Monday, September 30, 2019

It's International Blasphemy Day!

And to celebrate, we're bringing back Jesus & Mo! Take it away, boys!


You can learn about International Blasphemy Day by clicking here.

Musical Monday: 'Pet Sematary' on Ukuleles

The 31 Nights of Halloween are almost upon us! While they will mostly unfold over at my semi-dormant blog Terror Titans, here' a little something to reanimate the Halloween spirit within you!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

'Mabel's Blunder' will be your entertainment

Mabel's Blunder (1914)
Starring: Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy, Al St. John, Eva Nelson, Charles Bennett, and Charley Chase
Director: Mabel Normand
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A young secretary (Normand) comes to believe her fiance (McCoy) may be cheating on her with a strange, beautiful woman (Nelson) he's being awfully familiar with. To keep an eye on them, she trades clothes with her brother (St. John) and poses as their driver as they head out to a garden party. Things get complicated when her boss (Bennett), who also happens to be her fiance's father, decides to puts the moves on the cross-dressing brother...


"Mabel's Blunder" is a swift-moving, charming farce that is lots of fun when it works, and a little annoying when it doesn't. It's also a little creepy at times. This feeling may be a result of cultural changes that have taken place in the more than 100 years that have passed since this film was released, just like it's story line has become predictable because it's been done hundreds of times.

I'm going to give away the "big twist" in the film, since I'm sure you'll see it coming anyway, just like did--the mystery woman is her fiance's sister, so Mabel's jealousy was her "blunder". HOWEVER, the brother and sister here seem just a little too physical in their effection for each other, with the the phrase "it's okay to love your sister, but you shouldn't love your sister" coming to mind while watching them. I dunno... maybe this is just one of those things that were seen differently by audiences when this film appeared more than 100 years ago at this point, but it seemed very odd to me. I, too, would have assumed they were lovers rather than siblings, given the way they carried on. Maybe I was just raised by cold and distant people and I don't know what affection truly is?

But, aside from what seems to be an overly physical relationship between a brother and a sister, the rest of the film is cuteness overload. Watching the lecherous boss hitting on who he believes to be the office secretary (who is actually her brother in a woman's coat, hat, and veil) is both uncomfortable and hilarious. The performances of the cast are also very entertaining, which isn't surprising when one examines the cast list; every cast member either was a big star at the time it was made (like Mabel Normand and Charles Bennett), or soon would be (like Al St. John and Charley Chase).


Star Mabel Normand is of particular note here. Although she is barely remembered today, she was one of cinema's early super-stars, and I think it's easy to see why in this film. She is even more remarkable in that she was one of those rare triple-threat filmmakers who was equally talented as a writer, director and actor: Normand was the creator of this film, and it's a shame that her career and life was disrupted and cut short by ill health, alcoholism, and just tragic, bad luck.

As entertaining as I found this film, it's not without its flaws. First, it could have used one or two more intertitles, as some of the action and character relationships remains a little unclear, even when everything's come together by the end. Second, at the opposite end of the scale from the problem with the lack of intertitles , we have Normand gesturing over and over and over, in scene after scene, to her character's engagement ring to remind viewers of how her heart and vows made are being betrayed by her fiance. It becomes tiresome very quickly, and it is the only weak part about the performances and pacing in this film.

Several versions of "Mabel's Blunder" can be watched for free on YouTube, but none of them do the film the sort of justice it deserves. All the ones I found are fuzzy visually and a few have completely horrendous and inappropriate musical soundtracks. I watched the film on the Netflix streaming service, in its Classics section, under the "Early Women Filmmakers" collection. I am embedding the best of the YouTube versions below, but I really recommend that you check this film out on NetFlix if you're a subscriber. (It's only 15 minutes long, so I'm sure you can find the time!)



Friday, September 27, 2019

'Sealskins' is greater than its parts

Sealskins (1932)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Bert Sprotte, Charlie Hall, Frank Austin, and Billy Gilbert
Directors: Morey Lightfoot and Gil Pratt
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The Royal Seal of Siberia has been stolen, and a secretary with dreams of being a newspaper reporter (Todd) thinks she has a lead on where the thieves are hiding it. With her reluctant friend (Pitts) in tow, she sets out to crack the case and get the scoop. Unfortunately, the trail leads them to a creepy boarding house full of even creepier characters...


"Sealskins" is a comedy of errors, a spoof of the 'old dark house genre' and a spoof of the 'newspaper reporter detective' B-movie genre, all wrapped into a single package. Individually, the jokes and bits in the film aren't all that great--some are outright duds--but the way they are blended together add up to a very cute and highly amusing film.

What makes this work, first and foremost, is the sense of warmth and friendship between the two main characters; it's fully believable that ZaSu Pitts' character would let herself be dragged along on what is at best a fool's errand and at worst truly dangerous, because of this sense of camaraderie between them. If this same story had been done with Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly (who would replace Pitts as co-star in this series when Pitts' contract expired and producer Roach didn't want to meet her demand for more pay in order to re-up), it would have been an absolute disaster.

Another element that puts this film among the better Thelma Todd-starring shorts is the script. Unlike so many of these films, it's a complete story, with a begging, a middle, and an end. Also, it stays focused on Thelma and ZaSu, instead of letting them get crowded out of their own story by the wide array of interesting characters and subplots crammed in. (And there are plenty of interesting characters in this one--from the seal-nappes, to Thelma's rival at the newspaper, to any one of the residents of the spooky boarding house--that could easily been given more schtick to do.)

The only incidental character I wish had been given a little more screen-time is a circus sideshow Voodoo Doctor whom our heroines encounter while running around the house and inexplicably frightened by. I would have loved to see him out of costume and be somehow involved with the film's resolution to show that he was just a guy in a costume before. (But that could be my 21st century mindset shining through.)

"Sealskins" is one of 17 films that Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts starred in together, and they can all be had on in a single two-disc DVD collection. The print from which it was taken is a bit more worn than most (or maybe not as much effort was put into restoring it?), but the imperfections are no so bad so as to make the action hard to follow. I have three more films left to watch before I've seen every one in the set, but I already feel like I've gotten more than my money's worth out the collection.



Trivia: Toward the end of film, the newspaper editor calls Thelma Todd's character "Toddy". This was Todd's real-life nickname.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

We're doing our part to fight climate change!

Here at Shades of Gray, we're devoted to the fight to stop climate change! Here's what we're doing...

1. We don't deal with anything in color, except for the obvious shades of gray, black, and white. This preserves those resources for the Future.

2. We focus on old stuff--some studies state that 99.39% of the material covered here was created before blog owner and operator and writer Steve Miller was even born. If everyone would only focus on old stuff and stop creating anything new, it would preserve those resources for other things... and possibly the Future.

3. We are extracting promises from key figures here at the blog to do their part to stop climate change. Since most of them are dead--and the only impact they have on climate change is that they keep voting for Democrats--we're off to a good start! Even so, some are stepping up and going above and beyond. Grace Bradley, for example, has vowed to ride her bike everywhere. She's even gotten herself a special bike helmet to help her get through the long rainy season here in western Washington State!


What are YOU doing to stop climate change?!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Musical Monday with the Postmodern Jukebox


Start your work-week with Billy Idol in the style of an old-time lounge act (featuring a nice clarinet solo).



(It's about time Postmodern Jukebox did on of their videos in black-and-white. Hopefully, they'll do more, so I can post them here!)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

'The Bargain of the Century' is a high point for the Todd & Pitts Team

The Bargain of the Century (1933)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, James Burtis, and Billy Gilbert
Director: Charley Chase
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

After causing a traffic cop (Burtis) to be fired, Thelma and ZaSu (Todd and Pitts) take him in as a roommate while they try to find him a new job.


"The Bargain of the Century" was one of the last films that Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made together. It is also the only installment in the Thelma Todd-headlined comedy series that was directed by the great Charley Chase. This is shame, because every moment of this film shows the influence of the master comedic craftsman that Chase was.

While the film has a relatively  thin plot, every element of it is motivated and ties in with every other element, each set-up pays off with a gag--including individual gags which sometimes are there to set up ones that are coming up later, and each cast member gets their turn on center stage while not crowding out any other performers. As in other films she made with Chase, Todd gives a great performance; he really had an ability to bring out the very best in her. In fact, everyone appearing in this film gives excellent performances.

The only serious complaint I can mount about "The Bargain of the Century" is that I wanted more of what's here. I think this film could easily have been a full-length feature, just based on the hints we get regarding the talents and interests of unfortunate police officer Buttersworth (James Burtis) when he decides to install home security systems in the apartment he shares with Thelma and ZaSu; his efforts to launch a career as an inventor or engineer in the wake of losing his police job could have easily been enough to extend this out to a full-length movie. Also, the reversal of sex roles on display is also could have led to expanded comedic bits, as we see in the scene where Thelma gets angry because Buttersworth doesn't have dinner ready when she comes home after a long day at work. The fact that I was left wanting more in the wake of the very satisfying ending to this picture is a testament to the artistry and skill that went into producing this film.

