Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hope and Tashlin Mine Comedic Gold in Son of Paleface

Among the most unapologetically unpretentious comedies of its era, Frank Tashlin’s undeservedly forgotten, underrated Son of Paleface doesn’t offer a profound or sophisticated idea during its brisk 95-minute unfolding, to the benefit of audiences looking for a good time. Its sole purpose is to gather as many laughs from audiences as possible; in regards to tone, Son could be a father to Airplane!; for one viewer, Son also has lingered in memory long after many “important” films fade. I originally saw the movie decades ago in high school when my drama instructor (who would’ve been about ten when the movie came out in 1952) showed the film as an end-of-semester treat, and it went over like gangbusters. Viewing the film anew after several years, Tashlin’s skill in setting up a slew of gags and the inspired, energetic work of stars Bob Hope, Jane Russell and Roy Rogers has not grown stale- the sense of fun maintained by these key players is as infectious and fresh as ever.

Son came four years after one of Bob Hope’s biggest solo successes (The Paleface, natch) and happily re-teams him with the comely, statuesque and good-natured Jane Russell, who is right-at-home trading quips with Hope and keeping her mischievous leading man in his place, while the movie impressively ups the ante concerning the laugh quotient- those claiming Son rates a distance second to the first Paleface just aren’t paying attention, giving into the sequels-can’t-match-the-original bias. Hope made his share of stinkers onscreen, particularly in the later stages of his career, but at his best he’s a delight to watch, and although Hope could mix serious aspects of roles with comedy in a skillful, straightforward manner (he does great work in this vein in 1956’s little-seen but highly entertaining That Certain Feeling) he admirably resisted playing for pathos in these roles, a bait most other top comics snatched at time and again in a play for (often unwarranted, when it didn’t work) audience sympathy and critical respect. Hope’s onscreen persona during his heyday as a cowardly, horny, sneaky conman had been perfected for over a decade in his solo outings and the smash-hit Road series with Bing Crosby; with his quick-witted comic timing and skill, Hope seldom overplayed a joke or pandered for a laugh- he got them by being genuinely funny. Hope’s lively, oversized persona and focus on pure comedy made him the ideal choice to team up with director Tashlin’s comic skills (the director knew his way around a gag as adeptly as his leading man after serving for years in the animation field). The sense of fun that permeates the film even allows a scene involving an un-PC swipe at Indians to evade disaster, as Hope is made the butt of his own insults once he realizes the wooden Chief he’s been slamming with insults is flesh-and-blood, turning Hope into a jabbering hypocrite.

Hope knew how to do these types of jokes and double-takes beautifully and he’s in peak form from his opening shtick wherein he talks to the audience through narration while bidding adieu to his unimpressed girlfriend, and he never slackens the pace from there, consistently grabbing laughs and staying focused on maintaining a strong comic tone throughout the whole film. Tashlin’s cartoon sensibility is also evident- the film is close to a live-action cartoon, with Hope’s head spinning in a whirlwind twenty years before The Exorcist offering only one example of the outlandish visuals on display throughout the movie. Tashlin excelled post Son using this heightened comic style, via his frequent partnership with Jerry Lewis, including possibly the two best Martin & Lewis offerings, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust and Lewis’ laugh-packed solo outings Who’s Minding the Store and The Disorderly Orderly as well as Jayne Mansfield’s two biggest onscreen hits, The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but he possible never generated as many cleverly crafted visual gags in a film as what he does with Hope and company here. And, although he joked in the Road comedies and as the preeminent Oscar host during the 1950’s and 60’s about his lack of consideration for an actual Academy Award, I’ll take Hope’s self-depreciating, carefree Junior Potter with his rat-a-tat-tat delivery and sly asides over Gary Cooper’s somber, sincere Will Kane (even though Donald O’Connor would have to factor into the equation for his all-timer musical comedy work in Singin’ in the Rain). Unfortunately, then as it still largely holds true today, comedy isn’t valued in the same breath as drama, and the idea of the film or Hope scoring any major critical recognition for Son would’ve seemed as insane as DeMille’s entertaining-but-fairly-inane The Greatest Show on Earth winning Best Picture that year . . . on second thought, this would’ve been the PERFECT year to reward unassuming, laugh-inducing art in the form of one of Hope’s top performances.

Besides her robust figure and striking countenance, Jane Russell has the gift of appearing completely confident and relaxed onscreen, like you dropped in for a cup of coffee and she just happened to be filming a comedy in her living room. Russell has to be the most down-to-earth and accessible sexpot imaginable; although possessed of substantial va-va-voom, she’s more a wisecracking gal Friday than the personification of anyone’s femme fatale. This ease of comportment carries over into her singing style as well. Russell’s relaxed, highly likeable manner would get its biggest showcase the following year in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; she makes it look effortless both here and in the later film, but I can’t imagine many other performers carrying off the musical comedy/siren routine and Russell’s killer, instinctual readings of good lines as adeptly.

Marking one of his few excursions into a major feature, Roy Rogers keeps pace with his formidable co-stars: his handsome, stoic demeanor provides an entertaining contrast to Hope’s lively smarminess and their choice exchanges, including a classic interchange concerning Roger's preference for horses over feminine charms, consistently provoke guffaws. Rogers is equally believable as a romantic interest for Russell- Rogers may be too noble a character to even kiss Russell in the film, but his chemistry with her is good enough that it had me forgetting who Russell ends up with. In addition, Tashlin adeptly ensures none of the stars of the film miss out on the fun by granting Roger’s trusty steed Trigger some of the biggest laughs in the film, especially when the cinema’s most talented horse ends up bunking with Hope in one of the film’s most memorable bits.

The simple, upbeat musical score perfectly blends with the overall tone of the picture, and even when Rogers is serenading Russell with the lovely, slower tempo “California Rose,” the opportunity isn’t missed to finish the song with a great site gag as the jealous Hope enters the scene. “Am I In Love?” gained the film’s sole Oscar nod and is done as an amusing duet between Hope and Russell, while Rogers has one of his most amusing bits off-screen, with his rendition of “There’s a Cloud in My Valley of Sunshine” on the phonograph setting the tone for a dancing bit with Hope and Russell.

In a case of how a movie's destiny often doesn't logically follow and play out as expected, it's interesting that even after being a big success during its initial run (according to Variety, Son ranked right behind High Noon at ninth for 1952 film rentals, and just ahead of no less than Singin’ in the Rain), this highly entertaining comedy never held on to much of a reputation. Here’s hoping there’s still a few drama teachers out there who fondly recall Hope and Tashlin’s lively shenanigans in one of the most amusing films from the 1950s, and pass on this comedy classic to groups of sure-to-be-entertained newcomers exposed to this peak in both artist’s careers.


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