That Old Feeling: Hope-ful Memories

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Thanks: Bob Hope, 1903-2003

Bob Hope was the man everyone was supposed to like. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, he left his indelible mark, big-time, in six major media: vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, pop music and television; no other showman had success of that breath or duration. He was Hollywood’s designated greeter, heckler and eulogist. From 1940 to 1978 he emcee’d 17 Academy Award shows: nine by himself, eight others as co-host. (Billy Crystal is a distant second with seven, Johnny Carson next with five.) It’s one of many Hope records — along with honorary degrees, miles traveled as an entertainer, consecutive years with a single network (61 with NBC) — that will never be broken. Leonard Maltin said Hope “may be the most popular entertainer in the history of Western civilization.”

For 70 years — from his teens until his age finally passed his body temperature — Hope was ever on the move. He did concerts, hosted charity golf tournaments, did everything, went everywhere. Marlon Brando once said, dismissively, that Hope “would go to the opening of a phone booth.” Sure, if it was on a military base. An indefatigable ambassador for the USO (United Service Organization), he played to more than 10 million GIs in wars hot and cold from 1941 to 1991. “If I could live my life over,” he said not long ago, “I wouldn’t have time.” He was the salesman who had to stay on the road to stay alive and push his product. No, but I wanna tell ya, ladies and gentlemen, right heah: it’s Bob “American Icon” Hope. Yes sah!

In months before his death today at age 100, Hope was a frail creature confined upstairs in his Toluga Lake mansion, attended by nurses while his younger (94!) wife Dolores entertained guests. But for decades, on movie and TV screens, Hope was the young man in a hurry, propelled by ignorance and ego. In this guise, he embodied an utterly American comic figure — the brash buffoon, confident against all evidence that he would triumph — that influenced the personas of stars from Woody Allen to Steve Martin to Jim Carrey. As much as the Hope character was a loser, Hope himself was a winner: rich, laureled, happy. Or at least smiling. Neoning his letterbox grin, he got audiences to smile back, by the millions and across the generations.


THE OFFICIAL FUNNYMAN

Hope received more decorations than any civilian in U.S. history. He was an honorary knight of Great Britain and a Papal Knight of the Vatican. Months ago, with his centenary approaching, 35 states chose to designate May 29th as Bob Hope Day. Queen Elizabeth and George W. Bush, monarchs of his birth nation and his adopted one, sent him congratulatory messages. The burghers of Los Angeles recently gave a new name to that sacred showbiz intersection, Hollywood and Vine — Bob Hope Square.

Bob Hope: Square. That says it, for those who came of age during the Vietnam War. He was square, and worse: a complacent, reactionary cheerleader-in-chief for the befuddled, immoral, rearguard vision of America. In a way, he was as controversial as Leni Riefenstahl, the German director, and Hitler favorite, who outlived most of her detractors by the time she turned 100 last August. But Hope was closer to home. It’s not a great exaggeration to say that, for the peaceniks of Vietnam, Nixon was Hope’s Hitler. (If the bombing sorties escalated, so did the rhetoric.)

Hope was the culture that the counter-culture was counter to. He was defiantly old-fashioned, remorselessly Republican, at a time when comedians were supposed to have stopped telling somebody else’s jokes and, like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, extract stinging social criticism from their roiling insides. Even if he’d wanted to, Hope couldn’t have done that. He had no inside. He was all surface, polish, flash: the tailfin on a gas-guzzler.

How was Hope hated back then? Listen to Peter W. Kaplan read off the indictment, in a 1978 Film Comment essay (the best I know on Hope): “Old Ski-nose — how detestable! Standing with Nixon, standing with Johnson, wearing hippie wigs for howling crowds of middle Americans; no worse symbol existed of our humor, no man more eager to promote all the wrong things.” Kaplan then lists the charges against Hope: “the reactionary apostle, the golf shoes, the putter, the Texaco sign and the fatigue uniform ... the grisly moment of ‘Say and there are so many Birds in the White House now I understand there’s a strategy to bomb Hanoi with eggs.’”

