Bob Hope's Journey

How a broadly popular performer became a symbol of cultural and political division

|


Hope: Entertainer of the Century, by Richard Zoglin, Simon & Schuster, 565 pages, $30

Bob Hope
cover detail

Bob Hope lived to be 100. For most of those years he was one of the biggest celebrities in the world. But what mark has he left? Journalist Richard Zoglin tries to answer that question with his biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century. It's the subtitle that intrigues—does Hope deserve the designation, and if so, what will people make of him in this century?

Zoglin's previous book was Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, so it's interesting to see him take on the man who helped create the world those comedians were reacting against. Long before Richard Pryor or George Carlin were performing, Hope was actually hip: When he was new on the scene, he offered something fresh and different that audiences couldn't get enough of. Zoglin, better than anyone before him, shows us how Hope built up that character to become a huge star, beloved for decades and yet at times surprisingly controversial.

That controversy was probably inevitable. It's not so much that Hope changed—though he did, somewhat—but that the audience did. When the comic was coming up, performers who wanted to hit it big knew they couldn't go wrong waving the flag. But in an era of clashes over civil rights, Vietnam, the counterculture, Watergate, and more, it became hip to paint yourself as outside the mainstream, no matter how successful you actually were. Questioning the most basic aspects of our society signaled to the new audience that you were one of them. Hope, being the most noticeable and unembarrassed representative of an older type of entertainment, indeed an older type of America, was bound to come in for his share of denunciation. But inevitable or not, it would be a mistake to let the controversy get in the way of assessing Hope's work and its influence.

Though he would become almost ostentatiously American, Leslie Towns Hope (he'd change it to Bob for show biz) was born in London, England, in 1903. His family emigrated to Cleveland before he turned five. He and his six brothers were raised in poverty, learning to scramble to make it. Even when he became the richest entertainer in the world, he still retained a certain stinginess—he could be very generous to old friends, but he would fret if he felt he wasn't getting the best deal, even over small things.

After bouncing around from one job to another, including a stint as a boxer, Hope went into vaudeville in the 1920s. He started as a dance act but found he had talent as an emcee, which turned him into a comedian. In this role he was a trailblazer, one of the earliest entertainers to do stand-up routines as we understand them today. Before then, a comic generally had an artificial persona and performed prepackaged jokes and routines. Hope helped introduce and develop a more casual, spontaneous, and topical style-ironically paving the way for the comedians who would later dethrone him.

The Depression didn't slow Hope down, and he made a smooth transition to Broadway. As a Broadway star, he wasn't sure he needed Hollywood, but he signed with Paramount and moved out west in the late 1930s. He made a splash in his first feature, The Big Broadcast of 1938, introducing what would become his theme song, "Thanks for the Memories." The next several films didn't show him to the same advantage, but then, in late 1939, came The Cat and the Canary, a comedy mixed with a murder mystery. It's here we start to see the classic Bob Hope character really emerge: a brash coward who talks in wisecracks.

His next film, Road to Singapore, released in 1940, was equally important. The hit film teamed him up with his old friend Bing Crosby, and over the years six more Road pictures would follow. (Hope was planning yet another when Crosby died in 1977.) The series soon found its formula: Hope and Crosby played vaudevillian con men who'd travel to some exotic location, get involved in an adventure, sing a few songs, woo co-star Dorothy Lamour, and crack a lot of jokes. While Singapore is played relatively straight, the later films were all about the gags—often supplied as "ad libs" by their personal writers—while the story was almost an afterthought.

Hope was now a star, appearing on the top 10 list of Hollywood moneymakers for 13 consecutive years from 1941 to 1953, topping the list in 1949. He became a major figure in Hollywood, hosting the Oscars 19 times—more than twice as many as second-place Billy Crystal. He made comedies almost exclusively, but in various genres: spy films, period pieces, Westerns, etc.

Meanwhile, he got into radio and became its top star. Not unlike his movies, his radio performances were mainly about the jokes, the more topical the better. He went through more material than almost any other performer, and he kept a large stable of gag men who wrote to order. Though Hope had a quick wit and could ad lib with the best of them, he was highly dependent on his writers. They were on call at all hours and could be woken up if Hope needed some funny lines for the VIPs he was golfing with the next day.

During World War II, he also started entertaining the troops. This became something he'd be associated with for the rest of his career. More than once he was close enough to the fighting to have to take cover during an air raid. But he would go anywhere to do these shows. A few decades later in Vietnam, Zoglin reveals, he was running late and arrived at the aftermath of an explosion that, it was discovered, was meant for him.

