As Paul Harvey said for so long on his popular radio show, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
31 July, 2009
Old Ski Nose himself wrote in 1977’s The Road To Hollywood -- ghostly written, no doubt, by his able Writing Staff; and the legitimately great Bob Thomas -- “I didn’t get to Hollywood as early as B.C. That’s Bing Crosby; crooner, father, and member of the Lewis And Clark expedition. When he arrived, there wasn’t anyone in town but a bunch of Indians waiting for John Wayne to show up. Cecil B. DeMille was a prop boy. Of course I’d have come sooner but I had an accident. It was called a Screen Test. But I’m getting ahead of my story, I’d better start at the beginning.”
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby first met in 1932 when they bumped into each other on the street near a favorite hangout, The New York Friars Club. They traded stories over drinks and eight weeks later were on the same bill at The Capitol Theatre. Friendly, but only amiable off-and-on co-workers, each did his own thing, and their acquaintance was renewed in 1939 when Bing invited Bob to do some of the old Capitol shtick at the opening night of The Del Mar Racetrack. The two were a huge hit with the audience, among them Paramount’s Head Of Production, Bill LeBaron … who got an idea they ought to do a movie together.
And so we come to (finally in some people’s opinion) one of the famous Road pictures -- and this one my personal favorite of them -- the hilarious, and certainly most outrageous of that Series:
The Road To Utopia
w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d Hal Walker
The fourth of the famous Series finds Bob, Bing and Dottie in a race to find an Alaskan gold mine. It all begins when the boys, lovable con artists that they are, take on the identities of two notorious killers, only to find themselves over their heads as those very killers, not to mention Douglass Dumbrille and his gang, race after them. Toss the beautiful “Scagway Sal” in the mix, and it’s gags galore as our heroes survive the snowy tundra with vaudevillian vex and witty one-liners!
I sat here for some time trying to come up with a concise yet entertaining synopsis, finally working out the above, but only after scanning the web for some inspiration, where I came across this from Jim Gay: “[Utopia] has the boys in the Klondike masquerading as the killers Sperry and McGurk, from whom they've stolen the map to a gold mine, which really belongs to Dorothy Lamour, who’s really ... it doesn't really matter. This is arguably the goofiest of the road pictures, with just enough plot to hang the jokes on, and a certain amount of time spent to see who gets the girl, while maintaining [Hope’s and Crosby’s] fierce and friendly rivalry. Along the way, animals talk, including the humorist Robert Benchley. You don’t care where you're going, just as long as you're with them. Put it there, pal. Put it there.”
I couldn’t say it better myself. And it goes back to what I was saying in the Ghost Breakers review about that picture being a Bob Hope vehicle. “If I say [he wants to] play Private Eye, you get the idea. And if I say [he’s] battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea. The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone’s playing, really – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope vehicle.” And that certainly applies to the Road series. No matter their character names or where the adventure is set, it’s Bob, Bing and Dottie on the road.
We’ve been talking about Hope hits based on plays, and those hits already filmed remakes (Canary, Ghost Breakers and Truth). But Utopia is an original screenplay, this time by the great Norman Panama & Melvin Frank. In fact, Utopia was nominated for Best
Screenplay (alongside Notorious, lost to The Seventh Veil; as if either of those are actually better). And speaking of pedigree as I do in the Truth review, take a look at Panama & Frank’s. For you writers out there, imagine that list being yours? Yes, I’m jealous too.
A Utopia-specific aside, if you’ll permit: For our movie today, Panama & Frank wrote the famous line of all the Roads. It happens when Bob and Bing first arrive in The Klondike, posing as the killers. Bing tells Bob to act tough when they go into the bar. “What’ll you have?” asks the heavy, Douglas Dumbrille. Bing growls, “A couple of fingers of rotgut” to which Bob quips, “I’ll have a lemonade,” then growling, “In a dirty glass.” Melvin Frank has said the line has always haunted him. Whenever he did interviews, he expected to be asked about Writing & Producing & Directing the likes of Cary Grant and Danny Kaye (sure, even Bob and Bing). But he was always written up as “the man who wrote the line, ‘I’ll take a lemonade … in a dirty glass.’”
While we’re talking pedigree, there’s director Hal Walker, who would also do The Road To Bali six years later, but take a look at where he started: working his way up through Zanzibar, Truth and Morocco. Is there a better training ground for our motley crew? I think not.
Rounding it all out is the great Robert Benchley who acts as Narrator, first introducing the film, then appearing pop-up-video style, fifty years before the popular show on VH1. You probably recognize his name from being one of the great humorists of his time -- he was pals with Dorothy Parker and is credited with the line, “Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” * -- or perhaps because his son Nathaniel Benchley wrote the novel The Off-Islanders (which became the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) or perhaps because his grandson Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws. It’s too bad R. Benchley passed away before Utopia’s release, because, while he was his own worst critic, I think he would have loved this.
Wait a minute! Benchley passed in ’45 and Utopia was released in ’46! True, but the film was shot in ’44 and not released for two years. Why? Couple of theories. One, Crosby’s pious turn in Going My Way took precedence over his wisecracking scoundrel here; and, two, his being absent from his NBC radio show at the time would have prevented his promoting the film’s songs (both Personality and Put It There, Pal became big hits). Both are possible, but my money’s on -- theory three -- the fact that every studio had a lineup of war-related movies in the pipeline and, with the war coming to an end, they needed to get those released first. A comedy could easily be pushed a year (or two) while a war movie would need to get out while its propaganda carried it. (But, yes, I digress.)
