'My Favorite Brunette' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m. , KCET brings you the 1947 film "My Favorite Brunette," a detective film noir parody starring Bob Hope as a hapless baby photographer who's mistaken for a private eye and ends up framed for murder. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "My Favorite Brunette" back on March 19, 1947.

There have been plenty of film noir parodies -- from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" to "The Big Lebowski" -- but "My Favorite Brunette" is one of the few to spoof the hardboiled detective genre at the height of Hollywood's classic film noir period. This comedy of errors paid homage to classics like 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," 1944's "Murder, My Sweet" and 1946's "The Big Sleep" -- and in 1947, no less. Bob Hope lampoons the iconic noir private eye hero as Ronnie Jackson, a baby photographer who idolizes the detective working in the office down the hall (played by Alan Ladd). Watch this clip to see Ladd's only appearance in "Brunette" -- and one of Hope's best lines referencing the cinematic catalogue from which it draws: "All my life I wanted to be a hardboiled detective like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell or even Alan Ladd."

Ladd isn't the only casting decision that brings humor to "Brunette." Austrian-American actor Peter Lorre was a popular player in Hollywood crime films -- often pigeonholed as the sinister foreigner. In "Brunette," he parodies his own film noir career -- playing Hope's knife-wielding antagonist. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a kindhearted henchman that's based on his most famous role, Lennie Small in 1939's "Of Mice and Men."

Here's a clip of Hope, Lorre and Chaney in action:

No noir narrative is complete without a femme fatale, and Hope's is played by Dorothy Lamour, an actress who shared the screen with Hope throughout her career. She is best known for her roles in the "Road to..." movies, a string of comedies starring Hope and Bing Crosby. Crosby also makes a brief cameo in "Brunette" -- as a San Quentin executioner set to put Hope's protagonist to death in the gas chamber.

Check out the three of them together in 1952's "Road to Bali."

Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby in "Road to Bali" via Wikimedia Commons

Bob Hope was one of Paramount Pictures' biggest stars throughout the 40's and 50's. He'd starred as a vaudeville performer who gets mixed up with secret agents in 1942's Hitchcokian spy film parody "My Favorite Blonde" and as a comedian turned international spy in 1951's "My Favorite Spy." Despite their similar plots and titles, neither is related to "My Favorite Brunette." A showman known for his ad-libbing, Hope was the host of the Academy Awards ceremony 18 times, but was never nominated for an award himself. He is known for using his star power to tirelessly entertain the troops under the banner of the United Service Organizations--headlining more than 60 tours in his half-century USO career.

Here's a fundraising film Hope produced for the USO in 1946, a year before the release of "Brunette."

Take a Closer Look Back

In 1947, hardboiled detective stories (and the film noir aesthetic) were at their peak. The U.S. was in a period of postwar malaise -- social frustration, disappointment, race riots, industrial disputes -- and Hollywood's films were growing darker to reflect a newfound American pessimism.

Films like "Brunette" were sunny counterweights to the many gloomy, fatalistic films of the era.

Here's a list of influential 'film noir' movies that were released in 1947:

Watch this scene from "Out of the Past"--to get a feel for the classic noir style that "Brunette" parodies.

While "Brunette" is a worthy parody of these postwar crime films, the noirish crime on the streets of Los Angeles was no joke. If you need proof, pay a visit to the 1947project -- a blog that digs into the bloody crimes on L.A.'s streets that year -- stabbings, gunshots, suicides and the like.

The bloggers behind the project described it this way:

Los Angeles in 1947 was a social powderkeg. War-damaged returning soldiers were threatened by a new kind of independent female, who in turn found her freedoms disappearing as male workers returned to the factories. These conflicts worked themselves out in dark ways. The Black Dahlia is the most famous victim of 1947's sex wars, but hardly the only one. The 1947project seeks to document this pivotal year in L.A., through period reporting and visits to the scenes as they are today.
The much publicized, still unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short -- the so-called "Black Dahlia" -- is a prime example of the sort of colorful crime that defines 1947 in Los Angeles. Two months before the release of "Brunette," Short's body was found mutilated, naked and drained of blood in Leimert Park. The newspapers depicted the young woman as an adventuress who prowled Hollywood Boulevard. The murder remains an infamous example of L.A.'s noir history. If you're interested in the case, pay a visit to Los Angeles Police Museum. Its exhibit on the "LAPD's 65-year crusade to capture Beth Short's killer" runs until June 16.

Violent crime wasn't the only factor in Los Angeles's postwar pessimism. Check out these photos for a look into how labor disputes and other occurrences shaped postwar Los Angeles.

Thousands of union men march in protest of the Taft-Hartley bill to curb union practices, 1947. Via the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.
Lady garment workers picketing as store manager Dave Schultz draws "don't cross" line on sidewalk in Los Angeles, Calif., 1947. Via the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.
Aurora Springer, District Attorney's secretary, exhibits $40,000 worth of opium found concealed beneath candy in box. Drug was discovered in connection with investigation of robbery, kidnapping ring. Via the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.
Emergency services on scene at O'Connor Electro-Plating explosion in Los Angeles, Calif., 1947. Via the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.

What did Los Angeles streets look like in the late 1940s? This film -- made for use in "inside-the-car" scenes in movies -- gives a high-resolution look at parts of Downtown at the time.


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