In a story told largely in flashback, Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) recalls in detail how she happened to become romantically involved with Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope)—even though he is married to her best friend Mary Gilbert (Ruth Hussey) and she to businessman Jack Weaver (Don DeFore). The four of them were scheduled to take their annual summer vacation in Acapulco along with a third couple, the Masons (Philip Ober, Marianne Stewart), but Mary refuses to go when her youngest son develops a fever and Jack is forced to keep an eye on the office when his boss to called to his son’s side after an automobile accident. The Masons leave Kitty and Larry alone when they succumb to the ill effects of a change in their diet, and although Kitty isn’t too fond of Larry’s boorish manner and stale jokes they find themselves bonding after catching a 150-pound Marlin on a fishing expedition. Things get hot and heavy between the couple during their trip, and though they promise themselves their “brief encounter” will come to an end upon their return, their continuing close proximity (the three couples do everything together) keeps the tryst going until Kitty decides she’s going to leave her husband and give him a divorce. A miserable stay at a mountain cabin convinces both Kitty and Larry that their relationship will never work out, and they eventually come to a parting of the ways…for keeps.
Norman Panama, who co-wrote the 1960 comedy feature The Facts of Life (with longtime writing partner Melvin Frank, who served as director) and was also the film’s executive producer, mentions the origins of the movie briefly in an interview conducted with author Jordan R. Young in his invaluable book on radio and early television comedy, The Laugh Crafters:
We originally had written the thing for Olivia de Havilland and some stray leading man (William Holden) – we couldn’t sell it to Metro at the time. Later Mel came up with the idea, “What would you think about The Facts of Life with Hope and Ball?” I said, “I think that’s a great idea.” We went out to see both of them at their homes and in one day we put the picture together. Lucille said, “No jokes, now: we’re going to play characters.” And Bob agreed. It gave the picture what distinction it had, which I personally thought was quite a lot – away from the pocketful of jokes.
Watching Life yesterday, I kind of got the feeling that only Lucy lived up to her part of the bargain; although Bob eventually comes around, he plays his early scenes in the manner of the familiar Hope persona (he acts as master of ceremonies at a dinner feting a character played by Louis Nye, and you will hear him say: “But I just wanna tell ya…”) so firmly entrenched in the successful vehicles he made in the 30s, 40s and 50s. To be honest, I prefer Bob and Lucy’s earlier teaming in Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950), but Life turned out to be a fairly pleasant comedic diversion—and as mentioned, there is a maturity present in both comic actors that would only surface for one more picture, Critic's Choice, in 1963. I was also impressed that Hope allowed his character to be a bit of a heel in this movie (though he does redeem himself with a nice gesture at the end). Lucy is exceptionally good; deftly blending wisecracks (while staying in character) with glimpses of physical comedy to create a character you can’t help but root for.
If there’s a flaw in Life, it’s that Lucy and Bob’s respective spouses—DeFore and Hussey—kind of get short shrift during the film’s running time; Hussey is supposed to be a close friend of Lucy’s but you really never see them spend much time together, not even for purposes of a friendly chat. DeFore, who has one of his best showcases here, doesn’t get the opportunity to flesh out his character much—he’s a bit of a one-dimensional sort, and it’s explained the animosity between he and Lucy is due to his gambling habits…and little else. The rapport between Ball and Hope helps eliminate these gaps somewhat; there’s a funny scene where the two of them are making love at a drive-in theater when Lucy spots their laundryman (Peter “It’s too piercing, man” Leeds) spying on them from his van—the couple must then pull out of there without bringing attention to themselves…and that, of course, is the time when the car’s horn starts to blare and refuse to stop.
But my favorite sequence finds our undercover lovers off for a tryst in a motel; Bob talks Lucy into renting a room and tries to nonchalantly rent one from a night auditor (Robert F. Smith) who’s seen it all and then some:
LARRY: Do you have a room?
AUDITOR: We don’t have rooms…we might have a bungalow…
LARRY: Oh, that’s swell…
AUDITOR: Five dollars a single, nine double…you alone?
LARRY: No, I got a wife…er, I’m with a wife…I’m with my wife…
LARRY: You see, we’ve been driving all day…all the way from Texas…left at dawn, came up through the panhandle…you see, my wife’s folks live in San Diego, and we…
AUDITOR: I don’t want a travelogue, mister…just the nine bucks…
Gilbert signs the register “Mr. and Mrs. G. Washington,” prompting the auditor to observe as he gives Larry the key, “You won’t have any trouble finding it—it’s the one next to the cherry tree.” Larry and Kitty settle into the bungalow, but Kitty—feeling a little woozy from having one too many—asks Larry if he’ll run out and get her some black coffee, which he agrees to, thinking that with all the hotels on “the strip” finding a restaurant or coffee shop shouldn’t be too difficult.
Such a task proves to take longer than Larry guesstimated, so much so that the auditor—having sold out the house—has shut off the motel’s lighted sign…and Larry has difficulty remembering at which inn he’s registered. The name of the hotel he and Kitty are staying at is “Valley Springs,” but he stops at another place with “Valley” in its title and ends up ticking off another husband (Mike Mazurki) when he tries to enter what he thinks is his cabin. Back at the real bungalow, Kitty asks the night auditor to call her a taxi since Larry’s been gone for nearly two hours, and the cab drives away, Larry’s finally located the right motel:
LARRY: You remember me?
AUDITOR: How could I forget the father of our country?
LARRY: What happened to Mrs.
AUDITOR: Took a taxi…
LARRY: Taxi? Where to?
AUDITOR: To tell you the truth, George—I think she went back to
… Mount Vernon
Like all good film comedies, much of the benefits in Life come from a splendid supporting cast (who are, unfortunately, overshadowed by Ball and Hope’s antics) that includes the aforementioned Nye, Hollis Irving, William Lanteau, Vito Scotti, Addison Richards and Louise Beavers—whose cinematic swan song this film was. The film was well-received by critics and was nominated for five Oscars (including the title song, written by Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer and warbled by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and Frank and Panama’s story/screenplay) but nabbed only a single statue for Edith Head’s costume design.