The Paleface (1948)

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 by Hope 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.

3.5/5 Stars

His Kind of Woman (1951)

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A real disaster. That’s what His Kind of Woman could have easily been because with Howard Hughes meddling in any production it was very likely that something would get dragged out, lopped off, or in some way switched around.

In this case, the whole film was shot by John Farrow only for Hughes to bring in Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin) to reshoot some material as well as calling on the services of Earl Fenton for some script doctoring. Not only that, but the picture sat on shelves unreleased for at least a year. Despite Hughes’ best efforts even unintentionally, His Kind of Woman somehow still succeeds for the very fact that it is so different from many of its contemporaries.

There are moments in hindsight where you see where one thread was tied to another or one scene was inserted to make the story comprehensible. However, in its essence, this picture is not so much a product of its plot but of its characters and the tone it deems germane in any given situation.

The chemistry is sizzling hot down to the last clothes iron between Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. It’s also a contest of the sidelong glances as they both case each other’s faces with their pair of iconic eyes. One pair indifferently cool as Mitchum always was and Russell as her playfully seductive self. But this venture is as much of a farce as it a true blue film noir. More on that momentarily.

It opens in Italy where a gangster (Raymond Burr) is on the lamb still trying to figure out how to get back into the U.S. to protect his interests. Our narrator (Charles McGraw) relates the action from Italy to Mexico and then Los Angeles where we finally get a line of one of our stars. Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) is a detached gambler with few things tying him down when he receives a house call.

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The premise, on the whole, is an odd one. Mitchum goes to Morro Lodge on assignment. His orders are to wait and he gets $15,000 in advance for doing so and $50,000 total. We don’t know why he’s there but it gives us time to feel out the people who inhabit this curious getaway on a hidden inlet below the Mexican border. And it’s quite the crew aside from those already mentioned. It’s the same story for about an hour and the good news is it’s actually quite a diverting place to be.

We find out that Mitchum does have a noble side pulling a parlor trick in a game of poker that feels rather like Rick’s roulette wheel in Casablanca (1942). Then, a swacked pilot drops down at the nearby airfield. At first, it’s easy to surmise he’s a Howard Hughes caricature until you realize he’s actually a Federal Agent. Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re waiting for or even really why we’re waiting at all but in the meantime, we have some quality entertainment — a real first-rate floorshow from the stock company.

Jim Bachus is a wise-cracking real estate man who constantly searches out his latest gin rummy partner while trying to relive his old glory days out on the football field to impress the wife of another vacationer. His flabby physique and general manner do not do much to win her over. Still, he’s not a bad sort of fellow though he thinks the love life of a real estate man might make a good motion picture.

Anyways, the true attraction and the figure who causes us to stick around and truly relish the back end of His Kind of Woman is Vincent Price. He provides one of his most brilliantly wacky performances to offset any moments in the film that might give the pretense of being serious.

Mark Cardigan is batty about hunting and so enraptured with his own performances on the screen. One night he’s cooking up his duck for a nice dinner for three only to get his party disrupted by his publicity agent who also brought his estranged wife. Finally, he goes into battle spouting off Hamlet just as the film starts getting tense and someone must be spurred to action.

He’s a gung-ho hero both on the screen and off gathering the most delightfully mismatched band for his counterattack on the enemy fleet parked nearby. But to say they’re sunk before they’ve started proves too true.

What follows is a perfect collision of tones as has probably never before been captured in film noir. Though I must admit it’s a bit of a shame that Jane Russell is conceivably trapped in a closet for much of the film’s prolonged finale. She did so much to bolster the opening moments but alas Robert Mitchum is at it alone fleeing his adversary aboard a clandestine barge.

In fact, everything takes a turn toward a brutal course that feels much more like prototypical noir. However, this cannot outlast the vein of light humor and sensual chemistry that comes with the onslaught of Vincent Price and his seafaring battalion followed by a romantic reunion. Russell gets out of the closet just long enough for another sweltering exchange with Mitchum that reminds us just why she was missed.

3.5/5 Stars

Russell: What’s Out There?

Mitchum: Islands. 

Russell: Samoa and Tahiti

Mitchum: Bikini

Russell: You’re such a wise guy. 

Son of Paleface (1952)

Son_of_PalefaceIt’s hard to grow tired of Bob Hope. In many ways, he’s a universal entertainer — transcending time — circumventing the decades with a brand of humor that is timeless. And the same goes for his iconic persona. He can quip with his lips like Groucho Marx but he’s more of a lovable dope. He likes to think he’s clever and when he lets his mouth run off Hope certainly is, in a cheeky sort of way. It’s just his characters who are always dumb.