After three previous Road pictures – including Zanzibar and Morocco which, alongside Utopia, I consider to be the top three of the series – we find Bob, Bing and Dottie in what plays as a grand-slam after three previous homeruns (swear to God they talk like that). Everything is bigger, everything is broader. It’s as if they knew they had a good thing on their hands but, instead of playing it safe, went for broke. Bosley Crowther, in his original New York Times review, writes, “A ‘Road’ show is always an occasion for the cut-ups to have a marvelous time and in this case the comic inventors (stars and writers and director) ran wild.” Wild longshots with no less than Benchley’s bits, talking animals, multiple breaks of the fourth wall, a visual Paramount logo in the middle of the movie, an actor cutting through a scene to get to his soundstage, a cameo by Santa Claus, and (the grand culmination) the Road song, Put It There, Pal. (And if you’re wondering just how well it holds up, measure it thus: Family Guy has paid homage to it.) ** But where Utopia could have easily gone off the rails, Panama & Frank wrote -- and Cast & Crew executed -- a script that works. That works well. That, even more wonderfully for us, works just as well today. Crowther goes on to agree that, “Where this sort of clowning might be juvenile and monotonous in other hands, it has rich comic quality in the smooth paws of [all] involved.” Indeed, as goofy as some of it plays (and, admittedly, some of it does), it’s goofy so grand that by the time you question it, we’re already on to the next bit.
Bob Thomas, in his section of The Road To Hollywood, writes, “What is farce? Critics and lexicographers have agonized over the question for centuries, and none has provided a satisfying definition. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language offers as good an explanation as any: ‘a light, humurous play in which plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather thn upon the development of character.’ However it’s defined, farce is indisputably the most hazardous of comedy forms, requiring a touch that is sure, yet transparent. Without the proper ingredients and the finesse of master chefs, the soufflé becomes a pancake. No comedian of the sound era can play farce with greater surety than Bob Hope. His deftness with lines, no matter how outrageous, makes him an ideal farceur.”
Whenever I rewatch a movie for the purpose of a review, I always have a pen and paper handy, to jot down things I might want to talk about. And I usually get through half a page or so. “Oh that’s funny,” I’ll say. Scribble. “Oh that’s an in-joke I ought to talk about.” Scribble. “Hey look, there’s Jack La Rue as a henchman. He’s a henchman in Brunette as well!” Scribble. For Utopia? Three full pages. Looking back on them now, I think, “So where do I start?” And the truth is, nowhere; rather, I can’t start anywhere for fear of not being able to stop. And, honestly, you’re lucky for it. First because you don’t have to sit through my scribbling when Panama & Frank’s (and Burke & Van Husen’s songs) are so much better. And because it goes back to what I said about talking-plot in the Ghost Breakers review: These films are treasures to be discovered. You don’t need me telling you how great the story and jokes are. Obviously I think so. So hopefully I’ve done enough here to make you want to watch it. And if you’re a Hope fan -- certainly if you’re a Road fan -- well, then you’re in good hands.
Put it there, indeed.
* I didn’t want to dive too deeply into this, particularly in the middle of a review of a Hope film, but couldn’t help but share; hence here in a footnote. Regarding the origin of Benchley’s famous “martini” line. In Billy Wilder's The Major And The Minor, he says to Ginger Rogers, "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" and Billy Wilder (co-writer and director) credits Benchley with the line. Benchley, in turn, credits it to his friend Charles Butterworth. Indeed, in Every Day’s A Holiday, we see Butterworth tell Charles Winninger, "You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini." Mystery solved? You be the judge.
** Throughout this Top Five Retrospective, I’ve talked a lot about the in-jokes in Hope’s films (and there are many) but never have they run so rampant as in Utopia, certainly not to the extent of their getting their own song, “Put It There, Pal.” I didn’t want to spend time during the review itself to talk about it (specifically), but I also can’t help but share some of the backstories to its great lines (in-jokes audiences would have certainly been in-on when the film was released). You can find the song on iTunes and it’s certainly worth the purchase.
Hope’s line to Crosby: “I’ll be just like your horses …” Crosby was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing; so far as to, along with Charles S. Howard (owner of Seabiscuit), found The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Crosby’s line to Hope: “I’m glad you’re fooling Pepsodent” Pepsodent toothpaste was the sole sponsor of Hope's radio show from 1938 to 1948. The program was such a success, for both parties, that he became inextricably tied to the product.
Hope’s line to Crosby: “I hear your show on Thursdays, what a lot of eggs you smash” Crosby’s NBC radio show aired Thursday evenings and, when singing, he habitually juggled eggs (no joke). Frank Capra once said of him, he was the only actor you could confidently ask to "juggle eggs while reciting the Gettysburg address" and get it right in one take.
Crosby’s line to Hope: “Well at least I don’t depend upon Colonna’s big moustache” Popular comedian Jerry Colonna (who shines in Fred Allen’s It’s In The Bag) was a regular on Hope’s radio show, and on the U.S.O. Tours.
