Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday morning quarterbacking

First off, this is not going to be a post about the Super Bowl. With all due respect to football fans out there, it’s just not a big thing here around Rancho Yesteryear. All I can do is offer congratulations to the victors (Saints) and condolences to the non-victors (Colts). (Particularly my blogging colleague James Briggs Stratton “Doghouse” Riley, a die-hard Colts supporter and a gentleman who brings honor and respect to the word “fan.”)

Speaking of D.R, I would like to effusively thank him for the heady praise he heaped upon yours truly in a recent post, dubbing me “the only honest man on the internets.” It’s kind of hard to say anything after that, and if I were a smarter individual I’d use that as an excuse to retire from blogging and exit the stage. But since I simply don’t know any better, I guess I’m here to stay.

Riley bestowed that appellation upon me as a response to this recent Salon article by Erik Nelson, who you may remember caught the eye of this blog administrator a few weeks back by proposing a double-bill of The Hurt Locker (2008) and Sahara (1943). This time around, Nelson has offered up the intriguing first-and-second feature combo of Zombieland (2009) and Road to Utopia (1946)—and again, since I’ve not seen the first feature it’s whetted my appetite to go forth and rent.

I was pretty enthused for the most part by Nelson’s take on Utopia—though this passage disturbed me a bit (and formed the basis for Doghouse’s post):

If it's a culture crime that a decade of comedy has simply vanished from memory, a simultaneous witness for both the defense and the prosecution is Bob Hope. Here's an American comedic legend who quite simply was not funny -- at least publicly -- for 50 long years, a creative desert entered the day that principal photography was completed on Frank Tashlin's "Son of Paleface" in 1952, and left by Hope's death in 2003. This very public lack of discernible humor not only doomed Hope to critical oblivion, but may have impacted the reputations of many of his contemporaries as well.

The nitpick I have with this statement is that I feel Nelson is giving Hope short-shrift; Hope didn’t stop bringing the funny after Paleface and one or two of his films (notably Casanova's Big Night (1954), a return to the Monsieur Beaucaire shenanigans of yore, and Alias Jesse James (1959)—perhaps the last really good solo Hope film) successfully mined the “cowardly custard” persona (as Leslie Halliwell once put it) of the late 30s and throughout the 1940s. You also need to give credit where credit is due—Bob did attempt to try new things: his The Seven Little Foys (1955) is underrated (the dancing-on-the-table number with James Cagney reprising his role as George M. Cohan is worth the price of admission) and Beau James (1957) lets him play the legendary politico Jimmy Walker to perfection. (He also did two more “Road” films with Der Bingle—The Road to Hong Kong [1962] is pretty weak, but Road to Bali [1952] has its moments.)

Doghouse Riley:

I grew up with the worst of Hope--not just those phone-it-in-from-waaay-long distance teevee specials, but his vocal support of a jungle war that kept his name in Variety for something other than Call Me Bwana. But I knew at the same time that Hope had an unmatched sense of timing, at least in talkies, at least until he grew fat and comfortable and chummy with Presidents. Yeah, he coasted for thirty years or so; you get that option when the audience allows, which doesn't mean you have to take it. I just find it a little difficult to accept that today's audiences are still turned off by his middle-to-old-age reputation, which resides in that same musty corner as everything else that occurred before the vast majority of them was born. I can't think of anyone under 30 in my extended family, or my neighborhood, who could be made to sit still for a Road picture, or a screwball comedy, or an episode of The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show, for that matter. Although if someone turned them into cartoons…

I don’t think there’s any question that Hope was going-through-the-motions by the 1960s: he made some real clinkers at that time, notably the “My-God-this-is-awful” trilogy of Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966), Eight on the Lam (1967) and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968). Part of the reason why these films suck is because for unknown reasons, Hope was reluctant to hire new writers work on his films (he saved the crème de la crème for his television specials, which might give you an idea of how much trouble he was in) allowing them to pile on flop upon flop. But what really worked against Bob was that…well, hell, he was getting on in years—and his “ladies’ man” character simply wasn’t believable by that time. Age really put a crimp in his Gatling gun-delivery, and as Riley has mentioned, he was spending a lot of time sleeping over in the Lincoln bedroom. (This was evident in a television special I watched on GPB yesterday—though I just caught the last ten minutes—that featured a montage of Hope joshing with the various commanders-in-chief from FDR to WJC.)

My father was never a fan of Bob Hope. For years I thought it was because of the comedian’s obsequious lip-service to the Vietnam War, but he later explained to me that he just never cared for Bob’s “Laugh now, figure out the jokes later” style of comedy. But I remember one night many years ago—when AMC showed classic films sans bathroom breaks—that he and I were seated in the living room and watching The Princess and the Pirate (1944). Pirate, a Technicolor romp produced by Samuel Goldwyn, is one of Hope’s best comedies and I was genuinely surprised to look over and witness my father actually chuckling at it. Simply put, my father has never been the poster boy for frivolity and wild abandon—so if he could laugh at Bob’s shenanigans in this film, the man must have done something right in his lengthy film career:

The thing is, the unfunny cue-card-reading comic zombie who was justifiably reviled by those in the know during our lifetimes was actually, for a few years, one of the truly funniest men on the planet. Now, at the time of that ascension, Hope shared the planet with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. So, there is that. But still, Hope was the preeminent comic voice of the 1940s, and of his adopted country. And you know what?

He was really funny.

The golden age of Hope's work spanned seven years, from 1941's "Road to Zanzibar" to 1948's "The Paleface." In "Road to Utopia," one of the most perfect comedies of that decade -- oh hell, let's say of the last 75 years -- Hope and Crosby accomplished a rare thing, an ad-libbed, brilliantly performed surrealistic romp through the fourth wall of studio convention. Their comic timing has to be seen to be believed, and "Road to Utopia" is the place to go to be converted.


Bookmark and Share


Bill Crider said...

I grew up listening to Hope on the radio in the late '40s and early '50s. I thought he was hilarious. I continued to think so when I saw him in person a couple of times around 1959 or 1960. Not long after that, one of us changed. I just didn't find him funny anymore.

Doghouse Riley said...

1) Just for future reference, the fact that I write about something should not stop sane people from doing so as well; 2) I thought the "samizdat" crack was uncalled for, seeing as how the first guy I think of when someone says (not quite) "middle-aged fan of screwball comedies" is a stickler for copyright in a culture of pickpockets; and 3) I think you're spot on about Hope's schtick--and Hope--growing old. (It's a little odd that the same guy who says that Der Bingle's crooning could bring a Road picture to a screeching halt [has he never seen a Marx Bros. flick?] acts like he stayed fresh for five decades because somebody booked David Bowie onto one of his Christmas shows, and from there to YouTube. Same damn sin he's accusing everyone else of.)

Again, that these guys are overlooked is criminal, but I'd blame lazy self-indulgence and herd mentality, not the fact that Hope made crappy movies in the 60s. No one will ever top Elvis' record of cinematic plumbing backups, will they? Hasn't hurt his record sales much.

Tom said...

I have two questions for you gentlemen.

1. How did Crosby ever get that nickname in the first place?

2. If Hope was such an unfunny zombie (or "zom" per "The Ghostbreakers") then what is your theory as to why the Academy kept bringing him back to host the Oscar show?

Vince said...

Weirdly, I ended up watching Zombieland and Road To Utopia within days of each other, close enough for them to count as a double-bill. Weirder still, I can see what Nelson is going for in pairing them. As for Hope, it pains me to say it, but I watch the Road movies solely for Crosby. Hope's shtick works better in earlier films like College Swing and The Big Broadcast of 1938.

Mr said...

I watched road to rio last night. the boys do a vaudeville routine very early in the picture. singing, dancing, and entertaining side by side. hope is light on his feet, nimble and quick. he snaps out each move, unlike his rather stiff partner.

so he coasted on his early work -- at least it was good stuff, delivered honestly by a craftsman who knew his trade. i think that is the reason he could linger on even though too much time had passed: you dont have to see the wash-out of today up there on the stage, you can see the clever young man of your own childhood.