Book Review: HOPE: Entertainer of The Century by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

He was unquestionably one of the most famous, most recognized persons of the 20th Century, the father of what we now know as stand-up comedy, the first true multi-media star. A patriot and a philanderer, a giver and a taker, a smart-mouthed comic and a friend to presidents and generals. But who was Bob Hope, really? This ambitious 2014 biography by Richard Zoglin attempts to answer that question, a meticulously researched tome that tries to uncover the private man behind the public mask.

with vaudeville partner George Byrne

Zoglin digs deep into the available archives and uses interviews with those that knew him to paint his portrait of the notoriously reticent Bob Hope, reaching all the way back to his hardscrabble beginnings as an immigrant in Cleveland with six brothers, an alcoholic father who was an itinerant stone cutter, and a stern but loving mother who served as the de facto head of the household. Little Leslie Townes Hope was a wild child who spent time in reform school. He entered vaudeville at age 21, working with various partners (including at one point Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters), engaging in songs, dance, and snappy patter. Hope became an emcee for the shows, honing his future stand-up skills to perfection with rapid-fire comic delivery and engaging his audience by breaking the “fourth wall”, a gimmick he’d later utilize in his movie career.

with Shirley Ross in “The Big Broadcast of 1938”

It’s all here: his Broadway successes in ROBERTA and  RED, HOT, & BLUE; his early two-reelers for Educational and Vitaphone; his ascent to ratings domination on radio and television; entertaining the troops in conflicts around the globe for the USO; making Oscar broadcasts must-see TV as a 17 time host. Hope’s film career is well documented, from his first feature THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 where he and singer Shirley Ross introduced “Thanks for the Memory”, to his last starring role in 1972’s dreary CANCEL MY RESERVATION. The book details his marriage to Dolores Reade (née DeFina), a devout Catholic who kept the family together while Hope travelled the world, remaining loyal despite his myriad affairs with showgirls and starlets (Doris Day, Marilyn Maxwell, and Barbara Payton were among his better-known conquests).

Hope was considered a risqué comedian in his heyday, his brash and irreverent monologues frequently getting him in trouble with network radio censors. The wild and zany ROAD movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour caused audiences to howl with laughter at the madcap ad-libbing (and Zoglin uncovers the truth about Hope’s relationships with his costars). But yesterday’s cutting-edge comic quickly becomes today’s establishment shill, as Hope found out with his unpopular stance on the Vietnam War. Caught in a political crossfire and out of touch with the younger generation, Hope was a staunch supporter of both the war and President Richard Nixon, with whom he became an ally and confidant.

Bob Hope entertaining the troops in Vietnam

Zoglin’s book sheds light on Bob Hope’s inner workings: driven by memories of early poverty and his father’s failures, he used humor and performing as a coping skill, and like an addict with a needle or alcoholic with a bottle, developed an addiction to fame, fortune, and the spotlight, unable to stop until well past his prime. Inaction was death to Hope, he had to hear that applause and laughter to validate himself. It’s a fascinating, well written and researched book that belongs on any classic film lover’s shelf.

Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)

Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes off, vowing revenge, and assigning his torpedo ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) to plot the infamous mass murder.

Robards goes waaay over the top as Capone, a part Corman originally wanted Orson Welles to play (can you imagine?). He bellows, hollers, snarls and growls like a rabid wolverine, pops his eyes, and mugs shamelessly while chomping on a big old stogie. Yet somehow, it all works, since Capone’s such a larger-than-life character anyway. Meeker’s just a trifle more subdued (but not much!) as Moran, whether roaring at his own men with equal intensity, or throwing darts at a picture of Capone in his office.

The rest of the cast is a regular Rogue’s Gallery of Hollywood hoodlums. Segal gets most of the supporting screen time as Gusenberg, and he chews the scenery with the best of them, especially in the scene with his spendthrift moll (Jean Hale). You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the Familiar Faces here: John Agar , Richard Bakalyan, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Mary Grace Canfield, Alex D’Arcy, Mickey Deems, Bruce Dern Charles Dierkop , Milton Frome, Reed Hadley, Kurt Kreuger, Celia Lovsky , Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Joan Shawlee, Frank Silvera, and Harold J. Stone all appear, in roles both large and small. Some of Corman’s stock players also make cameos, including Leo Gordon , Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller (of course!), and Barboura Morris. Jack Nicholson, as a favor to Roger, does a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as one of the hired killers. When Miller asks what his goombah is rubbing on his bullets, Jack (using a raspy voice), says, “Garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning!”

