The public tributes to Bob Hope will stress his patriotism, his numberless trips to entertain the troops overseas, his notable backing for Richard Nixon during Vietnam. Nothing is amiss here. Bob, born in England, was a bona-fide American patriot who labored for the troops out of proportion to any return he received for it.
Fame he had when his USO appearances began, during World War II.
Moola? Only a few Hollywood types, such as Gene Autry, equaled or topped him in the pecuniary sweepstakes.
What he did -- travel during war and peace, bringing home and memories and comfort to weary servicemen -- he did because he wanted to. Just that. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Vietnam roiled show biz as nothing before it had done, including the communist brouhahas of the '50s. The Hollywood establishment, then as now, was overwhelmingly liberal, anti-war and anti-Nixon. Over against the establishment stood a sparse if prestigious handful -- Bob, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Roz Russell, yes, and, for a time, that most implausible of conservatives, Frank Sinatra. "I just hated," said Bob, "to get involved in politics. ... I got a very negative feeling that the country was getting very little support from the news media."
He could have said that again! Much more than that, politically speaking, he abstained from saying. He was no Roseanne Barr of the Primitive Right.
He had a livelier, more vital distinction: He was funny. Fall-down, knee-slapping funny. The funniness of Bob Hope (so it seems to a longtime admirer) is a better point to address than the patriotism of Bob Hope -- commendable as the latter trait manifestly was.
Analyzing humor is the most sterile of pastimes. What's the point? You laugh, or you don't. Not everyone laughed with Bob, I am sure. But his one-liners and double takes were great; so also his self-satire. His favorite movie role was that of puffed-up coward and lovelorn Romeo. He was a loser who won -- provided Bing Crosby didn't cross him up in the last reel. His non-stop wit (and does anybody care that he had a stable of able writers?) raised him just an eyebrow above the average -- high enough for him to watch us, wryly, across the footlights, never so high as to put him out of touch with those laughing so heartily with him.
The humor of Bob Hope was sharp, discerning, self-depreciatory: very, very American. Ah, and genial. Let's not leave that out.
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