Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'My Favorite Blonde'

Notes from a recent get-together of the local cinephile society:

I’ve sometimes wondered what it felt like for people in this country to watch a World War II-themed comedy like “My Favorite Blonde” (1942) while they were smack in the middle of that war. Especially for people who had family members serving in that war – or who had lost family members int hat war. Did comedies like this relieve the tension some people felt? Did they make things worse for others?

I’m certainly not saying that films like this shouldn’t have been made. The best of them are still fairly amusing today, if dated. And maybe they did boost morale.

Anyway, “My Favorite Blonde” stars Bob Hope as an entertainer (big stretch there) who gets involved with a British agent (Madeleine Carroll) who is on a mission. It’s basically a chase movie (vaguely reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” which also starred Carroll) with typical Hope gags; you get the idea that he passed the script around to his team of writers, each member of which added a gag or two.

Some of the gags, as you might expect, are dated, but at least one still seems fresh in these times:

Carroll: There’s no time to lose. Do you know what it feels like to be followed, hounded and watched every second?

Hope: Well I used to, but now I pay cash for everything.

And of course there’s the obligatory “surprise” cameo by Bing Crosby.

Unlike “My Favorite Brunette,” made later in the decade with Hope and Dorothy Lamour, “My Favorite Blonde” doesn’t have a strong enough story line; the parts are greater than the whole, though amusing enough. And I can’t help wondering why the filmmakers, having obtained the services of two of the best heavies in the business – Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco as the main villains – didn’t make more use of them. I could be wrong, but I think Sondergaard has only one scene with Hope, and not much happens there. This seems like a waste of one of the screen’s best (and probably sexiest) villainesses. But Sondergaard and Zucco are always nice to have around.

Before the movie: a short comedy, “On the Wrong Trek” (Hal Roach/MGM, 1936), starring Charley Chase.

Not many people seem to know about Charley Chase today, but in the 1920s and 1930s he was kind of an early version of Dick Van Dyke, specializing in the comedy of embarrassment. A trained stage performer, he easily made the transition to talkies, and he made some pretty decent sound shorts (some of which featured songs he’d written), but somehow I prefer his silent films, such as “Mighty Like a Moose.”

Early in his career he performed in Mack Sennett films, and you can see him in a few of the early Chaplins, including “Tillie’s Punctured Romance.” He later went to Hal Roach’s studio, where he was a director for a while before going back in front of the camera. For a number of his silent films, his director was Leo McCarey (“Going My Way”), who later said he learned all he knew about comedy from Chase.

Why isn’t Chase better remembered? Maybe because he was featured mostly in shorts, though he appeared in a few features, most notably Laurel and Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert.” But although his style of comedy resembles Van Dyke’s, he either didn’t have Van Dyke’s depth or, if he did, didn’t get the chance to show it. His one attempt at a starring feature failed, and in fact, “On the Wrong Trek” (which includes a cameo by Stan and Ollie) was the last short he did for Roach before his longtime employer let him go. For the next few years he worked at Columbia, starring in shorts (sometimes remaking one of his silents) and even directing Three Stooges shorts, including “Violent Is the Word for Curly,” which features the song “Swinging the Alphabet,” written by Chase.

Chase was a heavy drinker. At one point he was in very poor health indeed. And he was warned that if he kept drinking, he’d die.

In June 1940 he died of a heart attack. He was 46.

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