The early Betty Boop cartoons are very trippy experiences... but this one seems moreso than others.
The Old Man of the Mountain (1933)
Starring: Cab Calloway (as the voice of the Old Man) and Bonnie Poe (as the voice of Betty Boop)
Director: Dave Fleischer
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
Although warned of the danger by an entire town of fleeing citizens, Betty Boop decides that she must see the Old Man of the Moutain herself.
Betty Boop had some surreal adventures in the early 1930s, and this is one of them. Although you have to wonder what when through that extra-large head of hers when she chose to disregard warnings from EVERYONE (including a woman who, depending on how darkly you want to view the storyline, was either the Old Man's unhappy wife, or a rape victim), and heads up to mountain to see for herself what everyone is so afraid of, this is among the more surreal of them. From the moment Betty meets the Old Man of the Mountain, this cartoon just keeps getting weirder and weirder... and keeps getting more and more entertaining.
Another really cool aspect of "The Old Man of the Mountain" is that it's essentially a music video; it's not just a cartoon where the characters sing a song or two, it's filled from beginning to end with jazz music and songs performed by Cab Calloway and his orchestra, along with Bonnie Poe. The character of the Old Man dancing was also reportedly rotoscoped from film of Cab Calloway performing. I've read this is one of three Betty Boop cartoons where the Calloway and his music are bascially the stars; I will be seeking out those and reviewing them in this space.
Meanwhile, if you like funky animation and even funkier jazz, you need to take a few minutes out of your day to watch "The Old Man of the Mountain".
Taken for what this is, "One Cookie Left" is an amusing pastiche of early silent comedies. It's not brilliant, but it's also not bad, and there are several chuckle-prompting moments that you can enjoy right now, because I've embedded the film below. (That said... where did the guy's mustache in the first scene disappear to?)
One Cookie Left (2012)
Starring: Jessie and Max
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
The Soilers (1932)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, James C. Morton, and Bud Jamison
Director: George Marshall
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
ZaSu and Thelma (Pitts and Todd) try to sell magazine subscriptions to the staff at City Hall and are mistaken for assassins by a judge who's been life has been threatened (Morton).
"The Soilers" is one of the weaker entries in the comedies teaming ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd. There's no much story to get in the way of the physical comedy bits, but at least there's more than in the similarly flawed "One Track Mind" (1933) and here enough thought was put into the script to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion. Still, compared to earlier Pitts/Todd teamings, this is disappointing.
I think the biggest flaw here is that the series started emphasizing slapstick and other physical comedy over the situational comedy that had dominated early entries in the series. In "Let's Do Things" (1932), for example, the physical comedy--Thelma Todd being tossed around like a rag doll, ZaSu Pitts being stupid drunk--accentuates the comedic situations the characters are in rather than being present for its own sake.
To make matters worse, the routines that "The Soilers" is packed with just isn't all that good, and several of them outstay their welcome. In the first ten minutes of the film there are four different physical comedy bits that are allowed to drag on to the point of being tedious, although the last of them is punctuated with an extremely impressive prat-fall by James Morton. (Two of the routines are just lame, and grow tedious because they are carried on for too long; but there's some business with characters stuck in a revolving door that ZaSu is too dim to figure out how to use, and a bit with a maintainence man and a ladder that culminates in James C. Morton doing an impressive head-over-heels prat-fall. (I am not joking; this was such an impressive little stunt that I literally exclaimed "Wow!" when it happend.)
The middle section of the film is the strongest. Here, we see Thelma trying to sell magazine subscriptions by being seductive to a court clerk, followed by ZaSu trying to prove that she can also be sexy... and failing. Some of the strongest physical comedy takes place here, as the girls reduce a judges' chambers to shambles and cover both him and themsleves in ink, glue, court documents, and bits of office equipment. It's all very goofy and even a little funny. Bud Jamison also gets to portray what may be the most inept plain-clothes policeman to ever grace the screen during this section, and it's also quite funny. Eventually, the film returns to the uninspired material that opened the film, but thankfully we only get a small dose of it, and the film does close on a high note--a literal bang--and a cute moment between our heroines and the judge whose day they've been ruining.