Hope’s line to Crosby: “You’ve got that something in your voice so right for selling cheese” Crosby’s NBC radio show was sponsored by Kraft.
As Paul Harvey said for so long on his popular radio show, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
As Paul Harvey said for so long on his popular radio show, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
Steve Bennett (Bob Hope) is an up-and-coming Investor who makes a bet with his new coworkers that he can tell the absolute truth for twenty-four hours. Only trouble is, it’s not his money he bets, but $10,000 he’s asked to invest by his new boss’ niece, Gwen Saunders (Paulette Goddard). Those twenty-four hours are spent aboard the family yacht, and Hope’s bet might just cash-out big, IF he can outwit all the hot water his unwavering honesty gets him into!
In this continuing retrospective of Bob Hope’s Top Five Movies (at least in this reviewer’s opinion), I thought I’d follow The Ghost Breakers with Hope’s and Goddard’s next (though unfortunately final) helping together – and this one a wide change from the ghouls and gags mode of their first two – the sit-com shell-game of the wonderfully witty Nothing But The Truth.
Released just a year after Ghost Breakers in 1941, Nothing But The Truth once again reunited Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Director Elliot Nugent (who had done The Cat And The Canary with the team; and Nugent would later direct My Favorite Brunette). The script, by Don Hartman and Ken Englund is once again based on a hit play, from 1916 by James Montgomery; and that play was based on a novel, from 1914 by Fred Isham. Like Canary and Ghost Breakers before it, our 1941 version of Truth was not the first time the story was filmed, as there are both the 1920 and 1929 versions proceeding it. (The other films or TV works with the same title are not the same story.) I say in the Ghost Breakers review how, even then, Hollywood enjoyed a good remake. And why not? When it works, it works. And here it works just splendidly.
Speaking of what works, an aside about pedigree. If you’ve been reading all of these Bob Hope reviews – so far there’s My Favorite Brunette, The Cat And The Canary and The Ghost Breakers as well as this one (and bless you, dear readers, for putting up with me through them) – you know I’m working my way through this five-part review; my five favorites Hope made in those special eight years that spawned ten monstrous hits (the Canary review has an easy list to reference, if you’d like). Do yourself a favor and take a look at the talent involved in those. How many Hornblow Jr. produced. How many Nugent directed. How many Lamour costarred in. How many Goddard co-starred in. How many their respective writers worked on! The overlapping will astound you. Well, that overlapping isn’t so surprising, really. Especially then, but even today. (As I also mention in the Ghost Breakers review, it’s similar to how the McKay-Ferrell and Apatow camps work now.) And, if you’ll indulge me a moment, I’d like to spotlight our Truth writers, Don Hartman and Ken Englund.
Don Hartman has the best list. Not only did he write these other Hope hits – The Road To Singapore (BEGINNING that great Road series, mind you), The Road To Zanzibar, My Favorite Blonde, The Road To Morocco and The Princess And The Pirate – but he also wrote these great Danny Kaye hits – Up In Arms and Wonderman. (And if you think I’m jesting what a pedigree THAT is, try getting a pint of Prospect Park out of old Cuddles Sakall sometime!) As for Ken Englund, well, he might not have done another Hope, but he did do MY favorite Danny Kaye movie – and, interestingly enough, completely separate from Hartman doing the two of his own – The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. And in my book, for that alone he can retire proudly. (I still wish Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey would get on THAT remake. They’ve been talking about it forever! But, yes, I digress.) Point is, if you look up a few titles, a few names, you’ll be pleasantly surprised what you’ll find. For instance, just think about Cary Grant in His Girl Friday saying, “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat!” I’ll leave you to make the Archie Leach connection.
Now. Getting back to Nothing But The Truth.
The basic plot is so simple it’s no wonder it’s been done so many times. Our lead swears to tell the absolute truth for a given amount of time, which he or she does, albeit causing shenanigans all around. (By the by, never pass up an opportunity to use the word shenanigans.) The original novel was so successful it birthed a play and three film versions. And do you remember the I Love Lucy episode where she swears to tell the truth for twenty-four hours (ep72, "Lucy Tells The Truth")? Not to mention Jim Carrey makes a second cameo in this review with his hit Liar, Liar (though more on that in a moment). Where this Hope vehicle in particular shines is in those very shenanigans. Having to tell the truth is one thing, but the sit-com shell-game it leads to is quite funny indeed.
Mainly because of – quelle surprise – the once again wonderfully charismatic Hope and Goddard, who are so easy to root for. (And I hope I’m not getting near fisticuffs here, but, for my money, even more so than Hope and Lamour.) It really is a shame they didn’t get to do more together, but, if all we get are Ghost Breakers and Truth – for while Canary is a personal treasure, the other two shine – I’m happy. And speaking of shining, it’s the almost Shakespearean game of mistaken identity and mix-matching on the yacht that really makes this movie. The triangle between Hope, Goddard and her suitor, Hope’s valet (the great Willie Best reprising his Ghost Breakers role), the suitor’s parents, a visiting Psychiatrist, and of course Hope’s coworkers who try desperately to catch him in a lie, and win the $10,000 bet. Add to that the gentleman from whom Goddard originally got that $10,000 plus a blonde actress who it appears has something on the side with one of those coworkers, and Hope indeed has his hands full of desperate truths.
