Olive Films’ library of classic Paramount titles on Blu-Ray certainly helped me get through a turbulent autumn filled with election jitters. And, there’s enough entertainment left over to make up for our quarantined holiday season.
To paraphrase Rod Serling, I submit for your approval a pair of Cold War spy comedies, made during the first half of that paranoid bullet-bustier-filled decade, known as the 1950s.
1951’s MY FAVORITE SPY was the finale in a continuing series of action-giggle fests starring Bob Hope (the others, My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette dealt respectively with Nazis on the home front and noirish private eyes). SPY, indeed could have been a WWII retread – retooled to the topical news events involving Reds, top secret plans and the fun and romance of international espionage, sans the Rosenbergs. Hope plays a third-rate vaudevillian named Peanuts White, who happens to be a dead ringer for ruthless enemy agent, Eric Augustine. I only mention this, as I love bringing up these characters’ names. I may mention them again. Rapid Robert’s reluctant recruitment into I-Was-Monty’s-Double territory has its perks – as he becomes hammock buddies with take-no-prisoners double agent Hedy Lamarr (Paramount’s then femme du jour, courtesy of Samson and Delilah). Lamarr, mostly known today as one of the team who came up with the theory for cell phone technology, and, the verbal gag regarding Harvey Korman’s name in Blazing Saddles, is at her most beauteous – which says plenty. The villainy, personified by Francis L. Sullivan, Arnold Moss, Marc Lawrence and Mike Mazurki, is spot on. Sight gags abound buttressed by some great one-liners; in short, it’s Bob Hope at his best (courtesy of Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow’s story, Edmund Hartmann’s and Jack Sher’s screenplay, additional dialog by Hal Kanter, with inspired uncredited assist from Barney Dean) – and a welcome addition to the Blu-Ray universe. The sparkling 35MM B&W transfer (doing justice to d.p. Victor Milner) is pristine – the mono audio crisp and clear to faithfully replicate each memorable Hope aside (and the jaunty score by Victor Young). Norman Z. McLeod, director of Hope’s The Paleface and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, does his filmography proud.
One of Hope’s last black and white Paramounts, MY FAVORITE SPY delivers the zany goods in droves. Besides how can you go wrong with a movie which lets loose an incompetent real-life Republican to deal with the future of a dangerous atomic bomb-plagued planet? Uhhh, wait a minute…Hmmmm….Oh, yeah – and his dual characters’ names are Peanuts White and Eric Augustine (told you I’d say it again!)…
1954’s KNOCK ON WOOD, tailor-made for Danny Kaye in his initial outing as a Paramount star, is a bit more problematic. The reason I say this is because, in 1964, as an impressionable 10-year old, I thought this picture was one of the funniest movies I had ever seen. It played for an entire week on New York’s WOR-TV affiliate, Channel 9 as part of Million Dollar Movie. My friends thought so too – and for weeks we repeated the kooky malapropisms during school recess. Like MY FAVORITE SPY, KNOCK ON WOOD doesn’t mention the Reds per se – but all the evil types have Slavic eastern European/Russian names…so the proof is in the borscht.
In addition to the Hitchcockian intrigue, KNOCK ON WOOD aspires to modern times by making its lead character psychologically traumatized. He’s a ventriloquist, whose dummies start taking over whenever he becomes sexually aroused. Heady stuff for a wacky comedy (note I refrained from making an obvious Lamarr pun), but it’s really there.
Now any movie buff knows that this ventriloquist/dummy freak show is nothing new. Von Stroheim did it in 1929 with The Great Gabbo…Then there’s the chilling Michael Redgrave Dead of Night sequence, a Cliff Robertson Twilight Zone episode and Devil Doll, a sleazy Brit 60s guilty pleasure often confused with the non-woody 1936 Tod Browning flick.
KNOCK ON WOOD has a lot on its plate – and like many a smorgasbord – there’s way too much to digest. That said, the pic does start out promisingly with Kaye disrupting the existence of gorgeous co-star Mai Zetterling. In fact, for the first third or so – my claims to my wife that this is a hoot and a half seem to bear me out…At 103 minutes, the narrative quickly loses steam…For instance, while on the run from evil spies who have concealed crucial documents inside the heads of his dummies, Kaye, for no reason whatsoever, bursts into a schmaltzy love song, which (at least on its outset) seems to embarrass Zetterling almost as much as the viewers. Even more bizarre is that, Kaye, whose Goldwyn entries defined grand A-budget fare in the 1940s, looks ill at ease with the material. This is unusual – since KNOCK ON WOOD is nearly a hodge-podge remake of Wonder Man and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – two of his biggest Goldwyn hits. Blame/praise must, in big part, go to the movie’s triple threat producers/directors/writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.
Zetterling’s character, a detached psychiatrist, rightly repulsed by Kaye’s constant advances to her, demands that he see a male counterpart for treatment. What follows is the movie’s most eyebrow-raising turn: Kaye spends all of an hour boning up on Freud – and the next morning reads Mai the riot(ous) act – telling her that what she needs is a man (who could have seen THAT coming?). She slaps her head in professional angst, spouts outrageous “Of course – what could I have been thinking?!” rhetoric, and from there on, becomes Danny’s main squeeze. It could be the funniest sequence in the picture!
Strangely enough, KNOCK ON WOOD, for all its market research on what makes a Danny Kaye vehicle – neglects to incorporate a prime ingredient: Kaye playing multiple characters (save a brief sojourn in an Irish pub wherein the star dons a Lucky the Leprechaun brogue that puts Barry Fitzgerald to shame). In this respect, MY FAVORITE SPY is more of a Danny Kaye movie than KNOCK ON WOOD. Added to the padded running time, KNOCK ON WOOD – at least ten minutes too long – looks like a rough cut waiting to be trimmed. Sequences such as a malfunctioning sports car are cute for about a minute – but not a half reel. Flashbacks recounting his dysfunctional showbiz parents come off like discarded moribund sections from a Fox Dan Dailey musical (there’s even Michael Kidd choreography!). Furthermore, the aforementioned jumbling foreign name mishmash, which so delighted my adolescent mind, are sluggishly uttered – lacking the manic pep which earlier astounded the ears of the comedian’s legions of admirers. Finally, there’s the on-location second unit work. Zetterling is definitely there in London, but Kaye is so obviously absent – his stand-in being about a half foot taller and twenty years younger. It’s the worst double work since Columbia’s early Fifties Randolph Scott westerns. As an addendum, there’s Kaye’s character’s name, Jerry Morgan, which simply can’t compare to…ohhh, let’s say, Peanuts White or Eric Augustine (All right, all right – I’m stopping already!).
OK – so I don’t recommend KNOCK ON WOOD, right?…In the words of Zetterling’s cinema shrink contemporary, Psycho’s Simon Oakland , “Errrrr….not exactly.” While KNOCK ON WOOD isn’t in the league of the prime Goldwyns or The Court Jester, it is a fun movie to have on while you’re doing various household chores. As indicated, the opening scenes are genuinely witty. The supporting cast, including Torin Thatcher, Leon Askin, David Burns, Steven Geray, Abner Biberman and Henry Brandon is aces. The production values, lush with Technicolor reds, greens and purples are likewise top notch (albeit it looks like the matrices are about two ticks from restoration city; this is evident via the fades and dissolves and the occasional graininess and too garish flesh tones…but this is fleeting and doesn’t deter from the otherwise spectacular Daniel Fapp-lensed cinematography). Overall, the widescreen Blu-ray imagery is crystal clear (this was a rare 1950s Paramount release distributed in the new1.85 aspect ratio; later that year, the studio would premiere VistaVision via White Christmas, likewise featuring Kaye; the mono sound (with a score, again, by Victor Young), save for being too bass and a few instances of sibilance, is relatively distortion free .
In pure retro terms, KNOCK ON WOOD is absolutely fascinating, and certainly a must for Kaye fans, who have, no doubt, been lusting for this title since the advent of laserdiscs!
MY FAVORITE SPY: B&W; Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition;2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # OF698.
KNOCK ON WOOD: Color; Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DT-HD MA. CAT # OF697.
Olive Films/Paramount Home Video. SRP: $29.95@.