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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hope Endures (originally published 7/03, on the occasion of Bob Hope's death)

After a century of life, most of it spent in show business, Bob Hope left behind a rich and voluminous legacy in the form of books, recordings of radio shows, and videotapes of television programs. Still, for my money, the most enduring monuments to this entertainment giant remain his films. For some reason, perhaps because he continued to do television long after his movie career had ended, people seem to remember him more for his TV work than for his movies, and yet it was on the big screen that he came into his own as more than just a joke machine. In his motion pictures, he emerged as a unique and gifted comic actor.

I can only imagine that the problem lies in the fact that his movies are screened only rarely. The last major theatrical festival of his film work that I’m aware of was way back in May of 1979, a series of screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In this age of home video, however, there is no excuse for such a distinguished body of work to languish unseen. If you’re looking for an appropriate way to mark the passing of one of the all-time great comic talents, head down to the video store and pick up these titles.

“The Paleface” (1948). Hope’s classic comic Western finds him in a typical role as a wisecracking but likeable frontier dentist. Jane Russell, one of the leading glamour actresses of the 1940s, plays Calamity Jane. Tough as nails and a dead shot, she’s the polar opposite of Hope’s character, who is cowardly and inept. Calamity is sprung from prison by the government in exchange for her promise to find out who has been smuggling guns to the Indians. To give herself a respectable cover from which to operate, she marries Hope’s character and travels west with him. The two played off each other so successfully that a sequel, “Son of Paleface,” was made four years later.

“Road to Morocco” (1942). Beginning in 1940 with “Road to Singapore,” Hope was teamed with Bing Crosby for a memorable series of “Road” pictures. Invariably, they ended up vying for the attention of Dorothy Lamour, who appeared in all the pictures in the series. Actually, you can’t go wrong with any of the “Road” films, but this one happens to be my favorite. It was in this film that the most distinctive element of the series really came to the fore: the occasional acknowledgement by the actors that this is only a movie. For instance, when Crosby interrupts Hope’s hysterics over their hopeless plight to point out that they are safe after all, Hope scolds him for spoiling what might have been an Academy Award-winning performance. This was a running gag with Hope, who continually joked about his failure to win an Oscar. “At my house,” he would lament, “Oscar night is known as Passover.” (Actually, he was awarded five Oscars during the course of his career, although none were for “best actor.”)

“My Favorite Blonde” (1942). Madeleine Carroll plays a British agent who is being pursued by Nazis. Hope is a vaudeville comic who unwittingly gets mixed up in the intrigue by being in the wrong place at the right time. This picture helped to define the comic spy genre that, among other things, influenced the TV series “Moonlighting.” Hope returned to this type of material in 1943 with “They Got Me Covered,” and again in 1947 with “My Favorite Brunette.” Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Louisiana Purchase” (1941). This was the film adaptation of an Irving Berlin musical play that gently poked fun at political corruption in Louisiana during the Huey Long era. Just two years after Jimmy Stewart’s emotionally charged filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Hope delivers a wonderful comic turn on the idea of a one-man filibuster. In its way, it’s just as much of a classic scene as Stewart’s was.

This is only the beginning. There’s also “The Cat and the Canary” (1939), “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1946), “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951), “The Seven Little Foys” (1955), and many more. Once you’ve rediscovered what a talented comic actor Hope truly was, I predict you’ll want to see them all. After all, in a world without Hope, we need all the laughs we can get.

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