Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 29 May 2015

Cancel My Reservation (1972) - The End of the Road for Bob Hope's Movie Career

The last time I wrote about Bob Hope, it was after watching his modest cinematic debut in the 1934 short Going Spanish. At that time, though a stage veteran the fledgling screen comedian was understandably not quite the character we grew to know and love. As his birthday has rolled around again, perhaps this time it is only fitting we now look at Bob’s movie swan song 1972’s Cancel My Reservation, some 38 years later. Bob Hope had a career as a lead screen comedian in five different decades (and as a top TV comedian for a further two), was a box office attraction for around 20 years and made dozens of very good and very funny movies, but by any means of looking at it, Cancel My Reservation is not one of them. However, he was still a big star, was never out of the public view and for the most part remained a much beloved comedian, but by 1972 Hope looked tired, bored and out of touch.  So what went wrong?

When he made Cancel My Reservation, I’m sure Hope had no idea that it would end up being his last cinematic effort despite the project being a troubled one. The script actually started life as a serious adaption of Louis L’Amour’s western novel 'The Broken Gun', which Bob Hope had taken the option on. Perhaps the rights were about to expire but rather than wait for the right adaption, the gritty western plot was shoehorned into a comic murder mystery. Part of this change seems to be an issue with funding, as Hope had to get NBC to throw in some of the costs (to add to his own financing) when United Artists passed on the project, and their insistence on the picture being a comedy complete with star cameos effectively closed the door on any serious dramatic pretentions Hope may have had. Rather than a change of direction for him, it ended up being just another day at the office.

The film itself is typical of many comedies of the era: fast paced, bright coloured, plenty of good looking girls, stereotypical stock characters, a lazy script and a half hearted attempted at either sending up or jumping on the counterculture or hippy bandwagon. For comedies of the late 60s and early 70s, it’s as if the twin spectres of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In are omnipresent, and the movies can’t resist the urge to reference such things as flower power, or 'women’s lib' and the watchword is decidedly 'wacky', all set to a groovy sounding pop soundtrack. The movies attempt this without really understanding what it is they are trying to do or who exactly their audience should be. Cancel My Reservation doesn’t sin nearly as much as say, Skidoo, but it does have the 'desperate to be hip vibe' of a Don Knotts or later Jerry Lewis movie, with all the zany hi-jinks one would expect. At least Hope’s earlier efforts had the saving grace of Phyllis Diller to liven up proceedings and keep him on his toes, regardless of poor scripts.

In the movie, Bob Hope stars as a talk show host who shares his show with his more popular wife, played by Eve Marie Saint. The strain on their relationship causes him to go for a rest in the Arizona desert without her where he gets mixed up in a murder and a plot to take land from the Native Americans. There is nothing wrong with the plot itself but the script is so uninspiring and tired, and despite some good performances the words just have no weight and even fewer laughs. Luckily there is a decent cast with Eva Marie Saint as Hope’s wife being the definite highlight. She has a great chemistry with Bob, and brings some real charm and stability to the movie as she attempts to patch up her relationship and solve the mystery. Familiar faces like Ralph Bellamy, Keenan Wynn and Forrest Tucker also keep the movie rolling along but don’t really add anything. Even a young Anne Archer doesn’t save it, sadly providing only window dressing. However, there is a faint glimmer of the old Hope in a scene where Bob is told he could face hanging if convicted of murder. He then dreams about his lynching as an angry mob lead him to the gallows and put a noose round his neck. As he does is usual hammy pleading for help then we see none other than Bing Crosby laughing in the crowd saying "Help you? Who do you think bought the rope?". Other faces in the crowd reveal themselves to be Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson and bizarrely, John Wayne (who says "I'd like to help you but it's not my picture!"). The dream sequence ends and we are back to reality (and NBC are kept happy), but it was a nice little reminder of times past and for long time fans the last chapter in the Hope and Crosby screen friendship.

