Monday, February 20, 2017

Hope: Entertainer of the Century: A Review

Zoglin, R. (2015) Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Simon & Schuster, New York.

In the nearly fifteen years since his death at age 100, I venture to say that the name Bob Hope is slowly being forgotten.  I'm old enough to remember Bob Hope specials, even his last USO tour during the First Persian War.  If he is remembered, it is with a certain disdain, a relic who was both politically incorrect and politically repulsive to the current leading lights of laughter.  With left-wing comics Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, and Jon Stewart ruling comedy, Hope's brazen conservatism is essentially the final nail of the coffin of his reputation as a comedy master. 

Richard Zoglin would have a long argument with you on Hope's legacy and importance.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century is an impeccable biography of the all-around star who found success in every field of entertainment he entered: vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio, and television.  Hope's fortunes (financial) were assured, but his fortunes (career and reputation-wise) faded thanks to a mix of time and Hope's own inability to stay with them.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century covers both Hope's public and private life, one that was filled with sex, ego, and pettiness, but also one that had kindness, generosity, and shrewd management.

Leslie Towns Hope (Zoglin insists that the more traditional "Townes" spelling is wrong, even when Hope did it) was an immigrant, born in England but who was brought along with the rest of his family to join his father in Ohio.  He was a bit of a scrapper, not one for school (Zoglin uncovered that Les, as he preferred to be called, had even done a stint in juvenile correction school), but one who loved his family.

Encouraged by his mother, who loved playing her piano, Les started entering dance competitions and soon built up an act with other partners, who for various reasons, didn't stay long.  Still, Les Hope kept plugging away at showbiz, and soon he was working his way up the various vaudeville circuits, from regional to national.  He also started honing his comedy skills, where it was his quips, not his dancing, that got the attention. 

Already at this point, Zoglin would argue, Hope was creating a new style for comedy, one that didn't depend on what had gone on before in vaudeville (comedy duos, ethnic stereotypes, or standard jokes).  Instead, Hope started doing more topical humor, tailoring quips for the regional audiences.  As a side note, Hope was among the first to not try any ethnic humor, his Midwestern manner being an odd fit to try anything ethnic, though he tried once with such awful results he never ventured into it again.

As his career kept building, Hope indulged his other great passion: women.  He had a secret first marriage, and his marriage to Dolores Reade (born Dolores De Fina) is shrouded in mystery.  Despite a wide-ranging search, no marriage license or wedding photo has ever been found or produced.  Zoglin argues that as a devout Catholic, Dolores would not have 'lived in sin' for long, so the likelihood of a Church-sanctioned wedding must have happened, but when, how, and under what circumstances no one outside Bob and/or Dolores knows.

Hope, for his part, continued his rise in showbiz, and after a failed first attempt finally got into the movies at a relatively old age of 34.  Not a splash at the beginning, it was The Big Broadcast of 1938 that bolted Hope's career: not the movie itself, but its theme, Thanks For the Memory (a title which most people erroneously refer to as Thanks For the Memories), which he lucked into to be his signature song.

Out of his movie success came radio, where Hope became a pioneer: having to create a whole radio show out of whole cloth versus other radio comics like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who already had definitive personas.  Hope's humor was also unique in that it was more down-to-earth, more the 'everyman' than a particular type like the cheapskate Benny or cerebral Steve Allen.

Hope managed his career smoothly, open about using writers (whom he wasn't the most generous with and whom he expected to be on call 24/7).  His radio and film career built up, and eventually a "Bob Hope" type emerged: the brave coward, one who appears courageous but turns chicken at first sign of danger, who pursues women but crumbles when he manages to get a response.

This of course was different from Bob Hope in real life, who had no problem getting almost any woman into bed (if it is believed, among his conquests were Ethel Merman and Doris Day, the latter never commenting on this curious liaison).  What Dolores knew, or wanted to know, is also unknown.

The Second World War was Hope's finest hour.  A man who didn't have any great angst, he thrived on the live crowds and threw himself into entertaining the troops (having done a wide variety of charity events for years prior).  Hope was undeterred, crisscrossing Europe and Asia to find an audience (even if sometimes troops would rather get home than get Hope).

