Monday, April 6, 2009

The "Road" Pictures

When people think of the highest grossing comedy teams in the history of movies, they might think of the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello. They might even consider Martin and Lewis or Laurel and Hardy. Among the highest grossing grossing comedy teams in movie history would certainly be the duo of Hope and Crosby. Along with Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would make seven "Road" pictures together. Starting with Road to Singapore in 1940, they would become among the most successful comedies in history. Not only did they make a good deal of money, but they would prove to be very influential. They would often be imitated, but never matched.

Contrary to popular belief, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did not team up for the first time on the "Road" movies. The two had actually operated as a team much earlier. It was October 14, 1932 on the street near the Friar's Club in New York City that already successful crooner Bing Crosby was introduced to up and coming comedian Bob Hope. It was six weeks later that the two played a live show that opened for The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff. Their bill at the Capitol Theatre only lasted from December 2 to December 8, but it was enough for Hope and Crosby to gel as a team. The two would go onto do a few more shows together.

That brings us to a few years later. According to Turner Classic Movies nobody is certain how Road to Singapore came to the screen, although they offer the most likely explanation. Quite simply, Paramount had purchased an adventure story from Harvey Hervey entitled Road to Mandalay, which was transformed into a comedy vehicle for the team of Burns and Allen. The couple turned it down, according to George Burns because Gracie Allen thought it was "silly." It was then reportedly offered to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie who also turned it down, although neither could recall any of this happening later.

As to where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were during all of this, in the years since they had met their success in their individual careers had grown. Bing Crosby was the biggest selling vocalist of the time, with a successful radio show of his own. Bob Hope was the star of the popular radio show The Pepsodent Radio Show Starring Bob Hope and had just had his first bona fide hit on the big screen in the form of the horror spoof The Cat and the Canary. On the radio the two friends had developed a comedic rivalry, not unlike that of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. It was in 1937 that Bing Crosby invited Bob Hope to reprise their routines at the opening of the Del Mar racetrack near San Diego, California. There a Paramount executive caught their act and sought the right script to showcase their routines. It was found in Road to Mandalay, soon rechristened Road to Singapore. Dorothy Lamour, already known for her appearances on film in a sarong, was added as the love interest. Crosby and Lamour being the bigger stars at the time both received billing over Bob Hope.

Road to Singapore would provide the template for the other "Road" pictures to come. It had a minimal plot centred on friends and rivals who inadvertently find themselves on an adventure in some exotic location. Although Hope and Crosby played different characters in every film, they nearly always had the personalities first developed in Road to Singapore. Bing Crosby was nearly always a playboy or even con artist of some sort. Bob Hope was the lecherous, wisecracking coward he played in nearly all of his movies. Only Dorothy Lamour as the love interest would vary somewhat, although in nearly every film she spent most of her time singing or setting up lines for the guys.

As in all of the "Road" pictures, the emphasis in Road to Singapore was on Hope and Crosby's routines, Hollywood in jokes, and songs. Perhaps the most famous routine, the "patty cake" routine in which the fellows would play patty cake before distracted opponents until they could get in a good punch, was introduced in this film. Road to Singapore also got a good deal of mileage out of the rivalry between Hope and Crosby. Much of this was no doubt due to their "feud" on radio. Like all of the "Road" movies, Road to Singapore spoofed adventure films of the time, which often featured a rivalry between the two leads.

Although scripts were written for all of the "Road" pictures, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would do away with the script's lines and simply extemporise their lines or utter something written by their gag writers. In her autobiography Dorothy Lamour wrote about how on her first day on the set of Road to Singapore she became convinced there was no point in memorising her lines, as Hope and Crosby would not stick to the script. Instead she prepared herself with a good night's sleep in order to cope with this next day's round of improvised lines.

For those who have never seen Road to Singapore, it must be pointed out that Singapore does not even appear in the movie. Instead, on their way to Singapore Hope and Crosby, as characters Ace and Josh, wind up on the fictional island of Kaigoon (where the native language is apparently Esperanto, if the song "Kaigoon" is any indication...). Dorothy Lamour plays the beautiful dancer named Mima, who escapes from her overly jealous dancing partner (played by a young Anthony Quinn) with the two fellows.

Road to Singapore would prove to be an enormous hit, raking in $1,600,000 at the box office. As a result, Paramount decided to team Crosby, Hope, and Lamour in another "Road" movie. Some time earlier Paramount had shelved a story called Find Colonel Fawcett because they believed it was too similar to MGM's Stanley and Livingstone (1939). Find Colonel Fawcett was then rewritten as the next "Road" movie, featuring characters very similar to those Hope and Crosby had played in Road to Singapore. If anything Road to Zanzibar would be even more lavish than Road to Singapore. So many plants were used in the movie's jungle scenes that set decorators exhausted the studio's greenhouses and had to buy plants from places as distant as Arizona. Over 300 extras were used for the slave auction scene.

