As a kid, I was fond of Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to that esteemed institution known as the local library I was well-versed in the Hope & Crosby Road Pictures by an early age and Roy Rogers was probably second-only to Gene Autry as king of the Singing Cowboys. Jane Russell wasn’t too bad herself.
More recently, coming to understand Tashlin himself — his background in animated comedy and his partnership with Jerry Lewis — gives greater context to his place as a creative visionary. Because it’s true he blends the gray area between live-action and the cartoon logic of animation better than almost anyone else.
In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Tashlin had these unsavory words for The Paleface and its director:
“After seeing the preview of it, I could’ve shot Norman Z. McLeod. I’d written it as a satire on The Virginian (1929), and it was completely botched. I could’ve killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.”
While it’s true the original movie doesn’t have the same outrageous commitment to comic gags that its successor did, if Tashlin was not so close to the material, he might be able to appreciate some of its elements.
However, before we go there, it seems necessary to introduce a caveat. The Paleface is a film out of a different era. If you’re an immediate impression of the movie is one of distaste, there aren’t any surprises here. Particularly jolting is when they are taken in by the local Natives to die some gruesome death only to be saved by Hope’s masquerading as a medicine man armed with the black magic of dynamite.
But if you have a sense of nostalgia, can look past the blind spots, or have a reservoir of goodwill toward Bob Hope, it delivers alongside the best of his comedies by providing a genre and allowing him to bend it to his will, courtesy of his usual feckless, smart-aleck shtick.
It works by first introducing all the western tropes Tashlin was mentioning. Russell, the feisty female outlaw, Calamity Jane, is enlisted by the government to investigate clandestine operations supplying the Indians with firearms. She joins a wagon train after outsmarting some adversaries in the ladies’ showers. It allows her to do some recon and she uses a first-class boob as her cover.
Bob Hope (as Painless Potter) is showcased with a row of dentistry gags including his canister of laughing gas, which becomes a recurrent plot point throughout the picture. When he’s not getting them lost in the woods, he knocks back “Buttons and Bows,” a tune that has remained a lasting relic of the movie, thanks to renditions by the likes of Dinah Shore, and its reintroduction in the sequel.
Every kiss he shares with his costar is like a rap over the head with the butt of a pistol. But along with being the aggressor, Russell also does his shooting for him on multiple occasions. In fact, when he is goaded into a shoot-out over the hand of a woman in a saloon, the outcomes prove surprisingly close to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paleface was released over a decade earlier). Could it be John Ford was influenced by Paleface? I’ll let you be the judge.
As for Norman Z. Macleod, I’m inclined to give him my good graces given his pedigree with Marx Brothers and screwball-like comedies of all sorts. While he might not commit to gravity-defying visual gags as Tashlin would have — we understand how he would be able to expand and punctuate them — Macleod always seems intent on zipping the pace along and keeping the tone zany.
This suits Hope even as Russell and the other characters allow the story to still stay true to many of the western tropes of cowboys, Indians, and western towns needing to be tamed. This melding of the usual beats with the wacky subversions instigated byHhope is the crux of the movie and blended with its color photography and the antagonistic chemistry of its stars, it’s more than enough to garner a watch. My own biased nostalgia still makes me partial to The Son of Paleface.