Howard Browne adapted his 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 teleplay “Seven Against the Wall” into the screenplay. Browne was an old pro at pulp fiction, a former writer/editor of the magazines “Amazing Stories” and “Fantastic Adventures”. Browne only wrote two other films (1961’s PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER and 1975’s CAPONE, with Ben Gazzara as Scarface), but he was prolific in TV, writing for, among others, CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His 1954 novel “Thin Air” was adapted as episodes of both THE ROCKFORD FILES and SIMON & SIMON.

There’s plenty of violent tommy-gun action though the actual massacre takes less than thirty seconds. Corman is ably aided and abetted by DP Milton Krasner and Lionel Newman’s period score. The sets were refurbished from films like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE SAND PEBBLES, and HELLO, DOLLY to replicate 1920’s Chicago, and there’s loads of vintage autos and 20’s slang sprinkled throughout. Corman allegedly didn’t like working in the studio confines, and returned to his home at American-International. The independent filmmaker wanted to remain independent, free of the constraints of big-budget moviemaking and studio politics. But with THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, he proved to the world he could work within those confines just as well as the big boys, and gave fans of his work an entertainingly bloody valentine.

My Huckleberry Friend: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (Paramount 1961)

(“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” airs tonight, 6/12/17 at 8:00 EST on TCM as part of their month-long salute to Audrey Hepburn.)

“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky” – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

From it’s hauntingly romantic theme “Moon River” to it’s sophisticated screenplay by George Axelrod, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a near-perfect movie. The bittersweet comedy-drama stars Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar nominated performance as Holly Golightly, a New York “party girl” who winds up falling for struggling writer George Peppard. That Hepburn didn’t get the Oscar (Sophia Loren took it home that year for TWO WOMEN) is one of the Academy’s greatest crimes. The film has a very personal connection with me, as I’ll talk about at the end of this post.

We meet Holly emerging from a cab and walking down New York’s Fifth Avenue as dawn’s first rays begin to hit the city. She’s wearing a black cocktail dress and oversized sunglasses, and you know she hasn’t been home all night. One of her many “beaus” is waiting for her at her apartment, a creep begging to be let in, but Holly blows him off. She’s not the kind of girl to let anyone in, metaphorically speaking. Holly knows how to use men to take care of herself, to get what she wants, and isn’t about to allow anyone to own her. She doesn’t even own her cat, a stray “no-named slob” called Cat. He just lives there with her.

Enter Paul Varjak (Peppard), a down-on-his-luck author with one published novel who moves into Holly’s building. Paul has a wealthy benefactor, called 2E ( Patricia Neal ), who pays his way. Paul’s a “kept man”, and the two lost souls hit it off, with Holly nicknaming him ‘Fred’ because he reminds her of her brother. When another “beau” calls on her, banging at her door to be let in, Holly climbs the fire escape to Paul’s apartment. She spies 2E leaving cash on his dresser before leaving, and enters Paul’s bedroom. They sleep together, cuddling, until her nightmares awaken her, and when he pries about the things she said, she leaves.

Paul is obviously smitten with the free-spirited Holly, but their relationship is strictly platonic at first. When Paul finally confesses his love for her, Holly freezes up, turning cold and vowing to marry a rich Brazilian. She equates love with confinement and refuses to be caged. Audrey Hepburn gives a dazzling performance as Holly, outwardly flighty and glib, yet extremely vulnerable on the inside, a frightened child play-acting her way through adulthood in the big city. She’s flirtatious and charming and coy, “a phony, but a real phony”, as Martin Balsam’s character calls her, peppering her speech with French words and holding her extra-long cigarette holder like a magic wand. Audrey combines her naturally girlish qualities with a sexy worldliness, and makes Holly Golightly one of cinema’s most endearing characters.

George Peppard (THE CARPETBAGGERS, THE A-TEAM) has his best screen role as Paul Varjak. Unlike Holly, Paul has allowed himself to become a bird in someone else’s gilded cage, and it’s only after meeting do they learn true love holds the key to their freedom. The two have great chemistry together, and I especially enjoyed the scene where, after selling a short story, they celebrate by “doing things neither one of us has done before”, a series of vignettes that finds them at the venerable Tiffany’s on a ten-dollar budget (with John McGiver sweet as the clerk) and shoplifting Halloween masks from a five-and-ten cent store, ending their evening by spending the night together, which almost ruins their fragile relationship.

