Recently I was at a Q and A with living legend and modern deity Bruce Campbell for the screening of his film My Name is Bruce and I decided to ask him a question. After seeing the film (which I really enjoyed) I asked him if he was a fan of Bob Hope, since I thought that at times he was positively channeling him in his role of an exaggerated version of himself. Bruce's answer was " You mean the young Bob Hope, not that guy who played golf with Reagan?". I qualified the question and said that I meant the former and he added "Oh yeah, I love all those ham actors".
It struck me that it was a very interesting reaction to my simple question. A lot of people like Bob Hope but there is a degree of uneasiness about Hope due to his later Republican years, the guy who went to Vietnam and who campaigned for Reagan and Bush Senior. Personally I don't care about his politics or personal views, Bob Hope makes me laugh and that's all that I bother about.
The other problem with Hope is the issue of his reliance on writers. Recently in Britain there was a show chronicling the 100 greatest stand up comedians "of all time", as voted by some spurious online poll. Bob Hope came 50th but all the talking heads they used for his segment on the show talked about how awful he was because he didn't write his own material. It's such a stupid argument though sadly it is a common one. I've found myself on more than one occasion having to argue the merits of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to popular musical history to people who think they have no value based on the same criteria. If you have the modern mindset of thinking that being an auteur makes you somehow more important (thanks for that Bob Dylan) than those with the talent of interpretation then basically we'll have to agree to disagree. When it comes down to it, Hope was one of the sharpest gag tellers of all time and whether he wrote his own material is or not is pretty much irrelevant in the face of his results.
Basically, I feel a whole lot of negativity against poor Bob Hope these days, which loses sight of the facts of his talents and career. These facts are: 1. He was a fantastic stand up comedian, a really quick witted and natural gag teller with superlative timing. You only have to listen to his radio shows to realise how sharp his delivery was, and if you ever listen to his guest appearances on other radio shows (such as Jack Benny's) you see what a powerful presence he was, he virtually takes over whatever show he guests on. 2. He was a hugely popular film star, in the top ten box office attractions for most of his peak years. He also created numerous movie moments and a distinct screen persona (with or without Bing Crosby) that struck a real chord with film goers stretching over several generations and which provided the basis for people like Woody Allen to launch their own comedy careers. 3. Despite what anyone can say about Bob Hope, and heaven knows, Sam Marx's book tries hard enough, he did more than anyone else in show business for the armed forces. You can say what you like about him but no one spends the better part of fifty Christmases away from home entertaining troops without some real love for what they are doing. Bob Hope dedicated his life to the troops, regardless of the rights or wrongs of each conflict and I think that deserves real respect.
I thought I should outline the above because for many Bob Hope is seen as a reactionary figure these days. Recently I've been watching the Hope in Vietnam DVD box set collecting his TV specials from the duration of the conflict. It's interesting watching the first few gung ho specials as they give way to the later ones where he has to make jokes about the anti-war demonstrations at home and where he sympathises with the GIs who just want it all to end. You can sense that he's playing to a different audience than from the Second World War and that he really doesn't know how to make everyone happy other than to parade a host of bikini clad women out on stage to raise the troops' spirits. The knowledge of that, and the fact that he's trying to bring a little happiness to troops in a difficult situation at Christmas gave me a whole lot more respect for Bob Hope that I had before. However, this loses sight of Hope's real skills as a joke teller, as he manages to make ordinary people laugh and forget their troubles (despite political and geographical problems) mainly due to his pacing and delivery (at one point he gets a big laugh despite reading his cue card wrong!). It's this wandering troubadour spirit, ready for anything that sets Hope apart from his peers.
Personally, I got in to Bob Hope when I watched The Ghost Breakers aged 15. I'd never heard of him but the familiar character of a cowardly braggart really struck a chord with me as a natural coward and I decided that this was a film star that I wanted to follow. In the mid nineties I wrote my first and only film star fan letter to him and got a nice reply from his secretary. I guess by that time it was too late to get a signed picture or personal reply but I'd like to think that the letter was at least passed to him.
I watched Road to Morocco recently and was moved by how young and dynamic he was, and also by how easily his interplay with Crosby came. You get the feeling that the two of them could genially ad lib forever and continue to one up each other with effortless glee. There's a freshness to their conversation that has rarely been seen in pictures before or since. That is the Bob Hope I'd like to remember, though to be honest I find him funny in pretty much all of his appearances. He belongs to that select band of comedians with such perfectly drawn persona that pretty much everything they do is clever and funny.
When it comes down to it, all I'd like to say is that Bob Hope has got me through some tough times and continues to make me laugh regardless of his personal life and political leanings, which make absolutely no difference to me. It's sad but I always feel that these days he suffers in comparison to Jack Benny, who seems more modern and relevant (and by all accounts a nicer person in real life) but to me it's like comparing apples and oranges. They are both extremely funny in their own way and have their own unique styles.
So Happy Birthday Bob Hope, here's to more fun times (and with a bit of luck some DVD releases of you TV shows!). If you feel like putting on a Hope film to celebrate, I'd recommend (leaving out the obvious ones), Casanova's Big Night, My Favorite Brunette and The Ghost Breakers. And if you want to go for a classic you can't go wrong with, it has to be The Cat and the Canary. I'd also recommend any of his radio shows as once you get past the topical references, his interplay with Jerry Colonna is hilarious and you get to see him (especially in the early ones) honing his comic timing to perfection.
I know it's a cliche, but...thanks for the memories Mr Hope.