Hope: Entertainer of the Century
Leslie Townes Hope, known to the world as Bob Hope, was brought to America from England when he was five, son of a hard-drinking, plainspoken stonecutter and a scrimping mother who took in boarders. His life would become a Technicolor movie of the American dream, and he rang every change of the nation’s fast-evolving entertainment industry. As a scrappy teen, he joked, danced and sang his way from the street to the vaudeville stage. He kept our radios warm with hours of hilarious airtime. He made mediocre films, then better ones, until he finally found his groove: the Road to… series, a comic/competitive comradeship with crooner Bing Crosby, each enhancing the other's nuance.
"Richard Zoglin, longtime editor and current theater critic for Time, laments that modern comics have all but forgotten the man, giving him none of the credit he richly deserves as a progenitor of stand-up."
With the rocky rise of television to supremacy as America’s home amusement choice, Hope channeled vaudeville for a stand-up routine that typified all his shows --- whether his own specials, his many USO tours or his Oscar emcee duties. His rapid-fire one liners flowed so flawlesslythat it might seem he was merely reciting. But his tuning and his timing were always at the fore, so if a joke failed, he immediately turned it into another joke--- about himself, about his writers --- milking a bad line until it got someone laughing and riding that reaction to the finish. But Hope could also deliver serious news (his D-Day speech is a highlight) and syrupy sentiments, making “Thanks for the Memory” his personal, perennially adaptable theme song.
Richard Zoglin, longtime editor and current theater critic for Time, laments that modern comics have all but forgotten the man, giving him none of the credit he richly deserves as a progenitor of stand-up. This, despite the fact that, in his heyday, Hope got more fan mail than anyone, and, after his death, “memorials to Hope have proliferated across the American landscape." HOPE is a goldmine of immortal zingers. "Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as it's known in my house, Passover." To patients in military hospitals: "Did you see our show, or were you sick before?" "Long dresses don't bother me --- I've got a good memory."
Though he comes to praise the comedic master, Zoglin does not shy away from the negatives. Hope famously buoyed up the troops for the USO throughout World War II, but during the Vietnam era, he mocked the peaceniks back home, showing himself out of synch with changing times. His unfaithfulness to his long-term partner, Dolores, was boundless, shameless, and continued well into his 70s. In Hope's era, though, his co-workers brushed off such behavior: "He was a star enjoying his stardom." Perhaps his biggest challenge was what most of us “hope” for: physical longevity that blunted his skills and made him something of a has-been while he still was.
Zoglin's title, “Hope: Entertainer of the Century,” says it all: there was a once-great comedian wholived a hundred years, encompassing all but three years of the 20th century and encroaching three more into the 21st. If anyone understood, remembered, and had a right to joke about life in these United States, it was Bob Hope.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 19, 2014