biograph Studios to see if they'd give her work as an actress. Producer and director D.W. Griffith seized on her good looks and talent, and after a few bit parts, Juanita was on her way to stardom under the stagename Bessie Love.

But unbeknownst to the adoring movie-going public, Bessie Love was far more than just another Hollywood star... she was also the mysterious masked adventuress known as the Love Bug!

In the very early morning of September 3 of 1924, Bessie Love was awakened by frantic knocking at her door. Outside, in the swirling fog, was an elderly woman with a small suitcase. She thrust the case at Bessie and said, "You have been chosen."
   Before Bessie could react, the woman retreated into the fog and vanished. The confused actress took the suitcase into the sitting room and opened it. Inside was a strange bejeweled costume consisting of a mask, a curious-looking headdress, a backless leotard, and matching shoes. As she touched the mask, her mind was filled with images of and facts about an ancient order of mystics locked in an eternal battle with a demonic cult bent on bringing about literal Hell on Earth. The "costume" was in truth ancient ceremonial garb and mystically powered armor that assisted the wearer in her fight against demons... and Bessie had been chosen to carry on the fight. The vision had told her all she needed to know, as well as the powers of the outfit... and from that day forward, she split her time between acting and combatting mystical evils where she found them throughout Southern California.
   For the next year-and-a-half, newspapers carried reports of a mystery woman who fought crime and brought secret cults to light by defeating them. After rescuing children that had been slated for sacrifice to a dark god on February 14, 1926, she encountered a newspaper reporter who wanted to know her name. "Call me the Love Bug," was her swift, unthinking reply. The name stuck.
   As the 1930s dawned, Bessie found it increasingly difficult to balance her life as a Hollywood star with that of a cult-busting mystery woman. She eventually committed herself full-time to the battle against evil and left her glamorous life as an actress behind.

   By the mid-1930s, Bessie had relocated to England in order to learn more about the original creators of her magical gear and to stem the rising demonic tides at their source. Over the next decade, she faced evil mystics all over Europe and she found allies in the secret magical order The Daughters of Burdick. She still appeared in the occasional movie, but more often than not, her accepting roles was to bring her into the orbit of suspected cultists or other evil-minded people.
   In 1950, at the age of 52, Bessie decided she was getting to old for the physical demands of life as the Love Bug. She began searching for a replacement, a young woman to whom she could give the armor as it had once been given to her. Once that had been accomplished, she returned to acting full time.

The rest of this post is released under the Open Game License and may be reproduced in accordance with its terms. Copyright 2019 Steve Miller.

   The Love Bug's powers are derived entirely from her mystical armor, which radiates faint magic of an indeterminant type if such is detected for. The entire outfit must be worn for any of the powers to function. It is described below in terms of the d20 System roleplaying game rules.
   The Jewel-lined Domino Mask: This is a black mask, the edges of which are lined with tiny diamonds. It only covers the area around the wearer's eyes. Once per day, as a standard action, the wearer can invoke the spell-like ability of true seeing. The effect is just like the spell of the same name, as if cast by a 12th-level caster, but with a duration equal to twice the wearer's Wisdom bonus in minutes.
   The Bejeweled Headdress: Two jewel-encrusted insect-like anttenae rise from this tight-fitting headcover. It provides the wearer with a +4 bonus to all saving throws to resist mind-affecting magic and spell-like effects. In addition, once per day, as a standard action, the wearer can invoke the spell-like ability of telepathy. This ability functions as if cast by a 12th-level caster, but with a duration equal to twice the wearer's Wisdom bonus in minutes.
   The Bejewled Leotard: The jewels covering this tight-fitting garment are arranged in the patterns of Atlantean sigils of protection. It grants the wearer a +2 bonus to AC/DR, as well as a +2 bonus to Fortitude and Reflex saving throws. These bonuses stack with other similar bonuses.
   The Bejeweled Shoes: The wearer's base movement rate is increased by 10. The shoes also provide a +4 bonus to all movement and balance-related skill checks.
   As previously mentioned, for any of the powers to function, all four pieces of the set must be worn. If the wearer enters an area where magic is suppressed or otherwise doesn't usually work, the powers don't function, but they return immediately upon leaving that area. If dispel magic is cast at the wearer, she must make a successful saving throw (DC12), or the armor ceases to function for a number of minutes equal to the level of the person who cast dispel magic.

Monday, March 11, 2019

'Torchy Blane in Chinatown' is misnamed

Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939)
Starring: Barton MacLane, Glenda Farrell, Tom Kennedy, Patric Knowles, and Richard Bond
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A shadowy group of Chinese assassins are killing those involved with stealing Jade burial tablets from a powerful family. Will police detective Steve McBride (MacLane) stop the killers before they finish marking names off their hit-list, and will his girlfriend and reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell) keep her promise about keeping the details of his investigation of of the papers?

