Bob Hope

Comedian for whom the word 'quip' might have been coined

Monday 28 October 2013 05:17

Leslie Townes ("Bob") Hope, actor: born London 29 May 1903; CBE (Hon) 1976, KBE (Hon) 1998; married 1933 Dolores Reade (two adopted sons, two adopted daughters); died Toluca Lake, California 27 July 2003.

Bob Hope was a performer whom one never properly "discovered". For anyone, at least, over the age of 50, his had been a household name and face for as long as one could remember, like those of the Royal Family with whom he frequently hobnobbed. One was practically born knowing him, as one was born knowing certain popular songs. Hope seemed to spring eternal, to be everywhere at once: on radio, television and in the cinema; topping the bill at the London Palladium; accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor from President John F. Kennedy; genially presiding, year after year, over the Academy Awards ceremony; and entertaining the American troops in (depending on one's age) post-war Europe, in Korea and Vietnam.

The word "quip" might have been coined exclusively for him. When Hope opened his mouth, it was seldom to "say" or "remark" or "comment": he was reported, invariably, as having "quipped".

As, for instance, the life and soul of the (Republican) Party: "In recent years I've not been going in so much for political jokes because too many of them are getting elected." On a morale-boosting tour of US Army bases in the Middle East: "I'm happy to be here for the 181st ceasefire in Lebanon." Or else, straying uneasily into the equivocal territory of the "alternative" comedians who were perhaps more influenced by his smoothly standardised routines than they would have cared to acknowledge: "Last night I saw a lot of sailors looking for culture on 42nd Street. It's the only place you have to be vaccinated to go to the movies."

And, out in front, whether in theatres or cinemas, banqueting halls or barracks, his rapturous public would fall about almost as mechanically as though its laughter had been canned.

The laughter may not have been canned but the humour all too often was. Hope's sole prop as a comedian was an overworked squad of gag writers, to whom he paid approximately $500,000 a year. And if any of the literally thousands of jokes he must have sold over a half-century in show business failed to prompt the desired guffaw, so magisterially in command of the situation did he become that its failure would instantly be recycled into . . . another joke. Once, when a string of somewhat tactless one-liners had bombed during an engagement in Beirut, he proposed that they be stuffed "into the five-inch guns and aimed at the Syrians". Ha ha ha.

Paradoxically, it proved to be the cinema, a medium for which so relentlessly verbal a performer might have struck one as temperamentally unsuited, that enabled him to develop a genuine personality, one requiring him to be more than the ventriloquist's dummy of his invisible gagmen. The personality he established - that of a sarcastic milksop or sneakily cringing coward - could scarcely be described as subtle or complex. But it was likeable, funny and fairly original, and traces of it may be detected in the style of a humorist in every other respect his antithesis, Woody Allen.

Though, throughout his film career, he preserved the weirdly self-contained posture of the stand-up comic, as if his body had been made-to-measure for his suits rather than vice versa, he did succeed in creating a gesturality that was to be reprised from one role to the next: his habit, in a spasm of personal vanity, of licking the tip of his forefinger and smearing an effeminately arched eyebrow; or, when fawned upon by some busty starlet, of blowing on his nails and polishing his lapel; or, in the seven "Road" comedies which co-starred him with Bing Crosby, his teeth-gnashing chagrin when Crosby ended up with the girl (the inevitable Dorothy Lamour), culminating in a sarcastic aside to the audience, during one of his rival's vocal interludes: "He's going to sing, folks. Now's the time to go and buy some popcorn."

In a sense, the teaming of Hope and Crosby, with their inconsequential banter, their mutual raillery and their show-business in-jokes, had more in common with such television performers as Morecambe and Wise than with any comparably successful cinematic partnership.

Strangely for one so deeply rooted in American popular culture, Hope was actually born in England, a country for which he ever afterwards retained a sentimental affection. His father was a stonemason in Eltham, south London, but the family emigrated when "Les", as he then was, was four. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he later toured the vaudeville circuit for many years with his "song, patter and eccentric dancing" act, before making a reputation for himself in Jerome Kern's Broadway musical Roberta. It was, however, a concurrent radio show which eventually led to his first film appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1938, where he stole the show - from Kirsten Flagstad, among others - with a song that he would subsequently appropriate as his own, "Thanks for the Memory".

In all, between 1938 and 1972, he appeared in 80 films. If none of these was an imperishable cinematic landmark, many are still droll and watchable: notably, the 1939 version of that creakiest of warhorses, The Cat and the Canary, the trio of "favourite" farces (My Favorite Blonde, 1942, My Favorite Brunette, 1947, and My Favorite Spy, 1950) and, of course, the "Road" cycle (Road to Singapore, 1940, to Zanzibar, 1941, Morocco, 1942, Utopia, 1946, Rio, 1947, Bali, 1952, and Hong Kong, 1962).