In the end, Cancel My Reservation is a pretty bad film, but thankfully not his worst. However, the sad fact remains that despite obviously being committed to maintaining a film career in the 60s and 70s, Hope’s efforts were lacklustre. The problem was due to a number of issues, both off screen and on.
Firstly and most importantly, television was Hope’s main source of income and visibility and that’s what took up most of his time from the mid 50s onwards, which is when the quality of his movies start to decline. Part of this decline can be attributed to the end of his long term working relationship with Paramount, who obviously knew how to use him effectively, though the problem is equally the end of the studio system and the stability it brought. I’d say the last truly great Hope comedy is 1954’s Casanova’s Big Night, and he followed that with two mainly dramatic roles in Seven Little Foys and Beau James which pushed him out of his comfort zone to interesting effect. After that flurry of interesting mid 50s projects, things were never quite the same again.

With his lifetime NBC television contract, Hope had to come up with material for regular specials, and with the pressure to deliver laughs and ratings, this understandably took up most of his time and energy, making movies his secondary focus. Another problem with the later movies is that, ever willing to make a buck, Bob started to have a financial stake in his vehicles rather than just be a contract player. Rather than improving the quality of the movies, this seemed to only impede the creative process. Various accounts relate the struggles directors, writers, actor and producers had with Hope’s constant script changes and complaining, with on set problems being a regular feature of the later films when not paired with a director who could deal with his working habits. Indeed, director Paul Bogart apparently checked himself into a hospital to recover from the stress of working with Hope on Cancel My Reservation and vowed never to work with him again. This sort of atmosphere doesn’t really sound particularly conducive to making comedy, and it shows in the finished product.

Another problem, which is always the one that puts me off his later movies, is the change in Hope’s screen persona. The classic Bob Hope character of the cowardly Lothario, the pompous, fast talking yet well meaning fool worked so perfectly for decades that the sudden change in the late 50s to eliminate or tone down most of these characteristics removed the heart from his movies. The character was so good that Woody Allen based a performing career on him (Saying recently, “Bob Hope? I’m practically a plagiarist”). Something happened along the way though, and the cowardly likable goof version of Hope was replaced with a more realistic version of the television Bob Hope, a middle aged man who did real things and spat out a never ending line of tired quips as he went along. This Hope, rather than being a comic everyman (of sorts) became a family man, a hen pecked husband, or a business man who just said funny things rather actually being funny. I realise that Hope felt that he was getting older and probably couldn’t get away with his traditional character, though I’d argue that age is no barrier to the actions of a clown. However, I have a suspicion (as much as I hate to acknowledge it) that ego had a part in the decision as he just doesn't seem too keen to send himself up as he got older. If you see Hope on chat shows from the 60s onwards, he’s a lot more serious and guarded than he was in the 40s (though he’s still pretty cagey in the early interviews I’ve heard) and at times fairly grumpy. It all comes from being a very rich man with a lot of responsibility and a lot of power. He just doesn’t seem to try as hard as he used to because there is nothing left to prove. In a sense he stopped being Bob Hope the comedian and became Bob Hope the media personality.

It’s no wonder that the people who constantly knock Hope always do so with reference to his persona as seen on television at the height of the counter culture years in the 60s and 70s. He is seen as a kind of comic representation of the Nixon administration: patrician, middle aged and out of touch. Personally, I don’t think Hope really changed too much in himself (he seems to have always been a nervous, insecure performer even to the end), but his position changed. Like anyone with that amount of fame and money, it’s difficult not to live in a bubble of sorts and to be protected from what is glaringly obvious to the outside world. The fact that Hope during this period continued entertaining the troops and doing his charity work speaks volumes about the measure of the real man, but his public persona became rather frosty and distant and it rubbed off on screen in his movies. The likability factor that made audiences laugh but still sympathise with him had faded somewhat.

