Comedies are under-represented on the List’s postwar segment.
If “The Paleface” is representative of the genre in that period that would hint at comedies simply not being that good. It is almost as if the age of the screwball comedy is over and Hollywood is waiting and looking for the next big thing. “The Paleface” is in my opinion a dud and the only thing securing is a place on the list must be the beautiful color photography. And then perhaps to make up for the curious absence of comedies in this segment.
The biggest problem with “The Paleface” is that it is just not funny. That is pretty critical when you hinge everything on the comedic elements. I only recall laughing a single time when the jokes became so absurdly predictable that that itself became a laugh. Talk about laughing for the wrong reasons.
I have been thinking hard about why it is that the comedy does not work here and I am not sure I have a solid explanation, but I will give it a shot.
A lot has to do with this being a spoof movie. I am not too keen on spoofs mostly because they do not take their own world serious but mainly uses it a backdrop for firing off lame jokes. The best of the Marx Brothers movies were when the clown were roaming a “realistic” world and the same with Keaton and Chaplin. In that process they may reveal that the “real” world is just as lunatic as they are, but on the way there the contrast is what makes them funny.
Not so with “The Paleface”. It has already decided to laugh at the western genre as a whole and so the “reality” is a mockery of reality. You are half expecting the actors to smile and wink to the audience and, hello there, Bob Hope does exactly that in the end.
In such a setting a clown figure like Painless Potter is just not funny. He lacks that contrast. Instead he comes about rather forced as he seems to be aiming at the world record for jokes per minute. I make the claim that this is a difficult environment to be funny in, but maybe that is just an excuse. Maybe he is just not funny. Or maybe he was funny, this movie did quite well at the box office after all, and it is just me who is jaded by the countless of good to stellar comedians I have watched and listened to.
An amateur dentist with no clue what he is doing should be funny. I can imagine the terror of the patient who sees his doctor looking in the manual for even the simplest of proceedures, but I have seen this done far better (Matthew Perry in "The Whole Ten Yards" for example). Speaking of dentists, I wonder if Quentin Tarantino thought of “The Paleface” when he made Christoph Waltz drive around in a dentist wagon in “Django Unchained”.
In any case, Bob Hope is a very big part of the movie and if his fooling around does not click with you there is not much left.
Painless Potters partner is Calamity Jane a.k.a the voluptuous Jane Russell. She is a hardboiled tough girl, who is doing a job for the government to save herself from an extensive visit to the penitentiary. The job is to root out a gang of gun-runners who are arming the Indians. To that purpose she is using Painless as a screen and poses as his wife. She is obviously the one carrying the story, but unfortunately there is not much to carry. By the time Bob Hope is done telling jokes there is about as much room left for the story as in an average W.C. Fields film. Add to that that this is not exactly Jane Russell’s best acting performance ever (she looks more like she is sulking than being tough) and she ends up merely as an appendix to Bob Hope, a target for his lame jokes.
Jane Russell became famous as a pin-up during the war. The tableau from her earlier film “The Outlaw” where she is reclining in the hay revealing a shoulder and the fact that she was well proportioned indeed, had made her a sex symbol before that term was probably even coined. Those good looks were however entirely wasted on Calamity Jane. Dressed up in big demure gowns of the 19th century she could as well have worn a burka. Even in the “naughty” scene in the bath house she is wearing underwear so elaborate that in constitutes a gown all on its own (curious how all the women were actually showering in these outfits. I thought the idea was to get the body clean, not to clean the underwear…). Jane Russell’s tough girl scowl and sulking did not really help either, she came through rather flat.
There are scenes with Indians that today would feel rather racist, but I understand that in the name of comedy you are allowed some manipulation and times were different then. The problem however is that they act almost like cartoon characters which both make them less fearsome and add to the general silliness of the world in which Bob Hope is working. If this sacrifice to comedy had worked as intended, making the Indians funny I might have been more forgiving, but, alas, no, they are not.
By far the best part of the movie was the Technicolor. It was beautifully filmed and color starved as I am I do appreciate it. Typical for early color filming the contrasts are on full volume, but there is a pastel element that makes it very pleasant to look at, not unlike “Black Narcissus”. Color however can also be rather unforgiving and in this case I think it makes the movie look more staged than black and white photography would.
This was an easy film to see. No complicated plots, no big drama, nothing to make me anxious and, sadly, no laughs. I do like my comedies, I do love a good laugh and I do hope for something better in that direction on the List soon.