Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Favorite Spy (Paramount, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I went home I looked for something lighter we could screen and found it in My Favorite Spy, which I hadn’t marked with a year date and therefore didn’t know in advance whether the movie I’d recorded to DVD was the 1942 film with Kay Kyser (“How did we win the war with bandleader Kyser as spy?” asked Leonard Maltin about this film in his 2000 Movie and Video Guide) or the 1951 with Bob Hope. It turned out to be the Hope, directed by Norman Z. McLeod from a script by the usual committee — Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow (story and adaptation). Edmund L. Hartmann and Jack Sher (screenplay), and Hal Kanter (additional dialogue) — and with Hedy Lamarr as his co-star in an obvious follow-up to previous Hope films My Favorite Blonde (1942, with Madeleine Carroll essentially playing a parody of her role in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) and My Favorite Brunette (1947, with Dorothy Lamour essentially carrying through her role in the Hope-Crosby Road movies even though Bing Crosby appears only in a cameo, as an executioner at San Quentin visibly disappointed that Hope’s character has been found innocent and therefore Bing won’t get to pull the lethal-gas switch on him after all).

This time Hope is in a dual role: as burlesque comic “Peanuts” White and master spy (and James Bond prototype, especially in his irresistibility to women) Eric Augustine. When Augustine is shot and seriously wounded by New York police — against the wishes of U.S. intelligence, who wanted him taken alive -— “Peanuts” is drafted to impersonate him and take $1 million in cash (which he wears around his waist as a sort of utility belt) to Tangier to buy some secret microfilm. When he arrives the taxi that was supposed to take him from the airport to the hotel is blown up, and he meets chanteuse Lily Dalbray (Hedy Lamarr, amusingly introduced by Victor Young’s “Delilah” theme from the Cecil B. DeMille film Samson and Delilah, where of course it also related to her character), who sings a Dietrichesque number in a nightclub floor show with the dubbed voice of Martha Mears). She and the real Augustine had a love-hate relationship of long standing — they were always getting involved in bits of international intrigue together and one would leave the other to face the rap for the latest high-powered bit of espionage they were engaged in together — and it’s unclear moment-by-moment whether she’s on the side of Our Hero or of the villains who are trying to get their hands on the microfilm: Karl Brubaker (Francis L. Sullivan) and his boss, the mysterious Rudolf Hönig (Luis Van Rooten).

My Favorite Spy is a pretty mild comedy, hardly at the level of Hope’s previous “Favorite” films (or of The Great Lover, the astonishingly dark movie he made in 1949 which I’m inclined to think is the best film of his career) but with some clever and quite amusing scenes: the burlesque routine he’s shown doing at the beginning (written, on purpose, to be so excruciatingly awful it probably gave Hope some unpleasant memories of his pre-stardom days in which he actually had to work jobs like that to survive); the phone call from President Truman that finally convinces him to go along with the impersonation (he even asks the president how his daughter Margaret’s singing tour is going!); a great scene in the Tangier hotel where he inadvertently packs the telephone in his suitcase and then has to figure out how to answer it when it rings; a mistaken identity when the real Augustine, who’s escaped from the U.S. government hospital and made his own way to Tangier, ends up in Lily’s room and beats the shit out of her (or comes as close as he could in a Production Code movie), leaving “Peanuts” to wonder why Lily’s opinion of him has so suddenly and dramatically changed for the worst; and a vertiginous final scene (largely ripped off from Keystone slapstick by way of the famous ending of W. C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) in which Lily is attempting to outrun the baddies and get herself and “Peanuts” to the Tangier airport in a fire truck, with “Peanuts” (Bob Hope’s stunt double, anyway) hanging from the end of its ladder as it speeds down the road. Though more could have been made of the real Augustine’s character (the idea of Bob Hope as a proto-James Bond could have been a delicious occasion for humor of a quite different sort than we expect from Hope!), on the whole My Favorite Spy is a nice, moderately amusing whose best scenes — unusually for such a verbally-oriented comedian as Hope — are slapstick and physical comedy.