Book Review: Merton of the Movies

Book Review: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

Simsbury, Illinois might just be a wide spot in the road, but twice a week, the Bijou Palace shows movies made in far-off Hollywood.  Perhaps the most fanatical attendee of these showings is young Merton Gill, assistant shopkeeper at Gashwiler’s Emporium (general store.)  Merton has studied these film stories carefully, subscribes to several photoplay magazines, and has taken a correspondence course in acting.  (With a specialization in face journeys.)  While ordinary folks only idly think of going to Hollywood to be in movies, Merton (aka Clifford Armytage) is going to actually do it!

Merton of the Movies

This comedic novel is by the author of Ruggles of Red Gap and was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919.  It was rapidly turned into a hit play, then released as a book in 1922.  There have been three movie versions, the 1947 one starring Red Skelton.

Merton arrives in California at the height of the silent era, woefully unprepared for the realities of the movie business.  He only wants to work for one studio, the ones that put out a Perils of Pauline style adventure serial starring his favorite actress, Beulah Baxter.  An idealist, he hasn’t noticed how sanitized the magazine articles about the stars of Hollywood are.  (One of the running gags is the stock phrases used in every interview.)  For quite some time, he doesn’t even make it past the casting office’s waiting room.

While cooling his heels day after day, Merton becomes acquainted with (quite against his will) “Flips” Montague, a sassy, irreverent young woman who’s been in show business all her life.  She’s not exactly film-heroine pretty, and far too familiar in her manner.  Merton can’t quite fathom why she insists on acting as though they were warm acquaintances.

I should mention here that Merton has no sense of humor; he recognizes that such a thing as comedy exists, but doesn’t grok it.  Slapstick, insults, wordplay, none of them seem funny to him, and he goes through life entirely seriously.

Finally, just as his monetary situation was looking grim, Merton gets a chance to be an extra in a cabaret scene.  He’s supposed to be suffering from ennui due to the Blight of Broadway.  As it happens, Merton is very uncomfortable in the scene, especially as he’s being forced to smoke cigarettes even though he detests the habit.  This makes him look perfect for that scene, and Miss Montague takes notice.

After that, there’s a long dry spell until a day’s extra work gives Merton just enough money to choose between paying rent and eating.  He chooses eating, then ingeniously uses the studio’s backlot resources to have shelter for the next week.   Down to his last nickel, Merton is stunned to run into Flips again at her part-time job as stunt double for Beulah Baxter.  (Ms. Baxter had claimed to do all her own stunts.)  He’s even more stunned to learn that Beulah is married…for the third time.

Flips (who prefers not to use her given name of Sarah Nevada Montague) treats Merton to breakfast and learns his life story…and realizes she’s found a gold mine.  She stakes Merton a couple of weeks rent, then contacts a director friend of hers.  She and Mr. Baird agree on a plan.  Merton will star in a movie, being told he’s playing a straight role, and not being allowed on the set for any scenes not involving his character.

Baird fibs to Merton that he wants to move up from comedy to serious films, and our hero buys it.  Clifford Armytage is on the rise at last!  Before the first film is released, Baird has Merton in a second movie with the same conditions.  Merton does have some suspicions…if this is a serious movie, why is the notorious funnyman with the crossed eyes involved?  But he puts them aside, after all he’s still a rookie and the director surely knows what he’s doing.

Shooting wrapped up, Baird signs Merton to a three-year exclusive contract (carefully looked over by Miss Montague.)  Merton realizes he’s fallen in love with Flips, and she likes him a whole bunch too…but the first movie with Clifford Armytage as straight man in a slapstick comedy is about to hit theaters.  Will this make Merton a star, or break his heart?

Good stuff:  There are many genuinely funny bits, and it’s fascinating to have a window into the Hollywood of the silent era.  There are things that are very much the same: Merton overhears as a worthy film idea is watered down and butchered to match what the moneymen think the audience wants, until the final product is unrecognizable.  There’s also bewailing the intelligent movies that don’t get made because there’s no money in them.

Not so good:  Period racism, sexism and ethnic prejudice.  One of the standout lines here is “He knows all about money, even if he doesn’t keep Yom Kippur.”  Flips is kind of an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope some folks are tired of.  And there’s animal abuse by a film crew, true to the period.

Recommended to movie fans, especially those interested in the silent era.

