February 27, 2023
Stars Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Mary Jane Saunders, William Demarest, Bruce Cabot, Thomas Gomez, Tom Pedi, Ben Welden, Walter Winchell.
Bob Hope is an acquired taste. Make that tastes. There’s Bob Hope, the radio entertainer who gathered millions of Americans around the Philco. Hey! How ‘bout Hope the as-told-to author of such literary powerhouses as 7 Women I Love and Confessions of a Hooker. And I wanna tell ya’ nobody turned a Theatre of War and the blood of soldiers into a star-studded NBC cash cow quite like Ol’ Ski Nose. He was also a devoted husband. Devoted to cheating on poor Dolores at every chance he could, ladies and gentlemen. But seriously, I could spend days talking about his cue card-reliant TV spectaculars, but they pretty much speak for themselves, don’t they? Let us instead confine our discussion to Hope’s salad days at Paramount and one of his finer moments, 1949’s Sorrowful Jones.
It was the first of four features, and gosh only knows how many TV guest shots that paired Hope opposite Lucille Ball. It would also mark Hope’s first foray into what’s as close as the funnyman came to dramatic acting. (His thespian days peaked in 1957 when Paramount threw Hope a dramaturgical bone, allowing him to star as New York’s flamboyant Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James.) For joke machine Hope, even a semi-serious performance meant not so much making character as it did limiting the number of times he broke character by reigning in the one-liners. And don’t forget sentimentality. There’s more pathos on display than one could wring a hankie at. What better vehicle to start Hope on the road to Stanislavski’s system than a remake of Shirley Temple’s springboard to success, 1934’s Little Miss Marker? It would be followed by three remakes: Sorrowful Jones, a dreary 1980 version of Little Miss Marker starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews, and my favorite of the bunch, Norman Jewison’s 40 Pounds of Trouble (with Tony Curtis in the lead).
In this case, Hope welcomed the sentimentality. He was banking on viewers confusing pathos with drama. When it came to mixing tough guys and tenderness, Damon Runyon was the master of the form. Runyon’s first big screen bump-up was Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day, a story the director remade almost 30 years later as Pocketful of Miracles. This was Ms. Ball’s second Runyon adaptation and Hope’s first. He would follow this two years later with Frank Tashlin’s vastly superior Runyon adaptation, The Lemon Drop Kid. Ironically, Hope made his best film with animator-turned-live-action-director Tashlin (the glorious western spoof, Son of Paleface) and his worst (both men’s curtain films, the painful, salute-deterring service comedy, The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell.)
Hope stars in the title role of Sorrowful, a penurious race track bookie (he’d steal a pencil from a blind man) with a pronounced yellow streak and a heart of gold. After spending four years apart, Gladys O’Neill (Ball) bumps into her ex Sorrowful by chance. (She recognizes his threadbare suit.) He’s flirting with a window dresser, she’s headlining at Big Steve Holloway’s (Bruce Cabot) supper club. In the interim, she appears to have taken up with her boss, but Gladys is not one to spend quality time with a gangster. A two-bit racetrack tout maybe, but not a potential child-killer.
Sorrowful would make book with anyone who had something to wager, even Orville Smith (Paul Lees), a down-on-his-luck gambler who used his 4-year-old daughter Martha Jane (Mary Jane Saunders, wistfully aggressive) as collateral for a surefire $20 wager. All bets are on Dreamy Joe, a fleet steed with a spectacular win to his credit. Big Steve is asking a thousand bucks a head from every bookie in town to fix the race. The trackside doc would inject the nag with a poisonous speedball: 30 minutes after the race, Dreamy Joe is off to permanent dreamland. Orville overhears Big Steve’s plans. Next stop, the East River. In Runyon’s original, Orville abandons his tyke. Martha Jane is so precocious, it would be hard to imagine anyone abandoning her, hence the need for cement overshoes. When the cops fish him out of the drink, they find the evidence needed: a little missed marker in his pocket.
We’re never clear precisely how, but somehow, with the flatfeet in hot pursuit, Big Steve convinces Sorrowful and Gladys to allow him to list Sarah Jane as the horse’s owner. It’s at this point both plot and the kid Martha Jane hit rock bottom. Looking to rid the world of one less child and her star comedian companion, Big Steve and his goons show up at Sorrowful’s apartment unannounced. Stashing the kid on the fire escape just long enough to run interference results in Mary Jane hitting the ground like a sack of flour. It worked in A Day at the Races, but smuggling a horse into the hospital to help revive the girl is almost as implausible as the curtain ringing down on Sorrowful and Gladys in happily ever after land. And the last scene one expected to work — a theological discussion on the existence of God between Sorrowful and Martha Jane — is sharply and affectionately defined by the actors and their three screenwriters in a way that satirically contemptuous snickers were out of the question. Note that Martha Jane prays for everyone, the exception being her suddenly absent father.
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Runyon’s thugs came complete with a flair for the King’s English that was far beyond their grasp. It was an ability to mix textbook vernacular with a cadenced street jargon that earned the Runyon stamp of approval. (The only one working out-of-step is lead-footed director Sidney Lanfield, who appears more than happy to hand the reins of authorship over to Runyon.) No character speaks the measured “Runyonese” dialect like Once Over Sam (Tom Pedi). (You’ll remember Pedi as railroad supervisor Caz Dolowitz in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.) Rounding out the cast of Runyonesque rogues are the always dependable William Demarest, Thomas Gomez as the head bull, future “Adventures of Superman” heavy Ben Welden, Sid Tomack aka Central Casting’s waiter du jour, and nasal narration courtesy Walter Winchell.