I enjoy Bob Hope's movies a lot, but I'm always annoyed by his ongoing tendency (which got worse as he got older) to lard his material with local references, usually local to Los Angeles. In his movie "The Ghost Breakers", a huge thunderclap prompts Hope to wisecrack: "Basil Rathbone must be having a party." Every single person who saw this movie and wasn't living in the Hollywood film colony must have assumed that this joke referred to Rathbone's screen personality. In fact, Basil Rathbone's wife (novelist Ouida Bergere), not the actor himself, often threw extremely elaborate and expensive Hollywood parties, attended by practically every major Hollywood actor and director of the 1930s and '40s, so Bob Hope was referring to something that only he and his Tinseltown cohorts had experienced.
He probably developed this habit back in his vaudeville days on the Gus Sun Circuit, since vaude audiences gave their biggest laughs to a comedian's local references. When I listen to Hope's radio shows (or watch his television specials), it's keenly annoying to hear a Los Angeles studio audience yukking it up over some jape that's incomprehensible to everyone beyond the city limits.
I saw "Bob Hope on Campus" in London a few months after its Stateside transmission, at a screening for British producers who were considering airing this variety special on British television. The format here is slightly different from Bob Hope's perennial performances for the troops (not so many pretty girls, alas) but still firmly in the template of Hope's civilian TV specials. We get Hope's opening monologue: "Hi, this is Bob (insert topical reference) Hope...", then Hope interacts with his supporting players in staged conversations and skits. The musical acts are allowed to get on with it while Hope takes a break backstage. This particular special was performed at UCLA for an appreciative audience consisting mostly of the students and faculty.
I generally do find Hope funny, and I marvel at his ability to control an audience (though not quite so thoroughly as Red Buttons and Max Miller could), so I was avidly paying attention during his opening monologue. Suddenly he told a joke about life in California millions of years ago "...when nobody was here but John Wooden". WHO? The audience laughed and cheered in high glee, so obviously every single person in UCLA knew who John Wooden was. I'd never heard of him, and I'd never even encountered the word 'wooden' as a person's name before.
I checked the screening's press kit. It mentioned that John Wooden was (then) UCLA's hugely successful basketball coach, who'd coached at UCLA for many years before this special was made. "Bob Hope on Campus" never identifies the university's dean or faculty, but he praises the basketball coach while the students whoop in delight.
Later, Hope interacts with Flip Wilson in the latter's Geraldine character. I find Geraldine very funny and (for the time) somewhat daring: Wilson was obviously a man in female disguise, but he took considerable trouble to make Geraldine a woman who's supposed to be sexually attractive, tricked out in miniskirt, spangled tights and elaborate wig. Ring my chimes!
Also on hand are the squeaky-clean music act America and Aretha Franklin. I've never liked Lady Ree, so it was during her performance that I tried to find out who John Wooden was. The only reason he was even mentioned in the press kit is because he shows up in the final skit of this special ... not in person, but embodied by an actor playing him. Guess who.
The lights come up on a cheap set depicting an office, with John Wayne at the desk pretending to talk on the phone so he can deliver exposition. He's portraying John Wooden, and this is meant to be Wooden's office at UCLA. (John Wayne works for UCLA? Shouldn't he be at Duke University?) The phone call establishes that Wooden is finally being replaced after all these decades, and the replacement is on his way here. The door on the flimsy set opens, and into the room comes Hope, wearing a mortarboard and a ridiculously long academic gown.
Bob Hope always played a brash egotistical coward, but his character was usually resourceful enough (and just barely brave enough) to triumph over the villains and win the leading lady. Yet for some reason, in many of his movies and TV skits, he played a character who's totally contemptible: completely full of himself yet unable to deliver the goods with it. He plays that character here. Hope struts around Wayne's office, demonstrating a total ignorance of basketball while bragging about how he'll take over Wooden's losing team and produce victories, clearly unaware (as I myself was) of the real John Wooden's long and very impressive winning record.
John Wayne basically just stands there and lets Hope make an ass of himself in this very unfunny sketch. The sketch ends with the Duke summoning several of UCLA's basketball stars, in full strip. They proceed to pick up Hope and cart him out of the room, prompting Wayne to remark that John Wooden will be at UCLA for a long time to come. This line raises tremendous cheers from the UCLA audience.
I consistently enjoy Bob Hope's TV specials, which were always proficiently staged and filmed. But this one is much more parochial than usual, being pitched squarely at the several thousand people on UCLA's campus rather than Hope's millions of fans worldwide. Fairly funny and well done, but far from his best. My rating: 6 out of 10.
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