1948’s The Paleface is a hilarious comedy-Western that pairs our Star of the Month Jane Russell with the legendary Bob Hope. The film marked the start of the friendship between Jane and Bob, and there’s no doubt that the fun these two had together offscreen enhanced their performances in the film.
As the title suggests, The Paleface may not be the film for those sensitive to political incorrectness: it pokes fun at traditional women’s roles, traditional western heroes, and offers an extremely one-dimensional characterization of Native Americans. To enjoy The Paleface, the film must be viewed for what it is: a light, frothy, Western adventure romp verging on farce, with no ulterior political motives or intentions to hurt feelings.
If you haven’t seen The Paleface, you can rent or purchase the film on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
Calamity Jane (Jane Russell) is a deerskin-clad, gun slinging, Western tough girl serving time when a few unidentified cowboys help her break out of jail. The boys then take Jane to a government office, where we learn that Jane’s new buddies are actually government agents.
The governor and the commissioner of internal affairs are both aware of Jane’s prowess with a gun, and seek her help to intercept some guns they’ve learned are about to be sold to a Native American tribe hostile to new frontier settlers. If Jane agrees to help stop the transaction, the governor will excuse her from her crimes, and she won’t have to serve the rest of her sentence.
Jane agrees to the deal, and heads off to Port Deerfield to meet up with the government agent who will pose as her husband on the wagon train to Buffalo Flats, where the gun exchange is expected to go down.
But Jane discovers on her arrival in Port Deerfield that her fake husband is dead. The gunrunners discovered his identity and shot him.
Luckily, Jane’s identity is still unknown to the bad guys, and she begins searching for an innocent sap to marry so she can remain undercover and above suspicion.
You probably guessed that this is where Bob Hope enters the picture.
Bob is “Painless” Peter Potter, a traveling dentist who doesn’t know what on earth he’s doing, but proceeds to pull teeth out of the mouths of his poor patients anyway. Potter is a bit of a bumbling idiot, but he’s quite confident in himself…so that’s interesting.
One look at Jane in her fancy velvet finery—she’s disguised herself as a sophisticated lady—and Painless is ready to marry her on the spot and join the wagon train!
And that’s exactly what happens.
After a quick marriage, Painless and Jane begin their journey. While serenading the sleeping Jane with “Buttons and Bows” on the wagon train, Painless doesn’t realize when his horse strays from the path of the wagon in front of them, and he leads the rest of the wagon train into the middle of no where….
Everyone must bunk up for the night in a deserted cabin in the woods. And the next morning, they’re attacked by Native Americans.
Painless ends up in the thick of the bullets and arrows. Jane throws him a gun, and he starts shooting. Unfortunately, Painless can’t even aim the gun, and he ends up shooting all his bullets straight into the ground.
But, with his great ego, Painless mistakenly believes that he’s the sharp shooter keeping the attackers at bay.
Actually it’s Jane, standing behind Painless with a riffle, whose bullets take down the enemy.
But the rest of the settlers don’t know this, so Painless is hailed the hero who saved them from death. Jane doesn’t correct the misconception because she knows it helps keep her agent status under wraps: Painless’ “heroism” convinces the gunrunners in the group that he’s the government agent they need to get rid of.
Once the wagon train arrives in Buffalo Flats, Painless is further hailed by the townspeople, and he gets a little big-headed. Eventually Painless’ hot-stuff attitude gets him in big trouble, and he’s challenged to a duel by the local town creep. Jane thinks she couldn’t care less if Painless dies in the duel, but just as he’s about to be shot, Jane saves his life, and shoots the other guy. Jane’s finally fallen in love with her husband, and realizes she doesn’t want him to die.
And wouldn’t you know it, once again, everyone credits Jane’s quick draw and aim to Painless.
Jane Comes Clean
Jane professes her love, and finally comes clean to Painless about her mission. He helps her uncover some dynamite the gunrunners are planning to sell to the Native Americans.
But Painless just isn’t that suave or sneaky, so he and Jane end up captured by the bad guys, and are taken to the Native American village for a tortuous death.
Painless' Lucky Break
But luck is on their side: rather than being split in two by the trees Painless is straddled on and tied to, he’s merely catapulted up into the air, and lands in the forest.
But Jane is still captured and about to be burned at the stake! So what does Painless do?
Why, he steals the clothes of the tribe’s banished Medicine Man, of course. Then Painless goes back to the Native American village dressed as Medicine Man, and dumps gunpowder everywhere while dancing around to evade capture.
When Painless finally is captured and tied to the stake, he’s already cut Jane’s bonds and lit the gunpowder…so Jane cuts Painless free, and they hightail it out of the village in the covered wagon with the dynamite.
A harrowing wagon chase ensues, but Jane and Painless escape in an explosion of dynamite.
Basically A Happy Ending
The film ends with Painless and Jane all ready to start their life together, looking happy and gorgeous as they set out in their new surrey with the fringe on top.
