Film #431: "The Paleface"

I have been urged on to greater vigilance in blogging my progress through my 1001 Books and Movies project by the impressive rigor with which other bloggers are attacking and documenting similar campaigns. So, of course, by Film #431 I mean "of the 1001 I Must See before I Die." Today I am having a bit of a western double feature: this afternoon was Bob Hope's spoof of the genre, "The Paleface" (directed by Norman Z. McLeod), and this evening I will embark on "Red River," my third John Wayne experience.

"The Paleface" was, oddly enough, my first experience with a Bob Hope movie (I think. Can this really be true?). And what a profoundly silly movie it was. It opens hopefully, with a fairly faithful echo of the second movie of my 1001 list, "The Great Train Robbery," as Calamity Jane (the voluptuous but totally uncharming Jane Russell) is rescued from jail by the Feds in a mock hold-up. This seems like it might be an interesting plotline, what with the government coverup and possibilities for duplicity, but it is quickly disposed of so that we may move swiftly onward toward the appearance of Bob. Jane is offered clemency for her crimes if she acts as the government's undercover agent in a particularly corrupt corner of the west, where someone is selling guns to the Indians. As camouflage, she agrees to acquire a husband and pose as the harmless, helpless wife, and after her first marital pick shows up dead, she happens by chance on a likely candidate in the form of bumbling dentist Painless Potter, played by Hope (even I will admit that this is a brilliant case of comic naming). As they move farther west, the baddies become convinced that Potter is the agent, and the film unfolds along dual comic lines, as Jane tries to avoid sleeping with her newlywed husband and attempts to convince him that he is a dashing, spittoon-using cowboy hero.

In its time, "The Paleface" was most famous for a hit song, "Buttons and Bows," that Hope casually tosses off while in the wagon train moving west, and despite the unremarkable quality of this piece today, I can't particularly claim that the movie has anything better to offer. Hope takes a Groucho Marx approach to humor, trying 100 jokes all at once in the hope that something will land, or that the audience will be overwhelmed by the comic pacing. I must admit that this is a comic style that has never particularly appealed to me. The satire is not as sharp as it could be, relying strongly on the physical humor of Hope's straightforward mockery of the cowboy persona. Parodically, the film reaches its high point early on, when the intimidated dentist exclaims, "I'm going back east, where men may not be men, but they're not corpses either." Nowhere else does this film deliver that kind of carefully wrought comic aphorism, which mocks both its character and its genre. The western is such a nuanced genre, really, it seems too bad that its comic transformation didn't match it in complexity.

"The Paleface"
Dir. Norman Z. McLeod

2 Responses so far.

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  2. Anonymous says:; You saved my day again.

Leave a Reply