I mention it being Shakespearean because, like his great comedies, it’s one of those plots that could so easily be convoluted (and fall apart) if it weren’t for the wonderful handling of it. I’ve never read the book or seen the play (though, again, if anyone knows of a revival happening in or around L.A. please let me know), but I like to give them credit. And we must certainly praise Hartman & Englund’s script thereof, plus Nugent’s wonderful telling of that script. And above it all, after all, we remember it as a Bob Hope movie. And does he shine here? You bet. Just watch him hit his stride, especially in the early office and hotel scenes, and when he’s moving around the yacht in that negligee. Brilliant. It’s no wonder the hits – big hits – Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia and Brunette would shortly follow.
One final aside, if I may. Before when I talked about the oft-used plot, I mentioned the great (and, frankly, very funny) Jim Carrey hit Liar, Liar. Reason I wanted to touch on it again, just briefly, is that it can’t help but occur to me how times have changed since Truth in 1941 (or even that Lucy episode in 1953) and 1997 when Liar premiered. Where all Hope or Ms. Ball had to do was SAY they’d tell the truth for twenty-four hours, people believed them. We the audience believed them. But forty (fifty!) years later, it took a MAGICAL element to ensure Carrey’s character would tell the truth. No one – and no audience, for that matter – would believe he was telling the truth just because he SAID so! How times have changed indeed. Alas.
But what hasn’t changed over the past almost-seventy years is how great a movie Nothing But The Truth is. How well it holds up. I’ve seen it a handful of times, always remembered really enjoying it, but (admittedly) had to watch it again before writing this review. And there was just enough I’d forgotten to where I laughed out loud several times throughout. Once again this review hardly does justice to the supporting cast, especially Edward Arnold (for whom this, perhaps neck and neck with Dear Ruth, is my favorite of his). Or Glenn Anders (perhaps best known for Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai) who, even when bordering on dislikable, has some great off-the-cuffs here. But what would CERTAINLY be an injustice is if you missed this film. So many friends I’ve mentioned Truth to say, “I’ve never even HEARD of that one!” Well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to put it in here. It holds up just fine as a Top Five. But it also, hopefully, will finally get a little bit of the recognition it deserves.
As we continue these Top 5 -- and remember we’re only numbering them like that -- 1,2,3,4,5 -- by when they were released -- we come to The Cat And The Canary’s sort-of sequel, another great comedy-thriller, and my personal favorite of Old Ski Nose:
The Ghost Breakers
w Walter DeLeon from the play by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard
d George Marshall
It’s ghosts and gags galore again as Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) travels from New York to Cuba to see the castle she’s inherited, said to be haunted of course. Enter radio star Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) whose mistaken-identity run-in with the mob has him stowing away for the ride. Soon the two are battling ghosts and zombies -- and the bad guys that want the castle for themselves -- with nothing but a trunkful of witty one-liners to save the day!
In his original 1940 Review, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote (in part), “It looks as though Paramount has really discovered something: it has found the fabled formula for making an audience shriek with laughter and fright at the same time. And apparently the necessary contents for such a valuable witch's broth are nothing more esoteric than a thoroughly haunted house, a web of tangled intrigue with some sort of treasure at the end, and Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope to grope their terrified way through and to same. It worked out very nicely in The Cat And The Canary last year, and it is working quite as nicely -- and even more amusingly, in fact -- here.”
And, “A hand reaches out of the darkness or a sinister figure appears through the gloom; Miss Goddard -- who hasn’t a great deal to do but looks great doing it -- casts her fear-shattered self into Mr. Hope's trembling arms, and he, witty fellow that he is, pops out a withering gag. Some are bad enough to throw any spook that ever lived, but most of them are lively snappers which chase the creepiest chill with a laugh. As a consequence, the picture leaps nimbly along from gag to gag, never making much sense but always making merry. Not many pictures can make your goose-pimpled sides shake with laughter, but this one does -- or should.”
Released just a year after Canary in 1940, sometimes a pseudo sequel -- second helping, whatever you want to call it -- is a very good thing and The Ghost Breakers shines for the treatment, as everything about the film – scares, laughs, and especially story – are heightened to their utmost potential; and our utmost enjoyment. The most significant reuniting was, of course, Hope & Goddard whose enormous success with Canary all but demanded it. And why not in the same genre, even the same scenario? More thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as the wise-cracking Hope accompanies the brave and beautiful Goddard, once again the inheritor of a gloomy old place, supposed to be haunted, with a hidden treasure, all hampered by nefarious foes who want her out of the way. (And people say today’s Hollywood has run out of original ideas.)
Vis-à-vis my talking about the Series of the 40s -- see the My Favorite Brunette review -- I’m sure Paramount would have loved to continue something with Hope & Goddard beyond the upcoming Nothing But The Truth, but his Road series and her relationship with Charles Chaplin -- not to mention her becoming a star in her own right -- hampered that (and perhaps a little bit more on that in the upcoming Truth piece).
The Ghost Breakers reunited several of the Canary team, including Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Scorer Ernst Toch, not to mention most of the team would reunite yet again for Nothing But The Truth. Particular to note is scribe Walter DeLeon -- who shines here -- reunited with a hit play, this time by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard (no relation to our leading lady, although Dickey and Charles W. were brothers-in-law). Interestingly, this was not the first time DeLeon tackled the Ghost Breakers material. He had done so for the 1922 version, and even that wasn’t the first time the play had been filmed. The first was in 1914, handled by none other than a young Cecil B. DeMille. And our version today won’t be the last time the story is told, as our Director, George Marshall, will tell the story again with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in their Scared Stiff. (And people say today’s Hollywood is obsessed with remakes.)
