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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 45 - 100 years of Hope

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 world.

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."

His appearance 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.

The 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 Western world.

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.

Hope’s 1934 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 family.

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.

Criticise Hope 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 right".

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.

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