Arr, mateys—gather ’round from aft to stern an’ hear a tale from the briny deep, about a wretched landlubber funnyman who… Oh, forget it. There’s no way I can write this whole review in pirate-speak.
Having buried a fortune in gold, the sinister pirate known as “The Hook” (Victor McLaglen, Rio Grande) sets his sights on a new treasure: the missing Princess Margaret (Virginia Mayo, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), who has fled from home to escape an arranged marriage. While on her voyage to the new world, the unsuspecting princess meets failed actor Sylvester the Great (Bob Hope, Road to Zanzibar), also known as “The Man of Seven Faces.” He’s en route to America after being booed off every stage in Europe. When the pirates attack, the two of them survive thanks to some quick thinking, a few surprise coincidences, and some dumb luck. Eventually, Sylvester and Margaret make their way to an island run by a corrupt governor (Walter Slezak, Lifeboat), kicking off more adventure featuring disguises, kidnappings, a treasure map, and more wisecracks and one-liners than you can shake a cutlass at.
Any discussion of The Princess and the Pirate begins with Bob Hope. This film is his vehicle, and he’s driving. Hope has a witty comeback ready for every occasion, and each character he encounters in the film gives him new material to work with, be it a stuffy governor, a demented pirate tattooist, or a crusty old landlady. But Hope does more than his usual shtick of self-referential gags and breaking the fourth wall. There is humor like that in the film, but it’s mostly kept to a minimum. Instead, Hope does some genuine acting here, rising above the “stand up comic does a movie” routine that we’ve all seen way too many times.
Virginia Mayo spends part of the movie as Hope’s straight man, but she also gets moments to shine. Some have argued that a spunkier actress should have been cast in the part, but Mayo’s demure princess makes a nice contrast to both Hope’s irreverence and the pirates’ ruthlessness. Walter Brennan (My Darling Clementine) really hams it up as the not-quite-sane pirate Featherhead, threatening to steal some scenes away from Hope. The film’s other performers mostly exist so Hope can bounce jokes off of them, but they do their jobs admirably, offering enough variety to the humor to keep the story going.
The Princess and the Pirate received an Oscar nomination for art direction, and it shows. The sets will take your breath away, whether you’re seeing the deck of the pirates’ ship, a seaside village, or the dingy tavern where Margaret first catches the eye of the governor. The costumes are equally impressive. Although his character is mostly a buffoon, Hope looks pretty sharp in his pirate garb.
Is there such a thing as too wacky? During the first third of the film, Hope spends a lot of time in drag, disguised as an old gypsy woman. Along similar lines is the extended finale, which relies on a series of mistaken identity gags. Whether or not theses jokes go on for too long is up to your own sense of humor.
Speaking of looking good, picture quality here is quite sharp, although there are some flecks and grain here and there. It’s never enough to be distracting, though. The 2.0 sound is nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. The lightning-fast dialogue comes through just fine, and the occasional musical number or pirate battle sounds great when they need to.
The only extra feature we get here is the original trailer. That’s unfortunate. There are a lot of people out there who have enjoyed this one over the years, and it would have been nice to learn a little about its history, the backgrounds of some of the character actors involved, and so on. For example, the trailer reveals that the governor’s numerous handmaidens were played by “The Goldwyn Girls.” Now, there’s got to be an anecdote or two in there somewhere.
Despite the lack of extras, the movie is nice-looking, inoffensive fun, and a welcome addition to any DVD library.