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.

Book Review: JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster)

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He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction” –

Kris Kristofferson, The Pilgrim

He was a football star at USC who also starred on the debate team. A primitive that could quote Shakespeare, Keats, and Churchill with ease. A two-fisted, hard drinker who was adept at chess and bridge. A man some called racist whose three wives were all Hispanic. To his friends, he was Duke Morrison, but to the world he was known as John Wayne. This definitive, well researched biography by Scott Eyman was released in hardcover in 2014, and is now available in trade paperback form. Eyman, who also wrote the definitive book on John Ford (1999’s PRINT THE LEGEND: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN FORD), spent years to make this the last word on John Wayne, separating the man from the myth, in this in-depth study of how the boy from Winterset, Iowa became the enduring box-office superstar.

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The book covers young Duke from his beginnings with a job-hopping father and ice-cold mother, through his formative years growing up in Glendale, California. We learn that Wayne, despite his reports to the contrary, didn’t just “fall into” filmmaking. From his time as prop boy for John Ford, to his doomed blockbuster THE BIG TRAIL (1930), to his years toiling in low-budget oaters, Wayne absorbed everything about the making of movies. When Ford cast him as The Ringo Kid in 1939’s STAGECOACH, a star was born, and soon John Wayne became a well constructed screen persona. He developed this character piece by piece over the years, learning from Ford, Harry Carey Sr, Yakima Canutt, and Paul Fix to craft the image we’re all familiar with, an image Wayne carefully protected over the decades.

Wayne’s flaws as a human are all here: his affair with Marlene Dietrich, contributing to the failure of his first marriage; his association with the Communist-blacklisting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; his hawkish stand on the Vietnam War (and the critical drubbing he took for making THE GREEN BERETS); his controversial 1971 Playboy Interview. But there’s a softer side to the man, as well: a devoted family man to his children; his fierce loyalty to those who were there when he was a struggling actor; his regret at not serving in World War II (mainly because Republic Studios honcho Herbert Yates kept getting deferments so as not to lose his only cash cow); and his final battle with the cancer that killed him.

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There are drinking stories with Ford, Howard Hawks, Ward Bond, and Robert Mitchum, a glimpse into his literary tastes (everything from Zane Grey to J.R.R. Tolkein), his Oscar-winning role for TRUE GRIT, and his decade-plus long, Ahab-like quest to film his vision of THE ALAMO, which almost bankrupted him. His collaborations with Ford are well covered here. Wayne looked up to Ford, the only man who could browbeat him in public and get away with it. With lesser directors, Wayne pretty much took over the reins, as he knew more about making movies than any dozen film school grads could possibly imagine.

Duke Morrison and John Wayne shared an important common trait; both are rugged individualists who did whatever it took to achieve their own manifest destiny. For the screen Wayne, it was the taming of the American West. For Duke Morrison, it was an escape from childhood poverty and B-movie obscurity to become an iconic hero to millions. He’s a fascinating, all-too-human man, and this book should be required reading for lovers of The Duke and classic film. Love him or hate him, agree or disagree with his politics, John Wayne was a true American cinema original, and JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND tells his story in full, vivid detail. There’s a passage on page 563 that, for a lifelong Wayne fan like myself, sent shivers up my spine:

“The tribute that might have meant most to Wayne happened in Durango, Mexico, where Burt Lancaster was on location. When word came that John Wayne had died, the cast and crew paused for a minute of silence. They were making CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES.

They were making a western.” -Scott Eyman, JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND (Simon & Schuster, copyright 2014)

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Book Review: ANDY & DON: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show (Simon and Schuster)

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THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW is one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history, still being run on cable networks fifty-five years after its debut. The show about life in small town Mayberry revolves around the friendship between mellow Sheriff Andy Taylor and his hyperactive deputy, Barney Fife. ANDY & DON not only tells us about them, but about the real life friendship between the two stars, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

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The book shows us the very similar backgrounds of the two comic legends. Both came from poor rural towns (Knotts in West Virginia, Griffith in North Carolina), and had their share of grief and difficulty growing up. The pair met when both were cast in the Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants, and hit it off right away. When Griffith was slated to star in a new sitcom as a country sheriff, Knotts called and asked if he could use a deputy. The rest is television history, as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW became a consistent top ten smash, winning several Emmys for Knotts as klutzy, inept Barney Fife. Even after Knotts left to do movies, the two remained friends until their dying day.

Author Daniel de Vise’ was brother-in-law to Knotts by his third marriage (both stars were thrice wed). He seems a little biased, painting Knotts more sympathetically despite his flaws, while Griffith comes off as kind of a jerk, more Lonesome Rhodes than Andy Taylor. But the book is meticulously researched, as the author interviewed people like Ron Howard, Jim Nabors (Gomer!), Tim Conway, Ken Berry, and various members of the Griffith and Knotts clans, as well as their managers, so the claims may be true. It’s an enjoyable read for fans, and gives us a warts-and-all look at both stars. Through all their triumphs and tragedies, their friendship remained intact, a testament to the warmth you feel whenever Griffith and Knotts share the screen. If you like behind the scenes tales of Hollywood, ANDY & DON is a book you shouldn’t miss.