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Bobhomie

Bob Hope: 1903-2003

By Richard von Busack

(The following piece appeared in Metro during the week of Hope's 100th birthday. Hope died on July 27 at his home in Toluca Lake, California.)

Bob Hope became the first "personality" in the movies: a song and dance man who tended to sing and dance less as the years went by. In reducing his act to leisurely jokes, Hope brought a breakthrough style to the movies. He turns 100 on May 29, and the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto marks the occasion with a retrospective of 18 Hope films, including the detective parody My Favorite Brunette, The Princess and the Pirate and three of Hope and Bing Crosby's ineffable Road movies.

"Thanks for the Memories" is Hope's theme song. The long-memoried can't forget dozens of grisly NBC TV specials in the 1960s, when Hope's humor took a badly reactionary turn. And Hope's Krusty the Klown-like hunger to advertise everything was mocked in the Stiffs' punk-rock anthem "Die, Bob, Die." Those introduced to John Wayne in his last days, when he looked, as Pauline Kael put it, "like a squashed Easter Island statue," were shocked to see the young Wayne in Stagecoach, when he was really quite beautiful. It's the same shock to see how funny Hope was in the 1940s. As "Bertold Blecht" explained in a perceptive essay on Suck.com, Hope's secret was being a noncharacter, discarding broad clowning in favor of being a slightly backward average guy.

Often this guy is an open-faced rube, given to checked suits, novelty bow ties and bright, false smiles. Hope was a radio comedian first, with a busy line of patter, always warding off the disaster of dead air. And Hope is definitely the first anti-comedian, desperately telling lousy jokes in moments of stress or panic. Hope played costume parts--pirates, soldiers, prospectors--but despite the wrapping, he always was a commonly-met American type: a fool who believed in his own shrewdness and lovability, a fraud who held a degree in dentistry from the kind of schools they advertise on matchbook covers, a booster with a bum piece of property to sell, a cowboy with a shaky pistol. And part of Hope's bonhomie (or Bobhomie) was his readiness to toss off a line of blue material for the pricked-up ears of the gents. In The Paleface, he asides to a group of half-clad women fleeing a gunfight: "Don't give your right names": traditional advice when a whorehouse is being raided by the police.

Most of these films are six decades old, yet Hope's appeal is completely understandable, in a way that some of his then-popular contemporaries aren't. Hope's style is still fresh, conversely, because so many people adopted it. Woody Allen was all over Hope, filching jokes and mannerisms, grafting 1960s neurosis and Jewish humor onto it. Hope's style soaked into everyone from Bugs Bunny to Jerry Seinfeld to the Kids in the Hall, who named themselves in honor of Hope's joke writers. There's a lot of Hope in Adam Sandler's hopeless movies; the frame-breaking gags from Jean-Luc Godard to the Scary Movie series honor Hope and Crosby's Road pictures. Even with Hope's longevity, the man's influence will certainly outlive him.


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Web extra to the July 24-30, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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