"The Bargain of the Century" is one of 17 films that Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts starred in together, and they can all be had on in a single two-disc DVD collection. Not every one of these is a winner, but there are some real gems among that that make the set well worth the purchase price if you like classic short comedies.



Thursday, September 19, 2019

Of Love and Muses (and Vengeance)

We're ending Palindrome Week as it began: With a post featuring the great Bessie Love... although it's mostly a d20 System game resource about summoning the Nine Muses!


--
Bessie Love began her acting career in 1915, after her Mom told her to get a job. D.W. Griffith, at Biograph Studios, first gave her a couple small parts, but she struck a chord with audiences and her star rose quickly. She spent the next 15 years playing bubbly, energetic, and adventuresome young ladies. As sound arrived to film, Love was aging out of her signature roles, and her Hollywood career began to fizzle. She moved to England in the mid-1930s where she continued to act on radio, stage, and later, television.

Bessie Love in Greece, 1938
(Photo by Dr. Henry W. Jones, Jr.)
But, as revealed in this post and this post, Bessie Love was more than just an actress: She actively battled the forces of occult evil for 25 years, from 1925 through 1950.

During one of her adventures, in 1938, Love stopped the fascist government of Greece from gaining control of the Muses and channeling their powers to corrupt the creative urge of humans across the world. The Muses were so grateful for Love's intervention that they now often wear her form when appearing before petitioners and those exceptional people to whom they wish to offer gifts and inspiration unbidden. It was also at that time that she came into possession of the ritual through which a random or specific Muse can be called and asked for assistance.

SUMMONING A MUSE
There are two rituals for summoning a muse. They are essentially the same, but one involves an extra where a summoner (who must also be the petitioner--the person who is seeking the Muses's assistance) can name the specific Muse he wishes to call to him. Both versions of the ritual are detailed on a scroll that dates back to the days of Ancient Greece.
   On the version of the rituals recovered by Bessie Love, notes scribbled in modern-day Greek on the back of the scroll state that either version should only be performed every ten days. "Performing either more frequently will result in total failure, or always call E.," the note concludes.

Summoning a Random Muse
Using ink mixed with the blood, sweat and tears of a creative person or performer, the petitioner must write his or name on fabric or paper that has been carried close to the skin of an artist or performer for at least three days (this does not need to be the same person the blood, sweat, and tears were collected from).
   The petitioner must take the inscribed item to a place where creative or intellectual activities of creation or sharing take place, such as a theater, art studio, or university lecture hall. Muses may also be summoned on the slope of Mount Elikonas where the original temple to Zeus stood in ancient times, or anywhere on the island of Melos. (All these places are considered sacred by the Muses.)
    Once at the intended summoning location, the petitioner must burn the item while reciting the following words:

Oh, beautiful Spirit of Creation!
I ask you to spark within me a fire!
I ask you to let the light of Inspiration burn through the night!
Come, beautiful Spirit of Creation!


Ourania the Muse, as she appears in modern day
  This incantation must be spoken loudly 1d6 times while the item is being consumed by the flames. Then, what appears to be a slender young woman appears, forming instantly from the faint tendrils of smoke twisting in the air. She says that she has been called by the drive to create and that she will help if she can.
   The summoner gains a base +1 bonus to all Craft, Knowledge, and Perform skill checks made for three days after the Muse was called, with the benefit expiring as the sun sets on the third day. Specific Muses grant the summoner additional benefits which are detailed below. (These expire at the same time as the base benefit.)
   A random Muse answers the petitioners call in the simplest form of the ritual. Unless asked, she does not reveal her name, nor spell out what boons she is granting the petitioner. To see which Muse appears and what benefits she grants the petitioner, the GM rolls a d10 on the following table:


