Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Going Spanish (1934) - Bob Hope's Debut Goes South

Bob Hope made his screen debut in 1934 during his spare time whilst on Broadway, in the musical short Going Spanish for Educational Pictures and veteran director/producer Al Christie. After bad reviews, the short got more publicity that it would have perhaps normally received after Hope was asked his opinion on the film by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. His reply, that “when they catch John Dillinger they’re going to make him sit through it twice” made gossip column headlines and has since passed into show business legend, ensuring that Going Spanish was never quite forgotten - though for all the wrong reasons.

The quote got a lot of publicity for Hope but also got him fired from his multi film contract with Christie. While he was eager to break into movies,his opinion of the short must have verged on embarrassment in order for him to speak so candidly about a paying gig. Either that or it was a calculated move on his part to generate publicity for himself and free him up to explore bigger opportunities. Whatever his motivation, it worked out well for him as he wasn’t a free agent for long and quickly signed for a series of Vitaphone shorts with Warners. From there he was picked up by Paramount and his star began its ascent.

However the question remains, Bob may have thought it was terrible but is Going Spanish really that bad? Today is Mr Hope’s birthday (by the way, when is that going to become a national holiday?) so I thought I’d watch his inauspicious debut and find out for myself. The answer? Read on, but I think you can guess…

The premise of Going Spanish is frankly, ludicrous. Basically, Bob, his fiancĂ© and mother-in-law arrive in a South American (not Spanish despite the title) village for a quick marriage and discover it’s the day of the "Don't Do It" festival. This bizarre ritual decrees that townsfolk can insult, attack or abuse anyone they want as long as they sing to them afterwards. Naturally, hilarity ensues. It’s one of those whimsical half formed ideas that only seem to appear in low budget shorts and that are probably the by-product of over worked writing staff desperately trying to throw ideas against a wall to see what sticks. The concept probably sounded tops after three bottles of scotch, eight packs of cigarettes and a night trapped in a writers’ room.

The village, called Los Pochos Eggos (which gives you an indication of how sophisticated the humour is) is decked out for a fiesta full of gay caballeros in puffy sleeves and singing senoritas with roses in their hair as seen in pretty much every 30s and 40s movie set south of the border. The costumes and set dressing are actually quite good and no doubt were recycled from plenty of other similar films for cost cutting. This is all rather let down by the sound, which at times makes it seem like it was shot in a barn. In fact it was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studios in New York, but perhaps in was a more remote part of the facility since some voices seem to echo (echo). Anyway, it goes without saying that most of the men have silly accents and even sillier facial hair.I think there might have been a donkey somewhere too.

Bob Hope plays essentially the character he would be later famous for, though toned way down. He’s the brash American abroad but in this case with virtually no material to work off. I’d imagine if you were watching the film in 1934 with no knowledge of current Broadway stars (Hope had also yet to start full time in radio), Bob wouldn’t have made any impression on you. He’d just be another unknown and soon to be forgotten star in a poverty row short. He breezes through the film, smiles and says his lines and that’s pretty much it. The flashes of the familiar Hope persona are few and far between though it’s hardly his fault. In fact, there are times when he looks a touch bored, as if he realised half way through what he’d gotten himself involved in.

The highlight is an amusing musical number where Bob is wooing a senorita in a shop which despite looking massively under rehearsed starts off sounding like it might have the charm of his later duets such as “Thanks for the Memory" and “Two Sleepy People”. However, this effect is ruined by the gag of someone coming into the shop to ask of something inappropriate that rhymes with the last line. For example: "You sweeten up my coffee, I'm always glad to please. Why, you seem to have the fragrance of..." (Cue the interruption)"limburger cheese". despite this, it’s probably Hope’s best scene and his reactions to each intruder conjures up the first cinematic glimpse of the fabled Hope timing.

The supporting cast is generally competent and amusing. The leading lady, Leah Ray has a good singing voice and a pleasant manner. She’s the sort of actress who is the perfect fit for these musical confections but one that you can’t imagine having much to offer beyond those sorts of roles. Her suitor the mayor is played by Jules Epailly who spends the film decked out like Napoleon and who mugs shamelessly as he attempts to channel Billy Gilbert at his most over the top. It doesn’t quite work, in fact it doesn’t work at all but if falling over, destroying scenery and shouting are your bag then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Strangely the most successful artiste from this mess other than its star is William Edmunds as a deluded gaucho. He would go on to have a respectable career in character roles, as IMDb so archly puts it “a poor man’s J. Carroll Naish” in such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life , House of Frankenstein and indeed with Bob Hope again in Where There’s Life thirteen years later.

As for our boy Bob, he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself but for the most part the recognisable screen presence isn’t there regardless of the lack of good material. What’s strange about him is that although he would go on to establish a cowardly, slightly feminine character, this version of Hope is actually quite fey and almost camp. He has a strange habit of clasping his hands together at chest height in the manner of Jack Benny, and in fact a few of his mannerisms echo Benny’s body language. Just like Benny, he seems to have a dilemma over where to put his hands while talking as they flap about all over the place and he spends a lot of the movie fidgeting with his hat. While Benny worked out a way to use this as a cornerstone of his act, regular hand clasping really doesn’t suit Bob’s character.

Luckily, Hope quickly found the right formula (and somewhere to put his hands) as evidenced by his later Warner shorts. By the time they ended in 1936 with Shop Talk, the Bob Hope persona we know and love was pretty much all there albeit needing some refining. Going Spanish can be by no means described as good yet its contents are really no different from the majority of short musical comedies churned out by the smaller studios of the time that weren’t Hal Roach. In 1934 Bob Hope was a man of ambition with a successful stage career upon him, and with his talent and a bit of time there is little doubt that he would have made it as a star before too long. That he became the magnitude of star he did couldn’t have been predicted, and certainly not based on the strength of Going Spanish. At the end of the day, and with a tip of the hat to Mr Hope, I’m loathe to say that any film is truly bad so in this case I’d prefer to label it a ‘curio’. What’s more I actually sat through it twice and I enjoyed it more the second time. Maybe Dillinger shouldn't have bothered with Manhattan Melodrama...

1 comment:

  1. Hope's (funny) comment about his debut film reminds me of Jack Benny and how he used to crack jokes on his radio/tv shows about his one of own film, "The Horn Blows at Midnight," which Benny always strongly implied was the worst movie ever made. It's not -- it's actually a not-bad comedy-fantasy, directed by Raoul Walsh -- but Benny got a lot of mileage out of his jokes.