Since I was born in 1971, the Hollywood legend wasn’t known to me for anything but Texaco commercials, cameos in “The Muppet Movie” and “Spies Like Us,” and dreadful NBC specials alongside the likes of Brooke Shields and Ann Jillian.
But recently, seeing him in the ’60s suburban satire “Bachelor in Paradise” opened my eyes to the Hope my grandparents and parents saw: a really funny guy. Now that Shout! Factory has rounded up six of his films in “The Bob Hope Collection: Volume Two,” I’m hooked.
From 1969, “How to Commit Marriage” makes a great companion to “Bachelor.” Playing the long-married Frank Benson, he and wife Jane Wyman hold nothing but contempt for one another. They decide to divorce, but then their daughter (JoAnna Cameron) shows up from college with a fiancé (Tim Matheson), so they keep their split a secret so as not to spoil her happiness.
The Bensons clash with their new in-law-to-be, a brash record-company exec played by Jackie Gleason and his considerable pelvis. Featuring groovy musical numbers by The Comfortable Chair (whoever they were), the generation-gap comedy is supremely silly, but a sheer delight. How could it not with the added bonuses of a sexy Tina Louise, a sexier Maureen Arthur, the late Leslie Nielsen and the best-ever performance by a chimp the screen has ever seen?
Hope plays a thinly veiled version of himself as comic Bob Hunter in 1958’s international romp, “Paris Holiday.” While in the City of Light, he befriends Fernydel (Fernandel), his horse-toothed, uni-monikered French counterpart (although more Jerry Lewis than Hope); lusts after Anita Ekberg (who wouldn’t?); and spends much of the movie escaping with his life, not realizing he’s being target for death. Full of slapstick sequences that scale new heights of ridiculousness, yet work, the “Holiday” is well worth taking.
For 1952’s “Son of Paleface,” a rare sequel for Hope, he plays the son of his “The Paleface” character from four years prior. Peter Potter Jr. is a Harvard snob who returns to an Old West town to collect his father’s gold, only to find the treasure chest is empty.
Speaking of treasured chests, Jane Russell also returns — this time not as Calamity Jane, but a masked robber aptly named The Torch, partly because those are the kind of songs she belts out in her day job. On the side of the good, singing cowboy Roy Rogers is on hand, as is trick horse Trigger, but the real highlights are the playful set pieces by director Frank Tashlin (“The Girl Can’t Help It”), best exemplified in a barroom sequence that has Potter down an extra-large concoction: one that turns him into a living Tex Avery cartoon. My kids laughed so hard, we had to re-watch that part three times before proceeding.
Tashlin worked with Hope again in 1968’s “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell,” a World War II-set farce built upon the idea that a sunken supply ship of beer will destroy the morale of American troops stationed in the South Pacific, argues O’Farrell (Hope). His solution for the men? “Get girls,” and specifically, hot nurses.
Unfortunately, the only one he can corral is played by Phyllis Diller. The film seems unnecessarily cruel to her character, but Diller has always poked fun at herself. Lucky for O’Farrell — and viewers — there’s an Italian journalist hanging around whose bikini is filled by the knockout Gina Lollobrigida. It’s more “McHale’s Navy” than “M*A*S*H.”
By 1972, Hope no longer looked as spry or sharp as before, and it really shows in “Cancel My Reservation,” his final big-screen vehicle, and based on a Louis L’Amour novel, of all things. The title is a pun, of course — and one recycled from a joke Hope cracked in “Paris Holiday” — and the movie carries a political incorrectness that wouldn’t be allowed today. While still enjoyable, it’s the thinnest of the bunch, virtually indistinguishable of the tired TV sitcoms of that era.
As Long Island talk-show host Dan Bartlett, he’s more than a little peeved that his co-host, wife Sheila (Eva Marie Saint), earns most of the live audience’s goodwill. His doctor orders him to de-stress on his own in the Native American town of Little Bend, Ariz., but no sooner has he arrived that he’s wrongly accused of murder. And Anne Archer, playing an Indian woman named Crazy, shows up naked in his bed. (Wonder if her character’s name refers to the actresses’ blind adherence to Scientology? Zing!)
And finally, the three-disc set also contains “The Great Lover.” The 1949 rom-com is the oldest picture among the half-dozen by far, and looks the bleakest in rather grainy black-and-white, especially compared to the unreal colors of the others. And if there’s anyone who demands color, it’s Hope’s “Lover” co-star, redheaded Rhonda Fleming.
Wyman excepted, his onscreen companions are unrealistically gorgeous for a fellow as unique-looking and girdle-lumpy as Hope. One has to wonder how he able to keep his characters’ constant horndog nature — which somehow comes off as charming, more often than not — from transcending into his offscreen life as married man. (Short answer: He couldn’t.) That’s part of what makes these one-liner-filled comedies so vibrant decades later.
Now to hunt down “Volume 1” ... —Rod Lott