In Defence Of The Paleface

The Bob Hope/Jane Russell hit is the very definition of ‘problematic’ today – but should be seen as an impressive work of its time.

Given his long life and ‘light entertainer’ status – not to mention his somewhat reactionary ideas – it’s often easy to forget that Bob Hope made a whole bunch of really great films during the time when he was a movie star rather than a celebrity. The fantastic old dark house thrillers The Cat and The Canary and The Ghost Breakers, My Favorite Blonde (and the Brunette sequel) and even some of the Road movies with Bing Crosby all remain classic cinema, as funny, thrilling, and generally entertaining now as they ever were. One of his biggest hits (landing him a Best Song Oscar along the way) was 1948’s The Paleface, which has become one of the films less widely discussed – at least positively – because of the very implications of the title and some of the content of the film that has not quite stood the test of time. While this big hit movie still entertains, it has certainly dated rather more than many a Hope film – and the more sensitive among modern audiences might find the portrayal of American Natives in the film to be a bit insensitive, even though it is no different than many a western of the era. As ever, we shouldn’t judge an old film by current standards – it’s not as though this film is especially reactionary for the time, instead being a lightweight satire of the Cowboys and Indians western movies of the era, few of which were exactly what you would call politically correct. To judge old movies by modern sensibilities is ludicrous – and to see every old film with a questionable turn of phrase or stereotyped character as being on the level of Birth of a Nation is to damn an entire generation of cinema, which seems as stupidly reactionary as some of those films themselves.

In The Paleface, Hope plays the hapless (and hopeless) dentist ‘Painless’ Potter, who is rather less effective at dentistry than his name suggests, and who is constantly on the move, leaving behind a string of unhappy customers. He’s finally decided to give up on the untamed West and is planning to head back East, when an encounter with Calamity Jane (Jane Russell) changes everything. Jane has been broken out of prison and made an offer she can’t refuse – a full pardon if she finds out who is selling guns and dynamite to the Indians. Unfortunately, the gunrunners are only too aware that an agent is on their trail, and kill her prospective partner. She makes a run for it, and after a series of contrivances, hooks up with Potter, conning him into marrying her (presumably the only way a 1948 movie could have the couple sharing a single wagon, even though the fact that the marriage has not been consummated remains a running joke throughout) and setting him up as a patsy once they join a wagon train out West.

This deception is interesting – it hardly makes Jane a sympathetic figure, given that she is setting up an innocent man who she fully expects to be killed by the criminals. It perhaps fits with the hard-assed character that Russell effectively portrays, but it certainly doesn’t make her very appealing (and also makes the inevitable genuine flowering of love between the pair seem rather contrived and unconvincing later on). As this romantic part of the story develops, the film sags somewhat – Hope singing the inexplicably popular song Buttons and Bows adds to a plodding sense of sentimentality that slows everything down and rather spoils the film, Academy Awards be damned.

But the film picks up when Hope is trapped outside a cabin during an Indian attack and apparently manages to kill the lot single-handed – in fact, it’s Jane who has shot them all, but it serves her purpose to allow everyone to think that Potter is a crack shot and a hero. You might raise your eyebrows at comedic scenes of Native Americans being massacred, but if we are honest, much more violent scenes have been played for laughs in other films. It’s simply the dehumanization of the natives that feels a little off here. The film is not a documentary and we should allow a little leeway in terms of bad taste, given the nature of the films that it is satirising. ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was the central theme of many a western at the time and we should always be away that this is a spoof of the popular westerns of the day, mocking their casual celebration of violence and murder.

As the previously cowardly Potter revels in his hero status (helped by an encounter with a local gunfighter, where Jane again comes to the rescue), he confronts the gunrunners himself, only to be captured – as is his ‘wife’. The pair of them are held by the stereotypical Indians, ready to be executed in a grisly fashion, a predicament that leads to a lively finale.

Directed efficiently if unadventurously by Norman Z. Mcleod, this is mostly knockabout stuff – not exactly on the level of a movie like  Blazing Saddles (a film that is itself challenging viewers for modern audiences thanks to some unabashed racial epithets), but certainly satirical enough for the time, with Hope on top form as the hapless dentist who briefly starts to believe in his own myth. He doesn’t really have much rapport with Russell – while this is a million miles from The Outlaw, there’s still no disguising her innate sensuality, and the idea that her marriage of convenience to the bland Potter would turn to genuine love is a bit of a stretch, frankly. But she at least gets a few moments to step out of his comedic shadow and shine (though not, generally, during comedy routines, where she seems a little ill at ease and was probably made to remain in the bigger star’s shadow).

Co-written by Frank Tashlin – who would go on to bigger and better things later in his career – The Paleface is, as long as you approach it with an open mind and a sense of time and place, a lot of fun – inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and certainly not the best work of anyone involved, but unquestionably entertaining in a disposable sense. Certainly, if you are a fan of 1940s comedy, then this should hit most of the right buttons. The film spawned a popular sequel, Son of Paleface, in 1952, directed by Tashlin and reuniting Hope and Russell. Hope’s film career had already peaked by this point and from now on, he would never have the success of his earlier works; Russell was a year away from her greatest triumph, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.


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