- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

  A double centennial approaches: the birthdays of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, today and May 29, respectively. Despite the passage of time and inevitable shifts in popular taste, the pair have left very large footprints, both individually and jointly, on the entertainment business. In recognition of Mr. Hope’s 100th birthday, Universal has released the Bob Hope DVD Tribute Collection, comprising 17 of the versatile entertainer’s film comedies, including four of the six “Road” pictures, the popular, easygoing musical comedies of the 1940s in which he starred with Mr. Crosby and the shapely Dorothy Lamour.
  Mr. Hope’s birthday also was recognized with a recent special on NBC, which broadcast the comedian’s weekly radio show from the late 1930s through the middle 1950s and remained the Hope TV network for the highly rated, but increasingly insipid, comedy-variety specials he hosted from the 1950s through the 1980s.
  The Crosby milestone seems likely to pass without sufficient formal recognition. Capitol Records announced commemorative albums for both men, a timely gesture that misfired when the release dates were postponed until summer.
  The Hope centennial has loomed as a show-business landmark for some time. His remarkable longevity now makes it likely that he will be on hand for the celebrations and tributes of May 29.
  (TCM may want to reconsider its announced programming for that date, which promises nothing from the Hope inventory. “The Paleface,” one of his biggest hits, will be shown today at 8 a.m.)
  Initially a partner in vaudeville song-and-dance acts, Mr. Hope discovered a flair for stand-up comedy when he was drafted as a kibitzing master of ceremonies. He began working on wisecracking monologues for radio at the same time he was enjoying success as a musical comedy actor on Broadway. By the time he was ready to launch his own radio show, he had transformed himself into a virtuoso joke-telling machine. He hired the youngest, wittiest and most prolific gag writers available, and they were expected to keep snappers coming at a rate of six or seven a minute during a typical Hope monologue or sketch.
  Inevitably, his style began to stagnate as he got older. Danger signs first appeared when he shifted to television. Initially, he hated the idea of having to memorize material after years of reading adroitly from radio scripts. Cue cards solved the problem, but he grew so dependent upon them with age that even fond guest stars complained it was no longer possible to make even token eye contact with the star.
   Military victory in Iraq has stirred recollections of Mr. Hope as the pre-eminent entertainer of American troops in far-flung war zones. In fact, lingering impressions of his 30-year commitment to USO tours for members of the armed forces during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War may overshadow specific impressions of his renown as a radio and film comedian.
  The military connection began as a one-shot remote broadcast: Mr. Hope took his radio show to March Field, an Army Air Corps base near Los Angeles, in May 1941. The service audience was so receptive and the mail response so favorable that broadcasting from bases, here and abroad, became the standard operating procedure of the Hope show for the next seven years.
  In “A Pocketful of Dreams,” the first volume in what promises to be an authoritative reassessment of Mr. Crosby’s great career, biographer Gary Giddins takes the Crosby saga as far as 1940 — the year when “Road to Singapore” began the series of six Hope-Crosby farces at Paramount Pictures.
  The model for pop-culture synergy before the word synergy was coined, Mr. Crosby became America’s favorite vocalist in the early 1930s and its most popular movie star from 1944 to ‘48. He died in October 1977, outlasting one of his successors as a pop recording sensation, Elvis Presley, by a matter of months.
  Mr. Crosby established a daunting prototype for multimedia success in the first half of the 20th century. According to Mr. Giddins, “He served as a template for subsequent entertainers who gambled on the same trifecta: first recordings, then radio or television, finally Hollywood. Only Frank Sinatra in the forties, Elvis Presley in the fifties and Barbra Streisand in the sixties, each working the Crosby strategy, came within hailing distance of his success…No other pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly LIKED — liked and trusted.”
  Despite having both principals under contract, Paramount was slow to envision Mr. Crosby and Mr. Hope as occasional, compatible screen partners. The mellow Crosby baritone, which began revolutionizing the popular-music industry in 1927, became a box-office mainstay for Paramount in 1932. Bing was good for two or three musicals a year, and this pace was reconciled with his recording and radio schedules.
