Bob Hope: Thanks For the Memories Collection (Universal)
Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection mostly revisits the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and slid into a more cynical byplay. Hope is funny in those films, but he’s much more likable in the four earlier films of the set, three of them making their respective DVD debuts. Thanks for the Memory (1938), named after the Hope signature song (which he sings with co-star Shirley Ross), is a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York notable largely for Hope’s easy banter and the cast of moochers who keep landing in his apartment.
The heart of the set, however, belongs to his three pairing with Paulette Goddard, beginning with the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). You know the story even if you’ve never seen the play: the family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place (which is located in the middle of a bayou swamp). Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary, a spooky servant goes around predicting things like “One will die tonight” and there’s an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around. “Don’t big old empty houses scare you?” asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). “Not me,” quips Hope, here playing a semi-famous actor meeting what’s left of his family tree. “I’ve played vaudeville.” It’s hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. “I always joke when I’m scared,” he confesses to heroine Goddard. “I kind of kid myself into being brave.” Hope’s delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise; he’s got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably in Cat and was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.
The Ghost Breakers (1940) pretty much rehashes the formula. This time Goddard inherits a haunted mansion in Cuba and, while she’s repeatedly warned away from the place by the suspicious executor of the will, radio gossip monger Hope is on the run from New York gangsters. Like Cat, it’s based on a stage play that spoofs the haunted house and ghost story conventions. This one is even less convincing than Cat, but at least director George Marshall makes an effort to construct the proper atmosphere around these city folk on a haunted safari in voodooland, and the script tosses in a zombie (Noble Johnson, doing the traditional Caribbean-style catatonic sleepwalker of a zombie), an animated suit of armor and more hidden rooms and passages. Both films manage to repeatedly get Goddard down to slips and negligees and, in Ghost Breakers, a swimsuit (logical attire for midnight to a spooky island) and a flimsy dress which gets torn off in a monster chase. A very young Anthony Quinn appears in two roles and Richard Carlson co-stars.
Nothing But the Truth (1941) spins a gimmickâ€”Hope is stock broker who bets $10,000 that he can tell the truth for 24 hoursâ€”into a familiar web of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and romantic antics. Kind of a No, No Nanette with an earnest Hope at the center of the bet and a trio of conniving, lying, borderline criminal business associates (Edward Arnold, Leif Erickson and Glenn Anders) springing every dirty trick in the book on him in a string of public humiliations and private tricks. Goddard gets to have a little more fun in this one as a dizzy heiress who rattles a blue streak while falling for the hapless Hope, who can’t tell anyone about the bet. It’s pure stage farce, all contrivance and coincidence, blandly directed by Elliot Nugent, who just seems to let things happen as the camera rolls. And to honest, none of them are particularly
Willie Best co-stars in the latter two as Hope’s manservant, a quivering, sassy and subservient stereotype who gets called “boy” by most everyone except Hope and made the butt of countless jokes (not all of them offensive). You can’t defend this kind of casual bigotry, but Best’s performance is quite good (outside of the most egregious pandering to stereotypes) and he establishes a natural rapport with Hope establish while swapping wisecracks (and often getting the better of Hope). The danger of dismissing roles as these from the thirties and early forties is two-fold: we need to remember just how egregiously dismissive and demeaning these roles were, and we shouldn’t forget the talents that tried to inject a little personality and humanity between the humiliations.
The final films in the setâ€”Road to Morocco (1942) and The Paleface (1948)â€”and the aforementioned The Ghost Breakers have previously been available in individual volumes (and Morocco in a “Road Movies” set). The Paleface is a very funny cowboy spoof with tenderfoot Easterner Hope as a would-be “painless” dentist who goes west and ends up lassoed into marrying shapely outlaw Jane Russell (whose unflappable deadpan makes her a formidable foil). Director Norman Z. McLeod plays the B-movie plot of gun smugglers and Indians straight and lets Hope schtick around the edges, then turns him into the dandiest gunfighter in the west. He even sings an Oscar winning tune: â€œButtons and Bows.â€ It’s a shame, however, that Universal didn’t take the opportunity to spotlight films more in keeping with the survey of establishing his screen persona in his early film career. The three disc set also includes the mini-documentaries “Bob Hope and the Road to Success” and “Entertaining the Troops” (featuring exclusive footage of Hopeâ€™s USO tours), Command Performance 1944 and Command Performance 1944 (newsreel-style shorts showing Hope hosting the live radio show he did for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine), and the all-star WWII short Hollywood Victory Caravan. They spotlight yet another side of Hope, the public comedian and tireless entertainer who gave up so much time not just to entertain the troops but to take charge of the USO program and bring other Hollywood celebrities and entertainers into the fold.
