I Wanna Sell Ya

Sad that the American screen comedies of Bob Hope have gotten a bit tarnished as of late, as they remain an integral part of 20th-century laff cinema.  Hope’s movies pretty much defined the 1940s and essentially changed the direction of Hollywood comedy.  The comedian’s rapid-fire retorts, often directed at the audience as much as the characters on the screen, his anachronistic asides in the period pieces that so delighted and influenced Woody Allen (and a slew of others who followed his clown-sized footsteps), the often surreal involvement of talking animals and inanimate objects – all of that had been so expertly injected into the funnyman’s oeuvre (that’s not what you think it is – and wash your mind out with soap!) that it passed into core Americana without nearly anyone noticing (the great critic/writer James Agee being a major exception to the rule).  To be sure, when Hope threatened his Bijou villains (“You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here”), it was a welcome self-deprecating jab at his not-so-secret reliance on specially prepared ad libs for all occasions.  Prime to Hope’s (and Crosby’s) gift of the sharp retort was the generally unheralded input from a bona fide comedy genius, Barney Dean.  Dean essentially created the Hope persona, and, in doing so, revolutionized movie comedy writing to a delirious and inspired level that contemporaries still steal…ummm, pay homage to.  If I were more ambitious, I would embark on a book-length bio of Dean – a noble but futile quest, as his anonymity guarantees a readership of nil.

It’s been so long that the Hope pics have gotten regular play (a TV staple throughout the 1960s-70s) that they’re almost a whole new sub-genre.

Bob Hope, who when not rolling ’em in the aisles on radio, television, in pictures and live on hot battlefield stations across the globe, was a shrewd businessman.  This is important to mention, as by the mid-1940s, he re-negotiated his deal with Paramount to allow him to produce his own popcorn-friendly products that would be released under the Zukor firm’s arm.  These titles would eventually totally revert back to the comedian, giving him sole re-issue/TV rights.  On-screen cohort Bing Crosby likewise followed suit (they co-produced the Road pics after the 1946 blockbuster Road to Utopia under the dual auspices of Hope Enterprises and Bing Crosby Enterprises).

And there lay the rub.  Someone at the comic’s legal firm was asleep at the wheel, and several of the titles went “gray,” or pseudo-public domain, while one went full-blown p.d.  That outing, MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE, one of Hope’s finest, became a notorious renegade entry due to decades of lousy bootlegs that flooded the home-video market via negligible VHS tapes, laserdiscs and DVDs.

Thanks to Kino-Lorber/Fremantle Media, Ltd., there’s a breath of fresh air in movie-platter heaven, as collectors can now safely rediscover these frequently riotous gems in excellent-to-stunning Blu-Ray evocations, mastered from the best surviving 35MM materials reportedly gleaned from the entertainer’s estate.

While this sextet comprises the crème de la crème of the Hope-produced bunch, they strangely do not cover the complete set.  The authentically awful 1969 How to Commit Marriage isn’t missed that much, save as a supreme example of dated 1960s culture shock:  youth misinterpreted by the establishment at its embarrassing worst (and, thus, nostalgically collectible).  Then there’s The Private Navy of Sergeant O’Farrell, a 1968 service comedy that appears to have been in the comedian’s joke closet since Guadalcanal.  While marginally better than Marriage, O’Farrell is primarily of note as being the final work of the brilliant Frank Tashlin, and notably contains several (but not enough) of the writer/director’s trademark loony compositions.

The two remaining absent titles from the Kino/Fremantle Hope cache are more problematic.  1949’s The Great Lover is quite possibly the most underrated Hope title, a rollicking mystery-comedy with woman-crazy Hope as a scoutmaster escorting a troop of pimply adolescents on a culture tour of Paris.

1955’s The Seven Little Foys desperately needs a re-master, especially on Blu-Ray, where a proper widescreen VistaVision and Technicolor transfer would be enormously appreciated by the movie and star’s many fans.

That said, we’re left with an excellent Hope sampler, two Roads (RIO and BALI), the aforementioned BRUNETTE, THE LEMON DROP KID (a genuine Christmas classic, so ideal for this time of the year), SON OF PALEFACE, arguably the superstar’s finest celluloid moment, and the truly deranged PARIS HOLIDAY.  So grab your zoot suit and I’ll meet ‘cha on the babe side of the corner across from the drugstore diner by the Brooklyn Paramount…

 

1947’s MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is an extraordinary movie on so many levels.  For one thing, it is probably the most perfect film noir spoof of all time.  What makes it even more remarkable is that it sparklingly parodied a genre while it was happening and flourishing!

