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Monday, March 28, 2011

Son Of Paleface and What's Funny --- Part One

I'm starting to question the whole Laughter is Contagious thing, having been told since forever how comedies play so much better in a crowd. Does an audience magically transform a show that isn't funny into one that is? Sitting alone with clowns is frightful prospect for many, but is that because they need others to cue them when to laugh? Is it a herd mentality that makes us seek out capacity rooms and reassurance that what we find amusing is indeed that? Ann sometimes wonders why I don't laugh (audibly) at comedy we agree works, and I respond that everyone's mirth mechanism differs. It's possible to appreciate humor more even if you laugh at it less. I once rolled off the sofa before an Ace Ventura routine most cultivated watchers would deplore, and I'd not call Jim Carrey an equal to comics of the GPS pantheon, so is there disconnect between my "appreciation" of comedy and response the basest of it sometimes provokes? Too often I find myself clocking laughs others might get from stuff I've watched too many times, Son Of Paleface most recent object of said cold analysis. There's sadness in time spent alone with movies crafted to please hundreds per unspooling, but we'll not see SOP through 1952 eyes again. A lot of us never did. Look at all this publicity and tieing-in, then imagine mobs primed to show up and guffaw at everything this cast laid down and called hilarious. I feel for ones who saw Son Of Paleface in that white-hot '52 summer, only to re-encounter it later and wonder why it didn't seem so yok-some anymore.

So this is maybe the best Bob Hope he did sans Bing. What does that say about the others? Serious notice of SOP came as result of Frank Tashlin directing, though I'd cringe at prospect of this one screened in a university classroom, straight-back chairs and an instructor to drain whatever amusement might inadvertently have come his pupils' way. I'll close Tashlin's part by acknowledging best gags as impossible ones he staged like cartoons done at career beginning with WB. Such came natural to a Bob Hope long versed in crashing fourth walls and well along conspiring with viewers to undermine pic conventions. We like Bob best when he's most irreverent. Here he was pushing (at least) fifty, displaying cheek of a newcomer half that age. Think longevity of this man's career and name another who approached it. Son Of Paleface plods here/there, I'd question how some thudding gags clicked even for packed houses, but when this one delivers, it's transporting, best moments being comedy sure-footed as was possible in days when likes of Hope defined what made a culture laugh.

He was an all-media titan then, as witness deal lately wangled with anxious Paramount. Bob had wanted more, always more, to stay on contract board ... fifty, maybe sixty, percent of receipts. Guess Para knew he could get it elsewhere, as they pret-near handed Hope keys to the Marathon gate and coffers within. Not unlike the Hal Wallis deal worked out previously, this was setting for Hope to have a studio address for making features he'd bankroll, then own outright. The Lemon Drop Kid ... was produced by Hope Enterprises with its own coin and without financial help from any bank, observed Variety when news of the renewed pact came down in September 1950. Hope was already planning a spoof western with Roy Rogers, to be financed by Lemon Drop profits. How did Paramount prosper in all this? They'd have the star for eight total commitments, four via Hope Enterprises and the balance in-house for which he'd get salary plus percentage (estimated by Variety to be about 25%). Budgets for each would be $1.5 million, in line with increased studio scrutiny over bottom-lines. In addition to total control of his own productions, Hope approved writers, directors, and players utilized for the Paramount shows. Added Variety: Complications between motion pictures and television will be straightened out by another clause which calls for a timing arrangement. It provides that Hope, the TV star, will not make live video appearances in spots where Hope, the Paramount star, is on the screen in first-run theatres. In this way, he won't be competing with himself.

