Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Princess and the Pirate (Goldwyn/RKO, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly-Vincente Minnelli masterpiece The Pirate, the next film on TCM’s schedule — the 1944 spoof The Princess and the Pirate, with Virginia Mayo as the princess, Victor McLaglen as the pirate and Bob Hope (top-billed) starring as a cowardly actor who gets caught up in the intrigue surrounding them — probably seemed even weaker than it deserved. There are some surprising similarities between the two films: in both, the male lead is an actor (here, “Sylvester the Great: The Man of Seven Faces”) who ends up impersonating a pirate; the female lead is a young woman of privilege running away from an arranged marriage to hook up with a commoner; both are lavish productions in full-out three-strip Technicolor; and they feature at least one cast member in common, Walter Slezak, playing similar characters in both. The film opens on a ship called the Mary Ann on which the Princess Margaret (Virginia Mayo) is sailing, incognito, to join her commoner lover — only, of course, it’s waylaid by a pirate ship captained by the fearsome Barrett, a.k.a. “The Hook” because he’s lost his right hand and replaced it with a hook (were the screenwriters — Curtis Kenyon and Room Service co-author Allan Boretz wrote the adaptation of Sy Bartlett’s story, though Everett Freeman and Don Hartman also get screenplay credit and some of Hope’s radio writers, Melvin Frank, Norman Panama and Melville Shavelson, also worked on it — ripping off the character of Captain Hook in Sir James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan here?).

Sylvester disguises himself as a female gypsy fortuneteller to avoid the wrath of the Hook’s crew members — and ends up with one of them, Featherhead (Walter Brennan), falling in love with him. In some pretty daring sequences given how relentless the Production Code authorities usually were coming down on even the hint of Gayness, Featherhead not only claims “her” as his own but continues his flirtation even after “her” wig comes off and Sylvester is outed as a male. It’s not all that different from the classic closing scene between Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown in Some Like It Hot 15 years later, and as weird as it seems to see Walter Brennan playing Gay, he manages to turn it into a legitimate variation on the grizzled-old-coot character roles he usually portrayed. He tells Sylvester and Margaret (who joins them for a successful escape in a dinghy — from what we’ve seen and heard from him before, hearing Walter Brennan say the word “dinghy” is the biggest unintended laugh in this film!) that there’s a fortune in buried pirate treasure on the island of Casa Rouge, which from the looks of things seems like the most amoral place ever depicted in the film since Tortuga in William Wellman’s pre-Code masterpiece Safe in Hell. People are robbed, murdered and abducted in the street with the nominal law enforcers hardly batting an eye — as long as the evildoers have the proper permit — and when Margaret is kidnapped on the street by a fat man in a fancy carriage Sylvester files an official complaint with the island’s governor, La Roche (Walter Slezak). Of course, La Roche is the abductor — Sylvester recognizes him at once — and he’s holding Margaret for a million-pound ransom he’s sure her dad, the King of England, will pay … though, like many another movie villain, greed and lust are at war with him and his plan to sell her for ransom is running afoul of his plan to rape her. It also turns out that La Roche is in league with The Hook, and the plot proceeds through some predictable pirate-movie complications as well as a scene in which Sylvester performs at a tavern called the “Bucket of Blood” with Virginia Mayo bolstering his act by singing a song by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson called “Kiss Me in the Moonlight.” (Mayo really couldn’t sing, and her voice double here, Louanne Hogan, is much less appealing than Jeri Southern, who sang for her in A Song Is Born.)

Surprisingly, the last half-hour is considerably more appealing than the first hour — at least because, rarely for a Bob Hope movie, he’s funnier and more entertaining as a physical comedian than a wisecracker — and it all leads up to a gag ending in which the British Navy comes in as a deus ex machina to rescue the good guys and arrest the bad ones, the King (Robert Warwick) allows Margaret to marry anyone she wants, and she bypasses Sylvester in favor of the guy she’s presumably been in love with all along: an anonymous sailor played in a nice cameo by Bing Crosby. “I work my brains out for nine reels, and some bit player from Paramount comes over and steals my girl,” says a disgusted Sylvester. “That’s the last picture I’ll ever make for Goldwyn!” While Crosby would make an even funnier last-minute appearance in a Hope movie three years later — in My Favorite Brunette, in which Hope is a man unjustly convicted of murder and about to be executed, Crosby is the executioner, and he’s visibly pissed when the last-minute pardon comes through and he doesn’t get to kill Hope after all — this one is quite clever. The Princess and the Pirate in fact was the last movie Hope made for Goldwyn, who’d borrowed him from Paramount for $133,000 and the services of Goldwyn contractee Gary Cooper to play Robert Jordan in Paramount’s film of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; Goldwyn got 12 weeks’ worth of Hope’s services and he used them to make a spy spoof called They Got Me Covered and then this, complete with “Ye Goldwynne Girls” (they appear as four houris in La Roche’s palace and momentarily help Hope forget Virginia Mayo) and such spectacular, vibrant color that the Hook gets to wear a vividly bright blue coat and look far spiffier than most grungy movie pirates do. The Princess and the Pirate is a nicely entertaining movie, pretty much par for the course of Hope’s movie vehicles, though he too would get to make some surprisingly dark films (notably Paramount’s 1951 The Great Lover), and with enough references to the Hope-Crosby “Road” films one can’t help but imagine how much funnier it might have been if Crosby had had a full starring role in it!