There are other fine small performances, in particular Buddy Ebsen as Holly’s older backwoods husband, who shows up in New York to take her home. Ebsen is sad and heartbreaking as Doc Golightly, still in love with this girl-child he married when she was 14, a girl who no longer exists except in his memory. Balsam and Neal are professional as always, and Alan “Fred Flintstone” Reed has a brief bit as gangster Sally Tomato, who pays Holly $100 a week to visit him in Sing Sing and get a “weather report”, which plays a part in the film’s comclusion. Other Familiar Faces include Stanley Adams  , Elvia Allman , Henry Beckman, Beverly Hills, Gil Lamb, Joyce Meadows, Joan Staley, Dorothy Whitney, and two-time Patsy Award winner Orangey as Cat, a talented feline I’ve discussed before (see THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) .

The only drawback is Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s apoplectic neighbor Mr. Yunioshi. He’s goes way over the top with his exaggerated Japanese accent and mannerisms, and his slapstick bits just don’t fit. Perhaps a real Asian actor like Keye Luke or Victor Sen Young could’ve pulled the character off. Rooney doesn’t. He’s just bad. Fortunately, his scene’s are brief enough not to distract from the film’s overall quality.

Former actor Blake Edwards takes the director’s chair, and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S was his breakthrough film. Edwards had created the stylish TV noir PETER GUNN, and his resume reads like a list of Hollywood’s best: DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE GREAT RACE, 10, SOB, VICTOR/VICTORIA, and the PINK PANTHER movies. Axelrod’s script is adapted from a Truman Capote novella, though slightly sanitized for the screen. Holly isn’t actually called a prostitute in the film, but that’s exactly what she is; taking money from men for “favors” (For that matter, so is Paul). Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s song “Moon River”, wistfully sung in the film by Audrey herself, deservedly won the Oscar that year. It was later became a big hit for crooner Andy Williams, and became his signature tune.

True Confessions Time: Many moons ago, I played ‘Paul Varjak’ to a real-life ‘Holly Golightly’. She moved into the apartment upstairs from me, and I met her late one night coming up the steps in a black cocktail dress. She was also a “party girl”, and I at the time was trying to be a writer (unsuccessfully, I may add). There was even a cat involved (his name was Stimpy). Like the film’s character, my ‘Holly’ was a wild thing, supporting herself as best she could, moving from man to man frequently. My relationships at the time were not the model of stability, and neither was I, so I didn’t judge. There was a brief romance, but mostly we’d see each other between partners and curl up together to sleep, two lost souls bonded by our loneliness. But life doesn’t always perfectly imitate art. She became a heroin addict, we drifted apart, and time marched on . Many years later, I heard she had gotten into a jam involving a lot of narcotics and went on the lam from the Feds, her whereabouts unknown. Somewhere down south, or so I was told. She was a sweet, troubled free spirit who always wound up with the wrong end of the lollipop. Wherever you are, my ‘Holly’, may God be with you.

Confessions of a TV Addict #2: A Fan’s Appreciation of Adam West

Adam West, who died June 9th at age 88, will never be ranked among the world’s greatest thespians. He was no Brando or Olivier, no DeNiro or Pacino. His early career wasn’t very distinguished: one of Robert Taylor’s young charges in the final season of THE DETECTIVES, Paul Mantee’s doomed fellow astronaut in 1964’s ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, the bumbling romantic lead in The Three Stooges’ THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (1965). Were it not for one role, no one would be mourning his loss today. But that one role, as millionaire Bruce Wayne aka BATMAN, captured the imagination of an entire nation, and remains the hero of an entire generation.

It’s hard to describe to anyone who wasn’t a kid in 1966 just what BATMAN meant to us. The series was a comic book come to life, before comics became “dark and brooding” little psychodramas for fanboys. Comic Books were OUR medium, written for kids as escapist fare, full of color and action. When BATMAN first hit the airwaves on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, it was an event, and every kid was glued to their set for a half hour as Batman and his faithful sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder went up against The Riddler (a pitch-perfect Frank Gorshin) and his Mole Hill Mob. The episode features The Caped Crusader doing the “Batusi” at the What-A-Way-To-Go-Go Club, later aped by John Travolta in PULP FICTION. Meanwhile, Robin is captured by Riddler and strapped to an operating table and… TUNE IN TOMORROW, SAME BAT-TIME, SAME BAT-CHANNEL!!