The writers (Edmund Beloin, Jack Rose, and uncredited assist from the aforementioned Barney Dean and Hope himself) outdid themselves, bullseye-targeting all the quirks, foibles and trademark characteristics of the mean-streets scenario:  the mysterious mansions, the exotic Americana locales, the slick, wet, nocturnal pavements and, best of all (for Hope fans), the hard-hitting, sarcastic voice-over narration:  “I had a lump on my head the size of my head,” monotones Hope’s character – Ronnie Jackson, a baby photographer who yearns to be a private eye like his heroes Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell.  Being that this is a Paramount Picture, the real detective in Ronnie’s office building (Sam McCloud) is none-other THAN Ladd, in a hilarious cameo bit.  Of course, the femme fatale (Lamour, always underrated and thoroughly zeroing in on the dangerous female role, mistakes Jackson for McCloud and, thus begins a merry adventure that effortlessly incorporates Raymond Chandler into a Looney Tune world of intrigue, gunsels, thugs and mugs.  The main sinister plotline is so incredibly close to that of Goldwyn’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (released the same year) that it’s astounding lawsuits weren’t flung around with as much panache as the deadly daggers thrown by Peter Lorre in this pic.  Aside from Lorre, the cast is a Who’s Who of noir, and includes Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Dingle, Jack LaRue, John Hoyt, Anthony Caruso and Ray Teal.

It’s futile to quote the reams of memorable laff lines, as BRUNETTE is chock full of ’em, but one never fails to slay me.  Hope, on a midnight run for his life from the evil pursuers, dodges into an apartment building and immediately begins ringing all the doorbells, crying out, “It’s Joe,” figuring SOMEONE knows a Joe.  The response is outrageous – a cacophony of horny women, moaning “Come in, Joe,” as all the buzzers sound.  Hope’s response and delivery, “I must remember this address,” is priceless.

The ending, where Hope’s character walks his last mile to the electric chair is another pip, and features a final riotous guest star.

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE is unquestionably a favorite for Hope fans (easily the apex of the “My Favorite” series – the other entries being Blonde Madeleine Carroll and Spy Hedy Lamarr).  It’s no surprise that noir buffs love this movie, since, as indicated, it hits all the right bases and ultimately scores a comic home run.

The direction beautifully mixes suspense with guffaws, a credit to Elliott Nugent, who had previously guided Hope through two box-office smashes, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and Nothing but the Truth (1941).

For years BRUNETTE was a thorn in movie collectors’ sides, being that this title was only accessible in wretched, duped editions.  This 35MM transfer, while a bit grainy, is nevertheless a revelation, at last doing justice to Lionel Lindon’s silky monochrome photography.  The music by Robert Emmett Dolan captures the feel of the real deal, and even includes a suitable torch song, “Beside You” (by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), ably warbled by Lamour.

 

It’s a damn shame that the Road pictures aren’t well remembered today, since, at their peak in the mid-1940s, they virtually defined the culture and mores of the mainstream (or Main Street, if you prefer) America.  And side-splittingly so.

Progressing from the mere casting of three popular Paramount stars (in Singapore), by the second outing (Zanzibar, in 1941), the sequels had ascended to veritable movie events, with the three leads cemented in the public eye as a team.  Aside from gags and songs, Hope, Crosby and Lamour provided a litany of pungent asides regarding current events, Hollywood gossip, trendy fads, politics and self-deprecating puns that made one seem that he/she was being personally let in on a joke, a la wink-wink/nudge-nudge.  It also amazed millions of weekly moviegoers of how sharp these entertainers were, as the wisecracks seemed to be made up while the cameras were rolling (once again, Barney Dean!).

Other studios took note of the bonanza box office the Road shows took in, and tried, in vain, to copy the template.  But, alas, Bob and Bing were unique; just check out Warners’ lame Two Guys series, teaming Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan in cookie-cutter (or cut-rate) Road missteps.  Physically, it may have looked good on paper, but on-screen the magic just wasn’t there.  Ditto the choices for locales.  Paramount’s selection of Singapore, Morocco, Rio and Bali were a lot more enticing than Warners’ Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Texas.  Oy vey!

By 1946, the Roads were guaranteed ka-ching utopia (in fact, Utopia was the last title – a Bob, Bing and Dotty excursion to the frozen north).  The movie was one of the highest-grossing pics of the year, and listed as one of Ten Best on the prestigious New York Times annual list.

Hope and Crosby saw the profitable writing on the walls, and informed Paramount that from hereon in they would be co-producing the series.  Sadly, always left at the misogynist altar was Lamour, who was never offered a piece of the action (while she was pissed at her costars, she also was a good enough sport to not bow out, especially since the actress/singer was as much a part of the gift-horse franchise as her male counterparts).

The first cash-cow entry was 1947’s ROAD TO RIO, the lengthiest of all the cinematic trips (100 minutes).  Directed by comedy expert Norman Z. McCleod (best known for the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers), the veteran director charted the trio through a labored, but nevertheless totally watchable opus that begins in a tawdry Midwest sideshow (that the boys burn down) and ends with them both romancing a dotty Dotty (the victim of a hypnotizing crazed aunt – the great Gale Sondergaard). The conclusion is a bizarre demonstration of sexual manipulation passing for a happy ending (perhaps a smack at Bing for the uproarious finale of Utopia).

The Wiere Brothers are genuine scene-stealers as a wacked Brazilian troop of troubadours, and the songs by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Husen are most pleasing (scoring some big hits on radio and vinyl album books).  The highlight of the movie is Bing’s number with the Andrews Sisters, who turn up south of the border in a terrific guest cameo (their last big-screen appearance).  For me, the focus point is the arrival of Jerry Colonna, leading a gaucho cavalry for a last reel rescue (“Exciting, wasn’t it?”).

RIO’s rather noirish photography befits the nefarious on-screen shenanigans, and comes from the gifted eyes of Ernest Laszlo.  The movie was an unprecedented smash (even with its one-sheet that made Hope look like a maniac).

1952’s ROAD TO BALI was a long-awaited reunion between the Paramount trio, and, in my modest opinion, a big improvement over RIO.  The main difference was that this was the first Road to be shot in Technicolor, and, damn, does it look good (aside from some slight grain, this transfer is the berries, a nice Blu-Ray nod to d.p. George Barnes); there are even some gags relying upon the hues and tones of the imbibition process (it’s also the first color glimpse of Martin & Lewis, who, along with several other stars, make a wacky guest appearance).  The songs by Burke and Van Husen are addictive, and the script (by Hal Kanter, Frank Butler, William Morrow, and of course Barney Dean, from Harry Tugend’s story) is crammed with topical (if not tropical) one-liners.  A healthy portion of the self-deprecating humor centers around the leads’ ages and their socked-away millions.  That said, nothing beats Hope being carried away by a lovesick female gorilla, screaming “Kill one of us!”  I suspect that Hope also got his new buddy Frank Tashlin to do some uncredited work, as some of the visual jokes smack of the animator-turned-writer/director (including a finale with Jane Russell).  BALI’s official directorial chores fall to Hal Walker, who guided H,C & L through the phenomenal Utopia, and its well-paced and zippy, helped greatly by a game supporting cast, including Murvyn Vye, Leon Askin, Peter Coe, Michael Ansara, Harry Cording, Carolyn Jones and (ooo-la-la) Sylvia Lewis.  It even features the squid from Reap the Wild Wind!

 

1951’s THE LEMON DROP KID is Hope’s official Christmas classic.  If Bing had “White Christmas,” Bob had “Silver Bells,” the Jay Evans/Ray Livingston ditty which made its debut in this jolly, wacky pic.

Hope had done amazingly well with Damon Runyon – his 1949 remake of Little Miss Marker, Sorrowful Jones, scoring big at the box office (that said, I’d love to see the first 1934 Kid, featuring Lee Tracy as the character).  Another Runyon work was a natural – and a Yuletide-flavored comedy for holiday moviegoers made it an even better prospect.

The comedian plays the title character, an unscrupulous but likeable Florida race track tout, who accidentally cheats the moll of a vicious gangster out of a sure thing.  He has until December 25 to make good, so he hightails it back to his New York turf to try and raise the dough.  His dubious plan:  to crash the Santa-on-the-corner racket and open a bogus rest home for “old dolls.”