But Kaplan doesn’t leave Hope with eggs on his conscience. As much as he deplores the comic’s autumnal political shtick (or did deplore it, 25 years ago), he loves the import of Hope’s movie character, and the lithe grace he lent it. Kaplan finally calls Hope “the most representative and influential force in talking comedy pictures at the moment of their greatest popularity. He created the type that, more than any spokesman for his times, made the jokes we wanted to hear. They were very funny.”

Like Bing Crosby — his pal, golf buddy, comic sparring partner and fellow icon — Hope is due for a reconsideration. In this column we’ll do our best to be fair, precise and appreciative to a guy who had all those medals but, as a superb showman, deserved a little more respect.


BECOMING BOB

As an entertainer, Hope was le tout package. He sang, danced, told jokes perfectly, could occasionally play it straight. If he’d had the time, interest or nerve, he might have made a great Archie Rice, the music-hall monster of John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

He had “it” — visually, verbally and kinetically. Hope’s profile was its own apotheosis, its own parody, and so arresting in its simple lines and cartoon contours that it could have been fashioned by Tex Avery or Al Hirschfeld or Raymond Loewy. He came to movies in the first decade of sound; they had voices then, distinctive enough to give full employment to impressionists. (Who’s worth mimicking today, besides Jack?) Hope’s vocal precision and Tommy-gun delivery earned him the sobriquet “Rapid Robert.” He was fast on his feet too. Woody Allen and Dick Cavett are just two of Hope’s admirers who emphasize the clarity and eloquent wit of his body language. Now strut, now cringe. Bluster; wheedle. A lifetime of showbiz savvy backed up each move and moue.

He didn’t come from show people. Hope gives a hint of his pedigree in some 1969 banter included in “The Best of Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection,” a valuable new three-disc DVD of Hope TV clips and early radio and movie work. Chatting with actress Romy Schneider, he says, “You started your career in films at the age of 14. Isn’t that a little early to pick a vocation?” Romy muses: “Well, I think children often turn out to be what their parents were. My parents were actors in Vienna. What were yours?” “Butchers in Cleveland,” Bob snaps, “and let’s change the subject.”

Leslie Townes Hope was born in the South London neighborhood of Eltham, one of seven kids in a family whose patriarch, William Henry Hope, was restless, cantankerous, alcoholic. A stonemason by trade, William shipped out to the U.S. and found a job in Cleveland with his butcher brothers. The rest of the brood joined him in 1908, when Leslie was four-and-a-half. (In the biography “Bob Hope,” author Peter Carrick claims that the boy changed his Christian name when he got annoyed that the alphabetical reading of his name, “Hope, Leslie,” provoked his classmates to “hopeless” gags. Believe who will.)

Bob, from now on, was soon entertaining on street corners and in saloons to swell the family purse. Like Pittsburgh-born Gene Kelly — another 40s star who blasted out of Broadway into Hollywood with a wide, welded-on, slightly suspect smile and the forward-leaning urgency of the desperate go-getter — Hope was a hoofing prodigy who taught dance in a grimy mid-Eastern city before figuring he could be a headliner, not a tutor. He tiptoed into vaudeville, teaming with various friends in dance acts, then segued to comedy duos, where he usually played the straight man. “When I started in vaudeville,” Hope recalled on one of his TV specials, “the only thing that kept me alive was the vegetables the audience threw at me.” That’s a joke, son. He was doing fine.


BROADWAY BOB

Hope hit Broadway in the late 20s, just as the ranks of stage actors were thinning as they were lured to Hollywood to make the new talking pictures. The peculiarity is that Hope, with his jaunty looks and clarion pipes, wasn’t immediately drafted into movies — he’d be 35 before he made a feature out there. Meanwhile he built his craft in other media. On stage, where he hadn’t yet developed the coward character, Hope was more a Coward character — as in Noel. “I was an entirely different fellow on Broadway,” he told Brooks Riley in a 1979 Film Comment interview. “I was very chic and very subtle; I wouldn’t do a double-take for anything.”

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