In 1944 comedian Bob Hope was at the top of his game. Decades away from his cue card-driven TV specials and hopelessly out of touch movies like Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and Cancel My Reservation (1972), Bob Hope's pictures then were fast and funny. Along with pal and frequent co-star Bing Crosby, Hope was in the midst of a dozen years run on Quigley's annual Top Ten list of Box Office Champions. The Princess and the Pirate (1944), one of Hope's finest comedies, is a reflection of that popularity, and a film that's still great entertainment for the whole family.
A spoof of swashbucklers that had seen a major revival since Errol Flynn's Captain Blood (1935), The Princess and the Pirate stars Hope as Sylvester Crosby (yep, Crosby), a quick-change artist billing himself as "Sylvester the Great - The Man of Seven Faces." As with nearly every Hope comedy, his character is an inept and unpopular entertainer, outrageously cowardly and lecherous. Aboard the The Mary Ann en route to the New World ("My act is known all over Europe! That's why I'm going to America"), Sylvester rehearses in his cabin, across the hall from Miss Warbrook (Virginia Mayo), actually the Princess Margaret who, having run out on an arranged marriage, is traveling incognito.
The Mary Ann is attacked and burned by pirates, led by treacherous Captain Barrett (Victor McLaglen), known throughout the seven seas as The Hook. Disguising himself as an old gypsy, Sylvester is spared walking the plank after one of Hook's men, goony and toothless sailor Featherhead (Walter Brennan) expresses an interest in the wench. Actually, Featherhead is after Hook's buried treasure, and conspires with Sylvester to deliver the map to Casarouge. That night, Sylvester and Princess Margaret escape with Featherhead's aid, and the two make their way to Casarouge.
Dismissing Margaret's claim to be "of royal blood," Sylvester lands a job for them both at the Bucket of Blood, a hilariously intimidating joint. Sylvester is nearly shot dead on stage, but beautiful, sexy Margaret is a big hit with the tough crowd of thugs and murderers. However, that very night Margaret is kidnapped by corrupt Governor La Roche (Walter Slezak), and Sylvester, by now madly in lust with her, conspires to rescue the princess.
The Princess and the Pirate was a Samuel Goldwyn production originally released through RKO. The picture cost $2.985 million according to RKO's records, extremely lavish for a comedy in 1944. Shot in Technicolor, the film was made with the kind of money and obvious care most comedians of the era could only dream of. By contrast, Abbott and Costello, also in Quigley's Top Ten, made In Society at Universal that same year for $660,000, about average. The result is a picture with high production values and colorful to the point that it closely resembles Disneyland's archetypal Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride, not the movie) or something straight out of the pages of Treasure Island. The film has an inviting air of unreality, with most of the exteriors shot on soundstage sets with painted sky cycloramas (whose wrinkles are occasionally visible). The film offers extraordinarily good miniature work, as good as anything in The Sea Hawk. It's also populated with tough- and mean-looking mugs, from Mike Mazurki to Harry Wilson, with even the infamous Rondo Hatton putting in a fleeting appearance, glimpsed menacing a young lass through an upstairs window. Brennan is a real treat uncharacteristically cast as a grinning, cackling half-wit, very amusing. Marc Lawrence, better known for his gangster roles, is in fine form as The Hook's first mate, while Hugo Haas, the Czech actor who later directed a string of sleazy low-budget features, is quite funny as the Bucket of Blood's proprietor.
In the film's funniest sequence, Sylvester and Princess Margaret arrive in Casarouge, a port so tough its citizens are robbed and murdered in broad daylight. When Sylvester demands the local constable take action against two such murderers, the lawman petulantly replies, "They have a permit." After checking into an inn run by a crafty, pyromaniac of a landlady (Maude Eburne), Sylvester auditions for Haas' cafe owner, who forces Sylvester to drink ludicrously huge draughts of beer, one after another, or get his throat slit.
This being a Bob Hope movie, there are a lot of topical references (to Sinatra, Gypsy Rose Lee, Southern Democrats), anachronistic slang, scenes where Hope looks straight into the camera and addresses the audience (firing a gag pistol that reads "Bang!" Hope exclaims, "Wrong pistol! That's for silent pictures!"), and endless flirting ("Have you no backbone?" Margaret asks. "Yeah," Sylvester replies, "But it's nothing like yours!"). But The Princess and the Pirate's period setting make it seem less dated than most of Hope's contemporary comedies, and it holds up well today. Kids will enjoy the wild slapstick, but adults will either love or become bored with Hope's rapid-fire joke machine style.
Virginia Mayo, in her first starring part, is quite beautiful and isn't lost amid all of Hope's wisecracks. Slezak wisely underplays his scenes with Hope, making an effective villain, while McLaglen, who would have made a great Long John Silver, is close to perfection.
One curious slip-up in the film's scripting or its execution: a major character is shot dead in the back, only to wake up later with no gunshot wound but a bump on the head. How'd they miss that one?
Video & Audio
Filmed in three-strip Technicolor, The Princess and the Pirate is presented in its original full frame format and generally looks quite good for its age. For some reason, most of Goldwyn's Technicolor titles have a kind of burnt amber quality that's difficult to describe, but most will be very impressed by the brightness and vividness of the color. Throughout the film there are scattered shots of misaligned matrixes, where the three colors don't match up resulting in something resembling 3-D without the glasses. This seems to happen most frequently during dissolves, and except for a long one-minute example early on (at 23:49), these imperfects aren't too intrusive. The mono sound is acceptable, given the film's age, with optional subtitles in French, English, and Spanish.
The only supplement is the film's original Trailer which is in good condition and complete with text and narration.
The Princess and the Pirate is a Bob Hope comedy few will find fault with, and a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the once hugely popular star. It's a film for all ages, and still good for a lot of laughs.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.