Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Thanks / for the Lucky Strikes

(LSMFT = Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco)

The title of this blog entry will be familiar to Jack Benny fans, as one of the "commercial song parodies" with which his Sportsmen Quartet slyly ribbed and celebrated their sponsor, Lucky Strike, that fine cigarette that 4 out of 5 doctors prefer... so round, so firm, so fully packed. So free and easy on the draw!

Bob "What the hell am I dead for?" Hope was  a frequent guest star on Benny's show and he was always hilarious, a bundle of energy and joy, sharing a deep-seated sense of ease and beyond-impeccable comic timing with fellow star vaudeville types like Benny or Bing Crosby. There's not much of that kind of rapport in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, Hope's first big role. He plays a radio announcer/promoter for a cross Atlantic cruise ship race, with WC Fields as his comic co-star (and Fields is not one for lightning fast banter off-the-cuff with upstarts). Fields plays a corporate spy sent to slow the boat down so the other side can win, but he lands his crazy autogyro bicycle on his own cruise line; laughs ensue.

Fields doesn't have a lot to do aside from some sight gags involving golf and pool, and neither does Hope, except to introduce and abundance of weird yet strangely exhausting musical numbers, including a long Die Wulkure aria, replete with Brunhilde in helmet, braids and brandishing a spear (below).

But then, like an oasis of beauty and quiet in a big shrill sporadically funny mess, comes this lovely scene between Bob and his unhappily divorced wife, Shirley Ross. A kind of female Walter Burns in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Ross has Hope arrested so she can bail him out of jail before the boat sails, and generally employs all the screwball tricks to keep this baggy pants slickster around where she can see him.  It's an old familiar, no-win situation, but what ensues strikes a note of transcendent grace.

The song, "Thanks for the Memory," beautifully encompasses this "can't live with 'em anymore, but can't yet live without 'em" feeling, an ode to good times that later went bad and the way savvy lovers catch themselves rose-tinting the whole affair when they know full well that there were an awful lot of good reasons why they left each other. Hope--later content to be kind of a genial quick-witted leering buffoon--got his start as a guy who could actually wrestle with his fears, face the villain, woo the girl successfully and admirably, and still get off great wisecracks (in films like CAT AND THE CANARY and THE GHOST BUSTERS [both 1939], for example, he's pretty courageous once he stops cracking cowardly).  "Thanks for the Memory" captures this mix of courage and avoidance, and proves Hope a master of working off the energy of his fellow player. He falls completely in-step with the deep pangs of longing coursing through the blithe figure of Shirley Ross.

Written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, the song itself stands way, way out from the rest of the songs in the film, almost Shakespearean in the way its surface percolates with sophisticated drollery, the "Hurrah for the next who dies!" modernist kind of stiff upper lip emotional denial, while just under the skin there's all this  tenderness, longing, regret and--most beautiful all--a genuine love and interest in the other person; also: the weird way guilt and regret will fuel the rose-tinting process, the way everything is suddenly perfect just when you're about to finally part. So you stay to try and make it work, and it falls instantly to shit.

Love thrives on absence, and never is love stronger than when you separate ships sail off into separate sunsets. Ross and Hope's singing, and the way the drama and push-pull dynamic is only heightened by the words and melody, make this one of my all-time favorite musical moments. Particularly I love the sudden stops into speaking - "That's life I guess / I love... / your dress," he sings/says, the word 'love' causing her to look up expectantly. When he says 'your dress' she looks down at it, her tears temporarily subsided even with the disappointment:

"Do you?"

"It's pretty," Hope says. Before singing some more. That "it's pretty" gets me every time; from the giddy hope of "I love..." to "it's pretty" represents a whole downward facing spiral of relationship dynamics. Ross wont get the words she wants to hear (I love you) but she will get the words she needs to hear (your dress is pretty).

By the end of the song, Ross is in tears and Hope has re-set the rules by resuming his role as the "distancer" in their codependent pair bond. Things seem already back where they were. So what, then, is love but the contract by which one is humbled into accepting the lesser of two evils? It's like being addicted to war: the pre-WW2 era was all about looking askance at marriage and the conventions of the old social system, flappers and fun, not marriage and kids. Funny how lately the winds of time have so shifted so that we willingly have given up nearly every freedom we won in the years between 1945 and 1979. Soon we will not even be allowed to smoke a Lucky Strike... at all... even outside! Ah, when I first moved to Manhattan in 1992, you could drink outdoors, as long as they were in brown paper bags, and there was dancing in every bar, pimps in fancy cars, drunks and punks and whiteboy funk and junkies with guitars... how lovely it was....

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