Comedy Curiosities --- Part One --- The Facts Of Life
High-Definition exposure of library titles is pretty haphazard. Ones on DVD are limited to settled classics (so far), but with satellite TV, things get looser. Random Showtime and MGM/HD scheduling put The Facts Of Life and subject of Part Two's Boeing, Boeing on last week's viewing plate and since I'd seen neither before, it seemed good opportunity to check both off to accompaniment of a wide screen and much increased clarity. High-Definition has a way of melting resistance to shows I'd ignore otherwise, and usually, I'm glad to have taken flyers (except when it's a dog like Taras Bulba, which despite HD, invited bailout after a first and excruciating half-hour). My policy says any Bob Hope is worth a glance. Most will reward as time capsules even if the comedy doesn't. Hope's intent was always to stay current. During a thirties start and forties peak, that took less effort. By 1960 and The Facts of Life, a strain was evident. Bob was by now game to vary his formula, but not to any radical extent. He'd gone a last decade making same sorts of movies over and again to diminishing boxoffice. Radio ended for Hope, but television covered that loss and then some. His name was never bigger despite fewer paid admissions. One or two features per annum was a norm, none of them exceptional, but all readily financed by partners who figured Bob for a reliable, if not windfall, profit. Teaming with Lucille Ball was wish realized for free-vee fans of both. She hadn't done movies since a last (and dire) vehicle with recently ex'ed Desi Arnaz, and given remote possibility of their co-starring again, a parlay with Hope seemed natural, especially as they'd top-lined two (Sorrowful Jones and Fancy Pants) prior to both's airwave dominance.
The Facts Of Life was about close-call adultery among suburbanites. That struck home for Lucy who'd recently closed marital accounts with oft-straying Desi. Their shared business interests were too lucrative to bust up, however, so here they were side-by-side on a dais crunching Desilu numbers and planning Lucy's performing schedule. Good sport Desi even kicked in seed dollars for The Facts Of Life. Hope got along with both sides of this couple no longer a couple and doubtless recognized conviction the divorce might lend to The Facts Of Life. Patrons would be curious to see LB for a first time since the final Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour broadcast in mid-1959. Headed toward fifty now, it seemed promising too for her to explore a serio-comic side. Director Melvin Frank wanted The Facts Of Life to play straight with dashes of humor, and Lucy was good with that, but Bob was for bending it toward funny and more funny, thus dialogue (his) got polluted with quips Hope-ful writers slipped under the star's dressing room door, wisecracks and slapstick denuding what amounted to a Brief Encounter for tired old comedians. Was Hope afraid to let go the happy face? Director Frank thought so and argued as much. Lucy said later it was a shame Bob had played things safe instead of exploring dramatic talent untapped. A disadvantage of star control is potential to wreck a project on caprice or misjudgment. Hope had been getting laughs too long to forfeit them now. Was he burnt by the disappointing $1.4 million in domestic rentals his previous dramedy, Beau James, had earned?
Lucy was by the sixties too show-biz hardened to play audience identifiable characters. So was Bob, for that matter. Not for a moment do we believe in them as plain folks. Hers is a dour mask that smokes constantly. It was suggested Lucy ducked out for cosmetic work as preliminary to The Facts of Life. Her looks get by, assuming one found her appealing to begin with (I never did), but who needed to see this woman plunged head-first into a river of mud as dictated by The Facts Of Life's contradictory narrative? Lucy claimed she never inhaled smoke, but needed the fags to relieve nervous tension. Still, the voice betrayed nicotine, too much libation, or both. She could summon moods, maybe laughs, but not warmth. As for Hope, if a line was funny, it stayed in, and never mind fitness, or lack of same, to the character he played. Bob could act given the impulse, but The Facts Of Life was past point where he'd imagine himself as anything other than laugh of the party. Was it too many years since this man was just a human being as opposed to an ongoing Trendex rating? Dialogue and situations in The Facts Of Life reflect Hope's writing crew being around too long, guys still miffed over prohibition having cramped their style. There was even a joke about Francis X. Bushman, for pity's sake. Bob wears stocking garters (so when did men finally give those up?) and keeps a maid in crisp aproned uniform (Louise Beavers' final role --- wonder what she thought of all this). A New Frontier was upon the rest of us, but never Hope. For presumed old time's sake, even Walter Winchell visited the set and gave Bob favorable ink in a column few still read. Still, The Facts Of Life had moments where its stars calmed down and let the story reveal itself, too little and way late for Hope and Lucy, but withal the last really interesting feature either would appear in.
Hope could always rely on help from a compliant media. Even critics put away brickbats they'd used on recent Alias Jesse James and Paris Holiday. Lucy in particular got kind notices for exemplary work in the face of private adversity. The Facts Of Life may not strike us as sophisticated now, but time of release reviews compared it favorably with 1960's Best Picture hit, The Apartment, and LIFE magazine lauded Bob's smash-hit comedy in a pictorial celebrating he and Lucy's new direction (the fact Hope had just hosted an NBC 25th birthday bash for LIFE may have enhanced their appreciation for The Facts Of Life). United Artists unleashed what was surely the ugliest poster art yet devised for any film (two variations shown here), so unflattering that you'd have to assume neither Hope nor Ball vetted them. UA also put the stars in Santa suits for a trade ad (above) to encourage holiday bookings, as The Facts Of Life was the distributor's bet for Christmas receipts. Those plus business into 1961 would total $2.997 million in domestic rentals and $893,000 foreign, the best money for a Hope since The Seven Little Foys and impetus for another decade of big screen foolery.