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Friday, January 11, 2008

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Bob Hope Comeback

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. Somebody 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 Hope had not seen 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. 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

That is surely true because even when watched under the influence of the popular drugs of the era, none of those folks' schticks seem very funny today.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I yield to no one in my respect and affection for Bob Hope, but I'm afraid oxen and wainropes couldn't have hauled me into a showing of 8 on the Lam or Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number in those days (mind you, I'd still have been game for Alias Jesse James or The Seven Little Foys); you've convinced me that it's left no great hole in my viewing experience.

Looking at the enlarged one-sheet for Lam, I was surprised -- no, make that flabbergasted -- to see the screenplay credit for one Albert E. Lewin. Could it be...? Scurrying over to the IMDB, I confirmed that it was indeed he of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Well now, Hollywood can be a pretty odd place, eh? I suppose there's quite a story in how he got from one to the other (and another in how he has IMDB credits for writing episodes of All in the Family and Diff'rent Strokes ten years after his death).

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Albert Lewin worked much after THE LIVING IDOL.

The very different Albert E. Lewin, on the other hand, wrote for a number of sitcoms in the '60s and '70s and co-authored George Marshall's BOY, DID I GET A WRONG NUMBER, EIGHT ON THE LAM and THE WICKED DREAMS OF PAULA SCHULTZ and Norman Panama's tv movie of COFFEE, TEA OR ME? as well as Panama's 1976 theatrical feature I WILL, I WILL... FOR NOW. [The latter was actually billed as "A Norman Panama - Albert E. Lewin Film."]

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Medved's 50 Worst Movies book is odd, in that Ed Wood was never mentioned! Wood only came to light in the follow up book, Golden Turkey Awards, published in 1981. There, Plan 9 was voted Worst Ever in a public poll, and the Medveds named him worst director as though they had known about him all along

The 50 Worst Movies was a rather petty book, naming mostly mediocre Hollywood fare like Solomon And Sheba, Boy Did I... and, belive it or not, Eisenstein's Ivan The Terribe. Few of the films in the book are known for being the best of the worse

12:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Bob used them like Kleenex, but underpaid loyally for those many years they toiled in his vineyards." That line made laugh out loud.

I saw two or three of his movies in the '60s when I was a kid. I don't remember if I liked them -- which, I suppose, is all you need to say about him. Had Hope died circa 1961, his reputation as a brilliant comedic actor would've remained intact. Something tells me comedy and good genes don't got well together.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

How come every comedy then had to end with outsized pursuits?

A very good question, and one that struck me watching The Wrong Box a few weeks ago, a very bright and enjoyable black comedy which falls like a souffle in its chase ending.

By the way, the most interesting of the snarky young Medved books is The Hollywood Hall of Shame, which actually has some fascinating stories about how big budget disasters ranging from Hotel Imperial to the Nazi epic Kolberg got made and came undone in the process.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Griff, for the note. What you say makes sense; obviously IMDB has conflated two different Albert Lewins. I hope somebody can straighten it out, and I wish them luck trying. I got into a can of worms over my own listing -- I have a few modest credits to my name, and IMDB had mixed me up with a couple of other Jim Lanes; it took me quite a while to sort it all out. It was worth the trouble for myself, but I'll leave this one to Albert's (or Albert E.'s) heirs.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Mike Durrett said...

Hope is one of my favorites in films. In the sixties, many of his final movies were produced by his company, using money received from his contract with NBC -- a million dollars per release, as I recall. To get the cash, he had to make the pictures. Being notoriously cheap, Bob's *thriftiness* is all over the films.

Even Hope's worst pictures are entertaining to me. His line in the cop chase of BOY, DID I GET A WRONG NUMBER, "I've got more fuzz on my tail than a cocker spaniel," has been bouncing around in my happy head for 42 years.

I've been warned against 8 ON A LAM since it was in theatres. It's the one Bob film I have not seen and it is my reason for living. I know it's horrible, but I'm eager to see it.

That's star power.

3:27 PM  

It's so funny that you mention George Marshall, the Medved books, and ancient, reused gags in this post, as all have a connection to Laurel & Hardy's movie, "The Big Noise."

First there's George Marshall, who directed the team's second feature length movie ("Pack Up Your Troubles" - and by the way Marshall plays a hilarious bit role in the movie as a vengeful chef) plus a couple of their classic shorts at Hal Roach Studios.

That relates to "The Big Noise" because this latter day L&H feature for Fox reused a lot of classic gags from the team's 1930's Roach films - a fact "Noise" is often derided for, and grist for the mill of folks like the Medveds, who I believe included the film in their "50 Worst of All Time" book.

But the joke is on them, because in recent years popular opinion has come out in favor of "The Big Noise." Despite the reuse of old gags, it is seen as a pleasant throwback and a nice introduction to the team by many; more in-tune with classic L&H than many of their other 1940s films. In fact Randy Skretvedt, who panned the film in his great book, "Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies," actually does the audio commentary track for the "Big Noise" DVD and apologizes to the film, admitting he wrong upon subsequent viewings.

So there's a place for reusing old gags if it's done right, and certainly an audience new to a gag will be receptive to it, especially kids.

