Monday, March 06, 2006

America's Favorite Funnyman

"America's Favorite Funnyman" -- that's how the earliest issues of THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE comics described their ski-nosed protagonist. The star of more than 60 films, numerous television specials, countless hours of radio, countless live performances, Bob Hope was indefatigable at the heroic task of being Bob Hope. When he died in 2003 at the age of 100, he proved himself (among other things) the best poster boy ever for Doing It All.

It's doubtful that anyone is going to come along and fill the shoes Hope left empty: a celebrity who loved being out among people, who entertained the troops, who golfed with US Presidents and other leaders of state. Hope's entire legacy of stand-up comedy was predicated on current events, in-jokes, and breaking the fourth wall -- things that endeared him to audiences of his time, but which may well work to obscure his legacy where future generations are concerned. But the character he affected in movies is going to remain forever relevant: the sly, self-deprecating, girl-crazy bluffer on the make. That's an archetype with whom young men can always identify, and one that women will always appreciate in the way they appreciate all incorrigible rascals. Woody Allen once said that Bob Hope's screen persona was one of his biggest influences, and it's possible to see a lot of Bob Hope in Woody's work -- especially in lines like (I'm paraphrasing) "I'm allergic to fighting; I break out in blood."

This weekend, I had unexpected cause to give a good deal of thought to the man who was Bob Hope -- which is one of those names, I find, when you look at the name itself on paper, it ceases to mean anything. At least for me. When I hear the name Bob Hope, my brain somehow jumps past the name itself to a face and a unique style of delivery. When I look at the name printed out, like on a comic book cover, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the legend to whom it belonged. It's too unassuming, too much an Everyman name for someone so larger than life.

Metaphysics aside, I recently received my copy of THE DICK CAVETT SHOW-COMIC LEGENDS -- and went directly to the Bob Hope interview. Yes, I jumped right past Groucho Marx to get to Bob Hope. The interview was everything I wanted it to be: Hope was funny, no less funny when his jokes bombed, debonair and talkative, sometimes revealingly so -- and Cavett was every bit the unabashed fan boy that I would have been, had I been conducting the interview. It's as close as I, or most of us, will get to an informal sit-down with this national landmark, and I wanna tell ya, it's wild...

Hope talks about his early days in vaudeville, his Hollywood injuries, even a couple of near-death experiences aboard airliners in desperate trouble. Asked if he's ever been fired, he looks back with candor on the miserable feeling of not having his option renewed by Paramount Pictures after being under contract to them for 19 years. He also tells a heart-warming but unsentimental story about Fred MacMurray's rise to fame, which doesn't always portray Hope himself in the best possible light, but which is an admirably real confession of recognizable human nature. A clip from Hope's then-current movie, CANCEL MY RESERVATION, is also shown -- and it's absolutely dreadful. It would turn out to be his last star vehicle theatrical feature.

Then this weekend, for reasons I still don't understand (perhaps there's an anniversary of something I failed to observe), The Game Show Network suddenly jumped backwards in their chronology of WHAT'S MY LINE? episodes to present Saturday and Sunday night episodes from the early 1950s featuring Bob Hope as the Mystery Guest. Watching these two appearances, I realized that my whole mood brightens and opens up like a spring bloom whenever Bob Hope turns up onscreen. After last night's show, Donna and I stayed up an hour or so longer so that I could show her the Cavett/Hope interview, which I enjoyed watching just as much the second time.

As I type these words, I think the reason for WHAT'S MY LINE?'s Hopealooza just occurred to me. It was Academy Awards weekend, and Bob Hope was (among other things) the greatest host Oscar ever had. The Academy should release DVDs of the classic Oscar presentations, don't you think? I'd love to see Hope's introductory remarks again: "Welcome to the Academy Awards... or, as it's known at my house, Passover."

And all that's why Bob Hope is on my mind today, at the start of a new week. I'll close with a shot from one of my favorite Hope vehicles, CALL ME BWANA. (I may be in the minority, as usual, but I find it hilarious. That's the one where Hope plays Matthew Meriwether -- "That's M.A.T.T. -- as in 'available," as he tells a female member of the cast.) Hope always had the good sense to surround his sly smile with the most beautiful women he could find. For CALL ME BWANA, he got Anita Ekberg and Edie Adams, but they needed one more to play the big bed scene with Bob. "Get me the gal with the best legs in the business," he said.

And the rest is B-movie history...

"Couldn't you at least find one who shaved?"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.