#203. The Paleface (1948)

It’s been a while since I saw a comedy in theaters (which I secretly think is because I tend to go to the movies by myself and I know intuitively that theres something particularly lonesome and weird about laughing alone in the dark) but it’s also been a while since I saw an ad for any comedy, even something from the List, that made me wanna sit down and watch it. Same thing for action movies and sci-fi. And it’s total pretension. I only really get psyched about the theater anymore when it comes to heavy drama and horror and crime movies. That’s probably a phase. My dad surprised me a while ago by saying that now, in his 60s, he’s got way less tolerance for violent movies and, thinking aloud, questioned whether he’d even be able to sit through something like The Godfather if he were seeing it for the first time today.

But even when somebody suggests going out to see a comedy along with me, or just watching one at their house, I feel like weaseling out of it. I guess I’m afraid my mind’s gonna wander. I’ll get restless, thinking, We could be watching something that’ll genuinely upset me right now but instead we’re wasting our time.

But The Paleface, a screwball comedy western, came as a huge relief because even though there’ve only been seven movies on the List since the last comedy (Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux) it’s felt like an exceptionally heavy streak. Bicycle Thief alone, especially on the heels of Odd Man Out, makes me wanna binge drink and watch cartoons.

So I feel like I have to acknowledge off the bat that I was predisposed toward liking this, and I was delighted to find that it was filmed in color and that it was only 90 minutes long and, most of all, that I’ve finally had my way-overdue introduction to comedian Bob Hope, from whom I’d never seen a sketch nor heard a joke, but whose name has always been on my radar on account of I’ve gone through phases of listening to huge amounts of stand-up comedy, and interviews with comedians, and there’s lotsa reference even today, at least among old-timers, to Hope’s influence on the field.

I suppose that the List’s editors (I’ll make it plural here cuz I’m having a hard time imagining this to be the product of a single vision) chose this title because they figure it’s the era’s best example of Hope’s early skillset, his style, but I’m a little skeptical of their judgment here cuz I feel like I got burned by their choice of Chaplin movies. That they chose Gold Rush over The Kid. Or even later — Monsieur Verdoux over The Great Dictator. Shit like that. (Seems they did a good job with the Keaton selection, though, and after watching most of that W.C. Fields ten-movie collection I can’t argue with the titles they chose to add, It’s a Gift and Bank Dick.)

Whatever the case: Bob Hope might be the first major comic personality on the List who seems made for the sound era. Fields was pretty chatty, and his brand of humor definitely leaned a lot on the drawl of his delivery, but the physical timing, though not so athletic or demanding as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s or Lloyd’s, was still brilliant and hilarious.

But Bob Hope’s schtick here in The Paleface is the Witty Coward. He’s good with physical stuff but it’s all complemented by (dependent upon?) what he’s saying. We’re twenty years into the age of sound at this point, well beyond the first musicals and talk-fests like The Life of Emile Zola, but since I’m constantly bouncing back and forth between the eras, watching something from the ’60s while writing about something from the ’40s, there’s something about seeing Bob Hope do his schtick here that emphasizes, for me, how far the medium’s come. The movie’s not at all meditative or pretentious but it feels like a relaxed and sure-handed production of something that would have been a huge and sensational undertaking just a decade earlier.

Also weird: this is a wholesome family comedy in which lots of people are murdered. Slaughtered. A lot of those deaths are the bloodless sorts of inconsequential bad-guy deaths we see and overlook in something like The Adventures of Robin Hood or I guess today an equivalent would be something like Rush Hour. But there’s this one particularly jarring scene where a group of Native American men, decked out in caricature ensembles full of pastel face paint and loincloths and feathers and frills, are moving in on a large cabin where hope and his mercenary partner Calamity Jane (Jane Russell), along with a dozen or so other travelers from their wagon train, are laying low before moving on toward the city.

The Natives are of course depicted as bloodthirsty savages and as they encroach they end up getting picked off from a window by Jane, the swift and systematic execution of a master shooter (“shootist” is a word I’ve discovered recently thanks to the List, but I’m not sure it’s a real word, maybe just the title of that John Wayne movie), and the way they’re piled up afterward, half-naked and sweaty and slaughtered, is so inadvertently shocking, I expected to see a ton of commentary about it online.

Maybe I was just feeling squeamish.

Anyway. Bit of trivia: Hope plays a traveling quack of a dentist who, like the quack under whom McTeague is apprenticing in the beginning of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, is named “Painless Potter” and forced out of business for being a piece of shit. It was cool to see the reference.

It’s a good comedy that holds up if you’re looking for something light and nostalgic. Hope is funny and X is compelling as a caricature of the no-shit-taking cowboy (the likes of which we just saw the other day with Red River).

But ahdunno. I don’t have much to say about it beyond finding myself kinda shocked by the fuckin’ slaughter of Natives and also the delight of discovering Bob Hope. I wonder, though: does it suck to be a filmmaker, to labor over the production of a whole big thing for however many months, and to know that, for all your blood and sweat and tears, it’s gonna be enjoyed as something light. Like do the makers of light fare ever feel disheartened that their work never gets serious critical appraisal?

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