…but Jane ends up with her face in the mud and her white dress ruined when the horses start to run and pull her out of the surrey.
As Painless tells the camera before fade out,
“What’d you expect, a happy ending?”
And that’s the end of the film.
Jane Russell: The Movie Star Who Didn’t Make Movies
If you remember from my Jane Russell introduction article, Jane’s first film, The Outlaw (1943), really wasn’t seen by the general public until 1946: the film enjoyed a limited release in 1943, but was quickly pulled from theaters for violating the Hays Code moral stipulations. So from about 1941-1946, Jane was more famous for all The Outlaw publicity photos and Howard Hughes’ very public fight with the sensors than she was for the movies she made, simply because very few people had actually seen a Jane Russell film.
Jane still enjoyed a relative amount of anonymity by the time she married her first husband, Robert Waterfield, on April 24, 1943. So when Waterfield was drafted, Jane, like any other war bride, packed her bags and followed Robert to Fort Benning, Georgia for Officer’s Training School.
Now, you may have thought that since Jane was technically already a movie star, a popular pin-up—with an air force unit named “Russell’s Raiders” after her no less—and photos of her from The Outlaw were circulated the world over, that she would have received some sort of special star treatment during this time as a young war bride in Fort Benning.
Well, she didn’t.
At least not at first.
"The Movie Star War Bride"
As Jane writes in her autobiography [aff. link], when she arrived in Fort Benning:
“No one in town knew me from Adam…”
Jane looked for housing accommodations, just like everyone else. Fort Benning was crowded with other war brides doing the same thing, so Jane split her time between staying in the visitor’s barracks, complete with a communal bathroom, and renting a room in a house she found in Columbus, Georgia with “kitchen privileges.”
Sounds like the life of a glamorous movie star, doesn’t it?
During that hot Georgia summer, Jane also had to look for a job, as Howard Hughes suspended her contract with him when she left California.
Once again, Jane’s movie star status was of no advantage to her. She eventually found work in a beauty salon. As Jane shares in her autobiography, [aff. link]:
“Jobs were scarce…I finally talked a beauty shop owner into letting me do makeups. I wasn’t fit for much else. Of course, in that heat, makeup just ran off. That job lasted only for a couple of weeks.”
Hard to imagine Jane accepting an everyday job after playing the female lead in a major Hollywood film, but Jane Russell was a trooper without ego.
Eventually, Jane’s status in Fort Benning did change. As Jane remembered,
“…I was walking down the street one day and heard my name. I turned and saw Kenny Morgan, Lucille Ball’s brother-in-law…Kenny was into publicity and later became the head of publicity for Desilu.
The next thing I knew, a newspaperman was getting a story and pictures of Jane Russell, the ‘movie star war bride.’ I was annoyed at the time, but it certainly taught me the value of red carpet treatment. I received a phone call the next day and suddenly we had two bedrooms, a bath, a living room, and a kitchen all furnished to ourselves. Praise the Lord and Kenny Morgan.”
Fame & Football
Jane’s husband Robert played football on his regiment’s team in Fort Benning, and led the 176th to victory in the championship game. But victory came at a cost, and Robert was badly injured during the game. The injury was so severe that, as Jane put it, his knee “swelled up to twice its normal size.” Robert was taken to a hospital in Atlanta before being honorably discharged.
When Robert’s knee finally did heal, it was back to football for the Waterfields. Robert played football for UCLA while finishing up school there, and was then picked to play quarterback for the 1944 All Star Game before being named Most Valuable Player, “the Academy Awards of football,” in Jane’s words. Robert’s career was certainly moving faster than Jane’s at this point.
But Jane was still being offered plum roles. And one of those roles was Calamity Jane in The Paleface (1948).
The Paleface: A Dream Film Opportunity
When Jane got the call from her agent to meet him at Paramount Pictures for a meeting with Bob Welch, the man who would produce The Paleface (1948), she arrived in an eccentric outfit, complete with bohemian printed shorts underneath an open skirt, a matching top, and wind-whipped hair from her drive to Paramount in the convertible Robert bought her for Christmas.
Sounds like a cute outfit to me, but Jane’s agent almost had a heart attack. Here she was, trying to get a big film role—her first in over a year—and Jane waltzes into Paramount looking like a California hippie.
But Jane’s agent needn’t have worried, for Welch, as Jane remembered:
“Didn’t mind my outfit, and he loved me. Finally, after we’d chatted, I found out I was wanted for a picture called The Paleface playing opposite Bob Hope. Wow!”
Jane happily accepted the role. But the start of filming was delayed because Bob Hope, while vacationing with his family in South America, spent a little too much time in the sun, and returned to the US with such a terrible sunburn, it almost turned to blood poisoning. The burn was so bad, Bob couldn’t complete the train ride back to California from New York: he had to get off the train in Chicago and spend a few days in the hospital while he recovered.
