Posted by Susan Doll on May 10, 2010
This month marks the 107th birthday of Bob Hope, who was an icon of the entertainment industry for almost nine decades. From vaudeville to radio to movies to television to video/DVD releases of his films, Hope’s comic style and persona were remarkably consistent and adaptable from one arena of entertainment to another.
Anyone who knows Hope from his television specials and his stints at hosting the Academy Awards remember his breezy monologues, one-liners, and ad libs. Those who are fans of his films enjoyed his comic persona as the cowardly smart-mouth or likable cad, who could crack wise with exquisite timing. He could spray jokes with astonishing rapidity, or slow the momentum down with a calculated pause or double take. Hope’s talent was primarily verbal, but he was also adept at donning ridiculous costumes, handling a prop with comic aplomb, taking a decent pratfall, and reacting with just the right expression to his costars’ dialogue or actions. Even the way he strolled into a comic sketch or sidled onto a film set could be funny. Like many a former vaudevillian, he knew the comic value of making an entrance.
Few comic actors or stand-up comedians can match Hope’s verbal dexterity in the delivery of his one-liners, monologues, or asides under his breath. There was a lightness to his quips and asides that made his delivery breezy and funny even if the line itself was corny or stale. Despite the talented comedians working in movies today, such as Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence in Death at a Funeral and Steve Carrell and Tina Fey in Date Night, several mediocre comic actors seem to dominate today’s comedies, at least for the time being. I truly dislike those contemporary comic actors with man-child personas or nerdy star images who engage in bathroom humor to cater to the tastes of the primary demographic of adolescent males. Nothing bores me more than writer-producer Judd Apatow’s stable of unlikable nerds and immature slackers who fumble gracelessly into a scene, then race through their lines or spit them out with such force that all life is drained from them. Likewise, the films of Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and others of the Old School/Dodgeball gang are like the home movies of unlikable, overgrown frat boys who try to one-up each other with their manic ad libbing. I’m not sure if their films are unfunny because the actors’ comic skills are sloppy, or because their personas are not likable or sympathetic, or because the directors can’t shoot or edit comedy.
I am convinced that vaudeville training was the key to the exquisite timing that its “graduates” exhibited when they moved on to Hollywood movies. Hope’s years in vaudeville proved to be the perfect training ground to be an all-round entertainer as it had for so many other stars of the silent era and Golden Age. In the early 1920s, Hope and a partner broke into vaudeville as all-purpose entertainers, singing, dancing, and doing comedy on the Midwest circuits. They scratched out a living while refining their skills, but their schtick did not stand out from the thousands of other acts on the regional circuits. Hope finally found his calling in 1927 during a three-day engagement in New Castle, Pennsylvania, when he was asked to announce the following week’s acts to the audience. His gift for ad libs and quips delivered in his breezy style made him a hit with the crowd, which encouraged him to work solo from that point on.
In theaters around the Cleveland area, Hope honed his delivery and his routine, which was heavy on one-liners set up by a straight man, monologues with strings of jokes, and asides. One advantage of working vaudeville was appearing in several shows a day, six days a week, which allowed performers to refine, rework, and improve their skills and acts. On the small circuits, Hope played as many as six shows a day. His goal—which was the goal of all vaudevillians—was to play the “two-a-days,” which were the big-time vaudeville circuits. By the end of the 1920s, Hope knew he had reached a new level when he was booked into the Stratford Theatre in Chicago for three days, and his act of comedy monologues was extended for six months! Success in Chicago led to Broadway, where he worked off and on until 1933 when he was cast in the role of wisecracking Huckleberry Haines in Jerome Kern’s musical Roberta. The show was a major smash on Broadway and Hope received rave reviews. Roberta was followed by The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and then Red, Hot and Blue with Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman. In 1938, Hope found his ticket to stardom when he was hired to host an NBC radio show and costar in his first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1938.
I love reading about vaudeville, its conventions, its stars, and which of those stars went on to careers in film. Interestingly, volumes have been written on the silent film comedians, their vaudeville roots, comparisons and contrasts of their comic styles and personas, and their significance to American film comedy. But, verbal comedians like Hope and W.C. Fields lack the same level of analysis and critical assessment. Both good and poor biographies exist on Hope and Fields though only the Marx Brothers seem to have inspired much analytical interpretation of their humor.
