By Jill Borak
Photo research by Steve Keifer, Hollywood Memories
Our local boy made very good. Vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television. And, of course, the movies. There isn't a showbiz venue that Bob Hope hasn't conquered.
His movie career started in 1930 on the Pathé Studios lot in Culver City – Bob Hope's first screen test. He refers to the test, with him and his vaudeville partner Louise Troxell performing their act before a camera and crew, as "the accident. We got laughs and applause so I prepared to become Cleveland's answer to the world of cinema," Hope recalls. But no one called with job offers. Would his movie career end before it began?
Finally Bob called William Perlberg, then a Hollywood agent, to set up a viewing. "You really want to see it?" Perlberg asked, rhetorically. Despite this forewarning, Hope forged ahead, showing up at the screening room, finding it empty, save for the reluctant projectionist. "The lights went down," Hope recalls, "and I watched all alone as my nose came on screen 10 minutes before the rest of my face. It was awful. Even I couldn't believe how bad it was."
Bob low-tailed it back to New York to play The Palace, a life-long dream, and then took on Broadway. First Roberta (Fred MacMurray understudied); Say When (approximately four months); Ziegfeld Follies of 1935 with Fanny Brice (Hope sang the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin classic "I Can't Get Started With You" to Eve Arden) and Red, Hot and Blue! (where he dueted "It's DeLovely" with the The Merm).
During Roberta's run, Hope found some film work, segueing into cinema via a comedy short shot on Long Island called Going Spanish. Hope felt it was "Going Nowhere" when he ran into Walter Winchell.
"Winchell asked me how the film was and I told him that when the cops catch Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice." Winchell printed the punchline, and Going's film company put Bob in the breadlines, canceling his six-picture deal.
But Hope regrouped and joined Vitaphone, the East Coast arm of Warner Bros., for an even better six-picture deal for two-reeler comedy shorts.
When Bob and Dolores decided he needed a superagent, Louis "Doc" Shurr came to mind. Louie was known as "The Doctor" both in the "Doc" Simon-sense, the way Neil Simon has a knack for fixing scripts, but more so for the way Shurr operated. Hope remembers: "Doc Shurr was short and bald but he owned an expensive white mink coat that he'd give to any girl who would go out with him. He always took the coat back but, by that time, it didn't matter.
"Doc managed to sell me to Paramount Pictures for my first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1938. I don't know how he did it. The mink didn't fit Adolph Zukor, the studio chief who made the deal."
In truth, Hope credits his start in major motion pictures to "I Can't Get Started With You" which he sang in the Follies. Mitchell Leisen and Harlan Thompson, director and producer of The Big Broadcast, caught the number, recommended him for the part, and Paramount production chief William LeBaron took the sure bet.
"Thanks to that parlay, I was signed to a seven-picture-with-options contract at Paramount, starting at $20,000 per picture. I didn't realize, though, that the "options" weren't mine," says Hope.
Bob, Dolores and Suds, their Scottie dog, left New York for L.A. on the Super Chief. "It was the custom of stars to get off at Pasadena instead of going on to the L.A. station, to avoid the crowds, you know," says Bob. The studios traditionally hyped the arrival as a cause célèbre, but in Hope's case his lack of a fruit basket, gladhand or "even a gladiola" left him feeling like a Hollywood persona non greata. To top it off, the small picture that appeared in next day's paper was slugged, "A Comedian and His Wife."
The plot of The Big Broadcast of 1938 is launched with a transatlantic race between brand-new ocean liners, the S.S. Gigantic and S.S. Colossal, words that may have been bandied about by makeup chief Wally Westmore when he first laid eyes on Hope's nose. Westmore brushed him the wrong way, recalls Hope, suggesting plastic surgery.
