In a series of posts about director Frank Tashlin and one of his early films, Son of Paleface, Ray Davis writes of the film's star, Bob Hope:
Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields drift mildly upwards into their personal unreal, tethered by rude tugs of slapstick and abuse. The Marx and Ritz Brothers drive reality squealing like a moneylender from the temple. Approaching sometimes the misanthropic babble of Groucho and sometimes the nightmarish openness of Fields, Hope is the first movie comedian to attain enlightenment by the road of skepticism: an absolute distrust that undercuts narrative drive, filmic convention, and his own part. On the other hand, he's not a delicate instrument; like a cartoon star, you know that if a bomb dropped on Hope, he'd be nervously wise-cracking in Hell next scene.
I agree with Ray entirely. In the great tradition of American slapstick comedy (what I also like to think of as a tradition of "carnivalesque" comedy as described by M.M. Bakhtin), Bob Hope is one of its most important figures, and perhaps the figure most unjustly left out of critical considerations of this tradition. Ray captures his "carnivalesque" qualities precisely: "an absolute distrust" of everything "serious" that informs all of his best films, right down to a distrust of his own role in the film. Not all of the jokes in all of the films work equally well--certainly not as consistently as those in the Marx Brothers films--but as a "movie comedian" his persona is just as acerbic as the other comedians Ray mentions and his best film work just as rewarding. (It must be admitted that he did make more bad films than most of the other great screen comics, especially later in his career, but his early work still holds up.)
Some viewers might object to Hope's films based on a dislike of his conservative political views. But, as with Charlton Heston, such viewers should reconsider the extremely tenuous connection between those views expressed offscreen and Hope's considerable skills as a skeptical comedian.