31 July, 2009

My Favorite Brunette

SYNOPSIS:

Baby Photographer Ronnie Jackson (Hope) wants nothing more than to be a Private Detective, just like the one he shares an office with. But be careful what you wish for, ‘cause he gets his chance when Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) appears and, mistaking Jackson for the gumshoe, asks him for help with her husband's kidnapping. Baby Photographer plays Hard Boiled but soon finds himself waaaaay over his head as he faces Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr in a dangerous – and Hope at his comic best – murder mystery!

REVIEW:

I’ve often defended TV – good TV – to near fisticuffs because of how difficult it is to put out such 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, each episode often as good as most movies. They’re two different mediums, sure, but good TV? Being that good, engaging us that often? Bringing us back for more on such a steady basis? Let’s not get to fisticuffs, but I do applaud them.

Which brings me to one of my favorite decades in movies, the 1940s.

The 40s were when Series reigned. The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Blondie, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes; so many great ones. (Can you believe Hopalong Cassidy was in sixty-six of his own? You just don’t get that kind of run anymore!) Sure, you have James Bond spanning decades (and I loves me the James Bond) but imagine eight or ten films in as many years! It happened. And it happened well.

Which brings me to one of my favorite stars of the 1940s, Bob Hope.

We’re not talking Flynn or Bogart or Grant. And fair enough. But their equivalent in the laugh department? No one to compare but Hope. And he wasn’t solely in his own series. But between 1939 and 1947 – in just those eight years – he was in ten hits. Think about it. Ten hits in just eight years. Now I’m not taking anything away from the Writers and Directors and Co-Stars and everyone else that helped those films be as good as they are, but for Bob Hope – for anyone! – that’s a hell of a run. And, for my money, it’s his best work.

You have the three best of his Road series – Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942) and Utopia (1946) – plus The Cat And The Canary (1939), The Ghostbreakers (1940), Nothing But The Truth (1941) and, what I genuinely believe to be his best film, My Favorite Brunette (1947). It’s not surprising that his best should come at the end of that run; alongside Elliot Nugent (Director), with whom this was his third film, and Dorothy Lamour, with whom this was his sixth, well, it’s easy to see that Hope had found his stride.

Hope’s at his best when playing the hapless hero, the everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances, able to riff on a situation to the point of a grayed line between “are they putting him on, or is he putting them on?” And what a perfect vehicle for him Brunette is; a spoof of the classic – and in its prime when the spoofing was being done, remember – noir thriller. As the film opens, Hope is held in San Quentin, awaiting the gas chamber for a murder he didn’t commit. A friendly Warden allows him to tell his story to the newspapers, allowing that usually wonderfully Chandler-esque Detective’s voice over to be replaced by the wise-cracking one-liners Hope could fire-off so effortlessly.

And effortlessly really is the name of the game here; the well written script by Edmund Beloin & Jack Rose that Nugent shoots so well, all so seemingly effortless as Hope peppers the all-but preposterous plot with wit and charm. Pepper that with the lovely Dorothy Lamour as the co femme fatale and damsel in distress, and the all-but preposterous plot (including Uranium which you don’t even find out til late in the game but by then it doesn’t matter in the slightest!) is all-forgiven. It’s the fun of the thing that matters; and it genuinely seems Cast & Crew were having as much fun telling the story as we are watching it.

And what fun to be had! That plot so (honestly) well played by Beloin, Rose, Nugent and team that takes us from San Quentin to Chinatown – “No, not right in it …” – to a coast-side mansion to (one of my favorite reveals in comedy) a Sanitarium to a Washington D.C. hotel for the hysterical climax. And Hope & Lamour’s foes? There’s Charles Dingle and John Hoyt and (the always great) Jack La Rue, but it’s none other than the love-to-hate Peter Lorre and the great Lon Chaney Jr. as the lovable henchman Willie – and wouldn’t you love to get him some lychee nuts? – who we gigglingly cringe for. Throughout, every bit of it feels like the stars aligned to help a simple B Movie more than rise to the occasion.

And in the spirit of the Series of the 40s, Brunette carries a lot of that charm. Though not part of a series specifically, Hope and company were happy to carry-over from film to film. The Road pictures were at their peak, so it’s not surprising to see Lamour (who Hope lost to Bing Crosby all too often in that series) here as his leading lady. Nor is it surprising, given that trio’s history, that Bing should have the cameo at the end (as he had in My Favorite Blonde) AND that Lamour should eye him, running the gag that she fancied Bing on the road.

There’s Hope’s breaking the fourth wall (twice, and both quite funny). He takes a shot at himself with the crack about his own (and then enormously famous and often joked-of) nose. “I’ll hit you so hard, it’ll look like other people’s noses!” to which Hope replies, “I might like that!” There’s the throwaway about The Lost Weekend (a huge hit just two years before) when Hope finds the bottle of Champagne in the chandelier and quips, “Ray Milland must have stayed here.” Not to mention the incomparable cameo by Alan Ladd as the Private Detective (including using his real name as he turns around).

Sure it’s a comedy, but these riffs weren’t exactly normal, even then. [Though a personal favorite of mine is Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940) saying Bruce Baldwin looks just like Ralph Bellamy. But I digress …] Even SERIES didn’t riff on themselves that often. But Hope and company did; and audiences loved them for it. Remember, this was before TV, when plotlines and arcs carried through episodes. So for an audience to be in on a gag movie-to-movie was a huge thrill. (And it’s rarely done since. A top example in the last ten years is the character Tess playing the actress Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Twelve.)

My Favorite Brunette, with Hope in the lead, Lamour by his side, against Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr (both for whom this review hardly does justice) is as good today as it was the first time I saw it as a child twenty-five years ago; and I’m willing to bet will be just as good as time goes by. It’s a shame movies aren’t made as well as this today – forget the speed, forget the pedigree, forget the inside jokes – if only movies, simple studio-churned-out movies, were as good as this today, well, audiences would go often enough for those inside jokes to matter. With its leads, its villains, its plot, its wit and its charm, it’s a wonder gentlemen (and ladies and kids of all ages) don’t prefer brunettes.

I know I do.



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