Bob Hope, Prisoner of War
War correspondents frequently suffer from what might be diagnosed as Ernie Pyle Syndrome. At least one colleague of the late Michael Kelly, the Washington Post columnist and former editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who was killed while traveling with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq, confessed to being angry with Kelly on hearing of his death. The colleague had argued that having written brilliantly about the first Gulf War entitled Kelly to sit this one out, especially since he was now the father of two young children. Bob Hope was a showman, not a reporter, but until old age stopped him, he obeyed the same urge. Not bending the truth by much in Don't Shoot, It's Only Me--one of his numerous memoirs, published in 1990--Hope quipped that the closest the United States came to formally declaring war on North Vietnam was in 1963, when he was invited over to perform for our military, as he had during World War II and Korea.
The recipient of both a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a Congressional Medal of Honor (and probably the only US civilian ever targeted for assassination by the Vietcong), Hope donned camouflage and entertained US troops on foreign soil as recently as Desert Storm. But to our men and women in Bosnia in 1996, he merely sent a video and his prayers. Iraq was out of the question for Hope, who celebrated his hundredth birthday on May 29; the old casting-couch general no longer had the strength to appear on his own television specials, much less escort a harem of beauty queens and Sinatra discards into war zones. So on April 20, with the fighting in Iraq more or less over, though not the homefront flagwaving (nor the Pentagon and the newsmedia's exploitation of our rescued POWs--an invasion of their privacy unanticipated by the Geneva Conventions), NBC presented a two-hour retrospective called 100 Years of Hope and Humor, thirty minutes of which consisted of clips from Hope's 1940s USO tours and his 1960s Vietnam Christmas specials.
The special was watched by 12.6 million people--nothing compared with the numbers that Hope racked up in the age before cable, but enough to dominate its time slot and finish in Nielsen's Top 20 for the week. I have a hunch that these ratings surprised NBC, given that (along with patriotic fever) the logic in jumping the gun on Hope's centenary by several weeks seemed to be to avoid showing chicken skin and black-and-white archival footage during a sweeps month, when advertising rates are set and the only viewers who count are loutish young men between the ages of 18 and 35.
The ratings surprised me, even though I wouldn't have dreamed of missing the show. I have a soft spot for Bob Hope dating back to my childhood in the 1950s, when I saw him in That Certain Feeling, Beau James and The Seven Little Foys--movies in which he was so funny and appealing it hardly mattered that he epitomized an era of popular culture being pushed aside by mine. But I don't think I know anybody else who watched the Easter-night special, which tells you something about the company I keep. I know plenty of people who loathe Hope, on general principle, as a hideous relic of a time when young actresses were referred to as "sex kittens" and war was embraced as a masculine rite of passage, a team sport with fatalities.
These people tend to be my age and older; no one under 40 seems to think much about Hope one way or the other, which might be the greater insult. "To most of my friends, Bob Hope is the guy in the blazer who's doing a monologue off cue cards or who's dressed as a Cabbage Patch doll and doing a sketch with Brooke Shields," Conan O'Brien, the host of NBC's Late Night and a former writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, told the New York Times in 1998, describing the decrepit Hope his generation grew up with in the 1970s. "If you were a comedy fan, you knew that he was one of the faces on Mount Rushmore, but you thought it was based on that. It wasn't."
O'Brien recommended taking a look at Hope's movies of the 1940s and early '50s--good advice, because there was a difference between this Hope and the later one from television. In his prime, the smug TV stand-up had no equal at working an audience or milking a laugh; he was the CEO of comedy, with his own celebrity golf classic included among the perks. The character that Hope played to perfection in movie after movie was something else altogether--the weasel who got by on his wits, but just barely. He was a boastful coward who was the only one ever fooled by his bravado, a loser who could be manipulated by anybody clever enough to pretend that he wasn't, a wolf who came on to every pretty girl he met and kept coming on after being rebuffed, as if seduction were a war of attrition.
Of course, W.C. Fields was all of these things a good decade earlier than Hope. But Hope added something new, something I think James Agee unwittingly put his finger on when he complained (in a 1949 piece he wrote for Life in praise of the great silent-movie comedians) that most of the humor in Hope's movies was verbal. This wasn't completely true; part of what made Hope a terrific comic actor, as opposed to a radio gagman hauled in front of a camera, was his face--I mean his double takes, of course, which were almost a match for Jack Benny's, but also the inspired way he put his very features to work for him. His chin stuck out so far, for example, that he might as well have been leading with it, just begging for a punch, as he backpedaled away from an assailant just itching to land one (he'd been a prizefighter as a young man, and he still had the moves).