d10 Roll/Muse     Benefits Granted
1. Calliope           +4 bonus to all Diplomacy, Knowledge (Law),
                             and Craft (Writing) skill checks.  +2 bonus to
                             Will saves to resist Fear effects.
                                Calliope sometimes wears a crown.
2. Clio                  +4 bonus to all Research, Knowledge (History),
                             Perform (Guitar/Plucked Stringed Instruments)
                             skill checks.
                                 Clio usually appears holding a book.
3. Erato                +4 bonus to all Seduction, Sense Motive, and
                            Craft (Writing) skill checks. The bonus on
                            Craft (Writing) increases to +6 if the character
                            is writing romantic poetry or lyrics.
                                Erato usually appears carrying a lyre.
4. Euterpe            +4 bonus to all Diplomacy, Investigate, and
                             Perform (Wind Instruments) skill checks.
                                Euterpe usually appears carrying a flute.
5. Melpomene     +4 bonus to Bluff, Diplomacy, and Perform (Act)
                            skill checks. +4 bonus to all saving throws and
                            attack rolls while fighting on behalf of those
                            who live on the Isle of Melos.
                                 Melpomene usually appears carrying a combat
                            knife and wearing a Tragedy mask (which she
                            removes before speaking to a petitioner).
6. Ourania           +4 bonus to Knowledge (Astrology),
                            Knowledge (Astronomy), and Navigation
                            skill checks.
                                Ourania appears wearing a gown that glitters as
                            if it were made of stars and carrying a small globe
                            of the planet Earth.
7. Polymnia        +4 bonus to Craft (Music), Craft (Sculpture),
                            Knowledge (Mathematics), Knowledge (Religion),
                            and Perform (Song) skill checks.
                                Polymnia  usually appears carrying a lyre.
8. Terpsichore    +4 bonus to all Knowledge and Perform (Dance)
                           skill checks. The bonus on Knowledge skill checks
                           increases to +6 if the skill check is being made to
                           pass the knowledge onto other characters.
                               Terpsichore usually appears wearing a laurel
                           wreath on her head and carrying a harp.
9. Thalia             +4 bonus to Knowledge (Mathematics),
                            Craft (Structural), Craft (Writing/Art),
                            Perform (Comedy) skill checks. The bonus on
                            Craft (Writing/Art) increases to +6 if
                            the work is humorous in nature. +1 bonus to
                            attack rolls when wielding a scythe or sickle.
                               Thalia appears wearing a Comedy mask, which
                           she removes before speaking with the petitioner.
                           She also often carries a club painted in bright,
                           cheerful colors.
10. Erinyes         +4 bonus to Bluff and Intimidate skill checks,
                           as well as a +2 bonus to all attack and damage
                           rolls. However, after the three days have passed,
                           if the summoner has harmed or killed innocent or
                          defenseless sentient beings within three days
                          prior to calling the Muses, or while enjoying the
                          benefits of the summoning, the summoner will be
                          subject to a curse that imposes a -4 penalty on all
                          attack rolls, ability checks, skill checks, and
                          savings throws. The curse can only be lifted with
                          a miracle, wish, or if the summoner specifically
                          calls upon Erinyes by following the steps detailed
                          below. (Erinyes is not one of the Muses, but rather
                          a goddess of vengeance who enjoys answering
                          calls for of those other entities, posing as them,
                          and then cursing and forcing atonement out of
                          those she feels have escaped punishment for
                          misdeeds.)

Summoning a Specific Muse
The ritual and preparation needed to summon a particular Muse is similar to what is described above, with the following differences: The petitioner writes the name of the Muse he or she wishes to summon above his or her own name, and replaces "Spirit of Creation" in the first and last lines of the spoken incantation with the Muse's name.

