August 08, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

The one truly sad thing about Bob Hope’s death at age 100 — he died on July 27, of pneumonia — is that he had outlived many of the reasons for his celebrity. The morning after his death, numerous TV news shows sent camera crews out on the street to get reaction from the public about Hope. Interviewers ambling up to the middle-aged or elderly were met with spontaneous renditions of Hope’s signature song, ”Thanks for the Memory” (first sung by the comedian on screen in The Big Broadcast of 1938), with fulsome praise about Hope’s cherished silliness, his patriotism, and — this came up a lot — the assiduous lack of vulgarity in his jokes. But anyone interviewed under the age of about 30 met the cameras with blank stares and mumbles, for the most part.

Hope spent the last quarter century of his career dismissed by a young generation as quaint and irrelevant, if not downright reactionary. Defending the Vietnam War, cozying up to power by playing golf with every contemporary President, and making late-period cinematic clunkers like Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and Cancel My Reservation (1972) will do that to a reputation.

Irony was never part of Hope’s shtick — he preferred topical humor, straight up, with a trademark chaser of ”But I wanna tell ya…” Yet the irony of Hope becoming thought of as an old-school comic doesn’t square with his original achievement: He was a truly modern performer. Eons before Madonna, he was a multimedia changeling, moving fluidly from the vaudeville stage to radio, the big screen, and television. In this age of disposable pop entertainment, Hope pioneered the disposable joke — thousands of topical yuks, churned out by more than a hundred writers over the years, few of them with a shelf life longer than a Hootie and the Blowfish tune. (”You all know what television is. Remember vaudeville dying? Well, you’re looking at the box they put it in.” That joke used to kill, folks.) And P. Diddy has nothing on Bob Hope, who also tended to recycle riffs and surround himself with collaborators, at least one of whom was arguably more gifted than he (Bing Crosby was Hope’s Biggie Smalls: better pipes, a more serene demeanor).

Further evidence of Hope’s instinctive modernity can be seen in the way he acknowledged the paying customers directly. Late in the best of the Hope/Crosby team-ups, Road to Morocco, Hope is complaining about some pickle Crosby has put him in. ”First you sell me for 200 bucks…” he begins to whine, and Crosby says, ”I know all that.” Without missing a beat, Hope gestures to the camera and snaps, ”Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t.”

Most intriguingly, Hope quickly understood the modern pop paradigm that image was just as important as talent — that indeed, his talent was his image. Look at him in old film clips from his ’30s live radio shows, or his prime ’40s movies, or his early-’60s TV shows; it’s obvious this guy Really Had It. He swans on stage most often in impeccable double-breasted suits, his hip-swiveling swagger a reminder that he was a pretty good vaudeville hoofer, his gleaming eyes beaming the promise that his brain is filled with snappy gags and that any woman in sight is fair game for merciless flirtation. It’s a meticulous creation, intensely self-conscious yet blithely debonair.

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