As is the case with nearly everyone, the holidays have been a busy time of year for me. They’ve been so busy, in fact, that I simply haven’t had time to participate in some of the classic film blog collaborations that I really care about, namely Genre Grandeur hosted by Rob of Movierob. If you aren’t already aware of Genre Grandeur, every month a different film blogger chooses a genre of film for other bloggers to discuss, and at the end of the month all of the posts are gathered together for the entire community to see. I’m absolutely thrilled to announce here that I was chosen to pick January’s genre, and I’ve chosen my favorite, Romance! Definitely keep an eye out for my post, and don’t hesitate to contact Movierob if you’d like to be a part of the fun! This month, Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In chose the documentary genre, and I couldn’t have been happier! I adore classic film documentaries, particularly if they’re related to the life of a single Old Hollywood star. I’ve seen quite a few, but it’s difficult for me to pinpoint a lengthy list of favorites like I did when I ranked my Top Ten Favorite Screwball Comedies for September, so I decided to give a new documentary a try and write a review as my contribution. At first this seemed like an easy task, but upon further inspection of my watchlists I realized that only three documentaries appeared. The first two were Ava Gardner: Life Is Bigger Than The Movies (2017) and Sinatra: To be Frank (2015), both of which I eliminated out of fear of being redundant, as I just covered the life of Frank Sinatra earlier this month as part of my Cooking with the Stars column, and I even more recently highlighted Gardner as part of the Ava Gardner Blogathon three days ago.
Hence my decision was made for me, and I sat down to watch the recently released episode of the captivating PBS series American Masters: This is Bob Hope (2017). To me, Bob Hope has always been a legend, but somehow one that was just beyond my reach. I may have only been seven years old at the time, but I distinctly remember the day he died and what an immeasurable loss it was. He spent much of his time in Palm Springs, California, the city where I spent a lot of my formative years. I heard countless stories about his time there, and it was nearly impossible to travel about the city without discovering evidence of his legacy. I passed by his stunning and immaculate home constantly. Perched high atop the side of the Coachella Valley, it was like an ever-present museum piece that reminded me of my close proximity to the gods and goddesses of the silver screen. Despite all of this, I never felt like I really knew him or developed an undying appreciation for his work like I should have. Watching this documentary was almost cathartic for me, as it was not only the culmination of everything I had heard about this storied man, but so much more.
The film immediately dives into a prologue in which one of Hope’s personal letters is read by Billy Crystal. The letter, one of many excerpted for the film, was written during Hope’s years entertaining the troops as part of the USO during World War II, and quickly gives the audience a picture of some of Hope’s philanthropic work and one of the many accomplishments that made him great. From there, we’re transported all the way back to the beginning of his life as we’re told about his humble beginnings by a variety of those who knew and admired him, including his daughter Linda Hope, biographer and author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century (2014) Richard Zoglin, Dick Cavett, Conan O’Brien, Woody Allen, Tom Selleck, and Brooke Shields. The film discusses everything from how Bob developed his entertaining persona in order to get attention from his family as the fifth of seven sons to how growing up destitute impacted the rest of his life and career. American Masters: This is Bob Hope (2017) takes us through every stage of Bob’s road to success, from his appearances in vaudeville, to broadway, to radio, and eventually to so many of the films that we know and love. Every time I began to wonder if they would include a particular event or aspect of his life, it miraculously appeared, woven perfectly into this marvelous tapestry.
American Masters: This is Bob Hope (2017) taught me about the highs and the lows of his life, from his never-ending service to his country and his hilarious appearances in pictures and television to the very real, seldom-discussed fears that he harbored about being on the front lines and about the continuation of his legacy. I think what I admired most about this film was that it was unafraid of shining a light on “the bad” aspects of who Bob Hope was as a person. He was a charitable man, he was a kind man, but this documentary makes it clear that he wasn’t beyond reproach. It doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that he had a multitude of affairs during his sixty-nine-year marriage to Dolores Reade, a union which I had originally believed was perfect. It also includes his tone-deaf remarks and stances on draft dodgers and those who were against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. These were both black marks on his character which I was previously unaware of, but I couldn’t be more glad that we have a film like this which was able to bring myself, and undoubtedly others, back to earth, making us realize that underneath the nose, the wisecracks, and the fourth-wall-breaking, there was a genuine man with genuine faults. Before I watched American Masters: This is Bob Hope (2017), I didn’t know the real Bob Hope, and this documentary taught me that no one else really knew him, either. Nonetheless, I think this film couldn’t have been any finer. It allows the world to understand him better than we ever have before, and likely ever will again.