Anyway, I'd love to see an article here on Greenbriar about Laurel & Hardy's 8 studio films made during the 1940's (for Fox and MGM) - they are admittedly of varying quality (although in the case of at least half, better than their reputations), but according to Scott McGillivray's essential book, "Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward" the films made a boatload of money. In fact, it's reported that their first for Fox, "Great Guns" (one I don't like very much) was actually their biggest money-maker of all time (no doubt riding the wave of Abbott & Costello's mega-hit military opus, "Buck Privates").

6:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi NYCopyGuy --- I did write a piece on Laurel and Hardy's Fox comedies back in April 2006, plus a more recent post about George Marshall which touches on his work with L&H (there's a still of him as the chef menacing the team in "Pack Up Your Troubles"). The links are below ---

7:55 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I know that I saw Private Navy and Eight on the Lam as a kid, but have virtually no memory. I'm sure I could sit through them now, but would be cringing most of the way.

I think it's interesting that these came out after, with movies like Critic's Choice, The Facts of Life, Bachelor in Paradise , it seemed Hope was trying to play more "age appropriate" roles in more "sophisticated" (if somewhat smarmy) movies. Did these all die at the box office?

The other thing that gets me is the repainted heads on Jack Davis' poster for Eight on the Lam. I wonder if Bob objected to the original?

10:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey, I hadn't noticed the repainted heads! Thanks for pointing them out. As to boxoffice for Hope's more "sophisticated" comedies, it was not generally good. Both "Critic's Choice" and "Bachelor In Paradise" lost money.

10:38 AM  

Hey John - thanks for pointing me to those links! I check your site regularly but most of missed those, wouldn't you know it (being a major L&H buff). Okay, my next request is that other 1930s box office comedy team juggernaut - Wheeler & Woolsey. :)

1:53 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The '60s... and I was born in 1970.

What I can say, is that many artists production in those years pale when compared to what they did twenty or 10 years before.

The Argentine film industry suffered a lot due to the popularity of a filmmaker called Enrique Carreras. He was a nice man, keeping a decaying indutry afloat, but he is my choice as the all time worse director and many of his films are among the all time worse!

Being active from 1953 to 1986, and being the most prolific film director, the big majority of his movies are terrible and, to make it more painful, many of them reuse scripts and jokes better done in the past.

In the tango field, specially after 1964, the story is the same. You have still popular artists like Juan D'Arienzo, Aníbal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese and others doing a lot of television and making records (mostly for RCA Victor and EMI Odeon). But their new LPs, in stereo, never sold as well as the reissues, in original mono, of their sometimes noisier 78 rpm discs.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent and very amusing story about the late Hope movies. I just wish you could have watched all of them but I guess no stomach could handle that. To me the last Hope movie in the old vein was 'Alias Jesse James'. Then he segued from boring ('Bachelor in Paradise', 'Critic's Choice') right into embarrassing ('Private Navy', 'Cancel My Reservation' and 'Wrong Number'). I have seen 'Private Navy' and 'Wrong Number' years ago, no way I would ever watch them again. The only late Hope that does not make me cringe is "A Masterpiece Of Murder", made for TV. Agree with the comment that if his (movie) career had ended at the beginning of the sixties, he would still be hailed as one of the top movie comedians.
By the way, does anyone know why "The Cat And The Canary" has never been released on video or DVD? Something to do with the remake?

9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate the research you put into these posts. The actual box office returns explain a whole lot about these films especially when paired with the info about the funding provides by Mike Durrett in his response.

A big part of the actual 1960's (as opposed to the popular image of that time) was the atmosphere of total repression. The actual numbers of people who in that fateful year of 1968 were going all counter-culture on us was quite small. The 1960’s of popular imagination really is the period from about 1968 to the end of the Carter administration.

As Tim Lucas (or someone writing for him) pointed out in his magazine VIDEO WATCHDOG that no movies were so dirty as those released before the production code breathed its last. Even George (I'm so clean-minded I make Disney look like a pornographer) Pal's THE POWER has a pretty steamy party scene. So Bob Hope's smarmy sex jokes really were cutting edge for their time. The SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit with Carrie Fisher (as Princess Leia) beaming down into an AIP Beach Party movie was pretty much “spot on.” One character says after laughing at Princess Leia’s name (“lay-ah” snigger, giggle, and chuckle) “We’re so horny we’ll laugh at anything that even sounds like it could be dirty.” Hope’s stuff was bland but comforting. Just as I cannot sit through one of those Hercules movies today or one of the endless series of Psycho rip-offs I (and many others) watched them faithfully. Boy, were we bored!

Spencer Gill (

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate all the great films of all time like everybody else...but unlike most people, I enjoyed "Eight on the Lam" and "Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number", as well as "The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell" and "How to Commit Marriage". (Even I couldn't stomach "Cancel My Reservation")

I'm also a fan of (brace yourself) Rowan and Martin's "The Maltese Bippy". Sure wish they'd release it (and "Once Upon a Horse") on DVD, but since I'm the only Bippy fan, it's unlikely.

1:25 AM  

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