Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Bob Hope was a fixture of American humor for so many decades that it's easy to forget he was among the innovators of screen comedy in the sound era. His topical jokes and cheeky habit of stepping out of character to address the audience influenced generations of funnymen from Jerry Lewis to Jerry Seinfeld and from Bill Cosby to Bill Murray.
Like his fellow vaudevillians-turned-movie stars Will Rogers and Groucho Marx, Hope made it seem normal for an actor to walk out of his role and comment on the action around him.
Hope had the excellent timing to arrive in Hollywood in 1938, fresh off his success as Broadway star and radio personality. It was three years after the death of Rogers had left a void in movie comedy, and although Marx and W.C. Fields were still active, their movie careers were in decline.
Enter the brash, breezy Hope, who, it seemed, could do anything the studio asked. He sang "Thanks for the Memory" in "The Big Broadcast of 1938," jitterbugged in "Some Like It Hot" (1939) and was scared of his own shadow in "The Cat and the Canary" (1939). In this spoof of horror movies the Hope shtick was born.
He played the spineless wiseacre Wally Campbell, trapped in a haunted mansion with pretty Paulette Goddard, readily admitting that "my goose pimples have goose pimples." Almost all the ingredients essential to the Hope persona are there: the brave talk and cowardly behavior, and, above all, the topical references.
"Do you believe people come back from the dead?" asks Cicily, played by Nydia Weisman. "You mean, like Republicans?" Wally snaps back.
Overnight, Hope became a household name. He was reteamed with Goddard in "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), another comedy thriller, this time set in a zombie-ridden house in Cuba. And again, Hope made audiences scream with terror and laughter.
While Hope's byplay with Goddard was bubbly, his chemistry with his next costar, Bing Crosby, in the surprise hit "Road to Singapore" (1940) was dynamite. Dispensing with the convention of joketeller and foil, Hope and Crosby each cracked wise, sharing laughs, songs and the girl.
They made six more "Road" movies in the next 20 years, the best being "Road to Zanzibar" (1941) and "Road to Morocco" (1942), in which they graciously let the camels upstage them.
Typical of the Hope/Crosby banter is this sample from "Road to Utopia" (1945), a California Gold Rush yarn, in which Crosby says, "Don't be facetious" to Hope, who retorts, "Keep politics out of it."
Such verbal acrobatics led Ferguson to call "Zanzibar" the "funniest thing I have seen on the screen in years." But they led James Agee to say of "Road to Rio" (1947): "Enough laughs to pass the time easily and to remind you how completely, since sound came in, the American genius for movie comedy has disintegrated."
Equal to the best of the "Road" movies is Hope's work in "The Paleface" (1948) and "Son of Paleface" (1952), playing a timid tenderfoot opposite Jane Russell's muscular Calamity Jane. As the dentist known as Painless Potter, Hope tosses off double entendres such as "Brave men run in my family." In the sequel, written and directed by onetime cartoonist Frank Tashlin, Hope is essentially a human cartoon who keeps breaking frame.
By the mid-'50s, Lewis and Dean Martin (a hipper version of Hope and Crosby) had replaced the older guys as Hollywood's hottest comedy team. This left Hope to such nostalgia as "The Seven Little Foys" (1955).
Hope's big-screen career ended more with a whimper than a whiz-bang. There was the lackluster "Road to Hong Kong" (1962). And there were the pair of comedies with Lucille Ball, "The Facts of Life" (1960) and "Critic's Choice" (1963).
Still, it can be said of Hope that few comedians provided so many reliable laughs for so long.