In The Middle Of Winter, Hope Springs Eternal


Early February finds Kino Lorber Studio Classics releasing two of Bob Hope’s best 1940s comedies on Blu-ray.

As a good portion of the country weathers blizzards, sub-freezing temperatures, and various disasters non-weather-related, may we humbly offer a gentle seasonal prescriptive to what might otherwise ail one? Bob Hope hit his comedy stride at Paramount Studios during the world war-shriven 1940s with a string of multi-genre parodies parrying the very story- and style-forms of Hollywood’s vast output. From spy thrillers (My Favorite Blonde [1942]) to swashbucklers (The Princess and the Pirate [1944]) to Westerns (The Paleface [1948]) to mid-sea mysteries (The Great Lover [1949]), Hope even managed to skewer a style/genre that hadn’t yet been given a proper name, the hardboiled detective film, making 1947’s My Favorite Brunette possibly the first film noir parody. In addition to the first comically peripatetic Road to… movies with friendly rival Bing Crosby – Singapore (1940) to Zanzibar (’41) to Morocco (’42) to Utopia (’46) to Rio (’47) – Hope’s equal parts sly, sarcastic, and sniveling comic mission during troubled times was literally global.

KLSC’s unofficial Hope double-feature this February – released a week apart on separate discs – gives us a welcome chance to both enjoy and appreciate the screen-breaking antics of a comic talent who couldn’t help make fun – in the best sense of the phrase – of movies, his audience, and (most of all) himself. Such equal opportunity, all-directional, un-serious yuk-making may serve to remind that, in the midst of whatever Winters of Discontent one finds oneself, Spring is always just around the corner, in movies as well as life. And as the brightening evidence of a viewing succession of otherwise gloomy evenings might otherwise suggest, Hope does Spring eternal.




Our first Hope-filled evening brings us (vaguely) back to Eighteenth Century Europe and its puffy aristocratic finery, powdered wigs, and impeccable courtly customs. There is in addition royal bric-a-brac, plush surfaces, and lace drapery to visually spare; housed in square-ish, brilliantly-lit, many-chambered, multi-storied castles bordered by immaculately-sculpted gardens; and elegantly traversed between country borders on gravel-crunching highways by graceful horse-drawn carriages.

And it’s also where the title barber shears-tears the finery, powder-dumps the wigs, and generally sword-skewers the manners, mores, and milieu of by that point four decades of period costume films. Loosely based, to the point of non-resemblance, on Booth Tarkington’s 1900 romantic novel, previously filmed in 1924 with Rudolph Valentino, Bob Hope more comically disposes of swashbuckling heroics and romantic assignations with his own unique brand of antic cowardice and undisguised lust. When asked to shed blood nobly for his country, say, Beaucaire’s more natural reaction is to self-protectively respond with “I wanna keep it there. It’s the squirty kind.”, and his leering glances and obsequious tones generally and hilariously play like the one non-stuffed soul in an otherwise starchy and over-produced historical museum.

Our entirely flesh-and-blood, craven poltroon, wreaking havoc among various court assemblies of Old World waxworks – variously played by such stately and stalwart, distinguished veterans of stage and screen as Cecil Kellaway, Joseph Schildkraut, Reginald Owen, Constance Collier, and Hilary Brooke – is undoubtedly Monsieur Beaucaire’s most irresistible comic conceit, made all the more telling in the film’s opening sequence, where the condemned Beaucaire escapes from the apocryphal chop of a pre-Revolutionary French guillotine, to the equally apocryphal court intrigues of Royalist Spain, to, finally, the un-apocryphal exile to colonial frontiers overseas.

The more historically accurate sharp-steel blade would come thudding down on this royalist era of glamorous adventure and chivalrous derring-do soon enough – presaged, presumably, by the fateful cameo at film’s end of one General George Washington (Douglas Dumbrille) receiving a barbershop Beaucaire special before traipsing off with his Colonial Army to points Valley Forge – so possibly the undeniably down-to-earth if antically over-the-moon Hope-Beaucaire persona is the right screen figure to comically usher in the coming era of the de-romanticized, deglamorized, democratically demotic.