Marshall himself remembers Hope’s “professionalism, impeccable timing, wonderful story sense, adaptability, superior sense of humor. Maybe other directors had problems with him, but I always found him wonderful to work with.” And, “I still laugh remembering the goofy times we had and Bob’s ability to make light even of heavy situations -- on screen and off.” While this was their first picture together, he’d go on to direct Hope in Monsieur Beaucaire (which many consider to be his best) and Fancy Pants with Lucille Ball (which came this close to edging Nothing But The Truth out of these Top 5).
You’ve probably noticed I don’t delve too much into plot in my reviews. Well, that’s for two reasons. One, I don’t want to give it away, nervous that someone might be reading this without having yet seen the movie (and they are treasures to be discovered). Two, that plot, character names and the like aren’t necessarily why they’re treasures. If I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie where he plays Private Eye, you get the idea. And if I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie about his battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea. The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone in the movie’s playing – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope movie. The same, with great respect, goes to most films of the 40s. It’s the new Humphrey Bogart film! And that packed 'em in. The 40s were when stars and their types of films were what mattered. (Imagine today’s marketing allowing the same stars, writers, et cetera being in Film #2 without calling it that? Ford had his Stock Company -- 'A Company Of Heroes,' as Dobe called his autobiography -- and there’s the McKay-Ferrell and Apatow camps, but you get the idea.) So please forgive me if you’re looking for more in-depth play-by-play. For that, I dare say the film does just fine on its own.
Next to My Favorite Brunette and, of the Road pictures, Utopia, I’ll stand by this film holding up the best. As a thriller, it has some genuninely creepy moments (bed so well by Mr. Toch’s score): the zombie laying in his bed, turning his head to the light. His walking up the path to the staring, petrified Goddard. Don Santiago’s midnight stroll (to this day a better than decent effect). And the hand creeping up the glass coffin, trying desperately to get Hope’s and Goddard’s attention. And as a comedy? You bet it’s funny, with the rapid-fire wit only Hope can deliver. And not just Hope – and without leaving the best for last – there’s Willie Best delivering right along side him (and for whom, I’m afraid, once again this review hardly does justice). In fact, some of the funniest moments are Hope and Best simply interacting; in the New York apartment at the beginning, on the cruise ship, and skulking around the castle. What a great “buddy picture” in the middle of our comedy-thriller.
Not to mention, going back to the in-game I talked about in the Brunette review (mastered by Hope & Co. by that picture), there are some great uses in this one. Did you notice Hope humming “Thanks For The Memory” just before he’s introduced? He was already so well linked to it, and he’d only introduced it two years before in Big Broadcasst ’38. And quipping about the New York storm (and city-wide blackout, thirty years before the real one), “Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”
Sorry, quick aside here. Why was that line so funny to audiences then? Sure, that big a storm is a funny quip about Rathbone’s oft-gothic roles but it was more than that. Rathbone’s wife Ouida developed a reputation for hosting elaborate, expensive parties in their home. So well known and coveted were these – and covered by the publicity mags – that of course the theatre going public were enamored of them. Rathbone and Old Ski Nose will eventually co-star in Casanova’s Big Night. Okay, back to the in-game.
There’s the great Pamphlet Scene as they’re pulling into the Havana harbor -- the Mad Lib esque back-and-forth -- Hope saying it sounds like a Cecil B. DeMille picture (which, remember, it would have been, if we were watching DeMille’s own Ghost Breakers just twenty-six years before). And, as we heard Hope take a shot at the Republicans in Canary, it was only fair he address the Democrats in this one (with, as much as I’m a Democrat, one of the funniest quips of his career).
And our movie today was such a hit, it’s literally referenced in another movie, the Paramount / Fred MacMurray comedy-thriller Murder He Says. MacMurray and Helen Walker are maneuvering their way through an old house -- I won’t give too much away -- when, stumped by a clue, he spots an organ, thinks a moment and --
Nah, it’s stilly.
Did you see the Bob Hope picture ‘Ghost Breakers?’
The one with the zombie?
Yeah. Remember when they had the organ in it? Come here!
(he moves to it, she following)
They played a combination of notes that operated a gimmick that
opened the door to the hiding place.
(sitting at it now)
In a place like this? It couldn’t be.
Well what have we got to lose? Worked for them, didn’t it?
(he positions his hands to play)
And let’s leave them there, because if you haven’t seen that film, it’s well worth the watch (and if I do a Fred MacMurray Top 5 it will definitely be on that list). How good is it? Well, none other than Gene Wilder homages it in his comedy-thriller, Haunted Honeymoon; and I’ll leave you to discover how and where. Interestingly, in his Family Film Festival episode of Murder He Says, Tom Hatten notes, “Bob Hope was the king of the Paramount lot as far as comedy was concerned at this time. How in the world did he ever let this script get away from him? It’s the perfect Bob Hope movie except it’s better, as good as Bob is, it’s better with Fred MacMurray.” And I dare say he’s right.
Okay, back to our movie today.
Speaking of not doing these write-ups justice, at least in terms of plot, I’d certainly be remiss to not mention our wonderful Supporting Cast in Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Pedro De Cordoba, a young Anthony Quinn, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan and Paul Fix. And Virginia Brissac as Mother Zombie (I kid you not that’s her credit) who you might recognize as James Dean’s grandmother in Rebel Without A Cause. Great character actors, all of them. Look them each up; you’ll be surprised how well you know them. And I have to say Tom Dugan as Raspy Kelly is the butt of my favorite joke in the movie: with that near whisper voice of his, he just barely raises it and Hope interrupts, “Don’t shout.” Priceless.
One Supporter I’ll single out is Lloyd Corrigan. That’s his real name, but you know who I mean; the short pudgy fellow that seems harmless as he accidentally keeps bumping into Paulette Goddard; first on the pier, then on the ship, then in the Havana Club. (And for you Boston Blackie fans, yep, that’s Arthur Manleder.) Well, what happens to him? Granted, the plot is incidental, and fair enough, but he just sort of disappears, doesn’t he? After the turn from bumbling to seemingly plotting in The Havana Club. But then that’s it, he’s gone, never explained. Is there info on an earlier cut with him as a cop or cohort at the end? If anyone knows, please share.
As The Ghost Breakers is the second comedy-thriller from such a great team, I of course wish there were more. But even if this was the only one, it’s well worth a night in a haunted house. As Hope says to Goddard at the end --
It’ll give us something to talk about on our honeymoon!
Yeah, didn’t I tell ya?
No, but I’d like to hear more about it!
She smiles, nods and they kiss. (And stop questioning the fact they’ve only known each other a week. It’s Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard!)
Indeed, if Canary was the wedding, then The Ghost Breakers is quite the honeymoon.
I often defend TV -- good TV -- to near fisticuffs because of how difficult it is to put out good work week after week. I love movies, but nowadays as much as two or three years can be spent on telling one two-hour story (and often for good reason) but a TV show is there, in the trenches, giving it to us again and again, week to week, each episode often better than some movies. They’re two different mediums, sure, but good TV? Engaging us that often; bringing us back for more on such a steady basis? Let’s not get to fisticuffs, but I’m happy to defend them.
Which brings me to my favorite decade in Movies, the 1940s. Now, I love a whole heckuva lot from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, but for this particular write-up let’s chat those wonderful 40s.
The 40s were when Series reigned. The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Blondie, Charlie Chan; so many great ones. (Can you believe Hopalong Cassidy was in sixty-six of his own? That’s features.) Sure, you have James Bond spanning decades (and I love James Bond) but imagine eight or ten films in as many years. Well, it happened. And it happened well.
Which brings me to one of my favorite stars of the period, Bob Hope.
We’re not talking Gable or Bogart or Tracy. Or Garbo or Davis or Hepburn, and fair enough. Well, their equivalent in the laugh department? (And my God, I’m not discounting Chaplin or Keaton or Benny or even Woody Allen but) There’s no one to compare but Hope. (Incidentally, Mr. Allen once said he’s spent his entire career trying to be Bob Hope. Don’t believe me? Watch Allen’s early stuff -- Play It Again, Sam -- man is it there.) While Bob Hope wasn’t solely in his own Series, between 1939 and 1947 -- in just those eight years -- he was in ten hits. Think about that. Ten hits in eight years. (And those weren’t the only movies he made in those years and, keep in mind, he was visiting the troops in between.) I’m not taking anything away from the Co-Stars and Writers and Editors and Directors and everyone else that helped those films be as good as they are, but that’s a hell of a run. Let’s take a look at the list --
The Cat And The Canary (1939)
The Road To Singapore (1940)
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
The Road To Zanzibar (1941)
Nothing But The Truth (1941)
The Road To Zanzibar (1941)
Nothing But The Truth (1941)
My Favorite Blonde (1942)
The Road To Morocco (1942)
They Got Me Covered (1943)
The Road To Utopia (1946)
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
For my money, it’s his best work.
Our film today leads the pack plus the three best of his Road series -- Zanzibar, Morocco and Utopia -- are in there, plus The Ghost Breakers, Nothing But The Truth and, culminating with what I believe to be his best film, My Favorite Brunette. (And let me quickly qualify: while Ghost Breakers is my personal favorite, I still call Brunette his best.)
Well it all had to start somewhere …
You know at least some of the legend surrounding Old Ski Nose. Hustling in Vaudeville and on Broadway; reigning in Radio; his break with The Big Broadcast Of 1938, where he sings what would become his theme song, “Thanks For The Memory;” leading to stardom in Movies and TV; the U.S.O. Tours. But the Bob Hope we think of -- that persona -- really began with a run-of-the-mill little movie, a remake based on a play. A “base hit” for the studio. They weren’t expecting a “home run;” and, yes, they really used to talk like that. You can probably hear Walter Pidgeon saying “Let’s keep the black ink in the books” in The Bad And The Beautiful. Well, sensing some lightning, Paramount figured out how to bottle “Bob” -- the comic, the emcee -- synthesizing what he does best, properly packaging that run-of-the-mill little movie into the grand slam we now know as:
The Cat And The Canary (1939)
w Walter DeLeon & Lynn Starling from the play by John Willard
d Elliot Nugent
Great ready for thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as Hope & Company cook up one of the great comedy thrillers. They start with a dark and gloomy mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou, invite a family for the reading of a will -- including the brave and beautiful Paulette Goddard -- let loose a shadowy killer who starts picking them off one by one, pepper it with witty wisecracks, and voilà: the perfect recipe for a frightening -- and frighteningly funny -- good time.
