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.