And now, the trailer for the 1947 film:

Manga Review: Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1)

Manga Review: Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1) by Keiichi Arawa

The ordinary lives that all of us lead every day might perhaps be a succession of miracles.

This is the story of four ordinary high school girls living their ordinary everyday lives.  Yukko, cheerful but not very bright; Mio, who’s of average intellect and has an artistic streak; the quiet and book-smart Mai; and Nano, who’s a robot with a wind-up key in her back.  They all have their little quirks, and strange things happen often, but it’s all a part of ordinary life.

Nichijou: My Ordinary Life (1)

Nichijou (“Everyday”) is a shounen (boy’s) comedy manga that ran from 2006-2015, with an anime adaptation in 2011.  There isn’t much of a narrative arc; most of the stories depict short scenes from the lives of one or more characters’ daily lives…strange as those events may be.  There are some recurring themes, the most frequent of which is Nano’s desire to blend in with humans, and her frustration with her inventor/ward, eight year old mad scientist Professor Shinonome, who refuses to remove the key in  her back.

In this first volume, we are introduced to the main characters as they head to school in the morning (Nano doesn’t quite make it.)  Yukko tries to figure out why Mai is ignoring her.  Nano has difficulties with new functions the Professor installed in her body.  The pretentious Sasahara (drama club president) and hot-tempered Misato (kendo club member) try to decide what to do for the cultural festival.

There’s a school assembly led by Principal Shinonome (who may or may not be related), known for his “dad jokes” and the intensely shy Ms. Sakurai.   Yukko witnesses a wrestling match between the principal and a deer–and can never tell anyone.  Yukko and Mai play rock-paper-scissors.  Yukko and Mio build a card house (this is a silent chapter.)  Yukko fails to study for finals, and the questions seem indecipherable.

Yukko tries to finish her lunch despite dropping a key ingredient.  Nano and the Professor have cake.  Ms. Sakurai tries to enforce school rules on Sasahara.   Mio belatedly remembers she drew an embarrassing picture in her notebook when Yukko tries to borrow it.  Mio gets a part-time job that sucks.  Yukko finally did her homework on time, but didn’t remember to bring it back to school.  Nano suffers from over the top comedic reactions due to the Professor’s latest modifications.

The short pieces are usually funny, though some of them rely on Japanese conventions of comedy that might be opaque to newer readers of manga.  The lack of focus and chapters where nothing much happens might also make this less appealing to some readers.  Also, there’s some slapstick violence.

I especially like the card house chapter, which utilizes suspense and the previously established characterization to build to a silly conclusion.

The art in this first volume is less than stellar, and suffers greatly from “same face”–the artist improved greatly over the course of the series.

A word or two more about the anime:  It does not present the sketches in the same order, allowing it to have a plot arc where Nano has to convince the Professor to let her attend school.  It also has interspersed gags from the creator’s other series Helvetica Standard, and in the second half of the season, the closing credits feature a different song each time.

I recommend this series for fans of sketch comedy and magical realism.

And now, a music video based on scenes from the anime:

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper written by Trina Robbins, art by Tyler Page

Megan Yamamura wants a pet. Unfortunately, the young poet’s (she specializes in haiku) father is allergic to all fur-bearing animals, so she’s thinking maybe a tarantula, which is fuzzy but not furry might be the best bet.

The Drained Brains Caper

She’s been looking all over her new city of Chicagoland and having no luck when she comes into the pet supply store Raf Hernandez is manning the counter of. The young computer whiz is helping out his mother, but the store’s policy is clear–they sell pet supplies, not animals.

Megan has other problems. One of the reasons her family had to move was because she’d been expelled from her old school (a total overreaction to a minor offense) and she now has to spend the summer at Stepford Academy. The students and teachers there are all smiling zombies, and the meat-laden school lunches (anathema to vegetarian Megan) have unusual effects if overeaten.

Raf is the only person her age she kind of knows in the neighborhood, so she has to turn to him when her father ignores the warning signs that something’s not right at Stepford Academy. (In the tradition of middle-school stories, Mr. Yamamura is totally oblivious to what Megan tells him and only listens to other adults.) The kids are soon joined by Bradley, a talking dog, and must stop the mad scientist, Dr. Vorschak, before she can bring the entire city under her sway.

