Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Buried Treasures: Casanova’s Big Night (1954)



It is 1757 in Parma, Italy…and Giacomo Casanova, famed lover and swordsman, is planning to invade the boudoir of Francesca Bruni (Joan Fontaine) in order to do that voodoo he do so well.  He is stopped by an angry wine merchant (John Hoyt), who seeks vengeance on the legendary Casanova for attempting to make love to his wife (and also for skipping out on paying for his wine).  It is soon revealed, however, that “Casanova” is an imposter—he’s merely a “miserable apprentice to a miserable tailor,” Pippo Popolino (Bob Hope), who thought that by dressing in Casanova’s finery he could fool the widow Bruni and steal from her a kiss.  Pippo strikes out…and it doesn’t help matters when the real Casanova (played by an unbilled Vincent Price) arrives to reveal Pippo’s ruse.

Casanova may be an accomplished swordsman—and all that and a bag of chips when it comes to the art of love—but as a businessman, he’s pathetic.  He owes money to all the merchants in town, and he tells Francesca to gather them all at his lodgings the next morning at 10am so that he can pay what he owes.  But again, deceit is the order of the day—he trades Pippo his clothes for a fast horse out of town (the horse doesn’t belong to Pippo, by the way) and Casanova’s valet Lucio (Basil Rathbone) learns that his master has beat a hasty retreat at a most inopportune time: the Duc (Robert Hutton) and Duchess of Castelbello (Hope Emerson) have arrived with a proposition for Cas that will net him ten thousand ducats.  All the great lover has to do is seduce the Duc’s fiancée, Dona Elena Di Gambetta (Audrey Dalton), and take from her a petticoat gifted by the Duc to prove he’s come to know her in the biblical sense (the petticoat is embroidered with the Castelbello family crest).  Lucio, Francesca and the rest of the merchants decide that one of them must impersonate Casanova in order for them all to be paid…but Pippo is way ahead of them—sneaking into Casanova’s house, he’s mistaken by both the Duc and Duchess for the master.  It is then decided that Pippo will play Casanova, and that way everyone will benefit.

Pippo, Lucio and Francesca travel to Venice to find themselves smack dab in a situation of genuine palace intrigue.  The Di Gambetta family hasn’t a ducat to their name, and live the way they do (we call it “puttin’ up a front” where I come from) because of Dona Elena’s impending nuptials to the Duc…whom she does indeed love very much.  The ruler and chief magistrate of Venice, The Doge (Arnold Moss), is banking that the marriage will not come to pass because of his ambitious plans to conquer the city of Genoa (home to the House of Castelbello)—if the marriage is stopped, it will be an insult to Venice and will give them proper provocation for the attack.  Pippo has several opportunities to obtain the petticoat but finds himself constantly stymied—that’s when the Doge and his advisors step in, and offer their services to obtain m’lady’s underwear.  But Pippo is having second thoughts—he likes Dona Elena, and won’t do anything to hurt her.  The Doge has Pippo tossed into prison, and the petticoat (taken by the Doge’s guards) is handed off to Lucio and Francesca…well, more like Lucio—he makes off with the petticoat, revealing himself to be a first-rate bastid.

Francesca rescues Pippo in a thrilling jailbreak, and even knowing they must get safely back to Parma doesn’t dissuade Pippo from vowing to help Dona Elena…and his tailoring talents will do the trick.  He embroiders a duplicate petticoat, and then he and Francesca crash the bride’s reception (impersonating Baron and Baroness Mittschalk of Cardovia) in order to give it to Dona Elena.  When the situation seems dire—the Duc and Duchess of Castelbello have arrived, accompanied by Lucio—Pippo distracts everyone by playing Casanova one last time in order to allow Francesca to help Dona Elena.

My choice of Casanova’s Big Night (1954)—a Bob Hope vehicle that I consider his last really great movie comedy—for this week’s “Overlooked Films” entry stems from a recent Facebook discussion that was instituted by the proprietor of the web’s premiere matinee memories site, Laughing Gravy at In the Balcony.  The debate centered on comedians (starting out in the world of stand-up and then sort of branching off to other venues) and people were encouraged to list their favorites; keeping in mind, natch, that somebody who makes you laugh might not necessarily cause others to crack a smile.  One of the participants made this pronouncement from upon his Throne of Comedy: “Bob Hope, the only comedian in history who made an entire career out of never being funny.”

Bullshit.  I wouldn’t have had a problem if the guy had said simply, “I don’t find Bob Hope funny” or “Hope doesn’t make me laugh.”  Different strokes for different folks.  It was the way he phrased the statement (as if there just couldn’t be any other opinion but his own) that sort of riled me a little, and I called him out on it—he responded with a pitiable defense that Hope was funny when one was ten years old but he isn’t now.  (He has also made similar statements about Abbott & Costello.)  We went back-and-forth on this a while (and I was fortunate in that I had a few other folks who felt the same way I did) until I finally decided it wasn’t worth the time and effort to convince an otherwise pompous ass (who had held the debate in his head and won already) that he was just dead mistaken.

One of the reasons why Bob gets the “he’s-not-funny” rap is because he kind of wore out his welcome as far as movies went.  Hope made some classic comedies: the Road pictures with his longtime “feuding” partner Bing Crosby, The Ghost Breakers, Son of Paleface, etc. (I’ve discussed this on the blog in the past here.)  But by the 1960s, his stock in film comedy was way down—with stinkers like Eight on the Lam and Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! on his c.v.  His reputation as a virtual Gatling gun of one-liners suffered, too, because as he got older his delivery got slower.  (This is one of the reasons why George Burns succeeded as he did later in life…his delivery was always slow and deliberate.)