Our second Hope-filled evening picks up on the tagline to its own title, included in promotional posters and the film’s own credit sequence, of “Where There’s Life… There’s Hope!” An uncredited quotation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605/1615 satirical epic novel Don Quixote, no less, the play on both the word and name serves the film and this review equally well by morphing the court intrigue of the previous year’s royalist costume-drama parody into the international intrigue of Where There’s Life’s more topical and contemporary spy-thriller parody. Hope goes from being a historical barber to a modern-day radio announcer – closer to the actual performer’s own daytime gig, incidentally – named Michael Joseph Valentine, whose similarly natural instincts of self-preservation are initially assailed by a fearsome brotherly brood of New York City cops named O’Brien – led by fearsome screen lug-thug William Bendix – and their relentless pressures to marry off their seven-year affianced sister Hazel (Vera Marsh). Soon enough, however, through plot complications bordering on the appropriately ludicrous, Valentine is more spy thriller-relevantly embroiled in an international conspiracy of foreign dignitaries, deceptive officials, treacherous spies, and lurking assassins representing the opposing – and confusingly overlapping – Ruritanian forces of Bavoria and the Mordia, who all somehow mistake Valentine for the heir of recently life-threatened Bavorian King Hubertus II (William Edmunds).

As played by such resonantly dubious and sinister character performers as the Georges Colouris and Zucco – as well as a confusing added element of sexual ambiguity in one General Grimovitch, played by Swedish beauty Signe Hasso – Hope/Valentine is obviously in for a hard seventy-five minutes of it evading the latterly described, oddly royalist, vaguely terrorist, Central European-seeming, yet also weirdly Communistic-appearing conspirators. Its trap-doors, secret passageways, sudden kidnappings, heart-stopping window-shootings, knife-hurled stabbings, cane poison-blowing, and prison bedside rope-strangulations are anti-heroically met by side-mouthed wisecracks, bad if baldly-delivered puns, baffling pop culture-of-the-day references, unmotivated Bing Crosby-bashings, and self-obsessed put-downs – in short, everything you could hope to expect from a Hope films – with the fluid camerawork of Charles Lang, Melville Shavelson-scripted zingers, and the inescapable Paramount sheen at the gloriously nonsensical plotline’s full disposal.

Hope may have made better films both before and after – he undoubtedly made worse – but if one was ever tasked to introduce Bob Hope to a non-fan – or to best show-off Hope in his irreducible element anyone yet unconvinced – one could hardly expect to do better than Where There’s Life. Whatever one’s feelings about the comic actor, his persona, or his style, you’ll certainly find Hope in all his (and its) many guises here.

Wrapping up our double-evening, double-Hope feature, Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays come with no special features beyond a gallery of Hope trailers, which one imagines is special enough, especially for anyone previously unfamiliar with Hope’s larger body of work who might wish to know him better. Monsieur Beaucaire in particular comes advertised as a “Brand New 2K Master!”, but Where There’s Life looks equally vivid in this high definition transfer, especially with the moody visual passages that parody film era-contemporary thrillers like The House on 92nd Street (1945, also featuring Signe Hasso), and which even anticipates later films like The Street with no Name (1948) and Call Northside 777 (ibid.).

In closing, and shamelessly returning to our tagline, one hopes that future Hope releases just *might* feature Hope-relevant interviews, documentaries, or even feature-length commentaries. Hope may spring eternal, and winter surely can’t last forever, but without passionately-presented information, interest, contextualization, and analysis, Hope and the century of entertainment his own century of life very nearly represents – 1903 to 2003 – risks disappearing in the darkness of non-illumination and neglect. Here’s Hoping…

Images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver.