Sunday, August 8, 2010

“You better give me back my yellow liver—it matches my spine…”

Monty over at Screwball Cinema had an interesting post up in honor of today’s TCM Summer Under the Stars tribute to Bob Hope—namely, his Top Ten list of favorite Hope vehicles. I enjoyed reading his list—we share some common favorites—and as such, was inspired to put together my own.

One thing that I decided to do slightly different from Monty was to eliminate any of the “Road” films from my personal Top Ten. I’m not saying it’s not kosher to include these romps, but I left them off my list because I'd rather concentrate on Bob’s solo vehicles—and it seems unfair to include the “Road” pictures because Bing Crosby is certainly no slouch in getting the laughs. Naturally, if I did include any of the “Road” films, Road to Utopia (1946) and Road to Rio (1947) would definitely be in the Top Ten tally…Utopia would probably rank in the Top 3. (I know I’ve said this quite often in the past, but it bears repeating: Utopia is the funniest of the "Road" films. I know everybody gives major props to Road to Morocco [1942]—notably my esteemed blogging colleague and Senior Fellow at Cultureshark Institute, Rick Brooks—but while I will readily acquiesce that it is the most popular in the series, that does not make it the funniest.)

So let’s countdown my choices from ten to one, Casey Kasem-style:

10. The Seven Little Foys (1955) – I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t one of the all-time best Hope films, but I have a soft spot for it because I think of all the occasions where the comedian tried to break out of his “cowardly custard” persona and try something different (The Iron Petticoat, Beau James, The Facts of Life, etc.), this one is the champ. Plus, the dance number with James Cagney reprising his role as George M. Cohan is worth the price of admission alone.

9. The Cat and the Canary (1939) – I’ve got this film on the list because it was the movie that cemented Hope’s silver screen stardom and made him a force to be reckoned with at the box office. It’s still an entertaining mix of horror and comedy, but I revisited this one not too long ago and didn’t enjoy as much as I once did. Hope’s other 1939 effort, Never Say Die, has actually got more laughs but again, Canary is the film that started the ball rolling.

8. Casanova’s Big Night (1954) – I’ve always been in the minority on the merits of this costumed romp—a lot of people feel it’s a little too similar to Monsieur Beaucaire (1946). I think Night is the last really outstanding Hope comedy (though Alias Jesse James [1959] is not without its high spots), and I prefer it to Beaucaire because I think Joan Fontaine is a better (and funnier) leading lady/foil than Joan Caufield. And besides—how can you not love a film that also has Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, John Hoyt, Hope Emerson, Raymond Burr and Lon Chaney, Jr. (reprising his schtick from My Favorite Brunette) in the cast? Farfel farfel pipick!

7. The Great Lover (1949) – This underrated comedy features one of my favorite Hope leading ladies, Rhonda Fleming, in a wacky farce that finds Bob chaperoning a group of faux Boy Scouts (“Boy Foresters”) on board a cruise ship that’s harboring a murderer. The songs in this one are great, and the cast includes Roland Young, Jim Backus and George “Superman” Reeves…and a cameo from a famous violin-playing comedian that makes me fall off the couch with laughter every time.

6. My Favorite Spy (1951) – All of Bob’s “Favorite” films made my Top 10 list because they pretty much sum up the essential elements of any successful Hope vehicle—placing the comedy against a background of menace. Bob plays two roles in this one—a talentless vaudeville clown named “Peanuts” White and international spy Eric Augustine…whom White must impersonate to obtain Spy’s “MacGuffin,” a cache of microfilm. Hedy Lamarr is Bob’s luscious leading lady in this one, and demonstrates an impressive set of comedic chops; it’s a shame they never worked together again after this. The slapstick climax is also one of Hope’s best.

