Monday, January 1, 2018

American Masters: Bob Hope (PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS presented a show I’d seen advertised on the Orange County PBS station in the Los Angeles Times and had been curious about but so far had managed to miss: an American Masters documentary on Bob Hope. It was basically well done and crowded as much as possible of Hope’s decades-long career in two hours, but it suffered from what was probably an unavoidable flaw: there was virtually no sense of who the “real” Bob Hope was under the persona he created as an entertainer. Though director John Scheinfeld (who I’m presuming also wrote the show, since no outside writer is credited) didn’t duck the allegations of marital infidelity — the show mentions the affair Hope had in the 1940’s with starlet Marilyn Maxwell but does not make the claim I’ve seen elsewhere that Paramount set up an entirely separate dressing room for Hope, aside from his usual one, in which he could have quickies with various actresses and other woman on the Paramount lot — that’s about the only behind-the-scenes glimpse of what Hope was “really” like aside from the three characters he created, the nebbishy coward he played in films, the wisecracking radio comedian and the thoroughgoing patriot who did all the USO shows for America’s servicemembers in every war the U.S. fought from our entry into World War II in 1941 to the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The show did not mention one of the things I most admire about Hope — that despite his reputation for political conservatism in other respects he was anti-racist way before anti-racism was cool. Billie Holiday had very nice things to say about Hope in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (though, oddly, she never covered Hope’s signature song “Thanks for the Memory” — a pity, since she could have done wonders with it!), and Hope hailed African-American comedian Willie Best as the greatest natural talent he ever worked with and insisted that Best be billed under his actual name and not the demeaning “Sleep ’n Eat” moniker he’d been billed with in his pre-Hope movies. Like the American Masters documentary on Bing Crosby, this one on Hope also annoyed me by hailing the Road movies as major innovations in screen comedy, particularly the way in which they “broke the frame” and allowed both Hope and Crosby to address the audience directly and remind them they were just watching a movie — without mentioning the person who actually had that idea. His name was Victor Schertzinger, and he directed the first two Road movies at the end of his career (he died in 1942), but he had “broken the frame” in his previous films (notably Something to Sing About, the little-known and quite good musical he made with James Cagney at Grand National in 1937, a film Cagney admired so much he devoted a whole chapter of his autobiography to it) — and Schertzinger’s frame-breaking continued as an integral part of the Road films even after he died and other directors (mostly Norman Z. McLeod and Hal Walker) took the series over — and McLeod had also previously directed the Marx Brothers, who also “broke the frame” in early-1930’s films like the McLeod-directed Horse Feathers. This isn’t the only example of “first-itis” in this show — “first-itis” is my term for the tendencies of biographers in all media to assume and state that whoever they’re biographing was the first person to do something when in fact quite a few people were doing it before them (my most egregious example was that all the obituaries for Ray Charles said his 1954 hit “I Got a Woman” was the first time anyone had turned gospel music into a pop hit — Sister Rosetta Tharpe had done it in 1941 with “Shout, Sister, Shout”), including making the argument that Hope was the first person to do what we think of today as stand-up comedy and also the first one to tell topical jokes and include political commentary in his act. 

John Scheinfeld does acknowledge that Will Rogers was doing political jokes before Hope but claims he doesn’t really count because he was delivering them in his folksy “country” persona — though the records I’ve heard of Rogers indicate that he was in his own way a far more slashing political comedian than Hope; whereas Hope tried to stay even-handed (at least until the 1960’s, when he was appalled by the counter-culture and seemed to regard opposition to the Viet Nam war as a personal insult), Rogers was an out-and-out progressive, and his comments, particularly on the environment and on America’s treatment of its Native population (Rogers was part-Cherokee and he let everyone know it), ring true today whereas most of Hope’s political jokes have become dated. Hope’s political jokes got nastier in the 1960’s, when he not only took sides with the mainstream pro-war, anti-hippie, anti-dissent culture against the counterculture but became quite vehement about it: there’s a clip here of him talking about the Woodstock festival right after it happened in which he says, “It was held in an old cow pasture. Just the right place for it, don’t you think?” There’s also an even more bizarre excerpt from one of the tapes made at the White House during the Nixon administration in those bizarre years from 1971 to 1973 when Nixon essentially had himself bugged 24/7 and recorded virtually every White House meeting and phone call (thereby generating the evidence that ultimately led to his forced resignation to avoid impeachment), in which Hope is visiting the White House and he and Nixon are egging each other on about hatred of the anti-war protesters and a determination to continue and escalate the bombing of North Viet Nam until the war is “won.” Hope would probably have had a hard time staying at the top even without the generation gap — seeing his later close-ups in the 1980’s it’s all too obvious that he’d aged, and though they are mercifully unmentioned here by the 1960’s Hope’s film career had degenerated into dreary, unfunny would-be farces like Call Me Bwana, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (which Harry and Michael Medved and Randy Dreyfuss listed in their 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time) and Cancel My Reservation that made the age both of their star and their script formulae all too apparent. 

There were quite a few interviewees, including Woody Allen (shown both in his younger days doing a guest shot as host of The Tonight Show in 1971 and inviting Hope on as one of his guests — and telling Hope a lot of Bananas was ripped off Hope’s films — and as what he looks like now), Conan O’Brien (who said he never paid attention to Hope until he heard Woody Allen in an interview saying Hope had been his great inspiration and influence, and he liked Allen so much that made him look more seriously at Hope and eventually learn from him), and even Kermit the Frog (voiced by whom, one wonders, now that his creator Jim Henson is long since dead), along with Hope’s daughter Linda (adopted, as were Hope’s three other children, because his wife Dolores Reade Hope couldn’t bear any of her own) and some of  his old writers. The story ends up frustrating because there doesn’t seem to have been a ‘real” Hope; whatever he was like beyond the parts of his personality he drew on to create the “Bob Hope character,” he rigidly concealed them even from his closest associates and friends — anyone coming to this film hoping to find Hope’s “Rosebud” will be disappointed. In an age in which celebrities not only share their personal angst with their audience but often rely on it to create, Hope’s rigid line between his onscreen and offscreen personalities (and his success in doing so, to the point that even his death, which usually loosens acquaintances’ tongues and makes them feel like they have permission at last to tell the world what so-and-so was “really” like) marks him as the product of another era, a world of image-makers in which celebrities were protected by the big companies they worked for and only what they and their bosses thought would be “good” for their careers for people to know about them ever saw the light of day.