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PALEFACE, THE(director: Norman Z. McLeod; screenwriters: Edmund Hartmann/Frank Tashlin/Jack Rose; cinematographer: Ray Rennahan; editor: Ellsworth Hoagland; music: Victor Young; cast: Bob Hope ( ‘Painless’ Peter Potter), Jane Russell (Calamity Jane), Robert Armstrong (Terris), Iris Adrian (Pepper), Robert Watson (Toby Preston), Clem Bevans (Hank Billings), Jack Searl (Jasper Martin), Charles Trowbridge (Governor Johnson), Joe Vitale (Indian Scout), Iron Eyes Cody (Chief Iron Eyes), Chief Yowlachie (Chief Yellow Feather), Jeff York (Big Joe), Olin Howland (undertaker), Henry Brandon (Medicine Man); Runtime: 91; rated: PG; producer: Robert L. Welch; Paramount; 1948)
“This Technicolor western spoof is probably Bob Hope’s finest film role.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This Technicolor western spoof is probably Bob Hope’s finest film role. It’s also his best in the box office for all time, as it earned four and a half million dollars — the third biggest take for 1948. Frank Tashlin authored it as a satire on Owen Wister’s novel “The Virginian.” But, noted comedy director Norman Z. McLeod (he did the Marx Bros. “Monkey Business“) preceded to turn it into a farce. ‘Buttons and Bows,’ the film’s lead song, won an Oscar for best song. It was written by Jay Livingston/Ray Evans.

Hope continuously works his self-effacing humor into his fast-delivery formula he had became famous for since the 1930s when he teamed with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour for their well-received ‘road movies.’ In Paleface he’s the timid city dentist who loves to make wisecracks and play either the cowardly fool or the pompous false hero, a nerdy act that Woody Allen readily admits he borrowed from Hope.

The magic in this film is that it teamed the unlikely romantic combination of Hope with Jane Russell, who plays the sharpshooting Calamity Jane. This was Jane’s third pic, as she began her career as a sexpot in Howard Hawkes’ 1941 “The Outlaw” and then was another sex object in a 1946 film that was hardly noticed, “Young Widow.” Here she’s given a chance to showcase her star quality as a capable actress, a singer, and a comedian able to match wits with the energetic Hope. Jane’s a crack shot and as tough as any man, but she’s also a tender-hearted and brave young woman who is cool under fire. She’s in jail, but is broken out in an escape planned by Governor Johnson. He promises her a full pardon from her 10-year sentence if she becomes an undercover federal agent. The governor wants to know who has been supplying guns to the Indians, enough to start a full-scale war. His other field agents were killed, so he thinks a woman acting undercover will surprise the gunrunners. What the governor doesn’t know is that the assistant to the Indian Affairs chief, Jasper Martin, is one of the gunrunners, and he sits in on the decision to hire Jane.

Jane is supposed to meet a lawyer named Jim Hunter and travel with him on the wagon train through Indian Territory, as husband and wife. But she finds him dead, as Martin’s men apparently got to him first. She senses she’s being followed in town and ducks into a bathhouse, where the gunmen try to kill her but she mows all three of them down. Since all the ladies in the steambath cleared out everyone assumes the downstairs dentist, Painless Peter Potter (Hope), did it. Jane thereby decides to use the loudmouth Painless as her cover, as the buxom gunslinger lures him with the promises of romance and then marries him to keep her cover. Since the quack dentist is chased out of town by his unhappy patients, the couple join the wagon train going out to the Wild West.

When Indians attack a log cabin where a few lost wagons are spending the night, after the inept Painless lost track of the other wagons he was following, Jane kills 11 of them but Painless thinks he did and so do the members of the other wagon. He becomes an overnight hero and idiotically starts acting the part of a real gunfighter, as he changes into cowboy garb and starts packing pistols. The gunrunners who are part of the wagon party and are carrying dynamite and more rifles, also think Painless is an uncanny shooter with eyes in back of his head and is the federal agent Martin warned them about. It all comes to a head when they reach Buffalo Flat, where the big boss of the operation is the owner of The Dirty Shame saloon (Robert Armstrong). He plans to eliminate Painless by having him dance with the saloon singer Pepper, whose jealous boyfriend Big Joe kills anyone who dances with her. Jane again comes secretly to his rescue, as Painless and Big Joe spoof a typical showdown gunfight at sunset. But the bad news is that her contact, Hank Billings, gets an arrow in the back. Before he dies in her arms, the blacksmith tells her the gunrunners are storing the weapons in the undertaker’s parlor.

The finale has Painless finally becoming a real hero by rescuing Jane from being burned at the stake by the Indians. Painless then figures a way to dispose of the bad guys by turning their dynamite on them. This leads to a happy ending and the real marriage between the romantic opposites, who have cleared up their misunderstandings.

There were lots of one-liners and slapstick routines, as a likable Hope and Russell had a marvelous chemistry together. There was a silly routine over laughing gas, which was used twice — once on a cowboy who got his wrong tooth pulled but kept laughing about it and then on an Indian who was going to rob and scalp him. A sample of a typical Hope wisecrack goes like this — Patient: “The bad tooth is on the right side.” Painless: “Please, no clues.”

There was something irresistible about this enjoyable nonsense film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”