Saturday, July 11, 2020

Saturday Serial: Jenna of the Jungle

Continuing Don Hudson's "Jenna of the Jungle" (and including a random bonus jungle girl afterwards). Click on any panel for a larger version, and come back next Saturday for Part Nine.

By Don Hudson
To Be Continued...

   Girls of the Jungle
By Dave Stevens

Friday, July 10, 2020

Firearms Friday with Brigitte Bardot

Born in 1934, Brigitte Bardot was in her teens and training to be a ballet dancer when she, over her parents objections, turned to fashion- and photo-modeling. Around that same time, also over her parents objections, she began dating a much older man. She soon turned to acting, and by the early 1950s, she was well on her way to being one of Europe's most celebrated movie stars... and known for her roles as sexually liberated women. And, yes, you guessed it... it was over her parents' objections.

By the dawn of the 1960s, Bardot was a world-renowned actress. Over the next decade or so, she appeared in a range of genres opposite a galaxy of top American, British, and French male film stars, while also launching a successful musical career. In 1973, just shy of her 40th birthday, she retired from acting and performing, still at the height of fame.

Since retiring from show business, Bardot has devoted the past several decades to animal rights activism, and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals remains one of the world's leading forces in the animal rights movement.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

It's early movie magic with 'The Magician'

The Magician (1898)
Starring: Georges Méliès
Director: Georges Méliès
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An old magician (Méliès) turns himself into a young clown... and then things get really weird.

"The Magician" is one of groundbreaking filmmaker's Georges Méliès early efforts, and it's more of a vignette than a proper short film. As with many of his efforts, it's made primarily to be a magic show up on film, creating the illusions primarily with in-camera film editing and other trick photography instead props and sleight-of-hand. I usually find those to be among the least interesting of Méliès' efforts, but there's an exception to every rule... and this is that exception.

As is my habit with these Méliès reviews, I'm embedding the film I'm talking about in this post. Unlike my usual habit, it's going to be here in the middle instead of at the end, because I'm going to "spoil" the film with the comments that follow. (Watch it now if you want to watch the surprises unfold as Méliès intended, and then continue reading below.)

As I've already mentioned, "The Magician" is one of those plot-free offerings where Méliès is mostly (and joyously) showing off his special effects trickery, using stage magic as his point of departure. and However, it's slightly more interesting than most of them.

First, the trick photography effects here are executed with amazing precision, especially taking into account how early this film comes from, both in Melies time as a filmmaker and the art of filmmaking in general.

Secondly, because he includes elements of fantasy here. As this vignette unfolds, we watch a gray-bearded wizard turn himself into a young, starving harlequin. He is then transformed by an artist by the devil--an artist who creates living sculptures whom he falls in love with. Ultimately, the devil returns and, literally, kicks his ass. And that's where it ends.

 And with that sudden non-ending ending (the devil kicks the artist, he flies off-camera... and we have no wrap-up or even a hint as to what happened to the magician ultimately), it occurred to me that maybe there IS a plot in this film. Maybe it's a story about an old man who tries to recapture his youth through magic, but as he relives his life and grows from a foolish child into a worldly man, the devil and even death--and final oblivion--catch up with him anyway.

I could be reading something into this film that's not there--sort of like a cloud might look like a dragon, or an ink blot test might look like two men with hammers--but maybe it's the exact story/message that Méliès was trying to convey. What do you think out there? What's your take on "The Magician"?

Monday, July 6, 2020

Musical Monday with OMD

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (or just OMD) is a British band whose focus has mostly been on synthesizers-driven pop  music. They achieved great popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, disbanding in 1996 and reforming ten years later in 2006. They continue to crisscross the globe on tours to this day, wowing audiences everywhere they play.

In 1991, OMD recorded one of their greatest songs, "Pandora's Box". The title was drawn from a 1929 silent movie, and the song was a touching tribute to that film's star, Louise Brooks. These facts, plus the spectacular video made to support the song on its release--with all of its genuine footage of Brooks interwoven with new material of OMD front man Andy McCluskey engaging in Louise Brooks-oriented scrap-booking--makes it a perfect selection for our Musical Monday series here at Shades of Gray. We hope you enjoy this beautiful song and masterfully crafted video.

