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The Princess and the Pirate

The Princess and the Pirate(1944)


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"I do Bob Hope all the time. The reason people don't see it is that I'm not as good." When Woody Allen commented on his idol he could easily have been speaking of millions of people who turned to Hope for some laughs and a little entertainment. He seemed to be everywhere in a career that stretched nearly a century and encompassed stage, radio, records, movies, television, USO shows, comic books – anything was fair game. But no matter where or what, he was still recognizably Bob Hope. Contrasted to somebody with an equally varied career like Orson Welles who took each medium as a new challenge, Hope's basic persona stayed mostly the same. If you saw a wisecracking, somewhat cowardly layabout but who got the job done, then that's Hope (and clearly much of Allen's early work as well).

This is plainly visible in the sampling of his films on the DVD set Bob Hope: MGM Movie Legends Collection. Ranging over three decades, the films show Hope in full Hope mode whether he's rushing merrily through some trifling story or trying to heat up a script that somebody should have rethought. His film career started with several shorts in the mid-30s before moving to a few supporting spots and finally graduating to lead roles in 1938's Give Me a Sailor. (He gained a theme song in that February's The Big Broadcast of 1938 and then used it for a film title before the year was out: "Thanks for the Memory".) In 1940 he was teamed with Bing Crosby in Road to Singapore and Hope's place on the silver screen was assured. He consistently found time for a string of starring roles until 1972 and then settled into cameo appearances after that.

The earliest film here, 1943's They Got Me Covered, is also one of the best. Hope plays a hapless reporter in wartime Washington DC who blunders into a spy ring, dragging girlfriend Dorothy Lamour along with him. The film looks like it was shot quickly and has a charming disregard for reality: the Nazi spy base is an improbably large fashion salon and their safe house has--for no apparent reason--Donald Meek who believes he's protecting President Lincoln from the Confederates. But reality hardly matters. Hope is in fine form tossing off sharp gags and standing up to the spies when his first impulse is to flee in panic. Lamour matches him move for move and provides a solid foil for Hope's antics, not just a straight person to play against but a full and smarter partner.

Two more efforts toss Hope into genre films. The Princess and the Pirate (1944) imagines him as one of the world's worst touring actors accidentally captured by pirates and eventually rescuing disguised princess Virginia Mayo. In Alias Jesse James (1959), Hope is a New York insurance agent who unknowingly takes out a life policy on Jesse James and then has to head out West to be sure nothing happens to his client. Among the sagebrush, he gets tangled up with saloon girl Rhonda Fleming. You see the pattern of pairing him against beautiful leading ladies though neither Mayo nor Fleming are up to Lamour's standard, which could be due to the scripts. Both films are lively though Princess is clearly the funnier and more inventive of the two. Western fans will definitely want to see an inspired sequence at the end of Alias Jesse James that can't be revealed here without ruining the gag.

Moving into the 60s, studios seemed to have less idea of what to do with Hope. His comic approach never completely went out of style, just changed forms. Still, it was easy to see Hope as outdated when surrounded by the dissolving studio system, TV's challenges and the new breed of comics (Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May, Bob Newhart). Hope no longer fit into a clear position, something the later films in the set show. Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) imagines Hope as a bland, devoted family man who gets tangled up with Elke Sommer as a European sex kitten running away from the set of her latest film. Probably envisioned as a classic farce, this is really the type of film whose story would fall completely apart if Hope only revealed to his wife that Sommer was hiding in their cabin. Like many films of the period, it plays at being "naughty" or "free spirited" but is utterly conventional (even Hope's gags are more restrained). At least Phyllis Diller is on hand as an assertive housemaid to spark up the proceedings.

The same faux naughtiness can be seen in 1965's I'll Take Sweden where single father Hope packs teenaged daughter Tuesday Weld off to Sweden to keep her out of the hands of her layabout, quasi-beatnik boyfriend. It's an example of how far out of touch the film is that the layabout boyfriend is Frankie Avalon. There are a few halfhearted moves toward unmarried hankypanky and several jokes at the openness of Swedish romantic life as Sweden drifts among the same realm of supposedly free-spirted farce as Wrong Number. In the end nothing out of the ordinary happens unless you count Avalon's stop-the-story and never-campy-enough songs. The film does close with a classic door-slamming, in-and-out of room sequence but overall is pretty dreary despite the best efforts of Hope and Weld (but almost nobody else).

One highlight of these later years is the seventh and final "Road" film, Road to Hong Kong from 1962. Dorothy Lamour, co-star of the previous films, was replaced by Joan Collins, probably because Collins was two decades younger but also due to a British production company wanting to showcase their own talent. As it turns out, Collins didn't showcase impressively and Lamour's brief cameo appearance proves she was smarter, funnier and simply more attractive. Nevertheless, while Hong Kong is the weakest in the series (the spies and space travel plot was barely enough for a TV skit and has dated badly) it shows why Hope and Crosby were such a good team and doesn't completely deserve its reputation as a stumbling end to the series. The duo's gags come across as actual dialogue rather than bits of something the writers concocted and both create a feeling of relaxed humor that many more aggressive comics would do well to emulate (if they can). Peter Sellers appears as an Indian doctor in a small segment that's a mini-masterpiece of double-talk. The film does have a couple of misguided sequences (one involving a feeding maching in the space capsule is particularly humiliating) and some comments about Asia are a bit dubious today but overall Hope and Crosby still displayed enough charm that you almost wish they could have done one more film.

The anomaly here is 1960's The Facts of Life, Hope's attempt at a more-or-less straight dramatic role. There are still jokes-Hope wasn't about to leap into a void-but this time they come from his character and even bring out criticism from others. Most notably that's Lucille Ball as a friend's wife who can't stand the humorous commentary and good-fellow cheerfulness in a critique, however mild, of Hope's usual persona. During a group vacation to Mexico where most of the group gets waylaid, Hope and Ball follow the Hollywood rule that opposites attract and start an affair. Played mostly straight, The Facts of Life is fairly reliable melodrama with a smear of comedy (one sequence where Hope gets lost among identical motels is clever) but never quite pulls together. The big problem is that Hope either didn't have this type of acting in him or needed more firm guidance from the director. Ball on the other hand is completely plausible as a lonely wife, almost single-handedly keeping the film from feeling by-the-book. Viewed today it's odd to think this gathered five Oscar® nominations, winning one for best black-and-white costume design.

Bob Hope: MGM Movie Legends Collection has each film on a separate disc in a slim clase. There are no extras beyond trailers though a couple of the later films have a choice of full-screen or letterboxed (but none are fully widescreen). The transfers are solid though there are a few moments in The Princess and the Pirate where it appears as if the Technicolor strips were briefly out of registration. Nothing major and a lot of viewers won't even notice. The set On The Road With Bob Hope And Bing Crosby which collects the first four "Road" films is still the best place to see Hope in action but this is a good if uneven follow-up.

For more information about Bob Hope: MGM Movie Legends Collection, visit MGM. To order Bob Hope: The MGM Movie Legends Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson