The latest item from the Judge Bill Treadway collection is a well-dressed comedy accessorized with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball—ten-gallon hat optional.
Well, fancy that!
Powerful matron Effie Floud (Lea Penman, We're No Angels) travels to England with the hope of teaching her uncouth daughter Agatha (Lucille Ball, Yours, Mine and Ours) to acquire more ladylike manners. At the invitation of her host, Effie offers English butler Humphrey (Bob Hope, My Favorite Brunette) a large salary to come to America and become her butler. Unfortunately for Effie, she does not know two things: that Humphrey is really Arthur Tyler, a bad American actor, and that hubby Mike has misunderstood her telegram and mistakenly believes Humphrey to be royalty. Agatha's "fiancé," Cart Belknap (Bruce Cabot, Angel and the Badman), becomes insanely jealous of Humphrey and decides to run him out of town.
Fancy Pants is technically a remake of the wonderful Leo McCarey comedy Ruggles of Red Gap. That film, one of the greatest comedies ever made, starred Charles Laughton as an English butler who becomes confidant to a wacky family in the Wild West. Writers Edmund Hartmann and Robert O'Brien make numerous changes to Harry Leon Wilson's original story, many of them satisfactory enough. The biggest change involved making Hope's character a failed actor masquerading as the butler for financial gain. Some carped that this change was unnecessary, but I felt that it added an extra comic texture tailor made for Hope's talents. Besides, character deception is always good for a few laughs in a comedy.
Despite the classic status of the original, Fancy Pants is still worth seeing, particularly for fans of the two stars. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, such as Hope's disastrous makeover of Ball and the final duel between Hope and Cabot. These set pieces are so brilliantly acted and directed that they will make the foundation of any building tremble due to the unrelenting laughter they evoke. Where the movie goes wrong is with the musical numbers. There are barely enough numbers present to qualify Fancy Pants as a musical, and whatever music there is feels artificial and hokey. If the filmmakers had stuck with the comic lampooning of the West and the deception angle, they would have had a comedy classic rather than merely a good film.
The performances help sell this material and make it work. In his peak period of 1939-1949, Bob Hope was one of the finest screen comedians, right up there with Chaplin, Groucho, and W.C. Fields in terms of ability and ease. His later vehicles were entertaining, but often ragged and heavy-handed. His work in Fancy Pants showcases all his strengths, in particular his gift for snappy banter and making the most out of even a minor situation and spinning comic gold out of it. Opposite the hapless Hope, Lucille Ball's work in Fancy Pants is perhaps the best of her career. Despite my admiration of I Love Lucy and Here's Lucy, I certainly don't agree that Ball was the greatest comic talent of all time, as A&E proclaimed in May. Her film work was uneven, mainly due to lackluster material, but here she is given a strong character to play, and she does it beautifully. The entire supporting cast is superb and features good work from Jack Kirkwood and Lea Penman, not to mention Bruce Cabot in the type of role he could do in his sleep.
Paramount has served up Fancy Pants with a lovely full-frame transfer. The bold glory of three-strip Technicolor has been restored to full lushness. Those accustomed to the washed-out VHS and laserdisc releases will be blown away at the vibrancy of the color scheme. The image is relatively clean, with some light grain and few scratches or specks to mar an otherwise perfect transfer.
Sound is presented in standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It is a perfectly acceptable mix for the home viewer. The dialogue comes across crisply through the sound speakers. The few songs sound majestic and forceful, as they should in a musical. Considering the film's age of 54 years, the soundtrack is pleasingly free of serious defects and blemishes. Paramount has done a fine job bringing Fancy Pants to disc both aurally and visually.
Fancy Pants is yet another entry in Paramount's budget-priced catalog discs, which means one thing: It is barebones. Not even the original theatrical trailer is offered here, which means one of two things: It was unable to be located, or the studio didn't bother to look for it.
Fancy Pants is not a great film, but it is a wonderful entertainment. Hope fans will prize his snappy banter and sharp wit. Ball fans will leap at the opportunity to see their favorite redhead in a very different role from the one she would become famous for. The supporting cast amply bolsters the stars' antics with first-rate performances. Add the dazzling color photography and energetic pace, simmer for ninety minutes, and Fancy Pants becomes one mighty tasty morsel. Eat it up while you can.
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