In Biblical terms, he is but a
stripling, probably still in the highball stage with a straight Bourbon as
a chaser. Moses knocked up 120 years before he drank life’s cup to the
lees, Noah, almost perpetually in a state of liquidity, sank after
achieving 950 years and Methuselah drained his life-force bottle dry when
he was probably told, "Go easy, this is your 969th year." So, Bob Hope
will, this month, reach 100, an age when to be able to eat a soft-boiled
egg is considered an act fit for a Nobel Prize, when the candles cost more
than the cake but when many centenarians still have enough vigour and
eyesight left to hail, as old friends, strange women, grandfather clocks
and tall wedding cakes.
The comedian is hardly in vintage condition. He is
deaf and dim of sight but his ad-lib repartee still flickers, as shown in
1998 when, after one of several reports of his death - the last caused by
an internet blunder - Hope asked: "Does this mean I don’t have to go on?"
Not premier cru Hope as heard in 1939’s scary-comedy film, The Cat And The
Canary, when he was asked, "Don’t big empty houses frighten you?" and
replied, "Not me; I used to play Vaudeville", but still possessing enough
flavour of his early days when he was developing the role of the comic
poltroon - the coward’s coward - who always loses the girl but gets the
funniest lines and who would become one of the best-loved comedian in the
Born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, South-East London on 29 May 1903, he
was the fifth of seven sons. His alcoholic father was a stonemason and his
mother, a singer-pianist, also worked as a domestic cleaner when times
were tough. The family emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1907, when Hope
was four, and 13 years later, Bob - he adopted the name as sounding more
positive than "Les" Hope - became a US citizen and his radio, screen and
TV road to glory began.
Leaving school aged 12, he became a street newspaper
seller, soda jerk, poolroom gambler, shoe-shine boy and reporter - you
name it, he was it; the myths are indiscernible from the facts. He
certainly became Packy East, failed amateur boxer, who admitted he was not
only carried out of the ring but into it and who also fought under the
name of Rembrandt Hope "because I spent so much time on the canvas".
Determined not to become a splinter off the old paternal block, young Hope
saw his future in the showbiz arena and entered amateur talent
competitions with prize-winning, waddling impersonations of Charlie
Chaplin. Spotted by Fatty Arbuckle, the sleaze-stained, silent movie
comic, Hope was slotted into Hurley’s Jolly Follies in 1925 but, within a
year, he left and, with partner George Byrne, formed the Dancemedians,
teaming up with the Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet, Siamese twins who
were joined at the hip and back and specialised in somewhat complicated
three-legged tap-dance routines with the men. Perhaps understandably, they
were placed third on the bill before a performing seal.
So far, for
Vaudeville days, so hum-drum. Hope’s mobile features - simply looking at
his face made people laugh - and slick comedy techniques earned him a
breakthrough into Broadway, where, after appearing successfully in several
hit shows, he got a part in his first film, Paramount’s The Big Broadcast,
in which he and Shirley Ross sang Thanks for the Memory, a bitter-sweet,
threnody about marital break-up that exactly hit the mood of jaded,
sophisticated 1930s America, reflecting the crumbling of old social
certainties - "No tears, no fuss, hooray for us."
in The Cat And The Canary, which followed, emphasised Hope’s persona as a
brilliantly timing, fast-delivering gag-slinger, firing from the lip with
a barrel of laughs, and consigned old-style comics such as WC Fields into
the stagedoor dustbin of history.
The Road to Singapore (1940), the
first of seven high-grossing Road movies in which Hope teamed with Bing
Crosby and Dorothy Lamour - both men generally playing footloose American
adventurers - honed Hope’s comic-cowardice portrayals to a fine art, an
image that ran counter to the national John Wayne, fist-in-the-face psyche
which insisted that a yellow-belly American was a contradiction in terms.
films could be classed as racist and stereotypical but then, they
reflected the spirit of the times when ethnic, disability and chauvinistic
jokes increased the laughter lines on American faces and others in the
Millions of Britons have regarded Hope as their
comedian-in-chief, quip-ready and oh-so-cool except when filmically
scared-out-of his razor-edged wits, as sophisticated as a New Yorker
cartoon but with a beguiling vulnerability, especially when failing to
click with the female lead.
Britain has had many home-grown comics, ranging from
the angst-and-boredom-ridden Tony Hancock to the cheeky-chappiness of Max
Miller, the manic acrobatics of Norman Wisdom and the scandalised
innuendoes of Frankie Howerd, but none has equalled Hope’s ability to
deliver gags with the precision of smart bombs.
