I walked to Charles’ place with the video of Bob Hope’s 1947 comedy My Favorite Brunette. This one has always been a favorite of mine because it’s essentially a spoof of film noir — maybe not that great a spoof of film noir, but a nicely made little movie with some interesting scenes that revealed Hope’s talents as an actor (particularly moments of pantomime in which, faced with some God-awful danger, his surface pose of bravado fades away and his “real” cowardly nature comes through) and a nice supporting cast: Dorothy Lamour as the “mystery woman” who lures him into the plot, Frank Puglia in a dual role as her wheelchair-bound uncle and a non-disabled baddie who impersonates him as part of the sinister scheme, Peter Lorre (both his presence and the San Francisco setting are evocative of The Maltese Falcon), Lon Chaney, Jr. (as a mentally retarded member of the gang — at one point Bob Hope, in an effort to get Chaney on his side, says, “I’ll even buy you a rabbit!”) and cameos by Alan Ladd (as the hard-boiled detective Hope impersonates through most of the film) and Bing Crosby (as the executioner at San Quentin, visibly disappointed when the last-minute reprieve comes through and he doesn’t get to execute Hope after all) — thereby reuniting, at least briefly, the stellar trio from the Road movies. — 11/3/97
At least partly as an antidote to the dreadful political news I was expecting from the midterm election (expectations the outcome, alas, delivered on big-time), I decided to settle in last night and watch two movies from the marathon TCM was doing on Bob Hope, My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette. I’d seen both before but I thought it would be fun to take advantage of this opportunity to watch them back-to-back. I’ve actually seen My Favorite Brunette — made five years later (1947 instead of 1942) — more often than I had My Favorite Blonde, mainly because while My Favorite Blonde was a Paramount Pictures production that remained in copyright, My Favorite Brunette was a Hope Enterprises production — some prints have an opening logo identifying the producing studio as “CMP” (for “California Motion Pictures”) — that slipped into the public domain and got reissued to death on commercial television, VHS and ultimately DVD. (I remember buying a VHS tape that promised My Favorite Blonde on the cover but actually delivered My Favorite Brunette, and for some reason the print of My Favorite Brunette TCM showed last night contained a closing logo from Columbia Pictures during the brief time they were owned by Coca-Cola before they were acquired by Sony.) My Favorite Blonde was made in 1942 and was clearly meant to parody the films of Alfred Hitchcock in general and The 39 Steps in particular — down to casting the same leading lady, Madeleine Carroll.
Like a lot of Hope’s genre spoofs, My Favorite Blonde opens absolutely “straight” for the first reel or so as we learn that the MacGuffin is “The Scorpion,” an elaborate pin made to look like a scorpion, that contains, encoded in Egyptian hieroglyphics, a top-secret route some British bombers are going to take. The information needs to get to the squadron (which is supposedly based in Los Angeles, of all places, though what British bombing planes were doing clear at the other end of the U.S. from the Atlantic is a mystery writers Melvin Frank, Norman Panama, Don Hartman, Frank Butler and an uncredited Barney Dean never explained) before they take off because their previously planned route has been discovered by the enemy, and the film’s principal villains, Dr. Hugo Streger (George Zucco) and Madame Stephanie Runick (Gale Sondergaard), will stop at nothing, including murder, to steal the scorpion pin and prevent the Brits from re-routing the planes away from the German fighters ready to shoot them down. The scorpion is being carried by British agent Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll), who’s about to be captured by the baddies and, frantically seeking a place to hide the scorpion, pins it inside the lapel jacket of Larry Haines (Bob Hope). Haines is a small-time vaudevillian who does an act with a trained penguin named Percy, and he — or, rather, Percy — has just received a Hollywood film offer (when Daily Variety publishes a story that the studio has signed Percy but nixed Haines for an on-screen role in Percy’s film, Haines snarls in Bob Hope’s best comic snarl, “I’ll remember that when they ask me for an ad”) and is about to take the train going west. Karen accosts him and, depending on whether he has the scorpion on him or she’s recovered it, either makes love to him or slaps him across the face.