Such a lengthy filmography did not prevent him meanwhile from playing golf, a game to which he was addicted; from writing (or at least signing) more than half a dozen humorous memoirs, whose titles resembled those of his films (I Never Left Home, They Got Me Covered, So This is Peace, Have Tux, will Travel, I Owe Russia $1200, Road to Hollywood, Confessions of a Hooker and Don't Shoot, it's Only Me); from requesting a visa to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War in the hope of negotiating, for the sum of $10m, the release of American POWs; and from amassing the greatest fortune, once estimated at between $300m and $700m, of any entertainer in the world.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is impossible to judge Bob Hope by the standards that one would apply to other performers. As the years went by, he came to appear as ubiquitously representative of the American sociocultural landscape as Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, blue jeans and, indeed, apple pie.

Now how does one judge apple pie?

Gilbert Adair

Early in the 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery, writes Dick Vosburgh, Larry and Carol Lipton (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) return home after attending a hockey game. "I can't wait to get into bed and stretch out," says Allen. "There's a Bob Hope movie on television later." This line couldn't be more autobiographical; Hope was Allen's favourite comedian. At the age of seven, he saw him in Road to Morocco and "knew from that moment on exactly what I wanted to do with my life".

Hope too had a favourite comedian. He first did an impression of Charlie Chaplin at the age of 12, winning first prize in one of the amateur Chaplin contests that were all the rage in 1915. Nor did his hero- worship dim with the years; more than a decade later, hearing that Chaplin's car was parked in front of a New York theatre, Hope waited for over an hour in wintry weather, just to catch a glimpse of Charlie.

No one can imitate Chaplin effectively without being a good mover, and Bob Hope was one of the best - good enough to form half of a popular vaudeville team called "The Dancing Demons". He and his partner specialised in soft-shoe and eccentric dancing, and must have been terrific; the first time I ever heard a cinema audience applaud was for a surprisingly nimble eccentric dance performed by Hope in the film Let's Face It (1943). As for his confrontational table-top dance duet with James Cagney in The Seven Little Foys (1955), this scene is the high point of the film.

When Hope graduated from dancer to vaudeville MC, finding material became a constant worry. He couldn't afford to buy gags, so he cadged them from fellow performers or lifted them from humour magazines. Because a lot of those gags were pretty feeble, he learned, out of necessity, to react to the audience's lack of reaction. Comics call it "saving" gags; he'd gulp, look nervously into the wings and croak "Keep the motor running!" or throw in a saver like "My brother wrote that line. He'll be three next Thursday". Hope could get so much comic mileage out of an unsuccessful joke that, at the height of his fame, he deliberately took a weak gag ("Guy goes into a psychiatrist's office, he's got a rasher of bacon hanging over each ear. He takes his hat off, and there's two fried eggs on top of his head. Psychiatrist says, 'What can I do for you?' Guy says, 'I want to talk to you about my brother' ") and made a whole routine out of his repeated attempts to get an audience to laugh at it.

In his early days, Hope felt he had to start his act by challenging the audience. After a rather subtle opening joke, he would stare at them. "I'd stand there waiting for them to get it for a long time. Longer than any other comedian had the guts to wait," he recalled in one of his many ghost-written autobiographies. "My idea was to let the crowd know who was running things."

No comedian was more adroit at timing a "topper" (a gag that tops the previous gag) or more concerned with wording; whereas most comics would say, "It rains so much in Los Angeles that last week O got arrested for crossing the road against the tide", Hope preferred, "I won't say it rains a lot in Los Angeles, but . . ." Somehow this "No, then Yes" gag construction better suited his stand-up style.

No dissection of Hope's comedy technique would be complete without mention of his breakneck delivery; his laugh average was six "big boffs" a minute. "I know how to snap a line," he told his fellow comedian Steve Allen, "then cover it, then speed on to the next." Instead of simply standing there and waiting for a laugh, he would quickly follow the punchline with "But I wanna tell you . . . !" allowing the audience to laugh at that point - much as Max Miller did with "Here's a funny thing . . . !"

America's Sid Caesar and Britain's Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Barker, all brilliant in sketches, were wretchedly uncomfortable facing an audience as themselves. Hope, however, was in his element standing there, rattling off gags as Bob Hope, and was always so eager to take the stage that he would enter on the first note of his signature tune. I wrote for Hope a number of times, but the most revelatory occasion was a Night of 100 Stars charity show. Hope was topping the bill, and the show's astute director, Bernard Braden, said to him: "It would give the evening one hell of a climax, Bob, if you milked the applause and, just this once, waited until the end of your play-on music before you went on."

Hope knew and respected Braden, and agreed to his request, but, as soon as "Thanks for the Memory" started, he forgot his promise and charged towards the stage. A determined Braden grabbed hold of him and physically prevented his going on until the end of the play-on, by which time the audience was in the frenzy of excitement that he'd envisaged.

It took, however, all Braden's strength to hold back old Ski-Nose, so eager was he to be out there, going for those big boffs; snapping lines, covering them, tossing in toppers - letting the crowd know who was running things.

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