Hope’s costar, the luminous Marilyn Maxwell, like most of Bob’s female leads (Katharine Hepburn, the notable, horrific sore point), has a wonderful chemistry with the star (accentuated by their off-screen pairing as well).  The supporting cast is superb with the Kid’s crew, including William Frawley, Tor Johnson, Sid Melton and Jay C. Flippen leading the pack.  The ladies in gray are valiantly enacted by Jane Darwell, Ida Moore and a slew of other former “dolls” from before the screen learned to talk. The gangland villains, Lloyd Nolan and Fred Clark, wisely play it straight, and, thus, are way more menacing.  Nolan, in particular, is downright psychopathic – affectionate and thoughtful to Maxwell one minute and physically threatening the next.

The Blu-Ray looks great, with Daniel L. Fapp’s (appropriately) silvery monochrome photography, shimmering with luminescent imagery and clarity. The movie’s director was Sidney Lanfield, a genial traffic cop picture supervisor, who could do no wrong, but really sunk if he ever got in above his head.

The Paramount suits and Hope nodded approvingly as the rushes unfolded in the screening room, but admitted that it was nothing to get excited about.  Hope realized the picture needed some added pep, and asked his trusted newbie gag writer Frank Tashlin (who cowrote the narrative with Ed Beloin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O’Brien, Irving Elinson, and, natch, Barney Dean) for advice.  Tashlin, whose vivid imagination was culled from his years as one of Warners’ top Looney Tunes animators, suggested some cartoony sequences that piqued Hope’s interest (he credited the scribe for contributing the best gags to his mammoth 1948 smash The Paleface).  Then, Hope did something unprecedented; he removed Lanfield from the picture and put Tashlin in charge.  This was a sage-like move, as the rushes now resulted in bellows of hearty laughter reverberating down the Paramount corridors.  And the proof was in the Christmas pudding; KID became a Hope sensation with audiences and critics alike (hailed as the comic’s best picture in years).  Because of a DGA rule, Lanfield gets full directorial credit, but, make no mistake about it, THE LEMON DROP KID is virtually all Frank Tashlin, an winning artistic debt that Hope wouldn’t forget.

 

Bob Hope’s payback to Frank Tashlin was 1952’s SON OF PALEFACE, one of my favorite comedies, (in my opinion) Hope’s best movie, and arguably the greatest Western parody ever to mosey across the screen. Tashlin at last got to be the kid locked in the toy store, writing the script (with Joseph Quillan and coproducer Robert L. Welch, who makes a funny guest appearance) and directing the show without any interference and with full credit.

A continuation to the comedian’s 1948 Technicolor mother lode, SON picks up decades later when unscrupulous Harvard graduate Paleface, Jr. journeys out West to cop his rapscallion pop’s ill-gotten gains.  One of Sr.’s notable victims is the luscious Mike (Jane Russell), who avenges her fate by doubling as the nighttime Torch bandit, robbing the rich – and keeping it.

Special Agents Roy Rogers and Trigger arrive to stop the hold-ups, and the result is a screwball mixup of inventive sight gags, zingy verbal barbs, and great songs, all lavishly packaged in Technicolor to die for.  If it indeed sounds like a cartoon – well, it is.  The greatest live-action cartoon ever cranked out at 24 fps.

Not surprisingly, SON OF PALEFACE was a tremendous hit – both with critics and audiences – and big boost to Tashlin, who went on to carve his name in movie comedy history.  Tashlin himself looked at the picture in retrospect (in 1957) as the work of an eager newbie, desperate to please.  His critique was that, while he liked the movie a lot, it was too full yuks for his taste. Tash (as he was often called) felt he had overdone it with the wall-to-wall jokes.  The writer/director claimed that there were about 100 visual gags in the picture – way more than needed.  To underline his point, he discussed his (then) latest work, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which contained around 20 solid comic highlights – a far more workable and less gasping-for-air entry, and, thus, infinitely more enjoyable.  One can definitely take sides (I love them both), but there’s one indisputable fact:  SON OF PALEFACE is a 24-karat laff classic, a must for all Hope/comedy collectors.

The Kino Blu-Ray is wonderful, expertly duplicating the vivid Technicolor hues and tones of Harry J. Wild’s camera.  The mono audio is crisp and clean, perfect for relishing each aside and zippy song lyric (by Livingston, Evans, Jack Brooks, Lyle Moraine and even one by Jack Hope, Bob’s bro).

