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Monday, November 08, 2010

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 lent 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, 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.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Liking Bob and loving Lucy, I rushed to our local Playhouse Theatre the weekend THE FACTS OF LIFE played.

Now, fifty years later, I have no recollections of the movie itself, only the memory of when it hit the screen, I was let down to see it was shot in black and white.

At least, the couple's later effort, CRITIC'S CHOICE, was in color (and anamorphic as well).

Content-wise...maybe TFOL and CC were each worse than the other.

Looking forward to your upcoming views of BOEING BOEING. It has to be on my Top Ten Worse Disasters of All Time, somewhere between the Michael Dukakis Presidential bid and the Hindenburg.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great commentary as usual and pretty spot on. Have always thought both Hope and Ball kinda fascinating in their weird schizo takes in more ambitious later features... he in SEVEN LITTLE FOYS, BEAU JAMES, GLOBAL AFFAIR, she in YOURS MINE AND OURS and MAME, both in FACTS OF LIFE and CRITIC'S CHOICE. All the above seem like honest attempts to stretch their stars' range yet they all are loaded with inappropriate shtick while containing moments of stiff, uncharacteristic "acting" from the lead performers. Love the observations on how disconnected these icons may have been from the actual reality of this kind of project: Hope loved FACTS, and in later interviews seemed ever surprised that neither he nor his leading lady received Oscar nominations! I always thought that odd indulgence may have been fueled by the fact that director Melvin Frank re-worked the same damn plot as TOUCH OF CLASS, a flick that did nab much better reviews and the little gold guy for Glenda Jackson. Jackson and George Segal are indeed pretty good in CLASS, but today I'd suggest it actually dates worse than FACTS. Anyway, back in '60 Frank and then-partner Norman Panama had been on a bit of a streak and probably were frustrated by big name movie stars in this and the last ROAD flick who couldn't change things up just a little.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

John, there's something about second-rate Bob Hope movies that brings out the funniest in your writing. You should publish an entire book about everything he made after "Road to Bali." I'd buy it.

I re-read your piece on "Ghost Breakers." How does it compare to "Cat & the Canary"?

11:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Kevin, I think "Ghost Breakers" surpasses "Cat and The Canary." Really a good one ...

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

En re sock garters.

I started wearing them a couple of years back, just to see what they were about (I'm a vintage clothing buff), and now swear by them.

Everything old is new again, or so someone said.

3:37 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

"The Facts Of Life" was probably the first live-action movie I ever saw in a theater; I was all of five years old and tagged along with my 17-year-old sister. I believe the theater was the now-demolished Paramount on South Salina Street in downtown Syracuse, then part of that city's "theater row." The Paramount and RKO Keith closed in early 1967 for urban renewal; the only theater left downtown is the old Loew's, now known as the Landmark Theater and used for performing arts purposes.

I laughed at some of the gags (knowing who Hope and Ball were from seeing them on TV), but honestly didn't recall much more. I've since seen it a few times on TCM, and it's hardly a classic, but it has its charms.

6:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson offers a few more comments on Bob Hope and some other favorite comedians ...

There's always something sad about old comedians who refuse (or aren't
allowed) to adapt.
--Bob Hope ended up like late-period Mickey Mouse -- always a comfortable
suburbanite surrounded by vaguely funny stuff to react to.
-- Red Skelton, like Hope, become more of an icon than an actor. He
abandoned movies comparatively early; I recall they briefly cast him in The
Sunshine Boys but it became clear he didn't want to be there.
-- The final W.C. Fields films are clearly undercut by his health and the
excessive silliness around him. Likewise the Marx Brothers, who really
needed a bit of sanity to play off of, and not wacky props.
--Jerry Lewis went down will all flags flying. The Nutty Professor is
downright amazing when you consider it was made in 1963 (Playing at the
college dance: Les Brown and his Band of Renown!). He finally became
something more of an actor when he could no longer produce virtual one-man
--The Three Stooges in their movie phase were variously odd and sad. They
were too old for most of the rough stuff, and their new status as kiddie
fare limited them even more. Once in a while you'd see hints that, if
anybody gave them a clever script that embraced their cranky old age, they
could have run with it. Likewise Abbott and Costello.
-- Laurel and Hardy could get away with playing their age, but they were too
often cast as near-tramps -- logical and comical with young misfits starting
out in the world; tragic with old ones. I always thought Laurel & Hardy
could have saved O. Henry's Full House in the Ransom of Red Chief segment.
Fred Allen and Oscar Levant were far too acidic and cynical; you half
expected them to smack that brat around. Even in their later years, Stan and
Ollie would have made beautifully ineffectual kidnappers (Imagine Ollie
composing an elegant ransom note).
-- Keaton after stardom ended was an odd exception, looking his age and
never trying to be the young innocent of his silent days. Of course, it
helped that he was often fending for himself in supporting roles, and not
trying to be the romantic lead.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Bernd said...

As always a pleasure reading your thoughts on Bob Hope. I have watched "Facts" a few months ago and frankly, I can´t remember anything about it. With later Hopes, that's not necessarily a bad thing, at least it was not an embarrassment like others. "Private Navy", for instance, is missing from my 10 DVD-Collections set (another disc was included twice instead) and I actually think that's a good thing.
One of my favorite Hopes actually is one of his later ones, "Beau James". I think Bob did an excellent job in it and he stayed quite close to character in this one.

2:36 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Some very thoughtful observations from Mr. Benson although I have to respectfully disagree with him on Fields. Fields just got better with age in my opinion. When one considers his second-to-last starring role was in "The Bank Dick" - that movie is an amazing showcase for all that was great about Fields - and his last starring role in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" was just as consistent, even with that particular film's penchant for surrealism. It's all just opinions ultimately - my opinion is that Fields is the only one who got out completely intact whereas by comparison Lewis in my opinion became completely dated (I cite post-Nutty Professor "Hardly Working" among others). Also, I like to think that Laurel & Hardy could have continued in perfection with the right scripts and directors - their last Hollywood studio film "The Bullfighters" with Stan directing a couple scenes shows some of the old brilliance again. Again, just opinions...

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Hope is always interesting. In his great comedies (things like Paleface, Son of Paleface, the Ghostbreakers come to mind) -- he was really something of a genius. I think the Road pictures would've been greatly diminished if Crosby had been teamed with anyone else -- they brought out the best in one another.

As for his later films ... he is often reaching for something larger. Seven Little Foys, Beau James, etc, I think were real efforts to stretch.

I'm sorry that he got frightened during Facts of Life and just played comedy. I think, if he gave himself a chance, he would've been an effective dramatic actor.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I've got an episode of the radio series "Suspense" starring Bob Hope in a completely straight dramatic role. It's difficult to say how effective he is; his voice is so familiar that it's kind of difficult to accept him as anything but, well, Bob Hope. Maybe somebody who never saw or heard him before might be more objective. For me, the only comedian who was better as a dramatic actor was Ed Wynn.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

I had a memorable class at Cal State Northridge with Lucy as the teacher; it was (laughably) called "The Aesthetics of Film and TV," though it became basically a weekly two-hour Jewish-mama session in which Lucy would talk to the girls in the class about their screwed-up romantic lives. Anyway, FACTS OF LIFE was one of the only 2 features she ever brought in, the other movie being THE BIG STREET with Fonda, in which she's believably Runyonesque. I watched FACTS as a 25 year old with creepy deja vu; I remembered vaguely seeing it as a kid, and knowing there was something empty and unfunny about the whole enterprise. Yet she-- like Hooe, as John points out-- was unaccountably proud of her performance and the film. There is no way either of them are acceptable as "regular folks," nor does there seem to be any heat between the characters.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I'm with Bernd on Beau James; I think that climactic speech in Yankee Stadium is the best scene of Hope's career. At the same time, I think there are other scenes where he's a little uncomfortable without his one-liners and is just sort of hoping for the best. Maybe it was the box-office disappointment of that picture that scared him; maybe he just thought "Okay, experiment's over, bring back the gags." The experiment, I think, began with The Seven Little Foys, which I still think is his best overall performance, and was a big enough hit to encourage him.

