Another post in honor of Bob Hope’s birthday — Here are some thoughts on 17 random Bob Hope movies (not counting the ones he made with Crosby, which I wrote about here).
The Big Broadcast of 1938
This was Hope’s feature film debut, though he had been making shorts for Vitaphone and Educational for four years. It’s early in the evolution of his comedy character — here he is broken out of “alimony jail” so he can be master of ceremonies for a broadcast on an ocean liner, all the while on the lam from three ex-wives. It’s the sort of business that could have been given to any number of comedians of the day, and many of his jokes as M. C. are downright stinkers. But it did provide the world with the introduction to what would become his permanent theme song “Thanks for the Memories”, and a magical scene that it is. This and some typically hilarious turns by W.C. Fields are the main reasons for seeing this picture. (It also features Martha Raye and Ben Blue, among others).
The Cat and the Canary (1939)
Originally a 1922 hit play, The Cat and the Canary went on to become a Universal silent film in 1927, becoming one of that studio’s earliest horror films and helping to establish many conventions of the genre. The original is regarded as much more of a classic than the Paramount 1939 remake, which is sillier. (A 1930 talkie version by Universal called The Cat Creeps is now lost). The 1939 version is one of Hope’s first movies (he’d started at Paramount a year earlier) and the first of three that would pair him with Paulette Goddard. It’s an interesting film because both performers are just about to break out as stars but haven’t yet done so. Like most of Hope’s early films, this is an ensemble piece. Others in the cast include Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco. The format is by now a well-worn one: a bunch of relatives and associates are invited to an Old Dark House for the reading of a will…and must stay there overnight, enduring an endless number of artificial and clearly orchestrated frights.
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
Hope is paired with the irresistible Paulette Goddard, here on break between pictures with her then-leading man Charlie Chaplin. Ghost Breakers came out a little bit before Hope became a top star; his character still hasn’t completely gelled. He plays a radio columnist who likes to drop tidbits about gangsters. One day he tells too much and has to take it on the lam. (His stereotypical black servant is played by Willie Best, a.k.a. Sleep n Eat). When ducking into a hotel room (thinking he has just shot somebody) Hope meets Paulette, who has just inherited a castle in Cuba. The people around her seem shady — we know something is off. The two meet again aboard ship: Hope is fleeing town; Goddard traveling to her estate. From here the plot has a bit of everything in the service of spook comedy, indeed a bit too much. We have people trying to kill Goddard. And we go to her castle where we seem to have ghosts and zombies, etc. At the end, the traditional Scooby Doo reveal.
My Favorite Blonde (1942)
Hope’s parody of The 39 Steps and Saboteur, costarring the former film’s Madeline Carroll (whom Hope often mentioned as a sex symbol on his radio show). Hope plays a vaudevillian whose partner is a penguin named Percy. Carroll’s a spy carrying a secret code. Hope of course gets drawn into the intrigue, kicking and screaming all the way. It’s entertaining and adventuresome but not Hope’s funniest in my view – fewer wisecracks and not as strong on the comedy business for my taste…mostly a lot of face-making about how crazy the girl seems until he learns her secret. But it was a huge hit with audiences.
They Got Me Covered (1943)
This one on the other hand is hilarious. It pairs Hope with Dorothy Lamour, and the movie is very similar in tone to the Road Pictures. It is also an awesome contrast antidote to cheap ad hoc WWII propaganda like Air Raid Wardens. Hope is a ne-er do well newspaper reporter who missed the story of Hitler invading Russia. His editor (Donald MacBride, the “jumping butterballs” guy from Room Service) recalls him from the field. Hope is supposed to be fired or suspended but simply acts like he’s still working for the paper. A foreign gentleman shows up with some information about a spy ring and a complicated plot ensues…the stenographer who took down the details of the plot is kidnapped and Hope has to rescue her. The long chain of events winds up with him getting drugged and married to a bimbo at Niagara Falls in an attempt to discredit him. But Lamour saves his skin of course.
The Princess and the Pirate (1944)
Hope plays a roving jester. The gorgeous Virginia Mayo is a princess on the run from an arranged marriage. And…all sorts of business with pirates. I laughed all the way through this movie, absolutely full of funny lines and bits and Hope is hysterical—at the peak of his form. Really, I’ve seen this movie so twice, and both times I laughed so much I couldn’t be bothered making notes.
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
Hope’s parody of Sam Spade pictures, following up on the success of My Favorite Blonde. Hope is a baby photographer with an office right across from private eye Alan Ladd. This allows him to get mistaken for a shamus himself by Dorothy Lamour. From here, the story gets played too straight for my tastes. Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr play bad guys.