Whatever its share of eventual profits from Son Of Paleface, Paramount could at least boost distribution fees by making theatres bid for what everyone knew would be a sure-fire hit. There were complaints in July 1952 of Para's failure to tradeshow Son Of Paleface, as if anyone needed proof it would score. Drive-ins had begun competing for new films and getting them. Los Angeles ozoners grabbed SOP and Paramount's other summer laff- getter Jumping Jacks for same day open as indoor houses, having ponied a $5,000 guarantee plus $1,000 more to defray distribution's advertising costs. A new era of cutthroat bidding was upon showmen across the land, perceived best product hotly chased for bragging rights as much as profit gained. With theatres now divorced from former owning producer/distributors, it was every exhib for himself. Paramount demanded advances to $27,500 plus a four-week minimum run for Son Of Paleface in Philadelphia. The Fox Theatre there smiled and paid up. With 2423 seats and overhead like theirs, what were options? Such a palace couldn't afford booking product less than a cinch for full attendance.


Anonymous Bob said...

Comedy is so subjective. I think Son of Paleface is one of the great movie comedies -- if not a great movie. (I kid you not.) I laugh when I watch it people; I laugh when I see it alone. My husband thinks it markedly unfunny -- but he likes watching me watch it! Go figure.

Hope is one of those comedians that you take con amore or not at all. I've always thought him to be the best when he was on his game.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

"Son of Paleface" is perfect for a college lecture, it's a Fellini film with a big busted woman and plenty of surreal sequences. You might want to do a follow up on the same team's "Private Navy of Sgt O'Farrell," I guarantee you comedy is not subjective in that film.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Hope -- and many other comics -- seem to prosper most as the oddball element in an otherwise straight (and bland) genre film. Hope tossing off quips while surrounded by murder suspects or foreign spies is funnier than Hope doing situation comedy.

Others, like Laurel and Hardy, suffer in such quasi-serious settings -- witness the Fox features, although those were evidently successful at that moment in time. Where Hope's best pictures were loaded with threatening villains, Stan and Ollie had comic foils and marginal threats (aside from the Boogie Men). And while the plots of the better Hope films could be made to work as non-comedies, Stan and Ollie's best stories are comic to the foundations.

I suspect what hurts Hope now is that the genres he kidded have themselves become funny. Modern updates tend to drip with self-referential jokes, eliminating the need for Hope to step in and deflate them. Such laughs as survive tend to cluster around his egotist/coward/not-so-wise-guy character, which doesn't date, and the odd, unexpectedly relevant wisecrack.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

SON OF PALEFACE played my county:

September 7-13, 1952 - CAPITOL Theatre

December 7-9, 1952 - 601 DRIVE-IN Theatre

January 23-25, 1953 - HITCHING POST DRIVE-IN Theatre

March 1-2, 1953 - ROCKWELL Theatre


4 bookings total, then it disappeared. The other Paramount Hope western, FANCY PANTS, had 7 bookings in my area during its initial release.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Linwood said...

I can see Tashlin and Hope's intentions for "The Private Navy of Sgt O'Farrell" and appreciate it for what they tried to do. It's a little more daring and subversive than Hope's usual 60's fare. Bob's just too damn old to play the lead.

2:23 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I have some anecdotal evidence on the question of the contagiousness of laughter:

Exhibit A: The Jack Benny Charley's Aunt. I used to watch and enjoy this all the time during the 1960s-70s heyday of local station late shows. Then, like many movies of that vintage, it dropped out of sight until I saw it again at the 1999 Cinevent in Columbus. I was looking forward to seeing it again, but what a difference! That's when I learned you can watch Charley's Aunt by yourself and you'll smile and chuckle and have a very good time; but watch it with 300 others and you'll laugh till you wet your pants.

Exhibit B: Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. I saw this in a packed theater in 1961 and the joint rocked with gales of constant laughter, including my own. Then, only a few years later, I saw it again on TV with just my parents and two brothers; I (we all, in fact) found it frantic, forced and borderline obnoxious. I don't remember any of us even cracking a smile. Haven't seen it since that night, so I can't say which reaction (if either) I'd have now. (Maybe it's time I found out?)

I've seen this with other movies too; the original Bedazzled comes to mind. Not a scientific sampling, I admit, but there it is.

