Back in 1991, the Roseanne episode “Tolerate Thy Neighbor” aired, which looked at the title character’s continuing fight with Kathy Bowman, who lives across the street. In the show, Kathy’s house is robbed and Roseanne jokes with the cops that the culprit looked like Bob Hope. In the episode’s tag, the actual Bob Hope found himself in a police lineup. Nearly 30 years ago, the audience roared. Watching the episode for the first time today in reruns, they simply don’t get the joke or who this guy is. And they should.
“We should remember him in 202, because of his enormous contribution to and effect on culture for much of the 20th Century,” opines Wesley Hyatt, author of Bob Hope on TV: Thanks for the Video Memories. “He was a top star from the ’40s to the ’90s, and was even fairly well known before that in the ’30s. It’s a long time to have a successful career and to be at the top of your field. At the same time, he was one of the leaders of encouraging celebrities to make charitable contributions back to their country, starting, of course, with his work for the USO during World War II and going on from there.”
Reflecting on Bob’s history, Wesley points out, “He started in vaudeville back in the earlier part of the 20th century when it was flourishing, and went from there to Broadway and from there into movies and radio kind of simultaneously. By the time television rolled around, he went into it basically because everyone else was going into it — but also because he got an offer to do an Easter special in 1950 that would pay him, I believe, the highest amount of any guest performer up until that time. He even says on the special, ‘Well, it looks like they finally got me.’”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bob didn’t have his own regular weekly series, which was purposely the case as he feared burning himself out. As a result, during the 1950s he primarily alternated once every three or four weeks as host of the Colgate Comedy Hour. “Then,” Wesley explains, “he started doing what you could call ‘floating specials’ from the 1950s, but his presence was enough that he always had high ratings. He never had to worry about that at all; he just had to worry about timing his exposure and making sure he wasn’t worn out on the medium.”
What few may realize is that Bob, who was born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, actually hails from England, having been born in Etham, London, the fifth of seven sons to English father William Henry Hope and Welsh mother Avis. The family emigrated to America in 1908 and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Starting at about age 12, Bob would try to earn cash by performing on the streets (better known as “busking”), singing, dancing and offering up comedy. In between entering amateur dancing and talent contests, he enjoyed a brief career in 1919 as a boxer and worked as a lineman, a butcher’s assistant and at the Chandler Motor Car Company. Also as a youth, he worked with his brother Jim in clearing trees and was so severely injured in an accident while doing so that his face required heavy reconstructive surgery, which, as Rolling Stone (rudely) noted, “contributed to his later bizarrely distinctive appearance.”
Muses Wesley, “His journey to becoming a star was harder than most people realize; he had to put in a lot of time. He eventually got into the entertainment field as a dancer and then as a comedian on the vaudeville stage. He didn’t make it big until the 1930s when he was doing Broadway along with the likes of Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman. And that led to his film contract — but even with that contract, he didn’t hit his stride until the 1940s with the Road pictures which he starred in with Bing Crosby. He had some lean years there before he developed his comic style of fast patter with a wise-guy attitude.”
In the 1930s, Bob began working in radio at NBC and signed a contract with Educational Pictures of New York, which resulted in six short films. After those were done, he next aligned himself with Warner Bros to shoot movies during the day while performing on Broadway at night. In 1938, he moved to Hollywood where he signed with Paramount Pictures for The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which he appeared along with W.C. Fields. Things took off from there, especially with those Bing Crosby collaborations, starting with 1940’s The Road to Singapore.
he Road to … movies were a massive hit with the audience, presenting a combination of comedy, adventure, romance and music and serving as an opportunity to satirize popular film genres of the day, with Bob and Bing adlibbing a lot of the dialogue and situations that took place. Singapore was followed by Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1946), Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952) and Road to Hong Kong (1962).
Details Wesley, “What he and Bing brought is they both had the experience of being in vaudeville, where you would have to learn how to clown around and keep the attention of rowdy theater goer
s. On screen they developed a strong rapport that way and good schtick together. It went so well, and made such an impression on the audience, that for years afterward Bob would make running jokes about Bing’s singing career and his young family. Sometimes he would even make cracks about Bing’s age, even though they were about the same age. His on screen relationship with Bing was a fertile ground for humor, like when people were complaining about music, Bob said something like, ‘I agree. That’s why I threw out my Crosby records.’ But to be sure, Bing got got a few good ones in there on Bob, too.
They had a good, natural rapport on screen,” he adds. “I understand they weren’t as close off screen, but that had more to do with Bing living most of the time in San Francisco with his family. He was not the workaholic that Bob was in later years. Another part of their appeal is that they would break the fourth wall; it was kind of a trademark of what they had there in the Road pictures. Bob would stare into the camera and make direct comments to the audience and that sort of thing. He would do that a couple of times in his other pictures, too. It was a very distinctive Hope-like thing to do. It’s odd when you think about it, because if you remember Bob on TV, you could tell that he was using cue cards, and it was the worst.
And it was so obvious, because he had a cue card guy who would obviously be very far to the side of the camera. He’d be looking way to the side and the guest would have to do the same thing, too, so it looked like they were barely having eye contact with each other, even though they’re next to each other talking.”
BY ED GROSS
proc. by MOVIES