Bob Hope's Body
From The Cat and the Canary, Paramount Pictures, 1939
by Henry Giardina
All mythical creatures need an origin story. The Bob Hope character springs into being, Athena-like, from out of the head of Preston Sturges in 1939. The film is Never Say Die.
By this time Hope had already made his feature-length debut in a handful of films, none of which seemed to consider him a real leading man. Only a year later in 1940, The Ghost Breakers would turn him into a star. The war two years after that would turn him into a headliner. Before that time, no one seemed quite sure of what to do with him.
There’s something instantly identifiable about Hope in his early films, a puzzling vagueness that doesn’t quite make sense for an actor who would eventually become so solidified in his comic identity as to risk self-parody. Not risk, in fact, but actively encourage, especially in the string of dismal failures made after 1956: Paris Holiday, Bachelor in Paradise, I’ll Take Sweden. By 1950 his jokes were well-worn, and they’d never been especially cutting edge to begin with, as Christopher Hitchens was quick to point out after the comedian’s death in 2003. It’s a pretty fair assessment. My generation knows Hope as more or less a hack, not responsible for even the flimsiest of his own material. That is, if we know of him at all.
His film persona is in many ways a boxed and manufactured one, patched together from aspects of other comedians: cowardice, avarice (Jack Benny) sharp sarcasm (Groucho Marx), ‘gay’ mannerisms, (Frank Fay, Benny) an anxious yet cocky quality (Harold Lloyd) constant imperilment inside of absurd situations (Eddie Cantor, Olsen and Johnson), a gullible and romantic nature (Chaplin) and, most notably, a fraught relationship to his own masculinity, common to all before him. The masculine crisis in film began with the silent comics, who dealt in the currency of humiliation. Their bodies always paid for the ideological grandeur of their mistakes. In the late ‘20s, the pre-lapsarian beauty of the silent world gave way to the harsher but less humiliating climate of sound comedy, the anarchic film world of the Marx Brothers, the absurdist landscapes of W.C. Fields and Wheeler and Woolsey. By the time Hope comes along in the late 30s the landscape is bit less free, a bit more constricting, poised as it is on the edge of an era-defining war, but the influence of his forbears upon him is still fairly obvious from the start.In nearly all of his films, he plays a person whose idea of himself radically differs from the reality. His acute sense of this juncture is what makes him American, stranded, often, in films set far away from the states — Singapore, Morocco, wartime Europe, Cuba, Rio. In them, he not only American, but the American: innocent, endangered, usually a pawn in someone else’s game.He finds himself often poised between the twin forces of cowardice and opportunism, causing him to run from one identity and into the arms of another more perilous. As such, he is often shown in states of flux: fainting, falling asleep, or being stuffed into things — bags, trunks, cannons, humiliating costumes —especially in the Road films, where Bing Crosby is convincing him it’s good idea.
During an early scene in Road to Morocco, Crosby and Hope have taken a table in a restaurant and are sitting legs intertwined, with nothing but a small, low table to keep their genitals from achieving congress. Soon after this, Crosby will confess to Hope that he’s sold him to an ominous-looking man lurking in the corner.
“You sold me?” Hope says. “Well what’s he wanted me for, why would a guy want to buy a guy?”
“I didn’t ask him.”
Hope is then stuffed into a burlap sack by the guy in question and carried off into the sunset. Later, we’ll see that he was sold not into slavery, but prince-hood: he becomes the sacrificial husband of a Moroccan princess. Royal status is often being thrust upon him, much to his dismay. “Anyone could be King,” he says while masquerading as King Louis XIV in Monsieur Beaucaire. “It’s just about where you happen to get born.” In the world of his films it’s completely true: identity is arbitrary, and so pretense is always the theme. In Caught in the Draft, he’s a film actor pretending to be a soldier, until he accidentally becomes one. In Let’s Face It, an errant soldier pretending to be a male escort. In Monsieur Beaucaire, a barber passing himself off as nobility. In The Paleface, a shy dentist pretending to be the terror of the West. The plot of Nothing But the Truth hinges on the impossibility of personal honesty, as Hope bets someone that he can speak nothing but the absolute truth for 24 hours. This, too, is posed in American terms. It’s the George Washington imperative: Hope must follow in the footsteps of the man who “never told a lie.” He wants to be honest, but of course the universe always pulls him in the opposite direction. In American comedy up to and including the war, pretense is usually the way to self-realization. Hope’s identity is ultimately born out of this: he defines himself in relation to what he knows he’s not.
In 1939, however, the clay was barely dry. Never Say Die was his first true vehicle, a film adapted by Sturges from a 1912 play, and featuring a plot that seems to have been somehow lifted from The Magic Mountain despite predating it. The film was originally to star Jack Benny, who presumably thought better of it. The similarities, though probably accidental, are uncanny. Hope plays an effete young hypochondriac. When we meet him, he is ‘taking the waters’ at a Swiss resort called Bad Gasswater. Like Hans Castorp, Hope’s physical state is alive to the power of suggestion, though with comic rather than tragic consequences. The plot hinges on Hope getting some results from a medical exam mixed up with those of a dog, leading his doctor to assume he has contracted a rare disease. Diagnosis: death in 30 days. Shortly after finding this out, Hope runs into Martha Raye, who is being forced to marry a bankrupt prince to appease her father — a new-money American eager to buy social status — even though she is already in love with Andy Devine. Hope, meanwhile, is being chased by a gun-happy black widow who is after his millions. He and Raye strike a pact — they’ll marry, and in thirty days he’ll die and leave her and Devine everything in his will. The rest of the film follows them on their getaway-cum-Honeymoon, as the three of them retreat further into the vague, pre-war Eastern European landscape in an attempt to hide from all the people they’ve screwed over. In the hotel suite they all stay in, Devine and Hope share the bridal suite while Raye takes a separate room, causing the hotel owners to mistake their situation for some sort of Noel Coward-style ménage. Rightfully so — in a strange, kinky twist, Devine and Hope end up at one point tied to each other in bed, due to a mutual distrust each has of the other getting up in the night to wander into Raye’s room.
