Film Studies: Tears of the (last) clown

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The Independent Culture

Yes, Bob Hope is dead. But this is not an obituary. When you have your 100th birthday first, you don't really need the obits. You get to watch over the rehearsal for your own funeral. In a similar way, Katharine Hepburn, it turned out, had a surprise farewell book lined up for a couple of weeks after her official departure. By the way, in all those farewells, did you know that Kate and Bob once made a picture together? The Iron Petticoat, done in Britain in 1957, and not their worst, either. They clicked as a couple: he preened, she sneered. She gestured, he did the double-take. Her grand immersion in story highlighted his sly intimacy with us.

Thinking about Hope reminded me of something neglected in most of the tributes. The Road pictures were mere gestures towards story. They were closer to documentaries about Bob and Bing and Dorothy Lamour, stay-at-homes on the Paramount lot, putting this "Road" nonsense together. They were script-writers more than characters. A lot of the time, they talked to the camera and the audience. They behaved like... well, like people on television.

And it made me think about comedy. For in truth, we really have very few movie comedians left these days. In the silent era, comedy was an enormous genre: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon were just the most notable names. In the sound era, we had the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields, then Hope and Crosby, then Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Nearly all of those people had made the shift from variety or vaudeville to the movies. It was their prime intention to make us laugh, and their movies had the rather dumb task of finding a "situation" or an atmosphere in which their comedy could operate.

The Marx Brothers famously fought with Irving Thalberg at MGM because he fashioned movies with sub-plots, songs and storylines when all they wanted to do was get out there and make riot. WC Fields films are sometimes a struggle between his elaborate routines and allegedly comic plots that have been made to run 70 or 80 minutes. What was so fascinating about the Road pictures was the shared understanding, between movie and audience, that those stories were flimsy and ridiculous and likely to be stood on their head. Bing could say something, then Bob could look at the camera so that the entire philosophy of Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer seemed to be draining into his vast and vacant jaw.

And we laughed. Bob did jokes, too, of course. But the secret to his jokes was that they were often very corny, so that we would groan, or sigh, and then he could hit us with that stare - quite intimidating, really, even if it showed the sham exposed. Bob could have played Malvolio's capacity for stricken dignity. And he did act sometimes - I mean, he really played parts. You could catch him being sincere for a few seconds - it's that dire status that Jim Carrey drifts into, when he isn't allowed to go crazy.

But comedy is hard in movies, just because the clown so easily gets caught up in a story and then looks gauche next to the delicacy of such comic actors as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. That film requires sustained atmospheres, even if its world is far-fetched. It requires acting. Put a comic or a clown in those roles and the films would collapse. Hepburn's Susan is so funny in Baby because she's humourless.

That's where television did so much to commandeer comedy. It's visual, but there's no need to play the futile story game. It's enough for the comics to come on and just hold the camera for 20 minutes or so. And the entire act - think of Morecambe and Wise - is based on the nod and the wink that goes out to the audience. Do you remember the way in the middle of a sketch Eric would suddenly notice and feel the camera and become fixated on it, looming up and kissing it? Hope invented that ploy, I think. Groucho addressed the audience, too, but without real hope of kinship. Bob trusted that there was a mass of dirty-minded cowards (just like him) out there. That's why the troops loved him when he did his shows. And that's why in the Hope tributes there were far more moments of Hope on television than in his movies. He was a vital link in fiction's acknowledgement of the public. Why, there hasn't been an American president in years who could do a press conference without just a little bit of Hope's way of catching the camera's eye and saying,

"Would you believe this? Get on television and you can run a country!"