There is nothing in the annals of filmdom quite like this series, although there have been many attempts to re-create the winning formula. Hope and Crosby were never a vaudeville team; they were each independent movie stars with their own successful careers and personae, before, during and after the series. This already made them unique. The template they eventually settled into (it took them a couple of pictures to discover it) is an interesting mix of elements.
* Their relationship is an elaboration on the old minstrel/ burlesque/ vaudeville comedy team dynamic, with one member being the craftier, the other being the dumber one. It seems to me Hope was very generous in allowing himself to be the butt of the jokes. His normal screen character also had similar foibles (vanity, pride, cowardice) but he wasn’t usually presented as dumb. Their relationship also reminds me a bit of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The modern word for it is “frenemies”. While technically friends, they are constantly trying to get the edge over one another, and always find themselves butting heads over the same girl, traditionally Dorothy Lamour.
* In the opening beats of each film they are con men/ show-people forced to flee their present location as the result of a peccadillo, much like Mark Twain’s Duke and Dauphin. They seem to embody all of show business: they do mind-reading and shell-games, but they also do hat and cane vaudeville routines, are jazz musicians (usually horn and reed players), and do circus stunts (Hope takes the risks, Crosby collects the cash). Sometimes they embrace all of these show biz forms all in the same movie. This indeterminate vagueness, and the scope of it, gives the films a magical quality.
* The films in turn are an interesting commentary on Hollywood formula. In every film they are forced to leave their present home base to go on an adventure. Along the way, they will fall in love with a woman (unfortunately it’s the same one for both of them), and get in and out of danger, encountering spies, crooks or evil potentates. In the best ones, they truly walk the line between parodying such films and making us actually care about the preposterous, picaresque plot.
* These movies sort of pick up where the Marx Brothers left off by exploding the narrative, giving the characters fourth wall breaking asides, apparent ad-libs (most of them actually devised beforehand by the comedians themselves or their writers), surprise cameo appearances by other stars, and referential jokes more appropriate to their own identities than those of the flimsy characters they are supposedly playing. (In other words, they are Bob Hope and Bing Crosby playing themselves, not whatever their names are in the script.
* These films were very much of their time, i.e., the time in which they originated, the 1940s, when America was still getting most of its entertainment from the cinema. A lot of their vitality rested on the fact that “The Movies” were very much the place to be when these pictures came out. By the end of the franchise, when America had become a TV culture, that dynamic had changed.
* And, lastly, and this probably goes without saying — the biggest drawback in these films to modern audiences is an extreme amount of cultural disrespect to the native inhabitants of whatever land the team is traipsing through. The best one can hope for is patronizing native-themed musical numbers. But on the whole, these are highly politically incorrect outings, a given for the time period we’re writing about. We don’t condone it; over a half century after their release these films are in part historical artifacts.
The Road to Singapore (1940)
This one almost doesn’t count. It’s a “real” movie, with none of the beloved elements that would later be established. It was made with no concept or plan that the teaming would ever go beyond this one picture. Thus the two men play real characters here, with no fourth wall breaking asides etc. Crosby plays a shipping heir who infuriates his father and fiancé by preferring to captain ships than sit behind a desk. Hope is his first mate. They go on the lam one last time preferring to be penniless bums in a shack in Kaigoon than put on a tie. They take up with native girl Lamour (stealing her away from Anthony Quinn) and make their living through Hope’s medicine show type notions. The father and fiancé show up but are unable to convince them to come back. A rather dull movie—hardly stacks up against a lot of other classic comedy movies released that same year by the likes of Chaplin, W.C. Fields, etc.
The Road to Zanzibar (1941)
Thus the second Hope-Crosby road picture is in some ways really the first. It’s really this one that establishes the formula. Much funnier, looser, broader than the first. The rapport between the two characters is much easier; and the relationship is the now familiar one. Crosby is the schemer, Hope is the one who must bare the brunt of his schemes. They start out with Hope as a carnival daredevil and Crosby as the pitchman – somewhere foreign. They accidentally burn the carnival down so take it on the lam, then Crosby gets sucked into buying an African diamond mine from the eccentric Eric Blore. On the way, they encounter Una Merkel and Dorothy Lamour who in turn swindle them – first with a scheme to buy Lamour out of slavery (their confederate is Douglas Dumbrill as an Arab white-slave trader!) Then they get the boys to bankroll a safari across the jungle, ostensibly to rescue Lamour’s father but really to take her to the rich man she wants to marry. It all blows up at a certain point, they part ways, then Hope and Crosby make their way back to the coast. Where they meet the girls (who haven’t married) and somehow everything is alright. (It really shouldn’t be). But it’s an enjoyable ride
The Road to Morocco (1942)
Here’s where they really hit their stride. Not as funny as Utopia — when they were really on a roll — but very nearly! This one is chock full of great stuff, and perhaps achieves the best balance between a substantial plot and foolery. We meet the boys adrift on a raft after Hope has destroyed the vessel they were on by smoking in the room containing gunpowder. When they make it to land they are in Morocco. Crosby sells Hope into slavery, then it emerges that Hope is to marry a Princess (Dorothy Lamour). It turns out it is because the Princess heard a prophecy that her first husband will die within a week and she wants to marry her love Anthony Quinn (who by now is practically a fourth member of their company). But then Lamour falls for Crosby (who sings “Moonlight Becomes You”). Later the boys are imprisoned by Quinn and his bedouins. They make their escape by tricking the guards and then play practical jokes on everyone (hotfoots and exploding cigars). They escape with the girls (Hope gets one too this time out) and arrive back in New York harbor where Hope once again blows up the ship and has his “Oscar moment”. Many memorable bits. Hope in drag as Aunt Lucy appearing to the boys in dreams (they are either brothers or cousins. Who pays attention.) Lots of funny business with camels. Etc. A first rate picture.
