Friday, February 28, 2020

Firearms Friday with Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg is a British actress with a long and celebrated career on both the big and small screens. She is perhaps best known for her role as Mrs. Peele on "The Avengers" during the 1960s, and her more recent role as Oleena Tyrrell on "Game of Thrones".

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Angels and Fairies and Toys--Oh My!

The Grandmother's Story and the Child's Dream (aka "Grandmother's Story") (1908)
Starring: André Méliès
Director: Georges Méliès
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An angel descends and whisks away a child (André Méliès) to a magical land of living toys and fairies. Or was it all a dream?

"The Grandmother's Story and the Child's Dream" (1908) is one of Georges Méliès lesser efforts. It's slow to get started, it's got sloppy blocking, and the trick photography is less precise than is the standard set by other films. I think the main problem here is that it was under-rehearsed, with its large cast not hitting their marks quite right and not standing still enough for Méliès in-camera special effects to work properly. That more rehearsal was needed also seems evident in how some of the fairies seem clumsy or listless, and how an adult actor yanks the "dreaming child" back to his mark in one scene.

It's a shame the performers in this film weren't steadier, because I like every idea present, I like the visualizations of the fairy-realm, and, other than the slow start, I appreciate that Méliès lets this film unfold at a less frenetic pace than many of his other works.
As always with these Méliès reviews, I encourage you to take a few mintues to check out the movie for yourself, right here in this post. You might find my take completely wrong--in which case I hope you'll let me know in a comment below.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Happy birthday, Madeleine Carroll!

On Feb. 26, 1906, Alfred Hitchcock's original icy blonde was born in the English town of West Bromwich. You can click here to read a well-written biography of Caroll at the IMDB, or you can just gaze upon the pictures in this post. (Carroll passed away in 1987, but her films and photos like these are with us forever!)

Monday, February 24, 2020

Musical Monday with Richard Marx

This week's Musical Monday selection is a tragic tale, told through song and an excellent music video. It might have been perfect--since it's artfully done and features real actors, since it's as much a short film/silent movie as it is a music video, but it suffers from a flaw all-too-common with videos from the time it was made.

Check it out... and then read more about what I view as flaws in this work if you feel so inclined. (Otherwise, I wish you a good week... and I hope your circumstances are better than those the characters in "Hazard" find themselves in...)

Hazard (1992)
Starring: Richard Marks, Robert Conrad, Renee Parent, and Jennifer O'Neill
Director: Michael Haussman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

At some point during late 1980s and early 1990s, it seems someone decided that it wasn't enough for some music videos to be mini-silent movies--they had to add dialogue and disrupt the song that they ostensibly existed to promote. The otherwise excellent video for Richard Marx's "Hazard" (perhaps the grimmest song he ever recorded) is marred by such needless additions.

In the case "Hazard", the spoken lines are disruptive but doesn't ruin the overall experience of watching the video, as is the case with entirely too many music videos of that period. (I think people were probably trying to capture the accolades and success of pieces of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"... but didn't realize that ones like that worked because the song was featured as part of a mini-movie that was built around it and woven through it.)

It could also be that here someone felt that the cost of having well-established actors appearing along side Richard Marx instead of the usual models and musicians required some lines to be spoken.

Whatever the reasons, an otherwise excelling little silent movie that carried the story of "Hazard" perfectly fine is interrupted by a spoken exchange between Marx and Conrad, which also disrupts the flow of the song--something else that doesn't happen when this is done well. (Again, I refer everyone back to "Thriller".)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A fun way to learn astronomy basics

The Manga Guide to the Universe (No Starch Press, 2011)
Authors: Kenji Ishikawa, Kiyoshi Kawabata, and Yutaka Hiiragi
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a high school drama club is at risk of being disbanded, its members decide to stage a dramatic adaptation of a Japanese legend about a maiden who came to Earth from the Moon. This leads them to explore the science of celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole (with some detours into folklore from around the world and multiversal theories).

"The Manga Guide to the Universe" is a fun and breezy way to learn the basics about astronomy while enjoying some light-hearted jokes about nerds, theater geeks, fan culture, and Japanese society along the way. The book is divided between comic book (manga) and pages of text. The comics portion follows the goofy high-schoolers and the science experts they consult about the mechanics of the solar system and the universe, while the text pages that go into the scholarly and scientific underpinnings of what they're told. Both the comic book portions and the text portions are clear and straight-forward in how they present the story and information, and they are further augmented with diagrams when needed. (I also really appreciate the fact that these books aren't tainted by the lazy translations that have been the norm for the past 15-20 years in the Japanese comics imports--the comics read left-to-right, front to back, as they should in a book presented in English.)

