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By 1948 the Western genre was ripe for satire and screenwriter Frank Tashlin wanted to send-up Owen Wister's novel The Virginian and all the cliches of the Western from the fearless hero to the final shootout on main street. The result was The Paleface (1948) which features a cowardly hero known as "Painless" Peter Potter (Bob Hope), an inept dentist who often entertains the notion that he's a crack sharpshooter and accomplished Indian fighter. Fleeing the scene of a shootout, Potter travels west, accompanied by Calamity Jane (Jane Russell), an undercover government agent who hoodwinks him into marrying her. The reason for her subterfuge is revealed during the first scenes of the movie though Potter remains clueless of her true motives until their journey's end.
A combination of ingredients helped make The Paleface one of the top five box office hits of 1948. Not only was it Bob Hope's first color feature and his highest-grossing picture to date but it also teamed him for the first time with Jane Russell, Howard Hughes' screen discovery from The Outlaw (1943). Russell proved to be the perfect foil for Hope - sarcastic, tough and humorless. Their on-screen chemistry was so good together that Paramount re-teamed them for a sequel, Son of Paleface (1952). In her autobiography, Russell recalled the making of The Paleface: "Paramount was the first "family" lot I'd worked on....My dressing room was next to Bob Hope's. I was sent to wardrobe and fitted for period dresses plus a buckskin suit with Indian beads and fringes. Heaven! Also a corset and pantaloons. Ugh! The script by Frank Tashlin was a delight, and I discovered that my role was...dry and flat. When the critics later said I was "expressionless," I knew I managed to hit it: a stone face. Bob Hope was a ball...He's even funnier off screen than on, and everything's relaxed except his chocolate eyes, which never stop darting, never missing a thing. His name for me was "Lumpy." Russell also noted that Hope was a golfing fanatic and would occasionally slip off to play a few holes regardless of director Norman Z. McLeod's busy production schedule.
Looking back on her career, Russell once admitted that she was disappointed in most of her films but she did enjoy making The Paleface. "This picture was a complete package," she said, "No lines were changed, one director, always on schedule, and no sweat. What a pleasure! I thought, "So this is how movies are made? I can't believe it." It was fun from morning till night."
One person who didn't find The Paleface a total delight was Frank Tashlin who later told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview (for the book, Who the Devil Made It) that "after seeing the preview of it, I could've shot [the director] Norman McLeod. I'd written it as a satire on The Virginian [1929, Victor Fleming], and it was completely botched. I could've killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff." And he made good on his promise soon after The Paleface; his solo directorial debut began with The First Time (1952), a domestic comedy starring Robert Cummings.
The Paleface received one Oscar nomination for Best Song - "Buttons and Bows" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans - and won in that category. It's certainly one of the highlights of the film with Hope serenading himself and would actually be reprised for the sequel, Son of Paleface. By the way, The Paleface was later remade as a Don Knotts vehicle entitled The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968).
Producer: Robert L. Welch
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Edmund L. Hartmann, Jack Rose, Frank Tashlin
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Costume Design: Mary Kay Dodson
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Original Music: Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Victor Young
Principal Cast: Bob Hope (Painless Peter Potter), Jane Russell (Calamity Jane), Robert Armstrong (Terris), Iris Adrian (Pepper), Bobby Watson (Toby Preston), Jackie Searl (Jasper Martin), Charles Trowbridge (Governor Johnson).
By Jeff Stafford