Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Many Memories, Little Thanks -- Hope: Entertainer of the Century, By Richard Zoglin

Here is something rare and wonderful: a celebrity biography that is not only balanced, nuanced and impeccably researched, but deeply human and moving.  Richard Zoglin (born 1948) has managed all of this in his indispensable Hope: The Entertainer of the Century, which is simply one of the very best books of 2014.

It should be noted that we here at The Jade Sphinx think Bob Hope was a wonderfully funny man.  I saw him live at Madison Square Garden in 1989, where he played with George Burns.  Though the show itself was quite bare-bones, it was a great joy to see them both, and Burns was in particularly good form.  Hope’s Road films, with frequent costar Bing Crosby, were the only comedy series that paired two comic actors of equal caliber; and also remarkable were the number of standards in the Great American Songbook introduced by Hope throughout his film career.

Though alternately forgotten or reviled today, Bob Hope was one of the great comedians of the 20th century and a legitimate hero, as well.  Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in England in 1903.  His family moved to Ohio in 1908, where they led a fairly hardscrabble existence.  Though things were difficult, Hope (and his many brothers) did remember this time with affectionate nostalgia.  However, despite the haze of Norman Rockwell reminiscence, it seems clear that Hope lived in a fairly rough environment, and was something of a rough kid himself.  Zoglin’s research uncovered some time spent in reform school (most probably for shoplifting), which Hope in later years either deflected with an offhand joke, or sought to expunge it from memory for good.

Hope loved attention and was a born entertainer.  He moved from street busking to the vaudeville circuit where he honed his craft as dancer, comedian and monologist.  Most important – he created the man known as “Bob Hope,” the brash, confident and urban wise guy.  Here was a comic who did not rely on baggy pants or ethnic tropes, but, rather, was the new All-American model; it is one of America’s greatest acts of assimilating while defining the national character.  Hope ascended quickly, conquering Broadway, early movie shorts, and radio before becoming a comedic leading man in films, a legitimate radio star and Broadway name.  The age of Hope had arrived.

In a book of deft touches, one of the many things that Zoglin conveys wonderfully is Hope’s seemingly inexhaustible well of energy.  His capacity for work would deplete a platoon of men.  Most comfortable onstage, where he could inhabit his created persona, Hope would move from film shoot to radio show to personal appearance or charity event in stride.  No wonder he lived to be 100.

The defining moment of Hope’s career was his stint entertaining the troops during World War II.  Not content with setting up camp shows and providing song-and-dance perilously near firing lines, Hope and his entourage went from hospital to hospital visiting the wounded, would scrupulously return messages home, and provide a much-needed morale boost.  Zoglin peppers his account with several hair-raising moments (Hope’s plane nearly crashed outside of Alaska), along with heart-felt reminiscences from the ground-forces comforted by Hope.

Following the war, Hope was a juggernaut – he made many of his finest films, his radio show was immensely popular, he would go on to host the Academy Awards more than any other celebrity, and the well of goodwill he created seemed nearly inexhaustible.  He would go on to conquer television, the only star of his generation to continue to work regularly in the medium (and to good ratings) well into the 1990s.

Sadly, things would crumble around him during the 1960s.  It was a decade that was not only a public catastrophe for the United States (from which we never recovered and are still reeling from the effects), but a personal one for Hope as well.  The social, cultural and political changes effectively ended the American Century, and the sneering dismissal of the left and the political disconnect of the right rendered Hope, the first great comic to deal in current events, rudderless.  He would continue to do what he always did – entertain the troops – but in a polarizing war; Hope became a tool of the right and an object of scorn to the left.  He never fully understood what happened.

It is part of the power of Zoglin’s book that Hope emerges from his life a tragic-hero.  Here is a man who achieved not only the absolute pinnacle of success in his profession, but was a beloved national treasure.  Then, suddenly, the public turned on him, leaving Hope bewildered, unsteady and resentful.  Despite the multiple millions Hope made during his career, it was adulation and applause that he needed most.  When it stopped, the protective shell that he created – the Bob Hope persona – became redundant.  The personal man, the interior Hope, was insufficiently developed; retirement wasn’t an option, and Hope overstayed his welcome, tarnishing his once-sterling reputation.  He deserved better.

Zoglin does not sugarcoat Hope’s many personal failings.  He was a chronic philanderer, often villainously cheap, occasionally high-handed and filled with a sense of entitlement.  But Zoglin also details the many, many acts of simple kindness, his generosity to family and friends, and his untiring civic service (there is not a charity event that Hope would not play).  In addition, Hope defined what it meant to be a celebrity and a comedian – inventing the standup monolog, harnessing the power of his fame for good causes, and his deep connection to his fans.  (The book includes a wonderful story of Hope and frequent costar Bing Crosby leaving a hotel with Hope carrying a pillowcase of his fan mail to answer; an incredulous Crosby said he threw his out.)

After spending four days in Hope’s company while devouring this book, I was reluctant to let him go.  While it is possible to quibble with Zoglin on some of his assessments (Zoglin dismisses Son of Paleface rather airily, while your correspondent thinks it one of the greatest comedies of the 1950s), it is impossible to disregard the achievement of this book.  Your correspondent confesses to actually crying at the end … and how many celebrity bios can produce that effect?

Hope: The Entertainer of the Century is required reading for anyone interested in American Pop Culture.

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