The Paleface (1948) Friendships
Once filming began, Jane and Bob became fast friends. Jane said of Bob that:
“Bob Hope was a ball, another Gemini. He’s even funnier off screen than on, and everything’s relaxed except his chocolate eyes, which never stop darting, never missing a thing.”
Bob affectionately nicknamed Jane “Lumpy,” and always included her in his list of favorite co-stars because she was “fun” and not afraid “to quip back” at his teasing. This comical quote from Bob’s book, The Road to Hollywood [aff. link], which obviously refers to Jane’s physical attributes, perfectly illustrates the comfortable and comical friendship he shared with Jane:
“The Paleface had a lot of things going for it. Among the most outstanding: Jane Russell, a Howard Hughes discovery. He was looking at the mountains one day and a couple of them moved.”
Oh that Bob.
Bob's Jokes on The Paleface Set
Bob Hope was known for his jokes and teasing on his film sets. One day while filming The Paleface, director Norman McLeod, a soft-spoken man with, according to Jane, “his own brand of quiet humor,” was the brunt of a Hope joke:
“One early afternoon when the lights had to be changed, which took a bit of time, Bob said, ‘Well, I think we’ll get this tomorrow; there’s still time to get in a few holes of golf. I’ll see you later.’ And he walked off the huge sound stage. When he got to the door Norman stomped his foot and said softly, ‘Bob, you come back here.’ Bob, of course, was gone. We all broke up laughing and went home.”
I guess when you’re a superstar of Bob Hope’s status, you can carry your jokes that far!
The Paleface: A Smash Hit
When The Paleface premiered in December of 1948, critics were for the most part positive, but audiences went uniformly crazy for the film. The Paleface earned $4.5 million at the box office, and became the most successful solo film of Bob Hope’s career. (In part because Bob could heavily promote The Paleface with his touring radio troupe in the months before the film’s release. His singer in the troupe at the time was none other than Doris Day.)
The Paleface is certainly one of Bob Hope’s best film performances, partly due to the well-crafted script by Frank Tashlin. Tashlin, who also wrote and directed The Paleface sequel, 1952’s Son of Paleface (again starring Jane and Bob), wrote The Paleface in such a way as to incorporate Bob Hope’s comedy gags into the story: The Paleface isn’t just a string of Bob Hope jokes and facials pasted together. Every Hope one-liner and bit of physical comedy is expertly crafted into the storyline, and the film shines as a result.
Jane is Bob’s straight man in The Paleface. She’s the perfect springboard for his jokes, and the dose of reality that keeps Bob’s zany character grounded.
Jane’s inspiration for her Calamity Jane characterization was none other than her husband, Robert Waterfield. Robert, teasingly called “stone-faced” by his friends and family, was a stalwart, quiet type. It took a lot to get a reaction out of Robert Waterfield, and Jane knew this was exactly the sort of quality her Calamity Jane needed:
“The script by Frank Tashlin was a delight, and I discovered that my role was like a ‘female Bob Waterfield’—dry and flat. When the critics later said I was ‘expressionless,’ I knew I managed to hit it: a stone face.”
Hit Songs: Not Just for Bing Crosby
“Buttons and Bows,” the film’s big song, won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1949 Academy Awards. But according to Bob Hope, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans had quite a hard time writing it.
Their first go was nixed by Bob and producer Bob Welch: Hope and Welch wanted a song that would keep with the Old West period feel of the film, so, as Bob Hope shared, it was:
“Back to the drawing board for Livingston and Evans. As they returned to their office in the music building, Ray suggested a title: ‘Buttons and Bows.’ They sat down in their office and completed the phrase: ‘Frills and flowers and buttons and bows, rings and things and buttons and bows.’ Then Jay started to write a musical phrase to lead into it.”
And just about three weeks later, Livingston and Evans had it. Bob knew “Buttons and Bows” was the song the moment he heard it, and quickly learned the lyrics and filmed the number of him singing it to Jane in The Paleface.
Though Bob recorded the song for the film first, Dinah Shore’s rendition of “Buttons and Bows” came out before The Paleface premiered in December of 1948. Dinah’s recording of the song was a tremendous hit, and stayed at number one on the record charts for six months. Understandably, it irked Bob that Dinah got all the attention for a song he viewed as his in a way:
“Dinah’s record was a big smash, and there I was without a recording of my own hit song! I finally made a record for Capitol….”
And so Bob Hope added another hit song to his name. (1938’s popular “Thanks for the Memory” was also introduced by Hope, and became his signature song.)
Jane's Buttons and Bows
Jane Russell also loved “Buttons and Bows,” and it became one of her signature songs as well: Jane sings the song to Bob in Son of Paleface (1952), and she continued singing “Buttons and Bows” in her later years when she performed locally around her Santa Maria home.
Watch the video below to hear Jane sing “Buttons and Bows” and two of her other hit songs at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in 2004. At 83 years old, Jane was still gorgeous and cracking jokes.
That's It for The Paleface (1948)!
And that wraps it up for 1948’s The Paleface.
Join me next week for the film that introduced me to both Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).