Last year for our Valentine's Day movie pick we featured Clint Eastwood's valentine to himself. This year I thought I'd celebrate one of the great romantic chemistry sets in motion pictures - the now all but forgotten Shirley Ross and a young Bob Hope. So for hopeless romantics here's some romantic Hope:
Back in the late Thirties, Bob Hope and his writers created two "Bob Hopes", two public personas that kept him in business for the next six decades. For radio, he was smart, sharp, sly, with tremendous confidence: in my mind's eye, I always see him walking out from the wings to the mike — the first great saunterer in show business. He was the pioneer stand-up and the inventor of the modern Oscar ceremony. Until the late Thirties, the Academy Awards were like Rotarian of the Year night in a hick town. At the 1937 Oscars, Cecil B de Mille, presenting the trophies for editing and sound recording, spoke for 35 minutes. The next year, a Hollywood newcomer called Hope was asked to present the award for Best Short Subject. He eyed the table containing the statuettes, said, "Looks like Bette Davis's garage", and went on from there. And that was it: he'd found the tone — the affectionate joshing of the big-time stars. Next year, they asked him to host, and he wound up hosting every other year or so till the late Seventies. "What a night. The furs, the jewels, the glamour," he began, in March 1978. "I haven't seen so much expensive jewellery go by since I watched Sammy Davis Jr's house sliding down Coldwater Canyon." He was pushing 75, and the Hope persona his writers had cooked up in the Thirties still had a couple decades' juice left in it. And indeed the Oscar hosts who've followed are basically mining the seams he opened up, as we'll see in a week or two.
But, for the movies themselves, they came up with a second Hope — a boaster, a tightwad, a skirt-chaser, a coward: "Brave men run in my family." The Paleface (1948) is the apotheosis of the second Hope, and the Road pictures its most basic template. I once tried to have a fairly serious conversation with Hope about why he didn't go with the radio act on screen. "Well, we took a decision to play up the boob side more," he said. I don't know who the "we" is: sounds like a corporate strategy taken by the full board, and, commercially, it worked.
But there's a third Hope I just love watching, the self-deprecating tuxedoed romantic of the very early movies. His first film was a two-reeler from 1934, Going Spanish. "When they catch Dillinger," he told Walter Winchell, "they're gonna make him watch it twice." It was his first feature, The Big Broadcast Of 1938, that made him. As the title suggests, it was basically a bunch of variety acts strung together by the slenderest of plots. The only four minutes that matter in the whole picture are when Hope and Shirley Ross, playing a separated husband and wife who, having run into each other, sit at the bar, sip cocktails and sing a brand new song by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, an accumulation of memories of a love that was - from the shimmer of exotic travel ("castles on the Rhine") to the intimacy of humdrum domesticity:
Thanks For The Memory
Of faults that you forgave
Rainbows on a wave
And stockings in the basin
When a fellow needs a shave
How lovely it was...
And then it all went south:
We said goodbye with a highball
Then I got as high as a steeple
But we were intelligent people
No tears, no fuss
Hooray for us...
Hope had been told that the reason he'd stunk in Going Spanish was that he was still doing Broadway acting, and that in Hollywood it wasn't what you said or how you moved, you had to act with your eyes. So his eyes are the busiest thing in the scene — upcast, downcast, looking at Shirley, looking away, looking for somewhere else to look. He thought he was so bad in the song he could never bear to watch it. But at the end of the take Shirley Ross was crying, so he must have been doing something right.
In an odd way, the eye business underlines the dramatic moment — the idea of cocktail sophistication as a gloss that can't quite ward off the pain. There are two great uses of "awf'lly" in popular song, and they're both from Oscar winners — "Someday, when I'm awf'lly low", Dorothy Fields' marvelous opening to "The Way You Look Tonight" (1936), and two years later Leo Robin's rueful close to Hope and Ross's duet:
Awf'lly glad I met you
Cheerio and toodle-oo!
And thank you so much.
And, with that, Hope put his arms round Ross and everyone on the set burst into tears.
The song was such a hit they turned it into a film, Thanks For The Memory, with Hope in his first starring role. I adore this movie, though it's barely more than an hour long. He's a struggling novelist married to Ross and, what with their apartment being a 24-hour oasis for passing nightclubbers, the novel's not progressing as well as it might. So Ross goes back to work, Hope starts tending to the house work and before you know it he's feeling like a kept man and riddled with self-loathing. It's not much of a plot and not really a comedy, but Hope and Ross are just bubbling with chemistry and exude a realness few film couples come close to. Although it's not a musical, halfway through, at the end of an exhausting night, they flop back on the couch and sing a song, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world:
Here we are, out of cigarettes
Holding hands and yawning
Look how late it gets
Two Sleepy People
By dawn's early light
And too much in love to say goodnight...
It must be one of Hoagy Carmichael's most ordinary tunes but Frank Loesser's lyric lifts it into a perfect snapshot of domestic intimacy. Shirley Ross was a terrific singer with a very seductive voice — not sex-kittenish, but something more grown-up. The only thing I've ever agreed with the former British Labour Party panjandrum Roy Hattersley about was when he said he always wanted to meet Shirley Ross in an hotel corridor wearing nothing but a towel (Shirley, not Roy). But Hope's pretty romantic, too. He had a great face for the camera. That underbite that framed the old ski-snoot could be conniving, but also wistful and loving. The early directors knew they had something special: they loved to pull back and show him doing the saunter, strolling into the night club, reeking urbanity. The act works almost as well a notch or two down the social scale in Some Like It Hot (no, not that one — this is 1939). Hope's a spieler at a boardwalk carny, and Ross the song bird who catches his eye. "They call me the star-molder," he tells her. "I mold stars."
"What do you do on cloudy nights?" she asks.
Shirley Ross chose to retire in 1945, by which time Hope had mothballed his Thanks For The Memory persona. He made solid pictures in the Forties and Fifties, and his duelling hoofers' routine with Cagney in The Seven Little Foys is one of the great joys of film history. For a supposed non-singer, he has a better Greatest Hits collection than most full-time vocalists: he introduced "It's De-Lovely", "I Can't Get Started", and "Buttons And Bows". But the duets with Ross are a world in themselves. A theatrical producer and I once had a scheme to do a little revue built around their songs. Then we figured out the problem: we didn't have Bob Hope or Shirley Ross to sing them. He was the perfect "light comedian": romantic, funny, charming, an accomplished singer and dancer who understood that the hardest work is making it look so effortless. Where are you going to find someone like that?
As Hope sighed, at the end of "I Can't Get Started","Oh, well."
~You can hear Mark warble a few bars of "Two Sleepy People" and the composer Burton Lane talking about the above-mentioned Some Like It Hot and its big Bob Hope/Shirley Ross duet "The Lady's In Love With You" on our centenary tribute to Frank Loesser, available exclusively from the Steyn store as part of our American Songbook Singalong and Broadway Double-Bill.