As in a real Hitchcock movie, the leads end up suspected of murder and have to travel across the U.S., fleeing the cops and finding the enemy spies themselves. My Favorite Blonde has some good scenes, including a knockoff of the famous one in The 39 Steps in which the male lead has to impersonate an authority figure (a politician in The 39 Steps, a pediatrician here) and deliver an extemporaneous speech to a perplexed audience to avoid getting caught by the bad guys, and a quite funny one in which Hope crashes a Teamsters Union picnic by impersonating a driver named Mulrooney (according to this version of the Teamsters Union, all its members are Irish-American and speak with thick brogues) and the real Mulrooney is unable to convince the ticket-taker of his identity, with the result that they start two colossal brawls. The finale has Larry and Karen stealing an airplane, crash-landing in a watermelon patch after they run out of gas, and being captured by the local sheriff’s deputy as they help themselves to a couple of the watermelons — only they get away, steal a truck and high-tail it to L.A., where the villains’ headquarters is in a funeral home and there’s a quite good gag in which Hope is concealed in one of the coffins — but his legs are sticking out of the bottom so he’s able to move. Ultimately it’s Percy, Hope’s attack penguin, who saves the day by biting the arm of the villains’ gunman just as he’s about to blast him and Carroll to kingdom come, the cops (summoned by Hope’s agent!) arrest the bad guys and the planes take off, presumably to make their bombing run without incident.
My Favorite Blonde is an O.K. movie; Bob Hope and Madeleine Carroll have zero chemistry together as a couple, though that bothered me less than it did between Hope and Katharine Hepburn in The Iron Petticoat because the two leads’ utter incompatibility is actually part of the film’s gag world. Most of the writers were from Hope’s radio show and they came up with some good one-liners for him, including the gibberish they gave him when he and Carroll’s character decide to evade the villains’ latest trap by pretending to be a husband and wife who are in a nasty argument that has got physical (Larry Haines: “So, I’m a muckfritchetous snitdrivel, am I?” Karen Bentley: “Yes, and you’re also a scridgepodge, that’s what you are!”) so the police will arrest them both for beating each other, but overall it’s fun but hardly as much fun as a mock thriller could have been with a better director than ex-Fox hack Sidney Lanfield and a script by a master constructionist with a flair for genre clashes instead of a committee of radio gag men. (If only Paramount had put Preston Sturges on it as both writer and director … Sturges and Hope together. Sigh.) Ironically, when I looked up My Favorite Blonde on imdb.com I got a review from 2005 from someone calling him- or herself “oldmovieguy” who liked it considerably better than I did. “Hope is excellent here, much better than in the Road pictures. He’s less self-conscious here — no talking to the camera, no in-jokes between him and Crosby, no leering at Lamour.” That’s funny (and not in the comic sense, either): while watching My Favorite Blonde precisely what I found myself missing were the in-jokes, the frame-breaking and the leering he and Bing Crosby both did at Dorothy Lamour in the still screamingly funny Road movies!
Maybe one reason My Favorite Brunette is better known than My Favorite Blonde is that it slipped into the public domain (and TCM’s print wasn’t as good as usual for them — the first half of the film is rather “soft” pictorially and the second half, apparently from a different source, is sharper in the images but more piercing and treble-heavy in the soundtrack), but I suspect it also has to do with Brunette being a way better movie than Blonde. This time Hope’s vis-à-vis is Dorothy Lamour — no doubt about their chemistry together! — and instead of being a spoof of Hitchcock (which suffers by comparison with later Hitchcock spoofs like Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety because in 1942 Hitchcock hadn’t yet made most of the films lampooned in High Anxiety) My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of film noir in general and The Maltese Falcon in particular. Hope plays San Francisco-based baby photographer Ronny Jackson, whose office and studio are located in a sordid building next to the digs of private detective Sam McCloud (Alan Ladd in a marvelous cameo which I think was used as one of the many clips from 1940’s films spliced into the Steve Martin vehicle Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). Ronny has developed an ambition to become a private eye himself — a job for which he’s so outrageously unsuited that the film actually opens in San Quentin with Ronny about to be executed for a murder he didn’t commit, and being allowed to narrate his story to reporters so we get Hope telling the tale in a wicked parody of the first-person narration of Murder, My Sweet and many other classic noirs.
