Monday, December 17, 2018

A Classic (Non-Controversial) Christmas Duet

Mention holiday duets, and thoughts immediately turn to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” which has been rebranded as offensive by people with ugliness in their souls. 

What surprises me is how surprised other people are by this controversy, as this is hardly the first year it has flared up. There was a Salon piece back in 2012 that asked the question “Is Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a date-rape anthem?”

The answer: No, it’s not. Is there a seductive, flirtatious quality to the give-and-take in the lyric? Absolutely. But to twist that into something violent and sinister – I feel sorry for anyone with such a grim view of romance.

I’m sure many believe such an interpretation would have been deemed ludicrous in any other moment but this one. But humanity has always had its outliers. Back in the 1970s, at a White House state dinner for President Gerald Ford, musical guests The Captain and Tennille performed “Muskrat Love.” Interviewed later, one of those in attendance found that song choice offensive, because the lyrics about animals making love were inappropriate for such an occasion. 

The difference is that such views were once easily identified for what they were, and dismissed. Today, they seem to find no shortage of converts. Heaven help us.

That took longer than expected – let’s get back to Comfort TV, and the Christmas duet that became a beloved standard of that era, through annual performances on Bob Hope’s Christmas specials. 

Hope’s first Christmas show aired in 1953. His last was in 1994. Let that sink in. If you were 10 years old in 1953, you spent an hour of your holiday season with Bob Hope every year until you turned 51.

I started watching them as a kid in the 1970s, and it became a tradition for the next two decades. I couldn’t recall one comedy sketch all these years later. But I do remember that in most of the shows I watched, there would be a scene in which Bob and one of his female guest stars would stroll through a wintry scene, performing “Silver Bells” as a duet. 

At the time Hope was a national treasure, one of the best-known and most beloved entertainers in America. So it was surprising to read the following quote from Terry Teachout, taken from his review of a Hope biography: “the comedian, who died in 2003 at the age of 100 and is now largely forgotten.”

I read that quote in Mitchell Hadley’s excellent book on television, The Electronic Mirror. He was shocked by it, but there’s likely more truth in that opinion than either of us wish to believe. Teachout is a prominent author and playwright, as well as the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, so this isn’t drivel from a millennial blog that thinks pop culture started with Game of Thrones.

It’s through television that I remember Hope best, though his career predates the medium with appearances on the vaudeville stage, on radio and in movies. Thinking back on the wonderful “Road” pictures he did with Bing Crosby, I wondered if the most influential singer of the 20th century might also be forgotten; but this time of year “White Christmas” still gets played, and hopefully that intrigues the young’uns enough to wonder what else that guy did. 

When TV came along Hope was among the first entertainers to embrace it. From 1950 to 1996 he headlined 272 variety specials on NBC. I suspect that record will stand for some time.

“Silver Bells” was part of the Christmas shows because it was a song already associated with the comedian, who performed it as a duet with Marilyn Maxwell in the 1951 film The Lemon Drop Kid. It might have become his signature song had  “Thanks For the Memories” not already claimed that title. 

Over the years, Hope’s duet partners included Barbara Eden, Dolly Parton, Marie Osmond, Dixie Carter and Reba McEntire, as well as Bob’s wife Dolores. I also believe there were versions with Shirley Jones, Crystal Gayle and Ann Jillian, but sadly there are very few performances online or details about these specials on IMDB.

However, I don’t have to do any research to know which version is my favorite:

Moments like these are nice memories to have.

I’ll let Mitchell Hadley, whose book makes a great holiday gift for any classic TV fan, have the last word: “Terry Teachout may well be right that Bob Hope is forgotten today. But if he is, and if Hope is nothing more than a piece of the fog of things past, then we are the ultimate losers.”

Of course, that’s never going to happen around here, as celebrating the past is what this blog has always been about.

Merry Christmas from Comfort TV! 

1 comment:

  1. Wesley Hyatt has just written a book focusing on Hope's TV career...