Bob Hope Comically Snivels As Not-so-hardboiled Detective
DIRECTED BY ELLIOTT NUGENT/1947
STREET DATE: July 5th, 2017/KINO LORBER
To the immediate left, Bob Hope’s giant head, sporting a deerstalker-like cap and a handlebar mustache, may suggest a Sherlock Holmesian mystery, while a tiny but full-form Dorothy Lamour scantily clad in a green bikini further suggests an exotic South Seas locale, but 1947’s My Favorite Brunette is actually a detective parody of an entirely different stamp, character, and setting. It is, as far as I know, Hollywood’s first hardboiled detective parody. Which makes Bob Hope the first comedian to make light of the tough guy likes of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade – and, by extension, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell – and Dorothy Lamour the first glamor girl to plumb the comic as opposed to the lurid depths of an already considerable cinematic line-up of femmes fatales.
Opening at San Quentin with Hope’s baby photographer Ronnie Jackson on death row, the film proceeds in true noir flashback fashion to Ronnie’s bustling business on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where his studio adjoins that of detective Sam McCloud (screen tough guy Alan Ladd in a hilariously self-parodying cameo) and feeds Ronnie’s own feverish dreams of chasing down the bad guys and getting with the bad girls. One of the latter saunters, strolls, slinks, whathaveyou into the out-of-town McCloud’s office in the sleek shape of Dorothy Lamour’s Carlotta Montay, whose baffling predicament – involving stolen plans and the kidnapping of a wheelchair-bound relative – is only equaled by her mistaking of the nervous photographer for the absent, steel-nerved gumshoe. Peering through the keyhole in inimitably sinister fashion is none other than Peter Lorre, whom we later learn — rather complicatedly — is Montay’s uncle’s former partner Major Montague’s (Charles Dingle) manservant/henchman, Kismet. And we’re off!
Equally over-complicated, dark thriller shenanigans delightfully ensue, with Lon Chaney, Jr. comically reprising his Lenny role from 1939’s Of Mice and Men – cracking walnuts against his biceps while slavering puppy dog-like for affection – as Kismet’s co-henchman, Willie, being a highlight among many. Front and center, however, is the Bob Hope persona, and in his best movies – and My Favorite Brunette is right up there – Hope was able to turn abject cowardice into pure comedy, and his character’s essential insecurity with his own leading man status – most often, as in this film, playing a fraud, impostor, and frequently failing/flailing lover – makes for frequent fourth wall-tearing moments that direct laughs not only at the character, but the form of the film itself. Director Elliott Nugent, who had worked with Hope four times before at Paramount, most notably in 1939’s horror/mystery parody The Cat and the Canary (My Favorite Brunette would prove their final collaboration), gives Hope just enough of the ingredients of what at the time would have been called a “crime melodrama” – convoluted plot, menacing villains, daylight chases and nighttime pursuits – for Hope to “twist” toward his own comic ends.
Whether Jackson, about to be executed, wryly observes, “Remember, I’m doing this without a rehearsal!”, or trains a shaky gun on a roomful of rapidly advancing baddies with an overconfident “Back up, all of ya! I said, BACK UP!” — before just as rapidly back-pedaling both his gun cover and bravado with “Okay… I’ll back up!” — Hope’s complex comic genius (and I’ll at least mention parenthetically a later performer who thought it so, and equally brilliantly adopted the persona to his own comic ends: Woody Allen) lay in attempting to play each scene like the square-jaw “hero” he intrinsically wasn’t and, in effect, repeatedly failing to convince us that he isn’t the ski-slope nosed schmuck he actually was. Ronnie Jackson may be no Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, or even Alan Ladd, but he is a rather wonderful Bob Hope.
The film noir parody looks appropriately great on Blu-ray for the isolated scenes where the filmmakers attempt to evoke the shadowy visual style of crime thrillers of the period – most notably at the villain’s “old dark house”-like estate (“Nice, cheerful place. What time they bring the mummies out?”) and later at a lavish nightspot called “Poulet d’or” (“One of those real swanky cafes where they eat mink for breakfast”) – and special mention should be given to the monoaural transfer, which made screenwriters Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose’s fast-paced and hilarious hardboiled dialogue (my personal favorite line, gun-directed at the heavyset Major Montague: “I’ll fill ya so full of holes, you’ll look like a fat clarinet!”) pop out for this occasionally hard-of-hearing auditor. With no special features, Kino Lorber’s release of My Favorite Brunette, of which several available prints languished in the public domain when its copyright lapsed in the mid-70s, is nonetheless highly recommended as the best-yet home video release of “the biggest frame-up since Whistler’s Mother!”
The images used in this review are present only as reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray.
*NOTE/Update 7/3: The revised header comes from a line of dialogue where Ronnie makes a self-deprecating comment about “sniveling cowardice”, glances in a mirror, and wisecracks in best side-mouthed, Bob Hope-ian fashion: “Hiya, Sniv!”