When McCloud has to take a trip out of town for 10 days, he asks Ronny to look after his office and answer his phone — and of course Ronny ends up posing as McCloud after damsel-in-distress Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) comes to the office telling a breathless tale and pleading for his help in similar tones to those with which Mary Astor approached Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. It helps that My Favorite Brunette has only two screenwriters (Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose) and is a far better constructed movie, with a plot that actually makes sense within the conventions of both comedy and thriller, and the director, Elliott Nugent, is far better than Lanfield; aided by cinematographer Lionel Lindon, he gets some genuine noir compositions into this film, including one marvelously vertiginous shot of a San Francisco street seen from the point of view of Hope’s office. Carlotta tells Ronny that she came to the U.S. from South America with her wheelchair-bound husband Baron Montay (Frank Puglia) — whom she later admits is actually her uncle, not her husband (she ID’d them as a couple at first in hopes of forestalling the leering, luring and pass-making Ronny inevitably subjects her to anyway), and this time the MacGuffin is a map of a mineral deposit in South America of utmost importance both to the U.S. and its (carefully unnamed, though virtually everyone in the 1947 audience knew who they were supposed to be) enemies. In a marvelous scene sending up the absurdity and irrelevance of the MacGuffin, Carlotta explains that it’s important because the land contains cryolite. “Oh, we mustn’t let them get hold of the cryolite!” Ronny exclaims. “What’s cryolite?” “It contains kryptobar.” “Oh, we can’t let them get hold of the kryptobar! What’s kryptobar?” Then, and only then, does she finally explain that kryptobar is an ore with a high concentration of uranium, and both Ronny and the audience finally relax at being given an explanation of the plot involving something we’ve actually heard of.
The film is a series of chases (again) between Our Hero and Heroine on one side and a marvelously assorted group of villains led by Kismet (Peter Lorre, in fine form) who are anxious to obtain the map so they can sell the uranium-bearing kryptobar inside the cryolite to the highest bidder on the international market. At one point they convince Ronny that Carlotta is crazy — until Ronny climbs a window of the huge mansion in which the baddies are hiding out and see Baron Montay getting out of his wheelchair and walking around, which lets Ronny know that Carlotta is telling the truth and the “Montay” in the villains’ custody is actually an impostor. Later on the baddies lure Ronny to the Seacliff Manor, which is actually an insane asylum where Willie (Lon Chaney, Jr. doing his “Lennie” voice from Of Mice and Men — it’s so close that when Ronny is being held captive in the asylum he tries to trick Willie into helping him escape by saying, “I’ll buy you a rabbit”) is one of the keepers and Ronny plays a round of golf with a harmless nut who’s hitting a nonexistent ball. (According to imdb.com, Hope wrote the golf scene himself.) There’s a somewhat lame climax in which Ronny tries to trick the baddies into recording a confession on a Dictaphone, but Kismet steals the record and substitutes one of Betty Hutton singing “Murder, He Said” — though even in this odd scene there’s yet another in-joke: as the villains are chasing him and Ronny is looking for a place to hide the record, he reaches for the chandelier, finds a liquor bottle in it and says, “Ray Milland’s been here!” Eventually we cut back to San Quentin, where Ronny’s walk of the last mile is interrupted by a Chinese woman whose baby he photographed early on — but by mistake he gave her the negative of the picture he took of the phony Montay with the other villains, and this exonerates him and puts him back in the good graces of Montay, Carlotta and the U.S. government. Though there are even better films in the Hope canon (I still have a great affection for The Great Lover), My Favorite Brunette works both as a Hope vehicle and a film noir spoof and is an absolutely delightful movie. — 11/5/14