The Paleface (1948)
Hilarious Bob Hope western comedy (directed by the great Norman McLeod) co-stars Jane Russell as Calamity Jane (working undercover for the federal government to catch a gang of gunrunners to the Indians). She hooks up with cowardly frontier dentist Hope and masquerades as his wife, building up a reputation for him as a tough, unbeatable fighter. As in the best Hope vehicles, he rises to the occasion in the end—with the predictable climax with the two of them tied to burning stakes.
Hope’s cowardly, lecherous character was never in finer form than in this film; when I last saw it a few years ago I don’t think I ever once stopped laughing during the entire movie. The Native Americans, sadly, are little more than plot points however, the usual obstacles to be overcome…though on the plus side there are a couple of real Native Americans in the cast, Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody (okay so Cody was fake, but the producers THOUGHT he was real!):
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
The Lemon Drop Kid is a great mash-up of stuff. It’s a Damon Runyon story, not unlike Guys and Dolls. Hope, must stretch in at least two directions in this film: one, to speak the Runyon patois and seem a streetwise heel, and two, to be heartwarming, for in this department Bob Hope is generally no Bing Crosby. And he pulls it off for the most part. Hope plays a gambler and tout who accidentally causes a gangster (Fred Clark) to lose $10,000. In order to pay it back, he starts an old folks home so he can raise donations. Naturally, along the way he starts to feel bad about the scam, and begins to actually want to help the old folks even as he makes it up to Moose Moran.
Other notables in the film include Jay C. Flippen, William Frawley, and none other than Tor Johnson. Yes! Tor Johnson! If you don’t believe me, look at the picture above! The film was co-directed by Frank Tashlin. An earlier version in 1934 featuring everybody’s favorite, Lee Tracy in the Hope role.
Because it takes place at Christmas it’s at least sort of “honorable mention” holiday film, and does promote generosity. The film is also the cinematic source of the popular holiday song “Silver Bells”, memorably sung by Hope and Marilyn Maxwell, although Bing had had the hit with it the year before
Son of Paleface (1952)
Though directed by the great Frank Tashlin, this sequel to The Paleface is not nearly as great as the original. Hope plays the son of the hero of the last movie, a Harvard educated dude in white ducks and an automobile. The deceased father has been revised to being (or seeming to have been) an actual frontier hero, one whose shadow the son must now live under. (I’ve never quite understood the appeal of such heros. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton often played them. I find it very hard to root for spoiled young rich boys, and it is a flaw in this film). Jane Russell returns as his love interest, although oddly she has nothing to do now with Calamity Jane. Roy Rogers plays a law man. There are several extremely embarrassing musical numbers—you could with justification call this a musical. Some of the jokes are very funny. Many more are embarrassing hackwork.
The Seven Little Foys (1955)
When people ask me what my favorite vaudeville film is I invariably say The Seven Little Foys. This bio-pic of Eddie Foy and the kiddie act he created with his large brood wildly distorts Foy’s life and career, making him look like a loser (when in fact he had been a star for decades) until he hits on the bright idea of solving his fatherhood problems by bringing his kids on the road with him. But this is a terrific family film (I first saw it on tv when I was a kid), which does convey many realities of life in show business. Furthermore, it is one of Bob Hope’s best performances. He is actually trying to stretch here, to do some dramatic acting, as well as revive the singing and dancing skills that had served him well in vaudeville and on Broadway. (A pity his films of the 60s and early 70s leave a lasting lasting impression of a guy who’s just coasting, sleepwalking through his lame vehicles. One thing you could not call Hope was lazy). It’s an interesting performance. As so often happens in these kinds of pictures, it is as much about Hope as it is about Foy. He actually conjures that assholey side we’ve often heard about and uses it in his performance. The result is not perfect (he often comes off as just kind of mopey), but is at least interesting. ALSO: Jerry Mathers (the Beaver) plays one of the Foy kids! At any rate, this is one movie this vaudeville dad has often watched with his own kids.
The Iron Petticoat (1956)
A British Cold war comedy written by Ben Hecht, pairing Bob Hope as an air force officer (just go with it) with Russian defector Kathryn Hepburn! It was originally intended for Cary Grant but he was unavailable. Once Hope was aboard he brought his writers in to beef up the jokes for his part, then he had several of Hepburn’s scenes cut. Since it was originally intended as a vehicle for Hepburn both she and Hecht were furious. The movie was a critical and box office failure.
