UNDERRATED / Springing eternal

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The Independent Culture
The comedian without a sense of humour,' is how my generation, born after he had made his good films, viewed Bob Hope. We were not amused by his hawkish attitude towards the Vietnam war, his sneers at dirty, long-haired protestors, and his cosying up to rich Republicans. But, in 1978, I went to a New York tribute to Hope, produced by Woody Allen and entitled 'My Favourite Comedian'. Narrating on tape a sequence of film clips - pleading fear of big events, he didn't appear in person - Allen described Hope as 'a woman's man, a coward's coward and always brilliant'. Then the honoured guest came out, and we saw why Allen would have feared this event in particular. Taking his time, flashing his ingratiating-barracuda smile, the 75-year-old comic strolled out to face 3,000 people, many of whom would have jumped up to pelt him with tomatoes 10 years before. This time we stood, when he finished, to clap till our hands hurt. He had made Woody Allen look like a child. He slaughtered us. This was a man who knew what he was doing.

Consummate professionalism has always been the enemy of lovableness, as well as art, so it's not surprising that Hope, who next month will be 91 and will play the Albert Hall, doesn't rate highly with sentimentalists and intellectuals. But a comedian's work has little to do with either tenderness or, pace Allen's high-toned name-dropping, with deep thinking: what's most important is that he should be a man with huge reserves of energy and the will to command an audience, to keep the tigers in the cage and the troops in line.

Although this quality is easiest to see in someone doing live stand-up comedy, it's also visible in Hope's early movies, the ones before he settled down to shaking his head at the young. There's a constant tension between his technique of racing through gags, steamrolling the good ones over the bad, and his holding a line or reaction for a long take - difficult enough when you're getting immediate feedback. His character's nervousness and eagerness to please are always underpinned by Hope's own steel; he's confident enough to send out little glints of mischief, and his hips often seem about to break into one of those 'dirty movements' that got Elvis Presley censored from the waist down.

Unfortunately for Hope, he became a star late (he was nearly 40), when puritanism was well entrenched in the cinema. Without the constraints that made his sex comedy that of the perpetual liar and failure, he might have been a great lewd comic in the manner of Max Miller. As it is, his physical presence gives some weight to the airy, spontaneous by-play between him and Bing Crosby in the Road pictures, one of whose implicit jokes was that women would ignore the well-built Hope to fall at the feet of Crosby, who had all the appeal of a stick insect. Look at their more complicated dance routines and you'll see that Hope, a dancer before he was a comedian, is really doing the steps, while Crosby is faking.

Hope's core of coldness was rarely displayed on film, but it can be seen in The Seven Little Foys, in which he played Eddie Foy, like Hope a vaudevillian who had been hardened in the crucible of the two-a-day.

That movie also has a sequence of pure joy, when Hope and another middle-aged ex-dancer, James Cagney, hold a tap-dance challenge and demonstrate their perfect timing and immense, rationed energy. Like dancing, comedy is a mechanical business. Those who dislike Bob Hope's impersonality miss the point: he's meant to be mechanically relentless and invulnerable. If you want your comic funny, then you don't want him human.