Skip to comments.BOB HOPE 1903-2003 (by Mark Steyn)
Posted on 07/28/2003 2:17:28 PM PDT by dennisw
BOB HOPE 1903-2003 from The Sunday Telegraph, May 4th 2003
If you only remember one thing about him, its this: Bob Hope has made more people laugh than anyone in human history. Hes the only comedian to have been, over the years, the Number One star in radio, in film, and then television, at a time when each of those media was at its highpoint. The Road pictures with Bing Crosby were the highest-grossing series in movie history till James Bond came along, his six decades with NBC hold the record for the longest contract in showbusiness, and his TV specials for the network remain among the most-watched programmes of all time. Plus hes logged some ten million miles, playing up to 200 live performances a year until into his nineties.
Success on that scale breeds a particular kind of contempt. Younger comics who for 30 years have despised Hope as a pro-war establishment suck-up forget that he more or less invented the form they work in: the relaxed guy who strolls on and does topical observational gags about the world we live in. When he started eight decades ago, there were no stand-ups; it was an age of clowns weird-looking guys in goofy costumes taking frenzied pratfalls and telling ethnic gags in stage dialects German, Irish, Negro. In the 1920s in Cleveland, Hope did as he was told and played in blackface wearing an undersized derby and an oversized red bow tie. But even then he knew enough, unlike most of the fellows he worked with, not to get trapped by the conventions.
How old is Bob Hope? Old enough to have been given his first big break by Fatty Arbuckle, who got him into a small-town tour of Hurleys Jolly Follies in 1925. Within a year, he and his partner George Byrne had formed the Dancemedians and graduated to hoofing with another British-born stage act, the Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton were Siamese twins joined at the hip and lower back and they specialized in three-legged tap routines. Not the easiest gals to dance with. Theyre too much of a woman for me, said Hope. Daisy and Violets career peaked with an appearance in Tod Brownings 1932 film Freaks. In the early Twenties, Fatty Arbuckle was already on the skids and the Hilton Sisters had nowhere to go, and thus Hopes career began with two cautionary tales: if you get a break, dont blow it, as Arbuckle did, and dont get stuck in a self-limiting act, as Daisy and Violet were perforce. Over the decades, vaudeville died, and so did Broadway revue, radio comedy, Hollywood musicals and TV variety, but Hope never died with them. By the time NBC let him go in 1997, the worlds only 94-year old stand-up act could barely see the cue cards and hardly hear his co-stars. But he could hear the laughter.
The centenary hell celebrate this month quietly at home with just the family - is not the one hed have chosen for himself. His strategy all his life was to get bigger and bigger and richer and richer: he never thought thered be a peak and then the gentle downward incline of a late, enforced retirement. Mortality offends him not so much personally as in its long-term commercial implications. He was the first comedian to run himself as a business, and he succeeded brilliantly. Time magazine reported in 1967 that he was worth half a billion dollars. Asked about the figure, Hope said, Anyone can do it. All you have to do is save a million dollars a year for 500 years.
When youre that big when youre as mass as mass media can get you dont have hardcore followers, youre not a cult or a genius like Buster Keaton or Monty Python. The old Broadway saw Nobody likes it but the public could be made for Hope. Hell never be intellectualized or taught in college, which is as it should be: he worked hard at being breezy, and it paid off when he was on Broadway in his first big musical Roberta (1933), the composer Jerome Kern marveled at his natural ease, painfully acquired after a decade in vaudeville. He was born poor, and had it rough, and took 15 years to slog his way to overnight stardom, but he never bought into the tears-of-a-clown, pain-of-comedy clichés. He started out in Eltham, Kent on May 29th 1903 as Leslie Townes Hope, the second youngest of seven brothers. His only sister died before he was born. They ate her, he said. When he was four the family emigrated to America: My youth was spent in a very tough neighbourhood. If you didnt get in three fights a day, you werent trying. A sibling followed him into the business as Bob Hopes Brother Jim. Sure I helped him out, said Hope. I helped him out of showbusiness.
Not all interviewers want to play straight man. The more Hope blithely tossed off cheesy gag writers lines about his impoverished childhood, the more some journalists pressed him for psychoanalytical insights into the pain beneath the surface. So, just to get them off his case and back to the jokes, Hope would put on a straight face and tell them that his comedy sprang from his hunger for his mothers attention and approval as a young child in a large family. One of his writers suggested this line and it seemed to keep the more inquisitive interviewers happy. But with Hope the real depth is in the shallows, the real feeling is in the glib gags; if there is an authentic Bob Hope, you glimpse him in those sure I helped him out cracks. As a boy in Cleveland, hed dress as Chaplin and waddle down Euclid Street. But, as soon as he could, he dispensed with the pathos of the little tramp, the sentimentality of the ethnic comics, and embraced instead the dapper assurance of a newer American archetype: the wiseguy, the kind of rat-a-tat quipster you could find in the sports columns and the gossip pages of the Jazz Age but not in its comedy routines, in their way as convention-bound as grand opera.
