The Facts of Life
Sunday, February 8, 2009 5:30 am ET
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In 1960, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz ended their TV series The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (a sequel to I Love Lucy) and got divorced. Ball needed a diversion but quick, and she found it in The Facts of Life (1960), a satirical adult comedy also starring Bob Hope. The duo had already made two movies together (Sorrowful Jones, 1949, and Fancy Pants, 1950) and one more pairing lay in the future (Critic's Choice, 1963). Since Fancy Pants, however, Ball had become a huge TV star and now owned a studio, Desilu. As Hope noted in his memoirs, "It was the first time I ever kissed a studio head - face to face."
Bob Hope described The Facts of Life as "the story of two handicapped people who fall in love. Their handicaps are his wife and her husband." Indeed, the movie finds Hope and Ball falling in love despite the fact that each is married to someone else and the two couples are friends with one another. Attempts to consummate their passion lead only to comic disasters in motels and mountain lodges. Along the way there is plenty of comic philosophizing, and the picture becomes something of a satire on suburban boredom and sexual yearning.
The film began as a 1951 dramatic screenplay by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, written for William Holden and Olivia de Havilland as an American variation on Brief Encounter (1945). It never came together, and Frank and Panama put their script aside. In 1959 they resurrected it as a comedy intended for Bob Hope, and United Artists came aboard with financing. Hope, Frank and Panama enjoyed a long association over the years. Hope had given the writing-producing-directing duo their big break in 1938 by hiring them to write for his radio show. Soon they had a contract at Paramount, where they made such films as Road to Utopia (1946), for which they were Oscar®-nominated. In the years to come, Frank and Panama would write (and sometimes produce and direct) eight pictures for Hope.
Despite that history, The Facts of Life set was not lacking in creative tension. Hope and Frank fought fiercely over Hope's performance. Frank, who was directing, wanted it to be a more serious and three-dimensional character, and not the usual shtick that Hope was famous for (as in his Road movies). In the end, Frank shot two versions of many scenes, one his way and one Hope's gag-filled way. Frank used mostly his versions in the final edit.
Another problem on set was a rash of freak injuries. Ball fell eight feet in a boating scene and suffered leg and facial bruises, shutting down production for two weeks. Even when she returned, she required heavy makeup to hide her injuries. The next day, Melvin Frank broke his ankle playing golf. A couple of weeks later, actor Don DeFore strained his back. Then a set burned down. And finally Hope injured his finger in a doorjamb. "This film should have been shot at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital," he quipped.
Nonetheless, The Facts of Life came together in the end. The New York Times found it "hilarious," adding, "it is full of thoroughly sparkling repartee and word-gags and sight-gags that crackle with humor and sly intelligence... It is not to be taken too seriously nor too lightly, either."
The Facts of Life received five Academy Award nominations, for Original Story and Screenplay (Panama and Frank), Black-and-White Cinematography (Charles Lang, Jr.), Song ("The Facts of Life" by Johnny Mercer), Black-and-White Art Direction, and Black-and-White Costume Design, winning for the latter. As usual, there was no Oscar nomination for Hope, though he did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, one of only two such nominations he ever received. He was never nominated for an Academy Award, receiving instead many special Oscars over the years.
Hope joked about this constantly over his many stints as Oscar® host, but the truth is that despite his on-set battles with Frank, Hope felt that The Facts of Life was one of four pictures in his career for which he really did deserve a nomination. The others were Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), The Seven Little Foys (1955) and Beau James (1957). Even though the latter two titles contain some of Hope's most dramatic roles, overall Hope rarely took on straight dramas. In a 1961 interview, Lucille Ball said of her co-star, "Bob just didn't believe in his abilities as a dramatic actor. That was unfortunate because in my humble opinion he could have been a really fine one if he'd believed in himself. He should have branched out, given himself a chance."
The Facts of Life marked the final big-screen role for Ruth Hussey, who thereafter did television and theater work. She died in 2005. The animated main title sequence is by the great Saul Bass, whose credits include Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), and The Age of Innocence (1993).
Producer: Hal C. Kern, Norman Panama
Director: Melvin Frank
Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Frank Bracht
Art Direction: Kenneth A. Reid
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Bob Hope (Larry Gilbert), Lucille Ball (Kitty Weaver), Ruth Hussey (Mary Gilbert), Don DeFore (Jack Weaver), Louis Nye (Hamilton Busbee), Philip Ober (Doc Mason).
by Jeremy Arnold