Trouper for the Troops : DON’T SHOOT, IT’S ONLY ME Bob Hope’s Comedy History of the United States<i> by Bob Hope withMelville Shavelson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons: $19.95; 320 pp.) </i>
The subtitle of Bob Hope’s seventh book--"Bob Hope’s Comedy History of the United States"--is misleading. Strictly speaking, this is not a comedy history of America but of Hope’s place in it, which begins with his Pepsodent Hour Radio Show in 1938 and ends with a Madison Square Garden concert, with George Burns, in 1989. In between, Hope spent 44 Christmas seasons taking his show on the road in nearly every major combat theater from Europe in World War II to the Persian Gulf.
Hope has led a remarkable life. He’s outlived virtually all of the politicians, generals and national leaders--most of whom he’s met--who had a hand in shaping the world from the ‘30s through the Cold War, and he’s outlasted most of the comedy peers who moved along with him from vaudeville to radio to movies to television. Most of this book is given over to his travels to the troops, and their dangers: He once crash-landed in Australia; his hotel was bombed in Berlin, and only the mistiming of a detonator saved his troupe from being blown up in front of its Saigon hotel by the Viet Cong.
There’ve been any number of Hollywood performers and celebs who’ve gone out to entertain the troops over the years, but Hope’s tours have been the most famous. He got to obscure places such as Pavuvu and Bonica first, and he always lined up a powerhouse roster of starlets, singers, professional beauties and musicians to lighten the misery and homesickness of men and women at war. He brought them a slice of Americana--the pretty women, the romance of American pop songs, and his own sardonic, gliding quality that made it seem as though you could laugh your way through anything (that he was the first to parlay his appearances into radio and television shows couldn’t hurt his reputation either).
Nobody in show business has seen as much as Hope, and there are numerous references to the physical suffering he’s witnessed, such as a hospitalized GI smiling through a face streaming with blood, or starving Japanese kids looking for food scraps outside an Okinawan base. But there’s a stale, second-hand quality to this book, a kind of lengthy generic Bob Hope monologue that oils it with a celebrity slickness. Hope may think he’s offering comic relief by including excerpts from nearly every comedy routine he performed in a major combat zone, but that’s different from putting a comic mask on an unbearable sight, or finding a comic angle on pain.
Hope began his career as a teen-age song-and-dance man in Cleveland; his outlook has been shaped by show-biz values and references that may serve a performance routine but don’t serve one’s powers of description of complex major personalities and events. A characteristic passage reads:
“General Erwin Rommel and his German Afrika Corps had entered Egypt. Hitler had given secret orders to invade Russia. His honeymoon with Stalin was over, and poor Uncle Joe would soon discover, after all those months in bed with darling Adolf, the marriage license was over.”
And “Everything started happening at once in the war, as if both sides were rushing to get off the air. The Italians captured Mussolini and hung his mistress upside down beside him. Knowing this might upset Benito, they shot him first . . . . The Russians captured the Reichstag in Berlin, and before Hitler turned the gun on himself, he shot his girlfriend, Eva Braun . . . . Love, your magic spell was everywhere.”
And “Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were reelected over McGovern and Eagleton by an electoral vote of 521 to 17. Notre Dame couldn’t run up that kind of score against the DAR.”
When not replaying old monologue bits for us, Hope’s cursory reportage on major political developments is often angled for a punch line, or a dated reference (or both), which characteristically reads like this: “If you were paying attention, you may remember that the Vietnamese War finally ended in an agreement neither side intended to honor. It was like one of Zsa Zsa’s weddings.”
Hope offers an unwittingly self-revealing clue in this book when he quotes Milton Berle’s line: “Bob Hope has four children, two of whom he knows personally.” By the time we get to Thailand, late in Hope’s overseas career, an incident at an embassy party strikes an odd note. Hope can’t recall which of the pretty Thai ladies he’s danced with has picked his pocket and gained access to the troupe’s itinerary. It isn’t only the revelation that this is what probably led to the attempt on his life in Saigon that strikes us, it’s the realization that this is the only personal thing that has happened to him in the book. Although he’s quick to point out that the troops always (except for one date in Vietnam) represented a captive and enthusiastic audience, which assuages his insecurity, and that there were moments when he feared for his life, there’s little to reveal anything going on inside the man.
In retrospect, it’s as though when Leslie Townes took on the persona of Bob Hope he abandoned his private self, and with it his capacity for individual perception. What else could explain how such an extraordinary life could be borne away on such an empty breeze?