When it came to women, Bob Hope just couldn’t pick a favourite. Between 1942 and 1951 he had a least three, in chronological order: a blonde, a brunette and a spy. There might well have been more, but they were just the three he deigned to share publicly, during a series of My Favorite… films, made during the peak years of the actor’s Paramount career. The ‘bonde’ in the first film was Madeleine Carroll, who plays Karen Bentley, a beautiful British spy on a mission to deliver a flight plan for American bomber planes to another agent.
The film is lightweight and entertaining comedy but, because it’s set in the days before the US entered WWII, is undercut with serious events. Hope as small-time vaudeville star Larry Haines, provides comic relief and capers aplenty thanks in part to his penguin Percy, the star of his act. Karen meets him at a New York theatre where she’s hiding out from enemy agents (led by Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco), and lets herself to be persuaded to join him on a train trip to Hollywood where he and Percy are due to appear in a film. Unknown to Larry, Karen plants a small medallion containing details of the flight plans in his coat, just before he boards the train. Screwball-inspired high jinks and some acerbic one-liners follow, culminating in hilarious escape from a hotel room where Larry and Karen find themselves cornered.
It’s a typical role for Hope, who gets into dangerous scrapes without realising or understanding his actions, but the film differs from his later roles with serious moments of introspection and soul searching that feel both genuine and natural. This isn’t a coincidence: apparently Hope had complained about an overabundance of slapstick roles, and wanted something that would show his range. Director Sidney Lanfield gave Hope space to explore his serious side and, according to film historian Lawrence Quirk, the role of Larry Haines was one of Hope’s all-time favourites. My Favorite Blonde was made after the actor had made the transition from radio to film, and had proved himself to be popular and likeable. As he has already starred in a comedy about army life, it made sense for screenwriters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank to adapt the setting to the home front.
However, Hope doesn’t make the film. Madeleine Carroll, who had previously appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s political thriller The 39 Steps, proved she could hold her own against an established comedic actor and the two had a remarkable on-screen chemistry – which was lucky, as Hope had talked up the actresses’ charms during his radio show in the months before shooting began. In fact, TCM suggests that was exactly how she got the role: she asked if she could appear on the radio show and he went one better by suggesting her for the role. Because Carroll had played in Hitch’s thriller, and before that in several lightweight comedies, she was the perfect actress to – knowingly or unknowingly – spoof the genre and create a fresh take on comedy and spy thrillers.
Interestingly, Hope doesn’t go in search of search of adventure, it finds him. It’s his initial lack of interest in involvement that is central to the parody of The 39 Steps, which centres around one of Hitch’s recurring themes: a ‘wrong’ man forced into involvement. Other aspects, including the scenes on the train and a couple who are bound by handcuffs, also reference the Hitchcock classic. It seemed that the war-weary movie going public had an appetite for thriller that came with a comedic slice as My Favorite Blonde was a huge box office hit.
Although Hope was enamoured with Carroll, filming wasn’t plain sailing. Lanfield and Hope suffered from serious personality clash, and supposedly happily-married Hope was furious when he discovered that Carroll had wed her long-time boyfriend Sterling Hayden. Lanfield was forced to put aside his professional difficulties and tactfully point out that Carroll was a big asset to the production, at that the duo had excellent on-screen chemistry. Hope was forced to agree, and it’s likely that the films critical and commercial success went some way to sweetening the blow.
For contemporary audiences, My Favorite Blonde – if you can locate a copy – looks very outdated, but the laughs, the one-liners and the near-ridiculous capers have stood the test of time. A spy thriller-comedy is an unlikely Hitch spin-off, but it works, thanks in the main to Hope’s and Carroll’s chemistry and a truly excellent supporting cast.
Aside: My Favorite Blonde marked the first Hope/Crosby cameo; the pair would guest in each other’s pictures throughout the 1940s.