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  Seven Little Foys, The Keeping show business in the family
Year: 1955
Director: Melville Shavelson
Stars: Bob Hope, Milly Vitale, George Tobias, Angela Clarke, James Cagney, Billy Gray, Lee Erickson, Paul De Rolf, Lydia Reed, Linda Bennett, Jimmy Baird, Tommy Duran, Herbert Heyes, Richard Shannon, Charley Foy
Genre: Musical, Comedy, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 3 votes)
Review: Twice in his career, comedy giant Bob Hope stepped way from familiar territory to tackle serious acting roles. The Seven Little Foys was the first attempt and became one of his most popular films. Hope plays Eddie Foy, a legendary vaudeville entertainer, introduced singing and dancing on stage with his seven children: Bryan (Billy Gray), Charley (Lee Erickson), Richard (Paul De Rolf), Mary (Lydia Reed), Madeleine (Linda Bennett), Eddie Jnr. (Jimmy Baird) and Irving (Tommy Duran). “I’m the greatest father of them all!” sings Foy amidst their soft-shoe shuffle. The irony being, he isn’t. “This is the story of his tragic failure to remain single”, narrates the real life Charley Foy.

Early in the film, Foy is a hungry entertainer, so driven to succeed he distances himself from friendship, romance and anything not connected to the stage. When beautiful ballerina Madeleine Morando (Milly Vitale) and her piano-playing sister Clara (Angela Clarke) threaten to delay his act, Foy leaps onstage and performs his gags while she dances. Their combination of culture and comedy impresses showbiz agent Barney Green (George Tobias), who signs them up. Foy cynically wines and dines Madeleine just to keep her in the act, but her loving nature melts his icy heart and they marry, much to Clara’s consternation. Soon Madeleine is birthing kids at the rate of one a year, while Foy spends long periods away from home, treading the boards. At one point he can only wave at his family from a speeding train. Madeleine is so devoted she hides her ill health, until one night Foy comes home to find she has died. Out of despair and desperation, Foy ropes his children into the act. Eddie Foy and his Seven Little Foys tour the vaudeville circuit during which time the curmudgeon learns the hard way how to be a decent father. The children struggle through hard knocks until their act is the toast of Broadway, but Aunt Clara believes they are miserable and drags Foy into court.

The real-life Eddie Foy Jnr. made a mini-career out of playing his famous father on stage, in films and television and did such a good job, many were unsure whether Hope could pull it off. Fortunately, Hope pulled off one of the resounding successes of his career, although writer-director Melville Shavelson is due some credit. Shavelson started his career as one of Hope’s regular gag writers, scripting such delightful star vehicles as The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). He tailors the script to Hope’s established comedy persona (false bravado, greed, cowardice - yet lovable all the same), yet dares to make him downright dislikeable at times. “I never got nothing from nobody”, sings Foy to Madeleine early on. As usual with musicals, the initial solo number encapsulates need and desire. Foy is a man driven by desperation who prizes quick thinking, stamina and self-reliance above all else. These are the values that drive show business, but the film also charts his slow acceptance of love and family. Showbiz becomes a metaphor for the family: you’ve got to stick together or the whole thing falls apart. We come to understand Foy is reaching out to his children the only way he knows how, while he eventually realises how much they have sacrificed for him.

Poignant moments include Foy’s return home following his wife’s death (“Hello, pop. Just passing through?” quips Bryan bitterly) and when the children silently reject his Christmas gifts, because he makes them perform on Christmas Day. Foy isn’t a total monster. He memorably saves his son from a burning theatre, before going out onstage. Also James Cagney agreed to reprise his Oscar-winning role as Broadway legend, George M. Cohan - from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) - without being paid, because the real Eddie Foy gave him meals and a place to stay when he was a struggling, young dancer. Cagney and Hope’s barnstorming tap dance atop a dining table at the Friar’s Club is one the film’s finest scenes. Of Cohan’s soft-shoe routines, Foy remarks: “I did ’em first!” To which Cohan replies: “I did ’em right!”

The Seven Little Foys is a warm-hearted family film, peppered with Hope’s trademark one-liners, which (as Woody Allen famously observed) he delivers as though lighter than air. The musical numbers cannot compare to the great work of Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, but are colourful and amusing, and capture the flavour of vaudeville. Particularly the children’s antics in Chinatown. The young cast are bright and appealing, while Lydia Reed stands out as particularly ebullient (“Give me liberty or give me death!”).

Melville Shavelson spent most of his career wavering between lightweight, but likeable family comedies including Houseboat (1958) and It Started in Naples (1960) (both with Sophia Loren) and biopics such as Ike (1979) (about President Eisenhower) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) (with Kirk Douglas as General Mickey Marcus who fought for Jewish independence, alongside surreal cameos from Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne). He reunited with Bob Hope for Beau James (1957), the true story of disgraced New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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