In 1944, Samuel Goldwyn expected big things from "The Princess and the Pirate," or else he wouldn't have earmarked it for Technicolor at a time when many films were still coming out in black and white. Even Hope's "Monsieur Beaucaire," released two years later, was shot in inglorious black and white. But Goldwyn knew what he was doing. Out of all the historical comedies that Hope starred in, this romp with Virginia Mayo and big-screen baddies Walter Slezak and Victor McLaglen is among his best.
Though Hope is well known for entertaining the troops and for those hilarious "Road" films he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, he also starred in an entertaining string of period costume comedies from 1941-59. He took his have-fear-will-travel act to the American West with great success in "Fancy Pants" (with Lucille Ball) and "The Paleface" (with Jane Russell), had a few hair-raising moments as the king's barber in "Beaucaire," and cut-up as a reluctant 18th-century stand-in for the famous womanizing adventurer in "Casanova's Big Night." But "The Princess and the Pirate" seemed the most comfortable fit for Hope, because it allowed him the greatest variety of talented actors to play off of, echoed the "Road" pictures in situation and structure, and managed to capture the spirit of the pirate-adventure genre while also infusing it with a few laughs.
Happenstance puts rotten actor Sylvester the Great (Hope) and Princess Margaret (Mayo) aboard a ship sailing from London to America. Sylvester, so terrible that he's been banned from performing again in the land of Shakespeare, is trying to escape his bad reviews. Margaret, meanwhile, is running away because her father won't let her marry the commoner she's fallen in love with. She's traveling incognito to hook up with her beloved. But their lives become entwined when pirates attack the ship, and the cowardly Sylvester dons one of his costumes to impersonate a gypsy woman in order to avoid being thrown overboard with the rest of the men. The pirates are captained by none other than the ferocious Captain Barrett, a.k.a. "The Hook" (McLaglen), who moonlights by working as a privateer in the service of a corrupt island governor (Slezak). Amid all the life-threatening chaos, somehow Sylvester finds the courage to help the princess, while a pirate a few doubloons shy of a full chest named Featherhead (a slender Walter Brennan, in a hilarious role) involves them in an attempt to steal The Hook's buried treasure.
Goldwyn went all out with this one, and "The Princess and the Pirate" was nominated for Best Art Direction and Interior Decoration for the splendorous sets, and also received a nomination for Best Score. But, of course, it's Hope that makes the film work, and he's a joy to watch, whether playing opposite the wide-eyed Mayo, trying to get a word in edgewise against an equally comedic (and crazily cackling) Brennan, or quipping for his life against the villains. There are two especially funny scenes where Sylvester bathes with the Governor in a nervous panic, and where he impersonates The Hook and faces the real thing in what he thinks is a mirror. As Hope reacts to each talented actor, his own comic genius takes center stage—though McLaglen seems to be having almost as much fun as the two bearded pirates, one of them real and one of them phony, shout out orders to the befuddled crew that's suddenly seeing double.
In a way, "The Princess and the Pirate" was familiar ground for Hope, because it starts out the way so many of the Road pictures did, with a bad actor/vaudevillian having to hightail it out of the country, meeting a beautiful girl, and getting into and out of new trouble. Along the way, there's a ton of jokes and a song or two. It's fast-moving fun, with Hope mugging for the cameras and even taking a few verbal potshots at Crosby, who puts in a cameo (and has the last laugh, twice so, because he won Best Actor that year for "Going My Way").
But "The Princess and the Pirate" also follows the formula for the pirate adventure and plays it straight a surprising amount of time, which makes the gags all the more potent and enjoyable when they come. There are battle scenes, swordfights, and a bravura performance by McLaglen that's as swaggering as any swashbuckler you'll see, and it's the straight genre elements that make this film a rousing success.
Video: The video is a marked improvement from the first (and long out-of-print) HBO Home Video release. There are less white flickers of dirt and much less graininess, which appears to be the result of a clean-up transfer rather than a major restoration. The colors are about the same, though, with those inescapable trademark gold-tones that characterized Technicolor. The 94-minute film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, which approximates the original theatrical release. All in all, it's a great picture, and fans of the Hope comedies might want to upgrade just for the picture. However, one word of caution. Some prints have one scene around the 1/3 mark where everything gets fuzzy and grainy, then it clears up again. There's also one spot where there's a speed up. I don't know how many prints are affected, but let's hope MGM revisits this classic on Blu-ray and gets it right.
Audio: The audio, however, is another story. For whatever reason, it was transferred at a much softer volume level than the previous release, and when you turn up the volume to hear the voices, depending on your sound system you might end up hearing a little electronic hiss. But again, the improved picture quality makes it worth your while.
Extras: There are no extras, except for the original trailer. Too bad, because Hope was so accessible that there have got to be a bunch of clips from the time he made each of his films, and films released in the Bob Hope Collection carried a number of interesting extras. This was, after all, a legendary American entertainment icon whose own memory deserves thanks . . . and appreciation.
Bottom Line: "The Princess and the Pirate" appealed to WWII audiences as escapist fare, and it still offers audiences a chance to get away from their troubles more than 60 years later. In fact, it's the kind of film that will cause people who aren't familiar with the Hope historical comedies to check out all the rest. Hope has so much fun onscreen that it's contagious.