Adam Gopnik: When Bob Hope Was Funny

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Laugh Factory: How Bob Hope made a career in comedy

Adam Gopnik writes: When I was a teen-ager, I sort of hated Bob Hope. All of us did. Generationally crazy about the classics of American comedy—Groucho and Chaplin and Keaton and W. C. Fields—movie-loving kids could, in the nineteen-seventies, afford to be pious about the industrious, blue-collar types of that dispensation. Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges had their Dada charm—they were working so hard that you couldn’t help but laugh. Henny Youngman, with his violin and grinning, vc173rapid-fire delivery, was cool in his dirty-uncle-at-the-bar-mitzvah way. (Philip Roth went on the record as a Youngman fan.) If you were lucky enough to get to stay home with a cold and watch reruns on morning television, you could catch Lucille Ball’s and Jackie Gleason’s fifties sitcoms, which were truly funny, and had neat theme music, too.

But Hope was beyond hope. There he was, year after year, on those post-Christmas U.S.O. specials, with shrieking starlets and shirtless soldiers, swinging his golf club like a swagger stick. He seemed barely interested in his jokes, which he recited rather than performed, their standardized rhythmic forms—“Hey, you know what A is? It’s B!”; “Yeah, let me tell you: C reminds me of D”—more like the mumbled monotones of nixon_and_bob_hope_1969-visome ancient scripture than like anything funny. James Agee’s canonical essay on silent comedians used Hope as an example of everything that had gone wrong with movie comedy since sound came in.

[read the complete text of Adam Gopnik’s profile of Bob Hope in the New Yorker]

Worse, Hope seemed like the perfect jester for the Nixon court: contemptuous of his audience and even of his role. A rule of American life is that the same face often appears as comic and tragic masks on two public figures at the same time. The unsmiling and remote Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and the ever-smiling but equally remote Johnny Carson were look-alikes of this kind through the seventies, and so in the early nineties were the shoegazing stoner twins of the rocker Kurt Cobain and the comedian Mitch Hedberg—both sweet and self-destructive and dead too young. Hope and Nixon had that kind of symmetry: the ski-jump nose; the hooded, darting, watchful eyes; the five-o’clock castaway shadow (in the thirties, Hope did razor-blade ads because of it); the flat, nowheresville American accent; above all, the constant show of regular-guy companionability, unable to disguise for long the coldness and isolation at its core.

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Woody Allen’s was the one voice speaking up for Hope’s genius in those years; he even did a Hope homage in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.” But one felt that Allen liked Hope because he needed something from Hope’s work for his own—perhaps a sense that this much verbal aggression was going to work out O.K., perhaps a desire to be pious about someone other than the obvious.

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America, however, is the country of the eternal appeals court, where judgment, once it has worked its way through the system, has to work its way through it all over again. With a comedian or a humorist, the newsweekly eulogy usually oversweetens the case, then the memorial makes some of the right jokes, and then the biography comes to make the last, best case for his importance. Richard Zoglin’s biography “Hope” (Simon & Schuster) does such an effective job of arguing the appeal that even the Hope-hater comes away eager to see more of his good early work, and more sympathetic to the forces in his life and in the country’s which left him hard to like at the end.

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Bob Hope, we learn, was born outside London in 1903, and remained in one respect more English than American: the truest thing that can be said about his inner life is that he chose not to have one. His hard-drinking father was a stone cutter—a mediocre artisan in a dying field, who, failing to make a living in London, immigrated to Cleveland only to fail further there. Hope’s mother brought up seven boys in drear, impoverished conditions. The outer fringes of London and then industrial Cleveland were not places designed to bring out the beaming aesthete in any man. The grim determination with which Hope pursued his career is perfectly understandable if you first grasp the grim lack of determination with which his father pursued his own.