Although definately one of the weaker entries in the series of Todd/Pitts comedies, it's still ends up being a lot of fun to watch. In fact, I think if a little more effort had been put into crafting a story instead of padding the running time with lame slap-stick material, it could have ended up as one of the better entiries. The cast was excellent, and when they had good material to work with, they were excellent.
"The Soilers" is contained on a two-disc set that contains all of the short films that Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made together
Bebe Daniels may be one of the most resilient actresses in film history. Born in 1901, she got her start as a child actor, at the age of 10, in the early days of the silent film movie industry. She successfully transitioned to adult roles in her teens, survived the dramatic shift to the talkies during her 20s, matured into dramatic roles in her 30s, and found a successful career in radio acting as she entered her 40s. She continued as a working actress in radio and on television until 1961.
Today, Daniels is helping to remind us of the unifying theme of this blog. (And you can click here to read reviews of--and even watch--several of the movies she appeared in, including the one that launched her long and varied career.)
Lured (aka "Personal Column") (1947)
Starring: Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, George Sanders, George Zucco, Cedric Hardwicke, and Boris Karloff
Director: Douglas Sirk
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Scotland Yard's Inspector Temple (Coburn) hires sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued down-and-out American actress Sandra Carpenter (Ball) to serve as a lure for a serial killer who has been prowling through London's shadows, murdering young women he contacts through personal ads. With her Scotland Yard "guardian angel" Barrett (Zucco) watching over her, she undertakes the dangerous task of drawing out the insane killer.
"Lured" is a well-done, light-touch police procedural thriller (with touches of romance and melodrama along the way) that features an all-star cast of 1940s B-movie actors (and a respected stage actor thrown in for good measure), all of whom deliver great performances.
The dialogue is snappy, the tense moments geniuinely tense, the funny moments genuinely funny, and the many red herrings tasty. Boris Karloff's character serves as the oddest and funniest fish of them all--and it's not a spoiler to say that he isn't the serial killer. Yes, it's the sort of part he often plays, but not here, and it will be obvious to viewers almost immediately.
I think this is a film that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes classic mystery movies. I also think that fans of Lucille Ball will enjoy seeing her in her pre-screwball comedy days. (Speaking of comedy, George Zucco's scenes with Ball are always amusing, as Sandra repeatedly inadvertantly helps Barrett solve the crossword puzzles he's constantly working on with stray comments.)
As regular readers of Shades of Gray (all seven of you) have probably noticed, I've been trawling YouTube for things to review much more than I used to. This is because the place is a treasure trove of films I otherwise would never even have realized existed... and even if I had known, I wouldn't have seen them, because I am too cheap to buy DVD collections of silent films and cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s.
Every so often, I also come across someone who is using the YouTube platform to give a gift to all us film-lovers out here, at great effort. Most recently, I came across Dave Glass's restored version of "Pinched" (1917). He assembled it from three different sources, did some digital clean-up on some sections, and uploaded what, for now at least, is the closest we'll get to seeing what movie-goers saw when they settled into their seats 100 years ago.
Getting easy access to an effort like this is what makes the web so great... and it's makes it even greater because of the ease I can share it with all of you, right here, at the bottom of this post.
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Harry Pollard, and Bud Jamison
Directors: Harold Lloyd and Gilbert Pratt
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
After being framed as his own mugger (Lloyd), a young man's attempts to avoid arrest lands in him jail for ANOTHER crime he didn't commit.
Like many slapstick comedies, "Pinched" is a loosely connected series of vinettes that each revolve around one or two set-piece gags. They are tied together in this one primarily by a checkered cap that blows off Harold's head while he is out driving with his girlfriend. It's a fun idea that makes the events of film seem a little more reasonable than they might otherwise have if the main character had just wandered from situation to situation and gotten into trouble completely randomly.