This is the first volume in the Chicagoland Detective Agency series of children’s graphic novels. Trina Robbins is a long-time comics creator, and her writing here is decent if perhaps a bit shortcut-heavy. There’s not much mystery here, but then the detective agency hasn’t been formed yet. The detective himself doesn’t come in until halfway through, and he just happens to have known what was going on all along.

The city of Chicagoland is about 90% Chicago (it has the El and the Cubs), but presumably isn’t just Chicago so that the creative team can shove any odd buildings or fictional organizations they want in.

There’s some slapstick violence, and Dr. Vorschak engages in unethical animal testing as well as unethical human testing. But in general, this should be suitable for middle-school readers.

Recommended to fans of things like the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Manga Review: Nisekoi

Manga Review: Nisekoi by Naoshi Komi

Raku Ichijo is a mild-mannered teenager who just happens to be the heir-apparent to the Shuei-Gumi Yakuza clan.  He wants nothing to do with this, intending to become a strait-laced civil servant when he grows up.  Raku also dreams of romance.  He has a lock pendant from ten years ago, that he promised to keep so a girl could unlock it with her key and they would get married.  Unfortunately, he no longer remembers the girl’s name or appearance.  But he wouldn’t mind if she was his current crush, Kosaki Onodera, who is sweet and shy.

Nisekoi Volume 1

However, another girl comes crashing into Raku’s life, knee to face first.  She’s Chitoge Kirisaki, a boisterous, half-American girl who’s very pretty and athletic, but sorely lacking in proper deportment.  Raku and Chitoge get on like mongoose and viper, each seeing the other as the source of problems.  (Most notably, Chitoge accidentally caused Raku’s pendant to go missing.)  Over the next couple of weeks, being constantly thrown together allows them to learn each other’s bad points and some of their good, but at last it looks like they’ve reached a truce.

It’s at this point that Raku’s father announces that in order to make a truce with the new criminal organization in the city, the Beehive Gang, Raku must enter into a false relationship (the nisekoi of the title) with the daughter of that gang’s leader.  Who is, of course, Chitoge.  In order to keep peace between the gangs, they must pretend to be lovey-dovey, while in reality they drive each other up the wall!

Legend has it that Komi’s previous series, Double Arts, was innovative and took some creative risks, but struggled to find an audience and was cut short.  So he deliberately made this romantic comedy series as cliched as possible, but as well-written as he could manage to capture sales and series longevity.  And yes, many elements of the series are very predictable.  Of course Onodera secretly has a crush on Raku she’s too shy to ever act on.   Of course Raku and Chitoge find themselves growing closer even as they valiantly struggle against such feelings.  Of course new wacky characters appear to cause more complications in their lives as the circumstances force them into sitcom antics.

Most of the time, it’s done quite well, and is enjoyably readable.  There’s just enough of a twist at times to keep it from being completely obvious, and most of the characters are kind of likable when they aren’t being sitcom stupid.

Like many Shounen Jump series, there was a long period in the middle where the manga seemed to be spinning its wheels, doing fun stories, but no real plot advancement.  Then about a year real time before the series ended, Komi started resolving plot points one after another, devoting arcs to clearing away the complications that prevented the central relationship from advancing.  The ending, while also in its way cliched, was very satisfying.

There’s also an anime adaptation of the early part of the manga.

I have the first volume to hand.  After the initial set-up, Raku and Chitoge are forced to go on their first (fake) date, which is something of a disaster, especially when Onodera stumbles on them together, and is convinced the relationship is real.  There’s also the reveal that Onodera wears a key pendant that looks like it might fit Raku’s lock pendant.  Could she be the promise girl?

This is followed by the entire school finding out about the (fake) relationship, so Raku and Chitoge can’t even let their guard down there.  The final chapter in the volume reveals that neither Chitoge nor Onodera can cook, good thing Raku can!  The main menace in this volume is Claude, security chief for the Beehive gang.  He’s pretty sure the relationship is fake, and keeps spying on the couple.  (He fades into the background a bit in later volumes when his teen protege Tsugumi is introduced as Chitoge’s bodyguard.)

The series is fanservice-light, with slapstick violence, so should be suitable for junior high readers up.  Recommended primarily for teens, as older readers may find all the cliches a bit much.

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

When bandleader and trumpeter Harry James (playing himself) is drafted, his entire band enlists to accompany him.   However, his main vocalist, Lon Prentice (Dick Foran) is initially classified 4-F due to a foot problem.  One visit to the doctor later, Lon is cured and can enlist with the other fellows.

Private Buckaroo

However, the vain Lon is already an expert shot and finds most Army training and menial duties below him.  To everyone else’s surprise, the base commander (Ernest Truex) gives the order that Lon is excused from any training or duties he doesn’t want to do.  At first, he doesn’t mind, even though his fellow trainees are giving him the stinkeye when they get saddled with his guard rotations.  It’s not until Lon learns that he won’t be shipping out with the rest of the boys, but assigned to a rear echelon desk job that his attitude changes.

Meanwhile, First Sergeant “Muggsy” Shavel (Shemp Howard) is in a rocky relationship with his fiancee Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss (Mary Wickes).  Not only is she rather shrewish, but USO entertainer Lancelot Pringle McBiff (Joe E. Lewis) is making time with her, and she doesn’t seem at all reluctant.

This 1942 musical is essentially a recruiting film for the Army put out by Universal Studios.  In addition to the above mentioned entertainers, the Andrews Sisters feature heavily.  The more unpleasant aspects of boot camp are skipped over entirely, and it ends with a montage of our brave boys shipping out.

There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor, with Sergeant Shavel taking the brunt of most of it.  The fact that Bonnie-Belle is the dominant one in their relationship is played for laughs, but the domestic violence won’t play as well with a modern audience.  There’s also some period slurs against the Japanese, in keeping with the subject matter.

As part of the mildly military aspect, the base commanders’ nieces have pretty much free run, especially precocious tyke Tagalong (Susan Levine), who gets some of the best lines.

The musical numbers are well worth seeing, but the previously mentioned content may make it a no-go for younger viewers without parental guidance.

Here’s a trailer for the movie.

 

 

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

The movie starts with chorus girls’ feet and legs kicking behind the title sequence.  Then the camera is pulled back and we discover that the “chorus girls” are all men.  The Zeta Fraternity of all-male Quinceton University are putting on a drag revue.

All-American Co-Ed

Matilda Collinge (Esther Dale) sees a description (but no pictures) in the paper and strongly disapproves.  As president of Mar Brynn Horticultural College, she would never allow such shenanigans on her all-female campus.   Still, enrollment has been falling off, and the college needs something to boost its profile.

Matilda’s publicist Hap Holden (Harry Langdon), a newspaperman, and her niece Virginia Collinge (Frances Langford) come up with an idea.  Rather than only admitting upper-crust girls, this year the college will offer scholarships to twelve young women from across the country who’ve won contests with their produce (who also look pretty.)

As an additional attention-grabber, these scholarship students will be referred to as “likely to succeed” in direct contrast to the loathsome oafs of Quinceton’s Zeta fraternity.  When this dig comes to the boys’ attention, they decide to dress up Bob Sheppard (Johnny Downs) as Flower Queen Bobbie DeWolfe and submit that picture.  Bobbie is chosen, so now Bob must go undercover as his alter ego, to seek revenge for the Mar Brynn slight.  Hilarity ensues.

This 1941 musical comedy has a disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual college life is purely coincidental.”  It’s from a time when “man in a dress” was considered comedy gold all by itself, and then adds some gags.  Let’s face it, Bobbie desperately trying to not be unmasked before “she” achieves her goal leads to some pleasant silliness.  I note that the disguise is helped by fashions of the day giving every young woman linebacker shoulders.

The first few songs are good, but the final agriculture-themed performance just drags on with labored rhymes.

Less good stuff:  There’s 1940s-style sexism, as Virginia declares, “Girls don’t want minds, Auntie, they want a husband!”  One comedic sequence turns on the stereotype of black people being superstitious and a little dim.  And sexual harassment is played for laughs, because it is just so hi-larious when a man is doing it to another man under the impression he’s a woman.

You may not want to watch this one with younger viewers in light of the last thing, or be prepared to remind them that in real life sexual harassment’s not funny.

This was nominated for two Oscars, so clearly has some merit, but it’s a specialty taste.

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

In the indefinite future, homo sapiens as we know it is slowly going extinct.  Not to worry, though, our successors have already appeared, the New Humans, also commonly referred to as “fairies.”  The Mediator is a young woman who works for what’s left of the UN, acting as an intermediary between the Old Humans and the new ones.