Much of what we now take for granted as the modern comedy monologue the delivery, the structure, the subjects comes from the template developed by Hope. Larry Gelbart, the creator of "M*A*S*H", who wrote for the comedian in the early Fifties, remembers being on tour with him in England and standing in the wings in Blackpool with a local girl hed picked up. Hope told a joke about motels and the girl fell about. Do you have motels around here? Gelbart asked. No, she said. Do you know what a motel is? he asked. No, she said. So why are you laughing? Hes just so funny. She has a point: by that stage, audiences were so attuned to the self-confident rhythm of his act that they laughed at the right spots without knowing quite what the joke was.
If Hope started out as the first modern comic, he quickly became the first post-modern one. Other comedians had writers, but they didnt talk about them. Radio gobbled up your material so you needed fellows on hand to provide more. But Hope not only used writers, he made his dependence on them part of the act: I have an earthquake emergency kit at my house. Its got food, water and half-a-dozen writers. In vaudeville, a performer would have a comic persona hed be a yokel, say, and hed tell jokes about rustics and city folk but Hopes comic persona was the persona of a comic: he played a guy who told jokes for a living, and the conceit (in every sense) worked; by advertising the fact that he had a team who did all the tedious chores like providing the gags, he underlined his extraordinary preeminence. When he got too busy even to learn the material and the TV sketches were played with a permanent sideways glance off-camera as he and the guests read everything off cue cards, that too became just another running joke. Bobs got the cue cards at home now, said Frank Sinatra. He comes down in the morning and Dolores is sitting at the breakfast table and a guy behind her holds them up and Hope reads How. Are. You. Darling? Did. You. Sleep. Well? I saw him live in Toronto years ago and they had to keep the house lights up so he could read the cards the local gags, painstakingly filed in his vault according to city, region, country and the fact that we had to sit in the glare and could see the boys moving the jokes on and off somehow only emphasized the difference in scale between Hope and the rest.
For the movies, his writers cheerfully acknowledge that they built a screen character around his own worst traits: the vain, cowardly, cheapskate skirt chaser. The only difference was that on screen he chased skirt to little effect and played his liveliest bed scenes with animals (a bear in The Road To Utopia, a gorilla in The Road To Bali). Off screen, he was the animal, nailing Marilyn Monroe, Gloria De Haven, and countless others. On the one occasion I met Hope he paid no attention to anything I said, his eyes looking over my shoulder as if we were doing a sketch and he was trying to find the boy with the cards. It turned out there was a well-stacked blonde 60 years his junior padding back and forth behind me. Aint that something? he mumbled appreciatively as she wiggled past us. Hes a great connoisseur of women. He still calls Doris Day JB for Jut Butt, because she had an ass you could play cards on, though I dont believe he ever did.
Dolores Reade was a nightclub singer at the Vogue in Manhattan when Hope walked in one night in 1933. They married, adopted four kids, and Dolores figured if she waited long enough Bob would exhaust himself. Seventy years on, Mr and Mrs Hope finally enjoy for real the contented, tranquil domesticity they promoted for years on TV, in that obligatory moment on the Christmas special when, after dancing with Ann-Margret and bantering with Brooke Shields, Bob would bring on Dolores for a duet of Silver Bells. About a decade back, I made a TV documentary on a certain showbiz veteran, and asked his wife if shed like to sing a number on the show. Ah, the Dolores Hope moment, she said. I dont think so. As Bob hit 90 and began slowing down, Dolores finally got to make her first album, embarking on the singing career shed put on hold in 1933. Her husband, whod looked on the wife and kids as support material for the Hope brand, could hardly complain when his family took the wheel and kept the machine on the road.
He understood the business of show better than anyone. He and Crosby joined a third partner to invest their Road movie profits in a new oil well. Almost immediately it was gushing a hundred barrels a day. Hope put his oil profits in real estate, buying up strategic chunks of Beverly Hills when it was still hills. The way he tells it, even the creative decisions were principally about money. He became the first big movie star to cross over to TV because Paramount wouldnt match NBCs offer. When he needed a theme for song for his new radio show in 1938, the plan was to use Wintergreen For President from the Gershwin hit Of Thee I Sing and re-write it to plug his sponsor: Hope Is Here For Pepsodent. But the publishers wanted to charge him 250 bucks per show. Nuts to that, he said. I know a song we can get much cheaper: Thanks For The Memory.
He only put his foot wrong once. He was the American everyman and he wanted to be every mans American, fun for young and old alike. But Vietnam placed huge strains on that notion of a universal popular culture. For the first time in his career, Hope had to choose sides and it wasnt so much that he chose wrong but the way he chose. Students are revolting all over the world, he said. I dont know what theyre revolting about, I just know theyre revolting. The limitations of his technique of being a frontman for a factory of joke generators were suddenly exposed. The reliable formulae, the old portable puns sounded sour and small-minded. Unimaginably, the guy whod always been one step ahead of the times was behind the times. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon can complain about the way speaking out on Iraq is hurting their careers, but Hopes a sharper example of how taking sides can change public perception: in a late Sixties poll of American high schools favourite entertainers, he came second to the Beatles. By the time the war ended, hed lost that generation forever.
