Bob Hope was funny before he became famous. In films, Hope’s fame long outlived his stardom as a truly funny actor.
The man himself lasted a full century, but his credible film career was less than a quarter of that. After movie stardom faded, he was an Academy Awards host getting laughs about never winning an Oscar (though, in fact, he won “special” Oscars in 1940, ’44, ’52, ’59 and ’65).
“Me and movies never had a wedding,” he once quipped, “but we had a great common-law marriage.” A very profitable one, thanks mainly to his long creative teaming with pal Bing Crosby, a key factor in Hope making the Top 10 boxoffice list from 1941 to 1953.
His film hopes began young. As a boy and new American (since age 4) who later became America’s most famous import from England after Chaplin, he won a Chaplin imitation contest. But Hope was lifted from vaudeville jokery to the Big Time by radio; his films were a visual and vocal extension of radio, then TV.
Hope floated in his own field of gravity, and always played Hope with tiny variations. With his nose and singular delivery, what else could he have done? As the wild chum and jelly-nerved goof next to Crosby’s baritoned, golf-swing ease, beginning with “Road to Singapore” in 1940, he could be the gag furnace while Bing smoothly pumped the bellows of support, much as Bud Abbott did for Lou Costello or Dean Martin for Jerry Lewis.
This was a practiced variant on radio repartee, and it showed. Film biographer David Thomson snipped at “the monotony of the boaster who turns coward.” But Hope’s infallibly timed lines, dancing eyebrows and confrontational cowardice inspired his most famous young fan, Woody Allen, who later praised Hope’s “great monologue style.”
He launched his theme song “Thanks for the Memory” in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” made six hit Road pictures (with a seventh weak one in 1962), was Eddie Foy charmingly and tap danced with James Cagney in “The Seven Little Foys,” and partnered even Katharine Hepburn, in “The Iron Petticoat.” He was an unexpectedly endearing Mayor Jimmy Walker in the light biography “Beau James,” but by then (1957) his popularity came from TV and tours for the troops.
Hope’s last valid work on film was with Lucille Ball in “The Facts of Life” (1960) and “Critic’s Choice” (1963). Those rather fatigued hits led to a burial train rivaled only by the ’60s vanity films of Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. Stiffs like “Call Me Bwana,” “I’ll Take Sweden” and “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” defined indulgent cheapness — no Bing now, just bimbos and Phyllis Diller — and as a wag noted, “To see ‘Eight on the Lam’ is to lam out the exit in eight minutes.”
His legend endured, though the best Hope fun of the past 20 years came from actor Dave Thomas superbly spoofing Hope. When Thomas tottered onto Martin Short’s “Jiminy Glick Show” as a fossil wheezing one-liners, our laughter rose as surely as a great ski nose.