Nevertheless, Bob Hope seemed comfortable making his TV shows and becoming a familiar if unspectacular fixture on the small screen. From what I’ve seen of his specials, the quality depends very much on the guest star, but most of his material is often painfully thin. Unlike Jack Benny, Hope seemed not to pride himself on the quality of his writers, but on the topicality of his one liners. This worked for what it was, but in the big picture he failed at creating the television legacy that Benny (or even George Burns) managed where each appearance built on the next to create a lasting and well loved narrative.

Nevertheless, despite the critical, financial and artistic disappointment of Cancel My Reservation, Hope persevered with the idea of making movies. He spent the rest of his active career looking for the right vehicle but never got the script that suited him. It seems he almost got there with the legendary but unmade Road to the Fountain of Youth which would have reunited him with Bing Crosby for one last hurrah but was sadly interrupted by Bing’s death. Whether that would have made it to the screen and whether it would have actually been watchable or his equivalent of Mae West’s Sextet we will never know. He also tried and failed to make a movie about the life of Walter Winchell, a project he sat on for so long that he finally became too old to star in it. Apparently he was interested in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys as another vehicle for him and Bing, but Simon turned him down thinking quite rightly that their personalities would swamp the material (not to mention the fact it was about two old Jewish comedians).

No doubt there were many other attempts to find a film comeback but it never materialised. I remember even in the early 90s reading an interview with him where he said he still hoped to have one last film role before retiring completely. It’s a shame it never happened, as with the right writer (preferably not one of his staff) the still active and fairly sharp Hope of that era could have done something truly memorable, just as George Burns had managed before him. As it was we had to suffice with a few cameos and the TV movie A Masterpiece of Murder, which on paper sounds great but is just as unmemorable as Cancel My Reservation.

In the end it doesn’t really matter how Bob Hope’s film career wound up. People will love or loathe Hope largely depending on what version they saw of him while growing up. I’m lucky that I grew up knowing little of the real man in the 80s and 90s while watching his classic movies on television with no preconceived notions. Now having seen all the stages of his career I still think he’s great and I find something to enjoy in every decade and medium. Woody Allen said recently that he's always having to defend his love of Bob Hope to people (though the way it's going a future generation may have to spend  more of their time defending their love of Woody Allen to people but that's another thing altogether...). It's sad that people forget the good times and concentrate of the out of touch elder statesman of comedy that Hope was in the 60s, 70s and beyond. Unlike Jack Benny he never managed to become universally loved by each successive generation, or adapt to new challenges like George Burns but I'd still like to think there are plenty of people out there that realise how good he was and how important a comedian he was. On its own, Cancel My Reservation isn't that great a film, but as part of a 38 year cinematic legacy it's not too bad, a small piece in a much bigger and funnier picture. Despite the ups and downs of his standing with the public and the quality of his films, Bob Hope brought a lot of laughs to this world and did a lot of good, and that's something I hope is never forgotten.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Snapshot # 4 - He Was Her Man (1934)

What is it about? : Safecracking ex-con Flicker Hayes double crosses the gang and goes on the run to sleepy fishing village Santa Avila. With him is Rose Lawrence, a down on her luck girl who wants to put her past behind her and marry simple fisherman Nick and settle down. As the mobsters approach, Rose finds herself attracted to Flicker and having second thoughts about the wedding.

The Call Sheet : James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Victor Jory, with Frank Craven, Sarah Padden, Harold Huber, Russell Hopton and John Qualen

Behind the Camera : Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Screenplay by Tom Buckingham and Niven Busch, Cinematography by George Barnes, Art direction by Anton Grot.