While looking for an assessment of Hope’s comedy and its roots in vaudeville, I discovered that the comedian himself had written or cowritten several versions of his “life story.” Nothing too personal is revealed in these short bios, and there is certainly no intricate assessment of his comedy, but they reflect Hope’s style of humor. The books include: Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes cowritten by Hope with his daughter Linda; Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope’s Own Story by Hope with Pete Martin and Ted Sally; Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me by Hope with Melville Shavelson; I Owe Russia 1200 by Hope; Bob Hope’s Confessions of a Hooker: My Livelong Love Affair with Golf by Hope with Dwayne Netland and President Gerald R. Ford, I Never Left Home: Bob Hope’s Own Story of His Trip Abroad by Hope; and They Got Me Covered by Hope with an introduction by Bing Crosby. One of my prized possessions is a copy of the latter, which I found in a junk store in a tiny town in northern Wisconsin several years ago.
Published in 1941, They Got Me Covered is a short paperback that is supposedly an autobiography of Bob Hope. Two years later, producer Sam Goldwyn would use the title for Hope’s first feature film under the Goldwyn banner. The film was directed by David Butler and featured perennial Hope costar Dorothy Lamour. The book helped to promote the film, and the film reminded viewers of the book.
They Got Me Covered reads like Bob Hope’s life story as filtered through one of his comedy routines. For example, Hope remarks about his birth, “It was mother who discovered my nose. Up until then no one had dared mention it, thinking it might go away. Mother looked at it for awhile, then turned to father and said: William, call the doctor and tell him there has been a terrible mistake. They have taken the baby and left the stork.” About his family: “My father was the proud father of seven boys. In fact, he was the Bing Crosby of his day. Of course, he dressed much better.”
Of his early days in vaudeville when he played theaters in small towns: “One town I played in, the theater was so small I took a bow and some guy tried to part my hair. Fortunately, the usher made him put the axe back on the wall.” After arriving in Hollywood, Hope appeared in small roles in several films in rapid succession. He recalled, “I made so many ‘B’ movies I began to get fan mail from hornets. . . .” The jokes are written with the same rhythm as Hope’s verbal style, which depended heavily on adverbial phrases or phrasal prepositions such as “of course,” “in fact,” and “unfortunately” to mark the end of the joke’s set-up and to telegraph the punch line.
Even the introduction by Crosby is an extension of the banter the two exchanged when performing together. Hope and Crosby were very good friends offscreen as well as costars of the Road series, and their jabs at each other were all for the sake of a good laugh. Crosby began with: “Before I could go ahead with this introduction I had to ask my radio sponsor for permission. He absolutely refused to allow me to publish any piece of writing that was not connected somehow with cheese. ”
The style of Bob Hope lives on through his influences on other comedians and comic actors. Woody Allen’s cowardly persona from his early comedies was influenced by Hope as well as his preference for one-liners and quips. Ultimately, I found the best understanding and analysis of Hope’s comedy was offered by Allen in some of his writings. If late-night talk-show hosts Leno, Letterman, and O’Brien owe their monologue styles to Johnny Carson, then they also owe them to Hope, who inspired Carson. And, O’Brien readily admits Bob Hope as a major influence.
According to his family, when Bob Hope died at the age of 100 in 2003, he was shooting off one-liners to the end. Upon entering the hospital that year, he supposedly cracked, “I’m so old they cancelled my blood type” and, about his nurse, he noted “I’ve got golf balls that are older than she is.” Maybe he cracked wise to the end, and maybe the family just wanted to preserve his comic image. But, if it’s not true, it should have been. I prefer to think that when asked on his deathbed where he wanted to be buried, the Bob Hope I remember really did quip, “Surprise me.”
To celebrate Old Ski Nose’s birthday month, I am having my own Bob Hope film festival, which includes the following movies. Feel free to let me know your favorites.
