Nobody can spoof a genre quite like Bon Hope. In My Favorite Brunette, he spoofs film noir, in My Favorite Blonde, it’s Hitchcock spy/thrillers. He spoofed westerns, gangster films, ghost stories and in Casanova’s Big Night, he aims at the swashbuckler.
Made in 1954 in glorious Technicolor, replete with extraordinary costumes of extraordinary color (the women’s costumes were by Edith Head, who must have had a ball, though Yvonne Wood probably wasn’t bored designing the men’s clothes, either), Casanova’s Big Night has an excellent cast who all look like they are having the most tremendously good time and might start laughing any minute.
Bob Hope is Pippo Popolino, Casanova’s tailor’s apprentice. He disguises himself as Casanova in the hope of stealing a kiss from one of Casanova’s paramours, the merchant grocer widow Francesca Bruni (Joan Fontaine – definitely looking like she would like to laugh at any moment). However, his ruse is discovered and the real Casanova appears (delightfully played by an uncredited Vincent Price). Casanova, it turns out, has not paid his bills in many months, even to his grocer/paramour, and although she does like his kisses, she would prefer her money. He tells her to bring all the merchants to his home the following morning and they will be paid.
The merchants arrive en masse to be let into the house by Casanova’s snaky valet, Lucio (Basil Rathbone), who says he hasn’t been paid in eighteen months, either. Lucio then discovers a note left by Casanova informing him that he has skipped town. At the same time, the Duchess of Castelbello has arrived from Genoa and she wants to hire Casanova to test the fidelity of her future daughter-in-law, Elena (Audrey Dalton). If he can steal her petticoat, then she has obviously been unfaithful. The merchants and Lucio see a perfect way to recoup their losses and talk Pippo into posing as Casanova and going to Venice – where Elena lives – to try and steal the petticoat. Francesca and Lucio will go with him, to guide and try to instruct him on how to be Casanova.
In brief moments, then (all too brief) who have a Pygmalion set up with Lucio and Francesca trying to mold Pippo into the shape they want him. But they fail miserably. As Lucio later tells him, “You will never be anyone other than Pippo Popolino and I can’t think of anything more insulting.” There is also a hilarious moment when Lucio, demonstrating with Francesca, shows Pippo how to kiss, how to fight and how, in extreme cases, to kiss and fight at the same time.
Once in Venice, Pippo discovers the trials of being Casanova. There is a rather complicated political situation going on, with the Doge of Venice (Arnold Moss) wanting to make war on Genoa. If Casanova were to steal the petticoat of Elena and the Duchess of Castelbello were to then break of the engagement of her son to Elena, then it would be an insult to Venice and the Doge could then go to war with Genoa. Meanwhile, the Doge’s sidekick, Foressi (John Carradine) is not convinced that Pippo is really Casanova and devises various tests for him, including a duel. And also meanwhile, Pippo has met Elena and finds that he cannot bring himself to ruin her reputation and refuses to steal her petticoat, despite the Doge’s offer to assist him any way he can.
Bob Hope’s persona was always that of a coward, with a good heart, who often lets the women do the heroic stuff that the guys usually do and Casanova’s Big Night is no exception. In the movie, it is actually Joan Fontaine who does most of the swashbuckling. She breaks into prison to rescue Pippo, she fences her way out of the prison while Pippo clutches his bundle of clothes, and when they jump into a gondola, she is the one to row them away. Pippo’s great talent is that he can sew.
And in an extension of this role reversal, when they crash the Doge’s party it is with Pippo dressed as a woman, while Francesca is dressed as a man. Francesca tries to get in touch with Elena while Pippo wangles a dance with the Doge, though the petticoat he stuffed down his dress to give him more shape keeps slipping.
Perhaps not exactly sophisticated or deep, Casanova’s Big Night has a high entertainment factor for me and I think one of the reasons is that the cast really does look like they are having a ball. It looks like so much fun to be in this movie, that I almost wished I could be, too.