I wonder if you approached someone under the age of 25 and asked them about Bob Hope if they’d even know who he was. I’m 41 and I mostly know him as the guy who used to do TV specials for the USO. It's a shame that he seems to be mostly forgotten except by those who grew up with him on television and the movies or for lovers of old cinema and historians of humor. For in truth, he was a pioneer in the field of comedy, a huge movie star in the '40s, a staple of light night TV, an author and singer, and in short one of the all time greatest entertainers that ever lived.
He received so many awards, honors, and medals that Wikipedia has dedicated its own pages to them. A small sampling includes five special recognitions from the Academy Awards, induction into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the TV Hall of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, a Congressional Gold Medal, National Medal of Arts, the Order of the Sword from the Air Force (the only civilian ever to receive it), 50 different honorary degrees from universities across the United States and many, many more.
In celebration of his career (and just in time for your Christmas shopping), Universal Pictures is putting out a lovely little boxed set featuring 21 films starring Bob Hope. Its focus lies on his films from the late '30s throughout the '40s and features costars such as Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Veronica Lake, and of course Dorothy Lamour. It also includes six of his films costarring Bing Crosby, four of which are from the famous Roads to… series. It's also got the PBS documentary from their American Masters series and several other variety shorts.
As mentioned, I am not at all well versed in Bob Hope. Growing up I’d see him on various TV specials or on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and I’d enjoy him. His jokes always seemed old fashioned but they were still funny. But I don’t think I’d ever seen one of his films until opening this set.
I’d often heard how funny the Road movies were so I started there. The first film in the series is Road to Singapore and honestly I was disappointed in it. As I would soon discover, none of the Road movies are really about being on the road, rather after a quick explanation as to why they’ve landed in some exotic place (and none of the films were actually shot on location), they simply have an adventure in that particular spot. Road to Singapore has some good jokes but they are few and far between and the songs are very dated, sappy, and not good at all.
The sequels get better as they use a lot of running gags to bring the comedy. In the first film, Bing and Bob play paddy-cake before punching out the bad guys and in subsequent film this ploy often doesn’t work to which they quip that they must have seen the previous film, or some such thing. During Road to Morocco (the best film in the bunch), the opening song includes a line about how they know they won’t die in Morocco as they just signed a several picture deal with the studio. Each film builds many of its jokes upon the earlier films, creating some really wonderful bits.
Unfortunately, most of these jokes tend to come in the beginning and endings of the films as once they get into the actual stories, they take things more serious (well, not serious as they are still loaded with jokes, but the inside gags tend to slip away). The Road movies aren’t strictly sequels as Bob and Bing play different characters each time and other than the running gags, the stories don’t have anything to do with each other. They are more like sequels of the heart. While Bing and Bob have different names and are technically different characters, they are all more or less the same (and cut from the same persona cloth the two had developed over the years). The stories stick to the same concept as well. After a brief setup, the two end up in some exotic land, meet a pretty girl (almost always Dorothy Lamour), fight over her, get into a jam, and come out on top in the end (Bing always gets the girl).
The other films in this set not starring Bing Crosby stick to a pretty familiar routine as well. Bob Hope meets a pretty girl and gets into a jam because of her. Ridiculous situations (and nonstop gags) ensue. Without Bing, there aren’t any songs, and Bob now gets the girl, but the films still tend to blend together after you’ve seen a few.
These are very old fashioned movies and the jokes are quite dated. I still laughed a lot, but a certain kind of fatigue set in after a while. The plots are all silly and implausible and if you care about that, you’re missing the point, but I have to admit I like my comedies with more story where the humor comes out of the characters and there are fewer one-liners. But again that’s missing the point with this sort of thing where the jokes fly fast and furious and if you miss one, there will be another one coming right behind it.
For those who need the details, the following films are included: The Big Broadcast of 1938, College Swing, Give Me a Sailor, Thanks for the Memory, Never Say Die, The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, Caught in the Draft, Nothing But the Truth, Louisiana Purchase, My Favorite Blonde, Monsieur Beaucaire, Where There’s Life, The Paleface, Sorrowful Jones.
With Bing Crosby: Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia, Star Spangled Rhythm, and Variety Girl.
They are all standard DVD releases and as far as I can tell have all been released in various packages over the years. They come two or three to a disk and the video quality often suffers for it. None of them looked particularly bad but don’t go in expecting super clean prints.
Bob Hope is a comedy legend. These films represent some of the best work he put on cinema. This is a great overview box from his most prolific period. It's cheaply priced to sell for Christmas and while that does mean the quality of the audio/video suffers a bit and there are no extras to more carefully understand each film, it is a wonderful way to dive into Hope’s cinematic output. Bob Hope deserves to remembered and this is a great way to keep the legend alive.