Calliope, after being rescued by Bessie Love in 1938
   Once the specific Muse appears, the petitioner is immediately drained of 500XP, the spiritual cost of demanding that a divine being manifest in the presence of a mortal. In addition to benefits the Muse grants upon appearing, she will also answer up to seven questions relating to arts, sciences, creation, and specific artists, performers, and scientists. (The number of questions that will be answered equals 1d6+1, with an additional questions equal to the petitioners Charisma bonus, to a maximum of seven.)
   In addition to knowledge and the temporary blessings, a specific summoned Muse can also be asked to grant the petitioner one of the following permanent benefits, for a price:
   *Gain Educated, Investigator, Skill Focus, or Leadership as a bonus feat.
   *Make a single Craft, Knowledge, or Perform skill a permanent class skill.
   *Gain a permanent +1 increase to Wisdom or Charisma attribute (maximum of three increases for each attribute, and the attribute cannot be raised of 19; the Muses don't want too much competition from mortals)..
   As soon as the Muse grants the petitioner's request, he or she is drained of 1,000XP.
   Whether a character is wishing to summon a specific Muse, or is requesting a permanent benefit, the experience point cost cannot cause the character to drop below his or her current level.
   If the 500XP drain would bring about a level loss, no points are drained. The GM should roll on the table above to see what Muse (or if Erinyes) appears.
   If the 1,000XP cost would bring about a level loss, no points are drained. The Muse tells the character that she feels he or she is not ready to fully appreciate the gift being asked for, but that she may give it in the future.
   The summoned Muse may also ask the petitioner to undertake a quest, or may offer additional assistance if the petitioner is engaged in a struggle she considered important. Some Muses may lend the character an artifact to use for the duration of the quest or struggle. The item is returned to the Muse once the quest is over, or the danger has passed. (These artifacts, and conditions surrounding their use, are detailed in this post at the NUELOW Games blog.)
   If the petitioner agrees to undertake a quest for the Muse, the 500XP lost during original summoning are immediately regained. This is the only way the XPs taken by the Muses can be restored (other than through the normal methods of earning additional experience points).

Multiple Summoning Attempts
Despite the note on the scroll recovered by Bessie Love in 1938, the ritual to call the Muses can be performed by the same petitioner with possible success as frequently as often as every four days. It's only with a ten-day period between summonings that there is a high likelihood of actually calling a Muse.
   If less than three days go between summonings or summoning attempts, the call will always fail.
   If there are between 4 and 9 days between summonings, the GM must roll 1d10 against the following table to see the results.

1d10    Result of Frequent Summoning Attempts
1-2.       Failure. The Muses and Erinyes ignore the call.
3-8.      Erinyes answers.
9-10.    Roll on the Summon a Random Muse table

Summoning Erinyes
Calling upon Erinyes is not something that is recommended by mystics, occultists, or any sane individual. She exists to first and foremost to punish the wicked, and anyone who purposefully calls upon her will either find themselves a target of her punishment, or an instrument of search to avenge those who have been wronged. The one possible exception would be for someone who has been subjected to her curse while she was posing as another goddess, as asking her directly to lift the curse may be the easiest option.
   There is a base 90% chance that an attempt to call Erinyes will be successful. That chance increases by 1% for each additional person who takes part in the ritual (91% for two individuals, 92% for three, 93% for four, and so on).
   Those who wish to summon Erinyes, must write her name on a piece of paper, parchment, or thin piece of bark in their own blood. They must then wrap this document around a weapon that they have used against a sentient being, or which has been used by a sentient being against them. The item must then be placed into a fire, and the summoners must chant Erinyes' name with increasing volume 2d10+2 times. At the moment the goddess appears, the fire explodes upwards and is instantly snuffed out and replaced with thick, acrid smoke with swirls and coalesces into the manifestation of the goddess. The weapon and the material is was wrapped in are completely consumed, taken by the goddess as an initial offering.
  

A manifestation of Erinyes
    When directly called upon, Erinyes wastes no time with pleasantries, but immediately demands to know why those who have called her think they are worthy of her attention (or mercy, if they have been cursed by her).
    If she finds the answer lacking (if it's too arrogant, or if an attempt is made to deceive her, for example), she glares silently and with obvious disgust at those who called her and then dissolves into smoke. If those who summoned her aren't already cursed, for the next three days, they suffer a -2 penalty to all skill checks, saving throws, and attack rolls (with the effect ending at sundown on the third day, or following a miracle or wish).
   If Erinyes finds the characters worthy of her, her response depends on why she has been summoned.
   If she is being called to aid in a quest for revenge: She will answer four questions that the summoner believes will provide help in bringing about the revenge being sought. She will warn those who summoned her that revenge may not satisfy their thirst for justice, and that that if they are not careful, they may themselves become the monster they seek to slay. If summoners do not subsequently seriously pursue their attempt to gain revenge, she will subject them to the curse described in the result for rolling a 10 on the table for summoning Muses in the Summoning a Random Muse section.
   If she is being called to lift a curse on one or more of those who have summoned her: The summoners are charged with bringing a murderer or other criminal who has caused suffering to justice. Here are some suggestions for missions that Erinyes may task characters with. She lifts her curse as soon as characters agree to undertake her mission of vengeance, as well as granting them the temporary blessings described in the result for rolling a 10 on the table for summoning Muses in the Summoning a Random Muse section. If the characters do not subsequently engage in serious efforts to complete Erinyes' mission, the curses all who summoned her, as described on the table.


