That Old Feeling: Bobbin’ Along

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“How d’ya like this little juke box for Easter I have on?” a tuxedoed Bob Hope asked in the opening monologue of his first TV show, on April 9, 1950. “Pretty formal, huh? Of course, the real reason I’m wearing this little outfit is the fact that a lot of performers die on television, and if it happens to me I wanna be prepared.” He needn’t have worried. The 284 NBC specials he would host over the next 43 years averaged a 40-plus Nielsen share, making Hope, unquestionably, the highest-rated star in television history.

“The Best of Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection” compiles more than six hours of video and audio material, most of it from “Best of” clip shows: the 1975 “Highlights of a Quarter Century of Bob Hope on Television” (82 guest stars in two hours); the 1970 “The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the World With the USO”; the 1993 “Bob Hope’s Bag Full of Christmas Memories”; the 1995 “Bob Goes to War”; and a throwaway blooper show. Watch these to see the longevity and limitation of America’s most decorated comedian. I wonder if, in his invalid days, Bob did.



MOVIE SHTICK

The Bob Hope you know from TV was younger, and so, so much better, in a decade of Paramount movie comedies. The first Hope film I’ve seen that displays his trademark persona is the 1939 “The Cat and the Canary.” In this old-dark-house comedy melodrama he plays radio actor Wally Campbell, whom one character snidely subs “the original flutterbrain.” He’s already the chatty coward: “I’m not really frightened. I’m just naturally nervous.” He analyzes his behavior for leading lady Paulette Goddard: “I always joke when I’m scared. I kind of kid myself into being brave. Ain’t that silly?” In early Paramount films Hope had played the straight comic; in “The Cat and the Canary” he was the lead. That meant he and the writers could help shape the material as they did Hope’s radio show scripts. There’s a topical political joke (Nydia Westman: “Do you believe in reincarnation — you know, that dead people come back?” Bob: “You mean like the Republicans?”) as well as gags about Jack Benny and Bob’s favorite sport, golf. All that’s missing from his soon-to-be-familiar repertoire is a joke about Bing.

Which is odd, since one of the characters, the murderer’s first victim,  is named Crosby. Crosby had already established his screen and radio character: the smooth, genially aloof crooner. The great luck was that his persona and Hope’s should prove so perfectly complementary when they were paired in the 1940 “Road to Singapore — the first of seven “Road” movies” — and that their styles played off each other so adroitly. They worked together with the easy camaraderie of an old vaudeville team (and often began their movies with a peppy song-and-dance routine). Hope called this synchronicity “the mesh thing.” It has hardly an equal in comedy-movie history. In 2001, for a TIME.com consideration of Crosby, I wrote the next three paragraphs about the “Road” movies:



Superficially they were breezy comedy-adventures, Kiplingesque tales of two pleasant wastrels in a far-flung land. But they were really extensions of Crosby’s and Hope’s radio programs and personae: variety shows that were clogged with topical gags, inside jokes about golf and the horses, and light mocking of the stars’ cartoon physiognomies (Crosby’s ears, Hope’s nose and chin). Crosby is heard singing off-camera and Hope asks, “Who’d be sellin’ fish at this hour?” Another time Bob cracks, “Next time I bring Sinatra.” The proceedings were unabashedly ridiculous: in one of many self-referential asides, a talking camel (never mind) dryly observes: “This is the screwiest picture I was ever in.”

The “Road” films (the five major ones are the ’40s visits to Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia — Alaska — and Rio) were screwy, all right, but pretty shrewd as character comedy of a high, broad stripe. With the help of their writers, Crosby and Hope perfected two hardy comic types: Bing the lordly overdog, smart and charming enough to get other folks to volunteer for the sucker’s game; and Bob the scruffy underdog, too used to losing, too stubborn to give up. Bing was Bugs to Bob’s Daffy; Dean Martin to his Jerry Lewis; Bill Murray to Hope’s Martin Short; and, in “The Mask” and “Me, Myself & Irene,” Jim Carrey to Jim Carrey.

Bing is the sharpie, the con man, the cad to men and women alike. He sells Bob into slavery in “Morocco,” picks Hope’s pocket of his boatfare in “Utopia,” forces him into a dangerous highwire bicycle act in “Rio.” Crosby never apologizes for his dastardly doings, and the plot rarely smites him with a climactic comeuppance. ... “You know, way down underneath I’m honest,” Bing says in “Utopia.” Hope replies, “Yeah, but on top you’re a rat.” That was Bing in many of his movies: the rat on top.



I’ll just add that the prime “Road” movies were the five in the 40s: “Singapore,” “Zanzibar,” “Morocco,” Utopia” and “Rio.” — in seven years. Each movie sent these Yankee lads into some exotic clime to make light mockery of the locals: Orientals in “Singapore,” Africans in “Zanzibar,” Arabs in “Morocco,” Eskimos in “Utopia,” Latins in “Rio.” (Never to Europe: there, the natives would condescend to Bob and Bing.) I suppose that, in retrospect — or politically-correctrospect — the movies can be accused of racialism. They certainly celebrated the smooth wit and fast banter of these two Yanks; who wouldn’t want to imitate them? In that sense, America’s cultural imperialism never had two sunnier salesmen.



STAR SHTICK

Hope might have been a conventional leading man, if not for his nose — and the prosperous fun he made of it. As far back as his early radio days, the nose was a running gag (especially when Bob had a cold, and let’s pretend I didn’t say that). Crosby made frequent mock of it in the “Road” movies, and kept at it on a radio broadcast in 1951: “Has your nose always been like that, or did you have that ball-point put on it?” By the time he landed on TV, nose jokes were as much an institution as Hope was. A standard bit had Hope go nose to nose, smack up against another male star’s face, to set up the laugh. In one such face-off, Jack Benny abruptly complained,“He cut me!”

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