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No HOPE for Cowboy Bob

No thanks for the memories

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The subtitle of Richard Zoglin’s exhaustive 2014 biography of Bob Hope is Entertainer of the Century, a claim for which he makes a convincing argument. Just released in HD are two of Hope’s most popular and successful movies, made at the midpoint of the entertainer’s long life—he died in 2003 at 100.

By 1948, Hope had made five of seven wildly popular Road movies with Bing Crosby, his radio show was going gangbusters, and he’d hosted the Academy Awards Show six times—he eventually hosted 19 times.

In his biggest-grossing film up to that time, The Paleface (’48), Hope teamed with Jane Russell in her third film after The Outlaw (’43). In 1952, Russell and Hope made Son of Paleface, this time sharing the bill with Roy Rogers and Trigger! For many fans and reviewers, it was one of those rare sequels that was better than the original.

The first one’s title sequence shows Hope in an Indian war bonnet, face and eyes hidden but for one peep, while Victor Young’s catchy score segues from traditional war dance to “Buttons & Bows,” the Oscar-winning song Hope’s character sings in the film. It’s the second time Hope sang an Oscar-winner; the first was “Thanks for the Memories” in The Big Broadcast of 1938.

Co-written by Frank Tashlin (who’d done similar service for Disney’s cartoons and the Marx Brothers), the script is pure zaniness. Russell is Calamity Jane, undercover for the government to find who’s running guns to the Indians. For her disguise, she hitches up to “Painless” Peter Potter (Hope), a cowardly apprentice dentist as inept with teeth as with six-shooters.

Still, he becomes a local hero after he’s credited with holding off an Indian attack, shooting nearly every attacker. (It’s sharpshooting Jane, of course, who really saves the day, but no one—including Potter—knows it.) Naturally, the timid dentist gets cocky, believing his press, and gets in one fix after another as the bad guys try to do him in. And again, Jane bails him out.

Howard Hughes made Jane Russell a major attraction in The Outlaw, but her second film for the eccentric obsessive producer, Young Widow, was a big bomb. Russell wasn’t an accomplished thespian in The Paleface, but the movie does show her flair for comedy, a talent that held her in good stead in later films.

A contemporary viewer of the film might take umbrage with the film’s portrayal of Native Americans, depicted as fools. I believe that to do so is to badly misunderstand The Paleface, in both intent and effect. The movie is an American Western burlesque. Everyone is a caricature of the Hollywood stereotype—the white hats, the black hats and the war bonnets.

In fact, prominently featured in the cast as fictional tribal leaders are the real-life Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody; who became famous in early ’70s environmental PSAs as the Native American weeping at the blighting of America. (Ironically, it was later discovered Iron Eyes Cody was actually of native Italian descent, his “Indian heritage” totally bogus.)

Moving on to the even more popular Son of Paleface, one of the top 10 box-office films of ’52, Hope plays Painless Potter’s son (and Harvard grad to boot) who goes West to claim his dad’s inheritance and thus win the heart of his girlfriend back East. Russell plays Mike ‘The Torch’ Delroy, head of a gang of stagecoach robbers; Roy Rogers is Roy Barton, undercover Fed out to bust up the ring.

Even more nuttiness occurs, particularly since Son of Paleface was co-written and directed by Frank Tashlin, one of the few filmmakers to make a successful transition from animation (in his case, Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes) into feature films. Consequently, there are cartoonish sight gags in the sequel—like spinning heads and ears blowing smoke.

The film makes good use of the same innovations that made the Hope-Crosby Road movies so popular. The Paleface ended with Hope’s character addressing the audience, breaking the fourth wall, a gimmick used even more extensively in the sequel. There are several musical sequences (including another rendition of “Buttons and Bows”), giving both Russell and Rogers a chance to strut their vocal stuff.

For Russell, in particular, this was great preparation for two of her best films (also musicals) the next year: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe and The French Line.

Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody return, and Bing Crosby makes a brief wordless cameo. Six months later, Jane Russell returned the favor at the conclusion of Road to Bali.

Silly but thoroughly enjoyable nonsense from “the entertainer of the century,” both Paleface films still deliver the expected goods.

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