The Paleface (1948)

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written by Edmund Hartmann and Frank Tashlin

The comedy style western is a subgenre we have not seen much of in this marathon yet, which is a little bit surprising given the crowd pleasing nature of comedy. There have been a few comedic elements here, specifically with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West, the Laurel and Hardy film Way Out West along with films like Destry Rides Again and Trail of the Vigilantes. The first two films, products of comedic performers, are what The Paleface is closest to. This film features the comedic stylings of Bob Hope, a comedian with which I am familiar in name only. Having never seen a film starring Hope, I had no idea what I might be in store for, but based on his reputation as a funny man, and knowing he hosted the Oscars more times than I can count, I had a certain set of expectations, that is I was expecting to laugh more often than I actually did.

Calamity Jane (Jane Russell), a character we have seen a few times already, makes a deal with the law. In exchange for her freedom, she will help the government track and apprehend an outlaw accused of running guns to the Native Americans, an act seen as treasonous and potentially dangerous. After Jane’s cover is blown when her meant-to-be undercover husband is murdered, she runs into the klutzy, yet affable dentist “Painless” Peter Potter (Bob Hope), whom she dopes into thinking she is in love with him and truly wants to marry him. Once on the wagon train searching for the bad guy, the two encounter more than their fair share of follies, with Potter often taking credit for the sharp work of Jane.

The Paleface is really a bit of an odd film to me. As a parody, it makes complete sense, and I am a little surprised, as I have said, that the western genre hasn’t been taken advantage more to this point in history for its often heavy and life and death circumstances for the chance for a laugh. That makes The Paleface relevant, as do the stars of the film Bob Hope and Jane Russell. Hope, whom I mentioned I had not seen before, is a very likable presence. He has a very direct sense of humor consisting of one-liners and a penchant for very delivered bits. None of this is really to throw shade at, when it works it works. But in the case of The Paleface, I found myself not warming to the jokes and comedic bits amassed throughout the film. It’s brand of humor is far too broad for my liking, and the jokes just never really landed all that hard.

That is not to say that some won’t find this funny, that is the charm of comedy, it is so very subjective. And I think when I think about the film’s place in western history (at least as it pertains to the films I have seen), it is a very accessible, and potentially humorous entry for children and families who otherwise would never see one of the more serious films of the genre. Sure, films like Blazing Saddles will come along later and do it better, but perhaps without The Paleface there would be no Mel Brooks classic.

To get to Hope’s co-star in Jane Russell, on the other hand, I found her performance to be a bit rough. I hated her in The Outlaw as well, her only other entry in this marathon to this point, and she is better here at least. But her delivery is very wooden and unbelievable. I just can’t see her as the famed, hardened outlaw of Calamity Jane, even if Russell was also somehow the best thing about the film for that very same reason. In addition, I found the sets and costuming in this film to be laughable and lazy at times. The characters are often found wearing ornate and decorative western garb you’d think you’d find at a novelty western store today. All in all, I forgive the film most of its transgressions given its rather broad approach and rather broad audience, but as a comedy it was not a film I enjoyed.

★★ 1/2 – Average

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