- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

During his peak years as a movie comedian, which coincided with his peak years as a radio comedian, Bob Hope enjoyed an impudent familiarity with the public, a relationship that was then sustained for another generation or so on television. He could start one movie by warning the audience pointedly to muffle the sound of their popcorn munching during the unreeling of his movie. He could end another by complaining that Paramount sidekick Bing Crosby had turned up out of nowhere to stroll off with his leading lady at the Goldwyn studio.

Directly addressed to a vast, invisible film audience, these bulletins also reflected the range of Mr. Hope’s exaggerated comic personalities, from presumptuous snob to aggrieved amorist. His best vehicles usually found room for both tendencies. The Western farces “The Paleface” and “The Son of Paleface,” both directed by Frank Tashlin and major hits of 1949 and 1952, respectively, alternated happily between uppity and downcast variations of insecurity. If Bob Hope played the braggart one moment, it was fairly certain he would pull the rug out from under himself in short order by being exposed as a blundering coward. If he posed as a devastating ladies’ man, it was a setup for a humbling squelch.

There’s a funny change of partners in “Son of Paleface.” The movie reunited Mr. Hope with Jane Russell while recruiting Roy Rogers and Trigger. As the capable heroic figures, Miss Russell and Mr. Rogers became a logical romantic match. That left Mr. Hope in the custody of Trigger. They share a delirious bedroom scene: an uncanny slapstick performer with a blanket, the great palomino keeps snatching the cover away from his exasperated, overmatched bunkmate.

Mr. Hope seemed to have felt more confidence about radio and the Broadway stage than he did about movies or television, which he approached rather gingerly. Frank Tashlin thought Mr. Hope underestimated his abilities as a physical funnyman. “Bob considers himself a talking comedian,” he said. “He didn’t feel comfortable in pantomime. When I suggested some broad comedy, he complained, ‘Who did you think I am? Abbott and Costello?’ Once I convinced him to try, he performed beautifully. He has a dancer’s grace… He had drawn his basic character from the timid types that the silent comedians played. He added a new dimension of braggadocio. Bob uses his brashness to cover fear… There’s a startling similarity between Bob and Donald Duck. Both became immensely popular during World War II.”

Bob Hope’s long association with military audiences began in May 1941, when he took his radio comedy show to March Field, an Army Air Corps base near Los Angeles. It was intended as a one-shot remote broadcast, but the service audience was so receptive that the novelty became standard procedure for the next seven years.

Mr. Hope may have gotten a jump on the service public by playing a reluctant but ultimately adaptable draftee in “Caught in the Draft,” which was released in 1941 before the Pearl Harbor catastrophe. On the eve of a massive mobilization, he had been astute enough to play a vain movie star who tries to protect his privileged status before experiencing a salutary change of heart. A reliable feature of Mr. Hope’s stand-up material decades later, during the annual Christmas specials in Vietnam, was the pretense that someone had conned him into turning up in a war zone. Bob Hope’s willingness to mock himself as a cowardly misfit was especially endearing to people who faced mortal danger.

Raquel Welch, who accompanied Mr. Hope on one of the tours, fondly described his leadership. “Bob was the head morale booster,” she said. “He kept reminding us all that we were there to spread cheer, we were people from home who still cared about them… We would go down these long corridors of beds, and Bob would always give out ball game scores and things to the guys. … If any of us started looking a little bit faint as we passed an operating room, or maybe fatigued … he would be there with that smile and that style of his. You simply could not let yourself get down.”

Having outlived most of his contemporaries — and his own extended careers in movie, radio and television — Bob Hope may leave new generations uncertain about where to catch him at his best. Jumping in midstream with such titles as “Road to Utopia,” “The Princess and the Pirate,” “Son of Paleface” or “Fancy Pants” seems pretty safe. It may be more satisfying, though, to back up and rediscover the slightly apprehensive newcomer to Hollywood, sharing two great song duets with Shirley Ross: “Thanks for the Memory” in “The Big Broadcast of 1938” and then “Two Sleepy People” a year later in an opportunistic sequel titled “Thanks for the Memory.” These are two of the most straightforward yet sublime song interludes in the history of film musicals, and they serve as reminders that Bob Hope had a winning way with tunes.

