When I was a teen-ager, I sort of hated Bob Hope. All of us did. Generationally crazy about the classics of American comedy—Groucho and Chaplin and Keaton and W. C. Fields—movie-loving kids could, in the nineteen-seventies, afford to be pious about the industrious, blue-collar types of that dispensation. Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges had their Dada charm—they were working so hard that you couldn’t help but laugh. Henny Youngman, with his violin and grinning, rapid-fire delivery, was cool in his dirty-uncle-at-the-bar-mitzvah way. (Philip Roth went on the record as a Youngman fan.) If you were lucky enough to get to stay home with a cold and watch reruns on morning television, you could catch Lucille Ball’s and Jackie Gleason’s fifties sitcoms, which were truly funny, and had neat theme music, too.
But Hope was beyond hope. There he was, year after year, on those post-Christmas U.S.O. specials, with shrieking starlets and shirtless soldiers, swinging his golf club like a swagger stick. He seemed barely interested in his jokes, which he recited rather than performed, their standardized rhythmic forms—“Hey, you know what A is? It’s B!”; “Yeah, let me tell you: C reminds me of D”—more like the mumbled monotones of some ancient scripture than like anything funny. James Agee’s canonical essay on silent comedians used Hope as an example of everything that had gone wrong with movie comedy since sound came in.
Worse, Hope seemed like the perfect jester for the Nixon court: contemptuous of his audience and even of his role. A rule of American life is that the same face often appears as comic and tragic masks on two public figures at the same time. The unsmiling and remote Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and the ever-smiling but equally remote Johnny Carson were look-alikes of this kind through the seventies, and so in the early nineties were the shoegazing stoner twins of the rocker Kurt Cobain and the comedian Mitch Hedberg—both sweet and self-destructive and dead too young. Hope and Nixon had that kind of symmetry: the ski-jump nose; the hooded, darting, watchful eyes; the five-o’clock castaway shadow (in the thirties, Hope did razor-blade ads because of it); the flat, nowheresville American accent; above all, the constant show of regular-guy companionability, unable to disguise for long the coldness and isolation at its core.
Woody Allen’s was the one voice speaking up for Hope’s genius in those years; he even did a Hope homage in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.” But one felt that Allen liked Hope because he needed something from Hope’s work for his own—perhaps a sense that this much verbal aggression was going to work out O.K., perhaps a desire to be pious about someone other than the obvious.
America, however, is the country of the eternal appeals court, where judgment, once it has worked its way through the system, has to work its way through it all over again. With a comedian or a humorist, the newsweekly eulogy usually oversweetens the case, then the memorial makes some of the right jokes, and then the biography comes to make the last, best case for his importance. Richard Zoglin’s biography “Hope” (Simon & Schuster) does such an effective job of arguing the appeal that even the Hope-hater comes away eager to see more of his good early work, and more sympathetic to the forces in his life and in the country’s which left him hard to like at the end.
Bob Hope, we learn, was born outside London in 1903, and remained in one respect more English than American: the truest thing that can be said about his inner life is that he chose not to have one. His hard-drinking father was a stone cutter—a mediocre artisan in a dying field, who, failing to make a living in London, immigrated to Cleveland only to fail further there. Hope’s mother brought up seven boys in drear, impoverished conditions. The outer fringes of London and then industrial Cleveland were not places designed to bring out the beaming aesthete in any man. The grim determination with which Hope pursued his career is perfectly understandable if you first grasp the grim lack of determination with which his father pursued his own.
Some successful performers are perpetually on, and some are just perpetually pushing. Hope was the second type. You almost have a sense, following his progress, that he became a comedian not because he much liked entertaining people but because he had to do something, and it beat all the other jobs on offer. Then he discovered that the same gift of sober perseverance that would push you up in any other business would push you up onstage. In the mid-twenties, he hopped onto what was left of the vaudeville circuit, which, one gathers, was a bit like writing for the Huffington Post today: to do it, you did it. The early notices suggest that Hope was an efficient comic rather than an inspired one—a swift retailer of as many jokes as he could borrow from other comedians or steal from magazines. This made his rise surprisingly swift without, at first, being particularly notable. He was successful before he had a style.
His real reputation was made on Broadway, when, in 1936, he was lifted out of the ranks of scuffling comics to star with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter’s “Red, Hot and Blue.” (In a duet he sang with Merman, he introduced the Porter standard “It’s De-lovely.”) He was what was called brash, and could dance lightly on the surface of conventional comedy, without melodrama or pathos. “He knows a poor joke when he hides it,” a critic wrote of Hope on Broadway, and he always would.
It was the final, onstage translation of all that pure ambition. Hope knew that there were many laughs to be had by laughing at the whole business of making people laugh. Early on, he had hired stooges to heckle him from the wings during his act. “Don’t you boys know you can be arrested for annoying an audience?” Hope would snap. “You should know!” was their reply. (Johnny Carson took this manner over whole, knowing how to get laughs out of the failure of a one-liner.)
Onstage, Hope was a wise guy and a go-getter—“cocky, brash, and bumptious” was his own summing up. Durante, Bert Lahr, and, later, Jackie Gleason played at being lovable naïfs of a kind. The personae presented by Groucho and W. C. Fields represented another form of displacement: Fields a nineteenth-century con man lost in the new world of immigrant energies, Groucho a rabbinic disputant without a congregation to listen to him. Hope, by contrast, was all the things comedians are not supposed to be: sure of himself, self-satisfied, a man justified in his complacency. He got his laughs by hovering knowingly over his material, without worrying it too much. Hope was entirely a city smart-aleck. (It was already an American voice, right out of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt.”)
The Marx Brothers were satiric—they were against war and authority—but they were not particularly topical. Hope was always “on the news” in a nicely breezy way. Zoglin retails some of his lines from his first movie hit, the horror-flick parody “The Cat and the Canary”: Someone asks whether he believes in reincarnation—“You know, that dead people come back.” Hope: “You mean like the Republicans?” Will Rogers preceded him in this, but that was slow-spoken country-boy wisdom. Hope was tabloid-alert, and very New York. He later referred to his “suave, sterling style” on Broadway; Hollywood to his mind was mere “Hicksville.”
He was also what was called in those days an “inveterate skirt-chaser.” After an early and unsuccessful marriage to a vaudeville partner, he made an early and successful marriage to a minor singer, Dolores Reade. It was successful in the sense that they stuck together and raised children—she was devoutly Catholic—and that she permanently stabilized his life. Along the way, however, he had an apparently unending series of sexual escapades. Most of his assignations were with little-remembered beauty queens and chorus girls, though he did tell a friend that he had had sex with the brass-tonsilled Merman in doorways all the way up Eighth Avenue. Although all this was widely known, Zoglin points out, no one chose to notice. Some work went into this. Hope’s agent Louis Shurr once said, brutally, to a new Hope publicist, “Our mission in life is to keep all news about fucking and sucking away from Dolores.”
It was in Hollywood, hick town or no, that he got paired with Bing Crosby, a much bigger star, in a small buddy comedy called “The Road to Singapore” (1940). This was the first of the series of “Road” movies—“The Road to Morocco,” “The Road to Utopia,” “The Road to Rio”—which made him a household name, and are his best shot at posterity. They really are funny, and curiously modern, and a key part of this, strange to say, is Hope’s sex appeal. He’s a self-confident wise guy—exposed as a coward but not as a nebbish. Riding the back of a camel with Crosby in “Road to Morocco,” he’s as at ease in his undershirt as Brando.
Zoglin is right that the meta-comedy, “the fourth-wall-breaking,” of those movies is still charming, and must have seemed startling at the time. After Hope stops to recapitulate the plot in “Morocco,” Crosby protests that he knows all that. “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t,” Hope replies. This is a stunt, and we buy it because the characters are so companionable—the real subject of the movies was Bob and Bing’s friendship, and our sense that, as with Redford and Newman later on, they were funny, attractive equals. Crosby isn’t truly a straight man; Hope isn’t truly a clown. The Hope character doesn’t see himself as ineligible for Dorothy Lamour, just squeezed out.
The simulation of that brotherly relationship turns out to be an artistic invention of the movies. In truth, the two men barely tolerated each other. “He was a son of a bitch,” Hope remarked after Crosby’s death. Hope’s brand of sullen and Crosby’s brand of sullen were different: Hope’s outwardly genial and inwardly inert, Crosby’s fuelled by alcohol and anger, and perhaps by enough intelligence to make this great jazz singer, once described as the “first hip white person in America,” think that he was wasting his talent on these matters.
Hope, in the “Road” movies of the forties and in such solo projects as the fine costume-drama parody “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1946), inhabited a character—the panicked, helpless Lothario, too busy trying to talk his way out of trouble to actually do something to avoid it. It’s a stock character, a Shakespearean character, really: Sir Toby Belch or Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the loudmouthed coward, juxtaposed as usual with the smooth fraud. (How well Hope and Crosby would have played Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in “Twelfth Night,” if anyone could have got them to do it.) But he made the classical type an American type, and it was immensely cheering in the midst of the war.
For a decade, from 1939 to 1950, Hope was consistently and even irresistibly funny, in a way now hard to analyze, since its later inferior, mechanical TV version is so close to it in style. Part of it is period parody. Hope is to the tough guys and hardboiled dicks of the forties what Woody Allen was to the smooth seducers of the sixties—at once boldly aspiring and obviously inadequate. “It only took brains, courage, and a gun,” Hope announces in his 1947 parody film noir, “My Favorite Brunette.” “And I had the gun.” We know that’s not a Groucho line, typically an overwrought boast that dissolves into wordplay. (“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I don’t know.”) The key is the feint at courage, and the rueful confession of inadequacy. (As with his simple statement in “The Road to Zanzibar,” as he leads Crosby into the unknown: “Oh, come on, you follow me. In front.”)