That’s right, the series ran in two parts, on successive nights, a distinction held only by prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE. You can just imagine the buzz at school the next day; “Did you see Batman last night?”, “It was so cool!”, “Wonder what’s gonna happen tonight?”. Kids across America were instantly hooked, like little druggies ravenously awaiting their next fix. Everyone was singing our new national anthem: “Nananananananana-nananananananana BAT-MAN!!!”. High camp my ass; to us, BATMAN was high art!!

Paul Newman or Sean Connery couldn’t have done any better than Adam West. Playing the part completely straight amidst all the campiness going on around him, West’s Caped Crusader was the ultimate do-gooder, and straight as an arrow. His deadpan acting while wearing that silly costume and fiddling about with gadgetry like the Bat-Compute, flinging his Batarang high up a building and scaling the side, or admonishing Robin to always wear his safety belt, was the glue holding the series together.

West was the show’s moral compass, a total square in a mad pop-art world of florid villains and onomatopoeia sound effects. He held his own ground against a plethora of actors more colorful than he playing his dastardly foes. There were scene stealers galore: Cesar Romero  (Joker), Burgess Meredith  (Penguin), Vincent Price (Egghead), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Victor Buono (King Tut), George Sanders/ Otto Preminger Eli Wallach (all taking turns as Mr. Freeze), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), and many more, all much more accomplished actors pitted against West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo. Yet it was Adam West we all tuned in for week after week to watch and enjoy as he defeated the bad guys and made Gotham City’s citizens safe once again.

The camp superhero craze didn’t last long. Just three short seasons and America moved on to the next big thing, and Adam West’s career was kaput. I told you about his rise, fall, and rebirth as an ironic icon in yesterday’s post , so I won’t rehash his saga once again. I just want to say thank you to Adam West for making childhood enjoyable every Wednesday and Thursday night during those three seasons of scintillating 60’s superhero action. Job well done, citizen. You’ve earned your rest.

Kicking Off A Trend: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (Warner Brothers 1972)

When FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH first hit the local multiplex back in the day, everybody in the neighborhood was kung-fu fighting, throwing chops and roundhouse kicks at each other, trying to be like star Lo Lieh. Bruce Lee’s movies hadn’t yet made it our way, but David Carradine’s KUNG FU was must-see TV for every adolescent boy (and some of the cooler girls). Pretty soon  chop-sockey action spread all over the city’s theaters, but it was FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH that reached New Bedford, MA first, and has always held a special place in my heart.

Hong Kong action star Lo Lieh plays Chao Chih-Hao, who’s sent to Shen Chin-Pei’s school by his mentor to train further and defeat Ming Dun-Shun’s “gangsters” in a martial arts tournament. Chih-Hao rescues damsel in distress Yen Chu Hung from some bad guys along the way, and though she comes on to him, his heart belongs to his mentor’s daughter Sung Ying Ying. Arriving at the school, Chih-Hao is mercilessly ridden by his teachers and fellow students, especially jealous Han Lung, but he keeps his head down and persists in his studies.

Dun-Shun’s toughest dude Chin Lang comes to the school and threatens Chin-Pei, beating the crap out of all the students and giving Chin-Pei a “dishonorable blow” for good measure. When Chih-Hao hears of this, he goes to the local bar and, after pouring wine over Lang’s head, engages in a fast and furious fight, emerging victorious. Chin-Pei is so impressed by his bravery he decides to teach Chih-Hao the lethal secret technique known as “The Iron Fist”!! Chih-Hao’s hands turn red whenever he gears up to use it, and the siren from the theme from IRONSIDE plays!

The bad guys get wind of this and import some brutal Japanese mercenaries to shake things up.  Han Lung, still jealous of Chih-Hao and Chu Hung’s feelings toward him, sets our hero up, as the mercs waylay him and ruthlessly break both his hands! Nursed back to health by Chu Hung, he trains harder than ever to master the way of “The Iron Fist” and represent the school in the tournament.

The almost non-stop violence and action has a poetic quality to it. Bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and every fight is a well choreographed ballet. There’s also lots of gore, as when Chih-Hao’s old teacher is killed by the mercs in a bloody good scene, or when Han Lung, having failed to stop Chih-Hao, has his eyes ripped out by Dun-Shun’s rotten son. He gets his “eye for an eye” revenge later in a scene shot in a darkened room, reminiscent of American film noir. The final tournament battle’s a dilly, and so’s the ending, an action packed dance of violence sure to please any kung-fu fan.

