Driving Paramount’s ‘Road’ to riches
The following article was published on April 17, 2003, as part of Variety’s Legends and Groundbreakers series.
If there’s one studio executive I wish I had met, it would have to be the former chief of Paramount Y. Frank Freeman. According to I.G. Edmonds & Reiko Mimura’s “Paramount Pictures and the People Who Made Them,” Freeman “saw Bing Crosby and Bob Hope at a benefit and said, ‘The boys work well together. Why don’t we team them?’ ”
Thanks to Mr. Freeman, I spent countless hours in my youth watching the Par films that resulted from that pairing: “Road to Singapore,” “Road to Morocco,” “Road to Bali,” “Road to Rio,” “Road to Zanzibar” and “Road to Utopia.” By the time I hit late adolescence, my love for the “Road” movies ran into the uncomfortable fact that the humor of Hope and Crosby (and Dorothy Lamour) had been replaced by edgier, hipper, darker American comics.
The combo of tepid TV specials, dodgy political views and the fact that time moves on — aging even the greatest and dimming their appeal to the young — all conspired to consign the creative legacy of Bob Hope to the memories of his aging fan base.
But as “old ski nose” gears up to celebrate his own personal century mark, it’s an appropriate opportunity to set the record straight: Hope was one of the virtuosos of 20th-century American film comedy. As funny, sharp and influential as the “Road” movies were, Hope can also look back proudly on another couple of dozen screen comedies that hold well to modern sensibilities. He also managed to do something Hollywood doesn’t take for granted: From 1941 to 1953, Hope made the list of top 10 box office stars.
Film critic Noel Murray said of Hope’s Paramount oeuvre: “During his string of Paramount movie hits in the ’40s, Hope displayed exquisite poise, a sense of timing that earned him the nickname ‘Rapid Robert,’ and a yen for self-reference that Woody Allen acknowledges as the inspiration for his early spoofs.”
“Typical of Hope,” adds Murray in his notes on Hope’s film debut in “The Great Broadcast of 1938,” the film, “his post-film conversion of the song (‘Thanks for the Memory’) into a fanfare does a disservice to its real power. Leo Robin’s original lyrics tell a suggestive tale of consuming passion undone by passing time and a clash of wills, and in ‘Big Broadcast,’ Hope holds up his end of the duet with a dewy twinkle and a smile of regret. That’s what made him a star.”
One of the things Hope helped innovate was his Pirandellian approach to comedy, often breaking down the proverbial fourth wall between the filmmakers and the audience. The “Road” movies are sprinkled with references to the biz, and even Hope and Crosby’s contract with Paramount. In “The Road to Utopia,” while he’s in a kissing clench with Lamour, Hope’s aside to the audience: “As far as I’m concerned, this picture is over right now.” In “My Favorite Blonde,” Hope — playing a vaudevillian — is seen reading Variety, prompting the wisecrack: “Wait ’till they ask me for an ad.”
Hope may have contributed to the myth of slightness in his film output by spoofing his failure to win an Oscar when he regularly hosted the ceremony over a span of almost 40 years. Even among buffs it’s not widely known that two of the “Road” pictures, “Zanzibar” and “Utopia,” were well enough regarded by the Academy to garner screenplay nominations. In the years after Hope’s filmmaking peak, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarded Hope no fewer than four honorary Oscars and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
But in the musty halls of film academia and among snooty critics groups, Hope hasn’t received his due. There hasn’t been a major celebration of his film work since the Lincoln Center Gala in 1979.
But the prospect of Hope blowing out 100 candles has spurred a revival of sorts. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is staging a retrospective of his films June 6-21 with such titles as “The Cat and the Canary,” “My Favorite Brunette,” “Fancy Pants” and “Beau James.” Up in Northern California, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is rolling out a mini-tribute to Hope, which will unspool June 5-8, and will include such titles as “Road to Utopia” and “The Paleface.”
Critic Charles Taylor, writing for Salon, recently noted, “If there’s any reason left to feel fondly toward Woody Allen, it’s because, after years of betraying his talent with pallid imitations of Bergman and Fellini … he still dreams of being Bob Hope.”
Taylor notes that “Allen has made no secret of his admiration for Hope or of Hope’s influence on him. In his nervier comic moments, you could see Allen trying on Hope’s persona: the coward on the make who puts on a show of brash bravado. That was the character Hope perfected in his movies of the ’40s and ’50s, the series of ‘Road’ pictures he made with Bing Crosby, and others like ‘My Favorite Brunette’ and ‘Son of Paleface.’ ”
Those Paramount comedies, in Taylor’s view, “were, at best, casually made and the casualness was what made them funny. Nothing, not the minimal production values nor the minimal plots, got in the way of the laughs. The plots were deliberately disposable, giving the performers plenty of room to clown around.”
Perhaps that casual quality of clowning around is back in favor again. That description certainly fits many of the most popular comedies of recent years from “There’s Something About Mary” to “Barbershop.” And perhaps this birthday will get more film societies, critics groups and even cable movie channels to put a little more Hope in our lives.