|2007||Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller On Comedy|
|2006||EMI Comedy: Bing Crosby & Bob Hope|
|2003||Thanks for the Memory|
|2003||The Golden Age of Comedy: Bob Hope & Bing Crosby|
|2002||EMI Comedy: Bob Hope|
|1999||Put It There Pal: A Salute to the Kings of Comedy|
|1994||Bob Hope's Young Comedians: Making America Laugh|
|2003||Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes
Co-Author: Linda Hope
|1982||Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy
by William Robert Faith
|1956||Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope's Own Story
Co-Author: Pete Martin
Bob Hope used the theme song “Thanks for the Memory” for over 50 years. Ironically, he sang that song with elegance and cool, never with real warmth or nostalgia. Unlike most of his contemporaries, including Jack Benny on radio, Red Skelton on film and Lucille Ball on television, Hope was never a “friend” to the audience. In stand-up he liked to “stare them down” and his character in sketches was always snappy and brash. It’s not surprising then, that for much of his career, audiences liked him but didn’t love him, and until late in life neither fans or critics thought to return a “thanks for the memory” to Bob Hope.
America’s legendary comic was born in England. He recalled, “it was my mother who discovered my nose. ‘Call back the doctor,’ she cried, ‘He’s taken the baby and left the stork.’” At four he and his family moved to Cleveland. Teased by kids as “hopeless” Les Hope, he learned to literally fight back. For a while he fought as a boxer, using the name Packy East. He worked as a song and dance man and later a master of ceremonies. He evolved into stand-up and learned a technique that would separate him from most of the rest: “I learned to have enough courage to wait. I’d stand there waiting for them to get it for a long time…my idea was to let them know who was running things. I used to defy the audience. I didn’t have much talent but I had plenty of guts.” Fred Allen told him, “You reek of guts.” All through his stand-up career Hope kept the icy glare and, to the surprise of some critics and fellow comedians, he seemed to trainthe audience to at least force a chuckle. Sometimes he cued them by marking time with his trademark throwaway “but I wanna tell ya…” More often he ended the punchline with a grim stare.
Hope always had confidence. It showed even in the way he came on stage. Jack Benny once said, “Bob Hope walks like a headwaiter who is leading a guy to a good table.”
Hope was a hit on Broadway in 1933’s “Roberta,” followed it with “The Ziegfeld Follies” and in 1938 had his own radio show. His film debut, “The Big Broadcast of 1938” featured his theme song, “Thanks for the Memory.” His film career took off after “The Cat and the Canary” in 1939. Through the 40’s, Hope was one of America’s biggest film stars. Film critics later theorized that he symbolized the average American male during the war years. Like the soldiers marching off to war, he evinced confidence and saw himself as slick, streetwise, and just a little smarter than his opponent. But, like those men, he also had a little streak of insecurity.
In his best films, all this was exaggerated. Hope was drafted into situations he resolved to handle, whether investigating a haunted house, tracking down a criminal or swashbuckling for his lady love. The only problem for him were lapses of comic cowardice and foolish fumbling. (In “The Princess and the Pirate” the film opens with him cheerfully announcing, “I play a coward!”) In the end, he always found the guts to win, usually with a combination of brain power and luck. Rarely if ever did his movie character dip into tenderness or pathos, either for his leading lady or for himself.
In his films he usually had a snappy comeback. In “Ghost Breakers” he’s told about zombies, who walk “around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do.” Hope pauses “You mean like Democrats?” His cowardice was also handled via wisecracks. He says in “The Paleface,” “Brave men run in my family.”
Audiences in the 40’s appreciated snappy comedy. The lovable character humor of Laurel and Hardy was not appreciated as much as the faster, more impersonal byplay between Abbott & Costello. Of the solo comics, Hope was clearly the leader in 40’s film popularity. Many of Hope’s films are deservedly comedy classics, including “My Favorite Brunette” and “Monsieur Beaucaire.”
Hope was also successful teaming with Bing Crosby. Just as impersonal as Abbott & Costello, the two men found laughs in trying to undercut each other with women and cheat each other out of money. The Hope and Crosby “Road” pictures were big box office hits. The team succeed without any memorable routines except their “patty cake” bit. Distracting the villains by performing a children’s hand-slapping game, they usually managed to make an escape. Unless, the villains happened to have seen the bit in a previous film. This would be duly noted by the boys, who popularized the comic technique of using “in” jokes and stepping out of character to confide to the audience.
Hope had conquered Broadway, radio and films, and put it all together when he came to TV for his own show. He opened with his usual topical monologue. From a 50’s broadcast: “It’s great to be back in New York City. I’ve got a nice room here. I’m staying in City Hall. Nobody else does. But I wanna tell ya…” He continued with sketches that were always breezy. Typical of his style is this fragment, romancing a guest star actress in a park: “Some park.” “Some park.” “Some grass.” “Some grass.” “Some dew.” “I don’t!”
Hope’s influence could be seen in many comedians, from the smooth but stinging stand-up star Johnny Carson to the cheerful, handsome but distant film star Chevy Chase. Woody Allen admitted that he borrowed several characteristics of his film persona from Hope, exaggerating aspects of Hope’s heroism and cowardice and embellishing on Hope’s nervous “now wait a minute, let’s talk this over” one-liners.
In the 60’s and 70’s Hope was often criticized for his formula-written TV comedy specials and monologues. The 40’s cool wiseguy had completely iced-over into a cold professional. He was a little too old to be a comic hero in films and his sit-com styled efforts in the 60’s failed, mostly because audiences didn’t want to pay in theaters for the kind of material Hope was generating on his TV specials. On TV he still commanded good ratings, but his conservative stance against the the Vietnam War, and his old-fashioned comedy style made him highly unpopular with a young generation that appreciated comics who put their guts in their work (Lenny Bruce) or at least their warm humanity (Bill Cosby).
Comedians who were cheered by young fans weren’t shy about pointing out Hope’s flaws. Chevy Chase said in the 70’s, “Look, Bob Hope is still about as funny as he ever was. I just never thought Bob Hope was that funny in the first place.” And in the 80’s, David Letterman intercepted the feed of a Bob Hope interview on a local TV news show and cracked to the audience, “Was that Bob ‘I’m a Hundred Years Old’ Hope?”
It didn’t seem to matter—the general public appreciated Hope’s reliable shows, knowing every second or third gag would be good and the others pleasant, and that there would be plenty of guest stars (each carefully chosen to bring in a specific segment of the audience). He continued to tour, his familiarly-phrased gags still getting laughs. In October of ‘89, on stage in a concert with George Burns he told the crowd, “I’m staying in a good hotel. It’s a family hotel. Every guy I met in the lobby was with his niece.” Despite his falling out with critics, and his self-parody in later years, Hope’s ratings remained high. Late in the 80’s, befitting his longevity and with the Vietnam issue a faded memory, Hope was finally accorded tributes, both for his films (now in revival houses thanks to Woody Allen’s emphatic praise) and for his public service.
He was, in essence, the definition of the “American” comic. He had risen from nowhere to become a huge success—not because he was the best singer, dancer or joke-teller, or the most handsome man, but because he had all-American drive and desire. He had conquered the stage, radio, film and TV, and he did it by relying not on lovability and charm, but on strength, and on giving the public their money’s worth. He didn’t give fans a lot of tender emotion from the heart, but he did work tirelessly in every war to travel the globe bringing his show to American soldiers. He was a giant when it came to loyalty, honor and philanthropy.
In 1990 Hope made a staggering million dollar donation to the Center for Motion Picture Study. The same year he was given an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of San Diego. Also the same year, Hope surprised some of his liberal antagonists by supporting gun control, stating “I think the violence today is a concern of every citizen, and I am for gun control…I’m not going to stop until Congress does something about this. We have to be able to walk our streets and stroll in our parks. Mandatory gun registration is a step in the right direction…”
Back on July 4, 1982, Hope performed a stand-up concert in St. Louis in front of two million people. Another comic would’ve been awed. Hope said, “The best I ever did before was 500,000. I must be getting better in my old age.” He was ready for more, and just as he had done before and after, he went directly to the next project and the next audience. “I’ll never retire,” Hope once said. “Hell, if I retired I’d have to have an applause machine to wake me up in the morning.”