Check it out; it might be the most fun you'll have today!
Backs to Nature (1933)
Starring: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, and Don Barclay
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Five of Ten Stars
Patsy (Kelly) convinces her friend Thelma (Todd) that a camping trip is the best, most relaxing way for them to spend their vacation. This turns out to not be the case.
"Backs to Nature" was the second teaming of Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly as Hal Roach's "female version of Laurel & Hardy." This outing feels like a step down from their debut, either because of a lazy script, or because of the passage of time. With one exception, all the jokes and routines are what you'd expect to find in a comedy about camping--difficulties setting up the tent, mishaps while chopping firewood, disasters around the camp fire, and prowling bears. Even worse, all of these standard jokes are in their most basic forms with no twists or elaborations. (Patsy cuts down a tree, it falls on the tent with Thelma in it. Moving onto the next gag.) I don't know whether it's that the writers were being lazy or that the 85 years that's passed since this film was released, but things are just a little too straight-forward here. I suspect it's the former, since the film just sort of ends without closing any story arcs, without even really ending. I had the same issue with the final film Todd made while teamed with ZaSu Pitts, so I'm thinking the blame here is lazy writing.
Despite the weak material the actors are working with, "Backs to Nature" is amusing to watch, due to the antics of Patsy Kelly and the reactions of Thelma Todd. As the film unfolds, you will find yourself rooting for Patsy to get something right, because she is trying so hard to give her friend the relaxing camping trip she promised, even if you know she's never going to succeed. Todd's character is the one around which the film revolves, but it's Kelly's boundless enthusiasm that makes it worth watching. (Although Todd once again manages to always look glamorous, even while being chased up a tree by a bear.)
That said, despite the appealing nature of Patsy Kelly's character, the way Todd's character interacts with her ends up being one of the elements that undermines the quality of this film, and, once again, makes me blame lazy writers rather than the passage of time for its failings. There is literally only one moment of warmth and camaraderie between the two, with almost every other interaction being one where Todd is irritated or angry, and Kelly is making excuses or apologizing. Despite both actresses being appealing and playing sympathetic characters, I couldn't buy that these characters would barely tolerate each other at work, let alone be friendly enough to go on vacation together.
It the final analysis, "Backs to Nature" is at the low end of average; it's not terrible but there are better films to spend your time on. It is one of 21 short films included in the three DVD set, The Complete Hal Roach Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly Comedy Collection, (only 18 of which actually feature Todd as well as Kelly), and it's neither an argument for or against getting the collection. It's harmless filler, at best.
It's National Hot Dog Day today, July 18... and since Oscar Mayer now makes hotdogs (cheese dogs--yum!) I can actually eat (none of the preservatives I'm allergic to!) I shall have one celebrate! Maybe I'll have several... and have them brought to me, worn by fair maidens!
Director: Otto Messmer
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
Felix the Cat trades a bottle of milk for a magic carpet that flies him to the cartoon version of the Middle East. Here, he becomes fabulously wealthy, but his treasure is stolen by an evil sultan and trained mice. Naturally, Felix comes up with a scheme to regain what is his.
During the mid- to late 1920s, Felix the Cat was a hugely popular figure, and his cartoon and comic-strip antics were beloved by kids and adults alike. (How do we know Felix was loved by adults? Well, these photos of Felix dancing with a scantily clad honey seems to be a pretty good indication.) As sound arrived, Felix's popularity with movie-goers was waning, and by the mid-1930s, he was gone from Hollywood. He continued his adventures in the funny papers and in comic books well into the 1960s, however, and continues to see occasional revivals to this very day. Even if you haven't seen a single Felix the Cat cartoon or comic strip, chances are you've seen his smiling face at one point or another. (More on Felix here, at Wikipedia.)
Personally, I'm not a big fan of Felix the Cat, because in many of the cartoons, he goes too far out of his way to be jerk. However, I love the surreal universe he exists in--where he can pluck elements from the background scenery and turn them into weapons, a musical instrument, or even a car--and the strange place he occupies between a cat walking around on four legs and a full-blown anthropomorphic Disney character, so I seek them out occasionally to find one to my liking.
