Don Rickles, nicknamed The Merchant of Venom, has died at age 90. Rickles pioneered insult comedy and became a sensation on television and night clubs in the 1960s. He was performing until recently. Rickles had started as a dramatic actor and scored some supporting roles in memorable films but it was his stand-up comedy routine that made him a legend. Rickles penchant for insulting celebrities and everyday people paved the way for a new brand of comedy, though Rickles never delved into the vulgarity that characterizes many of the acts performed by those he inspired. Rickles' appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and the Dean Martin celebrity roasts were the stuff of legendary comedy moments on television. He occasionally delved back into acting in major hit films such as "Kelly's Heroes", "Casino" and the "Toy Story" franchise for which he provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head. He was scheduled to continue in that role in the next entry in the series. He was also the subject of the acclaimed documentary "Mr. Warmth: the Don Rickles Project" by director John Landis. For more click here.
Bob Hope's status as having enjoyed the longest reign as America's most beloved comedy icon remains unchallenged . When he passed away in 2003 at age 100, Hope had mastered seemingly all entertainment mediums. By the 1930s he was already a popular star on stage and in feature films. He could sing, dance and joke often simultaneously. British by birth, Hope and his family emigrated to America when he was five years old and he would ultimately become one of the USA's most patriotic public figures. His long-term contract with NBC stretched from radio days to being the face of the network's television broadcasts. It was TV that made made Hope the ultimate media icon. His NBC TV specials were the stuff of ratings gold, especially those that found him entertaining American troops in far off locations during the Christmas season. Hope continued this tradition, which started in WWII, through the early 1990s. His genius was that he never veered from his core act: quick one-liners that were designed to amuse but never offend. Although a life-long conservative and Republican, Hope knew how to thread the needle when it came to politics. He hobnobbed with presidents of both parties and the jokes he cracked about them gently poked fun at their eccentricities without offending either them or their supporters. Hope's political barbs were made in an era in which such humor would bring people together instead of polarize them. Hope's humor became dated but he never lost his popularity with older fans who continued to tune in to his TV specials and delighted at his frequent appearances on chat shows. Not everyone was a fan, however. Marlon Brando once criticized Hope's hunger for the spotlight by saying he would turn up at the opening of a supermarket if there was a camera there. Still, Hope's ubiquitous presence extended into the realm of movies, though cinema was decidedly a secondary career for him. In the 1940s and 1950s he was a top box-office attraction, with his "Road" movies co-starring Bing Crosby particularly popular. By the 1960s changing social values threatened Hope's brand of squeaky clean comedies but he still had enough juice at the boxoffice to top-line movies throughout the entire decade.
"Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number", released in 1966, is the epitome of a Hope comedy. He plays Tom Meade, a California real estate agent who has sunk a considerable amount of money into buying a house in a remote area of the mountains by a beautiful lake. He was certain he could turn a quick profit but it transpires that the house is located in an area that is a bit too remote and his investment has turned into a money-bleeding white elephant. At the same time, the story follows the exploits of Didi (Elke Sommer), an international screen sex siren who is known for including provocative bathing sequences in her racy films. Didi is shooting her latest movie when she has a fierce argument with her director/lover Pepe Pepponi (Cesare Danova) and storms off the set to go into hiding, thus initiating an intense manhunt that dominates the headlines. Through the type of quirk that can only happen in movies, Tom makes a business phone call and accidentally gets connected with Didi, who tells him she is hiding in a nearby hotel but lacks any food or sustenance. Tom realizes he possesses bombshell information and promises to visit her with food. He sneaks out late at night so his wife Martha (Marjorie Lord) doesn't suspect anything...but unbeknownst to him, his nosy and sarcastic live-in housekeeper Lily (Phyllis Diller) catches on. When Tom arrives at Didi's hotel room, she practically seduces him but Tom has something other than sex on his mind. He offers Didi the opportunity to stay at his dormant house at the lake until the manhunt dies down. He's motivated partly by compassion and partly by the opportunity to exploit the property as the house that Didi once hid in. Things naturally go awry when Martha insists on spending a romantic weekend at the house with Tom, away from their two pre-teen but precocious son and daughter. This sets in motion one of those traditional bedroom farce situations. Tom arrives separately in advance of Martha and discovers Didi is practically comatose after taking a sleeping pill. In the ensuing mayhem, he must drag her from room to room and hide her before Martha discovers her presence. This madcap sequence is the highlight of the film and it is deftly directed by old pro George Marshall. However, the film's final act crosses the line into over-the-top outright slapstick with Diller riding wild on a motorcycle and Hope being pursued in a car chase by FBI agents who think he murdered Didi.
The joy of any Bob Hope movie is that he never played the traditional hero. He specialized in portraying characters who weren't immoral but who were willing to gnaw around the edges of ethical behavior (i.e a coward who pretends he's a hero, a virginal buffoon who pretends he's a great lover, etc.) In this production, Hope continues that tradition and gets off some good one-liners. He's got the perfect foil in Phyllis Diller and their chemistry worked so well they made two more films together in short order, "Eight on the Lam" and "The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell" before Hope retired from the silver screen with his 1972 dud "Cancel My Reservation". "Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!" plays out like an extended TV sitcom from the era and was shot on a relatively modest budget. There are a few timid attempts to make the script a bit contemporary by including a some overt references to sex but it's still tame family-friendly viewing. It should be said that Elke Sommer, who was always somewhat underwhelming in terms of dramatic acting skills, had a true knack for playing light comedy and she's delightful in this movie in a physically demanding role that requires her to be tossed around while unconscious as though she is a rag doll. One of the more amusing aspects of the film is unintentional: Marjorie Lord's hairstyle, which is as high as a beehive and equally distracting. One keeps awaiting Hope to make some quips about it but they never come.
Olive Films has released the movie as a Blu-ray with an excellent transfer but no bonus extras. As retro comedies go, this is typical of a Bob Hope comedy from the era. It offers no surprises but somehow today the sheer predictability and innocence of his movies make for pleasing viewing- and this is no exception.