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The perennial comic favorite Bob Hope springs to life in 1951's My Favorite Spy, a Paramount laugh-getter positioned at the midpoint of a film career that began with a catchy song in The Big Broadcast of 1938 and built to high popularity in the "Road" pictures with Bing Crosby. Hope would enjoy his share of success in pictures, while filling an exhausting work schedule in TV, public appearances and USO touring.
My Favorite Spy is Bob Hope's third and final entry in an informal series of genre spoofs, each of which paired him with a beautiful femme fatale. Madeleine Carroll was a spy in My Favorite Blonde (1942) and Dorothy Lamour was My Favorite Brunette (1947) for a parody of private detective movies. The comedian's opposite number in Spy is Hedy Lamarr, the deliriously beautiful Austrian misused as a clothes mannequin in MGM pictures of the 1940s. Bob Hope's gag writers work overtime to goose up standard espionage intrigues in Tangier. Dogged American agents discover that baggy pants burlesque comic Peanuts White (Hope) is a dead ringer for the international man of mystery and ruthless rogue Eric Augustine (also Hope, not very convincingly playing deadpan). With a million dollars strapped around his waist, Peanuts reluctantly heads to Tangier to purchase two rolls of precious microfilm. He must deal with Karl Brubaker (Francis L. Sullivan of Night and the City), a crook with a number of deadly henchmen on his payroll. Peanuts begins to enjoy his assignment when his key contact turns out to be Lily Dalbray (Hedy Lamarr), one of Eric Augustine's former lovers and an equally dangerous spy. Unknown to Peanuts, the authentic Eric Augustine has escaped custody and is expected in Tangier at any moment.
The script by Edmund Breloin, Lou Breslow, Edmund L. Hartmann and Jack Sher makes Hope's hopeless hero the focus of a group of intelligence agents (stoic John Archer, humorless Stephen Chase, sober Morris Ankrum) that coach him to behave like the suave killer Augustine. This is of course unsuccessful, even though Peanuts enjoys being taught how to kiss like a world-class lady killer by a female government agent (Helen Chapman). In Tangier he fumbles about with a few slapstick stunts but mostly sticks to his highly developed routine of smart-aleck asides and observations, some of which were reportedly written on the fly by his corps of gag writers. Hope delivers these wisecracks with consummate skill: Aide: "Tomorrow when you wake up all your worries may be over." Peanuts: "I'm worried about waking up!" Woody Allen has remarked that his own basic joke delivery is modeled after Bob Hope's expert example, and a comparison can definitely be made. Many of Hope's self-deprecating one-liners remark on his character's inflated ego and illusions of virility. French woman in nightclub: "Let me kiss you Cherie, the way I once did." Peanuts: "Well, I'm a little fatigued. Just the lower lip".
My Favorite Spy builds to a fine boil until a little after the hour mark, when Hope's character-based jokes have run their course and it's time to kick the spy chase into high gear. The loyal Tangier operative Tasso (Arnold Moss) has been helping Peanuts with his mission, and providing excellent comic support. But at this point the character disappears and is replaced by the double-crossing Lily. The focus drifts away from Hope to unlikely comic situations and predictable chases. Lily and Peanuts impersonate Moroccan firemen, the better to motivate an elaborate wild chase on a runaway hook and ladder fire engine. These gags are not badly done, but they look no different than the obligatory chase sequences in older comedies by W.C. Fields or Abbott & Costello.
Paramount's producer is Paul Jones, the man behind some of the "Road" pictures and a fistful of Preston Sturges classics. Jones rode herd on comedies for Hope as well as the enormously popular 50s duo Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Whether dishing out favors or just keeping the scenes packed with character bits, Jones and Hope populate My Favorite Spy with familiar faces, friends, pretty girls and studio old-timers: Angela Clarke, Fritz Feld, Nestor Paiva, Chester Conklin, Ralph Byrd (the movies' Dick Tracy), Chester Conklin, Jimmy Dundee, Steven Geray, Bobby Hall, Torben Meyer and Kasey Rogers are just a few. Mike Mazurki and Marc Lawrence get high billing as Moroccan thugs. Frank Faylen's featured role as a drunken casino patron seems to have been reduced to a walk-on, or a stumble-on. Veteran director Norman Z. MacLeod keeps everything running smoothly, building scenes in medium-wide masters that allow the comedy to breathe. Victor Milner's slick cinematography is in keeping with Paramount's high standard.
Ms. Lamarr shows excellent comedy timing and musters an amusing variety of seductive facial expressions. When Hope is giving out with the silly patter, the actress is never caught marking time waiting for her cue. And she is devastatingly beautiful, as Peanuts openly states: "That dress does things for you. Doesn't do me any harm either". The only thing really lacking in My Favorite Spy is an escalation of excitement when the look-alikes Peanuts and Augustine finally meet nose-to-nose. Probably due to a disinterest in playing anything other than his standard character, Hope does almost nothing with his ruthless alter-ego, and the "sinister" Augustine's on-screen time is kept to a minimum. My Favorite Spy rushes to its "The End" title without presuming to offer anything beyond a standard Bob Hope comedy vehicle. But Hope fulfills his mission: he makes certain that the jokes include one smart crack at the expense of his frequent comedy partner Bing Crosby.
Olive Films' DVD of My Favorite Spy is a fine encoding of this once-popular title; the B&W transfer shows off the slick Paramount production's many large sets -- Peanuts' luxury hotel; a nightclub; a casino. Karl Brubaker's ritzy house by the seaside is something we'd more expect to see in Malibu than on the African coast. The presentation offers no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Favorite Spy Blu-ray rates:
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