"The camera is going to get a lot closer to you than any audience has so far," warned Westmore. Hope sniffed: "You never played vaudevillle." That same day Hope was handed advice by director Mitchell Leisen. "Everything you do in pictures you do with your eyes…"
"I took Mitch at his word and acted my eyeballs out the first day of the shoot," Bob says. "If you get a chance to see The Big Broadcast check out my eyes when Shirley Ross and I are singing 'Thanks For The Memory.' I did everything with them except make them change places."
Again, Hope's popularity rose for a song. The "Thanks" duet with Ms. Ross, lamenting their failed marriage, is powerful, poignant and although Hope's eyes may have been rolling, most everybody else's were bawling. Damon Runyon devoted his syndicated column to it. Composers Rainger and Robin were in tears. "Thanks" won them the Best Song Oscar for 1938. It became Hope's first hit record.
Paramount execs were moved but not to the extent of re-negotiating Hope's contract, treating him like property and not the talented pro he was. They stuck him in a series of bromidic B pictures, five hackneyed hand-me-downs in a row.
"The lowest point in my career was Some Like It Hot in 1939," says Hope. It was so bad that when Billy Wilder's hit came along in the 50s, Paramount avoided comparisons by changing its title to Rhythm Romance (it was Gene Krupa's debut film).
If Paramount bore an eerie likeness to Danny Kaye's Manic Depressive Pictures (from his routine "Hello, Fresno, Goodbye"), it's because the studio followed Hope's lowest mood ever with a high point of his film career thus far: a picture written expressly for him called The Cat and The Canary, co-starring Paulette Goddard.
Goddard's husband, who knew a few things about comedy himself, applauded Bob in the rushes. "I want you to know," Charlie Chaplin told him, "you're one of the best timers of comedy I've ever seen."
Associated Press man Bob Thomas once expressed similar sentiments in Bob Hope's Road to Hollywood. "No comedian handles lines better," Thomas wrote. "After his years in vaudeville and radio (the Bob Hope Pepsodent Show hit number one in 1940, brushing aside Jack Benny and Fred Allen), he could find his way through the most labyrinthine of sentences maintaining the sense of it and punching across the nonsense."
Here's an example from 1943's They Got Me Covered, with Bob as Robert and John Abbott as Vanescu, a Romanian Fugitive:
Vanescu (to newspaperman Hope): I've got a story that could win you another Pulitzer.
Hope: Tell it to me.
Vanescu: I'll gladly tell it to you for $10,000.
Hope (agreeing as he pulls out wallet): It's a deal – Ten thousand WHAT? I'll give you $1,000…
Vanescu: To save time, $9,000.
Hope: To save money, $2,000.
Vanescu: All right. $4,000.
Hope: $5,000. And not a penny more. Is it a deal?
Vanescu: It's a deal
Hope (proudly to Dorothy Lamour): He wanted $10,000 at first.
Writer-director (and former cartoonist) Frank Tashlin once noted, "There is a startling similarity between Bob Hope and Donald Duck. Both were braggers who back down in an instant but somehow prevail." Tashlin credited Hope with adding his own dimension to the comic style, that of braggadocio. Bob's character would be cocky, all vaunt, to disguise his fear. When danger did show up, he'd become a 'fraidy cat, faint of heart until he managed to escape.
That, not coincidentally, became the formula for the Road pictures: The boys are caught in a no-win situation comedy in scrapes, in straits, in hot water, in a stew, in a pickle, over a barrel, yet always manage to shore up for another sequel. It was the stuff South Sea island escapist fare was made of, and Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour would travel some seven Roads together from 1940 to 1962.
The Roads to Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia, Bali, Rio and Hong Kong created a whole new style of cinema and smashed box-office records around the world.
Bob had met Bing about seven years before their first Road together. "It was love at first sight," says Hope. "We started to insult each other from the moment we met."
