That Old Feeling: Hope-ful Memories

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Thanks: Bob Hope, 1903-2003

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To judge from some early radio work, Hope still had things to learn. As emcee of Bromo Seltzer’s “The Intimate Review” (a 1935 show included on the “Best” DVD), he declares, “This is the voice of inexperience, Bob Hope,” and for once it’s not a joke. After spitting out a joke in the opening monologue Bob will laugh, nervously, and louder than his studio audience, which apparently numbers around six. With contributions from singer Jane Froman and the Al Goodman Orchestra, the show is more music than comedy, if that’s what Bob’s doing. “Hope,” he reminds his listeners, a little desperately. “You spell it with an H, not a D.” He would have to go to Hollywood, hire a slew of sympathetic gagmen and hook up with Bing Crosby before he developed his full radio plumage and panache.

While in shows and on the air he got extra money and exposure starring in two-reel comedies. “Paree Paree,” a 1934 short also on the DVD, reveals Bob (he’s 30 or 31 by now) still as an agreeable but not mesmerizing jeune premier. Again he shows signs of nervousness, clenching his fists or clutching a desk top. He had yet to learn how much the camera went for him, and that his comic attack could be more forceful, almost predatory, without alienating the moviegoer.

In the 1936 “Calling All Tars,” about two girl-crazy guys mistaken for sailors, he’s the straight man to knockabout comic Johnnie Berkes and to a series of sharp-tongued Daisies. (“You look good enough to eat,” he tells one girl as they stand outside a restaurant. “Well, I do eat,” she ripostes. “Let’s go in here.”) There’s lot of crude physical humor — some of it perhaps unintentional, as when Bob’s hand lingers in Berkes’ butt-crack as they struggle to get into a shipboard hammock — that climaxes with the fellas blowing up the ship and landing on a deserted island. That’s where Hope’s career might have gone if he’d kept making movies like this one.


MOVIE BOB

“Who is this character,” Kaplan asks of Hope, “for whom not a word is casual or unprofessional, of whose spoken lines not a one is ever thrown away (they cost money), and whose humor is oriented almost completely toward a success which he pretends never to attain but which he know he has in greater excess than almost anyone who laughs at him?”

That’s the Movie Bob, who burst into superstardom during the war. Kaplan: “Frank Tashlin saw that the two most popular performers (male) to come out of World War II were Hope and Daffy Duck.” (Tashlin would say that, since he had made Daffy Duck cartoons at Warners before directing Hope in four movies; but the statement is arguably true.) “Both braggarts, both self-centered, both divided between what they wanted to be and what they wanted to be seen as being.” The genius was in letting the audience in on the joke. Hope knew they would laugh harder if they could see the absurdity in what his character wanted to be seen as being.)

He knew that a movie star needed identifiable quirks, little trademarks, winks to the audience, and Hope had two: the mirror and the growl. “The growl? That was hiding in my body for years. GrrrrrrrrrrrrOOOOOwwwww! I do that today and say, ‘Remember when I used to growl? Grrrooooowww. It’s losing its bite a bit.” There’s the sense a Hope character loves himself because he’s afraid no one else will — he has enough to go around. So “I would never miss a mirror,” he told Riley. “I’d walk by one, stop, go back, ‘Oh yeah, how are you?’ People love that; they love it when you’re brash.” Little by little, Hope amassed these shticks into a pile to be ignited by the flame of his personality.

Bob bloomed in his seventh Paramount picture, “The Cat and the Canary.” In this 1939 thriller-comedy he’s become that two-faced comic icon, the vain coward. One function of this vanity is bravado. In “Canary” he seems to shrug off fear when Nydia Westman asks him, “Don’t big empty houses scare you?” and he parries, “Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.” But the next moment he subverts movie-hero machismo by saying, out loud, “I’m so scared my goose pimples have goose pimples.”

The Hope character is forever vacillating between cringing and strutting, sometimes in the same sentence. In “The Road to Utopia,” he walks into a tough bar and, without thinking, orders, “Lemonade”; seeing the contempt of the drinkers around him, he quickly snarls, “In a dirty glass.” (A great gag, repeated in “Son of Paleface.”) But the true Hope is the fellow who’s man enough to admit he’s a mouse. As he pithily puts it in “The Paleface,” “Brave men run in my family.” It’s all a function of the character’s selfishness. A tight situation with a pretty girl should stir his protective impulses, but there’s only one pelt he wants to save. In “My Favorite Spy,” Hedy Lamarr cozies up and purrs, “The closer I get to death, the more I realize I love you.” Hope: “The closer I get to death, the more I realize I love me too.”

Kaplan writes that Hope embodied his coward persona “with the confidence of one who knew that harm could never really come to him. He could wisecrack to gorilla and cutthroats and it was clear to the audience that th whole crew was simply working as employees of a benign American company. ... The position of the inept showoff — white body among the brown, smooth among the hairy, clumsy among the competent, cowardly among the brave — is Hope’s creation for the white middle-class American who wasn’t quite sure he was ready, by the time of World War II, to face death.”


AUTEUR? AW, BALONEY!

Hope fronted lots of entertaining films. Start with the 1939 “Never Say Die,” which climaxes in a shoot-out Hope can win if only he remembers his second’s instructions (“There’s a cross on the muzzle of the pistol with the bullet and a nick on the handle of the pistol with the blank”). Thumb a ride on the five “Road” pictures he starred in with Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Savor the “Paleface” tandem, and the “Favorite” trio (“Blonde,” “Brunette,” “Spy”); they’re all easy to take. But they don’t inspire many critics to dithyrambs of analysis; there’s no Hope cult. This is because — well, they’re no masterpieces, but also because they don’t fit the modern definition of movie art, even popular movie art. They’re anti- or un-auteur.