Pandora's Box (1991)
Starring: Andy McCluskey and Louise Brooks
Director: Andrew Doucette
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Full-length portrait of silent movie star Louise Brooks

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Betty and Jimmy get a work-out

Betty Boop and Little Jimmy (1936)
Starring: Mae Questel
Director: Dave Fleischer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Betty (voiced by Questel) is working through a personal fitness and weight-loss regiment when Little Jimmy (also voiced by Questel) causes a workout machine to malfunction. With Betty trapped in it, Jimmy rushes off to get help, but is repeatedly distracted along the way. 

By 1936, Betty Boop's best years were behind her as a cartoon character. The morality clauses of the Motion Picture Production Code instituted in 1934 had drained her adventures of the adult-oriented surrealness and not-so-thinly veiled sexual references that had made them unique, and Betty was left starring in cute and mildly amusing features. The wild-child of the animated world had settled down and become domesticated, and, as if to drive that fact home, she was paired in several films with the child character of Little Jimmy. (For more on Little Jimmy's origins, see my review of "Baby Be Good" by clicking here.)  

"Betty Boop and Little Jimmy" is a fairly typical example of these on-the-downhill-slope efforts. The voice acting is great, the animation is top-notch, the music is fun and catchy... but the story is entirely without any of the edgy sparks that were flying left and right back in early 1930s. What we have here is a series of cute, harmless, and mildly amusing gags that are almost entirely free of anything that would cause upset. (That said, there are a couple of moments that might "trigger" some of the hyper-sensitive modern viewers out there, but anyone who is psychologically well-balanced should weather the experience just fine.)

One thing that really sets it apart, however, is the unsettling, nightmarish territory that this cartoon heads into at the end. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it--other than it is completely out of tone with everything that leads up to it. It's so inconsistent that I find myself wondering if maybe veterans from the "Tom and Jerry" series dropped by for the story concept meetings, because, like the "Tom and Jerry" series, it's as if the creators here couldn't settle on a tone or an audience for their efforts.

Why don't you take a few minutes out of your day and enjoy a bit of 1930s fun and weirdness? Maybe you have a different take on the ending than I do, and then you can set me straight with a comment! 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Happy Independence Day, U.S.A!

We hope all our American friends, no matter where they are in the world, have a safe and happy Fourth of July during these unusual times! Here at Shades of Gray, Gloria Shea and Joan Blondell are sporting their matching Uncle Sam outfits while Grace Bradley is testing her Social Distancing Fireworks Display.

Saturday Serial: Jenna of the Jungle

Continuing Don Hudson's "Jenna of the Jungle" (and including a random bonus jungle girl afterwards). Click on any panel for a larger version, and come back next Saturday for Part Eight.

By Don Hudson
To Be Continued...

Girls of the Jungle
By Frank Frazetta

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The FIRST Screen Perry Mason!

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
Starring: Warren Willam, Mary Astor, Helen Trenholme, Russell Hicks, Grant Mitchell, Gordon Westcottt, Dorothy Tree, and James Burtis
Director: Alan Cosland
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

High-powered attorney Perry Mason (William) is paid an outrageously high retainer to step in if a petty feud over a howling dog between two millionaire neighbors (Hicks and Mitchell) gets out of hand. After a series of bizarre lies come to light, his client vanishes, and the neighbor is murdered by a woman who may or may not be his wife (Astor), Mason finds himself earning what appeared to be easy money.

"The Case of the Howling Dog" was the first screen version of the legendary slightly-shady-but-never-crooked attorney Perry Mason. It was the first of four films starring Warren William as the Mason, and he is great in the role. William presents just the right mix of slippery conman and dogged champion of justice for his client that's needed to present a likable lawyer who is willing to do anything to protect his clients, so long as its within the letter--if not always the spirit--of the law.

