Monday, 23 April 2012

Hope as Hero

The Entertainer as Hero Review of “Bob Hope’s Own Story: Have Tux Will Travel” by Pete Martin

A corollary of the assumption that our sense of national purpose sorely needs focusing is that we have raised false gods for worship in our society. Instead of admiring and emulating the professionals and scientists, artists and intellectuals, whose disciplines and skills make our society of abundance possible, our media system holds up for indiscriminate adoration and fantasy a rogue’s gallery of irrelevant characters: sports champions, socialite playboys (and their girls of the moment), and those ubiquitous stars of stage, screen, and TV.

These are, in the broadest sense, “The Entertainers,” those who, according to Webster, “engage the attention of others agreeably,” by amusing and diverting. The word originally referred to the special kind of attention one shows to infrequent guests, when they are given the run of the house or the keys to the city. But the significant thing about our mass entertainment culture is that what once was a sometime thing, an agreeable and wholesome diversion from the enervating work of survival, has now become an almost all-the-time happening. One could assume that such a reshifting of focus, or reinvestment of energies, would have equally profound characterological results.

It becomes important, then to inquire into the nature of the highly visible entertainer’s world view. “What does he stand for?” may be another way of asking what most of us will soon stand for in an entertainer-oriented society.

Bob Hope’s “as told to” autobiography is a good source of insight. The fact that it is a synthetic “autobiography” is in itself significant, for throughout the book there is evidence that an entertainer is not so much a person as a business.

So despite the flippant references to authentic autobiographers like Ben Franklin and Giovanni Casanova, and Hope’s calculated humility and diffidence about his book’s lack of order and coherence, we must remember that we are not reading a deeply felt testament but rather pool-side interviews of a man surrounded by “flacks” (publicity men), a stable of writers, and bookkeepers.

Another pervasive theme is Hope’s obsession with pay raises from a few boyish dollars winning foot races at Cleveland picnics to conning Sam Goldwyn into paying him $100,000 for a movie when his Paramount contract stipulated only $25,000 per picture. At one point, he italicizes his own philosophizing: “Wouldn’t it be amazing to make a thousand dollars a week! If I ever made a thousand a week I don’t think I’d talk to anybody. How could you make a thousand dollars a week! If I’d told them back home that I was making four hundred a week they’d think I’d been robbing a bank and was hiding out.”

This is acting out in a magnified way the American ritual of success. Fame brings money and attention, even the absurd extreme of celebrity culture that made a New York man offer Hope $10,000 just to show up at his party. (The comedian countered by offering to phone him during the party for $5,000.) But fame in an egalitarian society is a tricky business. Fame was unquestionably Hope’s biggest thrill next to a warm audience reception. He used to walk to his Broadway theater to relish this sensation: “It was a kick, whipping down to the theater and saying ‘Hi’ to the traffic cops and to people on the Avenue and to the people in the show when you got there. That was really living.”

He admired Jimmy Durante’s shrewdness for hiring a “memory” man to remember people’s names for him so he could flatter them by having remembered. “You like to remember names because your old friends get a complex about you and begin to ask themselves, ‘I wonder if he’ll remember me?’ They think ‘you’ve gone Hollywood,” … So you like to give them no reason for suspecting such a thing.” When Fred Mac Murray didn’t forget to remember Hope on the latter’s first visit to Hollywood, Hope came to this conclusion: “If I needed anything to tell me how important it is to stay human, that was it.”

There is also a childlike innocence about Hope’s sheer joy at hobnobbing with General Patton, ad-libbing with King George, golfing with Eisenhower, calling Air Force Secretary Symington “Stu.”

Thus an entertainer’s whole personality focuses on the business of being well liked. Even one’s name is tailored: Hope changed it from Lester to Bob, because he thought “Bob had more ‘Hi ya, fellas’ in it.” And the audience is always right. “He should remember that if they don’t react the way he thinks they ought to react, it’s his fault. Either he’s not selling his material, or it was bad material in the first place.” Or “When he tells his first gag and the place falls apart, his life is complete.” Why did he entertain so many troops overseas? Because they were the most receptive audiences imaginable. “…You can work an audience and pull down twenty thousand bucks, but if the audience doesn’t like you, you won’t be happy with all that money. But if you work an audience for nothing and you’re a hit and you feel that electricity crackle back and forth between you, you’re happy. Being there is worthwhile.”

In a democratic society where the common man is king, to be successful you have to flatter his superficiality and his prejudices. You identify with his averageness (George Jessel introduced him at a Friars Club celebrity night as an “average American who makes three million dollars a year”).

So Hope’s no. 1 joke is one based on today’s news headlines; next in importance are local jokes; an analysis of his humor before servicemen adds the categories of anti-officer, sex, and broad exaggeration. He avoids political controversy in deference to his sponsor; is against a disease (cerebral palsy) to build good public will; almost identifies American opportunity with his getting paid to kiss Dorothy Lamour in the movies; wants his son to be able to grow up to be President with this as an alternative; and promotes a bland kind of religion best suggested by Father Keller’s inviting him to costar with Ben Hogan and Bing Crosby in a film called “Faith, Hope and Hogan.” (“The Christophers are trying to spread religion in general. They don’t make any special effort to try to spread the Catholic Religion, they just try to spread good to the whole world … I imagine they labeled Bing Faith because of his role in ‘Going My Way,’”)

Hope regards Durante highly because “he’s bighearted and he lives to be nice to people. I don’t think he has an enemy.” In describing his own idyllic home life, he philosophizes: “You only live once and you have maybe twenty-five more years to enjoy yourself, so why not live it up until the sheriff comes and wheels the whole thing off to be sold? So that’s what we’re doing—living it up. And it’s a joy and a pleasure. When you’ve worked long enough and hard enough, I think you have the right to baby yourself a little.”

It may appear unusually humorless to subject a stand-up comedian to such grim cross-examination, especially since the writer himself is a great admirer of Hope’s wit and style. But that is the paradox of the entertainer’s usurpation in contemporary American life. As an amusing court jester, he was fine; as royalty, he is innocent and babies us too much. As entertainers become the focus of American culture, their contagious lack of seriousness becomes a serious matter. In discussing the serious professional problem of overexposure, Hope observed that “the public is rich right now as far as free entertainment goes … My hunch is that the public is being spoiled through being over-entertained.”

It is my judgment that because the entertainer monopolizes the collective consciousness with a froth of ad hoc raillery, neutralizes political commitment, flatters an already complacent audience’s prejudices, and propagandizes for the entertainer’s Weltanschauung of being nice to people, against diseases, and for Father Keller, the public is indeed “being spoiled by over-entertainment.” But the entertainment isn’t “free” at all, because it is exchanged for the precious commodity, leisure, that should be reinvested in the personal and social skills needed in a mass society.

This essay appeared in Humanities Today, The Clearing House, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Oct., 1960), pp.124-126

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