--
All text in this post is released under the Open Game License and may be reproduced in accordance with its terms. Copyright 2019 by Steve Miller.

If you this material useful and entertaining, you can find more like it at the NUELOW Games blog. If you really liked it, consider buying some of the many game supplements and anthologies of comics and short stories that NUELOW Games has to offer.


In Observance of Talk Like a Pirate Day...

...here are some artists' representations of lads and lassies with their swashes buckled!


By Mike Hoffman


By Norm Breyfogle
By Larry Elmore
By Mitch Foust

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Get ready with 'Captain Kidd's Kids'...

Today seems like the perfect day to review a silent pirate movie, and to embed it in the post so you can watch it right here. Why is that, do you ask? Well,. because it's Talk Like a Pirate Day tomorrow!

 (Oh wait... maybe there's a slight flaw in this plan. Oh well... it's too late now!)


Captain Kidd's Kids (1919)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Harry Pollard, Bebe Daniels, and Helen Gilmore
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After falling overboard from a cruise ship, an obnoxious young man (Lloyd) discovers his fiancee (Daniels) and her shrewish mother (Gilmore) are operating a pirate ship crewed entirely by sexy women.


"Captain Kidd's Kids" is a short film that takes too long to get to the pirates promised in the title. It spends half of its running time hammering home how unlikable and dumb Harold Lloyd's character with a series of gags where he's abusive to his servants and other hired help. What's perhaps worse is that the gags are only mildly funny and every one of them outstays its welcome because the routines are too long.

Things get a better once we get to the ship full of sexy pirates, but even here the gags are weak. While none drag on the way the ones in the first half of the film did, they are mostly so predictable that they must have be old back in 1919. There is a very funny and surprising bit involving dinner time on the ship, it's satisfying to see Lloyd's servant throw in with the pirates and pay is boss back for all the abuse early in the film, and Lloyd's ukulele strumming inspiring an impromptu pirate chick dance party inspires a chuckle, but otherwise this is a rather disappointing affair... especially since the idea of Lloyd's dorky trickster character going up against a ship of sexy lady pirates is a concept that held so much promise.

"Captain Kidd's Kids" isn't a terrible move... it's just disappointing, because it falls short of what it could be. But why don't you watch it for yourself and tell me if you agree or disagree with my take on it? It's embedded for your convenience below.






Happy Anniversary, Jeannie!



On September 18, 1965, "I Dream of Jeannie" debuted on the NBC network. Running for 5 seasons, the comedy series chronicled the misadventures of astronaut Anthony Nelson (Larry Hagman) and the sexy genie (Barbara Eden) he accidentally released from the bottle that had been her prison for 2,000 years.






The first season of "I Dream of Jeannie" originally aired in black-and-white. It was later colorized, and that was the version that has been syndicated around the globe.





2019

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

'The Devil's Party' is okay but not much more

The Devil's Party (1938)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, William Gargan, Paul Kelly, Beatrice Roberts, Frank Jenks and John Gallaudet
Director: Ray McCarey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Five childhood friends, now grown up and successful each in their own different walks of life, hold their annual reunion. It's disrupted this year when the professional life of one (McLaglen)--a nightclub owner who also runs an illegal gambling operation--of the friends collide with the professional life of two others--now police officcers (Gargen and Gallaudet)--with deadly consequences for some, and tragic consequences for all.


Well-acted and decently filmed--this is one of those movies that takes full advantage of the black-and-white medium, with deep shadows and creative camera-work to heighten mood--the film is nonetheless boring and predictable at every turn. It's only 65 minutes long, yet it starts dragging at about the 30-minute mark, and it feels like it's far longer than it really is.

Given the overall decent quality of the film, I think it's just that this story has been told so many times (and told better) in the 70 or so years since this film was made, I think this is one movie that history has left behind, and a film that the modern viewer can safely skip.






Monday, September 16, 2019

'Snow White' ala Calloway & Boop

Snow White (1933)
Starring: Mae Questel (as the voices of Betty Boop and the Evil Queen) and Cab Calloway (as the voices of Koko the Clown and the Magic Mirror)
Director: Max Fleischer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An evil queen orders Betty "Snow White" Boop (both voiced by Questal) put to death after a magic mirror declares Betty to be the most beautiful woman in the land. Complications ensue.