"Torchy Blane in Chinatown" is a major step down quality-wise from the five previous installments of this series. While it mostly avoids the racist stereotypes you'd expect from a film of this time period, it doesn't deliver anything that the title promises... unless the title character Torchy Blane spent all the time she was missing from the screen in Chinatown.

Yes, despite this supposedly being a film about Torchy Blane in Chinatown, no time is actually spent in Chinatown, and comic relief character Gahagan (Tom Kennedy) has more impact on the action than Torchy does. (Well, not quite; there's some dialogue at the end that tells us that Torchy was doing things off camera, but that's no way to treat what is supposed to be the main character).

As bad as it is that we get to see very little of Glenda Farrell and Torchy in this picture, it's even worse that the mystery here is so simple that I had it mostly figured out as of the first of three murders. But what pushed this film down to a Four Rating--and only its brief running-time of barely an hour, combined with Torchy not ending up as a damsel in distress like in the last two films saved it from getting Three Stars--was the way the story only worked if the characters behave like complete idiots and contrary to all common sense. Twice, the villains' master plot should have been stopped dead in its tracks, but the lazy scriptwriters just turned off the brains of all the characters so it would work. (Hell, the investigation would have taken an entirely different direction--and the movie would have been even shorter--if Torchy Blane hadn't been off-screen in Chinatown for as much as she was, because she had a key to the solution early on. She even tried to tell McBride about it, but he just brushed her off with "I'm too busy to talk to you"... as he gets into his chauffeured car in which Torchy could have ridden along and told him the clue she had uncovered.)

I have been irritated by some of the far-fetched, should-have-been-career-ending shenanigans that Torchy got up in previous films, and I have been frustrated when the filmmakers made her a spectator and/or damsel in distress during the climaxes of the movies bearing her name, but none of the previous films inspired the borderline anger that this one did. I literally felt like my intelligence was being insulted--I tried to think of it as a film made for kids instead of adults (which it isn't), and I still felt it was a lazily written, badly executed story. And to add insult to injury, Gahagan is portrayed as so mind-blowingly stupid in this film that it's hard to believe he even has a job as McBride's driver. He is so dumb, in fact, that he's not even all that funny.

As for the performances and technical aspects of the film, everyone does a good job. Barton MacLane seems engaged with his part again, and the various supporting players--both the ones portraying characters unique to this film, or the returning characters at the police station--all do excellent jobs. As always, Glenda Farrell is lots of fun as Torchy... it's just a shame she doesn't get to do more, or even have a single important scene. (That's not entirely true... in retrospect, the scene where Steve McBride tells her he's too busy to talk to her is an important one, but not in a good way.)

"Torchy Blane in Chinatown" is one of the nine films included in the "Torchy Blane Collection." I think it's the first one that I've had a hard time coming up with something good to say about, so in balance, this is still a series worth checking out if like Girl Power stories and fast-talking 1930s reporters. There are two more installments in the series for me to watch... and I really hope they get better rather than worse.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Meanwhile, at the NUELOW Games blog...

As some of you may be aware, I used to write for role-playing games full-time. I still do it on the side, mostly for my own little outfit NUELOW Games. Sometimes, the gaming interest and the love for old movies and black-and-white cross... and that has resulted in posts at the NUELOW Games blog.

The NUELOW Games blog is where I post game concepts and ideas that I (and sometimes my NUELOW collaborators) have that can't immediately be fit into a product, or which I think are so fun that I provide previews while we work on developing them. Sometimes, the posts are just random bits of fun or quirkiness inspired by headlines or photos or pieces of art.

One source of inspiration has been Myrna Loy, who is probably a well-known figure for most readers of this blog. who seems to have posted for a great number of unusual portraits. So far, pictures of her have sparked two ideas, but I'm sure more will come. Click here to see those posts.

Another source of inspiration has been the art of Bryan Baugh. Several posts designed to generate adventure ideas have been based on the drawings posted along with them. (Baugh graciously gave me permission to use his artwork in this way.) Click here to see those posts.

As always, myself and the other contributors to NUELOW Games releases are interested in your feedback, so if you have thoughts, feel free to leave them here or in the comments on the posts over at the other blog. And if you want to encourage us to make more, buy our books!