In the Depression, Herbert Hoover ran for re-election on the slogan Prosperitys Just Around The Corner. On stage, Hope said hed run into a lady in the lobby. She said, Young man, could you tell me where I could find the rest room? And I said, Its just around the corner. Dont give me that Hoover talk, she said. I gotta go. Thats a perfect Hope gag: genially pointed exactly where he wanted to be. After Vietnam, he never quite recovered his timing. In the 1988 Presidential election, he thought Dukakis sounded like something you step in. HIV? Did you hear the Statue of Liberty has Aids? Shes not sure whether she caught it from the mouth of the Hudson [the river that runs along Manhattans west sure] or the Staten Island ferry [pronounced fairy]. Hope isnt homophobic his closest professional confidante these days is a lesbian daughter but he couldnt seem to get his groove back. In transforming himself into a one-man laugh corporation, hed blunted his own comedic instincts.
So today there are two standard lines on Hopes transformation into a comedy brand. The first is the official one: hes a beloved American icon, the GIs favourite entertainer for 60 years, Comic Laureate to the Republic. This version is nicely caught in a snatch of lyric from some earlier anniversary tribute:
Thanks For The Memory The places you have gone To cheer our soldiers on The President sent Kissinger But you brought Jill St John
(Miss St John, for those who cant keep their Bond girls straight, was Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever, and a fine example of the kind of talent who accompanied Hope on his USO shows.)
The counter version, just as stale, is that hes a bland sell-out, Mister Squaresville, flattering third-rate politicians with golf gags so theyll show up for his tournament. (After you play with Gerald Ford, he pardons you.) When he first sauntered on stage with a club, it underlined his radicalism: the ease, the confidence, the naturalism. To his detractors, it symbolized laziness, conservatism, pandering.
I prefer a third version. On that night in Toronto, the best couple of minutes was when he did a soft-shoe to Tie A Yellow Ribbon; he didnt need the cards for that. Look at him trading steps with Jimmy Cagney in The Seven Little Foys, one of his best pictures. There are a zillion stand-ups today, but they cant do what Hope did in the late Thirties. He introduced Thanks For The Memory in his first feature, The Big Broadcast Of 1938. Everything else about the film Martha Raye being loud, W C Fields doing routines involving a misplaced hat on the top of his cane might as well come from the Stone Age: the only real thing in the picture is Hope and Shirley Ross as a married couple now parted. Thanks For The Memory is a beautifully grown-up song, sung by the pair sipping cocktails at the bar, their regret expressed through an accumulation of reminiscence, both scenic (castles on the Rhine) and intimate (stockings in a basin when a feller needs a shave).
The studio thought the line that weekend at Niagara when we never saw the falls was too dirty in its implication, so they made Leo Robin, the lyricist, change it to when we hardly saw the falls. Which I think is dirtier, Robin told me with a chuckle. When you see it on screen, theres no doubt what theyre talking about. Instead of pre-recording the track and lip-synching it, Hope and Ross were told theyd be singing it live, and its an extraordinary moment, two people neither with any great reputation in acting communicating everything theyre not quite saying:
We said goodbye with a highball Then I got as high as a steeple But we were intelligent people No tears, no fuss Hooray for us
At the end of the take, there were plenty of tears from everyone on set: the tenderness and wistfulness of those three minutes make all the Fieldsian hoke around it look like a heap of junk.
Hope and Ross sang three other great duets on screen: Two Sleepy People, Penthouse Serenade and The Ladys In Love With You, another laundry list, one that gets in all the sexy playfulness of romance:
If theres a gleam in her eye Each time she straightens your tie You know The Ladys In Love With You
No one matches that Hope today. Much of Woody Allens persona the cowardly schnook who gets the girl is an extended hommage to Hopes own screen identity in The Paleface, Cat And The Canary et al. But Allen cant do that earlier Hope, the leading man brimming with sexy charm, teasing jokes and rueful romance. Within a few years, Bob himself had put that guy in mothballs in the interests of greater profits. Shirley Ross retired from Hollywood in 1945 and you can measure Hopes career just from the orchestral transformation of Thanks For The Memory, from a bittersweet ballad into a walk-on theme that got swankier and swankier and statelier and statelier until it became the showbiz version of a national anthem, a Hail To The Chief for a grand comedic dignitary. Bob Hope cast his lot and it worked out mighty lucrative, but these days as he pads around his second floor quarters at the fancy spread at Toluca Lake his kids say its the old songs that run through his head. And for many Hope fans thats what well be hearing on May 29th:
And strictly entre nous Darling, how are you? And how are all those funny dreams that never did come true? Awflly glad I met you Cheerio and toodle-oo And thank you so much.
I always pegged old Phyliss as a big time Lib, but that line I like......
Thanks for the post and ping !
Rest in peace, Bob Hope. Thanks for the memories.
That's my one bone of contention with Mark Steyn's otherwise excellent (and obviously well researched) article.
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