My Favorite Brunette

    

     As a kid growing up and falling in love with movies, Bob Hope was always on the TV screen, not just in old films but on TV specials that seemed to pop up all the time. Hope’s best period on the big screen began in the late 1930s with movies like The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, and continued into the 1940s (Monsieur Beaucaire, The Princess and the Pirate, The Paleface and The Road to movies.). By the mid-1950s, his films were going downhill. In the 1960s, Hope’s films were hopeless (ouch!). Movies like Call Me Bawana, Eight on the Lam, I’ll Take Sweden, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number and A Global Affair were unfortunate affairs. But in that early golden period, Bob Hope, a master of timing, had many gems that still hold up.

A few years back, I wrote a post about Celluloid Comfort Food and one of the five films I mentioned was My Favorite Brunette. It’s always been a go-to film whether I was in some sort of funk or did not feel like watching anything new; I know the film by heart.

     Watching My Favorite Brunette and other Hope films, you can see the influence old ski nose had on Woody Allen. Bob Hope was Woody’s comic idol. You easily see this in many of Woody’s early films, the cowardly sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…, the live lobster scene in Annie Hall, and most of the scenes in Bananas. The mannerisms, the jokes, it’s all there.

     My Favorite Brunette is a marvelously funny take-off on the classic film noirs of the day. Adding a bit of noir authenticity is the inclusion of a cameo by Alan Ladd as tough guy detective Sam McCloud, an evil Peter Lorre, and Hope’s character telling the story in voice-over. Hope is baby photographer Ronnie Jackson, a wannabe Private Investigator. When we first meet Ronnie Jackson, he is on San Quentin’s death row awaiting execution for a murder he did not commit. The warden allows him to tell his story to a group of reporters.

     Portrait photographer Ronnie Jackson is having a tough time photographing Mrs. Fong’s baby. The child will not smile! Two hours and numerous shots later, Ronnie gets his perfect photo and promises to have the proofs ready tomorrow. Shortly afterward, Ronnie visits Sam McCloud whose office is next door to Jackson’s photography studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Jackson has been begging to McCloud to give him a chance at P.I. work. Ronnie wants to be a tough guy P.I. like Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and even Alan Ladd. Jackson reveals his newly invented keyhole camera (he’s been kicked out of five hotels already trying it out), and his recently purchased gun. But tough guy McCloud says nothing doing. Ronnie can answer his phone whenever he is out on a case. For Ronnie, it’s better than nothing. When McCloud takes a quick trip to Chicago, he leaves Ronnie in charge to man the phone, unwittingly giving Ronnie a chance to play detective. That happens when our sultry femme fatale, who else but Dorothy Lamour, enters the detective’s office, mistaking Ronnie for P.I. tough guy McCloud.

     Her name is Baroness Carlotta Montay. She claims her invalid husband, really her uncle, Baron Montay has been kidnapped by some very dangerous men, including a weasel like henchman called Kismet, noir veteran Peter Lorre, who followed her to McCloud’s office and is peeking into the detective’s door. Carlotta begs Jackson for help. She gives our hero an address and a critically important map that she tells him to guard with his life. Ronnie hides the map in a paper cup dispenser in his photography studio and is soon on his way to his first P.I. case. He soon finds himself deeply involved in a convoluted plot involving mystery, murder, and mayhem. Hot on the trail, Ronnie’s detective work leads him down the rocky road to San Quentin and the Gas Chamber. As expected, Jackson is saved from execution thanks to Carlotta, McCloud and Mrs. Fong’s help. The biggest loser in the film is not the criminals, but Bing Crosby whose film ending walk on as the executioner leaves him disappointed, he cannot execute Bob.

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Laughter is the Best Medicine Blogathon. If you need more comic shots in the arm? Click here and here.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) Sidney Lanfield

Lemon Drop Kid PosterThe 1951 Bob Hope comedy, “The Lemon Drop Kid,” is based on a Damon Runyon story, the second film of Hope’s to do so. Just two years earlier, Hope made the highly successful, “Sorrowful Jones,” co-starring Lucille Ball.  The film was released in time for the holidays, only as you will see if you check out the newspaper ad below, the holiday in question was Easter and not Christmas. The film also introduced the now standard Christmas classic, “Silver Bells” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. In the film the song is sung by Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell, but more on that later.

Hope is a small time grifter known as The Lemon Drop Kid. At a Florida racetrack he unknowingly swindles a gullible woman out of a ton of dough by convincing her to switch her bet to another horse.   Unfortunately for The Kid, the horse comes in dead last and the money the woman bet with belonged to her boyfriend, a hood named Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Moran gives The Kid until Christmas, a few weeks away, to come up with the $10,000 he would have won had his girl bet the money on the winning horse as he wanted. Continue reading

Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Cat and the Canary

This is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Movies of 1939 Blogathon.

“The Cat and the Canary” has a long history dating back to a 1922 play written by John Willard. In 1927, Universal made a silent version adapting the play to the screen. Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni and starring Laura LaPlante the film was a moody, imaginative, expressionistic work. Unlike most filmed plays of the time, Leni made this a visual delight making it one of the most stylistic films of the silent era. In 1930, Universal made an early sound version retitling it “The Cat Creeps.” Unfortunately, this film which predates Universal’s classic horrors is presumed lost with only clips remaining, despite claims, and a number of votes on IMDB, to have seen the film. They most likely have it confused with a 1946 film with the same title.