Amputated abruptness is Hope’s speaking style, mixed with a bemused Have-I-got-this-right? curiosity—the wise guy who knows what he doesn’t quite get. In “Brunette,” having been shown the death chamber at San Quentin, he says, “Gas! You haven’t even put in electricity!” In “The Ghost Breakers,” a follow-up to* “The Cat and the Canary,” the heavy describes zombies (“You see them sometimes, walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do and not caring”), and Hope, in a line balancing the joke about Republicans, says, “You mean like Democrats?” The joke depends on the openness of his expression. He isn’t so much making fun of tabloid politics as playing a guy whose whole experience is defined by them. He’s the true American Babbitt: good-natured, ignorant, forever optimistic, his understanding of the universe limited to a tiny range of insular referents.
If the “Road” movies made him a forties star, the U.S.O. tours he undertook throughout Europe and the Pacific made him a forties hero. The U.S.O. tours have become a staple of American entertainment, but Zoglin points out that they were an entirely new thing at the time, and Hope and his troupe took real and at times hair-raising risks. Zoglin enumerates the list of runways barely found on foggy flights that seem doomed midway, of German attacks just missed.
The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny. Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing, though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.
There may be some deeper connection between the high-energy comedian and the needs of a wartime audience. The young Chaplin, whose rise coincided with the First World War, was a hyperactive mischief-maker, closing doors on the feet of gouty heavies and hooking up women’s skirts and throwing feed to orphans as if in a farmyard, even going in one film to France and arresting the Kaiser. When civilians face mass conscription, the nonconscripted audience may feel the need for a comic hero who, though scared to death of everything, still has an answer for anything. Peacetime welcomes little fellows; wartime needs a wise guy. So in the peaceful post-Vietnam era, the sublime silliness of Steve Martin could blossom, while once the wars came back, in the nineties, the louder realists reigned again, as with the later, enraged George Carlin.
Following the national pattern, the urban New Dealer became an Eisenhower-era suburban golfer and real-estate mogul—at one time, Hope was said to be the largest single private landowner in California. As Zoglin notes, Hope’s trajectory rose ever higher, while in some ways his first reputation, as a kind of joke machine, a repository of other writers’ wit, returned. Hope made no secret of his writers’ existence. (“I keep an earthquake emergency kit in my house. It’s filled with food, water, and a half a dozen writers.”) Nor did the manner of his telling disguise the fact that someone had told him what would be funny to say. He became a cue-card comedian—“Stay on the cards, kid,” he warned the improvisational young Jonathan Winters—and could be seen to be reading off them even when you wouldn’t think he had to. Even when he was playing golf with C.E.O.s, his writers would provide him with one-liners. (Before Hope died, he left to the Library of Congress eighty-five thousand pages of jokes.)
The curious thing about a comedian with a large, well-paid writing staff is that he is sure that he alone knows what’s funny for him. Hope was like that. He remained, in his own mind, the author of his material, even if he didn’t put down a word of it, because he had invented the character to whom the writers were merely feeding lines. Making up the character took years; finding new things for him to say is easy. The performer’s prejudice, though exasperating to the writers—was Groucho the vehicle of George S. Kaufman or his creation?—isn’t entirely unjust. The comedian really does know his character inside out. Like the Old Master painter Raphael or Rubens, in his studio, passing out to the lesser assistants the lesser angels, the Master retains the authorship, because he thought up the way to paint each dimple on each cherub’s rear. All the writers or assistants have to do is do it again. Of course, from the writer’s point of view, everything has altered as the situations and circumstances of the comedy alter—as, from the assistant’s point of view, each angel’s ass is unique to the angel. This tug-of-war between the Master and his paid seconds is eternal.
By the time Hope became, above all else, a television comedian, in the nineteen-fifties, his staff had congealed, and one has the sense that Hope himself lost track of the character. Where the forties Hope is a highly specific urban wise-guy type (what a good Nathan Detroit the forties Hope would have made!), the fifties Hope is a comedian in front of a curtain telling jokes. Cooling himself down for the new medium, he gave a performance that often feels jelled. The jokes in the Library of Congress have no particular “voice.” Hope appreciated his writers, but it became hard for him to distinguish one from the next; the story is that he would bring his head writers in at Christmastime to get a gift, and then open the room in which he kept all the gifts he had received from sponsors and the like, and invite the writers to take what they wanted. It was generous and contemptuous at the same time. Though his bull pen of writers was not quite Sid Caesar calibre—Caesar had the Simon brothers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks—it still contained stars, including the young Larry Gelbart, who is said to have witnessed, with Hope on a U.S.O. tour in the early fifties, the black comedy of a mobile-hospital unit in Korea that he later transferred to “M*A*S*H.”
