Feb 2, 2008

DVD Review: They Got Me Covered (1943)

They Got Me Covered is an early entry in the spy parody genre, sending up such then-contemporary classics of international intrigue as Foreign Correspond-ent, Saboteur and Casablanca. Borrowing the basic premise of the former, Hope plays Robert Kittredge, the worst foreign correspondent in the press. Stationed in wartime Moscow, he fails to predict (or even cover) the Nazis’ attack on Russia or Russia’s subsequent entry into the war. Needless to say, this raises the blood pressure of his editor back home, an irritable newspaperman cut from the same cloth as Spider-man’s J. Jonah Jameson. Kittredge is recalled to Washington, where he has one last shot at saving his career when an informant drops the story of a lifetime in his lap, about a Nazi spy ring operating in the capital.

The inform-ant, naturally, ends up dead, and the story ends up in the hands of the Nazis, scrawled in an indeciph-erable short-hand. With the aid of his much more competent Girl Friday, Chris (Dorothy Lamour), Kittredge doggedly attempts to get it back. In the mean time, the Gestapo agents do their best to discredit him by drugging him (giving Hope a welcome opportunity to really ham it up as he gets loopy off a doped cigarette) and arranging a fake marriage to floozy showgirl Gloria the Glow Girl. The scandal catches on, so much so that when a cop mistakenly believes Kittredge is preparing to jump off a bridge and starts to talk him out of it, he changes his mind as soon as he finds out who it is. "Oh, you go ahead."

Unfortunately for Gloria, she does have some principals, and they cost her her life. "There’s a lot of freedom in this country," she says proudly, invoking the same wartime Hollywood sense of patriotism as Saboteur, "and I want to go on enjoying it." When she discovers who’s hired her to pose as Kittredge’s new bride, she declares that she "won’t work for swat-stickers," so the Nazi agents kill her, setting up Kittredge to take the fall. Now we’ve got a classic Hitchcock wrong man scenario, only played for laughs. Bob is a boob in the middle of a real, semi-serious spy plot. The whole thing isn’t zany, mainly just him. As with Inspector Clouseau, those around him tend to play it relatively straight (until the end).

Despite the troublesome contemporary themes (imagine making a comedy today about an Al Qaeda cell operating in the US!) and the deadly stakes (these Nazis aren’t afraid to kill), there are also some incongruous moments of absurdity. For example, when Kittredge comments, "You can’t trust that Hitler. He’d betray his best friend," the man across from him lowers a newspaper, revealing himself to be Mussolini! "Tell me about it," he laments. Likewise, the finale plays out with all the zaniness of a comic Sixties extravaganza like Casino Royale
Chris enlists her five female roommates as blood-hounds, putting them on the scent of a rare perfume. Soon she and Kittredge have tracked the Nazis down to their base of operations inside a luxury spa. Hope gets up to his usual antics (and they pay off well), like pretending to be a mannequin on a bike while the baddies discuss awful schemes (poisoning the water supply, blowing up buildings) in the same room. Unfortunately for him, they then decide to take target practice on the mannequins, and he’s soon pedaling... To escape, Kittredge dresses up like a woman and hides his face under a blow dryer, then under a mudpack, to avoid detection. (What else would you do in a spa?) Sadly, he can’t help but give himself away by wolf-whistling at "another" woman! (Apparently men really couldn’t control themselves at all back then.) He also manages to get himself trapped in a sauna box, like Count Lippe in Thunderball, and assaulted by a burly masseuse.

When Lamour finds herself in the middle of the chaos at the spa, she shouts, "This place is full of spies," recalling Robert Cummings’ similar declaration in Saboteur. They’ve Got Me Covered has a lot of similarities to that picture (including flag-waving, side trips to American tourist destinations–in this case, Niagra Falls–and frequent reminders of our liberties), but by openly parodying them plays more dangerously. Hitchcock’s movie was safe, its patriotism unrestrained. That’s called for in a time of war, but so is that other American liberty, the freedom to question your government. Even in a just war, like WWII, it's easy to get caught up in the movement and unfalteringly obey leaders. The Hope movie directly parodies the patriotism of Saboteur while at the same time embracing it–a neat trick indeed. In wartime, that makes it a slightly dangerous film, and therefore a little surprising, especially considering the star. It’s full of the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers (does that make it a Marxist spirit?), and as harmless as the hijinks seem today, it was a bold and necessary move to make light of the ultra-serious Hollywood war effort in 1943. Ultimately, They’ve Got Me Covered is just as patriotic as Saboteur, but in a much more liberal way.

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