Most of Bob Hope’s sixties comedies list high among Golden Turkeys. Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number is one of fifty all-time worsts, according to a comical (and not altogether reliable) scorecard tallied three decades back (!) by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. Remember the late seventies? That’s when it became fashionable to identify and denigrate "bad" movies. Edward D. Wood, Jr. just missed parties celebrating his endearing rottenness, while establishment icons like Bob Hope were left to drown in acid baths of hipster disdain. Perpetual motion kept Hope in theatrical harness long after artistic decline would have otherwise folded his tent. Someone paid Bob to do these lousy comedies, so he did them. I was one who tendered admission to see Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number (1966) and Eight On The Lam (1967), but others clearly joined me, as these were hits of the like he’d not had since halcyon days with Crosby. Turns out Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number, with $5.1 million in worldwide rentals, outperformed every Hope vehicle going back to the forties. Eight On The Lam scored as well, with $4.1 million worldwide. The comeback was likely unexpected for a comedian in his mid-sixties with a shtick long past prime and an audience of mostly kids. We went to these based on wacky TV spots hammering chases and slapstick (Phyllis Diller crashing hotel lobbies in a golf cart --- sounds like fun!). George Marshall directed both, and hanged if there’s not a Murphy bed routine in Wrong Number staged after the fashion of colleague Norman Taurog over at AIP in Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine, done the same year. As historians rediscovered silent comedy in museums and archives, these resilient survivors of the era were restaging gags they’d introduced forty years previous. If a routine was good enough for Billy Bevan in 1926, why not use it again with Bob? Who knew lame-o Hope comedies were the last outpost for silent era artisans in old age and final curtain call mode? George Marshall did these in his seventies. Bob, Jerry (Lewis), Gleason, and the rest must have enjoyed keeping the veteran trouper around. After all, he’d forgotten more about comedy than even they’d ever know, and was noted besides for neat anecdotes told on the set. Hope’s writers went back nearly as far. Most had started with him in radio. Bob used them like Kleenex, but underpaid loyally for those many years they toiled in his vineyards. Verbal patter in Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number played stale as last year’s bread. I kept expecting someone to crack wise over ration points and gasoline coupons. Sets in Wrong Number look underdressed and overlit. Everything’s so tired here, as if Hope and director Marshall were running the final dispiriting lap of a relay they'd begun with such energy in The Ghost Breakers. Phyllis Diller recalled showing up with expectations of reading her dialogue off cue cards, this being Hope’s TV habit, but was flummoxed to discover him word perfect on the set. Seems Bob still took features seriously enough to work at a good performance, an ethic maintained since doing better shows for Paramount.
With six you get eggrolls; with seven you get Eight On the Lam. Moppet mobs seemed sure-fire then as now in pedestrian family comedy. The Hopes uneasily mixed kids, dogs, and smarmy sex jokes. Elke Sommer is mirthlessly in and out of bathtubs throughout Wrong Number. Implied nudity on posters doubtlessly impacted on (the many) tickets sold. Post-Goldfinger Shirley Eaton was Bob’s unlikely love interest in Eight On The Lam. He’s a widower with said seven kids. No longer swinger Hope (except offscreen), this was a new day for elder Bob, mired in that same bog sucking James Stewart down in equally dire family farces over at Fox. You’d watch these two in good films on 60’s television, then despair for them in theatres the following day. By the books, Hope was sixty-three and four when Wrong Number and Eight On The Lam came out. Reliable sources suggest he was at least three years past that. Lam is front loaded with hopeful comics getting big-screen breaks. Phyllis Diller has an encore from Wrong Number. She was big stuff in the mid-sixties. Hindsight would credit her with a lot of the money both pics brought. Miss the sixties and you’d never know what it was to live in Diller’s world, nor that of Rowan and Martin, Flip Wilson, and other phenomena peculiar to that era. Will latter generations ever understand what made us laugh with these? Jonathan Winters ad-libs where he can in Eight On The Lam, but even talent bright as his suffocates here. Arthur Marx was one of the writers credited. He’d turn on Bob years later with a scathing unauthorized bio, but neglected to explain his own failure to deliver decent gags for his one-time employer. Hope’s caught in compromising positions and someone yells Sex Maniac! as if that amounted to cutting edge humor. The skits on his TV specials were at least tolerable for being shorter. What’s done there in seven minutes is expanded here to 107. Slapstick is deadliest when listlessly staged (do chase scenes have an enemy so implacable as the process screen?). I think I saw director Marshall in a hotel corridor cameo nearly trampled by Hope’s double on a runaway horse. Those Mad, Mad, madly derivative of previous hit Mad World chases in both Wrong Number and Eight On The Lam juiced up trailers, but were clearly dragged in by the heels to accommodate rigid 60’s formula. How come all comedies then had to end with outsized pursuits? Be it Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Dr. Goldfoot, or Darn Cats; every finish contrived to send entire casts in mad quest of some inconsequential something. Audiences numbed by such repetition bailed out on Hopes to come. Rentals were down by nearly half for The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell ($2.4 million worldwide), and would plunge further with his last starring feature, Cancel My Reservation, with its miserable $807,000 in domestic rentals. Hope theatricals seemed to have faded with matinees themselves, for his vanishing point out of features pretty much coincided with those of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis, two who shared both his audience and their declining numbers.