3:45 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Here's a nice sidelight on Tashlin for you: A few years ago I became acquainted with a very nice older woman who was a hoity-toity "society" type. A down-to-earth Margaret Dumont you might say. She had, so she told me, been very close friends with Frank, their point of contact having nothing whatever to do with films, but antique hunting. That was Tashlin's outside passion she said. However, I could not resist asking her for some inside observations on Tashlin the director and comedy-creator. She said occasionally he would talk about a former Mack Sennett comedian who worked at Paramount that he liked and who was a help and influence. Now I was really intrigued. Who? I asked. She couldn't remember his name off-hand, but after tossing out a few possibilities, she struck on the name of Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson's first leading man at Sennett, later, I gather an all-purpose gagman at Paramount.

Best always, R.J.

5:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, that's a terrific Tashin story, and very interesting about Bobby Vernon. Has anyone spotted BV in Tashlin's films?

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Working on my book (the chapter on Son Of Paleface), I came across a news article that listed Tashlin as the writer and director of Hope's upcoming Alias Jesse James. What happened?

11:10 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

SON OF PALEFACE! One of my favorites! It's true close examination of the one liners in even the best of Bob Hope vehicles reveals the comedian's strongest weapons were force of personality and sheer quantity of material. Half the lines are usually redundant, oddly constructed, poorly worded or just plain nonsensical. And nonsensical in a bad way. And yet these films still kill me! Bob Hope asking Trigger if he was born in a barn is, to me, pretty damn funny stuff. As to leading ladies, the comic's work with the talented likes of Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard is nice, but I think he was best served when paired with dead pan glamor girls like Russel, Hedy LaMarr, Joan Caulfield and Dorothy Lamour. Hope never did anything successful just once so, of course, there were plenty of western follow-ups after PALEFACE. I have a special fondness for ALIAS JESSE JAMES... the special treat that two doting parents brought their surprised seven year old to on the evening of his First Holy Communion!

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Bernd said...

Son of Paleface, certainly one of my favorite Hopes! But I think his best work are still films like "The Cat and the Canary", "The Ghost Breakers" and "My Favorite Blonde" when he still was young and funny and his coward act had not gotten stale yet.
Another great entry, John!

1:57 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Bobby Vernon was at Paramount (as their "comedy supervisor") beginning in 1928, and he's one of the writers for W.C. Fields' The Man on the Flying Trapeze, among others. Active mostly while Tashlin was working in animation, Vernon died of a heart attack at age 42 in June 1939, somewhere between Tashlin's 2nd and 3rd stints at Leon Schlesinger's studio.

Interestingly, in the late '40's to early '50's, Paramount held the rights to a proposed Mack Sennett-Mabel Normand biopic, and in 1952 Tashlin's name was attached as a possible director, primarily on the strength of Son of Paleface.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Off-topic, but Michael J. Hayde's note reminds me: That Paramount project on Normand and Sennett (The Keystone Girl) never saw completion, but it did get off the ground, at least as far as announcing Betty Hutton and Paul Douglas for the leads and hiring Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer to write the score. One of their songs, "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," was salvaged by Frank Capra for Here Comes the Groom and won an Oscar; two others surfaced in other movies.

But I suppose your readers know all that. What I wonder about is the other songs; were they ever published or recorded? I can't imagine that any Carmichael-Mercer song wouldn't be worth the trouble.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Thanks Michael for adding to the Tashlin anecdote. This was the name of "That former Sennett comedian" that seemed to strike a chord with the lady, so that was all I had to go on. Possibly before Vernon's early-death they would lunch together on the lot -- I can tell you first-hand this sort of odd-coupling would happen. I was amazed when several-years ago, meeting George Burns' longtime manager Irving Fein for the first-time, HE was amazed I was the grandson of M.K. Jerome. He said my grandfather became one of his first-friends and sort-of "protected him" when Fein was first brought out by Warners in the late thirties. This was all news to me!

Thanks for the info on Vernon, however. "Man On The Flying Trapeze" is one of my all-time fav Fields and it's interesting to know that Vernon did an uncredited contribution.

All best, R.J.

9:41 PM  

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