This is Bob Hope (2017) (TVM)

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The PBS series American Masters tackles the most influential comic of them all, London-born Leslie Townes Hope, aka Bob. Narrated by Billy Crystal, reading from Hope’s diaries, this commences with difficult stuff:  Woody Allen addresses the star’s Republicanism and the film is bookended with another thorny issue – his hopeless philandering, which his adopted children admit their mother knew about and tolerated as long as nothing was brought home. The bulk of the film however is a compelling story of child poverty, reform school and clawing his way from Cleveland to Broadway, through vaudeville, singing and dancing, until he found his niche MC’ing shows and getting a break on radio until comedy shorts and Hollywood beckoned in 1934. He basically developed the first standup routine and specialised in topical jokes. He became in demand to the point that he needed writers to supply him with gags. They needed a character to build the shtick around so the ‘type’ was a cowardly, skirt-chasing braggart – not unlike Hope in real life. It’s a persona that’s much-imitated and Woody Allen’s work exemplifies this but he declares of his inspiration, ‘He’s just more gifted’. Hope’s writers? Guys like Mel Shavelson and Larry Gelbart.  Dick Cavett suggests that Hope’s vocal tone is responsible for his impact:  ‘the very sound of his voice made you laugh.’ Brooke Shields contributes, ‘He could do more with a look or a glance than most of us could do with a monologue.’ His signature song, ‘Thanks for the Memory’ was a rare moment of emotion;  while his one dramatic performance showed he had acting chops too. He had the number one radio show in 1941 and throughout the war years, when he brought an entourage to the fringes of the combat zones to entertain the troops, a lifelong avocation doing 57 tours in 50 years. On radio, on the screen with Bing Crosby in the Road movies or on TV specials, he conquered all the main entertainment media and made a fortune through canny investments – a fact he was advised to tackle head-on by joking about it. Filled with marvellous footage, newsreel, photographs, clips and interviews (including Kermit, Leonard Maltin, Conan O’Brien and Margaret Cho), this is an essential history of an innovator, written, produced and directed in a zippy style by John Scheinfeld.

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Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Harry and Walter Go To New York (1976)

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I will admit this true thing:  I have never managed to get through more than the first 20 minutes of The Sting. Something about the stultifying production design. Or the story. Or the characters. Don’t know. I try and fail, oh, maybe once a decade. But its success bred imitators and this was one of them. Admittedly I love Elliott Gould, that much you know.  And he’s directed by Mark Rydell, who did the dirty on him in The Long Goodbye. James Caan, sheesh, maybe I love him too: I always felt sorry for him after witnessing his horrifying death at the toll booth (Godfather alert). They’re two not very impressive vaudevillians who get into cracking safes and mastermind Michael Caine has an idea… Diane Keaton, looking quite odd (the hairdos emphasise the down-sloping eyes) and Carol Kane and Lesley Ann Warren (playing odd to the hilt) round out the cast but it’s a bit of a slog. Even the stage antics aren’t that hot. It’s not awful, but … maybe it’s all that brown. Caine is the only one who looks truly comfortable, IMHO. The Sting is on some channel today. I’m going to give it another go. Maybe. Or the FA Cup Final….