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Son of Paleface (Blu-ray Review)

11 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$14.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Bill Williams.

When Jerry Lewis died last month, a lot of text was rightfully given over to writer, director and (crucially) former animator Frank Tashlin, who was the only of the comedian’s early filmmakers with the visual chops to qualify as a mentor before Lewis himself got into directing. Yet it was Bob Hope who was key in giving Tashlin his live-action break — first as a writer (most commercially notable on smash The Paleface) and then on this 1952 sequel, which is much more imaginatively strung together if not necessarily funnier — which after this viewing, somewhat contradicts my past assertions.

What puts Son over for me (other than Trigger sharing a bed with Hope — and stealing the covers) is the commercially brilliant vesting coup of getting Roy Rogers himself to play Hope’s foil. After spending a lot of his postwar career in Trucolor over at Republic, Roy wound up his big-screen days (with a couple tangential exceptions) as a sartorial visage in glorious Technicolor, and it’s a hypnotic sight to see for anyone of certain age who put in a lot of childhood matinee time. At this point, Westerns were about to become more adult (High Noon came out the same year), and Roy transitioned to TV for his enormously popular weekly series — on which an array of heavies (John Doucette was my favorite) regularly had their internal organs chewed up and spit out by Roy’s “Wonder Dog” Bullet.

Neither for the first nor last time in movies, a sequel simply ignored certain plot points from the original. In The Paleface, which was substantially put over by the irresistible Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows,” Hope played a dentist named “Painless Potter” who won the West (sort of) with the help of Jane Russell’s Calamity Jane. In Son, which (duh) deals with Painless’s progeny, the recently deceased dad is viewed as having been a prominent citizen and Native American combatant worthy of a town statue, albeit one who died owing his neighbors a lot of money that they’d like to collect now that this local legend of sorts had died. But invading the town in his flashy roadster is Potter Jr., proud to be a Harvard student (he must make at least a dozen allusions to the fact), even though Hope would have been about 49 when he made this. It’s a grand entrance: I had just begun to admire the grand fringe on Roy’s audiophile outfit (he again plays an undercover lawman version of himself: here, it’s “Roy Barton”) when he gets almost completely immersed in mud, McLintock! fashion or close, from Junior’s driving.

Turns out there’s no inherited fortune to be bad, though this isn’t necessarily believed — and certainly not by a honky-tonk hottie (“Mike the Torch”) who doubles as an outlaw and is played by Russell again. Her squeeze of sorts (mostly in his mind) is a fellow baddie played by Bill Williams: longtime husband of Barbara Hale, father of actor William Katt and the star of TV’s “The Adventures of Kit Carson,” which ran three seasons including the period when this comedy was released. Late in the film, Williams and Rogers actually partake in a punch-out, which has to qualify as one of the most notable Boomer-pegged Battle of the (Pop Culture) Bands. At least until Carl Perkins and David Bowie had that knife fight in John Landis’s Into the Night.

A problem I’ve sometimes had with Tashlin, a filmmaker I mostly love, is the disparity between his visual wit/overall flair and the not infrequent clunkiness of his dialogue (in late career, this became a Blake Edwards syndrome as well). Though it’s one thing to cringe some in 2017 at the Native American jokes, I read Pete Martin’s “As Told to” Hope autobiography Have Tux, Will Travel for the first of several childhood times in 1955 when I was eight and can remember even then being somewhat taken back my Bob’s insensitivity on this count. Then again — and voiceover commentator/animation expert Greg Ford is exhaustive on this — Tashlin was consistently impressive welding animation gaggery to, among other things, the relationship between man and beast(s), as in some amusing stuff between Hope and two vultures late in the picture.

Tashlin was also great with gadgetry, as in the entry-exit mechanism of the villains’ hideout (I’ve always loved Westerns where the hideouts were plain old cool or otherwise distinctive: call it the “Johnny Guitar” effect). You can make a pretty fair argument — and I think Ford actually does here — that the entire film is a gadget, as well as an early postmodern conceit. Forget about breaking the fourth wall: Someone at Paramount must have come in before shooting even again to blow it up so the rubble would be waiting for Tashlin. Maybe it was Cecil B. DeMille, who shows up in then familiar studio fashion for a cameo — possibly a reciprocal deal for the Hope-Bing Crosby bit in The Greatest Show on Earth, which became the year’s now-maligned best picture Oscar winner. Though I can name quite a few winners from the last 20 years alone whose clocks I think it cleans.

Ford’s sing-song-y commentary is so unusually cadenced that it will either a) put you off, or b) strike you as legitimately funny in its own right (I’m in this latter camp, as I always am with enthusiasts as long as they legitimately know the material through and through). Given my own enthusiasm for Gentleman Prefer Blondes as one of the most gorgeous vintage-Hollywood Blu-rays I’ve ever seen, I was intrigued to hear from Ford that Russell was so taken with Harry J. Wild’s color work in Sons (he had recently photographed her twice in black-and-white) that she pegged him not only to shoot Blondes as well but also The French Line and Underwater! (with an exclamation point, which Ford is savvy enough to add). Like Joseph LaShelle (The Long, Hot Summer), Wild was also a co-cinematographer of The Conqueror. I don’t know how he died in 1961, but he was only a suspicious 59, predating the cancer death of that negative legend’s director (Dick Powell) by a couple years.   

To end on a more positive note, Roy’s stiffness is a virtue here, the way in was in the classic Western barroom skit on “The Dean Martin Show” where Don Rickles ribbed him mercilessly. And I don’t think anyone could have come up with a more satisfying shot juxtaposition for the comedy in question than the one Tashlin and his writing colleagues came up with here. It encompasses a Roy-Trigger hind leg shot (Trigger’s, not Roy’s) that I’d love to have as a 20-by-30 blowup on one of my walls.

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