They met frequently at the New York Friars Club, shared the stage at the Capitol Theatre and learned to beat each other in a battle of banter at O'Reilly's, a bar across the road from the Capitol. Years later Paramount production head William LeBaron caught their routine at Bing's and Pat O'Brien's Del Mar Turf Club and clinched the Road deal. Hope also knew Lamour previous to making the Road pix. The former Miss New Orleans was a "beautiful chantootsie with a sultry voice," recalls Hope who caught her act in New York.
On the first day's shooting of Road to Singapore, Hope and Crosby ran riot, uncontrolled. "Bob used to give the script to his radio comedy writers to punch it up," says Ward Grant, Hope's longtime friend and publicist. "The studio, because of the Road writers' objections, would toss the lines out. Bob and Bing would put them back in."
"I really shouldn't be taking any money for this job," spoke befuddled director Victor Schertzinger. "All I do is say 'Stop!' and 'Go!'" Dorothy Lamour, who knew her lines daily, hadn't a clue anymore where to come in. But most infuriated of all was the scriptwriting team of Frank Butler and Don Hartman, who created the Road pictures.
This anger from the writers only encouraged Bob and Bing's antics. Hope once taunted, "Hey, Don, if you hear any of your lines, yell 'Bingo!,'" inciting probably one of the very first instances of Road rage.
Bob and Bing also found it handy to disappear now and then for a round of golf. As for visitors on the set, most stars and studios discouraged it; Bob and Bing heralded each and every guest. They once had so many people milling about that the gaffer mistakenly lit them for a scene. He thought they were extras.
But as Polonius said about Hamlet's antics: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." The laughter heard 'round the rushes translated into big bucks at the box office.
After Schertzinger's directorship on Singapore and Zanzibar, the mantle was passed to David "Ol' Blubberbutt" Butler, who may have sought retribution for this moniker by placing the boys in peril. Butler's first Road work was Road to Morocco. "When you watch the video, you'll notice that I stagger out of the scene when the camel spits at me," says Hope. "Bing broke up and I was gasping for breath, but Dave kept the camera rolling. 'Great scene!' he said.
"Dave Butler was full of tricks," Hope continues. During another scene on Morocco, Bing and I were to be chased through the Casbah by Arabian horsemen. Butler had hired cowboy star Ken Maynard to lead the stunt riders, and he led his horsemen through the Casbah like the first furlong of the Kentucky Derby. As the horses charged at us, Bing made a flying dive toward a doorway and I jumped off the set, landing on the concrete floor. Again Dave yelled, "Cut. Great shot!'"
A little reckless, as Bing and Bob were numbers one and two at the box office.
This fact seemed lost on Butler. In yet another Road hazard, Bing and Bob are joined in their cabin by a live bear. "'Tame,' Butler told Bing and me before we shot the scene for Road to Utopia. When the bear started growling at us in bed, Bing and I hightailed it out of the scene. The next day the bear bit its trainer's arm off."
In 1948, Bob Hope and Jane Russell made The Paleface, his number-one box office hit of all time. It also won Best Song Oscar for "Buttons And Bows," written for Bob by Livingston-Evans. Co-written and debut directed by Frank Tashlin, the follow-up was Son of Paleface. Even though the sequel is never the equal, Son of Paleface not only had Bob and Jane but also Roy Rogers and Trigger. The sight gags are tremendous. Trigger, forced to share a bed with Bob; Bob and the horse fighting over the blanket.
Hope did make several semi-serious films, three of which he counts as favorites. In The Seven Little Foys, he portrays Eddie Foy, who put all his kids in his act when his wife died. ("Imagine W.C. Fields with seven kids and you get a picture of Eddie.") Many thought Hope worthy of that elusive Oscar. ("In our family, the night of Academy Awards is known as Passover," Hope jested.) He stated that The Seven Little Foys was "the first time I'd play a real-life character. It made a mint of money and I owned 44-percent of the take."
One film Hope hasn't seen on the video market is 1956's The Iron Petticoat with Katharine Hepburn. Hope isn't sure why. "We checked with Kate and she promised she wasn't keeping it from release," says Ward Grant.
