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).
Still, Agee had a point. Hope never stopped talking, even when running from a punch or holding a lover in his arms, and if frequently nobody on screen seemed to be paying attention to anything he said, that was all right because his funniest remarks were aimed straight at the balcony anyway (many of his best vehicles, including The Paleface, My Favorite Brunette, and his borderline-surreal “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby, were genre parodies that depended on the supporting cast playing it straight). Modeling his delivery on Walter Winchell’s hard-boiled rat-tat-tat (itself a modification of Hemingway’s tough guy), Hope was perhaps the first star of vaudeville and Broadway to comprehend the different requirements of radio and what many people still referred to as “talking pictures” when he made his screen debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938, stealing the show right out from under Fields’s bulbous nose.
The Big Broadcast, one of seventeen films included in The Bob Hope DVD Tribute Collection, a series of DVDs released by Universal to coincide with Hope’s landmark birthday, was also the movie in which Hope and Shirley Ross, playing a wised-up divorced couple who are still half in love with each other, sang “Thanks for the Memory.” As much as anything else, it was Hope’s singing in this scene that made him a star, yet anyone seeing the movie for the first time is likely to be surprised by what a wonderful singer he was. Before going to Hollywood, Hope introduced a number of immortal songs on Broadway, beginning with Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started” in the Ziegfield Follies of 1936. What virtually ended his singing career was being cast opposite Crosby, who was only the most popular recording artist of the first half of the twentieth century. Because it was understood that Crosby would get the girl, the “Road” movies also desexualized Hope. Although he occasionally joined Crosby for a comic duet, the formula called for Crosby to do the romantic ballads it took to woo Dorothy Lamour. Crosby more or less invented a sensational style of pop singing in the 1920s, but by the time he teamed up with Hope, he’d become a crooning self-caricature. Unlike Lamour, I happen to prefer Hope’s looser, more conversational phrasing; and before calling me crazy, you need to hear his four duets with Ross on Thanks for the Memories, a compilation on MCA that will force you to think twice.
Hope’s influence has been ubiquitous, both as a stand-up comedian and as a comic actor. Without him as the prototype, there would be no Johnny Carson, Steve Martin or Bill Murray–to say nothing of Maxwell Smart, Austin Powers, George Costanza, Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife and even M*A*S*H‘s Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, an idealist-become-cynic whose nonstop wisecracking outweighed the fact that he was Hope’s antithesis in every other way (many of his quips were the work of Larry Gelbart, the creator of the series, who did his own tour of duty in Korea as Hope’s head writer). Conan O’Brien, when announcing that his guests that night include a supermodel or leggy movie star, might lick his index fingers and use them to smooth his eyebrows, like Hope primping for what he’s only been led to believe will be a romantic rendezvous (it’s usually some sort of scheme, with him as the sucker). The host of Late Night also occasionally growls when an attractive female guest says something provocative, a variation on Hope’s ejaculatory woof! And the premise of many of O’Brien’s best sketches is either that he’s sexually inadequate or that nobody thinks he’s funny–two more pages straight out of Hope’s book, as O’Brien would be the first to admit.
Hope’s other most adoring fan among fellow professionals is Woody Allen, who once admitted that “it’s everything I can do at times not to imitate him,” and has himself frequently been accused of being overly verbal in his approach to comedy. “It’s hard to tell when I do,” Allen said in 1973 while filming Sleeper, “because I’m so unlike him physically and in tone of voice, but once you know I do it, it’s absolutely unmistakable.” (Forget that Hope is funny-haha, and Allen often funny-weird. The real difference between them is that Allen, in his movies, is usually desperate for our approval, whereas Hope dared us to dislike him, confident that he was irresistible.) Allen has more or less credited Hope with inventing the one-liner, which I think is going a little too far. What Hope does seem to have originated, for better or worse, is the celebrity in-joke, a type of humor that assumes the audience is familiar with the foibles of the stars. (It resembles ethnic humor in presupposing such knowledge, but hasn’t celebrity become a type of ethnicity? Many show business elders adored Ronald Reagan when he was President not because they agreed with his policies but because he was one of theirs.) Jokes about the famous flatter the rest of us, in making us feel like members of the clan. But no other brand of humor has a shorter shelf-life.
A telling moment on the NBC special came during a clip from an unspecified military base in Southeast Asia, circa 1965. It’s Christmas, and Hope badgers a soldier into singing “Silent Night” with Les Brown’s orchestra. The soldier sings surprisingly well; he has good pitch and a pleasing baritone, and despite the stiffness in his body, he doesn’t rush the beat. Giving in to the moment, he lifts the microphone off its stand and brings it close to his mouth, like a pop crooner. “I tell ya, that Bing has children everywhere,” Hope wisecracks. Cut to the soldier, now a lot older, who tells us that everybody laughed, including him. If so, weren’t they just going along with the implied script? We now know that our soldiers were as radicalized by the sixties as the college protesters. By the end of the war, they were booing Hope. What possible sense did they make of a Hollywood Canteen-era joke about–what exactly? Crosby’s Catholic disdain for birth control?
What other comics have always admired about Hope isn’t necessarily his material, but his mechanics–the smoothness of his setups and payoffs. My favorite joke of his, in a way, is the one he opened with after being announced as the winner of the Hersholt award: “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted, seemingly humbled, then waited a beat. “I don’t have writers for this kind of work.” “Bob Hope is supposed to employ so many gagmen they are organizing a union,” the film critic Otis Ferguson once remarked–a joke that only sounds like one written for Hope. The new Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes, assembled by his daughter Linda, proves that Hope’s humor doesn’t really translate to the page. His gift, hardly a small one, was in delivering scripted material as if he were ad-libbing.
In the 1960s, Hope found himself on the wrong side of both a war and a generation gap. How did someone with such unerring timing so misjudge the cultural moment? In Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me, he sought to give the impression that he went to Vietnam only to show his concern for our troops, not necessarily to endorse our foreign policy–a distinction that no one would argue with today (indeed, that such a distinction needs to be made was among the most painful lessons of Vietnam). But by 1990, even Robert McNamara was claiming to have been a closet peacenik. In the 1960s, when Hope wasn’t on stage making sour fun of hippies and draft-card burners, he was giving interviews in which he mouthed the domino principle: “If the Commies ever thought we weren’t going to protect the Vietnamese, there would be Vietnams everywhere,” he said in 1965. He has more in common with Jane Fonda than either might realize–they both were casualties of Vietnam. She’s always going to be “Hanoi Jane” to right-wing talk-show hosts, and the left is never going to forgive him for mistaking Vietnam for Iwo Jima. I say it’s time we granted Hope amnesty, not because we owe it to him but because we owe it to ourselves. He never made a movie as good as Klute or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but at least he never made one as sappy as On Golden Pond or as heavy-handed as Coming Home.