In a bold and daring move, the writing/producing/directing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank undertook a controversial subject for 1960: adulterous sex in the suburbs. What made it bold and daring were their choices for the two leads: Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. The results were the consistently amusing THE FACTS OF LIFE, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
Panama and Frank had a long and illustrious history with Hope (as two of his army of scribes). Their rung up the ladder to movie-makers, first as writers (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, White Christmas) then as a team, with Frank directing (Callaway Went Thataway, Knock on Wood, The Court Jester, Li’l Abner), encompassed a mere matter-of-time wheel spin before inevitably gravitating back once more to the man who made it all possible (they had previously codirected the excellent underrated 1956 Hope comedy That Certain Feeling).
Hope, savvy as ever, knew that by 1959 his type of screen comedy was thinning faster than his hairline, and thought about dipping his toes into the deeper adult comedic waters being tread by the likes of Billy Wilder – to say nothing of the earthy progressive stuff imported from Europe. Hope agreed, as long as Ball would be his illicit on-screen mate. Surprisingly, she jumped at the chance, with ardent support from real-life hubby Desi Arnaz.
The picture was to be made modestly, with everyone (hopefully) sharing in profit participation. It would also carry the distributorship of United Artists, Hope’s new movie home after twenty years at Paramount (although many Paramount coworkers would remain on Bob’s UA payroll).
The script is fairly sophisticated for its time. It rudely skewers suburbia, the upper-middle class, television, drive-in movies, no-tell motels and even the Cub Scouts of America. From the get-go, THE FACTS OF LIFE has everything I love in early 1960s movies, including a sugar ‘n’ spice smarmy title tune (composed by Johnny Mercer and sung in duet by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme) and jokey animated main credits (by Saul Bass, no less).
Hope and Ball are two middle-aged victims of marriages gone stale. Their only respite is their mutual dislike for one another (each is a nabe wise-ass, or, as Hope’s character dubs her, “Milton Berle in bloomers”). But, as the classic ditty tells us, “it’s a thin line between love and hate,” so when their country-club retreat to Mexico goes south (with their respective spouses having to bow out and the other duos felled by Montezuma’s Revenge), the two antagonists are pushed-comes-to-shoved together – figuratively, and then literally. Some pretty ribald stuff unfolds as the two adversaries transform from growling cheetahs to prowling cheaters, eventually plotting a Stateside partaking in America’s second bat ‘n’ balls favorite pastime (the funniest moment being when an anxious Hope, thoughtfully suggesting refreshments, drives off from their sleazy hourly rented point of assignation, but, due to the seemingly thousands of cheap motels in the vicinity, can’t remember where he stashed Ball).
It was a risky endeavor to project these two human bastions of family values into the kinda stuff more apropos to the likes of Mamie Van Doren and Ray Danton. In fact, THE FACTS OF LIFE often plays in part like a wacky take on Richard Quine’s exceptional sex-in-the-burbs drama Strangers When We Meet, made the same year.
A pallor of sink-or-swim doom permeated the production as the principals and UA heads pondered whether audiences would accept their icons of nuclear family fun as sneaky, horny philanderers (recent Disney star and now-TV dad Fred MacMurray was already receiving flak from fans due to his performance in The Apartment). This wasn’t helped by the eyebrow-raising battles between the two stars.
Hope and Ball had been “pals” for years, appearing on each other’s shows and costarring twice before dans le cinema in Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950). But that pair of Paramount hits had been first and foremost Bob Hope vehicles with a pre-I Love Lucy Ball being the prerequisite pretty female teammate, more along the lines of Rhonda Fleming, Joan Caulfield and Marilyn Maxwell. Things were very different on THE FACTS OF LIFE. Lucille Ball was now Hope’s full-fledged costar, as important a lure on the marquee as he was. She was also a film/TV executive with sharp business acumen, presiding over several of her company’s boards and known for taking no prisoners.
So when Hope’s barrage of writers kept sweetening the pot with new one-liners to keep it fresh, Ball winced, then roared. As an MC at a country club event, Hope delivers some snarky, albeit tired jibes at members (with cuts to a bored Ball rolling her eyes and shaking her head). Hope couldn’t resist punching up the asides a bit, and when he cracked a scripted “Madam, your vodka gimlets are showing,” he snuck in a hastily-added “Vodka, that’s an alcohol rub from the inside.” Ball had had it. “ENOUGH!,” she reputedly snarled, “KEEP TO THE GODDAMN SCRIPT!” This took Hope aback (“Hey, she didn’t do that on Fancy Pants”), but nevertheless put him on his game. Their subsequent tight-lipped insults to each other take on a meaning all their own (as enemies, would-be lovers and ex-paramours) – so much so that both were nominated for Golden Globes. Ball supposedly told a confidante that if he slips in one Bing Crosby line, she would raise @##$%& hell (mercifully, he didn’t).