The pre-war Europe of Sturges’ imagination is, like Mann’s, slightly absurdist and very subtly homoerotic: a climate created by the neuroses of its characters. And Mann’s novel, in its way, is every bit as screwball in its treatment of romantic relationships as any ‘30s film. In a world where pencils hold memories of lost homoerotic schoolboy passion and the entrance of the female love interest is signaled by a violent slamming of doors, a sense of any traditional type of courtship is haphazard, doomed, highly questionable. In Never Say Die, the meet-cute involves two people jumping into the same lake to drown. The girl jumps first: the boy tries to save her and ends up drowning himself, and it turns to her to save him. Heteronormativity flies out the window: So much for the marriage plot.
Here Hope is a primarily visual object throughout. His wardrobe is more noticeable than it will be again: silk scarves, dressing gowns, pajamas, and on one occasion, lederhosen. Suits have less of a presence here than they will have in later years. He is seen throughout in comic relation to other aspects of the scene — first the furniture, the décor, then the other characters. A prevailing emphasis on the prison of the body, especially within its ridiculous clothes.
The limp wrists and ‘gay’ gestures are more overt.
An X-ray scene requires him to undress, and the moment is salient, it gives him a palpable vulnerability, literally stripped, exposed in a way no one expected. It’s made even more striking in light of the shot that precedes it, when, under the X-ray’s gaze we are given a disjointed vision of Hope’s head resting above his own skeleton, a moment of unexpected vulnerability in the middle of a comic scene. There’s even a striking beauty about it.
In Mann’s novel, this vulnerability is used to show the relationship between two primary characters, Hans Castorp and his beautiful cousin Joachim who is, despite being the perfect soldier, sick and weak, inconveniently fragile for his profession of choice: in fact, doomed to die. The men go in to the X-ray together, and watch as each is exposed to the other. The scene is eroticized, with the doctor asking them to hold the X-ray plate close to them, tenderly (“You can imagine it’s something else, if you like!” He encourages.) The charge of electricity that surges through the air is also an emotional charge, as everyone in the room is drawn together by a sense of wonder, an awe of the organism that must die much sooner than anyone seems to truly realize.
By the time Hope discovers that the diagnosis was incorrect and that he will, in fact, live, he has already fallen in love with Raye, and the plan is properly screwed. It’s clear that someone has to die. The resolution comes about in the form of a duel scene, rigged — sort of — in Hope’s favor. Raye tells him — in a complex rhyming couplet–that one gun has blanks and the other has bullets, and that he will know the loaded gun by the ‘cross on the muzzle of the pistol with the bullets’ and the ‘knick on the handle of the pistol with the blanks’, a peaks-and-valleys phrase which Hope, and his opponent, who has overheard it, have an exceedingly hard time with. Raye tries to explain how ‘simple’ it is, immediately getting caught up in it. Hope becomes unsure of himself. “It’s my life” he reminds her.
“I know,” she says, “I’ll save it, I’ll save it.”
But this is part of it: The profound mistake of his existence on screen. There’s some reference to it in every film — the innocent who is too idiotic and too pure to live. Survival hinges on a riddle, an impossible deception, or the adoption of an absurd code. In his wartime espionage films, he stays alive by accident; it is his stupidity that preserves him. In the strange, self-referential plotlines his films will later adopt, he’ll still just manage to scrape by as the camera marks his struggle with patience and cold fascination. He becomes caught in the fishbowl of self-reference, constantly becoming larger, broader, almost feeding on himself. And then there are the moments when he stops running — from himself, from the enemies just off screen — the moments of inaction: exhaustion, vulnerability, depletion, by close-ups with no narrative purpose, the static shots related to nothing, signifying nothing, more art than narrative, a mistake left in by a distracted editor.
From The Ghost Breakers, 1940
From Road to Zanzibar, 1941
But most innovations seem, at first, like pure accidents. Tragic heroes are tragic because they are, for the most part, superfluous — without focus or real function, largely unnecessary in their immediate environment. It’s hard to tell at first what exactly Hans Castorp’s problem is outside of this. Like other thoughtful, sulking protagonists on which he seems vaguely based (Hamlet, Faust) his crisis seems founded in weakness of identity. Unlike Joachim the soldier, he doesn’t have any proscribed function in life, professional or otherwise. What he has are options — but nothing really calls to him. He barely has to live in the real world, and so he ultimately doesn’t. War claims him in the end — as it does Hope — rescuing them both from the limbo of uncertainty, the hell of freedom.
About the Author:
Henry Giardina is a writer living in London. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.