Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Director: Elliott Nugent                                      Writers: Edmund Beloin & Jack Rose
Film Score: Robert Emmett Dolan                    Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr.

My Favorite Brunette is a really nice piece of work from Bob Hope, with Dorothy Lamour in the title role. It has the feeling of a play on The Maltese Falcon at the beginning, especially with the San Francisco setting and the mysterious woman with a missing husband. The film also has a terrific comedy voiceover narrated by Hope. But even more fascinating, the film also presages North by Northwest in the middle section. Though the idea is one that goes back to Gaslight, and probably further, the particular way it’s done here seems incredibly similar to Hitchcock. The film is a follow up to My Favorite Blonde with Madeleine Carroll, a spoof of the spy genre. Director Elliott Nugent was a solid comedy director at Paramount who had worked with Hope before on a number of films, including The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and Nothing but the Truth two years later, both with Paulette Goddard. But he also had drama credentials and would go on to direct Alan Ladd in the first version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The film opens with Bob Hope on death row in San Quentin, and the wisecracks begin immediately: “This is the worst last meal I’ve ever had.” He claims the whole thing is a frame, so before he is executed the warden allows him to tell his story to the papers. He begins with his work as a private eye—except that he’s really a baby photographer. In the office next door is the real shamus, Alan Ladd, who leaves the hapless Hope in charge. Of course Dorothy Lamour comes in soon after and hires him to find her missing husband, while Peter Lorre spies on her through the keyhole. He goes out to Lamour’s mansion where the viewer leans Lorre is her butler. Turns out the husband is really her uncle, and the mansion is owned by Charles Dingle. But things aren’t as they seem when Dingle takes Hope in to meet the uncle, Frank Puglia, and psychiatrist John Hoyt, who tells Hope that Lamour is delusional and really is Puglia’s wife. It’s not until he sneaks around the house and sees the wheelchair bound Puglia up and walking around that he believes Lamour, but by then Lorre is on to him. Hope tries the police, but like something from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest from a decade later, Lorre pretends to be the gardener of the estate that the crooks are squatting in temporarily. The hunt for Lamour leads to a sanitarium where Lon Chaney Jr. as an orderly commits Hope. But this is just one more jam he accidentally gets his way out of as Hope and Lamour manage to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

Hope achieves something like perfection in his balance between physical and verbal comedy. When he learns the governor hasn’t commuted his death sentence, he says, “I’ll know who to vote for next time.” Then later, walking down the hall with Lamour—after he’s just been given a diamond ring to pawn for several thousand dollars—he can’t help sticking his finger into the change slot of the pay phone. The character parts are pretty typical for the genre, with Lorre playing the sneaky foreigner, and Chaney reprising his role as Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Hope even tells him at one point, “I’ll buy you a rabbit later.” There’s another in-joke reference to The Lost Weekend when Hope finds a bottle of champagne in the chandelier and says, “Ray Milland’s been here.” And the car chase scene is right out of Buster Keaton’s The General, with Hope getting turned around and instead of being chased winding up behind his pursuers. Other character stars like Reginald Denny, Charles Arnt, and Ann Doran keep the production values high during the rest of the hijinks. There’s even a cameo by Bing Crosby at the end.

But everything about the film is great. There’s a tremendous shot out the window as Lamour is leaving Hope’s building, looking directly down at her car. But as the car pulls out, instead of rotating the camera around as someone would their neck to keep the street running from the bottom to the top of the screen, cinematographer Lionel Lindon simply pivots the camera in place so that the street seems to move up on the screen from left to right. It’s an arresting effect made all the more impressive by its use in a comedy. The lighting is also excellent, with a lovely spider web shadow over Hope as he is given Dingle’s cover story about Lamour. Robert Emmett Dolan’s film score is pretty minimal, and therefore forgettable, but then Hope himself is the real draw and so it’s difficult to imagine a composer putting a lot of effort into the production. Both Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. were in the middle of severe career downturns, and so it’s difficult to watch. But it was a high-profile production and it’s equally clear onscreen that they were appreciative and enthusiastic about the opportunity. In the end, My Favorite Brunette is a classic comedy that is well worth seeking out, though the buyer should be aware that many poorly recorded public domain versions exists, so purchase wisely.