  Bing and Bob were a novel sort of screen team: crooner matched with comedian. Unlike the team destined to supplant them in the 1950s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the two had independent starring credentials before being matched up for the loose and parodistic “Road” movies. The match was serendipitous and renewable rather than indispensable to their success. There were popular Crosby movies without Mr. Hope and popular Hope movies without Mr. Crosby.
  The future movie partners grew up in different parts of the country. Mr. Crosby was one of seven siblings raised in Tacoma and then Spokane, Wash. Mr. Hope was one of seven brothers raised in Cleveland, Ohio, after his father, an English stonemason, migrated to the United States and found a fresh start in the plumbing business.
  The Crosby children and the Hope children entertained themselves by singing, reciting and playing musical instruments. Mr. Crosby honed his sense of language in elocution contests. He also made a point of whistling his way through boyhood, an accomplishment that came in handy when he began to put a stamp on popular songs.
  Mr. Hope and his brothers would pass the hat while singing close harmony on trolleys. Charlie Chaplin impersonation contests were a craze during his formative years, and Mr. Hope got proficient enough to win his mother a stove at one such competition.
  The “Road” series was popular from the outset, although the simultaneous success of Abbot and Costello comedies at Universal made it uncertain in the early 1940s whether the team of Hope and Crosby actually had the advantage. They certainly outdrew the later Marx Brothers comedies and the classier Preston Sturges comedies at Paramount.
  The New York Herald Tribune may have summarized the consensus by observing that the “Road” movies “were nonsense, but delightful nonsense.” One highbrow reviewer, Otis Ferguson in the New Republic, got a huge kick out of “Road to Zanzibar,” which he praised for existing in “a ponderously difficult medium” while retaining “the free and happy air of the spontaneous.”
  He described Mr. Hope as “the acknowledged master of the delayed take, a comic with the grace and surprise in action of eccentric dancing and a foolish innocence of face through which he can crack out a line like a mule skinner.”
  Mr. Ferguson also adored the Crosby idiom. He called the performer “Old Unbreakable, never bothered and never at a loss,” and elevated him to the status of “first artist in popular expression today” for the jazzy, idiosyncratic slang that was a familiar element of his public persona.
  Newcomers to the Hope and Crosby “Road” movies would be wise to start with the titles made after World War II: “Road to Utopia,” “Road to Rio” and “Road to Bali.” The first of this batch remains the snappiest and most satisfying. The on-screen partnership seems to reflect the confidence and gusto animating the immediate postwar period. The timing is sharper, and the crisp attack prevents the throwaway nature of the plot and many of the jokes from becoming a burden. Even the romantic rivalry seems more knowing.
  Watching the first trio of “Road” movies —”Road to Singapore” (1940), “Road to Zanzibar” (1941) and “Road to Morocco” (1942) — it’s a little difficult to believe that this team could be sharing the same Paramount lot with Preston Sturges, who was progressing from “Christmas in July” to “The Lady Eve” to “Sullivan’s Travels” in the same early 1940s time frame. The postwar Hope and Crosby inherited Mr. Sturges’ producer, Paul Jones, for “Road to Utopia,” and perhaps that helped.
  The co-stars formed a South Seas menage with Miss Lamour in “Singapore” that looks grotesquely naive. The farcical elements are still captive to a hand-me-down plot that hasn’t been completely rescued from stale melodrama. By the time of “Utopia,” which is set during the Yukon Gold Rush, the context of Crosby-Lamour-Hope triangles has been wised up. Miss Lamour even gets scenes that flatter her character’s ability to keep both suitors at an amusing disadvantage. It’s as if everyone grew up during the war without losing the knack for gratuitous fun.
  The entertainers who emerged in the 1920s and 1930s grew up in a different sort of America. Recorded music, motion pictures and radio were all innovations of their youth and brought in their train entirely novel professional possibilities. Few exploited and expanded these new possibilities more successfully than Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

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