And "Arabiantics" turns out to be very much to my liking. This is a rare Felix outing where he is a sympathetic character from beginning to end.
As the cartoon opens, he's a stray cat looking for somewhere comfortable to spend the night (but doesn't find it), and just when things are looking up for him, his well-earned treasure is stolen and he's worse off than he was at the beginning of the film. The methods by which he goes about regaining his treasure are funny and clever and almost entirely free of the mischievous malice that is so prevalent in other Felix cartoons I've viewed. What's more, every gag in this film is either sweet, hilarious, or hilariously weird.
I've embedded the cartoon for your viewing pleasure below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
The Electric House (1922)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Steve Murphy, and Virginia Fox
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
A botanist (Keaton) is mistaken for an electrical engineer and is hired to install electricity in a millionaire's mansion. He goes above and beyond the call of duty and turns the house into a mechanical marvel that puts the smart-houses of 2019 to shame... but then the engineer who should have had the job (Murphy) decides to take revenge.
"The Electric House" is a tour-de-force of set building. The devices and the prop comedy around them are the real stars of this picture, and the film starts to drag when it strays from this, like the bit where Keaton struggles with a heavy trunk. While this sets up other gags, it feels like filler, which is a bad thing in a movie that only runs a little over 22 minutes.
That sequence, though, is the only real quibble I have with the picture. I have a few nitpicks with how long it took Keaton's character to catch onto the sabotage (which is mostly excused by the way he ultimately deals with the saboteur), as well as some of the business at the end (which is almost made up for by the film's final moment), but over all, this is an enjoyable picture. It doesn't have that frenetic feeling that my favorite Keaton films convey, but it is still a heck of a lot of fun. (It's also interesting to see that diploma mills have been around for at least 100 years, because without an indifferently run university, the story of this movie would not have taken place.)
But just don't take my word for how fun "The Electric House" is. I've embedded it below, via YouTube, for your viewing pleasure!
Alum and Eve (1932)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, and James Morton
Director: George Marshall
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
Thelma (Todd) tries to lie her way out of a speeding ticket by telling the highway patrol officer (Morton) that she was rushing her sick friend (Pitts) to see a doctor. When the officer kindly offers to help by giving a police escort, a of events are set into motion that throws an entire hospital into chaos.
"Alum and Eve" has a set-up that we've seen in other Pitts/Todd/Kelly comedies--the ladies are out driving and trouble ensues (like in "The Old Bull" and "Beauty and the Bus")--but this one takes a crazier and darker turn than an in any of the shorts in this series I've seen so far. This is one of those films where I can't go into to many details without ruining the viewing experience, but I think that if Hal Roach had hired H.P. Lovecraft to write a comedy starring Pitts & Todd, it would have turned out something like what we have here: What starts as a simple lie swiftly descends into a hilarious chaotic madness and doom!
Although I count this one among the best Pitts/Todd teamings I've watched so far (which is about half of the ones they made together), its flaws are pretty big. Primarily, there are a couple slapstick scenes go on for too long. First, there's a bit where the ZaSu Pitts character is being manhandled by James Morton's highway patrol officer in an effort to get her into the hospital, but Pitts is replaced by a poorly concealed body-double which all but ruins the scene. This is followed almost immediately with a sequence involving the three stars, two orderlies, and a nurse, all tangled up in a gurney; it starts out mildly amusing, but becomes boring and dumb as it drags on. Both of these are within the first five minutes of this 18-minute film... which left with with low expectations for what was to follow.
"Alum and Eve" gets much, much better, however. Once the characters are either causing mayhem in the hospital examining rooms, or our two heroines are trying to escape before ZaSu is either subjected to some unpleasant and unnecessary medical procedures or Thelma is hauled off to jail for lying to a police officer, this is one funny movie. While I was particularly appreciated the insane, dark humor at play here, I am also very fond of a gag where Thelma Todd scampering around in her slip (since she, once again, manages to lose her clothes) brings about a medical miracle.
