Grade:  B/B-


Not rated (would be PG)

Bob Hope comedies have been entertaining families for generations, perhaps because Hope’s onscreen persona is a likable, somewhat bumbling and cowardly, non-threatening kid version of an adult. Before Hope took his vaudeville shtick on the road with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby, he was paired with “Big Mouth” Martha Raye in a pair of screwball comedies. They had the leading roles in Give Me a Sailor (1938) and Never Say Die (1939), both of which involved multiple possible couples in a comedy where romance for the leads happened unexpectedly.

Never Say Die, which was based on a long-running Broadway play, is the better of the two. The writing is crisper and Raye and Hope (they were billed in that order) relate to each other so wholesomely and with a certain amount of naiveté that you begin to realize Universal might have been hoping they’d become the studio’s version of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. They’re not—probably because Raye and Hope don’t quite have the chemistry that Garland and Rooney did. But Never Say Die is still a fairly solid early comedy for both of them.

It’s a tale of two fortunes (and two fortune hunters), as wealthy hypochondriac John Kidley (Hope) gets a diagnosis intended for a dog and thinks he has only a month to live. He decides to put his fiancée, Juno (Gale Sondergaard) on hold while he runs off to the fabled spa of Bad Gaswasser, half hoping for a miracle but more practically wanting to go out in style.

Meanwhile, Texas heiress Mickey Hawkins (Raye) has her own problems. She’s in love with a bumpkin bus driver from home (Andy Devine) and wants nothing to do with Prince Smirnov (Alan Mowbray), to whom she’s been betrothed. Turns out the Prince, like Juno, is also a golddigger.

Screwball comedies from the late thirties and early forties often involved class clashes, disguises and mistaken identities, fast-clipped dialogue, romantic mix-ups, and farcical rotations of characters. This one works as well as it does partly because it was based on a successful play by William H. Post and William Collier Sr.— but also because one of the screenplay writers was none other than Preston Sturges, who elevated the screwball comedy to a sub-genre with his intelligent writing.

Never Say Die never reaches the same heights as the Sturges-directed The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story, though, because it doesn’t have the same level of sophistication. It’s a screwball comedy for the masses, without the subtly withering embedded commentary on the upper classes. While it’s also not quite as madcap as another Sturges comedy for the masses—the WWII-era The Miracle of Morgan’s CreekNever Say Die does manage to do a lot with the cliché that “three’s a crowd.”

Never Say Die is directed by Elliott Nugent, whose best film might just be Nothing But the Truth (1941), another one in which he directed Hope, that time opposite Paulette Goddard. Nugent is a storyteller first and a satirist second, and that’s evident in Never Say Die. Though the film isn’t one of the great screwball comedies, it’s still fun enough and wholesome enough for the entire family to watch—if the kids are so inclined.

Kino Lorber did an excellent job with the transfer, creating a brand new HD Master from a 2K scan of the 35mm fine grain film. For a 1939 film it looks really good. Bottom line: Hope fans ought to appreciate this new release, but so should fans of screwball comedies.

Entire family:  Yes (but I doubt younger ones would care to watch)

Run time:  82 min. Black-and-White

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1

Featured audio:  DTS 2.0 Mono

Bonus features:  C

Amazon link

Not rated (would be PG for some drinking and adult situations)

Language:  1/10—Nothing much here

Sex:  3/10—Hugs, kisses, snuggles, and a honeymoon that’s more wholesome than either the bride or groom imagined—though there is a shot of two pairs of entangled bare feet poking out from under the covers

Violence:  1/10—A shove or two, but that’s about it

Adult situations:  3/10—Children who have some inkling of what a honeymoon is all about will be as surprised as the adults at how wholesome this film is.

Takeaway: Bob Hope’s first four feature films also starred Raye; Never Say Die would be ironically the best but also the last of those early Hope-Raye comedies.