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The Paleface

The Paleface(1948)

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Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection opens on the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and slid into a more cynical byplay, with Bob and Bing constantly double-crossing one another in matters of love and money. Hope is funny in those "Road" movies-he defined his career with those exotic farces of urban wiseguys in paradise fighting over Dorothy Lamour and lobbing self-aware cracks to an audience savvy to Hope's show-biz credentials-but he's not a guy you'd necessarily want to pal around with. He's much more relatable in a quartet of earlier films featured in this set, starting with Thanks for the Memory (1938). Adapted from a Broadway comedy by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (most famous for scripting The Thin Man and It's A Wonderful Life) and named after the Oscar winning song that Bob Hope introduced in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938, the film reunites him with co-star Shirley Ross. Hope is an ad man and aspiring novelist and Ross his fashion model wife, who returns to work so he can devote himself to his writing. It's a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York, co-starring Charles Butterworth and Hedda Hopper as two of the amiable moochers who keep crashing their apartment for all-night parties. The film never concerns itself with how this struggling couple manages to support these high-society vagrants and bounce back from a night of drinking for a day of work and is simply content to let us enjoy their company and Hope's easy banter. Along with the title song, Hope and Ross perform the lovely duet "Two Sleepy People," singing each other to sleep as dawn breaks after another party.

The heart of the set belongs to three films Hope made with Paulette Goddard. The young beauty starred opposite Charles Chaplin (whom she secretly married) in Modern Times and famously was a front-runner for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, but it was The Women that showed off her talents as a sly comic actress with a sassy edge, and she became a leading lady in her own right opposite Hope in their version of the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). Originally filmed in 1927 by Paul Leni (in a version that has yet to be topped), it's a familiar story if only for the all the clich├ęs that it spoofs. The family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion (here located in the middle of a bayou swamp) of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place to meet the terms of the will. Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary (and thus a target for the relative next in line), a spooky servant goes around predicting things like "One will die tonight" and there's an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around, but never fear. The family's resident celebrity Wally (Hope) is on hand to kid the spirits away. "Don't big old empty houses scare you?" asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). "No me," quips Hope, "I've played vaudeville." It's hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. "I always joke when I'm scared," he confesses to heroine Goddard. "I kind of kid myself into being brave." Hope's delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise he's got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably here and, when the film became a hit, was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.

The Ghost Breakers (1940) is pretty much a rehash of the same formula, this time with the haunted mansion relocated to Cuba. While Goddard is repeatedly warned away from the place by the suspicious executor of the will, radio celebrity and gossip monger Hope is on the run from New York gangsters. Like Cat, it's based on a stage play that spoofs haunted house stories and ghost story conventions, this one tossing in a zombie (Noble Johnson, doing the traditional Caribbean-style catatonic sleepwalker of a zombie), an animated suit of armor and more hidden rooms and passages. It's even less convincing than Cat but director George Marshall makes an effort to construct the proper atmosphere around these city folk on a haunted safari in voodooland. Both films manage to repeatedly get Goddard down to slips and negligees before the half hour mark and The Ghost Breakers goes one better by putting her in a swimsuit (logical attire for midnight to a spooky island) and a flimsy dress which gets torn off in a monster chase. A very young Anthony Quinn appears in two roles (a New York gangster and his twin brother!) and Richard Carlson co-stars.

Nothing But the Truth (1941) spins another gimmick-Hope is stock broker who bets $10,000 that he can tell the truth for 24 hours-into a familiar web of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and romantic antics. It plays as a more sardonic No, No Nanette with an earnest Hope at the center of the bet and a trio of conniving, lying, borderline criminal business associates (Edward Arnold, Leif Erickson and Glenn Anders) springing every dirty trick in the book on him in a string of public humiliations and private ruses. Goddard has much more fun in this one as a dizzy heiress who rattles a blue streak while falling for the hapless Hope, who can't tell anyone about the bet. It's pure stage farce, all contrivance and coincidence, blandly directed by Elliot Nugent, who just seems to let things happen as the camera rolls. Luckily there's plenty going on as the characters go sneaking around on a private houseboat, slipping in and out of bedrooms and dressing gowns while Hope wraps himself in a flouncy nightgown to escape his rivals. Not only does Hope get the girl like a real leading man, it's the rare film where Hope is the most honest man on screen. Edward Arnold, who played his share of big screen fat cats, embraces the cynical side of the persona as he tries to sell worthless stock to his customers (which doesn't seem quite as funny in light of recent real-life financial shenanigans) and Glenn Anders is almost too sleazy for the film (you may recognize him as the boozy George Grizby from The Lady From Shanghai). It's fascinating how the film manages to strike a happy ending while letting its scheming supporting cast get away with stock fraud and infidelity, winking at the audience the whole time as if we're complicit in the whole sordid business.

The four films feature Bob Hope in a role we're not used to seeing: a light romantic lead with a quick wit. His wisecracks cover up nervousness and fear but are harmless and self-effacing. Where he schemed for a kiss from the leading lady in the "Road" films, he's a genuinely nice guy here. And Goddard makes for a spunky leading lady, holding her own against opposite Hope and, in Nothing But the Truth, showing her own skills as an underrated comedienne. Both are better than their material. They also include the worst stereotypes available to African American performers, with Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson as a comic janitor in Thanks for the Memory and Willie Best as Hope's manservant, a quivering, drawling caricature who gets called "boy" by most everyone except Hope and made the butt of countless jokes (not all of them offensive), in The Ghost Breakers and Nothing But the Truth. Best establishes a natural rapport with Hope while swapping wisecracks (and often getting the better of Hope), but it's a demeaning stereotype.

The biggest disappointment with the set is its haphazard approach to Hope's career. After a quartet of films that captures Hope in his first leading roles, it's filled out with two forties films that not only feel like they've been plucked from the catalogue at random, but are already available DVD. Road to Morocco (1942) is the second of the "Road" movies that Hope made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and has previously been released both individually and in an earlier set of "Road" comedies. The Paleface (1948) is a very funny cowboy spoof with tenderfoot Easterner Hope as a would-be "painless" dentist who gets lassoed into marrying shapely outlaw Jane Russell. While The Ghost Breakers has also been previously available, it makes a good match with the two other Hope-Goddard pairings, but these's no real purpose to these films, not with so many other films-Hope's feature debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938, for instance, or his Dorothy Lamour pairings-that could have been included. (While The Cat and the Canary was briefly available in a public domain edition of dubious legitimacy and quality, this is the first studio release of the film.)

The six films are collected in a three-disc digipak that also includes featurettes celebrating Hope's decades-long work with the USO. It includes a pair of mini-documentaries-"Bob Hope and the Road to Success" and "Entertaining the Troops" (featuring exclusive footage of Hope's USO tours)-and the archival shorts "Command Performance 1944" and "Command Performance 1944" (which are newsreel-style recordings of the Hope-hosted radio show produced by the Army-Navy Screen Magazine) and the all-star WWII short Hollywood Victory Caravan. They spotlight yet another side of Hope, the public comedian and tireless entertainer who gave up so much time not just to entertain the troops but to take charge of the USO program and bring other Hollywood celebrities and entertainers into the fold. They make a worthy companion to these films.

For more information about Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories, visit Universal Home Entertainment. To order Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker