10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bob Hope

coverDescribing Bob Hope as “underrated” may sound strange. After all, he remains one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century. However, a new comprehensive biography suggests that few of us fully appreciate Ol’ Ski Nose and his significance in American culture.

Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it was. The book matter-of-factly addresses the star’s less lovable side, including his womanizing, his stifling conceitedness, and his heavy reliance on sycophantic employees.

Despite the sometimes uncomfortable honesty, Hope proves an ultimately inspiring read, largely due to the clear-sighted appraisal of its subject’s vast legacy. Not too long ago, Christopher Hitchens crankily asserted that Hope wasn’t funny. I guess that’s a matter of opinion (Not in my house, but I’m trying to be diplomatic…). What Hope certainly was, though, was influential.

In his prime, Hope made it cool to crack wise about current events. Never content with the constraints of a medium, he broke fourth walls, stressed the connection between comedy and reality, and developed a cozy, familiar bond with audiences. Hope also set a precedent for today’s stars by wading into the arena of public causes. He demonstrated the power of celebrity to improve lives and stir a nation.

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As Zoglin points out, Hope not only developed a fast-paced, wry style and character unique to him: “brash, sophisticated, modern.” He also adapted it to an astonishing range of media and venues—from vaudeville to radio to film to television. Following Hope’s story really takes the reader through a dizzying century in the history of mass entertainment.

While reading Hope, I learned a lot about the comedian and discovered facets of his life and career that I’d never known about before. Here are a few of those.

 1. John D. Rockerfeller gave Hope his first important piece of career advice.

To supplement his struggling family’s income, 12-year-old Leslie or ‘Les’ Hope (his real name) sold newspapers on the street in Cleveland. One night, a limousine stopped and a well-heeled older gentleman tried to buy a penny paper with a dime. Lacking the change, Leslie asked if he could run to a store to get some.

The gentleman waited and gave the young Les a tip of the intangible variety: “If you want to be a success in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep change on hand. That way you won’t miss any customers while you’re going for it.” The customer drove away, as a bystander informed Les that he’d been talking to the founder of Standard Oil.

bobhopeportraitThis tale—a favorite anecdote of Hope’s—might sound apocryphal, but Zoglin makes a strong case for its plausibility. Old man Rockerfeller did indeed make the rounds of Cleveland and enjoy chatting and dispensing wisdom to the mere morals he encountered on his drives.

2. He spent time in a reform school—a fact he covered up for the rest of his life.

You’d think that Hope would’ve exploited his time in juvie as comedy material. However, he never publicly mentioned the experience, which hints at how traumatic the stint in reform school must have been for him.

According to surviving records, 15-year-old Hope committed an unknown offense (probably shopliftng) for which he was “adjudged a delinquent” and sent to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. Although he was released after a few months, young Hope violated his parole terms and was readmitted for at least another full year.

3. One of his earliest successful show business gigs involved dancing with the famous conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton.

daisyandviolethiltonIf you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s famous horror melodrama Freaks (1932), you’ll remember the fresh-faced, cheerful Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins. Years before making that famous movie appearance, the duo proved a major attraction while in the vaudeville circuits, with spectators lining up literally around the block to see them.

The talented sisters wowed audiences by playing a saxophone duet and then performing a tight dance number with two partners. For a long stretch, Hope was one of the partners.

As he remembered, “At first it was a funny sensation to dance with a Siamese twin. They danced back to back to back, but they were wonderful girls and it got to be very enjoyable—in an unusual sort of way.”

4. His first crack at a Hollywood career was a total disaster.

Touring on the prestigious Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1930, Hope visited Pathé in Culver City for a screen test and performed his act for the cameras. Heartened by the chuckles of the crew, he braced himself for stardom. However, when agent Bill Perlberg screened the test for Hope, the up-and-comer just about died: “I’d never seen 1938anything so awful. I looked like a cross between a mongoose and a turtle. I couldn’t wait to get out.” It would take almost a decade before Hope could rustle up the nerve to take another try at the movies.

5. His famous “Thanks for the Memory” number in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was recorded live on the set.

Departing from the typical pre-recording of musical numbers, Mitchell Leisen, who directed Hope’s film debut, wanted to capture the song’s wistful intimacy by recording on the soundstage. Hope and Shirley Ross sang the unforgettable tune—which would become Hope’s theme song—for the cameras, accompanied by an off-screen orchestra. Reportedly, there wasn’t a dry eye on the soundstage.

6. Hope’s racy language and quips got him bleeped on radio. 

Hey, foul-mouthed rappers and raunchy comedians everywhere, guess what? Bob Hope was getting bleeped before you were even born. Admittedly, those were the days when censors practically had a nervous breakdown over the prospect of Clark Gable saying “damn.”

bobhoperadioStill, Hope’s willingness to be controversial showed he had guts. In his heyday, the brash comedian was a far cry from the bland, innocuous old timer of his later television specials. By defying the censors with risqué jokes, Hope also became a target for Catholic reformers. When that happens, you know you’re onto something good.

7. His joke rhythm and timing impressed even his idol Charlie Chaplin.

As a boy, Hope entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and took either first or second place (depends who you talk to). In 1939, when working on The Cat and the Canary, Hope got to meet his childhood idol, married to the film’s star Paulette Goddard. Chaplin saw a few takes of the movie and complimented Hope on his delivery: “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen.” High praise indeed!

8. He really did risk his life to entertain the troops during World War II.

We’ve all seen the images of a slightly disheveled Bob Hope standing at a microphone in Hope_WWII_44front of a sea of men in uniform. But do we realize exactly how tough it was to get him there?

Flying to a performance in Alaska at night, his small plane barely made a landing after the pilots instructed Hope and his troupe to say their prayers. Driving through North Africa, Hope and singer Frances Langford cowered in a ditch and narrowly escaped burning debris from crashing German bomber planes. In Algiers, despite General Eisenhower’s assurances of safety, Hope and Langford spent over an hour huddling in a wine cellar while enemy aircraft bombarded their hotel.

Perhaps riskiest of all, in Palermo a middle-of-the-night air raid caught Hope by surprise in his vulnerable hotel room. Unable to make it to a bomb shelter, he watched helplessly as tracer bullets and flak narrowly missed his window. For Hope, it was “the most frightening experience of my life.”

9. He came up with Tony Bennett’s stage name and gave the singer his first big break.

In 1950, Hope embarked on a vaudeville-style tour and brought along a rising Italian-American crooner known as Joe Barry as one of his troupe. Barry’s singing at Pearl Bailey’s nightclub in Greenwich had impressed Hope, but the comedian felt that the phony stage name was holding the young man back.

jokesHope thought that Barry ought to change it to something more similar to his birth name (Anthony Benedetto) and pitched “Tony Bennett.” When Hope took the newly-rechristened performer to L.A., Bennett recalled, “It was the first time I ever sang in front of a huge crowd.”

10. By the end of his career, there were over a million gags in his comedy vault.

One of the first comedians to openly acknowledge his debt to good writers, Hope kept a meticulous collection of his jokes, gags, and wisecracks, indexed by subject, in a fireproof vault in his home. You could count the jokes, but can anyone comprehend the impact of the joker? Speaking for myself, I’m still chuckling.

Thank you to Dana Trocker of Simon and Schuster for making advance copies of Hope available and to Noralil Ryan Fores of TCM for offering me one!

Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ‘2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

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At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!'”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.

High Hat: Raymond Griffith and Paths to Paradise (1925)

rayhatYou may have never heard of Raymond Griffith, as I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but you’ve probably seen him. His brief role—as the mortally-wounded French soldier Gérard Duval in All Quiet on the Western Front—ranks as one of the most memorable uncredited parts in all cinema.

This heartrending turn would be his last appearance before the camera, an ironic final act for one of the greatest laugh-makers of the silent screen.