Welcome, dear readers, to these Top 5 Retrospectives I’m happy to share. That’s Five Movies of Five Actors, starting with my favorite comedian, Mr. Bob Hope.
To begin, our movie today is not the first time this story was told. IMDB lists a total of five projects with the title, though I don’t believe either of the 1912 or 1921 shorts can be counted. (And there’s a rumored 1930 version, all copies of which are said to be lost, not even listed on the beloved site.) But the other three -- the 1927 silent, our 1939 version, and the 1979 version -- are definitely birthed from the John Willard play. I’ve never seen the play (although I’d love to; if anyone hears of a revival in the Los Angeles area, please let me know), but it’s a straight thriller. Well, where this 1939 version shines is the genre-bending genius of putting the wise-cracking Hope into the mix.
And let’s touch on that for a moment. “The wise-cracking Hope.” He himself would always credit Canary as the point he became a star (and he’d be right) and this is what I meant by Paramount synthesizing what he does best. Everything he’d learned from Vaudeville, Broadway and his earlier Hollywood experiences molded to create the essential characterization he was to display in most of the “Bob Hope movies” that followed: the Cowardly Hero who meets his fears head-on with a bold, silly quip. (This, of course, was the same direction his Radio Writers were steering him.) And, really, this spoof on the Haunted House Movie is perfect for that. That Paramount -- and Canary’s Screenwriters and Director -- “let Bob be Bob” was the genius. Like when the lights go out and he says, “Yeah, they do that when you don’t pay your bill.” Or while stoking the fire, trying to break the tension: “Let’s drink Scotch and make wry faces. Get it, Scotch & Wry?” He hands over the poker, “Here, I don’t need this with jokes like that.” That he could play a character we wanted to see him play -- the emcee fumbling through whatever setting -- finally paid off (Canary was indeed a big hit for Paramount).
There’s an old adage in screenwriting -- I think it was Kubrick who said it -- that stories need to build to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion. And you’d be surprised how difficult it is to hit both of those well. Well, as difficult to achieve both of those in any genre is to mix genre. It’s dangerous because, when handled badly, it’s disastrous. When handled well, well …
Anyone who knows me knows what a Joss Whedon fan I am. And talk about genre bending, there’s a gentleman who does it well. From Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which wonderfully mixed horror, drama and comedy, to Firefly which mixed westerns and sci-fi, he has a knack for taking characters and situations we know, are comfortable with, and turning them into something surprising yet as-equally satisfying. And to give credit where credit is due, a great example of that -- almost eighty years before! -- is Hope’s Canary.
Let’s touch on that talent for a moment. Today’s script comes from Walter DeLeon & Lynn Starling. DeLeon started in Vaudeville, performing alongside his wife, Muggins Davies (and isn’t that a perfect Vaudeville name?). Over a 70-film career, DeLeon would help introduce Bob Hope in The Big Broadcast Of 1938 -- in fact he helped with all of the Big Broadcasts -- and would work with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Abbott & Costello and Charles Laughton. Lynn Starling was born William Lyne Starling and began on The Stage [with, interestingly, a young Humphrey Bogart and Clifton Webb in Meet The Wife (1923)]. Starling was comfortable in Hope’s wheelhouse, as he’d just picked up where the ’38 Big Broadcast left off, scripting Hope’s Thanks For The Memory.
The pieces of the puzzle seem cliché now -- the gloomy mansion in the middle of nowhere, the midnight reading of the will, the Ten Little Indians esque counting down of victims, the secret passageways, even the eyes in the painting that follow people -- but it’s few and far between to see it put together so well. The screenplay itself is essentially a simple one, but that’s where it shines. Incidentally, the Canary mystery is solved far more quickly than it’s setup, but that doesn’t take away from the joy of the thing. Because the real joys in this film don’t come from the meat and potatoes, but their gravy. The moody shadows, the great Ernst Toch score, Hope’s one-liners (natch) and (just as natch) his and Goddard’s undeniable chemistry. Truthfully, where DeLeon, Starling and Director Elliot Nugent shine is having a good story, telling it well, and then getting out of the way.
Delving one step further into The Script means sharing with you a treasured goldmine we have right here in Los Angeles. Some of you will nod knowingly and some will wonder how quickly you can get there. Now, I’m really trusting you with this, so you must promise to guard it appropriately. Ready? Okay, here we go. I’m talking about The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library; a vast archive and one of the world’s preeminent research facilities. Since 1928 it’s acquired Books, Scripts, Photographs, Production Reports, you name it. In the hundreds of thousands. Want more? It’s open to the public … at no charge. Yeah, for cinephiles, “goldmine” hardly does it justice.
And I knew they’d have a copy of the original Script -- and read that again if you need to: a copy of the original Script -- so I rushed down there and sat down to read. What do I mean by a copy of the original script? Well, each of their scripts are what appear to be -- I’ve only looked at a handful but they appear the same -- a copy of one of the shooting drafts. Don’t get me wrong, they’re original copies, but you often see different dates on the pages of the library’s bound versions. For instance, their Cat And The Canary -- a 129-page copy (for a 70-min Movie) -- consists of five dated versions, white and blue pages, between 22 March, 1939 and 29 May, 1939.