The Ghost Breakers (1940). I don’t really mind that it is actually zombies rather than ghosts scaring Hope in this comedy, or that the zombies are in Cuba, not Haiti. I like this follow-up to The Cat and the Canary because it features Paulette Goddard (one of Hope’s strongest costars), the use of horror conventions such as lighting and angles to create a bona fide eerie atmosphere, and consistently funny jokes and quips delivered in rapid-fire succession. (As lightning strikes during a storm in the beginning, Hope cracks, “Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”) He plays radio host Lawrence L. Lawrence (his middle name is also Lawrence) who needs to get out of New York City to escape local gangsters. He hops the first steamer out of town, which is going to Cuba (an exotic destination for American travelers at the time). Onboard he meets Goddard who has just inherited a haunted castle (castles in Cuba?). Willie Best plays Lawrence L. Lawrence’s black valet, and the two have some great comic chemistry together, especially during a scene that finds Hope hiding in a trunk. Though West is genuinely funny in his banter with Hope, his character is one of those offensive stereotypes that are difficult to watch in retrospect, so if you watch this one, be aware.
Road to Utopia (1946). I love the entire Hope-Crosby Road series, but I will select only one to represent the series. In this entry, Bob and Bing play third-rate San Francisco entertainers Chester Hooton and Duke Johnson who skip town for Skagway, Alaska, where they get involved in a gold-mine scheme and with Dorothy Lamour. The fourth in the series, Road to Utopia ramps up the zany characteristics of the previous films to a new level. Comic writer Robert Benchley appears as himself, breaking into the action of the story to comment on the narrative, while the self-referential asides and gags have been increased. (Click here for a charming piece on Benchley by Medusa Morlock.) For example, while traveling through the Alaskan wilderness, Bob and Bing look at a mountain in the distance, which dissolves into the Paramount logo. When Crosby’s character loses a talent contest in the plot, Hope remarks, “Next time I bring Sinatra.” The French love Jerry Lewis because of the self-reflexive nature of his comedy, but this movie is downright deconstructionist. I don’t understand why the Cahiers du cinema critics never jumped on the Hope-Crosby bandwagon with the same relish as they did Lewis.
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). One of my favorite Christmas movies, The Lemon Drop Kid has dropped off the radar as a holiday movie, but I find it funny and charming. Based on a short story by Damon Runyon, the movie features Hope attempting to tackle the Runyonesque slang, but his breezy, rapid-fire delivery is not conducive to the writer’s distinctive vernacular. Runyon’s characters speak in a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang in present tense with no contractions, delivered in a measured, mannered style. Hope is just too slick. However, the story of the Kid’s efforts to establish an old ladies home for homeless “old dolls” of New York as a cover for his schemes features several good set pieces, and a colorful cast of character actors, including William Frawley, Jay C. Flippen, Sidney Melton, and Tor Johnson (of Plan 9 from Outer Space).
The Seven Little Foys (1955). A vaudeville veteran plays a vaudeville legend: How can I resist? Hope stars in this musical comedy-drama as Eddie Foy, the epitome of the vaudeville song-and-dance man. When his wife dies, Foy finds himself depressed and unable to take care of his seven children until he decides to incorporate them into his act. The high point of the film is a scene in which Foy dances with George M. Cohan, played by James Cagney who was reprising his performance from Yankee Doodle Dandy. (See below.) Two old hoofers playing two old hoofers in a film that is more than a biopic: It’s a tribute to the show business that Bob Hope loved and embodied. I don’t care in the least that the film isn’t remotely accurate.
Beau James (1957). During the 1920s, James J. Walker, a true bon vivant, was elected mayor of New York. His election was made possible by corrupt Tammany Hall, and Walker became merely a figurehead for them. On top of that, the very-married Walker stepped out on the town once too often with his girlfriend—a chorine straight from the chorus line. In the end, he was thrown out of office. Hope was given a rare opportunity to star in a dramatic role, though many critics and biographers don’t find his efforts successful. But, I have a soft spot for this movie because of its nostalgic depiction of New York City from the 1920s, and, as a kid, I learned something of the flavor and history of the Jazz Age through this movie. Beau James marked Hope’s second biopic in a row, which makes for an interesting phase of his career. After this film, he never played a dramatic role again.
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