Producer Sir Run Run Shaw had been involved with movies since 1927, and his Shaw Brothers studio was the largest in Southeast Asia. This was their first stateside hit, and opened the floodgates for the kung-fu genre here in America. Bruce Lee would soon take over as the world’s #1 Martial Arts star, and stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would follow in his footsteps. But FIVE FINGER OF DEATH (also known as KING BOXER) is the film that started it all, and it still holds up well today, despite the really bad dubbing. Then again, that’s just part of what makes these chop-sockey movies so much fun!

RIP ADAM WEST, TV’S CAPED CRUSADER

News has spread that Adam West, star of 60’s campy superhero series BATMAN, has passed away at the age of 88. In his memory, I’m reposting my piece on the documentary STARRING ADAM WEST, first published 7/22/15 on the website “Through the Shattered Lens”. I’ll have more on West’s career tomorrow:

Holy high camp! STARRING ADAM WEST is a fun documentary about the quest to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for 60’s TV star Adam BATMAN West. The film also serves as a biography of the cult actor, from his humble beginnings as a child in Walla Walla, Washington to his rise as TV’s biggest star of the mid-60s, and his fall after being typecast as the Caped Crusader, reduced to performing in crappy car shows and carnivals. West later resurrected his career as an ironic icon in the 90s and still does voice work today, notably on the animated FAMILY GUY. Through all the ups and downs, the star has retained both his sense of humor and love of family. An entertaining look at a down to earth guy in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of show biz, STARRING ADAM WEST is playing all this month on Showtime.

Confessions of a TV Addict #1: It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… No, It’s CAPTAIN NICE (NBC-TV 1967)

Yes, that’s distinguished actor William Daniels in those long-johns as CAPTAIN NICE, which aired Monday nights on NBC-TV for eight months and fifteen episodes during the height of the superhero camp craze in 1967. Similar in theme to MISTER TERRIFIC on rival CBS, I preferred this one as a kid because of it’s MAD Magazine-level of jokes and gags – which ain’t a bad thing, in my book! The silly superhero series was created by Buck Henry, who also (along with pal Mel Brooks ) was responsible for another campy sitcom, the 60’s spy spoof GET SMART!

Mild -mannered chemist Carter Nash works for the Big Town Police Department, and invents a super-secret super-formula that transforms him into Captain Nice. His domineering mother (Alice Ghostley) sews him up a super-suit and tells him to go out and fight crime like a good boy. Carter’s got all the powers of Superman, except he’s a bit of a klutz and is scared of heights. Nevertheless, Captain Nice hitches up his britches and embarks on protecting Big Town from the rotten bad guys.

Meter Maid Candy Kane (Ann Prentiss), unlike Superman’s Lois Lane, prefers Carter’s intellect to the brawny Captain. Big Town’s Mayor Finney (Liam Dunn) and Police Chief Segal (Bill Zuckert) are a pair of bumbling politicians dependent on the good Captain to save their city on a weekly basis. Carter’s never seen or heard father, forever sitting in his easy chair with a newspaper covering his face, is none other than veteran movie milquetoast Byron Foulger.

Captain Nice battled a super-powered caterpillar that accidently drank some of his formula, a treacherous Sheik (Larry D. Mann), and other assorted no-goodniks. He even had his own arch-enemy of sorts, the mentalist Medula (played by veteran bad guy John Dehner), who appeared in two episodes. Comedian Bob Newhart even guested in an episode as a night club owner targeted by gangsters, who the Captain was assigned to protect.

Despite the efforts of sitcom directors Gene Nelson, Charles R. Rondeau, and Gene Reynolds (MASH), and a writing staff that included GET SMART vets Henry, Dave Ketchum, Stan Burns, and Arne Sultan, the show was destroyed in the ratings by another superpowerhouse, CBS’s THE LUCY SHOW, and beaten to a pulp by ABC’s THE RAT PATROL. CAPTAIN NICE doesn’t have much of a presence on YouTube, but is available on DVD online, or you can watch episodes at http://www.tvguide.com/tvshows/captain-nice200367/. If you don’t take your superheroes too seriously, you’ll get a kick out of this slice of 60’s satirical camp! We’ll close things out here with the theme from CAPTAIN NICE. Maestro, if you please:

(Readers: do you have any obscure TV shows you’d like to see covered here? Please leave a comment and let me know!)