As a matter of fact, he introduced a pair of Oscar-winning songs: “Thanks for the Memory” and “Buttons and Bows,” a solo number in “The Paleface.” His comedy act was enriched by complaints about being unable to cash in on these landmarks as handsomely as show-business justice should have demanded. Dinah Shore released the first hit recording of “Buttons and Bows.” Bing Crosby, who already had Academy Award- and hit-record bragging rights over Mr. Hope, beat him to the market with “Silver Bells,” the Christmas number Mr. Hope introduced in “The Lemon Drop Kid.” On the other hand, he got a very long ride out of “Thanks for the Memory,” which became the Hope theme song.

Mr. Hope will be easy to like in a campus musical called “College Swing,” cast as a droll, calming influence opposite the explosive Martha Raye. It’s an enjoyable forecast of subsequent amusing partnerships with Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour, Madeleine Carroll and Lucille Ball, among others. These even may prove sturdier than the romantic triangles Mr. Hope shared in the more famous “Road” comedies, where he typically was outmaneuvered by Bing Crosby as Miss Lamour’s suitor.

From more recent years, one might start with examples of the Vietnam Christmas specials or with appearances on the “Tonight” show during Johnny Carson’s tenure. Host and guest seemed to bring out the best in each other. Whatever the entry point, you’re likely to conclude that there are countless memories for which to be thankful.

Feature films with Bob Hope:

• “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” 1938

• “College Swing,” 1938

• “Give Me a Sailor,” 1938

• “Thanks for the Memory,” 1938

• “Never Say Die,” 1939

• “Some Like It Hot,” 1939

• “The Cat and the Canary,” 1939

• “Road to Singapore,” 1940

• “The Ghost Breakers,” 1940

• “Caught in the Draft,” 1941

• “Nothing but the Truth,” 1941

• “Road to Zanzibar,” 1941

• “Louisiana Purchase,” 1941

• “My Favorite Blonde,” 1942

• “Road to Morocco,” 1942

• “Star-Spangled Rhythm,” 1942

• “They Got Me Covered,” 1943

• “Let’s Face It,” 1943

• “The Princess and the Pirate,” 1944

• “Road to Utopia,” 1946

• “Monsieur Beaucaire,” 1946

• “My Favorite Brunette,” 1947

• “Where There’s Life,” 1947

• “Road to Rio,” 1947

• “The Paleface,” 1948

• “Sorrowful Jones,” 1949

• “The Great Lover,” 1949

• “Fancy Pants,” 1950

• “The Lemon Drop Kid,” 1951

• “My Favorite Spy,” 1951

• “Son of Paleface,” 1952

• “Road to Bali,” 1952

• “Off Limits,” 1953

• “Here Come the Girls,” 1953

• “Casanova’s Big Night,” 1954

• “The Seven Little Foys,” 1955

• “That Certain Feeling,” 1956

• “The Iron Petticoat,” 1956

• “Beau James,” 1957

• “Paris Holiday,” 1958

• “Alias Jesse James,” 1959

• “The Facts of Life,” 1960

• “Bachelor in Paradise,” 1961

• “Road to Hong Kong,” 1962

• “Critic’s Choice,” 1963

• “Call Me Bwana,” 1963

• “A Global Affair,” 1964

• “I’ll Take Sweden,” 1965

• “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” 1966

• “Eight on the Lam,” 1967

• “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell,” 1968

• “How to Commit Marriage,” 1969

• “Cancel My Reservation,” 1972

• “The Muppet Movie,” 1979

• “Spies Like Us,” 1985

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