Release Date(s)1939 (March 21, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Bob Hope is remembered today primarily for his annual TV specials filmed in locations around the world as he entertained servicemen with shows filled with pretty performers and Hope’s rapid-fire one-liners. But he was a major star in the late 1930s through the early 1960s, peaking in a series of Road pictures with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour at Paramount, his home studio. His efforts without Crosby, however, vary considerably in quality.
Never Say Die casts Hope as hypochondriac millionaire John Kidley, who believes he will die shortly of a mysterious digestive ailment and has gone to spend his final days at the Swiss spa Bad Gasswasser. Unbeknownst to him, however, a chemist has mistaken a dog’s stomach acid report for his. Having just wriggled out of an engagement to the much-widowed stalker of rich bachelors Juno Markoff (Gale Sondergaard, The Letter), he meets hapless Texas heiress Mickey Hawkins (Martha Raye, Hellzapoppin) at the spa.
Mickey’s father (Paul Harvey, Spellbound) has promised Mickey to gold digger Prince Smirnow (Alan Mowbray, I Wake Up Screaming), but she’s in love with hometown boyfriend Henry Munch (Andy Devine, Pete Kelly’s Blues). Kidley suggests that they both can solve their problems by marrying each other, temporarily. As they prepare to flee the spa for their “honeymoon,” Henry arrives and insists on chaperoning them. Meanwhile, the bypassed fortune hunters Prince Smirnow and Mrs. Markoff join forces to attack Kidley for cheating them out of their anticipated windfall.
The convoluted plot is overly complex for a Hope comedy and the laughs are in short supply. Hope plays a variation of his comic coward as he tries to extricate himself from a sticky situation. The screenplay by Don Hartman, Frank Butler and Preston Sturges strains to be funny but the jokes mostly fall flat. Hope is surprisingly restrained and doesn’t engage in much slapstick as in his other pictures. In most of his films from this period, he rattles off one-liners with machine-gun rapidity. Here, other stars share the screen and reduce Hope to an ensemble player.
Martha Raye, known for broad physical comedy, often upstages Hope with her antics, which are more manic than amusing. She also sings the film’s only song, the dopey The Tra La La and the Oom Pah Pah, as she cavorts across the screen. One of her trademarks, the comic double take, is hardly evident here. Director Elliott Nugent seems to have deliberately downplayed her best comic abilities. Her performance seems desperate rather than witty. She tries too hard, and it shows to her disadvantage.
Andy Devine is wasted in a thankless role and Sondergaard, looking glamorous, plays Mrs. Markoff as a clever banterer rather than an evil seductress, a role the actress could easily have handled. Sig Rumann (A Night at the Opera), a character actor always good for laughs, also seems subdued as confused innkeeper Poppa Ingleborg. Monty Wooley (The Man Who Came to Dinner) has a brief turn as Dr. Schmidt.
The one bright spot occurs late in the film, when a terrified Kidley meets the Prince for a dual. One of the pistols contains a bullet, the other a blank. Mickey passes a clue to Kidley in a tongue-twister identifying the loaded gun—“There’s a cross in the muzzle of the pistol with the bullet and a nick in the handle of the pistol with the blank.” This sentence is delivered again and again by assorted characters who progressively mangle it beyond comprehension. If you think this sounds like a precursor to the “pellet with the poison” scene in The Court Jester, made 17 years later, you’re right. The version in Never Say Die is a clever play on words that peps up an otherwise lackluster film.
The film has a hurried appearance, as though director Nugent was fighting a strict deadline. I got the impression that, with a few more takes in certain scenes, the jokes could have been polished better. At a mere 82 minutes, the film drags and fails to develop the characters. They’re simply familiar caricatures in the service of an overly familiar plot.
Never Say Die was shot by director of photography Lee Tover with spherical lenses on 35 mm black-and-white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray is sourced from a 2K scan of the 35 mm fine grain. A vertical scratch appears at the 10:40 point but quickly disappears. Clarity and contrast are quite good, with detail in Martha Raye’s costumes, streets of Bad Gaswasser, the Prince’s showy uniform, and Andy Devine’s striped pajamas nicely delineated. Painted backdrops of the Alps are obvious in this studio-filmed production, as is the use of process screen to suggest the movement of cars and horse carts.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is clear throughout despite being delivered very fast as if to pep up the pace. Raye’s performance is characterized by breathy outbursts, mugging and flailing, while Hope delivers his lines matter-of-factly. The score, credited to four composers, is light and occasionally bouncy in keeping with the subject matter. The song Martha Raye sings comes out of nowhere and is included to suggest the mountainous Swiss setting of the honeymoon inn. A key gunshot is heard in a dramatic moment.
Bonus materials on Kino Lorber’s Region A Blu-ray release include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Paul Anthony Nelson and Lee Zachariah
- Trailer (:55)
- Thanks for the Memory Trailer (2:07)
- The Cat and the Canary Trailer (3:40)
- Road to Singapore Trailer (2:38)
- The Ghost Breakers Trailer (2:15)
- Road to Zanzibar Trailer (2:16)
- Caught in the Draft Trailer (2:21)
- Nothing But the Truth Trailer (2:02)
- My Favorite Blonde Trailer (2:17)
- Road to Morocco Trailer (2:13)
- Road to Utopia Trailer (2:15)
- Where There’s Life Trailer (1:57)
- The Paleface Trailer (1:50)
- Sorrowful Jones Trailer (2:19)
- Fancy Pants Trailer (2:13)
- Alias Jesse James Trailer (2:13)
- Kino Lorber Studio Classics Bob Hope Promo (4:18)
The commentators note that Never Say Die is the second screen adaptation of the 1912 William H. Post play. A silent film was made in 1924. “Taking the waters” was regarded as a cure-all. With more than 2000 spas and wellness retreats across the United States at the time of the film’s release, the subject was ripe for comedy. Kidley’s butler is named Jeepers, a play on the P.G. Woodhouse character Jeeves. It also might be a reference to the pop song Jeepers Creepers, written in 1938. Bob Hope was a vaudeville and Broadway performer fairly new to films. Never Say Die was the first of three movies he made in 1939. Hope was a huge star from the 1940s onward but his work is not remembered that well these days. Though she’s top-billed, Martha Raye doesn’t appear until 18 minutes into the film. Both Hope and Raye had entertained extensively in the USO, and Raye was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. Like Hope, her name in show business hasn’t endured. She was married seven times. Hope and Raye made several movies together. Gale Sondergaard, who “carved out a niche” playing shadowy, evil characters, was the inspiration for both Disney’s Evil Queen in Snow White and the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. She was blacklisted along with her husband, one of the original Hollywood Ten, during the McCarthy era and her career never recovered. Focusing on a few visual gags, Nelson and Zachariah note how well movie directors can stage a joke. Rather than building to a crescendo, here the jokes are presented in staccato fashion, as needed. The writers also worked on Danny Kaye’s early films, which might explain the similarity between the tongue-twister scenes in Never Say Die and the later The Court Jester.
Though classed as a screwball comedy, Never Say Die lacks the sharp wit and sophistication that characterize such pictures. Though contrivance is an element of the genre, Never Say Die goes too far afield in its attempts to milk laughs from a labyrinthine plot. Fans of Bob Hope will be disappointed that the material isn’t up to his talents. Those looking to see Hope at his best should check out any of the Road pictures or The Ghost Breakers. Never Say Die is sub-par Hope and a tepid comedy at best.
- Dennis Seuling