As for the the performances by the various actors in the film--everyone is great in their parts. This is another one where Todd and Pitts get to play to their strengths as performers, and every member of their supporting cast is perfect in their roles. The chemistry between Pitts and Todd on-screen also makes it perfectly believable that not only would ZaSu continue to play along with Todd's increasingly outlandish stories as to why she needs to have medical treatment, but that Todd will also make every effort to extract her friend from the situation she's gotten her into.
This is one of 17 short films that ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd made together, and they've all been collected into a single DVD set. It's one of the reasons you should pick it up, especially if you've enjoyed more famous Hal Roach productions, such as the short films starring Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd.
Trivia: The Alum of the title (and a major part of the action during the final third of the film), is a compound that was used to cauterize cuts, because it causes skin to tighten. (I looked it up, so I thought I'd share this tidbit.) I've no idea if it still used medically today, but it apparently is still used in home-made preserves and pickling.
Red Hot Mamma (1934)
Starring: Bonnie Poe (as the voice of Betty Boop)
Director: Dave Fleischer
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars
When Betty Boop accidentally opens a gate to Hell, she decides to check the place out.
"Red Hot Mamma" is one of the greatest Betty Boop cartoons ever made; heck, it might be one of the greatest cartoons, period. Hell has never been jazzier and funnier than it is here: Even the initiations of new demons into the infernal ranks is a laff riot! It was also one of the last of the truly "risqué" ones, as the Hayes Office hammer was about to come down on the Fleischer Studios and the rest of Hollywood.
In fact, "Red Hot Mamma" as so "risqué" that it was banned by Great Britain's film censorship board in 1934, not because of sexiness but because they considered the lighthearted portrayal of Hell to be blasphemous. Maybe it's the fact that I'm not terribly religious, maybe its 85 years of eeeevil cultural decay, but I don't see the blasphemy here. If anything, the film makes a point about how the pure of heart can resist and overcome evil, since the film shows Betty to be the baddest Good Girl there is when she responds to devils who are happy to see her ("Hiya Betty!") with a shoulder so cold--and such a frigid stare--that Hell literally freezes over! (There's another element to Betty's trip to Hell that makes this ban even more of a head-scratcher for me, but to talk about it would really ruin )
But what do you think? Did this cartoon deserve to be banned by the British Board of Film Distribution? I've embedded it in this very post, for you to enjoy the sleek animation, nifty music, and hilarious sight gags--right here, right now.
Cheating Blondes (aka "Girls in Trouble") (1933)
Starring: Thelma Todd, Ralf Harolde, Milton Wallis, Gilbert Frayle, Inez Courtney, Dorothy Gulliver, Mae Busch, and Brooks Benedict
Director: Joseph Levering
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
After her would-be rapist is shot, Anne Merrick (Todd) assumes the identity of her missing twin sister, Elaine (also Todd), to avoid being charged with murder. Meanwhile, her rejected newspaper reporter would-be husband (Harolde) is devoting every waking moment to see her captured, tried, and executed.
"Cheating Blondes" has some interesting issues at its core--domestic abuse and the problems that arise in society when women are treated as if they have less value than men. There is literally not a male character in the film who doesn't view women as things that are to be counted among their possessions, or treated as commodities, and there isn't a female character who doesn't suffer in some way because of it. There's also a hint of a murder mystery in the film... and it may have been more than a hint, or less of a mystery, if I'd been able to watch the entire film.
Unfortunately, there is a complete reel missing in the copy that's available on DVD, and it's a chunk of the film that contains a whole lot of plot that explains how Anne made contact with her sister's agent Mike Goldfish (Milton Wallis) and personal trainer Polly (Inez Courtney) and assumed her sister's identity with their knowledge and blessing; explains the connection between the agent and sister Elaine's weathy admirer Gilbert Frayle (Earl McCarthy); establishing a mystery around who actually shot the wife-beating, would-be rapist (Brooks Benedict); and further expands on the evidence that Ralf Harolde's reporter character is an absolute prick.