Bob Hope made his film debut in the 1934 short called “Going Spanish” made for the Educational Films Corporation of America. This was followed by a series of other minor shorts for Vitaphone/Warner Pictures (Watch the Birdie, Paree, Paree, Double Exposure, Calling All Tars and Shop Talk) before he signed on with Paramount Pictures where he made his feature film debut in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he introduced what would turn out to be his future theme song, “Thanks for the Memory.” It would take Hope a few additional films to fully develop his screen persona that would make him one of the top stars of the 1940’s and a major influence on a young boy named Allen Stewart Konigsberg who in the 1960’s would materialize as Woody Allen. The film that would first emerge as the first classic Bob Hope comedy was “The Cat and the Canary.” Continue reading

You Gotta Have Hope…

….Bob Hope that is in this double feature review of two of his best. 

These two films, relatively early in Bob Hope’s film career and made only a year apart are similar in storyline yet show a growth in Hope’s screen persona that would cement his career for the next forty or so years.

The story of “The Cat and the Canary” has a long history dating back to a 1922 play written by John Willard. In 1927 Universal made a silent version. As directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni and starring Laura LaPlante the film is a moody, expressionistic work. Unlike most filmed plays of the time, Leni made this a visual delight. In 1930, Universal made an early sound version retitling it “The Cat Creeps.” Unfortunately, this film which predates Universal’s classic horrors is presumed lost with only clips remaining (despite someone’s claim, and a number of votes on IMDB to have seen the film. They may have it confused with a 1946 film with the same title.)

In 1939, Paramount purchased the rights from Universal and resurrected the story again for Bob Hope turning it into an old dark house thriller with laughs. This film which is finally seeing the light of day on DVD is one of Hope’s best. The script was rewritten tailored to Hope’s talent adding his now well known style for wise cracks yet retains the original thrills of the original.

No matter what version you look at, the plot is the same with only minor changes. Family members and friends are summoned to an old dark house in the Louisiana Bayou, owned by the deceased Cyrus Norman for the reading of his will (specified to be read at midnight ten years after his death). Of course, there is no way off the island until the next morning. Also on board is a housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) who would give Mrs. Danvers a fright along with secret passageways, hidden treasures, greedy relatives’ lights that mysteriously go on and off, a killer on the loose and plenty of eerie atmospheres. The Louisiana Bayou setting also adds to the sinister surroundings.

Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman is both the fortunate and unfortunate inheritor of the estate. Hope is Wally Campbell, a ham actor and childhood friend of Joyce who helps her solve the strange goings on and saves her life. George Zucco plays Crosby the lawyer who does not make it through the night and Gale Sondergaard is the creepy housekeeper that assist in keeping the atmosphere sinister and also adding some comic fodder to the proceedings.  John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

Hope’s screen persona is just beginning to be evolve, his wicked wise cracking style was developed here for use in this film (“don’t empty houses scare you” he’s asked. “Not me, I worked in Vaudeville!”). Still, he is a bit more laid back and while cowardly it is not as prevalent at it would become later on just one year later in the first Hope/Crosby Road film and the second Hope/Goddard pairing in “The Ghost Breakers.”

If anything this second 1940 feature is spookier and funnier than the first pairing of Hope and Goddard. Again it is Goddard who inherits a spooky mansion, this time on a small bleak island just off the Cuban coast. Hope plays Lawrence L. Lawrence (the middle initial stands for Lawrence. As he says “My parents had no imagination.”). This time he is a radio broadcaster who mistakenly believes he shot and killed a close associate of a local gangster. This gives Larry purpose to stow away on the same ship Ms. Goddard’s character is leaving on. Goddard is warned that her life may be in danger if she continues on to the “haunted house.”

As in “The Cat and the Canary”, the film is filled with hands that reach out from behind secret panels, trap doors, sinister individuals, ghosts and a murder. The film provides a nice mixture of “old house” style horror, mystery and comedy, Hope style.

Black actor Willie Best is Hope’s servant and side kick and unfortunately, like in many films from this period the racial stereotyping is embarrassing and politically incorrect, however this takes nothing ways from Willie’s performance. John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

One other reason that these two films work so well is the distinctively eerie camerawork by Charles Lang whose excellent cinematography graced both of these films. Lang’s long career included such great movies as “The Big Heat, “The Uninvited’, “Ace in the Hole” and “Wait Until Dark” among many others.

After working with Goddard for the first time, Hope got to meet his idol, and Goddard’s husband, Charlie Chaplin. During the filming of “The Cat and the Canary”, Chaplin would watch the rushes every night and said to Hope one day that “you are one of the best timers I’ve ever seen.” Hope was obviously enthralled.

Together these two films make a great double feature. Hope was just entering the best period of film career which by the 1960’s would sadly deteriorate to films that were just plain embarrassing. If you are familiar with Bob Hope only from such late career horrors like “I’ll Take Sweden” or “Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number” give his forties and fifties filmography a try. You will see a comic actor at the top of his game and understand why Woody Allen considers him such an influence. The Woody Allen character is cowardly and a womanizer, at least in his own mind, traits he borrowed straight from Hope. You see this especially in his early films like “Bananas”, “Sleeper” and even in “Annie Hall.”

The Cat and the Canary ***1/2

The Ghost Breakers ****