"Snow White" has been celebrated by critics as the most surreal of all the Betty Boop cartoons. I've not seen enough of them to know whether this is true or not. What I can say for sure is that's the weirdest adaptation of "Snow White" I've ever come across!

There's not much I can say about this film without ruining the viewing experience. I was slightly disappointed that the story felt a little more chaotic here than in other Betty Boop cartoons I've watched, but that was more than made up for how impressive I found it that despite being represented by a cartoon clown and a cartoon ghost that is nothing but legs, arms, and a head, Cab Calloway's mannerisms and demeanor still shine through. I was also enthralled by the backgrounds in the Magic Cave once the singing started. Instead of the usual static images that repeat with some minor variations as the animated characters sing and bounce their way through the action, it's a constantly changing set of images that visually tell the story of the "St. James Infirmary Blues" song being performed by Cab Calloway in his freakish ghost guise.

If you haven't seen this great old cartoon before, you should take a few minutes NOW to check it out, especially since the version embedded in this post has both perfectly clear visuals and audio. You won't regret it.






2019

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Behold--Vulgar Man!

I came across this goofy little spoof of silent-era melodramas on YouTube, and it made me chuckle. I hope it will do the same for you, so I've embedded it below.

Vulgar Man (2013)
Starring: Paul Hogan and Gemma Ryan
Directors: Peter Donelley and Paul Hogan
Rating; Six of Ten Stars


(Yeah, the voice-over in the beginning could have been a little clearer, and one could quibble over the fact that the visuals are more in style with later silent films rather than early ones... but why?)


2019

Saturday, September 14, 2019

'Maids ala Mode' is fun but flawed

Maids a la Mode (1933)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Billy Gilbert, Leo White, Cissy Fitzgerald, and Billy Engle
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After a particularly grueling day at work, Thelma (Todd) and ZaSu (Pitts), respectively a runway model and seamstress for a high-end fashion designer (Gilbert), "borrow" two dresses to attend a party hosted by an acquaintance (White). Unfortunately for them, their boss was also invited...



"Maids ala Mode" is another entry in the Thelma Todd/ZaSu Pitts series of short comedies that's a mixed bag, quality-wise.

On the plus side, it's got some really charming and funny performances from the two leads, as well as supporting cast members Billy Gilbert (as the girls' excitable German boss) and Leo White (as a flamboyant artist and high-socity gadfly for whom Thelma had once modeled). Gilbert and White also get some of the funniest lines, although they're enhanced because they're bouncing off Thelma Todd acting as the closest thing this short has to a straight-man. Certain viewers will also appreciate that the bits with the scantily clad women are all frontloaded in the film, during the fashion show that opens the film, including the nearly obligatory scene of Thelma Todd in her underwear. Finally, and this is a big plus, our heroines aren't crowded out of their own story as has happened in other films in the series.


On the downside, despite some really clever lines delivered during some really charming performances, the film is dragged down by the fact that almost every bit of physical comedy is either not very funny, or is dragged out to the point where the bit becomes tedious. This trend of not-knowing-when-to-quit, or not being willing to edit a bit into a more amusing length and shape, has been a flaw I've found with several of the short films Todd headlined either with ZaSu Pitts or Patsy Kelly. I really think this was an attempt to cover for a lack of effort when it came to creating the stories for these films--a belief that I think is underscored by the fact that this is another film that doesn't so much end as just stop. On the other hand, the resolution-free ending does come shortly after one of the film's funnier moments generated by a slight twist on the standard rule of three comedic structure... but an actual ending would have been nice.

Ultimately, "Maids a la Mode" is a flawed but entertaining little movie. The good outweighs the bad, and, while it's not one of the best of the 17 films Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made together, it's far from the worst.



2019

Friday, September 13, 2019

It's Friday the Thirteenth!

Bebe Daniels has volunteered for a scientific experiment to see if there's any truth to the idea that it's bad luck to stand under a ladder on a Friday the Thirteenth.





2019

Thursday, September 12, 2019

'Torchy Runs for Mayor' is a mixture of the really good and the really bad

Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedy, John Miljan, John Downing, and Irving Bacon
Director: Ray McCarey
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Reporter Torchy Blane (Farrell) takes on the city's corrupt political machine and underworld power broker Doc Dolan (Miljan), and after losing her career due to political pressure, she eventually becomes a candidate for the office of mayor herself.



