the matchless career and woeful undoing of bob hope -- 3/10/15

Today's selection -- from Hope by Richard Zoglin. Bob Hope was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, the only one who achieved the highest level of success in every major genre of mass entertainment: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts. His undoing began with his active support of the Vietnam war:

"By the time he died -- on July 27, 2003, two months after his hundredth birthday --Hope's reputation was already fading, tarnished, or being actively disparaged. He had, unfortunately, stuck around too long. ...

"Hope never recovered from the Vietnam years, when his hawkish defense of the war, close ties to President Nixon (who actively courted Hope's help in selling his Vietnam policies to the American people), and the country-club smugness of his gibes about antiwar protesters and long-haired hippies, all made him a political pariah for the peace-and-love generation. His tours to entertain US troops during World War II had made him a national hero. By the turbulent 1960s, he was a court-approved jester, the Establishment's comedian -- hardly a badge of honor in an era when hipper, more subversive comics, from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, were showing that stand-up comedy could be a vehicle for personal expression, social criticism, and political protest. Even before Hope became a doddering relic, he had become an anachronism.

Bob Hope entertains the troops in 1971 at Cu Chi, in Vietnam

"Yet the scope of Hope's achievement, viewed from the distance of a few years, is almost unimaginable. By nearly any measure, he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, the only one who achieved success -- often No. 1 -- rated success -- in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts. He virtually invented stand-up comedy in the form we know it today. ... A tireless stage performer who traveled the country and the world for more than half a century doing live shows for audiences in the thousands, he may well have been seen in person by more people than any other human being in history. ...

"He began in vaudeville, first as a song-and-dance man and then as an emcee and comedian, working his way up from the amateur shows of his Cleveland hometown to headlining at New York's legendary Palace Theatre. He segued to Broadway, where he costarred in some of the era's classic musicals, appeared with legends such as Fanny Brice and Ethel Merman, and introduced standards by great American composers such as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. Hope became a national star on radio, hosting a weekly comedy show on NBC that was America's No. 1 -- rated radio program for much of the early 1940s and remained in the top five for more than a decade.

"He came relatively late to Hollywood, making his feature-film debut, at age thirty-four, in The Big Broadcast of 1938, where he sang 'Thanks for the Memory' -- which became his universally identifiable, infinitely adaptable theme song and the first of many pop standards that, almost as a sideline, he introduced in movies. With an almost nonstop string of box-office hits such as The Cat and the Canary, Caught in the Draft, Monsieur Beaucaire, The Paleface, and the popular Road pictures with Bing Crosby, Hope ranked among Hollywood's top ten box-office stars for a decade, reaching the No.1 spot in 1949. ... 'I grew up loving him, emulating him, and borrowing from him,' said Woody Allen, one of the few comics to acknowledge how much he was influenced by Hope -- though nearly everyone was. ...

"When television came in, Hope was there too. Others, such as Milton Berle, preceded him. But after starring in his first NBC special on Easter Sunday in 1950, Hope began an unparalleled reign as NBC's most popular comedy star that lasted for nearly four decades. ... That would have been enough for most performers, but not Hope. Along with his radio, TV, and movie work, he traveled for personal appearances at a pace matched by no other major star.

"On a podium, no one could touch him. He was host or cohost of the Academy Awards ceremony a record nineteen times -- the first in 1940, when Gone With the Wind was the big winner, and the last in 1978, when Star Wars and Annie Hall were the hot films. His suave unflappability -- no one ever looked better in a tuxedo -- and tart insider wisecracks ('This is the night when war and politics are forgotten, and we find out who we really hate') helped turn a relatively low-key industry dinner into the most obsessively tracked and massively watched event of the Hollywood year.

"The modern stand-up comedy monologue was essentially his creation. There were comedians in vaudeville before Hope, but they mostly worked in pairs or did prepackaged, jokebook gags that played on ethnic stereotypes and other familiar comedy tropes. Hope, working as an emcee and ad-libbing jokes about the acts he introduced, developed a more freewheeling and spontaneous monologue style, which he later honed and perfected in radio. To keep his material fresh, he hired a team of writers and told them to come up with jokes about the news of the day -- presidential politics, Hollywood gossip, California weather, as well as his own life, work, travels, golf game, and show-business friends.

"This was something of a revolution. When Hope made his debut on NBC in 1938, the popular comedians on radio all inhabited self-contained worlds, playing largely invented comic characters: Jack Benny's effete tightwad, Edgar Bergen and his uppity dummy, Charlie McCarthy, the daffy-wife/exasperated-husband interplay of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Hope's monologues brought something new to radio: a connection between the comedian and the outside world. ... His monologues became the template for Johnny Carson and nearly every late-night TV host who followed him, and the foundation stone for all stand-up comics, even those who rebelled against him."


author:

Richard Zoglin

title:

Hope: Entertainer of the Century

publisher:

Simon & Schuster

date:

Copyright 2014 by Richard Zoglin

pages:

3-7
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