Casanova’s Big Night is a funny Hope vehicle.  Like The Ghost Breakers, which even a lot of non-Hope fans like (my Mom is one), it has a lot more plot than usual for a Hope film and a supporting cast of character actors that is like a movie nut’s dream.  A few people have complained that the film is a little too similar to 1946’s Monsieur Beaucaire, which also features Bob as a character impersonating a nobleman…but I think Big Night has the edge for several reasons.  It’s in sumptuous Technicolor, was scripted by Hope collaborator Edmund L. Hartmann (who also worked on Fancy Pants and My Favorite Spy) and veteran OTR scribe (and Savannah, GA native) Hal Kanter, and substitutes Joan Caufield (Bob’s leading lady in Beaucaire) for Joan Fontaine, who does quite well in a comedy role.  In one scene, Hope’s Pippo pleads for her to give him a kiss so he’ll be ready to woo Dona Elena, and he tells her “I’ll give you a sample, in case we’re ever cast away on a desert island.”

He kisses Francesca, who takes a beat and says dryly: “Better bring a deck of cards.”

Big Night is Bob Hope doing what he does best—playing the “cowardly custard” while dishing out a reservoir of wisecracks at every turn.  In a scene in which he is introduced to the Doge’s guests at a fancy dinner party, he introduces his traveling companions to one of the Big D’s advisors, Foressi (played by John Carradine!):

PIPPO: This is Lucio, my food taster.
FORESSI: Your food taster?
PIPPO: Yes, and you can't get a good food taster these days…the slightest hint of poison and they quit!
FRANCESCA: Lucio is my cousin's ninth food taster!
PIPPO: Tenth—counting Mother!

From L to R: Foressi (John Carradine), The Doge (Arnold Moss - "a snake with a beard!" cracks Pippo), and some guy  who I heard later started a law practice.
The dinner party scene also contains one of my favorite Hope jokes—all through the proceedings, Pippo has been generously sampling the wine…much to Lucio’s displeasure (“The wine’s free, and I’m thirsty!” Pippo fires back at his “valet”), not to mention Dona Elena’s mother (Frieda Inescort), who’s been continually irritated by “Casanova” all evening.  The Doge allows Foressi to challenge Pippo’s “Casanova” to see if he is the genuine article, and Foressi arranges for the finest swordsman of the guards, Captain Rugello (Henry Brandon), to challenge Pippo to a little match…so Pippo stalls for time by suggesting that everyone have a little more vino.  “Haven’t you had enough wine?” implores Signora Di Gambetta.

“You’re her mother, not mine,” responds Pippo, referring to Dona Elena.  (That line and Bob’s delivery of such breaks me up every time.)  Big Night also contains one of the funniest “fourth wall” gags in any Hope film.  At the end of the film, Pippo is about to be beheaded…but an off-screen narrator tells us that star Hope has a different interpretation of how the film should end.  In Bob “Orson Welles” Hope’s version, Pippo rises to his proper level of heroism, defeating the Doge, his advisors and guards and getting Francesca’s love as a reward.

FRANCESCA (rushing up to him): Casanova…I mean…Pippo
PIPPO: And I mean business!

Bob then steps out of character and asks the audience to vote: all those who prefer Paramount’s ending (and his character’s demise) hold up their candy bars…and after counting candy, he then asks those audience members who like his ending to hold up their popcorn.

“What’s the matter with this theater—don’t they sell popcorn?” Hope complains, disappointed with the tally.

Playing the part of the real Casanova (in two brief scenes) is an uncredited Vincent Price, who agreed to do the film as a favor to his friend Bob, and Big Night also contains a funny sequence (not quite as funny as their byplay in My Favorite Brunette—but that would be hard to top) with Lon Chaney, Jr…who plays Bob’s fellow prisoner when he’s tossed into jail.  Lon convinces Bob to swap clothes with him and he’ll allow him to escape through his secret tunnel…and after having done so, Chaney stops and reaches into the pocket of Hope’s new duds and pulls out a mouse, saying in his best Of Mice and Men fashion: “I like to pet him.”

Hope travels through the tunnel and winds up in another cell which is wall-to-wall with prisoners, all of whom were foolish enough to give Chaney items of value in order to “escape.”  (One of the prisoners checks Hope’s rags and then complains “Emo [Chaney] kept my mouse!”)  Douglas Fowley, the actor who played dowser J.B. Judson in yesterday’s installment of Mayberry Mondays, is recognizable as one of the prisoners; sharp viewers will also see such great character thesps as Hugh Marlowe, Raymond Burr, ex-boxer Primo Carnera, Frank Puglia, Natalie Schafer (as Carradine’s character’s wife), Nestor Paiva, Lucien Littlefield and Oliver Blake, aka “Captain Drake” in Jungle Queen.  (As a Paramount player, Blake turns up in quite a few of Hope’s comedies; here he plays Amadeo, a cabinetmaker who tries to pass himself off as Casanova…unaware that Pippo’s already got the job.  “Some of his hinges are loose,” explains Pippo to the Duchess, after the others quickly cover that Amadeo is a poor Casanova relation.)

I classify Casanova’s Big Night as Bob Hope’s last great movie comedy, but that doesn’t mean it was all downhill from there—the comedian still had a few goodies left in his arsenal, like The Seven Little Foys, Alias Jesse James and The Facts of Life (with Lucille Ball).  (I also have a soft spot for The Road to Hong Kong, even if they royally screwed up by reducing Dorothy Lamour to a glorified cameo.)  But soon the hits would be outweighed by the misses, so Big Night for me represents Hope at the peak of his powers.  And I think it’s a good enough comedy to enjoy on its own (it’s very reminiscent of Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, released two years later)…even if Bob isn’t necessarily your cup of Orange Pekoe.

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