"If I saw this on television I'd never believe it!"
- Peanuts White (Bob Hope)
There's not much to be said for My Favorite Spy (1951), an average Bob Hope vehicle cut from the same cloth as dozens of other espionage comedies, including several starring Hope himself. It's not as good as his otherwise unrelated My Favorite Blonde (1942) or My Favorite Brunette (the best of the three, 1947), though My Favorite Spy has its share of memorable one-liners, a fairly good if peculiar chase finale, and a slightly offbeat approach. With its exotic (if studio-bound) locales, it also plays a lot like a lower-budgeted "Road" comedy minus Bing Crosby - who, of course, is the subject of an in-joke by Hope.
Olive Films seems to be catching up with some of its earliest Paramount-licensed titles heretofore released only to DVD. My Favorite Spy was first out on DVD nearly three years ago and looked quite good in that format. Olive's new Blu-ray is a noticeable improvement over that DVD, but the difference isn't startlingly huge.
There are no extras.
Hope plays Peanuts "Boffo" White, a burlesque comedian and dead-ringer for suave international spy Eric Augustine (also Hope). When G-Men seriously wound Augustine, the FBI and other government big shots (including John Archer and Morris Ankrum, the latter as a general) reluctantly enlist cowardly Peanuts to impersonate his doppelganger on a mission to Tangier to purchase a roll of top-secret microfilm. When the equally reluctant Peanuts turns down their $10,000 offer they get President Truman on the line to persuade him. "[A call from] Washington?" Peanuts asks, "I got no friends in Washington. I voted Republican!"
In a variation of the way these things usually play out, Peanuts-as-Augustine pulls off his impersonation surprisingly well, completely fooling old flame Lily Dalbray (Hedy Lamarr) and arch-nemesis Karl Brubaker (Francis L. Sullivan), who are reluctant partners in crime a la The Maltese Falcon, and Rudolf Hoeing (Luis Van Rooten), who offers to sell the microfilm to Peanuts-Augustine for a cool million dollars.
Predictably, late in the film the real Augustine escapes custody and somehow makes it back to Tangier though the lesser script (credited to Edmund L. Hartmann and Jack Sher, from a story by Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow, with additional dialogue by Hal Kanter) doesn't take full advantage of this concept. (Neither do the special effects putting the two Hopes in the same shot, which here is accomplished via a strange traveling matte that shows Augustine at such a bad angle he might just as easily have been doubled.)
Near the end is a big chase with Hope at the end of the ladder of a speeding fire truck, racing through the streets of Tangier much like the end of Abbott & Costello's In Society (1944), itself borrowing footage from an earlier W.C. Fields comedy, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Though set in Tangier, in Morocco, nearly the entire film was shot on soundstages and Paramount's backlot streets, decorated with generic Arabian Nights-type décor. The climax, which mixes studio exteriors with some location work, is unusually unconvincing. The fire truck looks wholly American ("Tangier Fire Dept." painted on its doors notwithstanding) and the location suspiciously resembles the burgeoning Pacific Palisades area northwest of Los Angeles, with Bedouin tents strewn along the roadside in a feeble attempt to make the terrain look African. Nestor Paiva, who turns up briefly as the fire chief, shouts orders in Spanish.
The film has its share of relentless but well-timed one-liners from Hope ("It's nights like these that drive men like me to women like you for nights like this.") but the film is rather blah, lacking energy and personality. Hope seems to be enjoying playing Augustine more than Peanuts, except when Peanuts performs his burlesque act, complete with Dutch dialect, in a nice homage to that all-but-dead comedy style. Austrian-born Lamarr is properly exotic but can't hold her own opposite Hope; she had me longing for Dorothy Lamour.
The supporting cast, too, isn't a good fit for the material. Portly Brit Francis L. Sullivan (ironically, funnier in David Lean's Great Expectations) and weasily German Van Rooten play roles that almost seem intended for Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Their henchmen are played by a gaggle of familiar character actors, including Marc Lawrence, Tonio Selwart, Nobert Schiller, Ivan Triesault, and Mike Mazurki. Mazurki awkwardly attempts a French accent in this, which is good for a few laughs. Arnold Moss comes off best as Peanuts's Tangier contact, masquerading as Augustine's valet.
Video & Audio
The 1.37:1, high-def black and white transfer of My Favorite Spy looks totally fine, with almost no damage, good detail, contrast, blacks, etc. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono (English only) is likewise perfectly fine; there are no subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
If you don't already have the DVD, by all means seek out this Blu-ray, even though there are better Bob Hope comedies out in high-def, including four of Hope's best, ironically in HD DVD format only (Road to Bali, Son of Paleface, My Favorite Brunette and, not quite as good, Road to Rio). Unless you're a huge My Favorite Spy fan, those already owning the DVD will probably be perfectly satisfied with that. Still, for those without, this is mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.