CEO of the Hegemony
September 21, 2011
Dolores Hope died on Monday at the age of 102, eight years after her similarly centenarian spouse. He lived long enough to weary of the womanizing and she lived long enough to re-start the career she put on hold for half a century, making a couple of fine albums in the 1990s. Here's what I had to say about Bob Hope back in 2003. It's anthologized in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, and gives you some idea of what Mrs Hope had to put up with:
If you remember only one thing about him, make it this: Bob Hope made more people laugh than anyone in history. He's 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 series of Road pictures with Bing Crosby was the highest-grossing in movie history until 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 he logged some ten million miles playing up to 200 live performances a year until he was 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 in which we live. When Hope 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 was Bob Hope? Old enough to have been given his first big break by Fatty Arbuckle, who got him into a small-town tour of Hurley's 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 specialised in three-legged tap routines. Not the easiest gals to dance with. "They're too much of a woman for me," said Hope.
Daisy and Violet's career peaked with an appearance in Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks. In the early 1920s, Fatty Arbuckle was already on the skids and the Hilton Sisters had nowhere to go, and thus Hope's career began with two cautionary tales: if you get a break, don't blow it, as Arbuckle did, and don't 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 world's 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 he celebrated two months ago - quietly at home with just the family - is not the one he'd have chosen for himself. His strategy all his life was to get bigger and bigger and richer and richer: he never thought there'd be a peak and then the gentle downward incline of a late, enforced retirement. Mortality offended 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 you're that big - when you're as mass as mass media can get - you don't have hardcore followers, you're not a cult or a genius like Buster Keaton or Monty Python. The old Broadway saw – "Nobody likes it but the public" - could have been made for Hope. He'll never be intellectualised or taught in college, which is as it should be: he worked hard at being breezy, and it paid off.
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 didn't get in three fights a day, you weren't trying." A sibling followed him into the business as "Bob Hope's Brother Jim". "Sure I helped him out," said Hope. "I helped him out of showbusiness."
Not all interviewers want to play the 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 a hunger for his mother's attention and approval as a young child in a large family. 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, he would 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 wise-guy, 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 created by Hope. Larry Gelbart, who developed "M*A*S*H" for television and wrote for the comedian in the early 1950s, remembers being on tour with him in England and standing in the wings in Blackpool with a local girl he'd 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?"
"He's just so funny."
She had a point: by a certain stage, audiences were so attuned to the confident rhythm of Hope's 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 didn't 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. It's got food, water and half-a-dozen writers.
In vaudeville, a performer would have a comic persona – he'd be a yokel, say, and he'd tell jokes about rustics and city folk - but Hope's 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.
"Bob's 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?'"
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, claiming Marilyn Monroe, Gloria De Haven and countless others among his conquests. 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. "Ain't that something?" he mumbled appreciatively, as she wiggled past us. He was a great connoisseur of women. He still called Doris Day "JB" - for "Jut Butt", because she had "an ass you could play cards on", though I don't believe he ever did.
Dolores Reade was a nightclub singer at the Vogue in Manhattan when Hope walked in one night in 1933. They got married, adopted four children, and Dolores figured if she waited long enough Bob the skirt-chaser would exhaust himself. It took the best part of seven decades before Mr and Mrs Hope finally enjoyed 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 documentary on a certain showbiz veteran, and asked his wife if she'd like to sing a number on the show. "Ah, the Dolores Hope moment," she said. "I don't think so."
Bob Hope 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 television because Paramount wouldn't match NBC's offer. When he needed a theme song for his new radio show in 1938, the plan was to use "Wintergreen For President" from the Gershwin hit musical 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 man's 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 wasn't so much that he chose wrong but the way that he chose. "Students are revolting all over the world," he said. "I don't know what they're revolting about, I just know they're 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 who'd always been one step ahead of the times was suddenly behind them. In a late 1960s poll of American high schools' favourite entertainers, he came second to the Beatles. By the time the war ended, he'd lost that generation forever.
In the Depression, Herbert Hoover ran for re-election on the slogan "Prosperity's Just Around The Corner". On stage, Hope said he'd 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, 'It's just around the corner.' 'Don't give me that Hoover talk,' she said. 'I gotta go.'"
That's a perfect Hope gag: genially pointed - exactly where he wanted to be. But 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? She's not sure whether she caught it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island ferry [pronounced 'fairy']." Hope wasn't "homophobic" - his closest professional confidante in later life was his lesbian daughter - but he couldn't seem to get his groove back. In transforming himself into a one-man laugh corporation, he'd blunted his own comic instincts.
So today there are two standard lines on Hope's transformation into a comedy brand. The first is the official one: he's a beloved American figure, the GIs' Number One entertainer for 60 years, Comic Laureate to the Republic.
The counter version, just as stale, is that he's a bland sell-out, Mister Squaresville, flattering third-rate politicians with golf gags so that they'll 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 symbolised laziness, conservatism, pandering.
I prefer a third version. When I saw Hope live in Toronto years ago, the best couple of minutes was when he did a soft-shoe to "Tie A Yellow Ribbon"; he didn't 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 can't do what Hope did in the late 1930s. He introduced "Thanks For The Memory" in his first feature, The Big Broadcast Of 1938. Everything else about the film - Martha Raye being loud, WC 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").
Hope and Ross were told they'd be singing it live, and it's an extraordinary moment, two people, neither with any great reputation in acting, communicating everything they're 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.
No one matches that Hope today. Much of Woody Allen's persona - the cowardly schnook who gets the girl - is an extended homage to Hope's own screen identity in The Paleface, Cat And The Canary et al. But Allen can't 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 Hope's 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. Bob Hope cast his lot and it worked out mighty lucrative, but in his last years as he padded around his second-floor quarters at the fancy spread at Toluca Lake, California, his children said it was the old songs that run through his head. And for many of us that's what we'll always hear, too:
And strictly entre nous
Darling, how are you?
And how are all those funny dreams that never did come true?
Awf'lly glad I met you
Cheerio and toodle-oo…
And thank you so much.
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what is an empty desk a sign?~Albert Einstein