Elliott Nugent’s My Favorite Brunette begins with baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) in the death house at San Quentin. Jackson is set to be executed that night, and he’s hoping for a stay from the governor. When none arrives, Jackson quips, “No word? Well, I’ll know who to vote for next time.”
Jackson takes a look into the chamber where he’s set to die. “Gas,” he scoffs. “You haven’t even put in electricity.”
Like any good film noir protagonist, Jackson gets to tell his story before he takes that last, long, lonely walk. (Of course, Jackson isn’t really a noir protagonist, since My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of hard-boiled detective movies, but he doesn’t know that.)
When Jackson’s story begins, he’s desperately trying to get an adorable little Chinese-American boy to smile for the camera, but he’s hungry for bigger problems. Jackson may be San Francisco’s premier baby photographer, but he idolizes the man who has the office across from him, two-fisted he-man Sam McCloud (an uncredited Alan Ladd, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself). Jackson longs to be a detective, too. “It only took brains, courage, and a gun,” Jackson says. “And I had the gun.”
When McCloud has to run off to Chicago for a few days, Jackson just happens to be sitting in his office when the beautiful and exotic Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) walks in. When she thinks he’s McCloud, he can’t bear to tell her the truth, and is off on his first case, tracking down Carlotta’s missing husband, the Baron Montay. (Or is he her uncle? The story keeps changing.)
I won’t summarize the plot any further, mostly because it’s beside the point, but also because it’s nearly as convoluted as an actual hard-boiled P.I. story. Also, some of Jackson’s hard-boiled narration is so close to the real thing that it’s remarkable. After he’s knocked out in his office, he says in voiceover, “When I came to, I was playing ‘post office’ with the floor. I had a lump on my head the size of my head. Inside, Toscanini was conducting the Anvil Chorus with real blacksmiths. I looked at the bottle of Old Piledriver and decided to stick to double malts.”
Sure, it’s over-the-top, but so was most of the dialogue in hard-boiled detective films. Threats like, “I’ll fill you so full of holes you’ll look like a fat clarinet,” sound funny when they’re coming out of Bob Hope’s mouth, but they’re no more ridiculous than half of the things Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell growled at tough guys.
Besides the genuinely funny script and manic direction by Nugent, the casting is key to the success of My Favorite Brunette. Dorothy Lamour is attractive and sleepy-eyed enough to be a real femme fatale, and the hulking Lon Chaney Jr. and the sinister Peter Lorre are both on hand to play bad guys. (All that’s missing is Boris Karloff with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.)
I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Hope, but he’s excellent in this movie, and frequently had me in stitches. The comedy mostly comes from the dialogue, but there are some classic bits of physical humor, too. The scene in which Lorre tries to force a false clue on Hope while hiding in various spots in a room, but Hope just keeps missing it, might be the funniest bit in the film.
My Favorite Brunette has fallen into the public domain, and is available to watch at archive.org. You’ll have to wait until the very end for Bing Crosby’s cameo, but it’s worth it.