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.

Getting the short shrift in obits
Getting the short shrift in obits

It may seem a bit too soon to subject the late Bob Hope to the indignities of revisionism, but then again, there may not be a moment to lose. The shelf life of defunct celebrities can be wildly unpredictable, but already the Hope legend seems much smaller than it did just a few days ago, perhaps almost too small to bother with.

In which case, a spot of revisionism may be the only way to save what I believe to be a truly important actor for posterity. Because the official version is never going to do it. Anyone, now or in the future, meeting Hope for the first time in his eulogies will find him, I think, a likable, feel-good kind of fellow, not unlike the old door-to-door salesman that they used to make all those jokes about, with an unimpeachable appetite for military bases and an ungodly one for politicians and Army brass. What they would not have seen is a great comedian or even a terribly good one: just a purveyor of gags and attitude who must have made a nice change from Army routine, but not that much of a change, because Hope's style of kidding was probably quite like the soldiers' own.

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In analyzing even the elements of Hope's career that deserve saving, it probably pays to stay near the surface for a while and to stick close also to the concept of "ham"—a quality that rose out of neediness, not incompetence. As a young vaudevillian, he had come of professional age gazing, no doubt, at his share of empty seats and worse, at an army of backs receding down aisles, and had fallen in hopeless, lifelong love with the sight of an audience, any audience, turned the right way. And for Bob, as for Bill Clinton and so many other hams, there seems to have been the inevitable addendum, "And you, ma'am, would you especially look at me?" 

But the subject here is comedy, and the short answer is that yes, he was indeed a great comedian—in the movies—but that, thanks to his long life, he also had time to be an extremely bad one—on radio—and after that time still to be a mixture of both, as he turned America's military commitments into a species of vaudeville circuit, where he could do bits of everything he knew to packed houses and laugh-starved audiences that were government-guaranteed not to go anywhere. (If he was a superpatriot as well, good for him. It means, if so, that unlike Maurice Chevalier he would never have performed for the Nazis—even had they asked him charmingly and flattered him and recited his best lines—and then, of course, offered him a stable of first-class blondes.)

Those years of captive audiences must have seemed like payback time for a man who had paid his dues several times over, starting with vaudeville, where he had laid the foundation of his whole career by becoming a dancer first and a comic only second; and then, soon after the great talking-picture explosion, proceeding to Broadway with other vaudevillians like Jimmy Durante, to reveal himself as a world-class singer as well—and here one stops the tape for a moment to insert a piece of whatever you call the trivia that's too big to be trivia. Bob Hope would actually go on to introduce more new standards than any nonspecialist ever, starting with Cole Porter's immortal "It's Delovely" and Gershwin and Duke's "I Can't Get Started," both on Broadway, and moving on to Robin and Rainger's "Thanks for the Memory" and a sturdy batch of others in Hollywood.

But one probably can't live to 100 without something going wrong, and just before heading West to do his best work, Hope made the mistake of radio, which was, by the late 1930s, devouring comic material like a dragon with an eating disorder. The defining joke about radio was undoubtedly Jack Benny's retort to Fred Allen, "You wouldn't dare say that if I had my writers with me."

Bob Hope, an innately careful man, made sure never to be so vulnerable. He took his writers with him, or slightly ahead of him, everywhere he went, even to the quiz show Information, Please, which was basically a contest in "Who can be funniest tonight?" and where Hope's "people" startled the host by asking for advance notice not just of all the questions, but of every word that would be spoken on the show. From Gary Giddens' indispensable new book Bing Crosby: A Life,one learns that even the most sacred of Hope legends, the famous ad-libs in the Road pictures, had all been written the night before by Hope's writers, who had also done a batch for Bing.

It must have been from these films that Hope's own reputation as an improviser arose, because on the radio he could have been reading his lines off a ticker tape for all one could tell. Without the benefit of Hope's eyes or head movements, his radio show seemed so uninflected that my father, who was a connoisseur of comedy, claimed that this man had no sense of humor whatsoever—an opinion confirmed indirectly for me by Larry Gelbart when he said that "Hope was great to write for because he used absolutely everything we gave him."

Later, Hope would know a little better. Anything about his craft that could be learned, he learned wonderfully well, and audience reactions would teach him a lot about which jokes worked and which did not. He became correctly famous for a mental filing cabinet of jokes with which he could ad-lib all day. But he was never a natural at verbal humor, and even when the jokes got better, they were never completely his, like Henny Youngman's or Rodney Dangerfield's, but could have been handed to the next comedian in line without anyone being the wiser.

So Hope's total originality as a movie star comes as a jolt. Not that his movie persona didn't have roots. Cowardly braggarts go back at least to Falstaff, while the alignment of a wiseguy with a lubricious clown, as interpreted by Crosby and Hope, is still the No.1 staple of burlesque comedy, if you can find one, and can also be seen at its purest in the work of Abbott and Costello, or less purely on the old Seinfeld show.

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.

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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