Hepburn’s character is not a political defector in the film, she is a devout communist, a fighter pilot who leaves Russia because she was passed over for a promotion. Hope’s leave is cancelled so that he can interrogate Hepburn. He is due to marry a British aristocrat but falls in love with Hepburn. She is funny enough, plays it broad and cartoonish, but at this stage I am sorry to say that while she is right for this role (very much seems an inspiration for Cate Blanchett in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) she is not an attractive love interest. (Not that Hope is at this age either). Lots of sex talk in the film but Hepburn is 50 and freckly: she reminds me of a schoolteacher or grandmother. The movie is tedious, clunky, and square — like most comedies from the period. In addition to the sex plot, Hepburn’s character also gets gradually converted to capitalism.
Alias Jesse James (1959)
Norman McLeod’s last movie (although he continued to direct television after this) and Bob Hope’s last comedy western. One of the last times you see Hope as a cowardly goofball, as opposed to the uptight businessman/ dad he would play through the 1960s, although he’s already beginning to slow down some. He plays a life insurance salesman in the old west — who accidentally sells some life insurance to Jesse James! His boss forces him to follow James out west and protect his life; meanwhile the outlaw uses Hope as a patsy and he is danger of losing his life. I was surprised to find it very funny in spots, and most valuable perhaps is the finale, where several major western stars of the day (plus Bing Crosby) make cameos during a big shoot out. Hope would seldom be this goofy again.
The Facts of Life (1960)
I liked this one much more than I thought I would. It’s his pairing with Lucille Ball, at the time a hotter star because of her hit tv series. The presence of Lucy seems to energize Hope, who’d been coasting for a number of years. And likewise, Lucy brings her A game to her teaming with an American institution. They’re both trying to give good, serious performances with plenty of dramatic moments, and they just about pull it off. They play a pair of friends who are bored with their spouses and have an affair. These were wholesome times, of course. Before they get too far down this errant path, they break it off and go back to their spouses. Other cool stuff: a Saul Bass title sequence, a theme song by Steve and Edie and cast members like Louie Nye and Carolyn Jones.
Bachelor in Paradise (1961)
I have no idea why meat-eating, red blooded American Bob Hope was always casting himself against type as writers in his movies, but he did that a lot. Here, he is a best-selling author of racy sex advice-books from the perspective of a swinging bachelor. He’s on the lam from the IRS so he goes undercover in a suburban subdivision to study the adulterous ways of American housewives. He is vigorously pursued by one (Janis Paige) but truly falls for another one, who is renting him his house (Lana Turner). Lana Turner had many virtues; comedy wasn’t one of them. This was towards the end of her career, when appropriate roles for her were becoming increasingly rare. An interesting element: a young Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss play a newlywed couple. An unbearable element (and a true symptom of how lacklustre a comedy this is): it has one of those “too many suds coming out of the washing machine” scenes.
Call Me Bwana (1963)
I like this movie a lot more than I thought I would. Hope plays an author who represents himself in his books as an African explorer, but it’s fabricated, stolen from the journals of his uncle, an actual explorer. Based on his reputation he is drafted by the CIA to retrieve a fallen space capsule from the jungle before the Soviets can get there. So he has to organize an expedition, using the pretense that he is out to destroy a rogue elephant as a cover. Along the way he gets to juggle two extremely hot babes, Edie Adams (a CIA agent) and Anita Ekberg, a Soviet spy masquerading as an English missionary with her “father” Lionel Jeffries, also a spy. Hope is frequently funny in his cowardice bits…but also frequently creepy in his moments of lechery. A mixed bag, but a great vehicle. It should be remade.
E5MC2J CRITIC’S CHOICE, US poster art, from left: Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, 1963
Critic’s Choice (1963)
Insufferable insufferable pairing of middle-aged Hope with late career Lucille Ball. Both are horribly miscast as a husband/wife, critic-playwright couple. There’s a feeble attempt at a feminist slant. The pair have a certain chemistry but the lines coming out of their mouths sound all wrong, they don’t possess the necessary intellectuality. There’s a tension between their middle age romance and his dismissal of her play. (He has to review it) Hope’s trying to “act”, to his credit, but the vehicle is kind of dull – so who cares? The stakes are zilch. But also he’s not playing a character…this all American guy does not seem like a theatre critic. Rip Torn plays a young theatre director. Marilyn Maxwell plays Bob’s ex wife. John Dehner is a producer. Soupy Sales has a cameo. Jim Backus as a shrink. And there’s a precocious child.
