This absorbing and authoritative biography of Bob Hope (1903-2003) deserves its subtitle, which, applied to anyone else, might seem hyperbole. As Richard Zoglin argues, Hope virtually invented the stand-up monologue. He was a star in vaudeville, a featured player on Broadway, a top film box-office draw for decades. Holder of the No. 1 spot in radio ratings for many years, he also perfected the art of the television special, capping a more than 50-year association with NBC. For nearly a decade, he made annual trips to Vietnam to entertain the troops — and this was after enduring harrowing trips to the front during World War II and the Korean War.
In short, Hope earned Zoglin’s subtitle the hard way. And I haven’t even mentioned that he sang well and danced, too, with an exquisite sense of comic timing that influenced the likes of Woody Allen and Johnny Carson.
So why are there no Bob Hope revivals? As Zoglin points out, Hope has not enjoyed the kind of vogue accorded the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. Not even his celebrated “road pictures” with Bing Crosby have received their due. The duo’s delightful escapades, banter and self-mockery delighted millions, yet there are no road picture festivals. Lucille Ball’s and Jackie Gleason’s television legacies surpass Hope’s, even though Hope’s shows remained top-rated long after Milton Berle and other entertainers faded from view. How many people even know that Hope invented the patter and pointed barbs that have become so routine during Academy Awards nights? To virtually every entertainment medium he brought an added dimension, bolstered by legions of writers and the best performers that money could buy — who also appeared out of a sense of loyalty to Hope and to his patriotic causes.
As Zoglin admits, Hope stayed on stage too long, disintegrating before his public, losing his eyesight, hearing and timing — not to mention a sense of perspective. It was not enough to just be Bob Hope, a name that had been for so many years synonymous with the best writing and performing no matter the venue or the cause. Well into his 80s, he simply refused to quit, and the very indomitability that made him not just a star but a national institution became a liability. After watching one of Hope’s later performances, David Letterman, who wrote for Hope and admired him as a comic genius, said if it had been a funeral he would have requested that they close the casket. Zoglin notes that when Ball found herself slipping, she fired herself. Bob Hope could not bring himself to do the same.
Hope’s politics have to be factored into his decline. At a time when the country was turning against the Vietnam War, he became a Richard Nixon partisan, a target of the counterculture, and an embarrassment to younger performers who shied away from or were never invited to participate in Hope shows. In short, Hope became stodgy, old-fashioned — even, at times, a bore.
Yet without Hope, there is no Woody Allen, as Allen would be the first to acknowledge. Hope perfected the role of the nebbish hero, a weakling and liar who was also amusing and endearing because he showed a cleverness and persistence that triumphed over his vulnerability. Women were attracted to his characters because they were so inventive, so talkative and available in ways those strong, silent types were not. It is a pity that Zoglin does not show how Hope operated in scenes with Virginia Mayo in “The Princess and the Pirate” and Dorothy Lamour in the road pictures. Hope and Crosby treated Lamour badly off screen, Zoglin reports, but what did she contribute to the Hope and Crosby pictures besides a sarong? Plenty, Lamour believed — unfortunately Zoglin never explains what it was. It would also have been instructive to dissect a bit of a Carson monologue to show how Carson got away with everything, even the bad jokes — a trick Carson learned from Hope.
Although he admires his subject, Zoglin does not hesitate to reveal Hope’s parsimony, his numerous infidelities and the declining quality of his films and television specials. Some readers, in fact, may tire of the long descent into mediocrity and find parts of the book plodding. But Zoglin intends to capture the trajectory of a long life with its ups and downs, not just to render the essence of the subject and what about him will last or be revived.
Biographies are often mistakenly praised for having the narrative flair of novels. To bring that bias to Zoglin’s work is to apply the wrong set of expectations. To say that Zoglin is dogged and deliberate is not a negative judgment in this instance. On the contrary, he has rehabilitated an overlooked entertainment giant who deserves our deepest respect and attention. To find Bob Hope wanting in some instances is an index of the high standards he taught generations of Americans to expect of their greatest entertainers.
By Richard Zoglin
Simon & Schuster
565 pp. $30