As old-time radio was dying, Hope switched to the medium that was killing it: television. In fact, in 1947 he hosted the first commercial TV broadcast in Los Angeles, when television sets in the city numbered in the hundreds. Television grew quickly, and while many in movies saw it as the enemy, Bob became a mainstay at NBC. He never had a weekly show, but he hosted numerous hours, generally in the variety format. His specials were often the highest-rated broadcasts of the year, and he continued putting them out into the 1990s.

But it's hard to stay on top. Like any performer, especially a comedian, Hope was always in danger of becoming old-fashioned. When he first appeared on screen, his quicksilver style and up-to-date gags made him an exciting and novel presence. But the audience can burn out on anyone, and comedians often lose a step as they get older. By the late '50s, Hope was part of the old guard-still popular, but no longer cutting edge. His films were getting a little tired, and the receipts started dropping off. His TV appearances were still a big deal (TV demographics skew older), but by the '60s his small-screen efforts were also suffering from age, with Bob mocking beatniks and bra burners. (Not that Hope's personal tastes were necessarily stodgy. He was a fan of Lenny Bruce; he just would never put him on one of his shows.) With the era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll on the rise, Hope found himself on the wrong side of the generation gap.

Along the way, he got on the wrong side of a political divide, getting attacked for what he saw as simple patriotism. There's little evidence that Hope saw himself as particularly political, and he kidded politicians of all stripes. But he did become more conservative as he got older, or perhaps his innate conservatism became more obvious. In the Vietnam era, it made him a lightning rod.

In the 1940s, entertainers had unquestioningly supported World War II. In the 1960s, when Hope strongly supported the war in Vietnam, he not only got pushback from protesters but even started hearing occasional boos from the troops. Entertaining the First Infantry at Lai Khe in 1969, he spoke positively of President Richard Nixon's war plans and was, by most accounts, driven from the stage by the negative reaction. After the war was over, tempers cooled, and most of the political hassles were put behind him. But there was always a portion of the country that didn't forget and saw him as a reactionary.

Hope continued working into his 90s, reaching audiences on TV and in person but not getting the critical approval that was once his. Did it bother him? He was a revered institution, world ambassador, and friend of presidents, and that may have been enough. (He was also a philanderer, but his wife Dolores put up with it so it didn't affect his public persona.) In what must have made Zoglin's research difficult, it's hard to know much about Hope's inner life-if he had one, he was too glib to let most people in on it. But the one thing he apparently needed was to be in front of an audience, and that's something he did for as long as his body let him.

Bob Hope died in 2003, after he turned 100. Was he, as Zoglin puts it, the entertainer of the century? Well, he rose to the top at everything he tried—vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, TV, and personal appearances. He even was a significant singer, introducing such standards as "It's De-Lovely" and "Buttons and Bows," and he wrote (or signed, anyway) several bestselling books. If not Hope, then who?

But how will this star of the 20th century appear to the 21st, and beyond? Looking back at his TV specials, they have a certain nostalgic charm but not much else. It's his movies, at their best, where he stakes his claim to immortality. Titles such as Monsieur Beaucaire, My Favorite Brunette, and The Paleface, not to mention his Bing Crosby pictures like Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, may not be all-time classics, but they can still make an audience laugh. And what makes them work—rising above the movies themselves—is the character Hope invented. Hope as a clown may not quite have the depth or resonance of a Groucho Marx or a W.C. Fields, but his comic style makes him indelible. He's a direct inspiration to such big names in comedy as Woody Allen, who channels Hope in films like Love and Death, and Seth MacFarlane, who sings a parody of "Road to Morocco" in an early episode of Family Guy.

If anything, Hope is underrated because he makes it look easy. It may seem he's merely spraying out one gag after another, with his writers doing the heavy lifting, but it takes years of experience, not to mention a unique charm, to pull that off. It's the delivery: slick, but never oily. And the pace: brisk, but full of sly pauses and double takes. And the tone: light, but ready to strike hard at any moment. And the attitude: a character who thinks he's a step ahead, only to discover the joke's on him. On top of which, he's got a dancer's grace, whether doing physical comedy or just leaning into a line.

So will he live on? Probably. Tastes change, but funny is funny—and future generations are less likely to care how he felt about the Vietnam War. And if the fans to come want to find out the story behind it all, it's hard to imagine a better place to start than Zoglin's book.