Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cancel My Reservation (1972)

Bob Hope seemed to be ever-present on TV during my childhood.  Whilst he might have passed the peak of his fame and popularity by the early seventies, he was still big enough that his old movies were always playing in prime slots: most of the Road pictures turned up on Sunday afternoons and stuff like Paleface and Son of Paleface were regular Bank Holiday or early Saturday evening features.  It wasn't just the films, I seem to recall him also being a fairly regular part of the line up on things like the Royal Variety Performance, (which was still a big thing back then, drawing in huge TV audiences).  Watching the films he starred in during the forties, fifties and even sixties again now, reveals the jokes to be decidedly corny and dated, with the visual gags generally faring better, but Hope's regular film persona of a cowardly, lecherous, fast talking chancer who quickly finds himself out of his depth, remains engaging.  Which is what makes watching his last feature, 1972's Cancel My Reservation such an unnerving experience: the old smoothness and charm is gone and the tone hugely uneven, it's clear that the wheels have well and truly come off of the Bob Hope comedy vehicle.

In plot details, Cancel My Reservation harks back to earlier Hope vehicles like My Favourite Brunette, with his character falsely accused of murder and having to prove their innocence whilst being pursued by both police and villains.  Like that earlier film, the plot itself is pretty much perfunctory and poorly realised, but whereas in the earlier films this could easily be overlooked, the plot deficiencies effectively masked by non-stop gags and Hope's energetic performance, here the gags are thin on the ground and the only thing looking more tired than the jokes is Hope himself.  Which is hardly surprising as he was nearly seventy when Cancel My Reservation was shot and, despite his character claiming to be in his late forties, looks it.  The idea that he might appear attractive to even forty eight year old Eve Marie Saint, playing his wife, let alone twenty-something Ann Archer, playing the local jail bait, seems dangerously like wish-fulfilment on Hope's part.  His performance seems completely off-the-pace, at times giving the impression that he really doesn't want to be there.  The visual gags feel old hat and the humour coarser than usual for a Hope movie, giving the impression that it is desperate to show that the 'old boy' can keep up with 'modern' humour.  The whole thing comes over as an uncomfortable attempt to somehow update Hope and his humour for the seventies.  Contemporary 'issues', like the rights of Native Americans, are worked into the plot in an attempt to make the film seem relevant, along with far more explicit sexual innuendo than usual for a Hope vehicle.  At the same time, the film keeps making reference to the 'classic' Hope film formula, with the requisite cameo from Bing Crosby and similar walk ons from John Wayne and Johnny Carson, resulting in a very uneven tone.  The problem was that whilst audiences no longer wanted to watch the old-style Hope vehicles, they also didn't want to see him trying to be 'edgy'.

To be fair, Bob Hope himself wasn't at all happy with Cancel My Reservation and, following its poor box office showing, decided to retire from playing the lead in films, subsequently confining himself to cameos in other people's films.  Cancel my Reservation isn't all bad - it has a good supporting cast, with Ralph Bellamy and Forrest Tucker as villains, Keenan Wynne as an incompetent local Sheriff, Chief Dan George as a hundred and ten year old medicine man and Henry Darrow as a local Indian leader who tries to help Hope.  (Darrow is a huge favourite of mine, a hugely underrated yet prolific actor whose performances are frequently the only thing worth watching in some of the stuff he's appeared in.  He and Cameron Mitchell, another massively underrated performer, for instance, are about the only things which make old episodes of the High Chaparral watchable).  Director Paul Bogart does his best with the material and Dominic Frontiere supplies a typically interesting score, including a hugely catchy theme song.

Intriguingly, the script was supposedly based on a novel by Louis L'Amour (The Broken Gun).  Now, whilst I know that L'Amour did write in other genres, the bulk of his output consisted of westerns and, despite its contemporary setting, various aspects of Cancel My Reservation feel as if they belong in a period western.  All those references to people being hanged for murder, (by the seventies, in those states still enforcing a death penalty, things like the gas chamber, electric chair or lethal injection were the favoured form of execution), for instance, not to mention the fact that the Sheriff apparently has to wait for the circuit judge to visit the town before he can formally charge Hope.  Surely by the seventies they'd just drive him to a court house in the nearest large town?  Then there's all the business with Indian reservations and the plot hinging on hidden maps which show that the villain's ranch is actually built on land stolen from the Indians.  I'm assuming that The Broken Gun was a period western - maybe the original idea was to make the film as a western, but the producers realised that Hope was far too old to play a cowboy and westerns were less popular with contemporary audiences than Bob Hope comedies, so the script was modernised.  Who knows?  What I do know is that Cancel My Reservation is a disappointing end to Hope's film career - only fitfully amusing and the star a shadow of his former self.  Still, Bob had the last laugh: he might have retired from films aged seventy, but he lived to be a hundred.  That's some retirement.



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