Mystery-wise, this one was easy to figure out. I knew where the film was going well before it got there, who did it, and where the very literal bodies were buried. I was briefly thrown off the scent because the film literally lies to the viewers in one scene, showing us something that turns out to have never happened. I don't mind this sort of thing if it's happening during a character's fake description of events, but here it's an unforgivable sin, especially in a mystery movie. It cost the film a Full Star, knocking it down to a low Six. (It took "not playing fair with the audience" to a level that I don't recall ever seeing a film stoop to before, and until this point, I would have been forgiving of the film and just assumed that the twists and turns and "who, what, where" were so easy for me to predict due to the many mystery movies I've watched and stories I've read... but then came the "cheat" and I knew I . The sad thing is that it's not at all a bad sequence, and it would have been perfect if it had been used as I suggested--as the visuals for a character narrating the events.)

On the plus-side, though, every actor in the film is perfectly cast, with Warren William and Helen Trenholme (as Della Street) being particularly strong. ("The Case of the Howling Dog" is one of only two movies that Trenholme was in; she was a respected stage actress before her flirtation with the movie business, and she was one for a decade afterwards. It's a shame she didn't find a place in films, because she's a lot of fun to watch in this one.)

Another strong point of "The Case of the Howling Dog" is how the film establishes Perry Mason's law practice, as well as providing insight into his character. The first few minutes of this picture make it clear that Mason is a big shot at the head of a firm employing several associates, inhouse investigators, and even an inhouse psychologist. The also deftly establish the breadth and depth of Mason's experience as a lawyer and with life, showing that while he may be representing the rich and famous now, he started out defending more common people (and criminals) with legal troubles--and that his firm still represents them to this day.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest factor in its favor, this film is never boring and not a moment is wasted. Every second on screen drives the story or offers important character development and insight.

"The Case of the Howling Dog" is available as part of a collection containing all the 1930s movies featuring Perry Mason (most of them starring Warren William). The set is reasonably priced, and if the rest of the films are as good as this one, it's well worth the money. I shall find out, as I work my way through it!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Wonder Woman Wednesday

Everyone's favorite Amazon, Wonder Woman, has been an American icon since the 1940s. With U.S. Independence Day coming up at the end of this week, we celebrate that aspect of her with this small gallery of portraits.

Wonder Woman
By Brian Bolland
Wonder Woman
By Jay Anacleto
By Monte Moore
Wonder Woman drawing by Frank Cho
By Frank Cho

Monday, June 29, 2020

Musical Monday with the Melbourne Ska Orchestra

The Melbourne Ska Orchestra (MSO) is fun-loving big band that's been performing infectious ska since 2003, first as a side project by its core group, but eventually as the main focus. Led by Nicky Bomba, the MSO is 36 members strong, but have been known to perform with as few as 17 musicians on stage. However many are up there swinging and shimmying, the music they put out will make you want to dance.

Even a song about a bloody gang war is a fun time when coming from the guys and gals of the MSO! Please enjoy it right now, with our hopes that you have a great week!

Trivia: Lygon Street is the heart of Melbourne's "Little Italy" neighborhood. We find it interesting  that Italian immigrants seem to give rise to the same stereotypes no matter where they are in the world.

(Oh... and if anyone ever makes a gangster/mafia comedy set in Melbourne, they should just go ahead and use this song and video and just lay opening credits over it, because you're probably not going to come up with anything better.)

For more on the MSO, visit their website by clicking here. Also, by clicking here, you can check out the fun video for their excellent arrangement of the "Get Smart" theme that first brought them to our attention.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

In memory of Jim Holloway

Artist Jim Holloway passed away on June 28, 2020. He drew some fabulous illustrations for RPGs during the 1980s and 1990s, full of action and humor. Here is a gallery of drawings for such diverse games as "Chill", "Dungeons & Dragons", "Paranoia", and "Star Frontiers", in his memory and honor.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Saturday Serial: Jenna of the Jungle

Continuing Don Hudson's "Jenna of the Jungle" (and including a random bonus jungle girl afterwards). Click on any panel for a larger version, and come back next Saturday for Part Seven.

By Don Hudson
To Be Continued...

