Sensational News!–1930s B movies with something special


Look at these posters…are you feeling the thrills yet?

I’ve found two B-films recently that really excite me; Graft! (1931) and Ladies Crave Excitement (1935). There’s something special about both of them, in spite of the obvious drawbacks in their productions values. Graft! even comes with a built-in exclamation point–you just know it’s going to be good. And it is, in a funny way. A young reporter craves a real story to sink his teeth into and accidentally stumbles into a corruption plot that implicates the mayor. Sure, the chase scene seems to loop the same Santa Monica block about 5 times while supposedly headed in a beeline for “downtown,” and the lead actors laugh their way through their lines like they’re having too much fun to be serious, but it’s got Boris Karloff in a bit part, damn it! Best of all is the intro scene, which outdoes His Girl Friday (1940) for exciting tracking shots through a busy newsroom. I wish I knew who blocked that; maybe the director Christy Cabanne or the DP Jerome Ash. Anyway, it’s exciting and worth seeing if you can find a copy.

The focus of Ladies Crave Excitement is the 1930s newsreel business and a wealthy (and ambitious) young woman whose father won’t let her work in his company, so she teams up with his competitor to present a blockbuster new idea. In both of these movies, there’s something genuinely winning about the aw, shucks expectation that talent and daring will get you ahead. (It helps if the boss’s secretary is only your side as Esther Ralston is in Ladies.) The highlight of this film is the early film and newsreel production footage and a humorous chase scene at the end.

It ain’t art, folks, but it’s fun and it makes you feel good about the chances in life. If only…






Rustin Cohle: Flat Circle

Rustin Cohle--Flat Circle

Cohle is my favorite character from True Detective (Season 1), so I couldn’t resist drawing him again. Just at this moment, crazy Reggie Ledoux is telling him that all life is a flat circle, which can’t mean much to him–unless he’s a fan of Nietzsche already and he may be. Considering his attention is on Marty’s whereabouts, possible assailants and covering their nutso suspect, it’s amazing that 17 years later, he remembers this. But that’s Cohle for you–he misses nothing.

24 Hours: Glamour and Style with No Substance

2016-07-25 24 Hours

Sketches from the beautiful but dull pre-Code film, 24 Hours, about a bored wealthy couple who beat a murder rap and rekindle their flame-proof romance.

Kay Francis and Clive Brook as the Towners, whose lives are shaken up when the husband’s lover is murdered and he’s the prime suspect. (The wife has a lover, too. It’s pre-Code–fair’s fair.) They live beautifully, drink profusely, dress to the nines, but are so miserable, they can’t muster the energy to even quarrel. The energy comes in with Rosie, the nightclub singer played by Miriam Hopkins, Towner’s squeeze who is strangled by her jealous gangster husband. It was his second killing that night (he had energy, too!). The story is weak, Towner is a downer, but at least it’s beautifully shot. I focused my sketches on Francis and Brook because they looked like beautiful Jazz Age illustrations: all drama, style and glamour. The real study would be Miriam Hopkins–maybe next time. I think I’d need to do gif for her.

Brook was better in von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), mainly for the earlier part when he was a down-and-out drunk and the end when he shows his boss what integrity is. (Integrity is when you want to steal the boss’s best girl, but you will rescue him from a police shoot-out anyway.) Brook does longing well enough, but he is leaden when it comes to playing a lover. Maybe they thought that was noble back then. I’ll pass.

Francis was beautiful but lugubrious. I haven’t seen her in anything else. I haven’t seen Miriam Hopkins before either, but I’ll be looking for a chance to see more of her work. She seemed very modern in this film.

The DP for 24 Hours was Ernie Haller whose work included Captain Blood, Jezebel, Dark Victory, Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce, Rebel Without a Cause, Whatever Happened to baby Jane? and one Star Trek episode (Where No Man Has Gone Before). No wonder it’s beautiful!

True Detective

2016-08-19 True Detective comp

My latest obsession…True Detective (Season 1). The best of writing and acting, atmospheric cinematography, world view… gritty, dirty, hard-core, beautiful. Matthew McConaughey vs. Woody Harrelson. Bitter cynic meets optimistic asshole. Carcosa. The Yellow King. DB on the bayou.The things that break and heal are strongest. Nah. That’s me trying to make sense of something that’s bigger than that. Human instinct. The winning play.

I want to keep drawing this, digging deeper, figure out why it is fucking good…

Illustration: Charlie Bannon of Calumet K

2016-07-24 Charlie Bannon cap

This is an illustration of one of my favorite fictional characters, Charlie Bannon, the wily man-with-a-plan from Merwin and Webster’s Calumet K (1901). I’ve been trying to capture this guy for a while, and I think with this drawing, I’m getting close. Translating the shadows of my imagination onto paper is a struggle.

The novel, set in 1901 Chicago, pits Bannon against banking collusion and labor strikes to complete a grain elevator before the bumper wheat crop arrives on the rails. He arrives to find the job hopelessly behind schedule and the odds stacked against him. Bannon never slows down for a minute. Expert at pulling a win from disaster, he uses know-how, strategy and daring to get the job done. Watching this guy in action is thrilling. Give it a try.












Identity: 1 + 1

This Week in the Movies…

While reading Jeanine Basinger’s The Star Machine (2007), I’ve been inspired to watch some of the old movies she talks about, along with others that catch my attention. The two from Basinger I chose this week were Taxi! and Theodora Goes Wild. My sister and I watched Love and Friendship, and I added another Melvyn Douglas picture, plus  Greystoke–a favorite back in 1984 when it was released.

