Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book: Hope, by Richard Zoglin (2014)

If ever a performer needed reappraisal, it’s Bob Hope. His star has faded badly, the bulk of his work done on radio and television and thus not now in regular circulation. Worse, he committed the unpardonable sin of staying too long at the party. As a kid, I never missed a Hope special. Not because I found them funny; I’d watch any special that came on TV because I was obsessed with show business. Hope’s extravaganzas were a puzzlement to me, presided over by a stiff, barely ambulatory figure – Hope was in hailing distance of his 80s when I started watching – barking out lame one-liners at each member of the All-America football team and ogling the latest blonde starlet. I had no inkling of how Hope had become famous, but at least I knew who he was. Few of my friends did, and an entire subsequent generation has no sense of him at all.

Time’s Richard Zoglin aims to change that. His massive, richly entertaining biography underscores what I’ve learned in recent years – Bob Hope, at his best, was brilliantly funny. Zoglin also persuasively argues that Hope was a trailblazer fully deserving of the book’s subtitle, Entertainer of the Century. By triumphing in every medium and cannily tending a brand built largely on his role as clown jester for American troops overseas, Hope essentially invented modern stardom.

Full disclosure: Bob “I-Didn’t-Sign-Up-For-This” Hope appears as a character in Design for Dying, the classic Hollywood mystery Rosemarie and I wrote as Renee Patrick coming from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. One day Rosemarie asked how revisions went and I was able to answer, “Not bad. I wrote some new jokes for Bob Hope.”

Zoglin sets himself a tall order chronicling Hope’s career. The man was a cipher, an impersonal presence in life and in art. For all Hope’s comic prowess, Zoglin notes “his jokes never hit hard, cut deep, or betrayed any political viewpoint.” However superficial their targets, they were delivered in peerless style. Exemplifying the age-old definition of a comedian, Hope had a way of saying things funny, even when he wasn’t saying much.

A Broadway star with vaudeville training, Hope arrived in Hollywood with a pedigree uniquely suited to melding high and low. His breakthrough came in the utterly unhinged comedy The Big Broadcast of 1938, dueting with Shirley Ross on what would become his theme song “Thanks for the Memory.” (It’s astonishing how big a role music played in Hope’s career. The standards he introduced on stage or screen include “I Can’t Get Started,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Two Sleepy People” and “Silver Bells.”) If you’ve never seen the original, with Hope and Ross as a divorced couple recalling the good times in their marriage, take a moment to appreciate what Zoglin rightly calls “one of the most beautifully written and performed musical numbers in all of movies.”

Seeing the skill with which Hope puts across the song, it’s easy to agree with Zoglin’s disappointment at Hope’s callous treatment of it for the next sixty years, Leo Robin’s “delicately ironic lyrics … replaced time and again by greeting-card sentiments, syrupy tributes, and outright plugs.”

Onscreen Hope incarnated a particularly American sensibility, “brash, irreverent, upbeat,” that reached its fullest expression with his signature character: a lustful, vainglorious coward the audience could root for. Watch the films that made his name, 1939’s The Cat and the Canary and the following year’s far better The Ghost Breakers, and Hope’s breezy rhythms still have the feel of something fresh and new. His pairing with Bing Crosby in the long-running Road series not only solidified his drawing power but etched the bromance template slavishly followed in Hollywood by everyone from Martin & Lewis to Rogen & Franco: two footloose dudes more in love with each other than any of the women present. The best of the Road films are casually anarchic and self-aware, breaking the fourth wall with a brio modern movies wouldn’t attempt. (Der Bingle doesn’t come off well here. Zoglin recounts how Hope, always diligent about his fan mail, tosses letters into a hotel pillowcase while on the road so his staff can answer them. Crosby then demonstrates how he handles his fan mail: he feels envelopes until he finds a quarter included to cover return postage for a requested photograph, pockets the change, and tosses the letter into the trash unread. It’s worth catching up with the recent American Masters documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which files a similar brief on the Old Groaner’s behalf for his significance in popular culture – and not just for the few weeks around Christmastime.)

While Zoglin works to restore Hope’s reputation, he doesn’t shy away from his subject’s failings. Hope was the rare box office attraction who never worked with a top director; Crosby would win an Oscar with Leo McCarey and appear in a Billy Wilder film, while Hope was content to toil with the same journeymen. Zoglin declares 1960’s The Facts of Life the last good film Hope would ever make. I caught up with the movie recently and agree. Its Oscar-nominated script by Hope mainstays Melvin Frank and Norman Panama is a tender, surprisingly realistic story of two married people (Hope and Lucille Ball) who fumble toward an affair as an escape from their middle-aged doldrums. (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the movie also features Academy Award winning costumes co-designed by our book’s detective, Edith Head.) Hope was the first comedian to openly acknowledge his use of writers and he treated them shabbily, forcing them to pen his golf course patter with generals and gags for Spiro Agnew. Writers in Hope’s employ in the 1980s, when Zoglin nails his robotic delivery as “Mt. Rushmore with cufflinks,” had to imagine they were crafting jokes for Dave Thomas’ dead-eyed SCTV parody – which Hope naturally loved. And the book is rife with tales of Hope’s womanizing during his 69-year marriage to wife Dolores.

Hope’s impact as a cultural force must be viewed through the prism of his storied USO performances for the troops during World War II and on nearly-annual tours thereafter. Zoglin describes the military’s growing resentment over the expense of Hope’s logistically complex appearances, which tapped the meager resources set aside for entertainment. Hope came to crave the rabid response of audiences desperate for diversion. But there’s no denying the sacrifices he made to travel to far-flung bases, facing not only chronic hardships but genuine danger. Ultimately, Hope’s treasured status as jokester-in-chief of the armed forces contributed to his waning influence; he was so immersed in the role by the Vietnam era that he accepted and parroted the Nixon administration’s line without question, putting him out of step with prevailing attitudes. It’s perversely fascinating to watch a man so nimble stumble over his own feet. Zoglin, at least, captures this painful period with grace.

Hope does such a thorough job explaining the almost-unparalleled scale of its subject’s fame – he altered the shape of everything from studio contracts to the role of Academy Awards host, a gig he held a record nineteen times – that it’s disappointing when Zoglin misses a beat on Hope’s more contemporary appearances. He seems unaware that Hope’s cameo in 1985’s Spies Like Us is an explicit nod to the DNA of the Road movies, which Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase hoped to carry forward. And there’s surprisingly no mention of Hope’s truly funny turn in the Little Miss Springfield episode of The Simpsons, recorded when Hope was approaching age 90, which teased his longtime practice of having advance men provide him with local references for his act and his indefatigable work ethic (“Set me down at that boat show.”) Conan O’Brien talks about Hope’s Simpsons appearance here.

During last month’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, Rosemarie and I spent a morning visiting the Queen Mary. The ship is currently hosting the exhibit Bob Hope: An American Treasure. Only fitting, considering Hope gave an impromptu performance onboard 75 years ago as it steamed back from Europe after war had been declared. It was thrilling to see Hope’s handwritten additions to some of his Oscar scripts (one namechecking Long Beach), and there’s a collection of his novelty golf clubs. But there are way too many alternate versions of “Thanks for the Memory” on display.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books: Recent Reading Roundup

December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!

ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.

But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.

Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.

The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.

The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.

Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. From December 2009.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Pop That Cork

Another new issue of Eat Drink Films, and another new Down the Hatch column. This installment is about making use of all that holiday champagne in a trio of classic cocktails, some more classic than others. Featuring appearances by the American Expeditionary Forces, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a bevy of chorus girls. Don’t miss it.

While you’re there, why not sign up for the magazine’s mailing list? You’ll get a weekly email detailing each issue’s contents – and you’ll have a chance to win cookbooks and DVDs. Eat Drink Films publisher Gary Meyer explains all.