Bob Hope is 100 years old Thursday. One hundred years old! His daughter recently reported that the family’s celebration would be a quiet one, as the great comedian has understandably become frail as he has approached the century mark. He still has his good days, however, and perhaps his birthday will be one of many more to come. Hope had often joked with fellow comedian George Burns about living to be 100 years old, and now he has joined him in that exclusive club.
To me, however, Bob Hope has always been and always will be the youthful, wisecracking hustler he played in his best films. Even as he became older and a little paunchy and began golfing with U.S. presidents, there was always that sly grin of his to assure me that the real Bob Hope was still in there somewhere.
The real Bob Hope was a great comic innovator who was probably the most influential comedian of the past century. Before he came along, American comedians tended toward exaggerated, clownish personae. In the movies, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and, later, W. C. Fields were oddball characters whose humor arose from their inability to fit into normal, bourgeois society. In vaudeville and radio, popular acts such as Fields, Jack Benny, and Burns and Allen played up certain comic conceits and exaggerated character traits, and most comics avoided topical material.
Bob Hope changed all of that. Although comics such as Will Rogers preceded him in basing comedy on current events, Hope’s level of topicality was highly innovative. In a characteristic early 1930s joke that combined politics and bathroom humor, Hope recounted how he told a woman that the restroom was “just around the corner” and she replied, “Don’t give me any of that Hoover talk!” He soon moved on to Broadway and the movies with equal success, and then began a long, successful career on television in the 1950s.
In all of these media, Hope was a constant innovator. In the first of his 1,145 radio episodes, a weekly program sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste, he sped up the pace by increasing the number of segments and vastly increasing the number of jokes. He established the practice of performing 60 to 90 minutes of material in a preview show recorded before an audience, to select the funniest 30 minutes for the live radio performance two nights later. His show created a new format combining topical, comic monologues, skits, and musical acts, which remains the staple of TV talk and variety shows today. His wisecracking, smart-alecky commentary on daily events became the standard for television comics such as Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, the Saturday Night Live news segments, Dennis Miller, etc.
In fact, beginning in 1948, he performed a recurring fake-news segment on his radio programs, appearing as a comic news anchor (in “Bob Hope’s Swan’s Eye View of the News”). “The three candidates have really changed their tunes since the election,” he reported. “Truman’s changed his from ‘Missouri Waltz’ to ‘It’s Magic,’ Dewey’s humming ‘Say It Isn’t So,’ and [Progressive candidate Henry] Wallace is singing, ‘On a Slow Boat to China.’” Hope’s radio ratings were always high, but the heavy topicality makes much of his radio work rather difficult to understand now.
In his various television programs for NBC, starting in 1950, Hope added to the variety-show format’s usual bland cheeriness a dose of sharp satire and ironic social comment. For example, he began lampooning Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1952, well before the senator’s 1954 downfall: “I have it on good authority that McCarthy is going to disclose the names of two million Communists . . . He’s just got his hands on the Moscow telephone directory.”
Hope’s voracious consumption of jokes honed his critical skills, and he became known as an expert on joke construction. In a 1981 interview, he said, “I believe I was the first of the comedians to hire several writers at a time. I think I was also the first to admit openly that I employed writers. In the early days of radio, comedians fostered the illusion that all of those funny sayings came right out of their own skulls.” Yet, however great the contributions of his writers, Hope’s success was really based on his skills as a comic and his refusal to purvey inferior material.
He was a great genius at establishing a rapport with audiences, in whatever medium he chose. His willingness to poke fun at himself was a big part of it, especially in his film work, where his persona was often that of a lovable scoundrel — lovable because, although he was selfish, greedy, and girl-crazy, he really didn’t want to hurt anyone. In addition, his ineptitude made it unlikely that he could do his enemies much harm even if he wished to.
But perhaps the greatest part of his appeal was his extraordinary naturalness. He stood out there on an empty stage without props, without a kooky persona to fall back on, without any sidekicks, without anything but an assortment of finely honed jokes and his own brash willingness to put himself on the line. Anyone who has ever appeared before an audience for any reason can understand the courage it took for him to do that day after day and week after week. You had to respect that.
And how unflappable he was! When a joke flopped, he’d make an ironic comic about it and blithely move on. Of course, most of the jokes were very good, an obvious product of hard work and respect for his audience, which was another factor in his uncanny rapport with people. In addition, it was well known that Hope tirelessly performed for U.S. service personnel and for charitable organizations. These efforts were clearly much more than a public-relations scheme — he could have achieved a suitably beneficent reputation with just a few such appearances. No, regardless of how cynically one might view him, that was the real Bob Hope.
Although born near London, England, Bob Hope was a distinctly American performer. (His family moved to the United States when he was four years old, and he was raised in a shabby neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio.) In this country with no history of royalty or hereditary nobility, it just made great sense for a regular guy to stand up and mock the big shots and stuffed shirts who took it upon themselves to run things. Once Bob Hope perfected that role for the modern media, it came to seem a perfectly natural thing, and now it is the norm among public commentators of all kinds, comic or otherwise.
He was, moreover, quite American in his optimism. However devious his characters might be in their schemes, they were pursuing the American Dream, hoping one day to settle down in a nice, comfortable marriage in a respectable, happy home. On the way, they were eternally plucky, never accepting defeat. His surname turned out to be uncannily appropriate and so very American in its implications.
The movies, of course, are where Hope’s greatest achievement lies. He hit his stride early on, with The Cat and the Canary (1939), instantly developing a striking persona: wisecracking, comically cowardly, greedy, and lustful, but always thwarted in his schemes. At a particularly suspenseful moment, Hope declares, “I’m so scared, even my goose pimples have goose pimples.” And when asked, “Don’t big, empty houses scare you?” he answers, “Not me, I used to be in vaudeville.” The character’s occasional pretenses of courage only made his cravenness that much more comical.
In the seven Road pictures he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope’s wisecracks and sniveling cowardice meshed perfectly with Crosby’s suave superiority. In a typical exchange from one of the best of these, The Road to Utopia, Hope’s character catches the hiccups, and Crosby asks, “Can’t you suppress it somehow?” “Frighten me!” Hope replies. “I can’t,” responds Crosby; “I haven’t got a mirror.”
His best film is probably The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), directed by Sidney Lanfield from a Damon Runyon story. Some of his funniest films are Fancy Pants, The Road to Utopia, The Road to Morocco, The Great Lover, The Paleface, The Cat and the Canary, Monsieur Beaucaire, and Casanova’s Big Night. Among his later films, the one standout is probably How to Commit Marriage (1969), in which he and Jackie Gleason spar with each other in a story about love, greed, California real estate, and hippies. Hope also handled a couple of dramatic roles beautifully, in The Seven Little Foys and Beau James.
Most of Hope’s comedy films are still surprisingly fresh after a half-century or so. One reason for this is his willingness to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience. Frequently he will turn to the camera and comment directly to us on the action in the picture, often saying something about how ridiculous the story is. At the end of The Road to Utopia, for example, when Bob and Dorothy are an old, wealthy, married couple, their son enters the room — and he is played by Bing Crosby. Bob turns to the camera and says, “We adopted him!”
This willingness to acknowledge the fictionality of his films has ensured that no matter how silly the story may be, we recognize that he is in on the joke and that it is all just for fun. We appreciate his respect for our intelligence. It is interesting to note how few film actors have even tried to pull this off. Hope was certainly by far the best at doing so.
As was perhaps inevitable, the comic’s brashness wore off over time, and Hope settled into a comfortable persona as a genial satirist. The hunger for attention that had spurred him to stand before audiences without a safety net was no longer there, no longer even possible. He knew that he was going to make us laugh, and we knew that we were going to laugh, and there was no risk of failure. He was not a cheeky young fellow poking fun at people who could crush him in a moment; he was a charming wag joking about his powerful golfing buddies.
The jokes were still funny, however, and his TV specials still pulled excellent ratings. His personal appearances were likewise well attended, though more for nostalgia than fun. He was no longer the bright, sassy Bob Hope of yore, he was Bob “Texaco” Hope, and the edge was gone. His films, too, lost much of their innovativeness and creativity and became basically standard narratives with jokes interspersed throughout.
But the real Bob Hope is still there today, in his delightful movies, TV specials, radio programs, and the memories of the many people before whom he appeared live on stage, especially the service personnel for whom he had such obvious admiration. There he is, alive and well and cheeky as ever, a full century after the happy day on which he was born.
This is a legacy that will last. And I will suggest, if I may, an appropriate way to honor this man on his 100th birthday. Watch a couple of your favorite Bob Hope movies, laugh yourself silly, raise a glass, and say, “Thanks for the memories!”
Thanks, Bob. Thanks for the memories.
— S. T. Karnick, and NRO contributor, is editor in chief of American Outlook, published by the Hudson Institute.