I  was given "The Manga Guide to the Universe" as a Christmas present, and I enjoyed it so much that I've gone ahead and ordered "The Manga Guide to Relativity" in hopes that I will finally have some of that information presented in a way that I can wrap my simple, BA-degrees holding mind around. I will let you all know if the Manga Guide crew was successful in edumacating me when the time comes!

Friday, February 21, 2020

'The Fraidy Cat' is worth knowing

The Fraidy Cat (1924)
Starring: Charley Chase, Beth Darlington, Ed Mohan, Emma Tansey, Joe Cobb, and Mickey Daniels
Director: James Parrot
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A misunderstanding causes a cowardly man (Chase) to finally fight back against all the bullies who've been picking on him. His newfound courage comes in handy when his girlfriend (Darlington) is abducted by one of those bullies (Mohan).

Beth Darlington and Charley Chase in Fraidy Cat (1924)

"The Fraidy Cat" is a well-paced, well-acted film that's a little painful to watch for those very reasons. Charley Chase presents such a charming, hapless character that you're going to hate seeing him picked on and abused during the first half of the film, and the when he finally tries to put one of the kids harassing him in their place, the film's biggest bully and closest thing it has to a villain (played with gusto by Ed Mohan) shows up and ruins even that. This film is so well put together that just as Chase's character starts to get just a little too pathetic, we're presented with a goofy motivation for him to finally stand up for himself and take the fight to his tormentors. It's both satisfying and very funny watching Chase getting even with the bullies.

What's more, "The Fraidy Cat" also offers up a spoof of the standard melodrama plot element of the villain kidnapping the love interest. It leads to one of the most amusing chases you're going to come across in a film like this, as well as a heroic rescue worthy of more serious fare. The mix of drama and comedy during the film's climax is perfect, and so is the final confrontation between Chase and the villain also plays out perfectly--including the moment where the audience discovers they have something pretty amusing in common. (I won't say what, because it spoils the joke.)

Watching "The Fraidy Cat" is a fun way to spend 11 minutes of your day, and you can check it out right here in this post, as I've embedded it below. (The film is of even greater interest to fans of the "Our Gang" comedies and The Little Rascals, as is marks their first appearance.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wonder Woman Wednesday

There's a new Wonder Woman movie arriving in theaters on June 4, 2020. To get ready, we're going to feature great portraits of her from top-notch artists (with some of her friends and enemies thrown in) every other Wednesday from now until then!

Wonder Woman by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
By Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

Wonder Woman by M.L. Peters
By M.L. Peters

Wonder Woman by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
By Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

Monday, February 17, 2020

Happy birthday to Curt Swan!

I just read that it would have been Curt Swan's 100th birthday today. He remains one of the greatest artists to ever draw Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, and the Legion of Superheroes.

Here's a trio Superman portraits from Swan's pencil in his memory and in celebration of his birthday!

Musical Monday with Camila Cabello

Singer Camila Cabello first came to public notice as a teen-aged contestant on the X-Factor talent show in 2012. Over the past eight years, she has risen to pop music star status, complete with scandals and Twitter/Instagram apology tours for making insensitive posts!

As I type these words, it's less than a week since she released her latest music video and single. Camila Cabello ... which means it's probably the "freshest" thing to ever be featured here at Shades of Gray. Featuring this video as quickly as possible on a Musical Monday was a no-brainer since it's supporting a nice song and is set in an imaginary version of the Old Hollywood that produced so many of the films and cultural icons that are covered around here.

Oh... and don't get scared when the video is suddenly in color at the end. It's that shift that lifts if from good to great, in my opinion!

My Oh My (2020)
Starring: Camila Cabello and DaBaby
Director: Dave Meyers
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

(This is at least the second time that director Dave Meyers has used fake movie title cards as part of a music video. I'll have to check out more of his work to see if it's a signature. He also did it in this Pink video from 2012.)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

It's Tom and Jerry... and they're in 'Trouble'!

Trouble (1931)
Starring: Anonymous Voice Actors and Singers
Directors: John Foster and George Stallings
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Tom and Jerry are ambulance-chasing attorneys looking for a way to drum up business for their firm.

In "Trouble", we see Tom and Jerry making a go at being lawyers, one of the many professions they will work in over the course of the series. Out of their various career choices, this may be the most ill-considered, given they live in a world inhabited by rubbery beings who can transform physically on a whim and who can fall from great heights, get blown up, sink to the bottom of the ocean, and otherwise have disasters happen to them that should be fatal but doesn't leave a scratch or a bruise. 

During the six-minute running time of this film, we get to see our heroes sing about their law practice, engage in a clever attempt at guerilla marketing, and literally chase an ambulance when they think they have a lead on a client who is about to fall from the top of the Empire State Building following a botched docking attempt by a zeppelin. The concluding (and funniest) gag is at once a masterful bit of fourth-wall humor, as well as a reinforcement of my opening thought: Accident lawyers in Tom and Jerry's world have a difficult time making a living.

As "Tom and Jerry" cartoons go, this one is pretty mild. The music is fairly unremarkable, the gags mild and, with the exception of the one at the end, predictable. Nothing here is bad... it's just average. (But you can judge for yourself; take a few minutes and watch "Trouble" right now!)

One general thought about most cartoons of this era (late 1920s through the early 1930s) that often occurs to me but I forget to mention when writing these posts, is how they are essentially silent movies. Yes, there's music and singing and sound effects, but what passes for dialogue in minimal and often nothing more than sounds that are word-like but not actual words... or just stay words mixed in with mumbles and squeaks. I wonder how aggressively the studios that produced them pursued foreign markets. While there are unique American cultural and political references in them, it still seems they would have works almost as well in European nations.)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Firearms Friday with Dolores Brinkman

Delores Brinkman as Cupid

Okay... so today's post may have been more suitable as part of a Ranged Weapons Wednesday series, but since this is Friday and Valentine's Day, I couldn't pass on the chance to present these pics of Dolores Brinkman hamming it up as a gender-reversed Cupid.

Dolores Brinkman as Cupid

Born in 1910, Brinkman began acting as a young teenager. Her brief film career consisted of appearances in roughly a dozen movies made over the six year period from 1924 to 1930. Her final film appearance was in the comedy "Whispering Whoopie". She held her own opposite comedy legends like Charley Chase and Thelma Todd, and it shows that she had plenty of talent.

But, in 1930, Brinkman walked away from performing and spent the rest of her life trying to avoid the public eye. She was so intent on anonymity that she requested no obituary be published upon her death.

Dolores Brinkman as Cupid

 Dolores Brinkman passed away in 2003. You can read what may be the most complete biography of her that anyone will ever be able to write by clicking here.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

I finally saw an important bit of film history...

Steamboat Willie (1928)
Starring: Walt Disney (as the voices of all characters)
Directors: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Mickey and Minnie perform "Turkey in the Straw" using barnyard animals as instruments while on a riverboat.

Thanks to Disney Plus, I've finally seen "Steamboat Willie" (1928). If not for the place it holds in the history of animation and the film industry in general, I wonder if "Steamboat Willie" would be remembered at all. It's the first appearance of Mickey and Minnie Mouse... and it's first cartoon with sound. All those are, of course, enough to secure this film's place in history, but compared to other cartoons of the period, and certainly to ones that followed from Walt Disney's production house and his competitors, this is pretty unremarkable.

Maybe it's because I'm not a kid, or maybe because it's not 1928, but I found the story and the gags to be cute but not much more than than. My favorite bits were Mickey creatively using the crane to get Minnie aboard the boat, and the goat turning into a musical instrument after it eats some sheet music and a ukulele. The second incident  is the foundation for the second half of the film which is a performance of "Turkey in the Straw" on various items and animals. On the downside, though,, this part of the film became less amusing as it went on, because it's a festival of animal cruelty. By the end, I was happy to see Mickey get punished by the steamboat's angry cat captain.

On the other hand, I've had "Turkey in the Straw" lodged in my head since I watched "Steamboat Willie"... and I think after listening to this, it may be stuck there forever.

(It should be noted that for the Disney Plus release, "Steamboat Willie" has been restored to how it was when it was first released. It was edited in the 1950s for its theatrical re-release, removing part of the bit where piglets and a mother pig are used as instruments by Mickey.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Swank Quarterly

Hillary Swank is cheering, because she's joining the ranks of great actresses--like Bessie Love, Milla Jovovich, and June Collyer--who've been featured as Quarterlies here at Shades of Gray.

Born in 1974, Hilary Swank was an accomplished high school athlete who began acting professionally in her teens, with roles on a variety of television series during the early 1990s, with her starring role in "The Next Karate Kid" (1994) being the film that first garnered her lots of public attention. After starring in a string of thrillers and horror movies during the late 1990s (as well as recurring roles on a number of television series, such as "Beverly Hills 90210"), she earned an Academy Award for "Boys Don't Cry" in 1999. Today, Swank continues to split her time between  television and horror/suspense films. Her forthcoming projects are the horror film "The Hunt" and the sci-fi television series "Away" (neither of have projected released dates yet).

Will the future just hold pretty pictures of Swank, or will she be revealed to be a secret superhero or robot-fighter? Stay tuned!a

Monday, February 10, 2020

Musical Monday with Beyonce

"Single Ladies" is Beyonce's 2008 smash hit that is still well worth listening today; it's a song that will have you dancing your way into your work week. Meanwhile, the video for the song is another perfect illustration of this blog's unifying theme. Enjoy, and Happy Monday to you!

(Valentine's Day is coming up later this week, so maybe someone out there will find this song inspiring and "put a ring on it"!)

Saturday, February 8, 2020

'His Royal Slyness' at 100 years

His Royal Slyness (1920)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Gaylord Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Harry Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Noah Young, Gus Leonard, and Helen Gilmore
Director: Hal Roach
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A door-to-door salesman (Harold Lloyd) with an uncanny resemblance to the crown prince of a small European nation (Gaylord Lloyd) is convinced to take his place after the prince decides he'd rather stay in America with his sexy girlfriend (Mosquini) than return home for an arranged marriage with the princess of a neighboring kingdom (Davis).

"His Royal Slyness" is a fun twist on the old "Prince and the Pauper"-type tale, as well as a spoof of the Communist revolution. It's a supremely silly film without a single straight-man in sight. Just about every character is goofy, horny, dimwitted, or some combination of the those. The only character who has the slightest bit of class and integrity in the film is the princess played by Mildred Davis... and that might just be because there wasn't time for her to reveal another side to her.

The film is in many ways a caricature of the peasant/worker revolution that was unfolding in Russia when it was made, with its cartoonish nobles and peasants, but it's also a great vehicle for Lloyd's standard womanizing character. One of the film's funniest running gags involves him taking down phone numbers in his Little Black Book for every woman he meets, including that of the austere queen to whose daughter he is to be married. (On a perhaps purely personal level, borne from my years developing fictional settings for roleplaying games, I was fascinated by the fact that the royal court of Thermosa exclusively employed young women instead of boys as pages. I found myself wondering what the greater society in that nation might be like as a result. Of course, the real reason for why producer/director Hal Roach made this choice was to have plenty of women in short skirts wandering around the scenes... but I still wonder what went on in Thermosa to make it so different from the norm.)

As I post these comments, it's exactly 100 years since "His Royal Slyness" was first seen by audiences in movie theatrers. Considering that, it's obvious to wonder if it's still worth seeing today... and my answer is an emphatic YES! The humor in this fast-paced comedy has held up extremely well, and the political undertones may resonate a little differently than they did in 1920, but they still feel fresh and relevant--which may be a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the 21st Century.

But don't just take my word for it! You can watch the movie below, embedded here in this very post, and make up your own mind.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Top Tens

Here are lists of the actors and actresses who've been covered the most here at Shades of Gray, as of the beginning of 2020. The number behind their name reflects the number of posts with reviews of movies they've appeared in, or with photo galleries featuring them. Those numbers will, of course, change as we move forward into the next decade.

Bela Lugosi - 40
Boris Karloff - 32
Buster Keaton - 16
Abbott & Costello - 15
George Zucco - 14
Charley Chase - 13
Harold Lloyd - 13
Harry Pollard - 11
Lon Chaney Jr. - 11
Peter Lorre - 11

Top Tenners Harry Pollard, Bebe Daniels, and Harold Lloyd

Thelma Todd - 62
Milla Jovovich - 32
Ann Miller - 24
ZaSu Pitts - 20
Bebe Daniels - 19
June Collyer - 13
Bessie Love - 12
Dorothy Granger - 12
Patsy Kelly - 11
Myrna Loy - 9

Thursday, February 6, 2020

'The Mysterious Knight' brings the movie magic!

