Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Thanks / for the Lucky Strikes

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 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. But he sings fairly well in the slightly trilly style of the time. 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. Hope meanders around introducing an 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 in their "Thanks for the Memories" number, their delicate but cool, unforced and sensitive shy/sly duet, strikes a note of transcendent grace.

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, this song and they dynamics both actors bring to it will be familiar to anyone who ever still loved--and was friends with--an ex. Hope--later content to be kind of a genial quick-witted leering buffoon--got his start this kind of sensitive smart guy, the sort 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 the following year's CAT AND THE CANARY and THE GHOST BUSTERS (both my favorites as well) for example, he cracks cowardly yet acts continually courageous - a whistling in the dark approach that never backs down from danger ("I'm so scared," he warns a sinister man on the boat to Cuba in GHOST BUSTERS, "if I see a ghost, I'm liable to take a shot at it, silly isn't it?") 

"Thanks for the Memory" captures this same mix of courage and avoidance as the better part of valor, and proves Hope is already 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 fatigue of Shirley Ross. Like a good jazz bassist might in a trio, he finds her off-beats and adds shadow and accent to her highlights.

Written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, the song itself stands way, way out from the rest of the songs in the film; it's 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, the trick we use over drinks to convince ourselves we're better off calling it quits, 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 even if they don't get back together, even if they know it's for the best they don't. Also, the song acknowledges 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. If that strength makes you jump overboard and swim to their ship, the love starts to weaken before you're even dry. Ross and Hope's singing, and the way the drama and push-pull dynamic is only heightened by the words and melody, making 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 (it's 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 --even if he's weakened by the experience. 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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