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Hope: Entertainer of the Century – Richard Zoglin

downloadPublished in 2014, Hope: Entertainer of the Century is a first-rate biography of Bob Hope, who truly was an entertainer of the century. He was born in 1903 and died in 2003. His career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies and television and he was at the top of every single medium (except Broadway – he was successful, but did not stay long and was never in the lead role). His career began in the 1920s and he finally retired in 1996.

The author, Richard Zoglin, argues that Bob Hope has been somewhat unfairly forgotten. He believes that he practically invented the stand-up comedy style, but very few comedians ever acknowledge his influence (with the exception of Woody Allen). Partially, he says, it is because it took Bob Hope too long too retire and he came to be seen as fuddy-duddy, conservative and even reactionary.

But Bob Hope was extremely hip when he first made it into movies in 1938. He started local in his native town of Cleveland, Ohio (though he was born in England, the fifth of seven sons), dancing and doing shows until he went on the road. He began with a partner, but eventually became a solo act and the highest earning vaudevillian in the early thirties. In 1934, he turned to radio and by 1940 he had even topped famous radio personalities like Jack Benny in the ratings.

He signed with Paramount Studios, but it took them a year to  figure out what kind of movies to put him in. His first good movie was the 1939 The Cat and the Canary, followed by The Ghost Breakers and The Road to Singapore, which began his collaboration with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. There would be seven Road To movies in all.

The Road To movies were my introduction to Bob Hope as a child and I still love them. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are always playing vaudevillians (and they do acts reminiscent of Bob Hope’s vaudeville days). There are the great contemporary songs written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. Usually, Crosby will get a romantic song and Hope and Crosby will do a buddy song, as well as a vaudevillian song. Dorothy Lamour also sings a song. There is the constant (good-natured? they almost kill each other several times) rivalry.The costumes are always done by Edith Head and are some combination of beautiful, exotic and outlandish. And there is the constant breaking of the fourth wall: jokes poking fun at Paramount Studio, other actors, contemporary events, each other’s movies and personalities, and even the very act of making movies. I’ve found that the more I learn about the movies and events of the 1940s, the more I appreciate their jokes.

lamour-crosby-hope-road-to-bali-1952Bob Hope, both on radio and in movies, was something new. He was brash, energetic, fast talking, cocky, always on the make, with the humor often directed at himself. Even when he was no longer new, he was still popular. He moved to television in the 1950s and topped the ratings there. He also hosted and co-hosted the Academy Awards fourteen times, with his first in 1941 and his last in 1978 and including the 1953 Academy Awards, the first to be televised (can be viewed here).

Bob Hope is also remembered for entertaining the troops. He began during WWII, when he did a several month tour in Europe and the next year did a tour in Pacific. He would also entertain during The Korean War, The Vietnam War (garnering controversy), all the way up the the Persian Gulf War. He was sometimes criticized for using the troops to boost his own popularity and to make money, but Zoglin argues that there were far easier ways to do that. Conditions were rough when he traveled and he often lost money. He went through some rough flights, was in several cities that were bombed heavily by the Nazis and during the Vietnam War the hotel he was supposed to stay in was sabotaged. It was learned later that the Viet Cong and meant to kill him in the attack.

His reputation suffered during the Vietnam War. He supported the war and had some harsh words for the protesters (he was a good friend of Johnson, Ford and especially Nixon – he played golf with all the presidents from Johnson to Clinton, except Carter who did not play golf – it seems practically a prerequisite that you play golf to be president). He was also considered no longer in touch with the younger generation and did not really change his comedic presentation as he grew older.

Annex-Hope-Bob-Ghost-Breakers-The_01

Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers

The book wisely does not focus too much on his private life, partially because he did not have much of a private life. Not even his four children (he and his wife, Dolores, adopted) knew him or even saw him much. He was married for 70 years, though he was an extreme philanderer. But what he mostly did was work. He hardly ever took a break and even when he was in his eighties people marveled at his energy and schedule. He would pack his week so full of shows and travel that most young people would have hesitated to undertake. He never seemed to suffer from burnout. Occasionally he had to slow down, but not for long and not often. He was the original energizer bunny.

One thing I appreciated was that Zoglin never falls into the biographer’s trap of thinking he has a special understanding of his subject and he does not try to analyze Bob Hope too much. He simply takes the man as he was. It is a respectful biography, not hagiographic or smutty. Bob Hope was a professional and he loved his fans and was conscientious about responding to letters. He could be demanding, loyal, distant, friendly, self-absorbed, a shrewd business man, a master at crafting his image, not a warm man. It was all about him and his career and his wife supported him in that.

Hope: Entertainer of the Century is not only a good biography, it is an interesting panoramic of entertainment in the 1900s, from vaudeville to radio to Broadway to movies to television. Few men embody the sweep of how entertainment was presented to Americans better than Bob Hope.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Biographies

 

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James J. Corbett: A Biography of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion and Popular Theater Headliner – by Armond Fields

thW4DJPVVSI recently saw the 1942 movie Gentleman Jim, with Errol Flynn as the boxer, James J. Corbett. It was a rip-roaring good movie with an excellent performance from Flynn and full of well enacted boxing matches. I was inspired and set out to find a good biography of the man. However, there are not many biographies written about Corbett, but I finally settled on Armond Fields’ James J. Corbett: A Biography of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion and Popular Theater Headliner, published in 2001. I noticed that many of the books written by Fields were about vaudeville performers from Corbett’s time, like Lillian Russell and Eddie Foy, which puzzled me until I read about the life of Corbett. It turns out that he was nearly as accomplished a vaudevillian as he was a boxer, though perhaps he was more innovative and game-changing as a boxer.

Boxing was not a respectable sport in the eighteen hundreds. In the eyes of polite society, it was more like brawling. Pugilists (which seems to be what professional boxers were called; amateurs were boxers) didn’t wear gloves, rules during the matchs weren’t fixed and often bouts would end in a bloody, brawling mess. People were shocked and boxing was outlawed in many states.

1-james-j-corbett-grangerHowever, James J. Corbett changed that…or, at least, he helped. He began as an amateur boxer at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (a reputable club for gentleman, though he was only the son of the owner of a livery). He would give exhibitions, though he could not earn money from it, and he would also teach pugilism. However, he really wanted to make a career out of boxing, much to the dismay of his father. His father thought he should be a respectable bank clerk.

In fact, there were many people who disapproved of his decision to go professional, though he soon laid everyone’s doubts to rest (save his father’s) by defeating the great John L. Sullivan in 1892 to become the heavyweight champion of the world. His family apparently made a killing through various bets on the match. His brother ran a pool room and also handled much of the sports betting transactions in San Francisco and his sisters, brothers, and even his father did very well out of his win.

And right after he become heavyweight champion is when Corbett’s second career began; a career that would actually last far longer than his boxing career. To capitalize on his huge popularity, his manager put him in a play, a play that was more boxing exhibition than actual drama, but Corbett acquitted himself adequately and people flocked to see him, standing room only at all his showings, and he toured the country. He next moved on to another show, this time more of a play than exhibition, and his acting had improved some. He was making far more money acting than he was boxing and he even allowed his championship to lapse by refusing to meet another boxer who had challenged him. He regained his title later, but when he came up against Bob Fitzsimmons, he lost. His family felt it was because he had allowed himself to be distracted by his acting.

240px-James_j_corbettThis did not diminish his popularity, however. He seems to have remained all his life a great popular figure. Even his attempts to regain the title when he was past his boxing prime were seen as gallant and endearing. He never completely left boxing behind and his acting steadily improved. His plays become actual plays instead of about boxing and he was taken seriously as a performer, always to sold out crowds.

Fields shows how Corbett demonstrated a remarkable ability to move with the times. Earning money always seems to have been a prime object with Corbett and he did quite well at it. Not only did he act in plays, but he became quite adept on vaudeville. Many boxers seem to have done two things after they were done boxing: open a saloon and turn to vaudeville. Corbett was unique in that he was actually successful at both, though he sold his saloon to focus on acting. He began by giving boxing exhibitions and also started talking about boxing on stage, doing what is called monologues. Monologuing was an art form and he was quite good at it. He had a friendly, down-to-earth style and would talk about boxing, his experiences acting, his travels, even his appendectomy and stay in the hospital and when the vaudeville tours he was with were reviewed, he was always mentioned approvingly.

Later, he was part of several comedy teams, playing the straight man reacting to the antics of the other and he was considered one of the best in the business. He also made several silent movies. An interesting bit that Fields also brought out was how the heyday of vaudeville was in the early nineteen hundreds but was essentially killed, during Corbett’s lifetime and all vaudevillians knew it was coming, by the advent of silent pictures. Vaudeville had begun as one of the only ways for working class men to entertain themselves (the rich went to operas and plays and concerts), but movies took their place. Musicals (such as those written by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern) also became big in the ’20s.

th2ZQ1PY3AJames J. Corbett seems largely forgotten today, but Fields shows he really was important in both vaudeville and boxing. He helped make both respectable. Women and the upper classes did not attend either, but with his all-American, friendly, pleasant and dapper persona, he was a reassuring presence in both areas and soon boxing and vaudeville gained a much wider audience because of him. He is also considered one of the first scientific boxers, using art and good footwork instead of simply charging in and swinging, relying on brute force.

Fields also fills the biography with fascinating facts. For example, whenever someone wanted to arrange a boxing match, there was the inevitable problem of trying to find a legal location in which to hold the match. As soon as a city was selected then the governor would come out against it, some churches and societies would protest, and lawmakers would move to prevent it, though the city council would usually want it because they felt it would bring in revenue. One governor even threatened to send the militia to stop the match and Corbett and his opponent must have tried at least three different cities before finding one, though the governor did send the militia. The militia ending up hanging around and were never called on, however.

Boxers were perpetually being arrested for participating or intending to participate in the illegal sport. Boxing was like a quasi legal sport, subject to the vicissitudes of state and city. Once, the managers of several boxers got involved and helped get lawmakers to pass legislation so it would be legal to have their match.

The book was very engaging and gave a wonderful sense of the times from the 1890s-1920s, describing both the boxing matches and his vaudeville performances, and Fields shows how Corbett was almost a hero in his era, always respected, who gave a good deal of respectability to everything he participated in.

In 1894, Corbett and boxer Peter Courtney participated in a six round bout that was filmed by one of Edison’s kinetographs (early movie camera). It was only the second boxing match ever filmed, though it is not a proper match. They only had film for 6 rounds, so the match was somewhat staged and there was no doubt Corbett was going to win, though he wasn’t supposed to win too soon. Corbett is the man in the very short shorts, which apparently were often worn by boxers in those days, though I am glad they don’t wear them anymore. Courtney is in the tights.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Biographies

 

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Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson – and Mary Poppins’ Age

I was recently trying to read Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, by Valerie Lawson, and quite frankly I got bored. My reading progress was slowing down to almost nil and that is always a sign to me that I should give up. There are too many books I want to read to get bogged down by dull books. I picked up several other books about Jane Austen and Mary Astor and it’s amazing how much reading I’ve gotten done since.

I used to feel intensely guilty about not finishing a book, but I’ve developed a scheme to help me. If I am one-third of the way through a book and I still don’t like it or am struggling, then I can put it down. If I’m halfway through or more, then I just need to push through, boring or not. But I was two-thirds of the way through Mary Poppins, She Wrote, however, I was making such desultory progress and there were so many books I had from the library, sitting in a basket, begging me to read them, that I finally gave up. I felt instant release.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. TraversMary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps I just wasn’t interested enough in the life of P.L. Travers. She seems to have been a very unhappy woman, always seeking peace or solace in the spiritual. She was very interested in the mystical and seems to have had fraught relationships with a variety of people, but the books very rarely explains in what way. It’s all surface detail or assertion. I’ve read books that contain a lot of surface detail – usually because there really is no personal information available – but do a better job of connecting that person’s life with the times they live in. In this, we never get a sense of any of her relationships with others, even with her adopted son, Camillus. We learn she was born in Australia, did some acting, wrote some poetry, went to England, wrote Mary Poppins, adopted a son without taking his twin, went to America during WWII, and so on, but it’s just cold facts.

I did glean a few interesting facts about the character and origins of Mary Poppins, however. One of the first mentions of Mary Poppins was in a short story Travers wrote while she was still in Australia. Mary Poppins was the seventeen years old nanny who goes out with her boyfriend, the match man, and they jump into a chalk picture and have tea. Apparently, Travers took the whole short story and put it into her book, presumably minus the romance. She was reportedly annoyed that Disney chose that particular episode to go in the movie.

Another interesting tidbit is about Mary Poppins’ age. I always thought she was in her late thirties or early forties (though my sister tells me she always imagined her younger) and Walt Disney apparently was concerned that she was, too. He asked Travers and she replied that Mary Poppins is between twenty-four and twenty-seven…so Julie Andrews, at almost thirty, was actually about the correct age.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Biographies

 

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