Hollywood’s transition to talkies put a definitive end to Griffith’s stardom, not because he had an incongruous voice, but because he barely had one at all. Though an avid conversationalist, he couldn’t speak above a hoarse whisper, “the ghost of a voice” as one fan magazine described it.

The handicap was occasionally blamed on his show business childhood spent screaming in melodramas night after night. In point of fact, it was diphtheria that probably caused the permanent damage to his vocal chords and set an expiration date on his acting career. As adaptable as his celluloid persona, in the early talkie years Griffith transitioned smoothly to the roles of producer and sought-after script doctor and never looked back.

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During an era of imposed silence, however, the dapper, blasé Griffith rivaled the greatest comics of the 1920s. This feat speaks to his glittering intelligence and resourcefulness, since he produced his films at a major studio, Paramount. You might say that Griffith rose from the same conditions that proved the downfall of certain other silent geniuses. As Motion Picture magazine observed in May 1926, “If all the truth were told, his presentations would read something like this:

Raymond Griffith in ‘So and So’

Adapted from the story by Raymond Griffith

Directed by Raymond Griffith

Photographed with suggestions by Raymond Griffith

Titles by Raymond Griffith

A Raymond Griffith Production.”

So, even in his own day, he wasn’t perceived as solely a gifted comic actor, but as a bona fide auteur.

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Griffith’s Paths to Paradise, released into theaters the same month as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Lloyd’s The Freshman, held its own in the eyes of the critics. Compared to those two better-remembered films, Paths, co-directed by Clarence Badger, blazes a completely different path for comedy. Whereas Lloyd and Chaplin stabbed the public cleanly in the feels with tales of toil and woe made unexpectedly funny, Griffith cleansed viewers’ palates of pathos and sentiment.

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Interestingly enough, although Griffith plays a congenial crook, the viewer never feels manipulated by him. His unfazeable (it’s a real word because I say so) persona exists solely to entertain us. The phenomenal silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis (who put Griffith on my radar) has noted that the comedian plays especially well to audiences today, since his films can seem “a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern” compared to those of his contemporaries.

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An autodidact and classic literature junkie, Griffith cited Aristophanes and Molière as two of his favorite slapstick masters. One can discern the indiscriminate wit and nothing-sacred mentality of those timeless playwrights in Griffith’s worldview. The “silk hat comedian” demurs to deliver any broad moral vision, apart from the idea that we live in a shyster world and it behooves us all to be the most competent shysters we can be. If that’s not a message for our day and age, I don’t know what is.

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Paths to Paradise revels in dissembling and chicanery. It’s a veritable millefeuille of fakery: airy, yet carefully structured. As “the Dude from Duluth,” a debonair confidence trickster, Griffith wafts about, assuming a dozen different aliases and cheerfully pursuing other people’s wealth.  For the greater part of the story, the Dude and Molly—the delightful Betty Compson as a fiery lady criminal—vie for the chance to swipe a valuable diamond necklace.

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This sadly neglected classic peppers its discreet Lubitsch-esque interplay with bits of action-comedy that might make even Buster Keaton crack a smile. The Dude and Molly’s rivalry and eventual alliance, set against the backdrop of a society wedding party, is sandwiched between two dazzling set pieces. The film begins with an elaborate triple-cross scenario in a seedy corner of San Francisco’s Chinatown and ends with a chase involving hundreds of policemen on motorcycles.

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These bookend stunners cleverly use cinema’s complex balance of illusion and reality to make us laugh. Blissfully innocent of exposition, the opening sequence quickly establishes the Bucket o’ Blood saloon as a generically nasty underworld watering hole. Hatchet-faced thieves scowl at each other and some tough dame, the Queen of Counterfeiters, is making money in the corner. We notice these things especially because a tour guide—and the camera—points them out to a small group of wealthy sightseers.