The Road to Utopia (1946)
The best of the series. Not much to say about it except that it’s pretty perfect, in my view the peak of the series. In this one they cross the line that balances plot with tomfoolery on to the side of tomfoolery, but not so much that we begin to lose interest. It is the only period piece in the series, set in the Alaskan gold rush of the 1890s, although the framing device that begins and ends the film is set in the present day. They play a vaudeville team that goes to the Klondike disguised as a couple of notorious bad guys, with long scruffy beards. The ruse allows them to terrify the rough tough guys around them, even as they scheme to locate a gold mine on a map they’ve found. “Utopia” is the name of fictional mining camp that is their destination. The script, performances and songs are all excellent
The Road to Rio (1947)
I felt a certain fatigue in this one, as though the franchise had already crested, and maybe that’s why they laid off for a few years. In this one the plot seems too much neglected, to that extent that one keeps forgetting what it is supposed to be as we go from comic set piece to comic set piece. In this one, the boys start by burning down yet another carnival, and must flee the country, stowing away on a ship out of New Orleans bound for Rio (thus allowing them to take advantage of the Latin craze that was still gripping pop culture that year…rhumba, samba, Carmen Miranda, The Three Caballeros, etc etc). Along the way they meet heiress Dorothy Lamour on board, who is being hypnotized by her evil aunt Gale Sondergaard to marry a man against her wishes. Along the way we get musical turns by the Andrews Sisters and comical turns by the Weire Brothers, who are kind of like the Ritz Brothers, only they don’t speak English. But the writers are so cavalier about plot points that we feel betrayed. The nature of some “secret papers” which have been the MacGuffin are purposefully not revealed. And a cavalry charge led by Jerry Colonna does not rescue the heroes. What’s the point? Comedy fans might retort, “The point is that it’s funny”, but you see the problem is that it is not.
The Road to Bali (1952)
After a nice long hiatus of five years, the franchise seems to regain some of its steam again. The plot seems a little better in this one (although it’s extremely simple, but we don’t abandon it as in Rio), and there are lots of new elements: color (the only one of the series to have it), and celebrity cameos by Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Jane Russell, Bing Crosby’s brother Bob, and (via a clip from The African Queen) Humphrey Bogart. In this one, the boys are performing in Melbourne when they are forced to flee no less than two farmers daughters. Desperate for a job, they wind up as treasure divers for some sort of Balinese potentate, and both falling in love with his “cousin”, played by Dorothy Lamour (who is given a Scottish father to placate the sensibilities of any racists in the audience). The film gives us a giant squid and a guy in a gorilla suit — two excellent comedy animals. And a very bizarre (and topical) climax, when Hope and Crosby are rescued by a tribe of headhunters, only to be forced (almost) to marry each other, a sacrilege to cannibals and Christians alike. Whether the final act is homophobic or homoerotic is in the eyes of the beholder.
The Road to Hong Kong (1962)
The last Hope and Crosby road picture, ten years since the last one…and they’ve lost it. The concept was potentially interesting…it’s the 1960s now and the plot is full of Ian Fleming influence, it’s a lot like a James Bond picture. And Joan Collins has replaced Dorothy Lamour and that’s not to be sneezed at. I am on the same page with these gentlemen when it comes to ogling their comely new co-star. And yet…what of Dorothy Lamour? She has been relegated to a cameo on the basis of her age, and that’s just not right. Because Hope and Crosby are also both near 60 now, way too long in the tooth to play their own roles any more. They are simply wrong for their characters, who are supposed to be breezy, pushy, fast-talking, over-sexed red-blooded young American males. They are now too slow, too dignified looking (especially Hope whose character is supposed to be goofy and dumb—he no longer has that quality). And the sex stuff now seems lecherous and creepy. Also the two no longer seem like a team, even the loose one they once were. By now they are both serious American institutions on their own, practically the fifth and sixth faces on Mount Rushmore. As bad as many of Hope’s movies are during the last decade of his movie career at least he was sensibly cast (usually as an exasperated father). This one is not even a throwback, just a sad embarrassment. The picture is virtually stolen from them by the younger, fresher Peter Sellers.
The Road to the Fountain of Youth (1977)
If they were too old in Hong Kong, by this time Bing was so old that he perished, thus they didn’t make this legendary coulda-been, which would have been their eighth team-up. Hope, too, was aged by this point, but he still had some kick in him, his last film had only been five years earlier, and he was still hosting his tv specials throughout the 1980s and even making the occasional public appearance into the 1990s. Thanks to reader Joe McGrenro, I have now seen a treatment of the film by Mel Shavelson. If made according to this blueprint, I think it would most likely have been a weird and probably unworthy swan song, not unlike the ones we wrote about here. The script actually acknowledges that they’re both “old and tired” (in those exact words), and the premise is that they’re the same guys from Road to Morocco. Crosby’s there on vacation with his grandson. Then “Dorothy L’Amour” shows up — miraculously looking just like she did in the 1940s. This was before CGI — they’d have had to have cast a look-alike. A sultan has kept her young-looking with water from the Fountain of Youth, which our two codgers then go off in pursuit of. They’re the same sexed-up lechers, and that appears to be the only reason they want to regain their youthful vitality, which gives the whole thing an unsavory cast, but not one that was out of step with its times. I never think of the 1970s without feeling the need to take a shower. So the old coots leer and slobber and insult each others virility and they go on a boat to an island — which is pretty much what senior citizens do anyhow. Good lord, am I glad neither of them lived long enough to sully our ears with Viagra jokes!
For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube