Jun 06 2010

Bob Hope Goes Hollywood

Bob Hope: Thanks For the Memories Collection (Universal)

The Cat and the Canary

Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection mostly revisits the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and slid into a more cynical byplay. Hope is funny in those films, but he’s much more likable in the four earlier films of the set, three of them making their respective DVD debuts. Thanks for the Memory (1938), named after the Hope signature song (which he sings with co-star Shirley Ross), is a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York notable largely for Hope’s easy banter and the cast of moochers who keep landing in his apartment.

The heart of the set, however, belongs to his three pairing with Paulette Goddard, beginning with the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). You know the story even if you’ve never seen the play: the family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place (which is located in the middle of a bayou swamp). Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary, a spooky servant goes around predicting things like “One will die tonight” and there’s an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around. “Don’t big old empty houses scare you?” asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). “Not me,” quips Hope, here playing a semi-famous actor meeting what’s left of his family tree. “I’ve played vaudeville.” It’s hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. “I always joke when I’m scared,” he confesses to heroine Goddard. “I kind of kid myself into being brave.” Hope’s delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise; he’s got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably in Cat and was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.

The Ghost Breakers (1940) pretty much rehashes the formula. This time Goddard inherits a haunted mansion in Cuba and, while she’s repeatedly warned away from the place by the suspicious executor of the will, radio gossip monger Hope is on the run from New York gangsters. Like Cat, it’s based on a stage play that spoofs the haunted house and ghost story conventions. This one is even less convincing than Cat, but at least director George Marshall makes an effort to construct the proper atmosphere around these city folk on a haunted safari in voodooland, and the script tosses in a zombie (Noble Johnson, doing the traditional Caribbean-style catatonic sleepwalker of a zombie), an animated suit of armor and more hidden rooms and passages. Both films manage to repeatedly get Goddard down to slips and negligees and, in Ghost Breakers, a swimsuit (logical attire for midnight to a spooky island) and a flimsy dress which gets torn off in a monster chase. A very young Anthony Quinn appears in two roles and Richard Carlson co-stars.

Nothing But the Truth (1941) spins a gimmick—Hope is stock broker who bets $10,000 that he can tell the truth for 24 hours—into a familiar web of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and romantic antics. Kind of a No, No Nanette with an earnest Hope at the center of the bet and a trio of conniving, lying, borderline criminal business associates (Edward Arnold, Leif Erickson and Glenn Anders) springing every dirty trick in the book on him in a string of public humiliations and private tricks. Goddard gets to have a little more fun in this one as a dizzy heiress who rattles a blue streak while falling for the hapless Hope, who can’t tell anyone about the bet. It’s pure stage farce, all contrivance and coincidence, blandly directed by Elliot Nugent, who just seems to let things happen as the camera rolls. And to honest, none of them are particularly

Willie Best co-stars in the latter two as Hope’s manservant, a quivering, sassy and subservient stereotype who gets called “boy” by most everyone except Hope and made the butt of countless jokes (not all of them offensive). You can’t defend this kind of casual bigotry, but Best’s performance is quite good (outside of the most egregious pandering to stereotypes) and he establishes a natural rapport with Hope establish while swapping wisecracks (and often getting the better of Hope). The danger of dismissing roles as these from the thirties and early forties is two-fold: we need to remember just how egregiously dismissive and demeaning these roles were, and we shouldn’t forget the talents that tried to inject a little personality and humanity between the humiliations.

The final films in the set—Road to Morocco (1942) and The Paleface (1948)—and the aforementioned The Ghost Breakers have previously been available in individual volumes (and Morocco in a “Road Movies” set). The Paleface is a very funny cowboy spoof with tenderfoot Easterner Hope as a would-be “painless” dentist who goes west and ends up lassoed into marrying shapely outlaw Jane Russell (whose unflappable deadpan makes her a formidable foil). Director Norman Z. McLeod plays the B-movie plot of gun smugglers and Indians straight and lets Hope schtick around the edges, then turns him into the dandiest gunfighter in the west. He even sings an Oscar winning tune: “Buttons and Bows.” It’s a shame, however, that Universal didn’t take the opportunity to spotlight films more in keeping with the survey of establishing his screen persona in his early film career. The three disc set also includes the mini-documentaries “Bob Hope and the Road to Success” and “Entertaining the Troops” (featuring exclusive footage of Hope’s USO tours), Command Performance 1944 and Command Performance 1944 (newsreel-style shorts showing Hope hosting the live radio show he did for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine), and the all-star WWII short Hollywood Victory Caravan. They spotlight yet another side of Hope, the public comedian and tireless entertainer who gave up so much time not just to entertain the troops but to take charge of the USO program and bring other Hollywood celebrities and entertainers into the fold.

I go on to even greater length in my review at Turner Classic Movies here, and Dave Kehr reviews the set and reconsiders Bob Hope in his review at the New York Times.

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