5. My Favorite Blonde (1942) – The first of the “Favorite” movies was titled because of Bob’s high regard for co-star Madeleine Carroll, recreating her 39 Steps magic as a glamorous spy by getting Hope—a vaudevillian with a trained penguin act—mixed up with the villainous Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco. This fast-moving farce is a delight from start to finish. (Blonde also features one of the first non-"Road" appearances from that crooner friend of Bob’s.)

4. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) – Hope’s attempt to do Damon Runyon works surprisingly well (much better than 1949’s Sorrowful Jones) in this funny feature that has also become a perennial Christmas favorite due to its plot (Bob’s a racetrack tout who enlists his chums as phony Santas to collect funds for an old ladies’ home…though he’s planning to use the money to pay a gambling debt) and of course, the fact that it introduced the carol Silver Bells. Bob had an affair with his leading lady, Marilyn Maxwell, offscreen and I think that’s one of the reasons why their chemistry is so good here. (Frank Tashlin directed about a third of this movie before being pulled off in favor of Lover’s Sidney Lanfield.)

3. The Ghost Breakers (1940) – My mother, as a rule, loathes Bob Hope. But when I showed her this classic horror comedy with Bob assisting an endangered (and lovely) Paulette Goddard on an island she’s just inherited she thought it was positively delightful. This is the movie I generally recommend to people who aren’t Hope fans—its superb blend of horror and laughs and its meatier plot will win the praise of anyone predisposed to dislike Bob’s work. (Breakers also features one of my all-time favorite dialogue exchanges, between Bob and valet Willie Best—Bob: “Listen, you stay there, and if a couple of fellas come runnin' down the stairs in a few minutes, let the first one go...that'll be me.” Willie: “If somebody passes you, that’ll be me…”)

2. My Favorite Brunette (1947) – It’s a shame this riotous spoof of film noirs drifted into the public domain because finding a first-rate print of it is akin to searching for the Holy Grail. Bob’s a baby photographer who poses as a shamus in order to help out femme fatale Dorothy Lamour, and Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. are among the bad guys. Plus there’s a pair of funny cameos at the beginning and end of this one…but I’ll keep mum for those of you who’ve not had the privilege of seeing it.

1. Son of Paleface (1952) – Hope’s sequel to his successful The Paleface (1948) is, hands-down, his funniest feature film—replete with off-the-wall gags, first-rate one-liners and the presence of Jane Russell (who was also in Paleface) and B-movie cowboy Roy Rogers, who has always earned my undying respect for being unafraid to kid his heroic image (what makes it work is that Roy plays it perfectly straight). This is the Hope film that Tashlin did get credit for; he co-wrote the screenplay for the earlier Paleface and was so ticked off at what director Norman Z. MacLeod did to the material it was then he realized he had to direct his own movies. (Like my pal at 50 Westerns from the 50s, I never get tired of this film.)

Honorable mentions: Caught in the Draft (1941), The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Where There’s Life (1947). Now I’ll wrap this up so I can grab a bite to eat and get ready to watch Nothing But the Truth (1941) for the first time since I saw it on “The Comedy Channel” eons ago. (I’m also going to watch Life afterward. The Huston blogathon has therefore been put on hold.)

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Bill Crider said...

"All it took was brains, courage, and a gun... and I had the gun."

Amanda said...

I spent the day watching the Road pictures today since Bob Hope is the TCM Star of the Day. Hilarious! I forgot how much they make me laugh.

I have to admit that Ghostbreakers is my favorite Bob Hope film. Bob Hope, a spooky house, Paulette Goddard, how could you go wrong?

Matthew Coniam said...

What no 'Cancel My Resrevation'?

Actually, Cat and the Canary's at the top for me: saw it again a month or so back and found it funnier than ever, and I prefer Paleface to his Son, but our 2 and 3 placings tally, and there's little else to disagree with.
We tend to forget about him in Britain when we list the great Hollywood comics; not sure why. An exceptionally funny man with the wind behind him.

monty said...

Awesome list Ivan. I forgot about The Great Lover..that's one of my favorites too.