And what treasures did I find inside? Some. To be fair, most of the script is indeed the same as what you see on the screen. Remember, this was Paramount -- a Studio -- in the 30s so there would have been little “change,” adlibbing and the like; certainly on a project with as little budget/esteem as this. (Remember, too, this was Hope’s first starring feature so he wasn’t Bob Hope yet.) But, yes, I still found some fun things.
For instance, Aunt Cicily isn’t an "Aunt" in the Script. Kinda, by blood, but she’s eighteen and has a crush on Wally. Then there are two long scenes that were cut entirely. Both are when everyone’s trying to say goodnight and Charlie, Fred & Wally take their turns telling Joyce to be careful. Well, the first cut scene is Susan & Cicily talking to Joyce about the insanity in the family, and the second is Fred doing the same (the very end of his scene remains in the film with his, “Leave it to Charlie to get somewhere first”). One can presume we the audience get that there’s a second heir, Joyce better keep her wits about her, and we didn’t need two additional scenes reminding us. Most interestingly is it’s during the cut Fred scene -- intercut with it -- that Wally discovers the sponge in the closet (in the film that happens later when Joyce walks in on Charlie, Susan and Cicily conspiring). Then there’s an interesting cut bit during the scene where Wally & Joyce are trying to make sense of what they’ve learned. Talking about the necklace, Aunt Susan’s name comes up:
Say I’ve just remembered -- That necklace was originally
made for her! As a bridal gift.
A bridal gift? Yeah. She loved him -- but he changed his
“Him” being Old Man Cyrus. (Looks like this cut was covered by Fred listening at the door.) It gives us some insight as to why Susan’s more miffed than everyone else; plus, I suppose, making her something of a red herring. Then, lastly, there’s a button at the end. It plays the same -- Wally proud to have discovered the foam rubber, thinking it’s part of The Cat’s mask, only to discover it’s really Joyce’s art eraser -- but here’s how the script plays out. Caught by The Reporters hearing Joyce say so, Wally stammers to them, calling back the joke from his Intro:
Oh - I was - I was just telling her about the farmer who had
a cow, but he couldn’t afford to feed it alfalfa, so he fed it
sawdust. He saved money all right -- but he sure wasted a
lot of time --
THE THREE REPORTERS
(together they finish it for him)
-- getting the splinters out of the milk.
The way these jokes get around. I told that last night to one
Indian and now it’s all over town!
Joyce leans over and kisses him as we,
Fun, right? Now don’t go telling everyone about The Margaret Herrick Library, that’s our goldmine. For now, we can continue with our Behind The Scenes …
‘Cause look who’s in there with Hope & Goddard! George Zucco as the family lawyer, Gale Sondergaard as the housekeeper -- those two to do a few pictures with Hope -- Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Susan -- yep, most famous as Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy -- and William Abbey (uncredited but man is he there) as The Cat. It still makes me laugh when Sondergaard, a medium, says to Hope, “There are spirits all around you!” to which he replies, “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I could really use it.” And I still think it’s a particularly frightening shot when The Cat -- first his clawed hand then that masked visage -- creeps up from behind the chair in the library. And did you recognize Chief Thundercloud as Hope’s Indian Guide at the beginning? He was widely famous at the time for playing Tonto in the Lone Ranger Serials. For him to undercut Hope’s joke by crediting it to Jack Benny is -- and especially was to audiences then -- hilarious.
John Beal (Fred Blythe in our movie today) remembers, “Nobody gives Bob credit for the extraordinary discipline and precision of his style. It was a pleasure to play with Bob because he was always on top of things and, moreover, always there for his fellow actors. He knew ensemble playing backwards and forwards and inspired people to give their best -- and when they did he saw to it they got their moment in the sun.”
Frank Nugent (no relation to our Director today) wrote in his original New York Times review (in part), “Since mystery melodramas laid in old dark houses are mostly nonsense anyway, Paramount has had the wit and wisdom to produce a nonsense edition of John Willard's old shocker. Streamlined and played to the hilt for comedy, the new version is more harebrained than hair-raising, which is as it should be. What goes on in the old Cyrus Norman house in the swamps should be no mystery to the mystery-story addict once he learns that Uncle Cyrus thoughtlessly had named a contingent beneficiary after willing his estate to Miss Goddard. What better invitation to murder could there be? Elliott Nugent has directed it smartly, taking full advantage of the standard chiller devices for frightening the susceptibles of his audience but never losing sight of his main objective: comedy. In Mr. Hope's hands and with the aid of Miss Goddard (who is getting better and better) and the others, the objective is carried briskly and to our complete satisfaction. Good show.”
It was during a recent rewatch of The Cat And The Canary that put me on this path; wanting to write these Top 5s. Because I suddenly thought, “Well I love it, but how many others have even heard of it?” So I decided to share with you a few of my favorites. And, sure, Bob Hope is a name you’ve at least heard of, so I hope I get to introduce you to at least one or two of his you might not know. Because -- “Are they any good?” Well, this is the easy barometer -- I realized how well they hold up. They’re still good.
I hope you agree.
I hope you agree.