But physical trauma reared its ugly noggin as well. During a scene on a fishing boat, Ball fell, severely injuring her head, knocking her unconscious. She also suffered multiple face and leg bruises. Desi, Bob, cast, crew and the United Artists were relieved that she was pronounced concussion-free; trouper that she was, Ball bounced back, reporting for work almost immediately. But other mishaps continually cursed the apparently jinxed production. Mel Frank broke his ankle during the shoot, and directed most of the picture on crutches. Later, Hope suffered an on-set mishap, smashing his fingers, and crew members, gophers and entourage “yes” folk suffered an unusually abundant of painful casualties throughout the filming. Furthermore, Hope and Ball were pissed when their plan to have Desi pop up for a cameo in the Mexican sequences was squelched by Arnaz, who felt it wasn’t right for the picture (he was correct). Ball then perilously tempted fate when, the locations shot, the company headed back to Desilu, where all the interiors were to be lensed. Referring to her studio as “that old firetrap” was akin to a voodoo double-dare; several days after they wrapped, the soundstage partially burned down.
The supporting cast in THE FACTS OF LIFE is wonderful. Ruth Hussey and Don DeFore realistically portray Hope and Ball’s boring spouses (it would be DeFore’s next-to-last big screen appearance before his TV Hazel-bump gave him sort-of media immortality). Louise Beavers, in her final screen turn, provides laughs as Hope’s family’s wiseacre maid. Plus such familiar favorites as Louis Nye as a lecherous busybody neighbor, Philip Ober (husband of Vivian “Ethel Mertz” Vance), Robert F. Simon, Peter Leeds, Mike Mazurki, Vito Scotti, Addison Richards and even silent-screen comic Snub Pollard.
As one might expect, there are some rapid-fire corkers sprinkled throughout the proceedings, key being Hussey’s concern for leaving their young children alone for the couple’s upcoming Mexican sojourn. Hope, as only he can, beautifully retorts “Don’t worry, I hid the liquor.”
Panama, Frank, Hope, Ball and the UA suits needn’t have worried. Upon its November holiday release, THE FACTS OF LIFE unanimously garnered rave reviews and reaped phenomenal box office from coast to coast (it would be Hope’s last bona fide smash hit). In a very competitive year, comprising such formidable fare as the aforementioned The Apartment (plus Psycho, Exodus, Spartacus, Elmer Gantry and Two Women among others), THE FACTS OF LIFE more than held its own, even making The New York Times Ten Best list. It was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, and the Mercer song), winning one (Edith Head, Best Costume Design, Black and White).
For all the juice THE FACTS OF LIFE squeezed, by decade’s end the picture was all but forgotten. The culture shock, time-wise, from 1960 to 1970 was like dog years, and Hope and Ball’s names meant little, save the occasional television special.
But the script was a winner, and the situations and some of the original lines too sharp to completely discard. So, in another bold and daring move, Frank and cowriter Jack Rose semi-rejuvenated the project by injecting hipper names (George Segal and Glenda Jackson) and re-packaged the whole megillah as A Touch of Class. It proved to be an even bigger blockbuster for 1973 moviegoers (winning Jackson a Best Actress statuette), and securing a deceptive Best Writing for Material Not Previously Published or Produced nomination. Yikes.
The Olive/MGM/Fox Blu-Ray of THE FACTS OF LIFE is terrific, with its crystal-clear black-and-white photography (by the great Charles Lang) never looking better, nor its mono audio crackling without crackle (including the peppy score by Leigh Harline).
As a retro example of Camelot American risqué, THE FACTS OF LIFE is a classic. If you’re a Hope and/or Ball fan, you can’t afford not to own it. If you’re from the opposite camp (“camp” being the key word), you still might want to take the chance of seeing these two icons magnificently portray a couple inept middle-classless jerks.
THE FACTS OF LIFE. Black and White. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # OF946. SRP: $29.95.