In today’s Hollywood, stars almost automatically are on call for eccentric directors working outside the system. Nicole Kidman, just off an Oscar for Best Actress, announced last week at Cannes that her film “Dogville” would be the first of three she’d make with nutsy Danish auteur Lars Von Trier. In the old days, though, few top stars were seduced by the foreign-auteur lure. Ask Hope bout Kurosawa, and he would’ve said, “Dolores drives one, but I’ll stick with my Chrysler.” Hey, Bob, wanna work with Bergman? Listen to him go all wolfish: “GrrrrrrrrrrrrOOOOOwwwww! Ingrid can get notorious with me any day.”

Even in the matter of choosing American comedy directors, Hope was too conservative or myopic. He was at Paramount when Preston Sturges in his sublime prime (1940-44) and never linked up with him. (Sturges’ two regular male leads, Joel McCrea and Eddie Bracken, could be seen as variations on the Hope character: one surlier, the other more nakedly insecure.) Leo McCarey, who had directed Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, teamed twice at Paramount with Bob’s pal Bing on two laughie-weepies, “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” that Hollywood threw Oscars at like quoits. Yet Hope stuck to the likes of Sidney Lanfield, Elliot Nugent and George Marshall — none of whom got noticed, or had any reason to be, by the double-domers at Cahiers du Cinéma.

Hope’s movies were not really directed so much as they were assembled. The director was the foreman in a building project; the screenwriter was the architect, and Hope’s gag writers (who added many “ad lib” bits of business to the script) were the interior decorators. Like most stars who straddled radio and film, Hope relied on his writers; unlike many stars, he often repaid the debt publicly. “Those great guys, my writers,” he apostrophized at the end of his 25th anniversary NBC special in 1975. “Who knows? Without them we might be celebrating my 25th anniversary as a used-car salesman.”


HOPE SINGS ETERNAL

We know Hope as a movie actor and TV headliner. We take on faith his eminence in vaudeville, the theater and radio. But Bob Hope ... pop star? You bet. He introduced more hit tunes than any other comedian. Two, “Thanks for the Memory” and “Buttons and Bows,” won Best Song Oscars, back when there was real competition for that award. He was no serious competition for Crosby, but the salesman in him know how to put across a lyric. His singing voice — an engaging light tenor that was trilly in his youth, more mellow as he aged — had the same clarity and confidence as his speaking voice. He could play a song straight or (when Bing was around) goose it into parody.

In early days, Hope was as much a song-and-dance man as a comedian. All six of his Broadway shows were musicals, including Jerome Kern’s “Roberta” (whose cast included Lyda Roberti, Sydney Greenstreet and a young George Murphy). Through his growing celebrity, or maybe through dumb luck, he got to introduce some hit songs. In “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936” he and Eve Arden sang the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin “I Can’t Get Started With You.” In Cole Porter’s “Red, Hot and Blue,” Bob and Ethel Merman duetted on “It’s De-lovely.” His first film for a major studio, the Warner Bros. two-reeler “Paree Paree,” was a compression of Porter’s “Fifty Million Frenchman,” and it allowed him to bring the instant standard “You Do Something to Me” to the screen.

He kept the streak going when he got to Hollywood. His early films with Shirley Ross produced three immediate hits — “Thanks for the Memory” (by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin ), “Two Sleepy People” (Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser) and “The Lady’s in Love With You” (Loesser and Burton Lane) — that survive as pop classics. The “Road” movies put the accent on comedy, in songs as well as dialogue, but Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke wrote bright material for Bing and Bob, and “The Road to Morocco” (“Like Webster’s dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound”) hit #21 on the charts.

As a singer, he was a team player; most of his best-remembered songs are duets: with Ross, with Crosby, and with the Clark Sisters backing him on Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Buttons and Bows,” the easy-gaited Western lament of a home-sick city slicker (“My bones denounce the buckboard bounce/ And the cactus hurts my toes”) that helped make “The Paleface” one of Hope’s top box office attractions. Another Livingston-Evans composition — “Silver Bells,” from “The Lemon Drop Kid” — became a Christmas perennial, especially on Hope’s holiday shows, where he performed it as a duet 17 times, the last (in 1993) with Dolores.

Hope snagged “Thanks for the Memory” when Jack Benny turned down the second comic part in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” and when Dorothy Lamour, the film’s female lead, graciously declined to filch it from Bob and Shirley. Over the decades it became a showbiz exit anthem, a gracious adieu; but it’s really a divorce song. It paints, with daubs of comedy and poignance, the meeting of ex-lovers who choose, briefly, to remember the good times not the bad. At the end, unwilling to let the sweet illusion evaporate, she and he swap lines...

Ross: Strictly entre-nous,/ Darling, how are you?
Hope: And how are all those little dreams/ That never did come true?
Ross: Awfully glad I met you.
Hope: Cheerio and toodle-oo.
Ross: Thank you —
Hope: Thank you so much.

Today we can acknowledge with amazement Bob Hope’s influence on American comic stylings and express our gratitude for the slick pleasure he gave the world. Hey, Bob, I wanna tell ya: thank you so much.


Part Two: Bobbin' Along

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