Up until this point I’ve only reviewed (and seen) two Bob Hope features, both of them straightforward comedies – The Ghost Breakers (1940) and the fantastic The Cat and the Canary (1939). While both films starred Hope, they weren’t reliant on his persona to make the films work; in fact their very existence wasn’t dependent on Hope at all. By the ’50s Hope was an A-list actor, musician, and overall personality, and it stands to reason that a film starring him would want to put him center stage. But watching Son of Paleface left me with this conclusion: I hate Bob Hope.
A sequel to the 1948 comedy The Paleface, Son of Paleface follows Junior Potter (Hope) as he comes to the small town where his father lived and claim his inheritance. The problem is the original “Paleface” Potter has left nothing behind, and the townsfolk are eager to collect on 30 years of debt. As he attempts to find a source of income he catches the eye of notorious outlaw Mike “The Torch” Delroy (Jane Russell), intent on seducing Potter to fleece him.
Directed and co-written by satirical comic writer Frank Tashlin, Son of Paleface sends-up everything, from the Western to the romantic comedy, even Bob Hope himself. There’s a feeling that everything in this film, for good and bad, is intentional. But if this intentional quality is true, then the film seems highly uninterested in being a Bob Hope feature. Similar in tone to the “Road” movies (or so I’ve been told), Hope’s Junior Potter is a self-absorbed tenderfoot dragged along by circumstance while making witty remarks about everything from his face to Hollywood in general. There’s one deliberate anachronistic callback to Hope’s “Road” co-star, Bing Crosby, that’s pretty funny if it’s meant to be incredibly sad about how unfulfilling Crosby’s life is. Much of the humor we’re meant to derive from Hope’s repartee is how stupid he is, believing every woman wants him and that he’s a smart and highly educated man. He went to Harvard, after all.
But his arrival in the dusty Western town his daddy tamed goes to show how dumb Junior Potter is. It also illustrates how he ruins a perfectly good movie. Hope’s slapstick antics are at odds with what plays out as a fun Western. The Torch is robbing people and generally causing trouble and can only be brought down by a singing cowboy named Roy (played by Roy Rogers, of course). The interactions between Russell and Rogers is delightful, and it easily outshines the more overt sexuality that’s meant to come from Russell and Hope. Where Hope is all double entendres and generally being a “loveable” creep, Rogers goes the old-school route of mutual interests and sweet-talk, romance. Him and Mike are kindred spirits. This is my first Roy Rogers feature and though I realize this is meant to lampoon his singing cowboy persona, it’s charming. His serenade of “California Rose” is utterly beautiful, and genuinely makes you question why the hell Mike would want to end up with Junior. The script doesn’t have an answer short of “because Hope is the star.”
Son of Paleface’s highlight is Jane Russell as “the Torch.” We have to talk about how subversive it is just naming her Mike. She’s a character who, despite being feminine, is presented as masculine and asexual as possible. And this is two years BEFORE Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge played masculine Western icons in Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Russell’s costumes describe her character throughout, transitioning from black, cowboy dudes (denoting her evil nature) before seguing to showy chorus girl – in the hopes of catching Junior’s eye – and a white, wedding dress-esque gown to seduce the dupe. Even with her presumed boyfriend, when he attempts to kiss her she slugs him, saying “Don’t come to a party unless you’re invited.” Russell’s character could snap Hope like a toothpick and she isn’t ever tamed, so much as forced to acquiesce to the plot.
Son of Paleface’s runtime is devoted to ignoring the petulant child that is Hope’s Junior. Russell and Rogers’ singing of “Buttons and Bows” is great, if not for Junior’s continual interruptions to insert his own rhyming lyrics – which sound like they were the inspiration for Mel Brooks’ “don’t be stupid, be a smartie” line from The Producers (1967). The song would end up tidily but goes on for an inordinately long time because Hope (and his character by extension) have to get the last word. This continues to the film’s never-ending conclusion which devolves into Hope doing every form of hijink imaginable, creating conflict on top of conflict to beat the humor of the scene to a pulp. Why couldn’t this have been a Jane and Roy venture?
Son of Paleface does little to make me want to see the original. The songs are incredibly catchy, from “Buttons and Bows” to the film’s theme, “Wing-Ding Tonight.” There isn’t a any significant choreography so it’s not a studio musical in the proper sense. Jane Russell and Roy Rogers are a delight to see together. Bob Hope is present and accounted for.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.