Reviving the Bob Hope legend.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 1 2003 6:06 PM

A Hope for Posterity

Don't let anyone tell you Bob Hope wasn't brilliant.

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Hope's particular genius, or inspired inspiration, was to see or sense how differently these traditions should be played out on film. Jason Robards once compared movie acting with the paring of a fingernail—so that was part of it. Play it small, and play it indirect.  Hope's double takes, in which the character wakes up only after the action, were perfect examples of this, especially when he followed them with Rule 2: "Act with your eyes," the director Mitchell Leissen once told him, and in the long, dreary history of advice, no piece of it had ever borne more fruit.

One can list the ingredients forever without capturing the magic. But at least two words must be said about Hope's preternatural sense of timing. It is a great subpleasure of the Road movies just to watch two top musicians of the syncopated era bopping lines and bits of business off each other—because in the sense of using one's tongue as a dueling sword, Hope was indeed a natural at verbal humor, so long, of course, as someone else wrote the actual words. The true miracles came, though, when Hope acted by himself and managed, by some sleight of psyche, to play both Abbott and Costello, going in a split-twinkling from the slicker with his eye on the main chance to the half-wit with the gargantuan weaknesses, and making it all work with understatement and a seamless line of chatter.

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To end this, as one should, on a sunnier note, if Hope's legend survives at all, posterity probably won't need to be told any of this. By then, Saint Bob of the Army Bases will have all but disappeared. (Does anyone remember how Chaplin spent World War I?) And Hope will be remembered for a handful of his best movies, which I leave to experts to nominate. But most likely Road to Morocco will be one of them, if only because like its country mate Casablanca, which came out around the same time, everything in it works perfectly. And I insist on one other: The Seven Little Foys because—is this possible?—it actually seems to be a confessional movie of sorts. The hero is an almost completely heartless comic whose only religion is the next laugh, to which he is prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything, women and children first. And Hope plays him unsparingly and, as they say, from the inside out. 

So is it possible that Hope was on to his own game all along? One kept hearing about what a good Catholic he was, but did that include examining his conscience? And being disgusted with it? Never mind, it isn't funny. Don't use it. Like many great entertainers, Hope had a private life, as hard to get into as Jack Benny's safe. So there, let him rest in peace.

Wilfrid Sheed, novelist and essayist, is writing a book on the great American songwriters.

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