For many of us the mention of the name Bing Crosby immediately prompts the name Bob Hope, and vice versa. The reason is simple: They were one of the, if not the, most commercially successful male comedy teams in movie history, thanks to their seven—count ‘em, 7—Road movies.
I’m thinking about this now because I’m thinking of a white Christmas, and more specifically because I’m thinking of “White Christmas,” which Irving (“Easter Parade”) Berlin wrote in 1940 and Crosby introduced in the 1942 Holiday Inn and reprised in the 1954 White Christmas.
More accurately, Crosby reprised it thousands of times. The most recorded holiday song in ASCAP’s catalogue, Crosby’s track is undoubtedly the most-played version and has an annual resurgence. I’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the past few weeks’ build-up to the big day.
I’m also thinking about this thanks to Richard Zoglin’s just-published Hope, which is certain to be considered the definite biography for some long time to come. Perhaps it will also be the only biography for some time to come. In his introduction Zoglin writes, “[I]t was once impossible to imagine a time when the first question that needed to be answered would be, Who was Bob Hope, and why did he matter?”
That query is especially eyebrow raising for us who would never need to ask it. Instead, it gives an ironic twist to Hope’s signature song, the Oscar-winning Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger “Thanks for the Memory.” Hope introduced it, with Shirley Ross, in The Big Broadcast of 1938, his first film under the long-lasting Paramount contract. It’s the sequence that kicked off his movie stardom. Then he reused the evocative ditty with rewritten lyrics for the rest of his career. In another movie sequence, this time during The Paleface, the 1949 Jane Russell co-starrer, Hope introed the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans “Buttons and Bows,” also an Oscar winner.
But if Zoglin has to make his disturbing point on page three of his biography, how much of a memory has Bob Hope left behind? Or Big Crosby, of whom Zoblin’s same question could be asked? And Crosby has his own top-drawer biographer: Gary Giddins. His Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams—The Early Years, 1903-1940was published in 2001 and was heralded as the first of a two-volume study.
Unless I’ve somehow missed it, the second volume has yet to appear, which has this longtime fan of both Crosby and Hope and Crosby-Hope wondering whether it’s jazz guru Giddins’s busy schedule keeping him from finishing, or is it publishers’ worries that not enough people have a Crosby memory sufficiently pressing to send them to bookstore shelves?
Let’s just say that the larger puzzlement here is the reality of collective memory. How long do icons remain prominent? And make no mistake about it, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope have earned irrevocable ranking as show business icons.
Do I have to explain why? Do I have to explain the achievements of two men who topped the movie box office revenues in the 1940s, Crosby more than once? Apparently, I do.
Perhaps Crosby’s single most memorable contribution is that when radio and the microphone were transforming entertainment, he originated a laid-back jazz-influenced vocal style that changed singing for almost the rest of the 20th century. Without the Crosby influence, there would likely have been no Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Dick Haymes (please don’t ask, Who’s he?), Michael Bublé, et cetera. At his radio peak, Crosby had 50 million—count ‘em, 50 million—weekly listeners.
Perhaps Hope’s single most memorable contribution is not his successfully developing a seminal stand-up technique in vaudeville or his radio career (often with sidekick singers Judy Garland, Frances Langford and Doris Day) or his television series and specials or his inimitably emceeing the Oscars 19 times. It’s his committed, some might say obsessive, insistence on entertaining troops around the globe during World War II and afterwards. It was his support of the Vietnam war, of course, that soured him for many younger Americans, particularly those unfamiliar with his earlier career.
Perhaps the most memorable Crosby-Hope tandem contribution is their performing style based on an approach that made just about everything they did in the Road series completely effortless. Both golfers—Crosby was ostensibly the better of the two—everything they did came across as an easy swing, as a hole in one.
They were so off-hand, or seemingly so off-hand, about their teamwork that they pioneered a movie conceit that today could be called meta-movie-making. They did something that hadn’t been done quite so blatantly before, if at all: They broke the filmic fourth wall and addressed the audience about what they were doing, about politics, about incidents like a fancily dressed man crossing their set in front of them to get to the set where he was filming.
In every movie they made together, they played the versions of themselves they’d honed elsewhere—Crosby the one who got the girl (Dorothy Lamour) by doing nothing, Hope the one who did everything he could to get the girl but still couldn’t. Therefore, like other actors of their time, they appeared to be playing themselves, whether they actually were or not.
Zoglin records that Hope and Crosby met at Manhattan’s Friars Club on October 14, 1932. Shortly after that they performed at the Capitol Theatre, where they horsed around co compatibly that that’s what they reiterated when the Paramount moguls paired them for The Road to Singapore—1939, or the year of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the year generally considered to be Hollywood’s best year ever, then or since.
Though in many ways they were alike—in addition to golf, womanizing was an activity they shared—they didn’t consider themselves off-screen buddies, and they were classified as quite different in public: Hope far more accessible than Crosby.
When questioned about each other, they usually had only good things to say. Giddins has Hope’s long-term and long-suffering wife Dolores saying, “They lived entirely separate lives, but they respected each other and loved working with each other.” Zoglin includes references to Hope’s expressing resentment that he and Dolores were never invited to the Crosbys for dinner. More often, whatever resentments either had were kept private.
Whatever they were when they were at home. it’s their legacies that deserve respect. Memory is a feeble thing, and that probably means what they left behind isn’t guaranteed lasting homage. Things change, time marches on, here today and gone tomorrow, it’s the way of the world—those clichés and others meaning the same thing are irreversibly true.
So as years go by, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope may not be remembered as they ought to be. What’s sad about that is this: It’s not Crosby’s or Hope’s loss. It’s ours.