Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sherlock Sunday: It's the Great Detective's Greatest Case?

The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932)
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan, and Graham Soutten
Director: Graham Cutts
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After Mary Morstan (Bevan) receives a mysterious string of pearls and a mysterious letter requesting a meeting, and is then menaced by a mysterious thug (Soutten), she retains the services of private investigators Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Wontner and Hunter) for protection and to get some answers. What is brought to light is a tale of greed, decades-old treachery and murder, and a madman seeking revenge.


"The Sign of Four" is one of the most often adapted Holmes tales, with this 1932 film being the third version and the first talkie. It's a fast-moving and at times very chilling mystery film, with a cinematic style that often anticipates techniques that wouldn't come into wide use until the rise of film noir in the late 1940s and the 1950s. These stylstic flourishes help to offset some of the film's acting styles, which are still heavily influenced by what was then the fast-fading silent movies period, giving the film a more modern feel that many of the early talkies lack.

Another strong point of the film is the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Not only does Arthur Wotner's Holmes seem as though he was brought to life straight from the pen-and-ink illustrations in "The Strand Magazine," but Holmes here seems more at ease with himself and those around him than the one we most often find in the films. He comes across as a unmatched genius, but he also has a good sense of humor and a compassionate nature and friendly demeanor that makes it easy to understand why Watson admires him. Another aspect I like about this adaptation is the Holmes is shown to be as excellent at physical confrontations as he is with the matching of wits. During the film's climax, Holmes kicks much butt, just like the character that Doyle described in his fiction.

Similarly, Watson is portrayed as an intelligent and useful assistant to Holmes, so there is no difficulty in understanding why the Great Detective keeps him around and relies on him for important tasks. This cannot be said of Watson in several other Holmes adaptatations.

While I generally liked how Watson was handled in the film, one aspect of Ian Hunter's portrayal of Watson I didn't care for was the way he came across like a lecherous pervert whenever he was around Mary Morstan. He is ogling her, pawing her... obviously barely able to keep himself from jumping her right then and there. While I understand that the intent was to portray "love at first sight" between Watson and Mary--who becomes his wife in the Doyle tales--the combination of clunky writing and silent movie-type acting makes one wonder why Mary wasn't beating this disgusting lech (who is also at least twice her age) with his cane and then running screaming from the room.

While the film keeps most of the generalities of the original Doyle tale, there are a number of changes that lend the film to be internally inconsistent and even nonsensical at times. The villain is so over the top and reprehensible that one wonders why his henchmen stick around, or even helped him in the first place; while the fact that the entire stolen treasure seems to be intact when Mary is sent the pearls instead of partially spent as in the original story; and a bizarre bit of comedy involving the neigh-obligatory "Holmes-in-disguise" scene. Some viewers might also be annoyed by the fact the story has been transported from the 1800s to the modern-day period of the 1930s, but it really makes no difference to the overall thrust of the tale.

On balance, though, it's a strong adaptation that is made even stronger by Wontner's excellent portrayal of Holmes. It's well worth checking out.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

It's a wild bike ride to save Benecia!

Stolen by Gypsies, or Beer and Bicycles (1933)
Starring: John Sheehan, Sam Hardy, Barbara Sheldon, Charles Ray, William Farnum, June Brewster, and Eddie Borden
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When his romantic advances toward the beautiful Bencia Beamish (Sheldon) are rejected, the fiendish Sinclair Sable (Hardy) hires Gypsy Joe (Sheehan) to kidnap her. Now only  her true love, Elmer Updike (Ray), aided by the members of the Beer and Bicycle Club, can save her!


"Stolen by Gypsies, or Beer and Bicycles" pokes fun at the melodramas that were once mainstays of the stage and silent movies, complete with asides to the audience, mustache-twirling villains, and intertitles (the latter of which are completely unnecssary, given that this isn't a silent film, but they add to the ambiance and comedy).

Although there's a gag-a-minute during the first half of the film, it's the long bicylces vs. horse-drawn gypsy wagon that makes this film worthwhile. From the special effects (Elmer bouncing into the air after riding over explosives thrown at him by Sinclair) to the stunts (the bicyclists colliding with a fallen tree, riding/tumbling down a cliffside, and more) to some bizarre asides (one of which includes a very strange portrayal of Atlantic City as an African village where the citizens try to knock the bicyclists down using clubs... this may be a joke that's muted due to the passage of time?) it's a hilarious and impressive affair that puts some modern chases to shame.

This is one of a thirteen shorts produced by the Masquers Club--a social club for comedians--in the early 1930s with the intent of raising funds for various charities and a new building for the club to have its meetings. It is also one of five included on a DVD release from Alpha Video, but it may also be available for viewing online. I think fans of Monte Python's Flying Circus may find it particularly enjoyable, because it draws from some of the same wells as a number of their skits., despite the 30+ year gap between them.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Happy Birthday, Superman!

April 18, 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of the very first appearance of Superman! In celebration, I am posting some drawings of the Man of Steel by my favorite Superman artists, in the order they come to mind.

First, there's Curt Swan, who drew Superman during 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I don't think he'll ever be topped. His art was especially good when inked by Murphy Anderson.


Next, there's John Byrne, as a close second. He didn't have anywhere near Swan's track record on the character, but his breif tenure during the mid-1980s was very impactful and carried the character through the 1990s.


Gil Kane didn't do a lot of work on Superman, but the stories he did draw (in Action Comics and a couple Specials in the 1980s) were spectacular!

Finally, there's Jose Luis Garcia Lopez who, sadly, spent most of his career in DC Comics' licensing arm drawing style sheets and merchandising artwork, but he drew some spectacular Superman team-up stories in early issues of DC Comics Presents. I'm ending this survey of the Man of Tomorrow's yesterdays with a drawing from his that shows Superman's changing looks from his debut in 1938 through to the 1990s.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

'Thru Thicket and Thin' is a nutty send-up of jungle pictures

Thru Thicket and Thin, or Who's Zoo in the Jungle (1933)
Starring: Eddie Borden, Dorothy Granger, and James Finlayson
Director: Mark Sandrich
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A booze-happy reporter (Borden) and an unscrupulous African explorer (Finlayson) compete for the attention of Tarkana, Queen of the Jungle (Granger).


"Thru Thicket and Thin, or Who's Zoo in the Jungle" is a fabulous send-up of the jungle explorer genre of adventure films. From the first mocking of the liberal use of stock nature footage in such pictures, through the final scene of "jungle domestic bliss", this film offers some 20 minutes of absurdist humor with barely a break between gags to let the viewers catch their breath from laughing.

Eddie Borden and James Finlayson (the latter of whom I recognized from his many parts as the frustrated man caught up in Laurel & Hardy antics) are great fun as the smarmy would-be beneficiaries of Tarkana's Innocent Affections... and Dorothy Granger is hilarious as the not-so-innocent wild woman. Everything you expect in a jungle picture is either turned on its head or savagely mocked (or both) in this brief film, including the portrayal of the natives. (And I can't even comment on one of the film's funniest and most startling gags, because even mentioning it will ruin its impact.)

"Thru Thicket and Thin" is one of 13 short films that were produced by members and starred members of the Masquers Club, a private social club for comedians when they wanted to raise funds for a new meeting place in the early 1930s. Several of them are available on DVD, or can be viewed for free online.



And while I'm at it, here are some publicity stills of Dorothy Granger as Tarkana. (The weird contraption she's sitting next to in one is a "radio" that is playing music in a scene.)




Friday, April 13, 2018

It's Friday the 13th!

Adrienne Ames wants everyone to know what day it is, and she wants everyone to watch out that bad luck doesn't strike them (and let's not even get into the threat of goalie-mask-wearing maniacs!).
























Meanwhile, Jeanne Carmen is like the honey badger, 'cause she just don't care!



Monday, April 9, 2018

Musical Monday: 'Hey Ho' by Gin Wigmore

"Hey Ho" was a single from Gin Wigmore's 2009 "Holy Smoke" album. It's cool song with an even cooler video, shot entirely in black and white.






You can read more about this fantastic talent from New Zealand here. You can also visit her official website here.

Monday, April 2, 2018

'Ticket to a Crime' starts strong, but falters

Ticket to a Crime (1934)
Starring: Ralph Graves, Lola Lane, James Burke, Charles Ray, Lois Wilson, John Elliot, and Hy Hoover
Director: Lewis Collins
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a financially troubled jeweler (Elliot) is murdered before he even has a chance to fully explain why he's hiring P.I. Clay Holt (Graves), Holt and his secretary (Lane) must not only find the killer, but try to learn what their job was supposed to be.


"Ticket to a Crime" is one of those films I started out liking, but which fell in my estimation as it progressed. It benefits from a pair of charismatic leads (Graves and Lane) that played well off each other, and the mystery at the center of the film is more complex that what is often the case with these low-budget films, with multiple possible motivations for the murder, as well as a slate of several likely suspects.

Unfortunately, the interesting plot and its relative complexities get derailed as the pace of the film accelerates during its second act and then rushes toward its conclusion with such a breakneck pace that the solution to the case feels lazy (and the criminal behind the action appears to be complete moron). But even before that, the character of Clay Holt (Ralph Graves) who started out as a charming, if somewhat self-absorbed rogue, has turned into a detestable and unlikable jackass.

First, there was the way he treated his secretary--she barely rated a kind word from him when she was wearing glasses and frumpy business clothing, but once she was in a party dress and without her "cheaters", he was head-over-heels in love. Was this really an amusing or endearing trait to movie-goers in the 1930s? From the moment Penny (played by Lola Lane) appeared on screen, I thought, "Wow... that's a pretty woman" and the fact that Clay Holt couldn't see that made me think he was either gay or stupid.

And, speaking of stupid, the second thing drags the character of Clay Holt down is his persistent pranking/tormenting of his former partner from his days on the police force, the slow-on-the-uptake Lt. McGinnis (James Burke, in a role he played many times over his career). Not only does he thoroughly obstruct McGinnis's investigation by withholding, and even planting fake, evidence, but he identifies a completely innocent bystander to McGinnis as a person he is seeking. Early in the film, a police official threatens to pull Holt's investigator license... given his behavior over the course of "Ticket to a Crime", not only should that license be pulled but Holt desperately needs to be prosecuted and locked up, since his behavior not only obstructed justice but it endangered both police officers and civilians.

Even if the writers hadn't completely botched the character of Holt, the rushed ending in and of itself ruins what began as a nice mystery picture. The solution to the crime is so simple that the criminal never had a chance of getting away with it in the first place: If Holt hadn't concealed evidence, even McGinnis would have identified the killer well before the disappointing Big Reveal. What's worse, the ending--the entire second half of the movie, actually, is so sloppy and rushed that we don't even find out the reason for why Clay and Penny were hired in the first place.