Walter Mencken 1 p.m., May 1
Bob Hope reviews The Iron Petticoat from the grave
Hey, hi, ladies and gentlemen, this is Bob ‘More Dangerous Dead Than He Ever Was Alive’ Hope acting as guest reviewer here on The Big Screen. Speaking of mortality, I wanna’ tell ya’, that Marks gives me more attention dead than most critics did when I was alive. I figure I'd throw him a bone and do fifteen minutes in exchange for a couple of plugs.
The year was 1956 and Bobby was itching to stretch. Unless it was going to be made to my great financial satisfaction there was no way in hell that I was going back on the "Road" with Crosby. I told him, lay off that orange juice, it'll kill you. I had just completed The Seven Little Foys and felt certain that my performance as #1 Foy was a passport to Oscar.
The critics wrote more about a cameo by a tap-dancing gangster than they did me.
Talks were already underway for a Jimmy Walker biopic, and I knew that I would be sen-sational in the lead. I needed something to keep the momentum up, ya’ know, if I was going to reinvent myself as a serious actor.
Tired of sharing all the profits with Paramount, I arranged for a trick deal and made the picture in jolly old England. At the time, I was the biggest comedy performer in the world (still am) and needed a first-rate female dramatic counterpart to match my star power. I went to Marilyn Maxwell, but she didn't want to make the trip across the pond, ya’ dig? My second choice was Katie Hepburn, but we didn't run in the same circles. How in hell was I going to get to her?
I tripped over Spencer Tracy as he came stumbling out of a hotel in New York. "Hey, Spence," I said, "You still talk to that scrawny redhead you've been double-dealing Louise with all these years?" His breath smelled worse than Maggie Raye's on St. Patrick's Day and even though he spent the week in a tub, Father Flanagan was desperately in need of a bath. He scribbled down her phone number and after seeing what was going on under his fingernails, I didn't ask for my pencil back.
Kate had just wrapped playing a spinster opposite that spaghetti-bending stiff Rossano Brazzi in David Lean's Summertime and was eager to work with a real man. Historians refer to That Certain Feeling and The Iron Petticoat as my "Lubitsch period," but I don't know what any of that stuff means. Yeah, we savaged the title from one of Ernie's pictures and ‘borrowed’ the plot of another, but so what? That bastard Berle made a career out of stealing, why couldn't I abscond a few choice words? Besides, we just lifted the idea, not the dialog and characters. I was in it for the quick dough; Wilder and Brackett weren't going to see a cent in residuals from me.
The plot was solid. I play Major Charles "Chuck" Lockwood, an air force officer assigned the enviable task of thawing Captain Vinka Kovelenko (Kate), a babe that's "98% Russian and 2% female." (Wait for laugh.) Kate insisted on jazzing it up with this woman's lib kind of thing. Instead of defecting for political reasons, Vinka splits because she feels discriminated against as a gal. Yeah, I never let Dolores see this. All I needed was a liberated hausfrau.
Kate was thrilled at the thought of playing the Garbo role, but I think she copied her Russian accent from another one of Ninotchka's stars, Bela Lugosi. From the sound of it, she must have hired Bela and that little Swede John Qualen as dialog coaches. After the first day's shooting it was clear that I was out of my league. Accent notwithstanding, this chick could act! No kidding, she actually memorized her lines.
A week before shooting commenced I got a call at my Toluca Lake number. It was Kate wanting to know when we are going to start rehearsal. I told her as soon as the camera rolls. I don't know if you have ever noticed, but I like to keep things loose and spontaneous. First time I see my lines is when my cue card boy holds 'em up.
This gal was a pro, but eventually her performance reached my level.
Hey, speaking of elevating great actors, how 'bout those British cats James Robertson Justice and Robert Helpmann, huh? They weren't ready for "one take" Robert! Behind the scenes, my management assembled an enviable crew. Who have thought that Ben Hecht would ever write for Bob Hope? I told him none of that heady Queen Christina or Notorious kind of jazz. My audience likes it simple, so keep it more along the lines of The Miracle of the Bells and we’ll get along just fine. And don't forget to lay on the topical humor and at least one gratuitous Crosby reference, too!
We were lucky to get one of England's top directors, Ralph Thomas. They tell me that those Carry On pictures are a hoot, but I've never seen one.
Hey, how ‘bout the adult nature of this piece, huh? Wait until you get a gander at the questionable material concerning an inflatable brassiere. It took weeks of fighting on my agent's part before those blue nosed British censors agreed to allow semi-nudity to be shown in the film. My nipples never looked perkier!
And don't let those red stars fool you, folks. They represent Texaco, American capitalism at its finest, not commie subversion. By the way, ladies and gentlemen, I took my salary in Texaco stock to avoid paying taxes in both England and the United States.
For some reason this picture was virtually impossible to find, and once you see it you’ll know why. It pops up on TCM occasionally, but my estate doesn’t see a dime. Was it ever released on DVD? I sold my interest in the negative ages ago. What they do with it now is of no concern to me.
Les! Hey, thanks for reading. I’ll be appearing with Rula Lenska and The Osmonds at the Boise County Fair on the 19th and then it’s off to Syria on the 22nd to entertain our drones in uniform. Drive safely, ladies and gentlemen. Good night!
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