From Paris With Love (Lionsgate)
The grade-A release of the week is Shutter Island (Paramount), Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane thriller, which I spotlight in a featured review in my DVD column for MSN, but for this entry, I’m going to give some love to this week’s B-movie bonanza. Starring John Travolta as a cowboy of an American agent and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an ambitious but untrained low-level agent assigned to assist, From Paris With Love is another of Luc Besson’s English language Euro-action films, the contemporary equivalent to the drive-in action movie of decades past. As a producer, Besson has perfected the formula in a string of unpretentious but adrenaline-boosted movies: American/British stars in an otherwise French production, a simple narrative without subplots or distractions, launched into with very little preamble and then carried on without taking a breath until you arrive at the end of the ride. This is simply another variation on the theme.
In this one, Rhys Meyers is James Reece, an ambitious young CIA agent whose cover is top aide to the American Ambassador in Paris, but he wants to do more than just plant bugs in political offices. He gets his chance when he’s assigned to drive American agent Charlie Wax (Travolta, head shaved and attitude cranked up to insufferable insolence), the runaway Brahma bull of the agency whose unorthodox methods and brazen approach utterly flummoxes Reece, whose organizational skill and tactical smarts (hey, the guy plays chess) have been duly established. Where Reece tries to reason his way through, Wax simply reacts. It’s both a classic the mismatched buddy action movie transplanted to Paris and a French idea of an American action movie abroad. There’s a subtext of American arrogance and recklessness that leaves a trail of destruction and bodies in its wake, but the satirical undercurrent is rather undercut by the fact that this wild man agent is always right and nary an innocent gets harmed in his seemingly cavalier approach to violence in public spaces (including but not limited to blasts of machine gun fire and unleashed rocket launchers). And finally the simple visceral charge of the action carries the film past all moral quandaries. Director Pierre Morel keeps the film moving with clean, stylish efficiency and well-modulated momentum, and on a budget that should shame American action movie producers. It’s pure pulp and it nobody here pretends it is anything more, and frankly his efforts as a producer are more fun than his directorial outings.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions feature commentary by Pierre Morel and a 26-minute making-of featurette (both of interest to fans only) and a couple of light featurettes on modern day covert ops. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a “BonusView” video version of the commentary (which is merely an inset video of the director talking through the film), a couple of interactive time-waters and the usual interactive BD-Live functions, plus a bonus standard definition DVD and a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Shinjuku Incident (Sony)
Jackie Chan may be reduced to childish slapstick (The Spy Next Door) or harmless sentimentality (The Karate Kid) but in Hong Kong he still has his dignity and ambition to make something a little more substantial. Here he takes on a rare role where he doesn’t play a martial arts superman. Chan is an illegal Chinese immigrant who flees to Japan in the mid-nineties, just an honest peasant looking for his old village sweetheart and an honest day’s work who turns into a morally-driven Scarface to protect his fellow immigrant from being preyed upon by both the cops and the triads. It’s an unusual role for Chan, an idealist who turns assassin to build his power base, then tries to play the benign Godfather of Shinjuku District while his people turn into the thugs they’ve replaced, and the film never quite manages to sell the character as such. But even if the film shies away from confronting the moral contradictions of his precarious position, writer/director Derek Yee lets the contradictions and (perhaps willing) ignorance of his own gang’s corruption stand in contrast to the actor’s self-image. Chan plays it all with restraint (which, to be honest, is the only tool in his repertoire outside of physical dynamism and mugging slapstick) and lets his impassive front suggest protectiveness, thoughtfulness and strength of character while he steels himself to meet the ganglords on their own terms. While the film never allows Chan to completely slip into villainy, it transforms Honk Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu from likable kid and victimized innocent into a vicious punk with a drug habit, a second-rate Joker face and a serious case of disrespect.
It’s more social drama than gangster movie, but there is plenty of violence, all of it of a furiously sloppy and savage nature of street thugs. A far cry from the action-blast of the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema, I admit, but appropriate to the movie; these aren’t martial arts masters in cage-match duels, but street criminals with sticks, rock, knives and short swords swinging for all their worth. The disc features the original Chinese language soundtrack (where the language barrier between the Chinese immigrants and Japanese criminal hierarchy comes across more convincingly) and an English dub track, which is typically slapdash but at least Jackie dubs his own dialogue. Also includes a generic featurette and eight minutes of select scene commentary by Chan.