The Bootleg Files: Going Spanish

BOOTLEG FILES 686: “Going Spanish” (1934 short comedy starring Bob Hope).

On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright enables anyone to duplicate prints.

The chances of a digitally restored version are nil.

Eighty-five years ago, Bob Hope made his film debut in a dinky little two-reel comedy. And thanks to an indelicate wisecrack about the film’s quality, he almost saw his film career end with that debut effort.

From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Hope built a reputation as a popular comedian on the vaudeville circuit. He did a screen test for the Pathe company in 1931, but it was not well-received. In 1933, Hope’s career received a big boost when he landed the role of Huckleberry Haines in the Broadway musical “Roberta,” and he quickly became the toast of the New York entertainment scene.

Based on his success in “Roberta,” Hope was contacted by Al Christie, a director/producer at Educational Pictures, a cheapo operation specializing in short comedy films, to star in six two-reelers at a $2,500-per-picture deal. Educational shot its films at the Astoria Studios in Queens, which would have enabled Hope to work on camera during the day and then shuttle back to Broadway for his evening appearance in “Roberta.”

Hope’s film debut was originally titled “Jumping Beans,” but was later retitled “Going Spanish.” Even by the mild standards of Educational Pictures’ shorts, this endeavor was painfully silly without being particularly funny. And while some of Hope’s charisma shined through, it nonetheless represented one of the shakiest debuts of a movie icon.

“Going Spanish” takes place in an unspecified Latin American country. Hope plays (what else?) Bob, an American tourist traveling with his fiancé and her mother in a chauffeured limousine driven by a local. They arrive outside of the town of Los Pochos Eggos and the chauffeur informs Bob that the annual “Don’t Do It Day” festivities are underway. On that particular day, a person can inflict insults or bodily harm on someone else, but all is immediately forgiven if the perpetrator starts to sing a happy song for the victim. The chauffeur demonstrates how this works by yanking Bob’s prominent ski nose and then singing a ditty. Bob tests this out by slugging the chauffeur and then adding his own little jolly tune.

Los Pochos Eggos is governed by a fat, woolly-haired mayor who dressed like Napoleon and whose presence is announced by a trumpet-carrying aide – the underling always winds up blowing his instrument square into the mayor’s ear. Bob’s automobile arrives in town and crashes into the mayor’ car, causing it to collapse. Bob gets out and further dismantles the car, cheekily reminding the mayor of the Don’t Do It Day custom while bedraggled official fumes, “This means war!”

Bob arrives with his fiancé and her mother at their hotel, where they discover their suite costs 75 cents per night – Bob adds the high cost is because the room comes with a rat trap. Downstairs, the daughter of the owner of a struggling store (singer Leah Ray – her character is only known as Seniorita) is singing in a café while the locals dance. Senorita and Bob eventually meet – she calls out “Señor! Señor!” and Bob replies, “At home, everyone calls me Junior.”

Senorita recruits Bob to judge the annual funny face costume, and he gives first prize to the mayor – even though the mayor is not a contestant. Meanwhile, Bob’s fiancé is wooed by a Latin lothario who dubs himself the “King of the Pampas” – and this character makes the fiancé reconsider her planned wedding.

Meanwhile, Bob and Senorita go to the local town hall so he can arrange his marriage. The only one who can perform marriages is the mayor. Bob harasses the mayor by asking if he combs his hair with an egg-beater and then assaults in him a manner that the mayor gets his fingers stuck in his ears. Back in town, Bob is approached by a man who waves money and asks his likes to play for large stakes. “Large steaks, with French fried potatoes?” Bob asks. The man is Senorita’s daughter and his gambling is an effort to pay off debts on the store – but he loses to Bob, who becomes the owner of the store.

Bob’s fiancé turns up in the store to ask that they terminate their engagement. Bob is eager to oblige – he is fond of Senorita, and tries to sing a love song to her but winds up getting interrupted by customers. One of these customers provides food to the local soldiers, and it turns out they consumed jumping beans – that become obvious because the soldiers cannot stop jumping. Bob and Senorita hightail it out of town to become a married couple.

Viewed today, “Going Spanish” offers a very primitive concept of what would become the Bob Hope persona. The character is brash and too eager to reel off jokey comments, but he is also much more abrasive than the later Hope persona and his penchant for violence seems like a carryover from the Mack Sennett era of comedy. The real star here is vibrant Leah Ray, who is a wonderful singer and a genuinely sexy presence. The trade journal Film Daily insisted that she “looks like a sure bet for pictures,” but the lovely Ray only stayed on camera for a few more years before marrying music industry executive Sonny Werblin and retiring to raise a family and pursue philanthropic endeavors.

“Going Spanish” did not get good reviews when it was released, with Variety complaining Hope was “at the mercy of poor material.” Hope realized immediately that he was in a dud, joking to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, “When they catch Dillinger, they’re going to force him to sit through it twice.” Winchell published the wisecrack in his nationally syndicated column, which infuriated director/producer Al Christie, who promptly cancelled Hope’s contract with Educational.

That should have been the end of Hope’s career – his barbed putdown could have branded him as too loose of a cannon for other studios. But Warner Bros. decided that he had potential and picked him up for a series of short films. Hope only stayed at that studio until 1936 and was off-screen for two years until Paramount signed him for a supporting role in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he sang a tune called “Thanks for the Memory.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Educational went out of business in 1939. Astor Pictures, a distributor specializing in both art house and shlock fare, picked up “Going Spanish” in 1940 and used Hope’s fame to re-release the film under its original title and again as “Bob’s Big Day.” Astor would combine “Going Spanish” with early 1930s Educational shorts starring then-unknowns Milton Berle and Bert Lahr in a 1948 feature called “It Pays to Be Funny,” which was released with an advertising campaign that gave the false impression all three of the funnymen were teamed for a new romp.

“Going Spanish” fell into the public domain years ago and has been available in terrible-quality duped prints for years. Considering its poor reputation, it is unlikely that there will be any attempt to digitally restore the production. Still, the film earns a footnote of importance for getting Bob Hope before movie audiences, and one can credit the beloved star for building a glorious career despite getting off on the wrong foot while putting that wrong foot in his funny mouth.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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