Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's big night was spent sitting in front of the TV alone, watching a Space: 1999 box set and munching on frozen egg rolls.
"You pretend to be a coward expertly."—The Doge (Arnold Moss)
Bob Hope (The Paleface, Road to Singapore) was an on-screen coward who gave others courage. He and his troupe performed at military bases and in war zones to bring a little bit of home to U.S. troops throughout his career. Who couldn't face the enemy a little more bravely after seeing Hope with his patented fearful bumbler persona putting himself in danger to entertain? Here, Hope takes his persona on the road to 18th-century Genoa and Venice to poke fun at the great lover Casanova.
Facts of the Case
The movie opens as a typical costume melodrama, with the masked dandy slipping out of a Genoa storefront to begin his romantic prowling. Confronted by swordsmen, he unmasks to reveal Hope as tailor's assistant Pippo Popolino, disguised as Casanova to woo the lovely widow Francesca Bruni (Joan Fontaine, Jane Eyre, Decameron Nights). The coward who wants to make good shows his emotions with an outburst after they're gone: "If I were the great Casanova, I would line you in a row and—shishkebob!" He faces more mockery when he's unmasked in Widow Bruni's chambers by the real Casanova (Vincent Price, Laura, Masque of the Red Death), who holds Pippo by the throat until his face turns blue, tells him he wants that color for his next jacket, then tosses Pippo out the window to the laughter of himself and the widow. Even in humiliation, Pippo's feisty: "Be careful, m'lord. These new clothes of yours will get dirty."
Pippo wonders "What's Casanova got that, if I had, I probably couldn't handle anyway?"—and he's about to find out. When Casanova bolts to escape creditors, Casanova's servant (Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Son of Frankenstein) and Francesca, who manipulates Pippo through his affection for her, persuade him to pose as the great lover for a trip to Venice to collect 10,000 ducats by seducing Dona Elena (Audrey Dalton, Titanic, Mr. Sardonicus). His caddish mission is to steal her petticoat as a "souvenir" to present to her wealthy fiancé to prove her unfaithfulness.
It's not Pippo's suave romantic style, but the greed and duplicity of the other characters—Casanova himself, Francesca and his other creditors, a Doge (Arnold Moss, My Favorite Spy, Salome) who wants to block Elena's marriage and thus ruin her family, and a woman reputed to be Casanova's first love—that propel the innocent's deception. You know Hope's joker is going to uncover all the hands in this game, and find that everyone's bluffing.
If you remember Hope only from TV specials, you should take a look at him at the top of his game. His persona blends in well, creating a downtrodden character you root for as he stumbles through swordplay and foreplay. His comic asides are sharp, but don't blunt the physical comedy. He creates comic havoc as his belt catches a tablecloth while he's dancing with Elena, but we see his agility when he tips his hat, dropping it but catching it before it falls to the floor, and when he drops a low blow during a fencing exhibition, foiling attempts to expose him as a fraud. While he stumbles often, Hope gets a few good romantic lines in, too, such as when he first meets Elena. "If necessary, I will scream for help," she warns him. "I don't need any help," he answers confidently—until her father and brother arrive, of course. Later in the movie, Pippo acquits himself as expected, scheming to save Elena with a tailor-made plan that should sew the plot up nicely—but the audience knows that it's about to get knotty.
Good comic performances abound, particularly Rathbone as the servant who mocks Hope's cowardice but shows his own inner weasel under pressure. He's deft as he switches between pleading for his life and confidence when the threat is past, acting as if nothing has happened. As Hope's foil, the Oscar-winning Fontaine is adept in both seducing Pippo and barbing him. When he kisses her, he says, "I'll give you a sample, in case we're ever on a desert island." Without a beat, she ripostes as smoothly and huskily as in a Bogie-Bacall exchange, "Better bring a deck of cards." Vincent Price does an unbilled turn as the smooth-surfaced Casanova, and sharp viewers will spot Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Godzilla) in a small part as a Venetian, a comic cameo by Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, High Noon) as a convict, and John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, Johnny Guitar) as a guard.
The Technicolor print is transferred well. The costume and set designers created a rich palette of bright colors, particularly reds and blues, and they look as good today as they did in 1954. Almost every scene is shot on a set created with attention to detail, such as the red plumes and gold brocade on a gondola, to make the movie look bright and bold. The 2.0 mono sound holds up well for speaking and singing (Hope performs "Tic-A-Tic-A-Tic" as his gondola arrives in Venice, to the screaming of admiring women) and you won't miss a barbed line. I'll note that I'm leaving the keep case unlatched in case I want to view this one again; the latches could be tricky for the fumble-fingered.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're looking to learn more about Hope, or get a glimpse of his other TV or movie roles, forget it. No extras here. Not expecting a documentary on the legend of Casanova, but couldn't they even have turned up the original trailer?
After a lot of fun, an ending that has Hope stepping out of character to jab at auteur Orson Welles falls flat. Hope fans know it's typical of his movie endings, but it follows a movie in which his it's-all-a-joke asides were restrained, so it's out of place here.
If you Hope to laugh out loud, you'll get your wish. If you've had a bad day and want to unwind, just pop this costume farce into your DVD player and watch as Hope gleefully rips the costume melodrama into period pieces. While Hope faltered with his last pictures, Casanova's Big Night was part of a career winning streak that included Road to Bali and The Seven Little Foys.
It's an open-and-shut case for Hope and company: not guilty. As for Paramount, guilty of not providing any background material, line them in a row and—shishkebab!
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