Friday, March 8, 2019

'Dollar Dizzy' showcases the great chemistry of Charley Chase and Thelma Todd

Dollar Dizzy (1930)
Starring: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, James Finlayson, and Dorothy Granger
Director: James W. Horne
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two single millionaires (Chase and Todd) are booked into the same hotel suite by mistake. Each assumes the other is a gold digger trying to schmooze their way into getting access to their wealth, and each tries to throw the other out of the room. Meanwhile, a suspicious hotel detective (Finlayson) is complicating their situation even further by creeping around, looking through keyholes and peeping in windows.

"Dollar Dizzy" is another great pairing of Charley Chase and Thelma Todd. I have a couple issues with the script, but both stars give excellent performances, and I think this may be the earliest instance of Todd being a full-fledged co-star in a comedy while getting to use every arrow in her quiver. She shows impeccable timing while exchanging verbal jabs with Chase, shows her talent for physical comedy while running in and out of rooms and being tossed around by Chase... and she does it while looking absolutely gorgeous in a sheer Art Deco dressing gown.

Much of the appeal of this film grows from the on-screen chemistry of Chase and Todd. Todd is the only comedienne that I've seen who was Chase's equal in scenes; others who've enjoyed equally large parts as those played by Todd in Chase's films invariably end up seeming more like someone for him to play the scenes off rather than someone for him to play the scenes with. Chase and Todd play to each other's comedic strengths when appearing together, and thus they make each look better than they do when they are apart. (So far, the only person I've seem come close to matching Thelma Todd with Charley Chase is Lena Malena in "Thundering Tenors".)

While the scenes were Chase and Todd are fighting in the hotel suite are the highlights of the film, there are plenty of laughs up to that point, specifically those involving the three most aggressive gold-diggers trying to get their hooks into Chase. The only negative things I have to say about "Dollar Dizzy" is that its structure is a bit too straight-forward; it relies heavily on the tried and true Rule of Three over and over again, to the point where it become distracting. (Perhaps it's just distracting to writer types like me... but I can't recall any other time where I noticed the Rule of Three in effect to such a degree as I did here.) Also, the sequence where Chase and Todd struggle over a pistol, accidentally shooting the hotel detective twice and Chase once, put me in two minds. While the physical humor was great, and what was on display was cartoon violence where no one gets hurt, I am personally too sensitive to the sort of damage a gunshot can do to a human being that I felt the scene went on for too long... and that this one instance where the Rule of Three could have been dispensed with.

All in all, though, this is one of the best Charley Chase shorts I've seen yet. It's a shame he didn't get to work more with Thelma Todd, because this also ranks among the best performances I've seen from her yet. (But, things will only get better as the Year of the Hot Toddy continues, I'm sure!)

"Dollar Dizzy" 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 well-remembered regulars in Hal Roach productions.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Captain Marvel Reporting for Duty!

Tomorrow, "Captain Marvel" opens in theaters all across the United States. Here's a gallery of art in anticipation and celebration!
By Elton Tomasi

And here are a few looks back at Ms. Marvel--as Carol Danvers was known in the days before she got her promotion.

By George Perez

By Adriana Malo

Monday, March 4, 2019

Musical Monday: Leo Gives It Away

Everything's better with Leo Moracchioli, even songs I disliked Back in the Day, when they were performed by the original band.

Until Leo's cover (and the goofy video), the only version of "Give It Away" that I could stand was Weird Al's spoof version, "Bedrock Anthem". Check it out below... but be careful! It opens with a little bit of color.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

'The Dark Hour' isn't worth your time

The Dark Hour (1936)
Starring: Berton Churchill, Ray Walker, Irene Ware, Hedda Hopper, E.E. Clive, Hobart Bosworth, and William V. Mong
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A young police detective (Walker) and his retired mentor (Churchill) join forces to solve a murder where each of their romantic interests (Ware and Hopper) are among the suspects.

"The Dark Hour" has at its foundation an interesting murder mystery story and it has some nicely executed twists, but the bad ultimately outweighs the good here.

First of all, from a technical standpoint, the film is shockingly stagey, with characters crossing rooms to go in and out of doors, moving up- or down-stage, while appearing to carefully not step on each other's lines or get between the speaking and the audience. While watching, it felt like I could see the "exit stage left" and "cross to stage right" directions in the script, so it was very surprising to learn that the film was based on a novel not a stage play when I took another look at the credits. I usually don't mind a theatrical vibe from these old movies, but this one took it to a level where it became distracting.

The biggest strike against the film is the ending, because it turns what had been a charming lead character into an obnoxious bigot who is willing to look the other way when he thinks the murderer is someone he's friendly with, but is willing to literally chase the murderer around the world when it is revealed that it's a foreigner. I don't know how audiences reacted to that ending back in 1934, but I think most modern viewers will have a very negative reaction to it.

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