  • She Married Her Boss (1935)–Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas
  • Theodora Goes Wild (1936)–Irene Dunn, Melvyn Douglas
  • Love and Friendship (2016)–Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Morffyd Clark
  • Taxi! (1932)–James Cagney, Loretta Young
  • Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984)–Christopher Lambert, Andie McDowell, Ralph Richardson

Greystoke held up pretty well across the intervening decades, though on the small screen it lacks some of the impact it had in the theater. Of all the films, this one most clearly asked questions of identity: Are we our genetic heritage? The accidents of our childhood? Christopher Lambert’s Lord Greystoke chooses to be the crossroads of nature and nurture. And God, the imagery is gorgeous. Including Chistopher Lambert. He carries the theme wordlessly: perfect as a wild creature and equally commanding in his bearing as a gentleman, his eyes always suggesting a searching intelligence.

Last week I saw Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and was looking for another of her pictures to watch. Since I’d just seen–and loved–Melvyn Douglas as the cranky all-work boss in She Married Her Boss, I decided to go with Dunne and Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild. It’s odd that I’ve been watching so many screwball comedies, because, constitutionally, I’m ill-equipped to enjoy them. As soon as the obvious pairing starts to get screwed up, my anxiety levels rise and refuse to budge till the final seconds of the film when everything ends well. This was less of a problem in Boss because Colbert was so obviously the master of the situation and it was only a matter of time till Douglas woke up to the fact. That was a fun film with a lot of comic moments, but the ending felt tacked on and abrupt and completely out of character for Douglas. Identity is at issue for this mismatched couple too: the secretary he prided himself on understanding, the woman who thought she had been married for love. I can only guess they’ll be even more confused with each other after the end, but at least they are laughing.

Theodora was another matter entirely. Both Douglas and Dunne take turns ruining each others lives, both instances of which I found hard on the nerves. Jake the Dog though was a bonus in Douglas’s turn at wrecking ball. I also wasn’t convinced that Douglas ever had feelings for Dunne–it was never in his eyes, his voice or his manner–but you could tell she’d gone soft on him long before she admitted it. Identity was rather the point of the secrets in the movie. The best question it asked was whether there was more truth in our quotidian lives or in our imaginations. My favorite bit along those lines is when Dunne first enters Douglas’s apartment to find it the perfect incarnation of a scene in her novel.

Love and Friendship is a Jane Austen adaptation, which I’m always most willing to see, especially one that, while leaving the 18th century dialogue intact, renders it as natural to f the story as the costumes and period sets. Lady Susan, played with glib indifference by Kate Beckinsale, is a piece of work that even a chess grand-master would be challenged to out-maneuver. The only matter of identity here is the issue of the plus-one: who shall one marry? Lady Susan does not believe in being the victim of birth or fortune. She’s a bracing tonic, though not exactly a role model.

Last of all is Taxi! Its’ the story of a pair of young lovers caught up in the taxi wars on 1930s New York. I’m not sure how much of it made sense, though may be historically true, but it’s an excuse for Cagney to exhibit his hair-trigger temper, dance a bit, crack wise and romance the girl. The girl is Loretta Young ad she’s not afraid to dish it back to Cagney. It’s exciting to watch the two of them in their scenes together–they spark like live wires at each other. Hot stuff for a sultry Sunday afternoon. I liked that they were secure enough in each other to really fight, no holds barred; they’re a couple, sure, but they are separate people with their own motivations and ways to work things out.

Nirvana Wishes

The 14th Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama

A Buddhist monk walks up to a hotdog vendor in New York, hands him a 10 dollar bill and says “Make me one with everything” and he disappears.

Happy Birthday, Dalai Lama (14)!

People Watch

2016-03-29 woman with phone 2016-04 sketches sm 2016-04 sketch sm 2016-04-13 man sm2016-04-04 sketch 2016-05-16 girl sm  2016-05-17 sm 2016-06-06 man sm  2016-06-10 striped 2016-06-06 shade sm

Time to catch up on my daily people watch and the sketches it produces. These ten drawings, the best of my lunch break efforts, cover several months. I like them because of their character and mood–several of these people aren’t even involved with their phones!–rather than because of their poses. It’s an ongoing challenge to see how much I can capture in just a minute or two while keeping a certain elegance or energy of line. I don’t succeed often, but there are moments…


Mr. Brown

big-combo-still2Mr. Brown

You ever watch a movie, read a book and realize you’re being set up to hate a character…except that you don’t, because to you, he’s the best thing going? It happened to me today. My first time viewing of the gorgeous film noir The Big Combo (1955) and Richard Conte’s wonderful “bad, bad man,” Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown! The ultimate cool customer, even his smirk is menacing. But exactly why do I like this scheming, murderous, double-crossing bastard? Maybe because he’s all in–whatever he wants, he goes for; he thinks ahead, planning for all contingencies; moves slow, in control; he’s proud and arrogant and doesn’t care a damn for your opinion of him, and he’s got the balls to say so. His business is impersonal and that’s why it works, but his downfall is that the women he loves, he actually loves, and love just don’t always work out so well. Oh, to be a bad, bad man…

Diamond, the only trouble with you is, you’d like to be me. You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can’t, it’s impossible. You think it’s money. It’s not. It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody.

I’ve seen it twice today–now it’s your turn. You can find a nice, crisp print here. You’re first in my book, Mr. Brown. I’ve got an instinct about these things…

Drawing Attention

2016-04 lady with glasses

It’s been a little while since my last post, but I’ve still been drawing, mainly the people I see on my lunch break, the ones paying more attention to their phones than the world around them. An artist’s dream. One of the frustrations of my daily drawings is that I only see people at a distance and can’t make very detailed studies, added to the fact that my subjects shift pose constantly and don’t stay very long. I really need a posed model, but until I can arrange for that, I make do without what is available. This lady was kind enough to be sufficiently engaged with her cell phone that she didn’t move and didn’t notice me looking at her. Thank you!