Whether it was his own stellar ad-libbing or a careful premeditation of calculated gags, there’s no doubt that Bob Hope has staying power. The Road Pictures with Bing Crosby are a testament to that, but in my own personal estimation, Son of Paleface is arguably one of his best films. Ironically, it came as a sequel to the standout hit Paleface from 1948. But for many, the second go-around is markedly better.

Here Hope is reincarnated as a pompous Harvard man, Junior Potter, a young college magnum cum laude who is intent on heading out West to collect on his heralded father’s long-lost fortune. He expects the welcoming committee to be waiting for him, but there’s only a town of locals intent to settle long-standing debts.

There’s also someone else who is quite interested in Junior Potter and most specifically his supposed fortune — the wanted outlaw The Torch. Of course, no one knows that this brazen outlaw comes in the form of sultry saloon owner Mike (Jane Russell) the jewel of every man’s eye. Junior’s not the least among them, not knowing what her true intentions are. He doesn’t mind getting to know her a little better and she obliges, though it doesn’t help he has all the charm of a bad toothache.

Mike’s not the only one masquerading, however, a government agent is undercover as well, bent on catching the notorious outlaw in his/her tracks. Enter Roy Rogers with his trusty steed Trigger stage right. Thus, the stage is set for a classic western showdown dragged through the mud and riddled with jokes thanks in part to Hope. Rogers and Russell are mostly serious but once and a while they offer a quip or two because Hope prompts such a response every now and then.

Frank Tashlin who helped script Paleface a few years before, wanted more creative control and found himself helming the sequel much more to his liking. But this a film propelled by its leads. There’s also are surprisingly good musical numbers starting with the earlier hit “Buttons and Bows” and bolstered by the catchy additions of “Wingding Tonight,” “Four-Legged Friend,” and”Am I in Love?”

It’s true with the great parodies that they know when to go for gags and when to play it straight. There needs to be a clash of tones, a cacophony of the outlandish with the dramatic. Hope supplies the pratfalls and one-liners with his usual aptitude — just like another walk in the park or an Oscar ceremony (he did host 19 times after all). Because it’s exactly that type of material that’s built into his persona free of charge. It flows out so naturally, with extreme ease. Breaking up the action is exactly what we expect from him. There are madcap chase scenes, catcalls and pratfalls,  fourth wall breaking, and numerous prattling asides that Hope fills with his usual wit. I used to watch Hope a lot as a kid and even after so many years it still feels fun.But that’s not to discount Roy Rogers and Jane Russell one bit. They make up a winning western trio indeed.

3.5/5 Stars

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_poster“I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” ~ Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell together. It’s a crackerjack combination and Howard Hawks milks it for all its worth. There’s streetwise Dorothy  (Jane Russell) wooing all the boys from here to kingdom come. She cares about more than just money, especially when it entails having fun. Her other half is the vivacious bubble-headed beauty Lorelei like only Monroe could pull off. She’s the girl looking to get hitched with her bookish millionaire and she’s not afraid to admit that his money sweetens the pot. It certainly doesn’t hurt (Don’t you know that a rich man is like a pretty girl? You don’t marry her just because she’s pretty. But, my goodness, doesn’t it help?).

Time and time again words and bits of dialogue leave her lips that are almost astonishing. She delivers them with such a fluid air of seriousness that they force a double take and each and every time she has the audience in the palm of her hand. We think she’s dumb, but whether it’s the just the persona she puts on or a bit of Marilyn Monroe herself, she is extremely intelligent. If nothing else she knows how to captivate an audience, not letting them soon forget her magnetic performance.

If she had been playing against anything else Jane Russell would have been the primary attraction and she’s always wry and lovely, but with Monroe in the equation, they develop into a dynamic duo, leaving a wake of hapless boys behind them. There’s the old playboy Piggy (Charles Coburn) with a tiara Lorelei has ambitions for, the hired private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid) who finds himself falling for Dorothy, the diminutive Mr. Spofford and, of course, the hapless Gus (Tommy Noonan).

It can be easy to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes off as a superficial musical — a provocative color extravaganza aboard an ocean liner. After all, it’s a story complete with pools, water slides, romance and a whole squad of athletes with bulging biceps. But it is a genuinely enjoyable film with Howard Hawks once more showing his aptitude for skirting between genres, this case indulging in musical comedy.

The sparkling and most remembered number is, of course, Monroe’s sultry turn in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” clothed in velvety pink,  but really for the entire running time of the film, Monroe and her costar are continually strutting and snapping their way into the hearts of everyone they cross paths with. A final comedic twist of an ending, playing off the comedic dynamic of the film’s pair of heroines, gives Jane Russell an equal chance to show off her star power. This truly is a team effort, even if gentlemen circa the 1950s were discriminatory towards all non-blondes.  Obviously, this film and my commentary are not meant to be taken too seriously. Still, they can be enjoyable. At least in the case of this film. My commentary, not so much.

3.5/5 Stars