After the war, things slowly changed, but Hope didn't.  He didn't become an ideologue until the Nixon years, and his support of both Nixon and the Vietnam War, along with his mocking of the youth movement in his various USO and television specials, began to sour larger groups of audiences.  His film career began to fade, and his specials became the like man himself: more rigid, more scripted, more cautious, and finally a sad parody.

Bob Hope ruled NBC, with only Johnny Carson being anywhere near his equal.  However, whenever Hope wanted to promote something, Carson had to give him time on The Tonight Show.  Carson, more withdrawn and moody, didn't gel with the generally bon vivant Hope, and Carson hated how scripted their 'spontaneous encounters were', to where if Carson skipped a question Hope would answer it anyway.

Bob Hope, once nicknamed 'Rapid Robert' for his quick-fire monologues, would not give up the limelight.  As he entered his 90s, he stubbornly insisted on doing his TV specials, where it was getting harder and harder to hide his advancing age, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties.  Hope, to the end, wanted to be the center of attention, even if it was accidental.  When Dolores, who had given up her singing career to be Mrs. Bob Hope (and where despite the ability to Bob would not put her in his specials until very late in his career), made a 'comeback', Hope's hearing caused him to virtually shout when she sang.  Even worse, he would loudly order Dolores to stop being romantic with him after her set.

Given that at least until his 60s or 80s (I can't remember which), he had no problem being romantic with other women, it seems all so unfair.

In the end, after meeting his goal of living to 100, he died a couple of months later in 2003.  By that time, Bob Hope might have been an institution, but one that fewer and fewer remembered (his death merited one page in Time Magazine, but that of 'third-best Beatle' George Harrison got the cover).  Zoglin argues that Bob Hope had simply lingered too long: the prepared obituary for The New York Times had been sitting there so long that the author of the obituary himself had been dead three years).

I figure that many people nowadays do not know who Bob Hope is, or why he matters.  Zoglin's brilliant biography brings Hope back to life, showing us both his comedic brilliance and the hard, sometimes unfeeling man he was.

I say sometimes because Hope was more complex than 'selfish comic'.  Hope could be unpleasant (such as an early stunt where he would make paper planes out of his writer's paychecks and send them floating down, a practice he quickly dropped once it made the rounds).  He had no qualms about not just seeing other women on the side but forcing others to be party to such antics (in one incident Zoglin compared to a real-life The Apartment, he cajoled a young writer to let him have the key to his apartment for an assignation, leaving at the arranged time). 

However, Zoglin tells a story that reveals another side of Bob Hope.  Hope, unlike other stars then and now,  would reply to almost all his fan mail, adding personal touches, particularly whenever a soldier or his/her family were involved.  In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated (and Hope's popularity diminished), he got a letter from a friend of a seven-year-old girl he had posed with for a cystic fibrosis campaign.  The letter detailed that she was dying and that if he could write to her it would mean so much. 

Bob Hope replied, and not just with a form letter, but with a brief note that even threw in some humor at his expense (opening with, "Remember me?").

Hope was complex and complicated, at times self-centered, even vain.  He was also, Zoglin would insist, a true genius: not just in comedy, but in the art of career management.  He set up Hope Enterprises to further his career, always venturing into new media when given the chance (he didn't run away from television when others were terrified of it).  He invested wisely in real estate (though bristling at reports of exactly how wealthy he was).  He brought an intimacy between himself and his audiences that made him appear approachable, even if he wasn't.

For all the disdain Colbert, Maher, Silverman et al may have towards Hope's politics, there would be none of them if not for Hope.  He set the standard of the modern late-night talk show: the monologue, the skits, those were all from Hope.

Bob Hope should not be forgotten or relegated to a small place in comic history.  Apart from Woody Allen, no major comedian/comedienne mentions Bob Hope.  With Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Richard Zoglin gives us the whole Hope: brilliant, petty, easy-going and difficult.  Bob Hope was a true comedic genius.

With luck, Hope: Entertainer of the Century will spark a revival to restore him to his rightful place in comedy.

Bob, Thanks For the Memory...


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