Snapshot Thoughts : He Was Her Man is one of the last gasps of the pre-code era, sneaking in mere months before the Hays Code came into effect. As a result we see a lot of the usual tropes of what we know as pre-code cinema, though played with perhaps slightly less conviction and perhaps a hint of uneasiness. James Cagney, as Flicker Hayes is a largely unlikable character who wrestles with his own smugness for most of the movie as to whether he should let Joan Blondell’s Rose into his life or just use her like he does everyone else. It all plays out with a muted sense of doom and downbeat realism that would all but vanish within the next year. As ever, the characters are not so clean cut, with everyone having some sort of shame or compromise in their closet. Flicker is a criminal so low that he double crosses his fellow gangsters for his own amusement then runs away to avoid the consequences. Throughout the movie he uses the people around him to protect himself, and even when his noble side emerges it’s linked to his self preservation. Rose, for all her dreams of married respectability, met her prospective husband while selling her body to make a living. She flatly states. he was “a guy in town for a good time. The bellhop introduced us. Figure it out for yourself”. It’s the chance of escaping her past and present, rather than love or commitment that pushes her toward marriage. Even the one supposedly good character in the movie, fisherman Nick is not without fault. Most glaringly, if he is such a pious hard working family man (he even lives with his mother) why was he visiting ladies of ill repute in cheap hotels? The whole sorry situation just adds up to a portrayal of a broken society, crippled by the Depression with lonely people desperate for any sort of comfort or solace in the darkness. It’s the drama between the principle characters that provides the most interest in the movie, alongside the timing of the film’s release, and the muted performances of the leads, giving He Was Her Man the nostalgic glow of the end of an era. It would be a long time before movies would be as adult as this.

Star Performances : Despite putting in a committed performance, James Cagney just isn’t displaying his usual magic in this movie, so the star performance honours have to go to Joan Blondell. It must have been difficult to be one of James Cagney’s leading ladies as he’s such a force of nature, an unstoppable firecracker of movement on the screen that it was difficult for anyone to keep up with his electric presence. Joan Blondell, probably more than anyone got as near to being his perfect screen partner, complementing his hyperactivity either with a peppy energy of her own or by a simple look of big eyed charm. They appeared together in seven films, of which sadly this is the seventh. Despite working together so often and having an obvious chemistry they are rarely thought of as one of the great movie partnerships. Great screen partnerships require a give and take and a sense of equality but when working alongside Cagney, I’d imagine just trying to keep up was the main concern. Overall, I’m not a massive fan of Joan’s more restrained performances (of which this is one), as her big eyes and round face give way to a kind of lost puppy dog look that gets a bit wearing. For example, in Union Depot the initial promise of her world weary character gives way to just standing around in the later parts of the movie. She just seems more comfortable playing a character that does something about her problems, rather than submissively giving in to them. She plays a similar sort of role in He Was He Man but thankfully she has a bit more to do and she manages to make the most of what was probably on paper another world weary victim role. She certainly saves the part by injecting bursts of emotion in key scenes and her simmering passion and confusion ensures she is just as much a focal point as Cagney. Though in the end, it’s so difficult to criticise a Joan Blondell performance as she’s just so likeable, and this movie despite its flaws is no different.

James Cagney puts in a good performance despite playing a quieter and more restrained version of his usual screen persona. He skilfully runs a fine line between making the audience identify with Flicker as the hero of the movie whilst reminding us that he is not to be trusted. As the movie progresses and we naturally expect him to soften, Cagney’s use of body language and facial expressions keep us on our guard. Even in a comparatively minor film in his canon he gives a master class in screen acting. There really is no such thing as a lazy Cagney performance, he can never be accused of phoning it in. Other notables in the cast include Frank Craven as a duplicitous informant, Harold Huber and Russell Hopton as a convincingly mean pair of hit men and regular John Ford character actor John Qualen in a charming part (and one that for once doesn’t require him to be Swedish!) as a taxi driver. If you are particularly eagle eyed you can also see Billy West, former silent screen comedian and Chaplin impersonator in a one line part. I always get a kick out of seeing Hollywood veterans, all with storied careers of their own appearing in small parts in studio movies. Billy West doesn’t do or say much, but it was nice to see him get a pay cheque.