And there are moments in his early career, before he became Bob Hope Inc., that glimpse the actor he might have been. Pauline Kael once said that Frank Sinatra might have been a great movie actor if he hadn't decided he didn't have to -- he was already Frank Sinatra. You could say the same of Hope.

2:01 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I'll watch pretty much anything with Hope, but at some point (from IMDB, it looks like right after Critic's Choice) it feels like he threw in the towel and would just go for laughs. The tragedy is that those later movies were just horrible--ridiculous premises, Hope 20 years too old for the role, and weak, weak jokes.(And these were the only ones I'd ever seen first run)

I've got to start NetFlixing some of the 50s output--haven't seen them since the 4:30 Movie in the 70s.

2:05 PM  
Blogger JoeM said...

I am somewhere around a 35 year Bob Hope fan-not an expert despite have several articles published on various aspects of his career, some waiting to be published and hopefully a few waiting to be written.

Don’t remember the first time I saw him, but by the mid-1970’s, he was and remains my favorite performer. I don’t think I missed a television from about 1977 on and was fortunate enough to see him perform live several times, but his movies were always something special.

I think that The Facts of Life actually has one of the best acting scenes Bob Hope ever did. Near the start of the film, Hope’s character is seen serving as the MC of some type of awards ceremony. Now by this time in his career, Bob Hope had MC’ed a countless number of events, and this would have been an easy scene to play, IF he (Bob Hope) played it like he was Bob Hope MCing the event. BUT watch his performance, that’s not the way the scene was written nor the way Hope played it. We’ve all been to these types of events, where the MC is trying to be funny and the audience is laughing only to be polite, and that’s how Hope played the scene. He comes off as “one of us” who probably watched Bob Hope or these days a Leno or Letterman on television and thought he could be just as funny, but everyone but he realizes that he (the character of Larry Gilbert) is far from a Bob Hope. This must have been among the hardiest scenes if not the hardiest scene that Bob Hope ever played. To take something he did and did well and to play it, so the MC comes off as mediocre was perhaps the best acting ever done by Bob Hope in his motion picture career.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Bernd said...

I think with Bob's movies from the 50s you are still pretty safe. I would say his last typical movie was "Alias Jesse James". There are some lesser movies along the way ("Iron Petticoat", "Paris Holiday") but they are still watchable. In the 60's basically you can choose between either extremely dull or embarrassing Hope movies.

Has anyone ever seen "Off Limits"? One of the few I am missing...

2:44 AM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

You're right John, the Facts of Life posters have to be about the worst Hope or Ball posters ever released. Just how did those things ever get out of the art department (assuming there was any such thing by then)?

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally say this one a couple years back... it hassome nice comic one-liners, but yes nobody could believe they were suburbanites.

Your reviews and background on the promotion of these films are frequently better than the films covered...a wonderful site!

1:58 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

In retrospect, Hope's last really good vehicle may have been "Bachelor In Paradise" (1961); there is some of his shtick, but the premise and plot are solid, and he shows some surprisingly good chemistry with Lana Turner.

BTW, I was wrong about the Syracuse theatre in which I saw "The Facts Of Life"; it was Loew's, not the Paramount:

11:41 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were both great faves of my late parents; but they were for them ( as they are for me, too) television stars - not movie stars. Never did any of us ever attend a cinema to watch one of their films.
Of course, the older Hope films were on the tube often enough, although Lucy's never were (but then again, I wasn't really looking out for Lucy's; while my parents were the type that would never watch a movie again which they had already seen once - they didn't "look out" for any movies on the tube, ever) - but even those seen thus were felt to be "of the past", this forty years ago and more; the TV shows these stars were doing back then, though, were felt to be of the present and were up-to-the-moment relevant and entertaining.
But now, from the viewpoint of 2021, their movie work (good or bad) seems to have more permanence.

10:49 AM  

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