There’s no denying a certain cosmic serendipity to the timing of this week’s Bob Hope tribute at Lincoln Center, long planned as a belated 100th birthday celebration. Countless media outlets thanked Hope for the memories last week; now New Yorkers can revisit some of his finest comedies in a 13-film survey culled mainly from Hope’s World War II-era golden age.
For those who primarily remember Hope from his late-life television personae, these earlier works are revelatory, providing archaeological backstory to the plaid-panted monologuist and presidential golf partner who, by his final stint of 1980s TV specials, had taken on a creaky air that made George Burns seem hip in comparison. Hope’s serviceman shows never exuded anything but altruism, but as a more blatantly opportunist military-entertainment complex coalesced, Old Ski Nose’s Greatest Generation sincerity grew increasingly incongruous—his time-warped friendships with Brooke Shields and Vanna White notwithstanding. By the first Gulf War—the last conflict Hope visited—the yellow-ribboned rise of support-our-troops-ism had transformed good-hearted patriotism into something more suspect, dodgily sinister in its inescapable, dissent-dampening efficacy.
Revisiting a wartime morale-booster like Caught in the Draft (1941) showcases the younger Hope at his quick-witted best. Cast as cowardly Hollywood star Don Bolton, he mistakenly enlists to win the favors of a colonel’s daughter, played by longstanding straightwoman Dorothy Lamour. Hope dives into his fumbling underdog persona with lily-livered gusto, trembling at gunfire when it’s just film-set smoke—”I even jump when somebody cracks his knuckles,” he shudders—then simpering through basic training with Jack Benny-esque light-loaferedness. But he never goes truly fey. Quite the opposite: In this picture and many others, he plays a girl-crazy “wolf,” complete with his strange lupine trademark, a snapping, guttural growl-bark that’s disturbing in its caveman animality.
In the quasi-noir caper My Favorite Blonde (1942), Hope’s skirt-chasing propensities trap him into playing patsy for international spies. Again cast in a self-referential showbiz role (this time as the less talented half of a man-penguin vaudeville duo), Hope is a wannabe Casanova, less leering predator than awkward, love-hungry everyschmuck. “Is that your real hair,” he asks Madeleine Carroll, “or did you scalp an angel?” Here and elsewhere, the sawdust-scented setting allows for plenty of Tinseltown in-jokes, which bank on Hope’s real-life top-draw status. “I’m a British agent!” Carroll confesses to him at one point, desperate to explain the situation’s gravity, but the stung Hope takes it as man-toying come-on. “Well, that’s too bad,” he fires back. “I already got an agent!”
Both entertainment-world self-referentiality and Hope’s beta-male struggles are mined to their fullest in the globe-trotting Road series, co-starring Lamour and Bing Crosby. The franchise kickoff, Road to Singapore (1940), introduced an exotic-locale formula that proved box office gold for a decade. Hope described it in his 1954 autobiography, Have Tux, Will Travel: “Crosby chasing Lamour, me chasing Crosby, and the public behind us—gaining all the time.” Hope and Crosby engage in a cocky one-upmanship that nevertheless bonds them as marriage-fearing bachelors in search of nothing less than leisure and ladies. By later editions Road to Morocco (1942) and Road to Utopia (1946), the films had morphed into fourth-wall-less surrealism, with talking camels in the former and Robert Benchley doing proto-DVD running commentary through the latter. The hilarious, nonstop gag engine, song-and-dance routines, and ad-libbed patter between the two men set the comedy standard for decades, from Jerry Lewis to the Farrelly brothers.
The Road pictures’ unga-bunga xenophobia veers into a more distantly alien brand of cross-cultural crudity in the Frank Tashlin-scripted comedy-western The Paleface (1948). Hope appears as hapless frontier dentist “Painless” Potter, tricked into marriage to Jane Russell’s Amazonian Calamity Jane. Though today one might still swallow Injun jokes with post-ironic chaser, it’s not so easy to watch Russell’s dead-shot rifle creating a literal pile of redskin corpses. That scene is a grim reminder that the brilliantly funny Hope will likely remain forever remembered as a crooked-grinned symbol of the American century—faux-underdog image and all.