Technical Excellences: Actually not much to recommend in terms of technical innovation. As ever, Lloyd Bacon turns in a solid job at directing (is there such a thing as a badly directed Lloyd Bacon movie?) but in this case there’s not much to set He Was Her Man out from the crowd. There are some nice locations used in the film, shot in Monterey, California but even they are not used to their full potential. Rather than the fishing village seeming like a safe place hidden away from the outside world, it merely looks like any other Hollywood coastal location. So all in all, a solid yet uninspiring job done behind the camera. In fact, there was so little to inspire visually that I actually got a bit excited when there was a screen wipe used. I like screen wipes.

The Sublime: Joan Blondell’s character, Rose spends the first half of the movie supposedly torn emotionally over whether to marry the kind and dependable fisherman Nick, who she doesn’t really know or love, or flashy criminal Flicker, who she finds herself growing more attracted to. As a result of this mental confusion, and also the fact that the part is woefully underwritten, she doesn’t really do much other than do her best to look worried. The problem is, due to the script we are never too sure what she is thinking. She could be wondering who she really loves or worrying whether she left a pie in the oven; it’s all a bit vague. Thankfully there is a wonderful scene late in the movie where everything becomes clearer, and more importantly you can see that Joan Blondell, far from her usual bright and breezy screen persona has the acting ability to not only overcome poor material but also to convey great emotional depth. In order to save her from the two hit men, Flicker decides to tell her he was using her all along and was never going to take her with him when he left (which isn’t too far from the truth). The scene is played in medium shot, with the reaction from Joan (mournfully stating “I understand…I understand everything") in close up. In her close ups, Joan Blondell gives an unbelievably intense stare that conveys her hurt, disappointment and acceptance all at once. He leaves and she stands alone in the house, completely broken but managing to convey a sense of release also. She picks up her suitcase and makes her way back to her room. It’s one of the best bits of acting I’ve seem Joan do, at once vulnerable and tragic yet tinged with the inevitability of it all. Of course, the fact that Flicker has just unknowingly saved her life adds meaning to scene but she plays it beautifully. It seems that at about the time she made the movie, Joan was going through quite a lot of pretty heavy stuff in her own life, and perhaps her trials added to the emotional experience she could draw on for the scene.

The Ridiculous: The movie is played straight and as such everyone gives solid performances, and the script though under developed is treated with reverence. The only vaguely ridiculous member of the cast is the one residing on James Cagney’s top lip. Yes, Cagney sports an anaemic moustache in this movie and it’ distracting to say the least. He just looks so odd with facial hair, there’s an inherent wrongness to it. Like a clean shaven Clark Gable or Ronald Colman, or an unshaven Cary Grant, it’s just not right seeing Cagney with a moustache. It changes him from a no nonsense tough guy to a slightly oily con man (which is perhaps the point). Maybe it did suit the part, or maybe Warren William wasn’t available. Who can say?.

Is it worth watching? He Was Her Man is a very entertaining film despite its flaws. On one hand it’s the epitome of a solidly made B picture from a studio like Warners in the pre-code era. Star driven, with a fast pace and short running time, it does its job of diverting the attention from everyday matters. The plot, while fairly slight, has a genuinely surprising resolution which keeps you guessing (and just when you wonder what’s going to happen at the end, it suddenly becomes all about ice cream! Really!) Visually and artistically it’s nothing out of the ordinary, yet the whole effect is eminently satisfying. In my very first blog post a few years ago, I talked about how I was more interested in the films that slip through the cracks of  the well known film star filmographies. He Was Her Man is exactly that, a solid James Cagney and Joan Blondell film that never gets talked about, by a director that never gets talked about. Not great, and by no means bad, just entertainment in its purest form. If you want to see such a movie, and find who indeed was her man, this one is for you.

Random Quote: “Deus Meus! I forget the ice cream! It will melt!”