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Classic Hollywood: When Bob Hope, Joe E. Brown and Red Skelton ruled big-screen comedies

New DVD collections highlight some of the actors' funniest efforts from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

June 02, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

They were three kings of comedy, long before that honorary title came into use. Bob Hope, Joe E. Brown and Red Skelton were all multimedia comedians whose best work isn't that well known anymore.

The release this week of vintage DVDs highlighting the films of these comic actors could introduce them to a new generation of fans.

Bob Hope

Hope made feature films from 1938 through 1972, but unfortunately, his last movies were wheezy, bloated, unfunny vehicles. In his earlier work, however, Hope was a master of comedic timing, a brilliant film comedian who created a wonderful neurotic character — outwardly glib, inwardly cowardly (similar to Woody Allen's on-screen persona).

On Tuesday, Universal is releasing some of his best films in the new DVD set "Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories." Hope was a hoofer, singer and Broadway star when he made his feature debut in the forgettable "Big Broadcast of 1938." It's best known today for the Oscar-winning tune "Thanks for the Memory," which became his signature song.

The same year he made his feature debut, Paramount cast him with his "Broadcast" costar Shirley Ross in the lightweight "Thanks for the Memory," which leads off the films in the set. Hope plays a struggling novelist; Ross plays his former-model wife who returns to work so he can spend time writing his book. The best moment: Hope and Ross introduce the classic Frank Loesser- Hoagy Carmichael tune "Two Sleepy People."

Hope hit pay dirt the following year with "The Cat and the Canary," a horror-comedy based on the 1927 silent classic. It's marks the first pairing of Hope with Paulette Goddard.

In 1940, Paramount cast Hope and Goddard in another horror-comedy, the side-splitting "The Ghost Breakers." This time around, Hope is a hoot as Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence — his parents, he says, had no imagination — a radio broadcaster on the lam from mobsters who helps a beautiful young woman (Goddard), an heiress to a creepy house in Cuba. There are ghosts, voodoo curses, zombies and some great lines from Hope, such as: "The girls call me 'pilgrim' because every time I dance with one, I make a little progress."

Even funnier is the 1941 comedy "Nothing But the Truth," which was remade some 50 years later as "Liar, Liar." Hope has never been better in this farce, which finds him taking a bet that he will tell only the truth for 24 hours. Goddard plays a flighty young woman tied up in the bet.

The set features two of his classics that have already been out on DVD: the best of the "Road" pictures, 1942's "The Road to Morocco," and the hilarious 1948 comedy "The Paleface," in which he and Jane Russell introduced the Oscar-winning tune "Buttons and Bows."

Joe E. Brown

Brown is best known today for uttering one of the greatest last lines in any movie. As the many-time- married millionaire Osgood Fielding in 1959's classic "Some Like It Hot," he takes the discovery that his girlfriend is really a man ( Jack Lemmon) in stride, saying: "Nobody's perfect."

The big-mouthed comic actor was a circus performer, vaudevillian and Broadway star before turning to movies in the late '20s. And in the early 1930s, he was one of Warner Bros.' biggest stars.

This week, Warner Archive Collection (www.warnerarchive.com) is offering three vintage Brown movies. The first one, 1930's "Going Wild," about a fired newspaper reporter, is pretty much a bust. Slightly better is the 1931 wrestling comedy "Sit Tight," which is filled with some naughty pre-code shenanigans, including a scene in which Brown checks out the tan of a young woman.

The best of the lot is 1935's "Alibi Ike," a fast-packing, crackling baseball comedy based on the Ring Lardner short story about a baseball pitcher who has an alibi for everything. Brown, who had one of best physiques in films at the time, was a great baseball player in his own right and nearly got a chance to play with the Yankees in the 1920s. Olivia de Havilland, who was 24 years younger than Brown, made her film debut as Ike's love interest.

Red Skelton

Most baby boomers know Skelton for his long-running CBS musical-variety series that was a mainstay on Tuesday evenings during the 1950s and '60s. But in the 1940s and early 1950s he was a big star at MGM. Warner Archive is releasing a set of his breezy "Whistling" comedy-mystery series: 1941's "Whistling in the Dark," the 1942's "Whistling in Dixie" and 1943's "Whistling in Brooklyn." Skelton plays Wally "The Fox" Benton, a radio actor who stars in a detective series along with his actress girlfriend (Ann Rutherford). In each film, the two are about to be married but never get to the altar because they have to solve a real crime.

susan.king@latimes.com

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