I’ll Take Sweden (1965)
I’ve known this one since I was a kid (they used to show it on TV) but it’s grown on me a great deal. Hope plays a widowed businessman, Tuesday Weld is his slightly wild daughter who wants to marry her worthless beach bum boyfriend Frankie Avalon. To break the couple up, Hope takes a job at his company’s Stockholm office (first framing Avalon with another girl so the daughter will want to go). Of course when they get to Sweden, the sexual customs are much more advanced than Americans are used to and Weld winds up with a young man whom Hope finds even more objectionable, eventually sending for Avalon. Meanwhile Hope falls in love with a Swedish woman. When I was younger I would have unreservedly called the movie bad, but now I find it has period charm, and this older version of the Hope character works.
Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966)
Hope is definitely in his decline here. The vehicle truly stretches credibility. The premise: when making a phone call businessman Hope is accidentally patched through to the hotel room of Elke Sommer, a movie star who is on the lam because she is tired of having to do nude bathing scenes in her movies. He somehow becomes involvd with her through a series of unlikely interactions (not romantically, but it LOOKS incriminating). FBI and others begin to hound him, and after a while it even appears that he has killed her. (This would have been a perfect predicament for Charley Chase’s screen character). Along the way he is aided and abetted by his maid, Phyllis Diller, who wants to prevent Hope’s wife from finding out. The film’s best moments are when Diller, in black sunglasses and a pink house coat rides around on a motorcycle, her wild hair flowing in the breeze. It’s kind of an indelible image…that alone makes it a memorable movie. Unfortuantely the pace of the film is leaden, stopping potential farce from happening. Slow as molasses and implausible…a bad combination, because if it were fast (as in good farce) you never have time to contemplate the implausibility.
How to Commit Marriage (1969)
A find this film a most enjoyable experience even though Hope is far from his best. He seems really subdued, definitely phoning it in, thinking about his golf game. He and his wife (Jane Wyman) postpone their divorce when their daughter shows up determined to marry her boyfriend (Tim Matheson.) The boy’s father (Jackie Gleason miscast as a cynical, hip and intellectual rock and roll promoter) is against the wedding for being too bourgeois. (He merely lives with his lover, played by Tina Louise, which was pretty racy for back then.)
When the truth comes out about the divorce they decide not to get married but live together. But then the daughter gets pregnant. An Indian guru played by Professor Irwin Corey advises them to put the baby up for adoption. Hope and Wyman pretend to be a Scottish couple and kidnap the baby. Woven all through this is the psycedhelic music of a band called The Comfortable Chair which Gleason’s character represents. (They were a real LA band, produced by John Densmore and Robby Kreiger of The Doors). And there is a lengthy scene in the middle where for some reason a chimp plays golf! In the end, Hope masquerades as the Indian guru and advises the kids to get married and take their baby back. Somehow it all resolves itself (mostly because Tina threatens not to have sex with Jackie Gleason any more unless he does a turn around and sides with Hope and Wyman. You see, so the film reflects the influences of Aristophanes).
Cancel My Reservation (1972)
Bob Hope’s last starring vehicle and, with its terrible script and 4th string jokes, it comes as no surprise. I was alive when this movie came out but never even heard of it until many years later, which should give you some indication of its popularity at the time. Not only is it a hoary murder-mystery-premise ala 1940, it is extraordinarily out of touch with changing contemporary culture. While they throw in perfunctory references to the pill and sex, the entire plot is about “Indians” — and it’s one of those movies that uses Indian stereotypes and never identifies the tribe, to me a sure-fire harbinger of disrespect. (Get it? “Reservation”?) This is two years after Little Big Man. The movie’s idea of being topical is a cameo by Flip Wilson, who shouts his catchphrase, “What you see is what you get!” Still this is a movie I will be glad to watch more than once. Its badness is quite delicious and it is a terrific time capsule of 1972. (The soundtrack is especially groovy). And it is chock full of (mostly gone to seed) stars! Eva Marie Saint! Ralph Belamy! Keenan Wynn! Forrest Tucker! Doodles Weaver! Not to mention Chief Dan George, Henry Darrow, and Pat Morita! And top it off, they revive (exhume) a gimmick from Alias Jesse James (where Bing Crosby and a bunch of other stars make cameos). And if there isn’t enough revisiting of tired material, he brings in the “old guy riding on the back of a motorcycle” business from I’ll Take Sweden and Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number. It’s time to hang up that golf hat.
Now: Bob was 69 when this movie came out. In some respects he looks kind of good — he could pass for 59. But he was no longer comedy star material from this point going forward, at least in feature films. But retirement seems kind of a drastic choice. I like Bob Hope! He would have been great in ensemble comedies, say Disney movies, as the grandpa. Picture if you will, a much tamer version of Little Miss Sunshine with Hope in the Alan Arkin role. I think that would have been great.