Bob Hope’s great work
You may think of Bob Hope as a sanctimonious coot, forever preserved in henna and escorted by rows of bimbos. But listen, folks, I really wanna tell ya: There is another Bob Hope — the good Bob Hope. In fact, the nearly irresistible Bob Hope.
Even if you can’t imagine sitting through one of his TV ”specials,” you shouldn’t ignore the Hope of yore. A movie sensation in the 1940s, Hope innovated a fresh approach to screen comedy, combining sly wisecracks and furtive ad-libs with vintage vaudeville shtick. The old Hope persona was a shrewd blend of cowardice and narcissism, not to mention timid womanizing (an oxymoron unique to Hope). He merged fearless buckin’ and wingin’ with functional singing, crude whistles, growly meows, and rapid eyeballing. The results wrought box office magic for nearly 20 years and influenced generations of comics, many of whom are today revered by the same people who consider Hope hopeless. Lenny Bruce (the ultimate wisecracker) thought of Hope as a progenitor, and so does Woody Allen (the great coward). Many alumni of Saturday Night Live play on the wise-guy attitude that Hope virtually invented, though they’re rarely as good at it. Personally, I’d choose one Hope ”Road” movie over the complete works of Chevy Chase.
But you don’t have to be old enough to recall the days when Hope’s screen persona proved popular enough to warrant adaptation as a comic book to appreciate the lost Hope. That’s what video is here for. Unlike many of his contemporaries who made the long show-biz haul from vaudeville to radio to screen to TV, Bob Hope did his best work in the movies. It isn’t so much his jokes that stick with you (though some do) but his delivery — abetted by expressive eyes, crinkled mouth, and a rich lexicon of body language. Although he is known chiefly for his verbal delivery, Hope rivals Red Skelton and Jacques Tati as one of the best physical comedians of the ’40s and ’50s. Sometimes he handles a routine so cannily, like the horse touting in The Lemon Drop Kid or the shaving bit in Road to Rio, that you lose yourself in admiration and almost forget to laugh.
Those are two of the six Hope comedies just reissued in honor of his 88th birthday on May 29. They aren’t necessarily his best (the wonderful pair of haunted-house movies he made with Paulette Goddard isn’t yet available on video), but they indicate the variety of his Hollywood career, the triumphs and the pitfalls. Hope made his first film appearance in 1938 and became a major star two years later when he was teamed with Bing Crosby for Road to Singapore, a blockbuster that led to six sequels. Road to Rio is one of the best: Hope and Crosby play song-and-dance men who inadvertently burn down a circus and escape to Rio, where they save Dorothy Lamour from her hypnotist aunt. Some bits of business were geriatric even then (the mixed-up-hats routine), but it’s amazing how much mileage Hope can get from moldy stuff like hypnotism.
A VCR remote control is the perfect tool to catch up on all his under-the-breath cracks and weird physical gestures. Most of Hope’s vaunted ad-libs were actually written for him, but since no one on the set knew when he would pitch them in, they frequently took the cast by surprise. Part of the fun of his movies, especially on video, is looking for those few frames when Crosby or another actor starts to crack up just before the camera cuts away.
In The Great Lover, a clunkily paced shipboard adventure, there’s a moment when Hope and a murderer (played by Roland Young) are conversing at a table, and you can glimpse them slipping out of character for about a second before the shot is abruptly clipped. Hope does some marvelous double takes in a fixed card game, but it’s an uneven film, with lame songs made fairly palatable by Rhonda Fleming and an oddly gruesome murder in the first scene. The best bit features an unbilled Jack Benny, who taunts Hope about his toupee.
For most of its running length, The Lemon Drop Kid does a miraculous job of avoiding sentimentality, the bane of several Hope films. Based on Damon Runyon’s stories about a tout who converts a casino into a home for ”old dolls” so that he can get a city license for soliciting funds, it has some of Hope’s best stuff, including a grooming pantomime that embodies vanity gone mad. It was made on the heels of Sorrowful Jones, another Hope adaptation of Runyon, and is much superior to the earlier film. Son of Paleface, on the other hand, is a less successful sequel to 1948’s The Paleface, Hope’s biggest money-maker without Crosby. Reunited with Jane Russell in the Old West, Hope has some fine moments, including a memorable attempt to talk his way out of having struck a match on an Indian he thought was wooden, but the accent here is on director Frank Tashlin’s elaborate visual gags. The movie looks great and moves fast, but Hope sometimes gets lost in all the action, and Roy Rogers, parodying himself, nearly steals the show.
Anyone with an interest in the early days of American show business will want to see The Seven Little Foys, in which Hope does a smashing impression of vaudevillian Eddie Foy. The film has plenty of problems, beginning with a script that ignores many of the highlights of Foy’s career (such as the time he performed for Wyatt Earp in Dodge City) in favor of his marital problems. You can cut the sentimental hooey with a knife. Milly Vitale as Mrs. Foy is a bore, and the couple’s kids, those seven little Foys (including Billy Gray of Father Knows Best fame) are too cute by half. But the musical numbers smack of authenticity, as does the voice-over by Eddie Foy Jr.; and the dance number by Hope and James Cagney, who too briefly re-creates his portrayal as George M. Cohan (whom he played in 1942’s Yankee Doddle Dandy), is enchanting.
Hope’s film career ended with Cancel My Reservation, and he was lucky to get off so easily. Much of the film is simply a bad Hope monologue recited on the soundtrack while we watch him doing nothing. The cast is a promising mixture of veterans (Eva Marie Saint, Keenan Wynn, Ralph Bellamy) and one notable newcomer (Anne Archer, of Fatal Attraction),but the material — which has to do with murder, television, and Indian land rights — doesn’t give them a chance. Only in the best of his early films, those made between 1938 and 1955, does Hope indeed spring eternal.
Road to Rio: B+
The Lemon Drop Kid: B+
The Great Lover: B-
Son of Paleface: B-
The Seven Little Foys: B+
Cancel My Reservation: F