Underrated Movie #117: Son of Paleface

Title: Son of Paleface
Year: 1952
Director: Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models, The Girl Can’t Help It)
Writers: Frank Tashlin, Robert L. Welch, Joseph Quillan
Stars: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Trigger

The Story: Hope is a Harvard-educated boob who goes back out west to claim his father’s missing fortune. While there, he becomes a pawn in the battle between Rogers’s singing gunslinger and Russell’s buxom bandit.

How it Came to be Underrated: Bob Hope allowed himself to be defined for two generations as merely “that guy who sure loved the Vietnam war.” Whether or not you think that puts him on the wrong side of history, it certainly wasn’t at all funny. This is a shame because before that he was one of the smartest, funniest, and most consistently daring screen comics.

Why It’s Great:

  1. My first clue that I’d been foolish to avoid Hope was when I heard that his movies were Woody Allen’s favorite American comedies. Sure enough, Woody’s persona in his funniest movies owes a lot to Hope: a horny, clever, wisecracking, self-deprecating goof who seems to somehow know he’s in a movie and always makes sure that those folks over there behind the fourth wall are having a great time.
  2. This is a pseudo-sequel to The Paleface, also with Hope and Russell, which was funny but nowhere near this good. Tashlin was one of the writers of that one as well but didn’t direct. Seeing how much better that one could have been finally convinced him to get back behind the camera, bringing the same anarchy to the big screen that he had brought to his Bugs Bunny cartoons. This paid off spectacularly—Nobody but Tashlin himself could capture his own madcap mind. (Like, for instance, when Hope gets some advice from his father down in Hell…)
  3. After Howard Hughes gave her a big star build-up for The Outlaw, then failed to release it, Russell got her belated introduction to audiences with the first Paleface, which proved her comedic talents were just an ample as her other charms. She was so good that they had to bring her back for this one even though it meant that Hope’s character was falling for a gal who looked a lot like his mom.
  4. Roy Rogers is another once-ubiquitous star who is too-little-seen today. The problem is that he showed the same enormous appeal in several dozen versions of the same movie, none of which stood out very much from the others, so modern DVD renters have no idea where to start. This movie, one of the few where he didn’t get top billing, is a great introduction that shows why he was so perpetually popular. Like Hope, he’s a lot more modern in his humor that you might think. He’s certainly not shy about implying that he’s amorously inclined toward Trigger.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hope does the same thing for film noir in My Favorite Brunette that he does for westerns here. Russell is also great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

How Available Is It?: It just disappeared off of Netflix entirely! Boo!

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Underrated Movie #57: Artists and Models

Title: Artists and Models
Year: 1955
Director: Frank Tashlin
Writers: Frank Tashlin, Hal Kanter, Herbert Baker and Don McGuire, based by the play by Michael Davidson and Norman Lessing. Whew!
Stars: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone

The Story: Jerry’s brain has been addled by too many “Bat Lady” comic books and now he babbles wild stories in his sleep. Dino uses those stories to take over as the new writer-artist of the comic-book, but this leads to mix-ups with Malone and MacLaine, the original artist and her model.

How it Came to be Underrated: As I mentioned when I covered The Girl Can’t Help It, former-cartoon-director Tashlin has only recently gotten the recognition he deserves. Even so, this one lagged behind because it wasn’t on DVD, but that’s recently been rectified.

Why It’s Great:

  1. If this is first movie you’ve seen from Lewis’s heyday, you may fear that he’ll be a little over the top. And you’d be right. At times, he can be broader than the broadest Jerry Lewis imitation, but Martin has enough preternatural cool for both of them. They’re not attempting to play human beings at all—Martin is the ultimate dream of who we want to be and Lewis personifies our worst fears about how the world perceives us.
  2. The satire of the 1950s comic industry is wickedly sharp. Malone’s publisher craves sensation: “62 pages of drawings and no blood? Not even an itsy-bitsy nose bleed? Suffering catfish, do you call this a book for kiddies? With no stranglings? No decapitations?” There’s even a psychologist character who’s clearly based on Frederick Wertham, author of the infamous comic-book exposé “Seduction of the Innocent.” This is a lot of the same material that has shown up recently in acclaimed books like “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Ten Cent Plague” but here they are satirizing both sides in real time, as it all happened!
  3. At this point in her budding career MacLaine was establishing herself as the working-class Audrey Hepburn: She was just as button-cute but with a little less of that unworldly grace, so that meant that she was allowed to go for bigger laughs. As always, she steals the movie.
  4. Tashlin has a great quality for a comedy director: he gets bored easily. Suddenly, two thirds of the way in, Jerry dreams up a working rocket-fuel formula and a Soviet spy played by Eva Gabor shows up to steal it. Because why not?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Tashlin not only made the best Martin and Lewis movie, he also made the best Bob Hope movie—Son of Paleface. It’s just as satirical and maniacal as this one is.

How Available Is It?: It’s finally on DVD, but it shares a disk with another Martin and Lewis vehicle, You’re Never Too Young.

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Underrated Movie #47: The Girl Can’t Help It

Title: The Girl Can’t Help It
Year: 1956
Director: Frank Tashlin (Son of Paleface)
Writer: Frank Tashlin and Herbert Baker
Stars: Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch), Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O’Brien (D.O.A.)

The Story: A down-on-his-luck press agent is ordered to make a singing star out of a gangster's voluptuous girl, under pain of death. Unfortunately, she can’t sing a do-re-mi to save her life. But then the gangster discovers a wild new sound that breaks all the rules... If she can't make it as a lounge singer, maybe she can try this new-fangled "rock-n-roll". But now there's one more problem: the agent and the singer have fallen in love.

How it Came to be Underrated: Both the presence of Mansfield (the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe) and wall-to-wall rock-n-roll soundtrack made this movie look like a quickie exploitation picture, so it took people a while to realize how great it is. Only in recent years have audiences accepted that Tashlin was one of the funniest directors of the ‘50s and Mansfield was actually a sly comedienne who was in on the joke.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Tashlin was the only director to successfully make the jump from directing Warner Brothers cartoons to making live-action movies, and the secret of his success was to keep the exact same style. His features have the same anarchy, expressionism, and post-modern glee of the best Daffy Duck shorts.
  2. It’s astounding how prescient the movie was in recognizing the dawning greatness of rock-n-roll. It’s even more amazing that it's not presented as “kooky teen culture”, but simply accepted as the new essence of cool. It’s as if this movie is set in a delightful parallel world where Perry Como never existed and everybody, no matter how white or old or stodgy they were, instantly recognized the genius of Little Richard.
  3. Mansfield has so much va-va-voom that it’s downright embarrassing to look at her, so you keep expecting her to fall flat on her face, literally and figuratively. You would assume that the only the only way she could look like that is if she were trying too hard, but instead she manages to be effortless and ego-less. Somehow, Tashlin found the real-world version of Bugs Bunny-in-a-pretty-lady-dress
  4. Edmund O’Brien specialized in sad-eyed tough-guy parts, so it’s great to see him get a chance to unleash a belated explosion of comedic bluster as the gangster.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Tashlin and Mansfield reunited a year later for an even-more-barbed satire called Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

How Available Is It?: It’s available to rent or watch instantly.

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