With several comedy westerns under his loose-fitting gun-belt comic legend Bob Hope was a dab hand at spoofing the wild frontier. Produced by his own company, Hope Enterprises, Alias Jesse James was his last such outing and opens with a jokey dedication to that most unsung hero of the American West: the insurance salesman. Where would the economy be without him? Milford Farnsworth (Bob Hope) is the most incompetent salesman at Plymouth Rock Insurance. His luck looks set to change when he lands a new client whom he fails to recognise as notorious outlaw Jesse James (Wendell Corey). Flush with cash from his latest robbery, Jesse takes out a policy for the sum of $100,000 bequeathing everything to his girlfriend Cora Lee Collins (Rhonda Fleming).
Realising Milford’s mistake, head honcho Mr. Queasy (Will Wright) sends him to Missouri to convince Jesse to relinquish his policy or else keep him safe from harm. A series of madcap misadventures bring Milford into the James gang where he winds up falling in love with beautiful Cora. Upon learning of Jesse’s insurance policy, Cora suspects something is up. Sure enough, the outlaw plans to have Milford pose as him and take a bullet, after which Jesse can marry Cora and collect his own insurance money. But Milford proves far luckier than anyone suspected.
By this stage in his career, Bob Hope was less a studio actor than his own cottage industry. The man who once, as Woody Allen described delivered lethal one-liners as if they were lighter than air, now cranked out cosy comedy vehicles for an audience long-accustomed to his patter, whether on stage, on film or more increasingly on television. While his 1960s output took a turn for the formulaic, here on the cusp of a new decade he delivers a wholly amiable affair. Alias Jesse James saw him reunited with Norman Z. Macleod, one of Hollywood’s most formidable comedy directors who had an array of Marx Brothers (Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932)) and Hope vehicles (Road to Rio (1947), Casanova’s Big Night (1954)) to his credit, alongside oddball gems like Topper (1937) and Alice in Wonderland (1933). Most crucially he directed Hope’s first comedy western hit: The Paleface (1948), so was undoubtedly a sure hand.
The film lacks the consistent energy of earlier Hope classics but enough gags hit their mark to make it a wild west hoot. Many have a decidedly cartoon flavour akin to the cowboy themed animated shorts of Tex Avery or Friz Freleng: e.g. when a shell-shocked Hope walks straight through a glass window, gets a dose of strong liquor that makes his hat explode, or - in the fantastically frenetic finale - leads a breakneck chase with legs flailing through a wagon and his ass rubbed raw across a log. One or two jokes do fall a little flat, notably Milford meeting the young Harry Truman, allowing staunch Republican Hope his dig at the Democrat former president (who’d been out of office for some time, so what was the point?). Still, there is an agreeable amount of inspired lunacy that ranges from the relentlessly cheerful Ma James (Mary Young) who insists her sons eat a full breakfast before they kill a man, to when Hope doses outlaws with magic mushrooms (!) which leads to the world’s slowest punch-up.
Hope can still fire those one-liners as good as any gunslinger and sings a peppy duet with ravishing Rhonda Fleming, whose flame-red hair was made for Technicolor. This was her second pairing opposite Hope after The Great Lover (1949) but she also brings a wealth of experience from her many western roles including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Pony Express (1953) and Bullwhip (1958), a wild west reworking of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Typically for a Hope comedy, the female characters are far feistier than the timid leading man and this extends to Princess Irawanie (Gloria Talbott - star of the wonderful I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) one of the best Fifties sci-fi films), a lovely Indian princess who takes a shine to Milford and gets him out of a few scrapes. Winningly however, Milford is not a total milksop and actually proves quite resourceful on several occasions, notably with a nifty trick he rigs to outdraw a rival gunslinger.
Of course facing down the whole James gang is still beyond his abilities which leads to the justly celebrated shootout where a whole host of western icons emerge to lend a hand: Gary Cooper (“Yup!”), Ward Bond from Wagon Train, Hugh O’Brian from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, James Arness star of the long-running Gunsmoke, Fess Parker from Disney’s Davy Crockett, Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, Jay Silverheels who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger, and everyone’s favourite yodelling cowboy Roy Rogers who earlier co-starred with Hope in the magnificent Son of Paleface (1952). Curiously, a scene shot with the great Gene Autry was dropped from this sequence and though several sourcebooks list James Garner among the guest stars, but the star does not appear. However, the sequence is capped by a marvellous cameo from Hope’s regular sparring partner Bing Crosby, who dryly remarks: “This fella needs all the help he can get!”