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One of the very few truly serious movie roles that Bob Hope ever played was Eddie Foy in The Seven Little Foys (1955). Foy had been a vaudeville institution on Broadway in the early 1900s, but for all his fame and influence, he was a very complicated man and not at all universally liked, and The Seven Little Foys does not gloss over his selfishness and other negative traits. Most prominently, he neglected his wife and family in favor of his career, and it was only after his wife died, leaving their seven children for Foy to raise himself, that he started paying them any attention. Even then, however, he used them for his own purposes, enlisting them into his act and training and turning them into "The Seven Little Foys." (Foy and his wife actually had eleven children, but four of them died.)
The sequence depicting Hope being informed of his wife's death is especially dramatic. Foy is shown drinking and carousing mere blocks from the hospital in which his wife (Italian actress Milly Vitale in one of her few American films) is dying, only to be told of her death the next day. The night before Hope shot this scene, a real-life close friend died of cancer. Hope undoubtedly used his personal devastation in shooting the scene, and the result is one of the most serious and dramatic on-screen moments in Hope's career.
The highlight of the picture, however, is a seven-minute sequence in which James Cagney reprises his Oscar®-winning role of George M. Cohan (from Yankee Doodle Dandy ) and dances on a tabletop with Hope after the duo trade comic barbs. Cagney was more than happy to supply this cameo. For one thing, he was eager to lose fifteen pounds, "so [Hope] and I rehearsed the dance for three weeks, and I lost my unwanted lard." (Cagney by Cagney) For another, Cagney saw this as an opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of Eddie Foy, who had helped him when he was just starting out: "When I was a starving actor," Cagney wrote, "I could always get a free meal and a friendly welcome at the Foys. You don't forget things like that." Therefore Cagney refused a salary for his work on The Seven Little Foys.
He did have a little trouble with the dance number, however. In his three weeks of rehearsal he incorporated a step that placed extra strain on his knees, and when the cameras were rolling and he jumped up onto the table, his knees shot through with severe pain. But Cagney was a professional hoofer and soldiered on. "I didn't change expression but reached down and pulled Bob up. We proceeded to do the routine with both my legs paining almost beyond endurance.... Right after the number I called Bob into my dressing room and showed him my knees. He couldn't believe it. They were full of fluid, easily twice their normal size. But in a few days they were normal again and I was all right. I guess at fifty-six even a longtime song-and-dance man can't expect to bounce around in quite the same way he did at, say, fifty."
The Seven Little Foys was the first producing-directing effort for writers Melville Shavelson (who directed) and Jack Rose (who produced). The pair were longtime writing partners and gag men who had a long association with Hope. In his memoir (How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying, P.S. -- You Can't!), Shavelson wrote that when he and Rose approached Hope about this film, Shavelson told the star: "Bob, there's a catch. You can't have the story unless I direct it and Jack produces it, and neither of us have ever directed or produced anything in our lives." Hope thought it over for a moment, then replied, "My last picture was so lousy, you guys can't possibly do one lousier."
According to Shavelson, he, Rose and Hope all worked for deferred salaries, to be paid from the film's profits. "The Seven Little Foys was so successful," he wrote, "Paramount was too surprised to lie. To buy out our rights so they would keep all the picture's future earnings, Jack and I were offered a contract to write, produce and direct a series of films for the studio. Part of the deal included a hefty chunk of Paramount Pictures stock. I later sold my stock, much too soon, it turned out, but I didn't mind. For a short time, I had been a minor mogul."
In his many stints as Oscar® host, Bob Hope often joked about his own lack of an acting Oscar®. The Seven Little Foys was one of four films in his career that he really hoped would finally land him a nomination, but it was not to be. (The others: Monsieur Beaucaire , Beau James , The Facts of Life .) This film did garner one nomination, however, for Best Story and Screenplay, but it lost to Interrupted Melody (1955).
Two of the real-life Seven Little Foys took part in the making of this film: Eddie Foy, Jr. supplies the voice-over narration, and Charley Foy serves as technical adviser. Look for Jerry Mathers (child star of TV's Leave It to Beaver) playing Bryan Foy at age 5.
Producer: Jack Rose
Director: Melville Shavelson
Screenplay: Melville Shavelson, Jack Rose
Cinematography: John F. Warren
Art Direction: John Goodman, Hal Pereira
Music: Joseph J. Lilley
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Cast: Bob Hope (Eddie Foy), Milly Vitale (Madeleine Morando Foy), George Tobias (Barney Green), Angela Clarke (Clara Morando), Herbert Heyes (Judge), Richard Shannon (Stage Manager), Billy Gray (Bryan Lincoln Foy, as a teen), Lee Erickson (Charley Foy), Paul De Rolf (Richard Foy), Lydia Reed (Mary Foy).
by Jeremy Arnold