Humanity has Declined

This 2012 anime series is based on a series of light novels, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita, by Romeo Tanaka.  It’s a satire on human behavior, with plenty of dark comedy mixed in with science fiction concepts.  The fairies have seemingly miraculous technology but can’t master the concept of making sweets for themselves.  No one seems to be terribly fussed about the extinction of humanity, at worst being a bit melancholy about what sort of legacy it will be leaving behind.

The series is told in anachronic order; the first two episodes take place near the end of the storyline, while the last two cover the Mediator’s education.  (Very few people in this series have actual names that we hear.)

There’s some slapstick violence, particularly in the first couple of episodes, in which the fairies try to help with a food shortage, and it might not be suitable for viewers with sensitive stomachs.  There’s also a couple of incontinence jokes, and a character that’s overly fond of stories where boys become more than friends.  Still, it should be okay for most viewers junior high age and up who can handle dark comedy.

Anime Review: Urusei Yatsura

Anime Review: Urusei Yatsura

Ataru Moroboshi is not precisely your average teenaged boy.  For one thing, he’s an incurable skirt-chaser, constantly hitting on any pretty lady who happens by.  Also, he’s incredibly unlucky.  So unlucky, that when alien invaders declare that a random person from Earth must compete against their champion in a game of tag, Ataru is that random person.

Urusei Yatsura

The alien champion is Lum, who looks like a sexy version of a Japanese oni.  Ataru is suddenly much more pumped at the prospect of catching her, but the alien girl turns out to be able to fly.   The Earth is on the brink of defeat when Ataru’s long-suffering main romantic target Shinobu agrees to marry him if he wins.

This gives Ataru just the boost he needs to catch Lum and win, but in the process he accidentally proposes to Lum, who accepts, because she’s fallen in love with him.  Soon Ataru’s home suburb of Tomobiki Town is a hotbed of aliens and weirdness.

Urusei Yatsura, also known as “Those Annoying Aliens”, was the first big hit by manga creator Rumiko Takahashi.  It was turned into a long-running televison series, several direct to video features and some movies.  I recently finished watching all fifty DVD volumes of the TV show.  The manga, marketed in America as Lum: Urusei Yatsura, has not been fully released in English due to misguided marketing leading to poor sales.

This romantic comedy series, heavy on the comedy part, is full of zany characters, puns, slapstick gags and amusing situations.  Ataru is a jerk, yes, and deserves about 80% of what happens to him, with the rest being random bad luck.  But he also has his good points, when the mood strikes him.   And it’s not as though the other fellows in the series are much better in their own ways.

Lum undergoes a huge change over the course of the series.  At the beginning, she’s a pretty horrible person, the type who shouts “I’m having your baby!” while Ataru is trying to talk on the telephone.  But she soon becomes much more likable, with her innocent failure to fully understand human culture taking the fore.  Part of this is because Shinobu was supposed to be the main love interest, but the readers liked Lum better, and feedback caused Ms. Takahashi to adjust the story to match.

During the first couple of seasons of the anime, this makes for some inconsistent characterization, as earlier stories from the manga were sometimes skipped over, only to be done later with the original characterization intact.  Over the course of the series, the anime also did a number of filler episodes.  These can usually be spotted by having much less Ataru, and a more melancholy/nostalgic tone.  Takahashi-penned stories often ended with a stinger that restored the status quo or punctured any lingering seriousness, filler episodes tend not to do this.

One pattern Ms. Takahashi uses a lot of is introducing a new zany character whenever the series starts to drag, having stories that pair them up with various members of the existing cast, and seeing if they stick.  This wound up with the series having loads of characters, some of whom only showed up once a year.  The most successful of the later characters is Ryuunosuke, a young woman raised as a boy by her crazed father, who explored gender issues in a way that would be more directly referenced in Ranma 1/2.

There’s a lot of slapstick violence, mostly aimed at Ataru; modern audiences may find Lum’s habit of shocking him with lightning bolts every time he displeases her uncomfortable.  Also quite a bit of fanservice, with Lum topless in the first episode (it’s for plot-related reasons!  Totally legit!)

While the series is massive, it’s very episodic, so picking any random volume or one of the movies shouldn’t be too confusing.  Okay, the second movie, Beautiful Dreamer,  is very confusing, but that’s on purpose due to the  nature of the plot.

Recommended to anime fans who haven’t seen where a lot of the currently used romantic comedy tropes came from, and comedy fans in general.

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