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100 years of Hope -- Part 3 -- Slapstick and the great divide
Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/18/2003 8:12:18 AM ET 2003-04-18T12:12:18

Lucille Ball was the closest Hope came to Crosby compatibility in a leading lady. Three of the four films they did together are among the top screen work for both stars. “Fancy Pants” (1950) and “Sorrowful Jones” (1949) were well realized, rather popular retreads of “Ruggles of Red Gap” and “Little Miss Marker”; and “The Facts of Life” (1960) is arguably the most grown-up film either got caught in; they played wannabe adulterers who discovered that extramarital entanglements were more trouble than they were worth.

Six films into his Paramount contract, Hope found his own particular screen niche, playing the hysterically unheroic Wally Campbell in that “old dark house” chestnut, “The Cat and the Canary.” A lily-livered leading man was just what the comedy called for, and Hope served his Chicken Little thickly sliced. “The Ghost Breakers,” a spooker of the bug-eyed ilk, seconded this motion, and a persona was born — one oblivious to what period-piece frills were pinned on him. He could do cowardly queasiness in any vintage.

He wore it well in the modern times of his “Favorite” film series — “My Favorite Blonde” (Madeleine Carroll), “My Favorite Brunette” (Dorothy Lamour) and “My Favorite Spy” (Hedy Lamarr) — and it held up just as well when he did the dandified, spineless swashbuckler in “The Princess and the Pirate” and “Casanova’s Big Night.”

“People love that because people are that way, regardless of what era it is,” he said. “I did it again in ‘Monsieur Beaucaire.’ Douglas Fairbanks Jr. said to me, ‘You S.O.B., I wanted to do that film as a straight picture, and now you’ve ruined it for everybody!’”

Slapstick, songs and serious acting
Hope’s most slapstick stab at heroics — as “Painless” Potter, Frontier Dentist, in “The Paleface” — made his most successful movie to date. Jane Russell held up the gun-totin’ portion of the program as Calamity Jane, while he serenaded her with his other Oscar-winning song, “Buttons and Bows.”

In the rematch four years later, “Son of Paleface,” Roy Rogers and Trigger were added to the Hope-Russell mix, and the effect was even funnier. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the “Buttons and Bows” duo, did other sprightly ditties for Hope films — the hilarious, politically incorrect “Home Cooking” from “Fancy Pants,” and “Silver Bells” which was added in the rewrite of “The Lemon Drop Kid” and became a Christmas perennial. In the movie titled after the Oscar-winning “Thanks for the Memory,” he and Shirley Ross got to sing “Two Sleepy People.”

Damon Runyon supplied Hope’s best character-fittings, Sorrowful Jones and The Lemon Drop Kid, and he responded with raffishly winning portrayals. His most clear-eyed forays into Serious Acting were as real people — vaudevillian Eddie Foy in “The Seven Little Foys” and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker in “Beau James” — scoring passable marks as both.

The great divide
The year 1950 was a defining, dividing period in Hope’s career. He was named top box-office draw of the year by the nation’s movie exhibitors, and he signed his first television contract.

“The exhibitors were so mad I went into television they tried to throw ‘Casanova’s Big Night’ away,” he remembered. “I got threatening letters from exhibitors. ‘Don’t go on television.’ ‘You wouldn’t do this to us.’ But I gave Paramount the same chance to give me the same deal which NBC was giving me, and they never got back to me on that. In those days, pictures hated television because they thought it was going to ruin the business, which it did for quite a while. Then everybody went to the new medium.”

When the smoke cleared, Hope realized he had made the right move — but he still tried to do both, and the grind of the small screen wound down the quality of his big-screen work. His feature films in the ’60s and ’70s all had the aura of a slow leak. “Cancel My Reservations” in 1972 canceled his screen career, although he came back to contribute a cameo of himself to Chevy Chase’s 1985 “Spies Like Us.” Occasionally he popped up in pictures in archival footage. In 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” the only Oscar-winning Best Film of the Year in which Bob Hope appears, he’s back entertaining the troops in Vietnam.

Rich as Croesus
Hope constantly ragged Crosby about his wealth, but, truth to tell, his own income was well into the stratosphere. An exact figure was never nailed down because Hope has always discouraged such inquiries. He pointed to the shiny side of the coin: his charity work.

The Eisenhower Memorial Hospital in Palm Desert — homage to an old golfing buddy — was his doing: He donated 80 acres of land and drummed up $10 million for its construction. He contributed $125,000 to the Los Angeles Music Center and $802,000 to the building of The Bob Hope Theater on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

He was U.S. chairman of both the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. And he helped build a Catholic church in Taiwan.

His interests knew no bounds. He was part owner of baseball’s Cleveland Indians and football’s Los Angeles Rams, and he had his own Palm Spring golf classic going. Plus, Hope somehow found the time and energy and desire to write seven best-selling books.

Century of wit
A century of live-wire wit does accumulate. There are copies of every one of his movie/radio/TV scripts stored in one of two vaults in a building on the grounds of his San Fernando Valley estate, which includes a swimming pool and a par-three golf hole.

Three different secretaries tend row after row of file cabinets containing three or four millions jokes, properly cross-referenced and categorized according to world events, personalities, fads, sports, songs. Hope regularly raided the cabinets before trips and tailored the jokes to his next audience. He has said he hopes to leave the material “to various colleges — places where they’ll be used. They’re too damned valuable to just gather dust.”

But Bob Hope is considerably more than his jokes. He has lived his whole life by his wits. The timing may have slowed, but wit has never deserted him. Two years ago on May 29, when he turned 98, Los Angeles County brass proclaimed “Bob Hope Day.” This didn’t impress the Old Master of the One-Liner. “When you get over 95,” he said, “every day is your day.”

Amen to that, Mr. Hope. Thanks, again, for the memory.

Harry Haun is author of “The Cinematic Century: An Intimate Diary of America’s Affair with the Movies.”

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