Girls of the Jungle
Jungle Girl pencil drawing
By Paul Abrams

Friday, June 26, 2020

Firearms Friday with Milla Jovovich

Actress/model/singer/fashion-designer/director Milla Jovovich was born in 1975, and she began modeling as a young teen in the late 1980s. After a couple roles in sitcoms like "Married with Children" and "Parker Lewis Can't Lose", she began appearing in films, with "Chaplin" (1992) and "Dazed and Confused" (1993) being the first films where she began to fully get the attention from the movie-going public she deserved.

Milla Jovovich pointing gun at viewer

It was with "The Fifth Element" (1997) that Jovovich first played the sort of role that she became most closely associated with: That of a woman who can kick the ass of all comers, whether she is armed or not. Throughout the 2000s, and into the present day, she has performed Gun-Fu in many big-budget films, across several genres (with the "Resident Evil" films being foremost among these). She has always, however, balanced roles in these big-budget action films with appearances in comedies, dramas, and more artsy action films with smaller budgets.

Milla Jovovich has been a constant favorite of ours throughout the years, and the Milla Jovovich Quarterly is the longest-running post series on this blog. You can see more from her by clicking on the tag below, as well as on our sister blogs, Terror Titans, Cinema Steve, and Watching the Detectives. (Meanwhile, we're also looking forward to seeing her in "Monster Hunter", as well as to find out what she'll be playing in the screen adaptation of the "Corto Maltese" graphic novel series.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June

Let's spend a moment with another June in June!

Born into a theater family in 1912, June Havoc began her showbusiness career on the road, as a child performer with her sister Gypsy Lee Rose in vaudeville acts. As the sisters grew up, Rose embarked on a path that brought her lasting fame as she lifted stripping to an art-form, while Havoc continued down the more respectable road of musical theater and eventually film and television acting.

Havoc's first film appearance as an adult was in "Four Jacks and a Jill" (1942) and for the first few years she appeared in musical comedies. However, she soon transitioned to parts, big and small, in dramas and mysteries. Her biggest and best-remembered roles were her starring turns in a handful of film noir pictures, such as "Chicago Deadline" (1949), "The Story of Molly X" (1949), and "Once a Thief" (1950).

Havoc was long estranged from her more famous sister, who, frankly was famous more for just being famous than for her talent. They had fallen out as teens, but Havoc cut all contact after being angered at Rose's portrayal of her in the best-selling memoir, "Gypsy" (1957), and over the Baby June character in the hit musical based on it. The sisters did not patch up their differences until shortly before Rose passed away from lung cancer in 1970.

Havoc retired from acting at the age of 75, after the second of two guest-starring turns on the television series "Murder, She Wrote." She passed away on March 28, 2010.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Welcome to 'Hell's Kitchen: Silent Move Edition'

The Ogre's Cuisine (aka "In the Bogie Man's Cave") (1907)
Starring: Anonymous Actors
Director: Georges Méliès
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An ogre is happily preparing his favorite dish--freshly butchered human, flour-coated and pan-fried with a mix of spiced vegetables--when the fairy equivalent of Gordon Ramsey and her sous-chefs decide to pay him a visit...

Cooking shows continue to be very popular with friends of mine. If you enjoy them as well, you might get a kick out this gruesome little silent fantasy film from special effects pioneer Georges Méliès. 

Like other of Méliès's best pictures, "The Ogre's Cuisine" presents a story that is a fun balance of the bizarre and the macabre, as well as being something more than just a way for him to show off his cinematic illusions. I'm a little fuzzy on exactly what happens at the end--when the titular ogre puts on his butt-stomping boots--but everything up to the final few seconds is highly enjoyable. (This film is only six minutes long; maybe you can check it out below and tell me what you think is going on at the very end.)

Monday, June 22, 2020

Musical Monday with Aitch

Time periods collide in this music video for "Buss Down" by British rapper Aitch (with an assist from ZieZie). I confess that my ear for certain British dialects is so rusty these days that I only catch about half of what is being sung or rapped about, but the tune's catchy and the video tells a fun story, so it hardly matters!