Laugh? It's enough to make you cry...

His business was comedy and, as he accumulated wealth and power, it was comedy Hope betrayed

Terence Blacker@TerenceBlacker
Wednesday 30 October 2013 02:14

So Bob Hope's legendary sense of timing let him down in the end. Famous as he was for the speed of his delivery, snapping more gags per minute than any other comedian, he had held on and on for the final curtain. The fact that he bowed out when a sort of Bob Hope version of America holds sway throughout the world points up some of the less amusing and attractive aspects of his great success story.

Hope was "the embodiment of the entertainment industry", according to one obituary, and there is some truth in that claim. His career, and the mighty business empire he founded, reveals what can go wrong when talent is corrupted. In this great age of celebrity worship, the Bob Hope story should serve as a morality tale.

Many of the tributes to the comedian have read more like the balance sheet of a large, successful corporation than reflections on a comedian. The statistics have included a fortune in excess of $300m, making him the richest entertainer in the world, and an archive that includes seven million jokes, graded according to the audience reaction they elicited. Hope used over 80 gag writers and, although he was famously tight-fisted, the salary bill for his writing staff averaged at one point $500,000 a year.

He appeared in 80 films, and was married for almost 70 years, although it is said that the number of mistresses he kept during that period was another impressive statistic. He was 58 when he took the 18-year-old Rosemarie Frankland, whom he had just crowned as Miss World, back to Hollywood and installed her as his "personal assistant".

He was also, some 60 years ago, very funny. It is difficult to watch footage of him in his early vaudeville years or to see one of the better Road films without smiling. He had a good and natural comic persona, a wise-cracking, moon-faced loser, and had a passable singing voice. Maybe, if he had made a success in any other area, his exploitation of a modest supply of talent to build a vast financial empire might be seen as an inspiring parable of capitalism in action. Unfortunately his business was comedy and, as he accumulated wealth and power, it was comedy that was betrayed.

Humour is a great revealer of personality. It is an intimate process that cannot be commodified. For all Bob Hope's professionalism, the heart seemed to go out of his performances. There was an efficiency about the way he delivered jokes that was almost industrial. Without even knowing the facts of his life, one could sense something iffy behind the regular-guy facade. The eyes began to look shifty, the mouth ungenerous.

What was coming through on stage and on screen was a sense of comic business being used as a smokescreen. All comedians use tricks and have a stage persona, but Bob Hope took the fakery further than most. His legendary ad-libs were carefully worked upon by writers - people who, in spite of his amiable image, he treated with bullying contempt. The cosy star, everyone's favourite uncle, must have seemed the perfect choice to present beauty pageants. Unfortunately, he had a habit of seducing the young and vulnerable contestants.

He moved with the big-money, middle-aged corporate crowd, befriending the sleazeball Vice President Spiro T Agnew. Entertainers have never been famous for choosing the right friends - think of Frank Sinatra - but there was something dull and, above all, humourless about these people. Hope's leering remarks about chorus girls, his building developments in an environmentally sensitive part of the Santa Monica mountains, his hawkish republicanism, all reflected the life he had chosen.

Until not so long ago, that corporate aspect of American life, while real enough, was distant from our everyday lives. From the Sixties onwards, the dead-eyed American executive, with his big car, his greed, his right-wing politics, his golf, was the subject of uneasy ridicule in film, theatre and fiction. Now, astonishingly, he is in power and the most paranoiac imaginings of liberals down the years no longer seem so unthinkable.

So maybe it was we who changed, not Bob Hope. He was "a great citizen", President Bush has said, and of course, from one perspective, he was. The Bob Hope version of America sees patriotism not only in the spreading of its popular culture but in the pursuit of its own political and corporate interests. If the world fails to appreciate Bush's Road to Baghdad as much as it did Hope's Road to Morocco, then that is the world's problem.

The banner held up during one of Hope's performances to the troops in 1971, reading "The Vietnam War is a Bob Hope joke" could more appositely be applied to the war in Iraq. Of course - thanks for the memory and all that - Bob Hope once made us laugh, and maybe one should not be influenced by the way he lived his life. But his jokes, and the world they represent, seem somehow less innocent than they once did.

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