"Torchy Runs for Mayor" was the eighth film in the Torchy Blane series, and it's at once both one of the best and one of the worst in the series.

First, what makes this the best film in the series: We get a good look at Torchy (Glenda Farrell) plying her trade as a story-at-any-cost reporter. In too many of the previous films, Torchy's workday has happened off-screen, but here we get to see her no only go about her ethically and legally questionable (and outright illegal) information gathering methods, but also her dealings with editors and publishers, as well as her working to turn her source material into column inches for print. We get to see a realistic reaction on the part of the police force when they are placed under political pressure from corrupt forces in the sense that instead of railing against Torchy and trying to shut her down, they got out of her way and quietly encouraged her to keep digging and poking at the bad guys--except for her long-suffering boyfriend Steve (Barton McLane) who genuinely fears for her life. (Although he's not so concerned that he doesn't join his Captain is executing an elaborate prank that becomes Torchy's inspiration to run for mayor). We also get to see long-running comic relief character Gehagan (Tom Kennedy) show that he is a capable police officer and useful for more than just taking up space. This film also has one of the most serious storylines and thrilling climaxes of any of the ones in the series; there's a sense that the characters are actually in danger and that things may not work out for them in the end.

Second, what makes this the worst in the series: A potentially fantastic villain, Doc Dolan played by John Miljan, ends up as an uninteresting cypher. We're told how powerful he is in both political and underworld circles, but we only get the slightest hint of this and we're never shown where that supposed power comes from. More to the point, this supposed criminal and political mastermind has to resort to kidnapping Torchy during the film's second half, something the character himself admits to Steve is a stupid thing to do (as a way of denying he did it), but that then begs the question as to why he kidnapped her. This question becomes even more vexing when one considers that he kept her alive and unconcious for at least a couple days--why? Why not just kill her and be done with her? The answer remains as mysterious as the nature of Dolan's powerbase... but it does ensure that Torchy is once again reduced to damsel-in-distress at the end of her own story and must be rescued by Steve. And, finally, the film doubles-down on Torchy being "just a woman" by ending with her quitting the office of mayor that she has just won in a landslide election to go off and marry Steve and have babies. (Yes, I just spoiled the ending.)


"Torchy Runs for Mayor" has the strongest script since the first couple of Torchy films, and the most dramatic storyline of all of them. As it unfolds, Torchy and Steve both are left without jobs, and there's a real sense that thnigs aren't going to end well for them as the story heads towards its climax. Naturally, things do ultimately turn out well for our heroes and heroine, and we're even given a sense of closure to the tale of Torchy and Steve that we've been following for the past seven movies; and it's a great closing, too.

At least it would have been if "Torchy Runs for Mayor" had been 20 or so seconds shorter. We still get closure for the story of Torchy and Steve, but it's a closure that betrays everything that Torchy has been about since she first strolled onto the screen, cracking wise. I realize that in the late 1930s, a woman's place was at home, but Torchy had been bucking that trend and fighting the good fight for eight movies, and now that she was in a place where she had the resources to really impliment change and justice on a large scale, she instead bows to conservative social convention and gives it all up--after the public clearly said they were okay with a woman mayor in charge of the city. (The only good point about this totally botched ending is that Steve is as taken aback by Torchy's announcement and total change of heart and character as I was. He was, naturally happy, as he and Torchy exited Stage Right... where I was left irritated and borderline angry to the point where the film dropped from a solid Seven Rating to a low Six.)

Although the story wraps up so neatly in this picture that it feels like the last "Torchy Blane" film, there was one more made. This film was the last for Farrell and McLane, but the characters they portrayed would be back, embodied by different performers. I'll find out if this should have been the last Torchy film, period, at some point in the future. When I do, I'll tell you all about it in this space.





2019

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Carol Lynley has passed away

Carol Lynley, who over the course of her long career appeared in movies and TV series of almost every genre, passed away on September 3, 2019 at the age of 77. Here's a gallery of pictures in her memory.







A few of the films Lynley appeared in are "Bunny Lake is Missing" (1965), "Harlow" (1965), "The Shuttered Room" (1967), "The Maltese Bippy" (1969), "Once You Kiss a Stranger" (1969), "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), "The Night Stalker" (1971), "The Four Deuces" (1973), "The Shape of Things to Come" (1979), "The Cat and the Canary" (1979),   and "Spirits" (1990). She also played 11 different characters over the seven-year run of ABC's "Fantasy Island".
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