Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

Hope for America

Bob Hope entertains troops during World War II. (David E. Scherman/The Life Picture Collection/Getty)
Hope: Entertainer of the Century, by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $30)

There is no small irony in the fact that the song “Thanks for the Memory” is so closely linked to the remarkable career of Bob Hope. That is what the comedian, star of movies and television, and Oscar host has become: a memory, and a distant one at that.

In his useful and informative book The Bob Hope Films, James L. Neibaur reflects that, at one time, conventional wisdom held that Hope (1903–2003) would prove as enduring in the popular imagination as Elvis Presley or Charlie Chaplin. “However,” Neibaur admits, “there are indeed young people during the 21st century who may not have heard of Bob Hope.” Hope’s fate is closer to that of, say, Jack Benny or Will Rogers, performers whose many talents and obvious charm have been lost on recent generations. 

How quickly they forget. With hits on the big screen and, later, something approaching omnipresence on the small screen, Hope was riding higher than just about any entertainer in the 1940s and 1950s, argues Richard Zoglin in this readable but imperfect biography. “No one came close to matching Hope’s two-decade run as a star of both major Hollywood movies and top-rated TV shows,” Zoglin writes. His best films — especially his on-the-road team-ups with Bing Crosby, including Road to Singapore and Road to Utopia — are as appealing and funny as anything ever churned out in Hollywood; even his many dodgy films are frequently saved by his presence. Woody Allen claimed, in the narration to a 1979 filmed tribute to Hope, “When my mother took me to see Road to Morocco, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”

But this book suggests that the seeds of the present-day indifference to Hope were planted long ago — in the 1960s, when shifting cultural mores rendered the entertainer (who was born in London but grew up in Cleveland) passé. The golf club that Hope habitually toted around onstage became, according to Zoglin, a means of self-defense offstage, when he took walks in the evening. “As the tumult of the 1960s began to engulf him,” Zoglin writes, rather melodramatically, “he would need it.”

Zoglin makes much of Hope’s supposed failure to keep pace — even though his quips remained up-to-the-minute. Here is Hope (speaking to servicemen) on anti-war demonstrators: “You men have a very important job: making the world safe for our peace pickets.” And on Woodstock: “Four hundred thousand hippies. Since the dawn of man that’s the most dandruff that was ever in one place.” Such jokes may not have been the soul of wit, but were they really “smug” — as Zoglin writes of the latter joke — or simply a bit of fun directed at the counterculture?

And Hope was decidedly an opponent of that counterculture. Although Zoglin writes of a first marriage, which Hope hushed up, as well as numerous extramarital affairs, the fact remains that his second marriage, to the former Dolores DeFina, lasted close to 70 years. (Zoglin speculates at some length as to whether Bob and Dolores — who adopted four children — were actually married, but no one questions that they were together for that length of time.) And Zoglin concedes that, whatever Hope’s faults, his life was a model of order and normalcy — at least for someone working in Hollywood. “He wasn’t insecure or uncomfortable in the limelight; he wasn’t a temperamental monster to work for; he didn’t turn to drink or drugs,” Zoglin writes. “He played around with women, but never broke up his family.”

His greatest sin, in the eyes of Zoglin and some others, seems to be his full-throated endorsement of the Vietnam War. Starting in 1964 and continuing until 1972, Hope made yearly Christmas trips to Southeast Asia that were edited and condensed into a series of hugely popular television specials on NBC. At first, the acclaim for these treks was near-unanimous. “Because of his continued and patriotic unselfishness over the Christmas holidays for a number of years, and the happiness he has brought to millions of people [in] this country and all of the world, Bob Hope could well be the most popular man on earth,” said Senator Stuart Symington (D., Mo.) in 1966.

#page#But — troublingly, for Zoglin — Hope had faith in what he was selling: “When you get guys like Eisenhower and his staff, Kennedy and his staff, Johnson and his staff, all of whom thought it was important enough to save this little nation from Communism or enslavement, then you have to think maybe they know something,” Hope said, referring to the bipartisan consensus that supported action overseas. While admiring Hope’s patriotism, Zoglin seems to bristle at the entertainer’s becoming a true believer in the war: “Hope’s position on the war was simplistic, emotional, and unsurprising.”

Yet Hope was no rube — in fact, what he says about the war (and the public’s reaction to it) comes across as commonsensical, not inflammatory. “Can you imagine returning from a combat patrol in a steaming, disease-infected jungle, tired, hungry, scared, and sick, and reading that people in America are demonstrating against your being there?” he wrote in an article in Family Weekly. Similar horse sense informs his regret over having Dolores sing “White Christmas” to soldiers during a show at the Takhli Air Base in Thailand in 1966: “The last thing those guys needed was sentiment. Dolores became their mother. What they needed was the Golddiggers and Raquel.” Hope understood servicemen and cared about them: During World War II, while performing in England, he learned that a large group of disheartened soldiers had missed his act, so “he commandeered a couple of jeeps, piled his troupe into them, and caught up with the soldiers, still trudging back to their camp.”

Such constancy to his audience is, Zoglin argues, one of Hope’s most admirable qualities: “He replied to an amazingly high proportion of his fan letters — with the help of a battery of assistants, to be sure, but with the kind of care and personal detail that only he could have supplied.” Ironically, from Zoglin’s perspective, that same devotion resulted in Hope’s outstaying his welcome as the audience changed. Certainly a picture emerges in this book of the entertainer under siege, in the 1970s and beyond. His friend Richard Nixon made a speedy exit from the White House (“I was so sad for that poor bastard”), and his famous touch with presidents was not quite what it once had been by the time Ronald Reagan came into office. “Keep it short” was what one memo from a Reagan staffer said after the White House received the latest request for a message from the president in honor of Hope. It is also true that Hope, in his eighties and nineties, had lost some of his edge. George Burns said, ahead of a planned appearance with Hope in 1993, “I don’t know if I can do this because his timing is really off.”

And there probably were groans in the viewing audience when the “familiar . . . ritual” of Hope descending on The Tonight Show was repeated yet again, in later years. “He would walk out to the strains of ‘Thanks for the Memory’ — sometimes unannounced, supposedly a ‘surprise’ guest,” Zoglin writes, and the rest of his appearance was equally predictable. But it is just as likely that some watching at home cherished the comfortable tradition, and later mourned the decline and disappearance of such a convivial and talented performer from the scene — not to mention one with such increasingly uncommon sentiments about his country. “Kid America? You bet your life,” he said on a bicentennial special on NBC. “Love America? All the way.”

Reading this biography at a moment when the hottest comedy twosome is not Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and when not Hope but someone like Seth MacFarlane can be the host on Oscar night, it is hard not to miss him.

– Mr. Tonguette’s criticism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. The first of his two books on Peter Bogdanovich – Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews — will appear in January.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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