Russell comes across with one of her sexiest and funniest screen performances, and Rogers (and Trigger) are good sports as their squeaky clean images are skewered by wisecracking Paleface, Jr.  Other members of the phenomenal cast include Bill Williams, Douglass Dumbrille, Lloyd Corrigan, Jonathan Hale, Chester Conklin, Harry Von Zell, Wee Willie Davis, Iron Eyes Cody, and Cecil B. DeMille (as himself).

 

Easily the strangest movie Hope ever made, 1958’s PARIS HOLIDAY marked the comedian’s debut at UA, now that his Paramount contract had expired.  Of course, this didn’t stop Rapid Robert (as he was called) from snatching the best Paramount crew to man the new United Artists ship.  Nevertheless, PARIS HOLIDAY remains an amazing curio – a gorgeous train-wreck of a movie (shot entirely on-location in France, and in Technicolor and Technirama by Roger Hubert).

The plot, written by one Robert Hope (who also produced) seems like a retread (or extension, your choice) of his popular My Favorite thriller-comedy series; in fact, one sequence, set in a rural French insane asylum, is partially lifted right out of MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE.  It also has the best line in the picture, and it’s not Hope’s (a Gallic inmate hands Hope a flock of balloons, and confesses, “The man with the pin is after me.”).

The plot has international movie star Hope schlepping to France to meet with a Parisian screenwriter about a new script.  On-board the luxury liner, the luminary is immediately thrown into a Hitchcockian plot involving secret codes, assassinations, etc.  That the 55-year-old comic plays a total babe magnet, causing 20-something hotties Martha Hyer and Anita Ekberg to instantly fall in love with him (did we mention who wrote the original story?) is as far-fetched as the once-cool dude, trying to appeal to the ever-increasing teen audience by talking up Elvis, and incorporating hep-cat period slang like “go, man, go,” “cool cat,” “real gone,” “out for kicks,” “Daddy-O,” and “the living end.”  In the 1940s, his zootie-suit-suit lingo worked fine, but, in the late 1950s, becoming a part of the establishment that his target audience was just beginning to rebel against…not so much.  Hope is stumbling as much here, as he would in 1980s TV sketches, where he played Brooke Shields’ boyfriend, or 1990s talk show appearances where he’s still cracking Dean Martin drunk jokes.

To sweeten the pot, Hope aligned himself with the “French Bob Hope,” Fernandel.  It may have added to the franc box-office, but didn’t quite gel here in the States. Furthermore, the oddity of Hope in an action Cold War comedy is sore-thumb underlined by his choice for director and coscreenwriter.  Director Gerd Oswald was best known for A Kiss Before Dying, Crime of Passion and Brainwashed; former child-actor-turned-scribe Dean Riesner (who shared the HOLIDAY scribbling with Ed Beloin) would gain fame as the scripter of Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, Charley Varrick and Blue Thunder (alas, Barney Dean had passed on in 1954).

There’s IS a wonderful moment in PARIS HOLIDAY when Hope finally connects with the author he’s seeking, his former Paramount alumnus, writer/director Preston Sturges, in his last celluloid effort.  Sturges, replete with French accent, is quite good as the wily writer harboring top secret information.

There’s also some marvelous stunt work (to make up for the lousy rear-screen projection – a problem Euro filmmakers could never solve) in a final chase (this one, lifted from My Favorite Spy), including one gag I’ll bet my life was contributed by Tashlin (a crash through a billboard). The Kino Blu-Ray, in 1080p High Definition widescreen, does Technirama proud.  The mono audio is excellent, and features a title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. Since I’m a sucker for Technirama (or any early anamorphic process), I, to quote the PARIS HOLIDAY‘s lead protagonist Bob Hunter, really dug it, man!  You might too.  It’s not a bad movie, just a WTF batshit crazy one.  And that ain’t the worst way to spend an afternoon at the cinema.

Thanks for the memories.

 

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE. Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21600.

ROAD TO RIO. Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K21602.

ROAD TO BALI. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21609.

THE LEMON DROP KID. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21605.

SON OF PALEFACE. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K21607.

PARIS HOLIDAY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K22769.

All titles released through Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Fremantle Media, Ltd.  SRP:  $24.95@

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s