At 100, Hope is physically fading
but, in the rewards of prestige and money - he is undoubtedly the world’s
richest comedian with reputed assets of more than $1 billion - he is still
on a high and has gone over the rainbow, found the pot of gold and
shrewdly invested it, among other deals, in large, profitable tracts of
virgin Californian territory.
Flashback the memories and up
comes the world’s most honoured entertainer, winner of four special
Oscars, holder of the longest-running radio and TV contract (NBC - 61
years), 1,500 awards, including the Emmy Trustees Award for bringing the
great gift of laughter to all peoples, and 54 honorary degrees.
Also showing is
the entertainer of 11 presidents, who has had the ear of most of them,
recipient of an honorary CBE in 1976 and an honorary knighthood in 1998
for services to the worlds of song and film as well as the star of hit
comedy films including, The Paleface and My Favourite Blonde and who, at
91 was still doing 75 shows a year. Not bad for an immigrant comic hoofer
imbued with only simple desires to make people laugh and collect a Fort
Knox of greenbacks, although showbiz money he claims, "pays my green fees.
Golf is my real profession".
Since prominent personalities are now expected to
have a dark side, Hope, if you believe his detractors, has one as black as
Count Dracula’s dinner suit. According to The Road Well Travelled by
Lawrence J Quirk and The Secret Life of Bob Hope by Arthur Marx, Groucho’s
son, who wrote four films for Hope, plus the critiques of other
denigrators, the comedian is exactly as portrayed in his films, a
know-all, cowardly, mean and vindictive cheapskate. If he did not pull the
girls on the screen, in reality he was a serial adulterer - Marilyn Monroe
was a bed partner - that made him known as the Casanova of the casting
couch. His rival on that putative Road to Lechery was Bing Crosby. Both
were alleged to have had a string of mistresses and placed would-be
actresses or minor stars in their harems’ way.
Groucho, highly critical of Hope’s
technique, said he was not a comedian; "merely a translator of what others
write for him". Many saw that as the sourest-of-grapes from a comic
competitor but the claim that he was the brilliant front man for his
legendary joke factory of seven writers still lingers.
Out of his
coward casting, Hope was, for long time, regarded as the reassuring image
of day-long-honest and reliable America. But not to his writers who
claimed that he made them work all hours of the day and night. Those who
failed to produce gag-worthy goods were sacked instantly.
On pay-day, it
was claimed, Hope would stand at the top of the staircase in his Hollywood
house, turn his writers’ cheques into paper planes, launch them and watch
the humour hacks below make frantic leaps. "It was the only exercise they
ever got," quipped Hope. He is said to have mercilessly ragged Crosby over
his balding head and both continually exasperated Lamour with frequent
ad-libbing as well as playing heartless jokes on her.
marriage in Eerie, Pennsylvania, to Dolores Reade - they adopted four
children and he still lives with her at his Californian home at Toluca
Lake - is something of a mystery. There is no known record of it but a
certificate was found at Eerie County Courthouse of the comedian’s
marriage to a Vaudeville singer called Grace Louise Troxell in 1933. Hope
admits he took out the certificate but did not marry her.
On the other
side of that caddish coin, Hope has donated millions of dollars to good
causes, including one for a permanent exhibition in the Library of
Congress of his collection of more than 50 years of jokes, personal papers
and radio, television and film material. The collection, and a Bob Hope
Gallery of American Entertainment, is also being funded by the Hope
Let us not forget Hope’s patriotic dedication during various conflicts. He
entertained US troops during the Second World War in Britain, Europe and
the Pacific, as well as Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf in Operation Desert
Storm. During the 1979 Teheran hostage crisis, when US embassy members
were held prisoner by Iranian militant students, Hope, with an
interpreter’s aid, managed to phone the embassy and, to startled
ringleaders, volunteered to fly to Iran and entertain them, and presumably
the prisoners, while a deal was made. The offer was refused.
if you must but to barrack him - and he has been, by students and
feminists - is akin to insulting the flag. He was once offered the chance
to run for the US presidency but turned it down because, "the money wasn’t
Laugh with him, at him or loathe him, Hope has won a unique place in the
pantheon of the blessed who have brought happiness to the masses. For all
his virtues and despite his alleged faults, Hope will always be in the
hearts of millions. A peerless performer; we could wait another 969 years
before we see his like again.