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Their curiosity satisfied, the thrill-seekers depart, whereupon the Queen of Counterfeiters serves up the results of her labors: she was only making waffles. Despite the “genuine” textures of the gangland saloon, we realize that it was all just an act, staged to extract dollars from gullible tourists. The guide sticks his head into the saloon and announces their next customer. Some poor goof wants to see a Chinese joint. In a matter of seconds, the small army of cons transforms the saloon into an opium den, bringing out lacquered crates and scrambling up into bunk beds with long pipes.

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And in steps our hero. First seen in a mysterious, imposing silhouette, the Dude from Duluth rather underwhelms us when he appears in person. Another trick. Another chuckle.

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The crew of racketeers proceeds to put on a new show for the Dude. Through it all, he overreacts to each fresh exotic shock: cowering dope fiends begging for money, an overly solicitous Tong proprietor, and the agonized pleas of the Queen of Chinatown.

The fakers manage to extort an ungodly sum of money from the Dude and send him scuttling away…but he stops at the door, lets his lackey in, and flashes a badge. What a sting!

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After roundly lecturing the group of flimflammers, the Dude graciously accepts a bribe in exchange for not hauling the lot of them to the station. The Dude saunters out. Oh, he left something behind: his badge. But wait…

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He’s no policeman. He conned the cons with nothing more than guts and a gas inspector’s badge.

Within the space of a few minutes, our perception of the protagonist thus radically changes—twice. His modulation from startled gentleman slummer to wily undercover cop to consummate scoundrel impresses the audience. His nimbleness of identity wins over our good humor in spite of—or maybe thanks to—that reptilian glint in his eye and his beastly indifference.

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More important, a lot of the comedy of the scene depends on our brain cache of movie-going experiences. The racketeers expertly summon up a bunch of cues that signify certain romanticized locales, not as they really are (probably) but rather as they’re typically depicted. These hustlers know how we’ve been conditioned to read and anticipate these cues.

In this way, the fake-outs within the film remind the audience of the fake-out that is film, of the thousand-and-one times we’ve seen a dive like the Bucket o’ Blood or an exaggerated Chinatown hovel in a movie and accepted it as reality. Paths to Paradise celebrates the creativity of crooks even as it debunks the clichés which Hollywood, that great community of swindlers, puts over on us regularly.

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The conclusion of the film, as the Dude speeds towards the Mexican border with the jewels and the girl, also riffs on this concept of pushing movie-land fraud to extremes. Road signs announcing DANGER! fly right into the camera. Spectacular high angle shots show a fleet of motorcycles careening around curvy mountain paths in pursuit of our hero—ahead by a nose.

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As the brilliant Walter Kerr explains in The Silent Clowns, “The business is flatly impossible… a gleeful seizing on silent-comedy permissiveness… Griffith’s planning eye has told him precisely what camera angles are needed to validate the gag while reveling in its preposterousness.”

The joke’s on you and me, the viewers who inevitably recognize but condone the shenanigans. And unlike a lot of today’s “meta-humor,” this dose from 1925 is actually funny. Griffith exposes filmdom’s cheating—then uses it to his and our benefit.

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My favorite moment from the film savors a less flamboyant flavor of flimflamming. At one point, a few policemen happen across the Dude and Molly (disguised as a maid) fighting over the diamonds. Improvising with the reflexes of professional crooks, they can’t just act like nothing was going on. There’s too much electricity in the air. So, the Dude and Molly break apart and proceed to make eyes at each other furtively, as if they’d just been caught in flagrante. We get this wonderful suite of leisurely-paced, evasive, eyeline-matched shots as the Dude and Molly fidget and feign to avert their gaze.

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Don’t get me wrong: they’re not pretending they were just canoodling. They’re pretending that they’re pretending they weren’t just canoodling. Griffith and Compson’s sophisticated performances convey a micro version of the film’s layering of charades that proves a total joy to watch.

Now, I write about a lot of movies that I think you all (or those of you who make it to the ends of my posts, you brave souls) should seek out. But this one really needs you to go and buy it. I think the time is right for a Griffith rediscovery.

This man and his work have dwelt too long in silence.

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