But this was the birth of the cue-card age, a time when politicians, too, could expect to recite words written entirely by others and still get full credit for the performance. Hope’s Ted Sorensen was the writer Mort Lachman, nicknamed the Owl, who supplied him not just with jokes but with narration for his “ambassadorial” television specials, giving him words that were often simpler and more humane than most Cold War narration. Lachman wrote the concluding lines of Hope’s delicately negotiated 1958 special from Moscow: “I found out that the little kids with the fur hats and the sticky faces have no politics, and that their party line is confined to ‘please pass the ice cream.’ . . . It would be nice if somebody could work out a plan for peaceful coexistence, so that human beings like these don’t become obsolete.”
The U.S.O. tours continued through Korea and Vietnam and even into the first Gulf War, some forty years of Christmases, as people never tired of intoning, away from home. (But he didn’t much want to be home.) There is a reasonable case to be made that the one who profited most from the perpetual U.S.O. touring was Bob Hope. He was well paid for the specials, which were broadcast on NBC every January. In a sense, the soldiers were being recruited as extras in a television program about Bob Hope. But there were easier ways for a man who was coming to own half of Southern California to make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
The trouble was that the jokes, which had been so appealing when they came from a guise of helplessness, had become pure exercises in power. Usher on a starlet, usher off a quarterback, tell six indifferent one-liners (“I asked McNamara if we could come, and he said, ‘Why not, we’ve tried everything else’ ”), and then try to stay awake as the troops cheer. A good joke comes back to me after all the decades, because it spoke for soldiers rather than for their keepers: “I tell you, when the enemy started firing I started running backwards so far that I almost bumped into a general.” Still, the sixties were a time of more cultural multiplicity than memory likes to admit: “Love Is Blue,” Paul Mauriat’s “semiclassical” instrumental, was the No. 1 song for many weeks in 1968, and, as late as 1970, with the Beatles breaking up, Bob Hope’s Christmas special drew close to a fifty share, with almost half the households with televisions in America watching. Many were, in effect, watching the old Hope, or their recollections of him. “Thanks for the Memory,” indeed—it seems that rituals of generational piety can withstand vast amounts of audience abuse. People still show up to hear Bob Dylan display his sullen indifference to his aging audience, and cheer him as though they were, well, soldiers at war.
But it was not a time of cultural coexistence: things banged together instead of bouncing around congenially. Hope was one of the things that got banged. The later movies, and the later “memoirs” that went with them, the excruciatingly lazy joke books—Ian Frazier wrote a very funny parody of them in these pages—are, as Zoglin knows, terrible, and he doesn’t pretend to admire them. Nolo contendere is a good plea for late bad work. As Zoglin also notes sadly, it was Hope’s seeming sponsorship of the Vietnam War that dampened his reputation in his lifetime, and lost him the claim on younger generations that Groucho reclaimed by being openly antiwar. Still, the movies and the television specials kept being made long after the ratings had plummeted and the comedian, in his eighties and nineties, was too obviously fragile to be funny. (He died just past his hundredth birthday.) Many institutions have one senior member who can’t be used and can’t be removed: the elderly Churchill was of that kind for the British Conservatives. Hope was that for NBC.
“How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” Shakespeare has Hal, newly crowned, announce of Falstaff. The weird thing is that nobody minds a white-haired musician. Old baritones (even pop baritones, such as Sinatra) and aging conductors seem more lovable than old clowns. Crooners, perhaps because their work depends on the illusion of emotion, seem defiant of time. A comic, whose work depends on energy, seems victimized by it. When Sinatra had to stand still and speak his songs, he was still great; when Bob Hope seems to stumble, he’s sad.
The best hope for aging clowns is to come back to sing. The ghost of Jimmy Durante was still moving as he chortled through “As Time Goes By” in “Sleepless in Seattle,” even when he was no longer much remembered as a comic. When Groucho made his last Carnegie Hall appearance, the stories were shaky, but the songs (“Show Me a Rose”) were beautiful. Of Hope’s surviving performances, it may be, paradoxically, his songs that last longest and seem purest. Cole Porter’s songs aside, Hope had at least two wonderful tunes written especially for him: Frank Loesser’s “Two Sleepy People” and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory,” Hope’s theme song. Even as late as 1985, when he sang a version of it with special Christmas lyrics, Hope comes alive a little as he sings: though his body seems aged, locked in place, his voice still rises from the weary rhythms of joke-telling to conjure again the eager song-and-dance man who once lit up Broadway. You’ve got to love him, some.