I may get some hits for this, but I posit that classic film fans generally do not have as great an affinity for the popular movie comedians of the 30s and 40s, as they do for, say Cary Grant, Myrna Loy or Fredric March. There’s lots of love for the Silent Comics, but when it comes to the sound era, the adulation falls away after W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.
By the 1940s, the most popular comedians were Abbott & Costello, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. You rarely see some of your favorite film fan sites waxing poetic on these guys, except maybe a toss to Kaye now and then.
I love all of them, and anyone who knows me knows my guilty pleasure – yes – GUILTY! – is binging on any of the lesser known comics from this period, from the solo work of Shemp Howard to the pre-code eyebrow raisers Wheeler and Woolsey.
But my numero uno comic crush is Bob Hope. Yes, he was reportedly a jerk in real life, (as were many of the others – including Kaye), and there’s no doubt Hope was sexist, elitist, and every other “ist” you can think of. In the current climate of correctness, I find it safer to stay away from the real person and focus (or more realistically, wear blinders) on just their cinematic achievements.
I’m old enough to remember when the mention of Hope would elicit rolling eyes, because in the last few decades of his life, he was remembered solely for his painfully dated monologues as he stood on stage, grasping a golf club with both eyes glued to the cue cards. and would croak out tired jokes about Brooke Shields, Shecky Greene and Jimmy Carter.
But the Bob Hope I choose to remember is his 1940s and early 50s film persona. (Lost to time is the fact that he was an even greater success on radio, where he first got Hollywood’s attention, and remained a fixture from the 30s through the 50s). In between a pummeling schedule of USO Tours, weekly radio shows, pubic appearances and stints as a Master of Ceremonies, Hope cranked out 26 features from 1940 through 1952, his most prolific years. Granted, some of these were turkeys while others were plain forgettable – but in the midst there were several gems that established him not just as a formidable comedian with razor sharp timing, but a performer keenly aware of his onscreen persona with the ability to understand and mold this character with precision. Woody Allen would always mention Hope as one of his early inspirations, and in fact, if you watch Allen’s early work, you definitely see shtick that owes itself completely to Hope. (In fact, Allen’s entire performance in Love and Death is crafted from Hope’s persona.)
More often than not, Hope’s character was the schnook who had no success with women, an admitted coward that would only persevere through pure dumb luck. As much as he “chased skirts,” saving his own skin was always the prime motivator. But what allows his best films to work today is his perpetual breaking of the fourth wall. Besides Groucho Marx, he was one of the first comics to step outside of the plot to comment on the situation, or even reflect on it as if he were Bob Hope playing a role. His “takes” to camera, sometimes just a quick look, would elevate the material tenfold. This would seem trite today, but was a defining step in the evolution of comedy.
Road to Rio – 1947
By 1947, Bob Hope was a household name. Although Bing Crosby had firmly cemented his status as a singer and leading man a decade earlier, nothing could touch the magic when these two joined forces. The first “Road to” film in 1940 was a chance pairing after George Burns and Jack Benny dropped out, and the effortless comedy that Hope and Crosby brought to the proceedings made “Singapore” an instant hit. Knowing they had captured lightning in a bottle, Paramount continued reuniting two of their hottest properties, until they ultimately made 6 successful “Road to” films. “Rio,” the fifth in the series, had the most intriguing and solid plot, as our two heroes, yet again vaudeville performers one step ahead of the law, stow-away on a steamer headed for Rio. They fall for a mysterious woman (Dorothy Lamour) who is closely watched by her “benefactor,” Mrs. Vail, a creepy Gale Sondergaard. There is an evil plan afoot, as Sondergaard and her henchman are on the lookout for “the papers”(a hilarious McGuffin that purposely leads to nothing) and Lamour is continually hypnotized to keep Hope and Crosby off her trail by slapping them in the face and intoning like a somnambulist, she “…hates, loathes, and despises” them every time she’s about to fall for Crosby.
As usual, there are many fourth-wall breaking gems which Hope was becoming exceedingly famous for, none so much as in the Road films. (When hanging from a high wire about to fall to his death, he says to the camera “This picture could end right here, folks.” ) They share the screen with a trio of Brazilian musicians – the Wiere Brothers – who are tapped to pretend they are “American Hepcats” without being able to speak a word of English. Crosby teaches each one of them a modern saying to try and trick a Yank loving club owner, “You’re in the groove, Jackson,” “You’re telling me,” and “This is murder,” which results in hilarious word-play offering a myriad of combinations when the sayings are re-shuffled.
The only downside to this entry is Lamour is given less to do than usual, as she plays someone “zombie-fied” under the hypnotic spells of Sondergard. Lamour was one of the few leading ladies who could hold her own agains the two, and it’s always more satisfying when she would get to do more than stand there and look pretty. Still and all, it’s fast and funny, with cameos from the Andrews Sisters and Hope’s longtime radio sidekick, Jerry Colonna, not to mention cutting commentary about “censors”, “Warner Brothers,” “Paramount” and politics.
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
While most of Hope’s films were standalones, he always had several “series” going on at once, starting with his two comedy horrors: The Cat and the Canary (his first big success) and The Ghostbreakers (both with Paulette Goddard). Of course, there was also his seven picture Road to Series, his western spoofs The Paleface and Son of Paleface (both with Jane Russell), and his “My Favorite” trilogy, starting with 1942’s My Favorite Blonde, and continuing with 1947’s My Favorite Brunette, ending with 1951’s My Favorite Spy co-starring none other than Hedy Lamarr. In fact, Hope had become such a marquee draw that many stars were eager to show up in his films, even for cameos.
My Favorite Brunette was no exception. Spoofing the noir genre, Hope plays a baby photographer with adjoining offices to none other than Private Eye Alan Ladd who was hot off a successful series of crime dramas including This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia. When Ladd’s detective Sam McCloud goes out of town, Hope poses as him to live out his fantasy of being a tough gumshoe. For this satire, the femme fatale is none other than his constant co-star Dorothy Lamour who uses her wiles to seduce him into helping her find her missing uncle and protect a map. (Like Road to Rio, the MacGuffin here is a map to a Uranium mine).
Other surprising cast members include Peter Lorre (who, by the late 40s was looking for any role thanks to his extravagant lifestyle and gambling addiction) and Lon Chaney Jr., riffing on his most famous role as simpleton Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
This outing is a strong one for Hope, getting to flex his cowardly, fast talking persona, always turning into a rag doll when in Lamour’s clutches. My Favorite Brunette includes the ever reliable cameo from his partner-in-crime, Crosby (he showed up in almost all of Hopes later 40s and 50s films) and a final 4th wall breaking line that may be Hope’s best.
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Hope had used source material from Damon Runyan, the newspaperman who chronicled the con men and bookies of New York city streets, to great effect when he remade the Adolph Menjou hit Little Miss Marker into Sorrowful Jones in 1949. Wanting lightning to strike twice, his production company Hope Enterprises secured the rights to another remake, The Lemon Drop Kid. He brought in director Sidney Lanfield who had done so well with Sorrowful Jones, and the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who had penned the platinum selling hit “Buttons and Bows” from his comedy The Paleface.
But Hope wasn’t happy with some of the stagnant direction, and when Lanfield staged the Christmas tune the songwriters had penned, he found it lackluster and dull. Since he was producing the picture, Hope brought in gagman and writer Frank Tashlin to re-direct the sequence, turning the song “Silver Bells,” a lively ode to the metropolitan milieu, into a Holiday hit. (Very few people realize this Christmas standard had its birth in The Lemon Drop Kid).
Hope plays his usual schnook, except this time he’s more interested in making a fast buck than chasing women. A regular at the racetrack, he convinces a “Southern Belle” to place her money on a losing horse, but the woman he’s convinced is moll to dangerous gangster Moose Moran. He’s threatened bodily harm unless “the Kid” can procure Moose the money he lost. As it’s the Holidays, the “Kid” comes up with the idea of getting his gang together and pose as street corner Santa Clauses, ringing bells and taking “donations.” When he’s arrested, the Kid learns he has to have a legitimate “Charity” as the basis for his bell-ringing, and conjures up a home for old ladies. Of course by the end, the Kid’s hard heart melts when he turns the old ladies home into a reality.
Of the two Runyan stories, Sorrowful Jones (co-starring Lucille Ball) is superior. Hope had received critical acclaim for slyly attempting some pathos and serious moments. The Lemon Drop Kid doesn’t offer the same drama, and in fact, reveals a more subdued Hope, save for the “contrived” moment when Hope goes in drag as a little old lady. The bit includes some slapstick that the film is lacking, but it’s too little too late. By no means bad, The Lemon Drop Kid is just not up to the level of some of his other work from the same period.
It’s interesting to note that the romantic lead is Marilyn Maxwell, a virtual unknown big band singer that Hope pushed for the part. They had a decades long affair that was so well known, she was referred to on set as “Mrs. Bob Hope.”
Son of Paleface (1952)
Bob Hope’s personal production company, Hope Enterprises, was one of the most lucrative owned and operated by an actor. Of course, he exclusively churned out material starring himself, and he knew a profitable commodity when he saw one. His original comedy, The Paleface from 1948 was his biggest hit to date, and garnered an Academy Award for the song “Buttons and Bows.” Even though it seems obvious today to create franchises from successful material, this was not commonplace during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and so when screenwriter Frank Tashlin proposed a sequel to The Paleface, it was a stroke of genius. Tashlin, who had already made a name for himself as an animator then gagwriter, had been tapped by Hope to punch up 1951’s The Lemon Drop Kid and take over the reins as director for reshoots. The animator cum director was itching to be taken seriously. He was not happy with the job Norman Z. McLeod had done with his script in the original Paleface, and wanted to take the cartoon sensibilities that were only hinted at in his scripts and bring them, fully formed in glorious Technicolor for the sequel, with Hope as his malleable muse.
The synchronicity was perfect, and Son of Paleface, while not as good as the original, had a wackier ethos with many of Tashlin’s cartoon inspired gags; from an extended take after Hope has a massive alcoholic drink, which included his head spinning around and steam blowing out of his ears, to a hilarious sped up dance sequence between Hope and Jane Russell.
Russell featured prominently in both “Palefaces,” and in this one she’s leader of a stagecoach robbing gang who is being “investigated” by none other than Roy Rogers, acting as an undercover government agent. There’s plenty of songs (more than usual for a Hope film) since Rogers was one of the most popular singing cowboys of the day, as well as some crafty stunt work by his eponymous horse, Trigger .
Hope plays the title character, a recent graduate (and snob) from Harvard, come to the Old West to claim his father’s inheritance. But it turns out he gets little hero’s welcome, as his deceased father owed money to everyone in town. Russell woos him in order to get the loot that is so well hidden, even Hope can’t find it.
Cameos had become so expected in Hope’s films, that by 1952, he doesn’t disappoint, from Crosby in the first 5 minutes and a mention of Martin and Lewis when he’s followed by two vultures, to none other than Cecil B. DeMille playing a still photographer.
Of the four Blu-Rays, Son of Paleface has the most extras, including a very rare cartoon from Director Tashlin when he worked at Animation Studios UPI, that employed the use of puppets. This restored version has moments of color intercut with a black & white work print that help illustrate Tashlin’s sensibilities, down to a puppet reacting to a woman’s kiss much like Hope would do years later in accompanying Son of Paleface. Theres also audio commentary from animator and historian Greg Ford who helps give context to animator Tashlin’s impact on live action filmmaking, from The Girl Can’t Help It to his work with his perfect muse, Jerry Lewis. The transfer and color are gorgeous as well.
So, should you invest in some Bob Hope? Whether you’re a fan or not, if you’re a classic film lover, definitely get yourself one of the “Road to “ movies, and one of Hope’s “My Favorite” series, if anything, to give you some context for the inside jokes that had knowing audiences and Hollywood laughing alongside, as well as an offering of just how good mid-century Bob Hope could be.