When the musical Louisiana Purchase premiered on Broadway in 1940, it starred William Gaxton, a popular vaudeville actor who never managed to break into movies. So, when Paramount bought the rights to the show, all the main players were brought along except for Gaxton—the film would star Bob Hope instead.
The film’s one inspired moment comes right at the start, before the plot gets going. It opens with a scene in which a Paramount legal advisor is reading the screenplay for the film, slamming it shut, and declaring to his secretary that it simply cannot be filmed. The play was loosely based on a Louisiana senator named Huey Long, who was assassinated in 1935, just after announcing his candidacy for president. There was seemingly no way that this story, full of details of corruption and manipulation of government officials, could come to the screen. Unless, that is, the filmmakers added a disclaimer at the start, one we’re all familiar with: “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” So not only do we get an acknowledgement that this statement is often false, but the film presents it to us in the form of a short musical number instead of just text on the screen.
Unfortunately, that kind of ingenuity is missing from the rest of the film. Hope plays Jim Taylor, a dopey senator in New Orleans who a group of crooked businessmen conned into taking the blame for some of their shadier dealings. When Senator Oliver P. Loganberry (Victor Moore) comes to town to put Taylor on trial, Taylor must try to get some dirt on Loganberry to blackmail his way out of this mess. He convinces Marina (Vera Zorina) to try and seduce the senator, but ends up falling in love with her himself, and a love triangle ensues.
It’s hard to decide which parts of the film are worse, really—the long, stagey dialogue scenes, or the musical numbers dragging the plot to a halt. While the sets are gorgeous to look at, especially in Technicolor, their theatricality only furthers the feeling that we’re watching a filmed play and not a movie. Irving Berlin’s songs aren’t memorable in the slightest, and they’re often interrupted by particularly unfunny quips from Hope.
If the film has one highlight outside the opening sequence, it might be Moore’s exhausted performance, which is so bizarre that it steals the movie’s focus completely. Nothing fits together in Louisiana Purchase—the sets, the cast, and the musical numbers feel like they’ve been thrown together at random into a blender.