Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.
I’ve checked out The Seven Little Foys from the local university library a couple of times and never pulled the trigger on it. I’m not sure why that is aside from the fact that it was a movie I didn’t desperately want to watch. But, I knew I had to get to it eventually, so it made sense to finally knock it out today. I mean, how terrible could it be, right?
The truth is that it’s not that terrible, but it’s also not that great. It’s a semi-biography of stage comedian/vaudevillian Eddie Foy (Bob Hope) and his, well, seven children and how all of those children wound up in his act. What I find interesting here is that, while this was made in 1955 and is thus a part of that Hollywood era that whitewashed a lot of bad behavior from the focus of its biographies, The Seven Little Foys isn’t really that flattering to Eddie Foy.
The film is narrated by Charley Foy, the second of the seven children. We start with Eddie Foy as a solo act, more or less performing comedy dance routines and cracking jokes. Foy is unmarried and wants to stay that way when one day a new act shows up at the theater. This new act consists of dancer Madeleine Morando (Milly Vitale) and her pianist sister Clara (Angela Clarke). Just as Foy is about to be discovered by major agent Barney Green (George Tobias), Foy finds himself playing second fiddle to a ballet routine, who seem determined to take up all of his stage time. Desperate to make sure that the agent sees him, Foy invades their act, turning it into a comedy routine, which turns out to be a big hit. He’s suddenly booked to play Broadway, but only if he can get the sisters to sign with him. They refuse, and Eddie hits the road.
But you know where this is going, right? Eddie really wants to be on Broadway, and eventually he returns from the road and proposes to Madeleine on the spot. Sister Clara is not happy about this turn of events, but the Foys are married and suddenly, true to the age-old Catholic doctrine of no sex without procreation, have produced a litter of seven kids, five boys and two girls. While Madeleine stays home with the kids assisted by Clara, Eddie continues to tour the circuit, not spending much time at home (although clearly enough to have a kid every couple of years).
This is where things are going to get a bit sappy. While Eddie is out on the road, and in fact getting an award from the Friars Club as Father of the Year, Madeleine is at home dying of a mysterious illness. She’s literally dying while Eddie Foy is dancing on a tabletop with George M. Cohan (James Cagney, reprising his role from Yankee Doodle Dandy). Eddie returns home to find Madeleine dead, the kids running wild, and Clara resentful of just about everything. Eddie spends the next six months at home letting the kids run wild until Barney convinces him not just to go on the road again, but to take the kids and incorporate them into the act.
And so he does. It’s a painful process and the kids resist, but Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys are suddenly a sensation and can book just about anywhere. Things come to a head when Eddie promises Clara that he’ll give them all a week off at Christmas only to find out that Barney has booked them in the venue that Eddie has tried for 20 years to get to that same week.
What I find interesting here is just how different The Seven Little Foys actually is from what it purports itself to be. I think that we as the audience are supposed to find this a good-natured, heartwarming tale of a man bonding with his children after the tragic death of their mother. That is what we’re supposed to think is happening here. What we actually get is Bob Hope spouting a bunch of potentially nasty one-liners at his kids.
The best parts of the film are when Eddie Foy is on stage. This really is the natural element for Bob Hope, and even in the artificial world of a movie, he’s much more at home on the stage. Off stage, he’s just kind of mean. Even his marriage, while clearly fruitful, seems to be more of an inconvenience for him than anything else. He barely knows his kids until Madeleine dies and spends almost no time at home. In fact, it’s strongly implied that the only reason he proposes in the first place is to get booked in the gigs that he really wants.
The high point of the film comes at the Friars Club, since it involves that appearance from Cagney, who hasn’t lost much of a step between Yankee Doodle Dandy and this. It’s great to see him in a role like this one, so different from the tough guy roles he’s remembered for. Cagney was a unique dancer, oddly stiff-legged but still very talented and entertaining, and Hope manages to stay with him step for step.
I really feel like just about everything involved in The Seven Little Foys is kind of a lie, though. The real Eddie Foy was apparently a stand-up guy. Cagney refused to be paid for his role since the real Foy provided meals for out-of-work stage performers (including Cagney) in the ‘20s. His being turned into a man who does little but make snide wisecracks here seems to be a sop to Hope’s style of comedy and screen presence. A lot of this is just mean-spirited. And even the DVD case lies. The top three billed stars here are Hope (naturally), Cagney (who appears in a single scene) and, Jerry freakin’ Mathers, who appears in one small section as Foy’s eldest child and isn’t even credited.
Evidently, with The Seven Little Foys, the cake is a lie, and it’s all cake.
Why to watch The Seven Little Foys: Cagney reprises his role as George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Why not to watch: It’s surprisingly hateful.