Judge Bryan Byun would like to say something funny about this Bob Hope Christmas special compilation, but some joker misplaced the cue cards.
"Did ya know that there are only ten days left to shop for Christmas? Prices are so high this year, some folks are doing comparison shoplifting."—Bob Hope
Christmas-themed TV specials are as much a part of American holiday tradition as eggnog and fruitcake. For half a century, families have gathered around the TV set every holiday season to watch celebrities sing the same old Christmas carols and crack the same old seasonal one-liners. They're corny, they're stagy, and they're unbelievably saccharine, but somehow it wouldn't be Christmas without them.
Hope for the Holidays, a 1994 show starring the legendary Bob Hope, originally aired as Bob Hope's Bag Full of Christmas Memories, and that rather unfortunate title is the perfect description of this DVD, which mixes up choice clips from 40 years' worth of Hope's annual Christmas specials into a warm slurry of nostalgia and treacly holiday cheer.
Facts of the Case
The framing conceit of the special is that Bob and his wife Dolores are hosting a Christmas party at their home (a studio set, of course, but an impeccably decorated one nonetheless), to which they have invited family and celebrity pals—many of whom, like Loni Anderson, are veterans of past Bob Hope specials—for an affectionate Yuletide stroll down memory lane. In classic Bob Hope style, we're introduced to the celebs ("Hey, Barbara Eden!" "Hey, Naomi and Wynona Judd!") and then it's off to the clips, which feature Hope bantering and mugging with the Golden Age stars (Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball), as well as a few lesser lights (remember William "The Refrigerator" Perry?) The hour-long special combines comic sketches with musical duets and footage from Hope's overseas tours with the USO.
They called him "Mr. Entertainment," and from watching these clips it's easy to see why; long after Hope became better known as a celebrity than a working comedian, and long after his material stopped being funny, he was still a consummate performer. Even in the more recent clips, in which the elderly Hope is a frail, wan ghost of the snappy young wiseacre who starred in the classic "Road" pictures from the 1940s (such as Road to Singapore and Road to Utopia), his love of the limelight and delight in making people laugh haven't changed a bit.
As one might expect, Hope for the Holidays is, for the most part, pure, unadulterated showbiz cheese: once-topical, now hopelessly dated jokes (how about that Pia Zadora?); flubbed lines; sloppy lip-syncing during musical numbers; and "ad-libbed" one-liners obviously read off of cue cards (it's a rare moment when Hope actually makes eye contact with his co-stars instead of staring offstage).
Still, there are some hilarious, even brilliant moments scattered throughout the hour, like a wonderfully snarky 1965 sketch with Bing Crosby that finds the longtime comedy partners still at the top of their game (Hope: "Your gate light is out and your porch light is out! I could have gotten killed—weren't you expecting me?" Bing: "Yes.") Or a 1973 appearance by Lucille Ball in which Bob and Lucy trade one-liners with the easy familiarity of two master comedians who've worked together for decades. A 1976 fireside chat with John Wayne, who is clearly in declining health (he would succumb to cancer a couple of years later), emerges as one of the special's most genuinely emotional moments.
Hope for the Holidays is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio, and the quality of the transfer is extremely good, especially for a 10-year-old title shot mostly on video. Not only is the 1994 footage clear and sharp, with rich, deep colors, but many clips from the '70s and '80s are nearly pristine—it's almost like going back in time and watching the original broadcasts (maybe even better, given the technical limitations of the pre-cable days when you had to worry about things like vertical and horizontal hold). Since the clips are taken from 40 years' worth of shows, picture quality obviously varies, but even the older material is in excellent shape. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital stereo, is perfectly adequate to the task—again, pretty much identical to the original viewing experience.
There's something of a slapped-together quality to the DVD presentation—this is clearly more of a casual-entertainment title than an archival set for serious collectors—so the presence of solid bonus features is a pleasant surprise.
The "Silver Bells Collection" assembles several of Hope's performances of "Silver Bells," the signature duet that was a staple of his holiday specials; in these five clips, Bob sings with Gale Storm (1953), Marie Osmond (1973), Olivia Newton-John (1974), Shirley Jones (1984), and Reba McEntire (1987). Of these, the performances with Newton-John and McEntire fare best—Hope clearly enjoys working with these talented ladies—while the best that can be said for the Marie Osmond clip (Marie is not only completely out of tune, but apparently either drunk or heavily sedated) is that it was probably not pre-recorded.
The other bonus feature is a terrific blooper reel, which offers a revealing glimpse of the jokes that didn't work (it's kind of scary to hear material that was actually worse than the stuff that made it to air), flubbed punch lines, and the travails of performing with football players (who prove to be rather less trainable than your average circus animal). The blooper reel is a welcome addition to the set, as it shows Bob in some of his unguarded, relaxed moments when he's joshing with guests and crew members, chuckling over a flopped joke or screwed-up take, or working on his timing. It's too bad that more of this kind of material doesn't make it to DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the most part, Hope's performances in these clips are about as good or bad as the talent he is paired with; the presence of greats like Redd Foxx or Phil Silvers tends to sharpen Hope's own comic senses and give him plenty to work with and play off of. He fares worse when he's onstage with celebs like Brooke Shields or a non-actor like a star football player, mainly because the guest tends to be reduced to a bland straight man for Hope's cornball shtick, and those are the moments when you feel like Bob's just phoning it in, and certainly not performing at the level he's capable of.
That sense of creeping haphazardness grows with each passing year, as his old-school pals like Jack Benny and Lucille Ball pass away and are replaced by the likes of Joey Lawrence. One of the saddest things about the 1994 material is how sparse the guest list is; not to disparage Ed Marinaro, but Red Skelton he's not, and it's difficult, after seeing the clips of Bob's glory days, not to feel melancholy watching Hope presiding over the dying embers of a generation of showbiz legends.
As cheesy as Bob Hope's holiday specials were, there's something about how unashamedly artificial they were—artificial without being cynical—that is sorely missed these days. An old-fashioned spirit of pure entertainment suffuses even the later, groan-inducing installments; it's not so much polished product as a grown-up version of a grade-school Christmas pageant, performed with deceptively casual goofiness and good cheer by Hollywood royalty. As a compilation of some of the best of those moments, Hope for the Holidays brings a big bag of holiday cheer to Bob Hope fans and anyone with fond memories of entertainment from the days before DVDs and TiVos.
The court rules that Hope for the Holidays would make a wonderful Christmas gift, an even better gift than Trivial Pursuit. Trivial Pursuit—that's a guy chasing Phyllis Diller. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: R2 Entertainment
• "Silver Bells" Performance Clips
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