Why does everything these days have to be a superlative? Why must writers scream for our attention, yelling that the guy in their book blows everyone else out of the water? Bob Hope, claims Richard Zoglin in this biography, was the most important entertainer of the 20th century. In fact, he adds, you could argue that Hope was ‘the only important entertainer’. Can Zoglin really believe this? Is he really telling Chaplin, Sinatra, Elvis, Monroe et al to roll over? Even if you made the ‘only important …’ boast about one of those people it would sound absurd. Making it about Bob Hope sets you up for a 486-page fall.
It isn’t that Hope’s story lacks importance. If Zoglin had said ‘look, here’s a guy who lived to be 100, who saw vaudeville give way to Hollywood, radio give way to TV and mastered all four, who’s one of several dozen 20th-century stars worthy of your attention’, we might have cut him more slack. But no, everybody has to have an angle. In this case, the braggingly acute one at the top of the triangle.
Hope’s sheer longevity was incredible. Born in 1903, he died three years after the writer of his New York Times obituary. The first time he hosted the Oscars the big winner was Gone With the Wind; the last time it was Star Wars. So early did his fame come that one of the beneficiaries of his support for a south London boys’ club was Michael Caine. The largesse was possible because of Hope’s ruthless business streak: by the late 1940s he was earning a million dollars a year, and reputedly went on to become the largest private landowner in California. His work for charity didn’t stop him watching the pennies, though. Rather than paying for expensive cars he drove the Chryslers and Buicks given free by sponsors. He once billed a family member for a $3.75 phone call.
It would be impossible to write a book covering such a long span of American history without revealing some interesting facts. The Oscars envelopes, Zoglin tells us, are guarded by Price Waterhouse. So strict were 1930s vaudeville censors that they even banned the word ‘slob’. During the Great Depression, Central Park’s sheep were removed for fear that people would eat them. But overall the book reads like the school report of a hard-working pupil. This, Zoglin admits, was Hope’s defining quality. What he lacked in talent he made up for in effort. Comparing him to his Road to … mucker Bing Crosby, Zoglin says that ‘Crosby was arguably the greater artist. But Hope was more driven… He simply tried harder.’ Throughout his career he employed a huge team of writers, and worked them mercilessly (they learned never to show up with a tan). He even got them to write conversational quips for the golf course.
The professionalism — having a TV studio built with steep seating so the audience would be close to him, for instance — could have been appealing, if only it had been allied to any real warmth or charisma. But the best Zoglin can say of his subject is that Hope was resolutely private, having (in the words of one interviewee) ‘no intellectual curiosity’. The writer of a 1963 magazine profile felt ‘there just wasn’t much there’.
A lot of what emerges, mind you, is far from the best. Hope never formed any real bond with his four children — one of his daughters resorted to bouncing cheques in the end, just to get a reaction. His support for McCarthyism hasn’t aged well, though even at the time it earned him boos. After years of entertaining US troops Hope asked for a Congressional Gold Medal, and when that was denied he enquired (without irony) about the Nobel Peace Prize. (Eventually Congress gave him the gong.)
A constant theme is Hope’s womanising. It isn’t even exciting womanising, more a cynical grabbing of oats while simultaneously ordering the press to keep quiet. On one occasion he borrowed a flat from a member of his writing team saying he could have it back at midnight. After wandering the streets for hours, the writer returned to find two sets of wet footprints leading from the shower to the bed. The latter had been left unmade.
In the end, the real problem is that the guy just wasn’t that funny. Yes, he got great ratings (the book records them to one decimal place), but did anyone ever really love Bob Hope? Zoglin clearly does, and seems to believe that younger comics are lying when they fail to cite Hope as an influence. Many more of us, I suspect, agree with Christopher Hitchens: Hope ‘devoted a fantastically successful and well-remunerated lifetime to showing that a truly unfunny man can make it as a comic’. I once attended a New Year’s Eve party where the guests’ children — dozens of them, aged between three and 15 — were kept entertained (and how) by Laurel and Hardy DVDs. Would they have stayed quiet for Bob Hope? No hope.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10