The Mysterious Knight (aka "Le Chevalier Mystère") (1899)
Starring: Georges Méliès
Director: Georges Méliès
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A sorcerer (Méliès) brings a chalk drawing of a head to life.

During the earliest days of filmmaking, Frenchman Georges Méliès made dozens upon dozens of short fatasy films that pioneered cinematic special effects. Some have plotlines and tell weird, phantasmagorical stories, while others are created for no reason other than to show off trick photography.

"The Mysterious Knight" is in this latter category. While most 21st Century viewers may not be "wow'ed" by this little film, the straightforward, exuberant presentation makes it a joy to watch. My favorite part of the film are the transformations of the head, as well as the way the character "proves" to us that it really is a disembodied head.

But don't just take my word for it. Why don't you brighten your day and take a minute to check out "The Mysterious Knight", right now from this post?

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Princesses of Mars: Part 33

In February of 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs gave the world its first introduction to John Carter and the love of his life, the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris. Here are some portraits in honor of that anniversary.

By Sandy Plunkett
By Kewber Baal
By Mark Schultz
By Frank Frazetta

Monday, February 3, 2020

Musical Monday with the Correspondents

   L.L. Hundal (of NUELOW Games): So you're posting a music video every Monday. Cool.
   Steve Miller (of Shades of Gray): I think so. There are lots of great black-and-white music vids to spotlight!
   Hundal: You still do that 'The Unifying Theme' bit with pics?
   Miller: Yep.
   Hundal: I wonder if there's a 'Unifying Theme' video out there.
   Miller: …
   The Correspondents: Hold our tray of tiny masked dancers and watch this.

The Correspondents is British music duo consisting of front-man Ian Bruce and keyboardist/DJ Tim Cole. They have a sound all their own that's best described as a cross between electronica, blues, jazz, funk, and whatever else happens to strike their fancy at any given moment. Their first appearance here at Shades of Gray has them performing their 2016 song "Inexplicable", with a video directed and produced by Christina Hardinge. The entire package that mixes old and modern and weird sums up this blog perfectly... and we hope this bit of supreme weirdness gets your work-week off to a fun and funky start!

The Correspondents will be filing other reports here at Shades of Gray on future Musical Mondays, so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

'The Phantom of Crestwood' is a dark, gruesome murder mystery

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Karen Morely, Anita Louise, Matt Kemp, H.B. Warner, Pauline Frederick, Ivan Simpson, and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher
Director: J. Walter Ruben
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A high-class prostitute, Jenny Wren (Morely), decides to fund her retirement by shaking down five rich and powerful men who have been regular :clients". When one of them murders her rather than submit to blackmail, infamous gangster Gary Curtis (Cortez) must identify the killer before the police arrive and pin it on him.

"The Phantom of Crestwood" is a much better movie than its gimmicky origins leads one to believe: It's a film version of a radio-play that ended on a cliffhanger and an invitation for listeners to submit their ideas for who committed the murder. (That makes this film a literal Radio Picture!)

It didn't really matter what listeners submitted, because the entire script was already done--something that was made clear in the contest--but I was still surprised at how dark, gruesome, and adult-oriented the film was, given the way it was promoted. The film is populated almost entirely by shady and unpleasant characters; the murder method is particularly vicious--and the death happens on screen (!); and the closest thing to a hero we have is a coldblooded killer who is only trying to solve the crime so he can save his own neck. It's what I imagine a film by the likes of Quentin Tarintino might have been if he'd been around in 1930s, with its dark nature and lively, non-stop stream of witty dialogue.

If you like your 1930s mysteries on the dark side, I think you'll find the 75-minutes you'll spend watching "The Phantom of Crestwood" to be time very well spent. The performances given by Ricardo Cortez and Karen Moreley almost make watching the film on their own. There's an added bonus in that the mystery surrounding the murder of Jenny Wren is both complex, a little tragic, and makes perfect sense when all the pieces come to light... a combination of elements that aren't often found in these old pictures.

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