In his 20 appearances as host of the Academy Awards, Bob Hope got considerable comic mileage out of his supposed shortcomings as a movie star.
"Welcome to the Academy Awards," he addressed the audience one year. "Or as it's known in my house, Passover."
The truth is less comedic but much more impressive. Hope ranked among the top 10 box-office stars for 13 consecutive years, from 1941 to 1953, topping the list in 1949. He starred in 50 feature films and countless short subjects and promotional films.
Woody Allen once said, "If I wanted to have a weekend of pure pleasure, it would be to have a half-dozen Bob Hope films and watch them, films like 'Monsieur Beaucaire' and 'My Favorite Brunette.' It's not for nothing that he's such a greatly accepted comedian. He's a great, great talent."
But movie stardom was not a foregone conclusion for Hope. He made an unsuccessful screen test for MGM in the early 1930s and starred in a 1934 two-reeler called "Going Spanish" that he thought was awful. Like many Broadway and vaudeville performers, he continued to make short subjects during the day for Warner Bros. in Brooklyn while working in Manhattan at night.
Paramount Pictures finally brought Hope to Hollywood to co-star with W.C. Fields and Martha Raye in "The Big Broadcast of 1938" — and unexpectedly gave him his theme song, "Thanks for the Memory," a bittersweet love song by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger that he introduced over cocktails with Shirley Ross.
The studio had confidence in Hope but wasn't sure how to best use the slick, sharp-featured comedian. He appeared in four films during his first year in Hollywood, including "College Swing," "Give Me a Sailor" and "Thanks for the Memory," which reunited him with Ross.
It was a 1939 film that cemented his stardom and his screen persona: "The Cat and the Canary," based on the venerable old-dark-house thriller of stage and screen. The film served as a template for many a successful Hope movie to follow: It paired him with a pretty co-star (in this case, Paulette Goddard), gave full sway to his swagger and cowardice and was peppered with one-liners.
"Don't big, empty houses scare you?" asks Nydia Westman as they prowl around a spooky old mansion.
"Not me," says Hope. "I used to be in vaudeville."
Paramount re-teamed Hope and Goddard the following year for a successful follow-up, "The Ghost Breakers." It led to a long string of hits.
Hope had gathered a team of outstanding writers (including Melville Shavelson, Jack Rose, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) who had helped fashion his radio persona — a brash, egotistical would-be ladies' man — and were next called on to contribute to his movies. Director Elliott Nugent once explained, "When the producer and I were satisfied with the writers' script, then Hope's writers would take over and they would submit to us various gags to be spotted here and there. He would take maybe half of them and reject the other half. But he had two writers on the set at all times."
When Hope was teamed with reigning Paramount star Bing Crosby in 1940's "Road to Singapore," he and his colleagues discovered another ingredient for success: Make the audience think they're watching something spontaneous, as if being included in an inside joke.
The late David Butler, who directed 1941's "Road to Zanzibar," recalled, "We did very little rehearsing. We'd go over the scene probably a couple of times, and then we'd start. If anything happened that was out of the ordinary, I'd always let the camera run, and we got some of the funniest stuff after the scene was over."
Crosby and Hope were a perfect team. Audiences loved watching Crosby fleecing his eternal patsy of a pal and besting him in their rivalry for beautiful Dorothy Lamour. The gags in "Road to Morocco" (1942), "Road to Utopia" (1945), "Road to Rio" (1947) and "Road to Bali" (1952) became progressively wackier.
Meanwhile, his solo films got better and better: "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946), "My Favorite Brunette" (1947), "The Paleface" (1948), "The Great Lover" (1949), "My Favorite Spy" (1951) and "Son of Paleface" (1952) were among the funniest comedies being made in Hollywood.
But Hollywood and the movie audience changed in the 1950s, and Hope (who was by then producing his own films) was obliged to veer away from his longtime formulas. He went for a more sophisticated brand of comedy in "That Certain Feeling" (1956) and "The Iron Petticoat" (1956, with Katharine Hepburn) and even played it straight in the biographical films "The Seven Little Foys" (1955, as vaudeville star Eddie Foy) and "Beau James" (1957, as flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker).
Hope went abroad to film "Paris Holiday" (1958) with French star Fernandel, teamed with Lucille Ball for the adult comedy "The Facts of Life" (1960) and reunited with Crosby for one final fling on "Road to Hong Kong" (1962).
Then the well seemed to run dry. Though the monologues on his television specials were as sharp as ever, the scripts of his films grew tired and out of date.
America's cultural upheaval of the late 1960s affected Hope's status not only as a star but also as host of the Oscars. He first performed that function in 1940 and became a fixture at the annual ceremonies, leavening the self-seriousness of the occasion with wisecracks and self-deprecating humor.
But by 1967, the academy decided it was time for a change. Hope returned to co-host the awards several times and presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Charles "Buddy" Rogers in 1986.
It's been so long since Hope starred in a film that young people may not appreciate how successful he was in that medium. The topical jokes from his radio and TV broadcasts have proved to be perishable, but his movies still reach across the years and show us an amazingly versatile performer: a master monologuist who learned to perform physical comedy with skill and ease; an engaging singer and dancer who could also invest a dramatic scene with heart and purpose.
But first and foremost, he managed to create a screen personality we all accepted as Bob Hope. And he made us laugh.
Leonard Maltin is film critic for television's "Entertainment Tonight" and "Hot Ticket," critic for Playboy magazine and editor of the annual paperback "Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times