At least I assume that all those things happen in the 12 or so missing minutes, because, if they don't, then this is one of most disjointed, badly developed films of all time. There might even be something in there to make the title make sense, because right now, this film has a distinct lack of "cheating blondes". (In all seriousness, SOME or all of things must have been covered, because even the worst screenwriter and director in the world would have set up the developments that happen later in the film to at least a small degree, instead of having them drop on the confused viewer.)
That missing chunck of the film--a very key chunk--makes it hard to evaluate this film, because I really can't be sure to what degree my assumptions are right or wrong. For example, while watching the film, I was convinced that the manager had murdered Anne's sister, Elaine, because she was dropping him as an agent, but this turns out to be wrong assumption. Likewise, I suspect Mae Busch's and Ralf Harolde's character's got more development, because their behavior in the second half of the film seems like it needed more set-up than what is here. The same is true of some of the film's ending. Depending on what was in that missing piece, my rating could be one Star higher or lower... but I doubt I'll ever know what I missed.
While what there is here gets off to a slightly shakey start--Thelma Todd is quite terrible in the scene she has with Dorothy Gulliver, lending more credence to my theory that her performance is greatly impacted by whom she's playing off--but it quickly picks up, as everyone else is pretty decent. Even Todd is better in her later scenes, including one with Gulliver, so the movie is worth sticking with. Evenmoreso, this is an interesting bit of film due to its very stark treatment of sexism and misogny. Sexism, and even spousal abuse, is something that's just part of the fabric of life in many of these films from 1930s--because it probably was just a part of the fabric of life--but in "Cheating Blondes", treating women like objects or somehow lesser people is very much presented as a negative: It gets one characer killed and it literally ruins an otherwise successful career of another character. Meanwhile, the male character who recognizes that his presumptious and demanding behavior toward Todd's character Anne is unreasonable and uncivilized, and apologizes for and corrects his behavior, gets to enjoy a happy ending.
"Cheating Blondes" is available on DVD with "Cheers of the Crowd", a movie that isn't missing any pieces, but which also isn't all that good. If "Cheating Blondes" does sound interesting to you, I recommend you view it at one of several free online sources.
Starring: Joel Feitler and Candice Dayton
Director: Micah Mahaffey
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
A young genius (Feitler) builds a time machine in order to prevent the death of his wife (Dayton).
"Timeless" is a silent short film that isn't a century or so old; as of this writing, it's not even a decade since it was made. Micah Mahaffey wrote and directed a small number of silent short films back in the early 2010s, and if any of the others are as good as this one, I'll probably write about and embed them in this space.
The most impressive thing about this film is that Mahaffey tells a complete story in under three minutes. I have watched a lot of short films over the past few years, and more often than not, filmmakers present vignettes rather than giving us something with a beginning, middle, and end. Here, we are treated to all the niceties you'd expect from a well-crated tale--including a denoument!
I was also impressed by the fact that Mahafferey clearly understood the limitations of his budget and resources, and he worked within them to pull off some nice special effects. He could have easily overreached and given us something that looked cheesy. Instead, he gave us something that looked just right.
The only negative points I can raise about the film is that I didn't quite buy the notion that the grieving widower seemed too young to build a time machine--it seemed like something that would have taken him a decade or more (at least), not just three years. Another thing I didn't quite like was the organ music score. It wasn't that the music was bad... it was that it was an organ. (I think I understand the reasons for both of these negatives. The first goes back to Mahaffey working with the resources he had available, and as a young filmmaker, it's natural he would a young cast to draw on so the time machine had to be invented within a short timespan. As for the second... well, it is a silent movie, so why use organ music? However, I think this story would have been better served by a grand piano.)
I recommend taking a few minutes to check out "Timeless" for yourself. I hope you like it as much as I did.
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