Some successful performers are perpetually on, and some are just perpetually pushing. Hope was the second type. You almost have a sense, Bob-Hopefollowing his progress, that he became a comedian not because he much liked entertaining people but because he had to do something, and it beat all the other jobs on offer. Then he discovered that the same gift of sober perseverance that would push you up in any other business would push you up onstage. In the mid-twenties, he hopped onto what was left of the vaudeville circuit, which, one gathers, was a bit like writing for the Huffington Post today: to do it, you did it. The early notices suggest that Hope was an efficient comic rather than an inspired one—a swift retailer of as many jokes as he could borrow from other comedians or steal from magazines. This made his rise surprisingly swift without, at first, being particularly notable. He was successful before he had a style.

His real reputation was made on Broadway, when, in 1936, he was lifted out of the ranks of scuffling comics to star with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter’s “Red, Hot and Blue.” (In a duet he sang with Merman, he introduced the Porter standard “It’s De-lovely.”) He was what was called brash, and could dance lightly on the surface of conventional comedy, without melodrama or pathos. “He knows a poor joke when he hides it,” a critic wrote of Hope on Broadway, and he always would.

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It was the final, onstage translation of all that pure ambition. Hope knew that there were many laughs to be had by laughing at the whole business of making people laugh. Early on, he had hired stooges to heckle him from the wings during his act. “Don’t you boys know you can be arrested for annoying an audience?” Hope would snap. “You should know!” was their reply. (Johnny Carson took this manner over whole, knowing how to get laughs out of the failure of a one-liner.)

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Onstage, Hope was a wise guy and a go-getter—“cocky, brash, and bumptious” was his own summing up. Durante, Bert Lahr, and, later, Jackie Gleason played at being lovable naïfs of a kind. The personae presented by Groucho and W. C. Fields represented another form of displacement: Fields a nineteenth-century con man lost in the new world of immigrant energies, Groucho a rabbinic disputant without a congregation to listen to him. Hope, by contrast, was all the things comedians are not supposed to be: sure of himself, self-satisfied, a man justified in his complacency. He got his laughs by hovering knowingly over his material, without worrying it too much. Hope was entirely a city smart-aleck. (It was already an American voice, right out of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt.”)

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The Marx Brothers were satiric—they were against war and authority—but they were not particularly topical. Hope was always “on the news” in a nicely breezy way. Zoglin retails some of his lines from his first movie hit, the horror-flick parody “The Cat and the Canary”: Someone asks whether he believes in reincarnation—“You know, that dead people come back.” Hope: “You mean like the Republicans?” Will Rogers preceded him in this, but that was slow-spoken country-boy wisdom. Hope was tabloid-alert, and very New York. He later referred to his “suave, sterling style” on Broadway; Hollywood to his mind was mere “Hicksville.”

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He was also what was called in those days an “inveterate skirt-chaser.” After an early and unsuccessful marriage to a vaudeville partner, he made an early and successful marriage to a minor singer, Dolores Reade. It was successful in the sense that they stuck together and raised gopnik-book-parischildren—she was devoutly Catholic—and that she permanently stabilized his life.

[Order Adam Gopnik‘s book “Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology” (Library of America) from Amazon]

Along the way, however, he had an apparently unending series of sexual escapades. Most of his assignations were with little-remembered beauty queens and chorus girls, though he did tell a friend that he had had sex with the brass-tonsilled Merman in doorways all the way up Eighth Avenue. Although all this was widely known, Zoglin points out, no one chose to notice. Some work went into this. Hope’s agent Louis Shurr once said, brutally, to a new Hope publicist, “Our mission in life is to keep all news about fucking and sucking away from Dolores.”

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It was in Hollywood, hick town or no, that he got paired with Bing Crosby, a much bigger star, in a small buddy comedy called “The Road to Singapore” (1940). This was the first of the series of “Road” movies—“The Road to Morocco,” “The Road to Utopia,” “The Road to Rio”—which made him a household name, and are his best shot at posterity. They really are funny, and curiously modern, and a key part of this, strange to say, is Hope’s sex appeal. He’s a self-confident wise guy—exposed as a coward but not as a nebbish. Riding the back of a camel with Crosby in “Road to Morocco,” he’s as at ease in his undershirt as Brando. Read the rest of this entry »