Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has fewer Oscars than Bob Hope.
"Here I am starting another season on television. Well don't look so surprised. Jackie Onassis is working, too."—Bob Hope
By the time Bob Hope made The Big Broadcast of 1938 (which introduced "Thanks for the Memory") and got a deal to make a lot of little weekly broadcasts for Pepsodent, he already had considerable vaudeville and Broadway experience under his belt.
During World War II, Hope became known for his USO shows, broadcasting and performing wherever U.S. troops were stationed. On his 1938-56 radio show, Hope also perfected the topical monologue, so there'd probably be no David Letterman, Jay Leno, or Jon Stewart without him.
And he could sing. Even if Hope called Oscar "passover night," two of his songs—"Thanks for the Memory" and "Buttons & Bows" won the top movie honor.
Having done all of this by 1950, it was only natural that he'd be a success on television. Many of you know him mainly from his comedy specials, which began on NBC in 1950 and continued on a regular basis through the 1990s.
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection spotlights Hope's television career with a look back at his mix of old-fashioned vaudeville silliness and newfangled topical jabs.
Facts of the Case
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection puts five of Hope's NBC specials, and some extras, on four discs:
The opening monologue from his 1950 TV debut—in top hat and tails ("A lot of performers die on television. If that happens to me, I want to be prepared for it.")—is featured, along with a less memorable comedy bit featuring Hope and Dinah Shore as Eskimos. It mixes in a good share of bits from the black-and-white TV era, and includes some of the stars he's associated with—not just Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, but singers Shore and Tony Bennett, and radio sidekick Jerry Colonna.
Extras include a text bio with fun facts (Did you know Hope entertained more than 10 million soldiers?) and an interesting but all-too-brief photo gallery.
A Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around The World With The USO is a 1970 account of the comedian's sixth Vietnam tour. There are jokes, but it puts the focus on the journey and the war. It's a 90-minute special "without commercial interruption," but it turns out to be only 65 minutes long. I'm not sure whether it was cut or there were long bookend commercials for sponsor Chrysler.
Extras include two two-reelers from Hope's early movie career, a 1935 radio show he hosted, and "Bob Goes to War" (a look at his World War II efforts).
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection is, ultimately, a collection of clip shows.
The first clip show, celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary with NBC, is mostly about showing off the stars Hope worked with, so the gags are a mixed bag. The best find him trading nose remarks with Jimmy Durante and being interrupted by Jack Benny. Bob Hope's World of Comedy on Disc Four does the same job a little bit better, showing off more of Hope's classic comedy.
The clips from Bob Hope's Bag Full of Christmas Memories show Hope playing Santa, Scrooge, and a gloomy reindeer. A sketch with Red Skelton as Freddy the Freeloader is the best of the bunch.
"Celebrity Bloopers" seems a little redundant for a comedian who did live radio and USO stage shows. Fans have heard Hope covering up flubs. Some of the really grainy black-and-white bits looked like kinescopes. Did those flubs go out on the air? The best part here is Lucille Ball's anecdote about her most famous flub, an audition for the role of Scarlett O'Hara.
One special in this collection is very special, since it's more than just gags. A Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around The World With The USO, complete with a map showing each stop, is a whirlwind tour, but it provides glimpses of Hope the human being as he interacts with soldiers. He sounds genuinely touched by a stop on a hospital ship ("Now I know why they call it a hospital ship. It made me well.") and his mocking of war ("I didn't expect to be here this year; the Paris peace talks were going so well.") sounds like he was listening to the gripes in the mess hall and taking notes. The hazards of wartime entertaining are shown briefly: a crew is seen hastily moving the stage from a ship's flight deck to the hangar deck because of a storm, and the troupe has a foggy helicopter ride. Hope calls himself "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Chicken," but it's obviously just a gag; he could find himself in combat at any time, and does have to deal with dangerous weather conditions as he and his troupe travel.
This special is also notable for a special guest appearance. In a Washington, D.C., stop as the tour begins, Hope takes jabs at then-President Richard M. Nixon ("It took some acts twelve years to make it.") and Nixon makes a few jokes of his own.
And then we get to the best stuff on the set, the delightful extras on Disc Three:
"Bob Goes To War" (excerpted from Memories of World War II) shows a Hope tour of the Pacific, including a stop on "malaria-ridden, rat-infested" Enewatak Atoll, with his "little band of gypsies." Hope tells a good yarn about the time he tried his hand at flying a plane—and an engine conked out. It's 17 minutes, including footage of Pacific shows.
I was also impressed with Hope's two-reelers. "Calling All Tars" shows Hope in slapstick mode as he and a buddy pose as sailors to get girlfriends, and then find themselves on a ship. "Paree, Paree," backed by the music of Cole Porter, finds Hope doing musical comedy as a rich man pretending to be poor to win a woman's heart. The latter is a Vitaphone "Broadway Brevity" (a full musical condensed to about 20 minutes).
What may be his first radio hosting gig (for Bromo-Seltzer, appropriately) is included as well; the jokes aren't really topical and he's not quite as polished as he'd be by World War II, but it shows signs of the talent that made him famous.
The picture quality is all over the map, since there's kinescope footage and tape from all eras. Expect lots of grain, jumps, and flaring.
There's a little redundancy—a hospital sketch with Lee Marvin and Barbara Eden turns up three times—but only three clips got reused between specials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's mostly a collection of clip shows, so a lot of the bits are chopped. Also, the monologues Bob Hope opens each special with are topical, which means that you might not be tickled by gags about CB radio and swine flu shots.
The Ultimate Collection falls short of the title's boast. I realize that between his topical takes and his wide-ranging career, an ultimate picture of Hope's talent is impossible, but they still could have included more from his later NBC career and the retrospectives around the time of his death.
The run times on some of the specials suggested that there might have been bits left out, but I couldn't tell what, if anything, was missing.
If you're already a Bob Hope fan, Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection is sure to bring back some fond memories, even if it's ultimately not an "ultimate" collection.
Those of you who aren't already sold on Hope will still find a lot to like if you're into vaudeville or late-night comedy, or want to learn more about USO shows. Still, for Hope, a TV gig that lasted nearly half a century was only just a part of a big career. Just about any Hope movie before 1960 would give you a good introduction to his comedy. Also, you really ought to check out his World War II radio shows; even with all the timely gags, he's still one of the best comics from radio's Golden Age.
Guilty of hyperbole, but Hope's comedy acquits itself well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: R2 Entertainment
• "Calling All Tars"
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