Bob Hope: ‘The Big Broadcast of 1938’ and ‘College Swing’

About a month ago, I decided that I had one glaring issue with my classic film resume: I had barely seen any films with Bob Hope. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened, but I decided that it was something that had to be fixed. I got a few of Universal’s old Bob Hope: The Tribute Collection releases as a place to start and picked up the On The Road With Bob Hope and Bing Crosby set. This morning, I watched a double feature of Hope’s first two films, both conveniently presented on the same Tribute Collection disc. I learned right away that neither of these are real “Bob Hope” movies.

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Hope made his screen debut in Mitchell Leisen’s The Big Broadcast of 1938, the fourth and final film in Paramount’s musical variety film series. Like MGM’s own Broadway Melody films, Big Broadcast ’38 does have a loose plot that strings a few musical acts for Hope to introduce on a cruise liner.

The real star of the film is W.C. Fields, whose name appears above the title. He plays S.B. Bellows, whose brother (also played by Fields) owns the S.S. Gigantic. Since the Gigantic is in a race with a smaller ship, the Colossal, from New York to France, Bellows’ brother sends him to the Colossal so he won’t screw up the Gigantic’s journey. Of course, S.B. winds up on the Gigantic thanks to his flying golf cart and typical W.C. Fields chaos ensues.

Hope essentially plays himself as radio host Buzz Fielding on board, but he does get his own funny subplot. It turns out that he has three ex-wives, who don’t want him to marry his current sweetheart Dorothy (Dorothy Lamour) because that would mean he’d have to split his alimony checks into fourths in the future. But on the boat, he starts falling in love with his first wife, Cleo (Shirley Ross) and they sing “Thanks for the Memory” together to tie that story in a bow. Dorothy is ecstatic, since she can now go off with First Officer Robert (Leif Erickson).

College Swing was also released in 1938 and directed by Raoul Walsh (yes, that Raoul Walsh). This one has an even looser plot and doesn’t even really have a central character. Gracie Allen is supposed to be the star, along with her husband, George Burns. Gracie somehow takes over a college and gets on Edward Everett Horton’s nerves, but eventually, she warms Horton’s heart. Yes, this is a rare Burns & Allen movie where they aren’t paired together. Hope plays a scheming tutor who helps Gracie cheat in a test so she can take over the college.

It’s hard to see College Swing as a real Walsh film, since it caters more to the standards of a late ’30s musical than his more interesting style. (Thankfully, he got back to Warner Bros. in late 1939 to make The Roaring Twenties.)

While neither of these films are classics by any stretch, they were still fun to see because you get to experience some of the top comedic talent from the late ’30s. Martha Raye (whose character’s name in Big Broadcast ’38 is perfect – Martha Bellows) and Ben Blue are in both films, each with their own spotlights and even coming together at the end of College Swing. It’s also interesting to see how Paramount saw Hope in his early film days. Could this guy be more than just a radio host? Would his one-liners work for movie audiences? Both these films prove that the answer to those questions is yes. (Big Broadcast ’38 does prove, however, that he could not dance.)

The DVD includes just a theatrical trailer for College Swing and production notes for both films. Both are in pretty good shape and I’m sure if Hope wasn’t in College Swing, the film probably would never get a home video release.

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