"Actually, The Iron Petticoat had been written by Ben Hecht with Cary Grant in mind," says Hope. "Cary wasn't available so my name was suggested. 'It's great casting!' Ben said after his wrists had been bandaged."
Beau James is another of Hope's favorite films and he recalls Paramount's opinion of his playing New York mayor James J. Walker. "They granted I could play Eddie Foy, a vaudevillian, but they argued Jimmy Walker was light, carefree, full of charm and magnetism.
"Several other actors were considered but after the longest stockholders meeting we ever had, I got the part."
The Facts of Life was a daring picture for Bob. "It was the story of two handicapped people who fall in love. Their handicaps were his wife and her husband."
Hope writers Norman Panama and Mel Frank wrote the script. "but not for Lucille Ball and me, the fools. Norman and Mel wanted to explore the adultery theme of Brief Encounter with an American story starring William Holden and Olivia de Havilland. The comedy in the last third of the film would have to go – unless – the writers brainstormed. Yes! We can save it by making it with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball!" The deal was made. Recalls Bob: "Half of the profits went to a very worthy cause. And Lucille got the other half."
"It was a lot different from when Lucy and I made Sorrowful Jones and Fancy Pants together. Now she was the biggest star in television and owned her own studio.
"It was the first time I ever kissed a studio head." Pause. "Face to face." PSL
MEMORABLE BOB HOPE LINES
Beautiful blonde spy (Madeleine Carroll): "Do you know how it feels to be followed and hounded and watched every second?" Hope: "I used to. But now I pay cash for everything." – My Favorite Blonde, Paramount 1942.
Hope, overcome at the sight of a glamorous Dorothy Lamour: "How did you get into that dress – with a spray gun?" – The Road to Rio, Paramount 1947.
Hope, boasting to heiress Paulette Goddard: "The girls call me 'pilgrim' because every time I dance with one, I make a little progress." – The Ghost Breakers, Paramount 1940.
Martha Raye as tourist in Europe, describing the merits of her boyfriend back home: "He'd do anything for me. When we were kids he ate a beetle just because I asked him to." Bob: "Sounds like a handy guy to have around the garden." – Never Say Die, Paramount 1939.
Michael, heir to a Rorutanian throne (Bob Hope), menaced by foreign spies, grabbing a phone: "Help! Get me the FBI – I've been kidnapped by three mad characters and a dame. Get me the manager! Get me the mayor! Get me the police! Get me Dick Tracy!"
Ruritanian spy: "Run, Michael, run!" Hope: "Run? Do you think I'm yellow?" (Gunshot) "Shake hands with a lemon!"
– Where There's Life, Paramount 1947.
Ham actor, Sylvester The Great (Bob Hope) to Princess Margaret (Virginia Mayo): "I always work better with an audience – especially when they don't outnumber me. My act is known all over Europe. That's why I'm going to America."
Mayo: "You seem to have done quite a lot of traveling."
Hope: "Yes, with an act like mine. It's safer."
Mayor: "Are you sure they'll hire you?"
Hope: "Oh, it'll be easy. They've probably heard of me. And if they haven't, it'll be easier."
Hope, threatened by a villainous pirate: "Don't just stand there! Get me a lifeboat! He'll make me walk the plank and I'll get my notices wet!" Then as Bing Crosby makes a walk-on: "How do you like that? I knock my brains out for nine reels and a bit player from Paramount comes over and gets the girl. This is the last picture I do for Goldwyn!" – Both quotes from The Princess and The Pirate, RKO/Samuel Goldwyn, 1944.
Gentle Hope, impersonating a tough-as-nails Yukon prospector, bellying up to the Golden Rail Saloon bar: "I'll take a lemonade" (adding hastily), "in a DIRTY glass!" – The Road to Utopia, Paramount 1945.
This article originally published in the January 2000 issue of Palm Springs Life.