As with Road to Singapore, Hope and Crosby continued to extemporise their lines or simply say lines written by their gag writers. Road to Zanzibar would introduce what would become part of every "Road" movie afterwards--the characters would break the "fourth wall" to speak to the audience. It occurs in only one scene, in which Hope and Crosby's "patty cake" routine fails to work on an opponent. Hope comments that their opponent must have seen the last picture (referring to Road to Singapore). The movie also sees a change in the sort of character Dorothy Lamour played. While she played a bit of an innocent in Road to Singapore, in Road to Zanzibar she plays an outright swindler--the sort of character she would play in many of the future "Road" pictures. Road to Zanzibar would also see a change in the credits, reflecting the shifting careers of the three stars. Since Road to Singapore Bob Hope's star had risen yet higher, having another hit in the form of The Ghost Breakers. This time around, he was billed above Dorothy Lamour, but not Bing Crosby.

Road to Zanzibar found Hope and Crosby playing Hubert "Fearless" Frazier and Chuck Reardon, two men once again on the run, this time in Africa. They encounter Brooklyn girl Donna Latour (Dorothy Lamour), who convinces them to finance a safari to find her lost brother. In truth, it is actually a ruse to find a rich millionaire whom she wants to marry. Taking place in Africa, modern viewers might be shocked at the stereotypes of African natives which appear in the film. Here it must be kept in mind that the movie parodies the sort of jungle adventures at the time, which often featured such stereotypical natives. Indeed, Road to Zanzibar even features a "gorilla" that is blatantly a man in a suit.

Road to Zanzibar prove such a success that another "Road" picture was guaranteed. Indeed, Road to Morocco is often considered the best of the series. In many respects it was quite similar to the first two films. It once more featured Hope and Crosby as friendly rivals pursuing Dorothy Lamour. Hope and Crosby once again departed from the lines in the script. It was once again placed in an exotic location. But Road to Morocco departed from Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar in that the fourth wall was not only broken in the film, it very nearly did not exist. The stars speak to the audience and even Paramount Pictures (as when Hope begs the studio to make more "road movies" so he can keep his job). Not only was the fourth wall shattered and were there more in jokes than ever, but Road to Morocco was surreal in a way that the first two entries were not. Hope appears as the ghost of Hope's Aunt Lucy to remind Crosby's character of his obligations. A camel actually speaks, saying, "This is the screwiest picture I was ever in." During the reprise of "Moonlight Becomes You," Hope, Crosby, and Lamour actually switch voices. The humour in Road to Morocco became even more irreverent, with Crosby even joking about eating Hope within the first few minutes of the film.

In Road to Morocco Hope and Crosby played Orville "Turkey" Jackson and Jeff Peters, who find themselves shipwrecked on the African coast. On the way to Morocco, Jeff sells Turkey into slavery. Jeff soon feels guilty about this, setting off to find his friend. As it turns out, however, Turkey doesn't really need rescuing. He is engaged to the beautiful Princess Shalmar (Dorothy Lamour).

Road to Morocco proved extremely successful. Not only did it generate huge box office receipts, but it was also nominated for two Oscars. This naturally guaranteed another film in the series. Like Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia would be considered among the very best of the "Road" pictures. From Road to Singapore, Road to Utopia kept the rivalry between Hope and Crosby, and kept Dorothy Lamour as a love interest. Like Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia broke the fourth wall repeatedly and included in jokes, incredible sight gags, and some truly surreal moments. In other respects, however, Road to Utopia is as unique a film as Road to Utopia is, if not more so.

Indeed, Road to Utopia is the only "Road" Picture that does not include a real place in its title, although the Alaskan frontier is referred to as "Utopia" a few times in the film. It is also the only "Road" Picture which does not take place in the present day, set instead during the days of the Klondike gold rush. It is also the only "Road" Picture which features a narrator, namely famous humorist Robert Benchley. On and off throughout the movie, Benchley appears in the corner of the screen to clarify plot points and to make asides about the film. On a disappointing note, it is also the only "Road" picture in which Hope and Crosby do not do their famous "patty cake" routine.

In Road To Utopia Hope and Crosby this time play Chester Hooton and Duke Johnson, a song and dance team and con artists trying to avoid the cops in 1890s San Francisco. They soon find themselves on a steamer headed for Alaska. There they run afoul of two criminals. Miraculously defeating them, Chester and Duke assume the criminals' identity and steal their map to an Alaskan gold mine. As it turns out, however, the criminals had murdered the father of a beautiful woman named Sal (Dorothy Lamour). Believing Chester and Duke to be the actual killers, she sets out to get the map from them using her feminine wiles.

Even though Road to Utopia started shooting in December 1943 and was completed in March 1944, it would not be released until March 1946. It is uncertain as to why Paramount waited so long to release the movie. In her autobiography Dorothy Lamour theorised that the release of Road to Utopia may have been delayed so as not to jeopardise Bing Crosby's chances of winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Going My Way. Another theory is that Road to Utopia was delayed simply because Road to Morocco (released in 1942) was still going strong in theatres. Regardless, the wait appears to have been well worth it. Road to Utopia was a hit at the box office and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

It was then a given that there would be another "Road" Picture. After the series had reached its pinnacle with Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, it shifted gears with Road to Rio. Road to Rio would be much more plot driven than the previous "Road" pictures. The humour would also be less outrageous. While the fourth wall did not exist for all practical purposes in either Road to Morocco or Road to Utopia, it is only broken once in Road to Rio. Road to Rio also featured far fewer in jokes. It would also be the longest "Road" picture, at 100 minutes in length.

Road to Rio also reflected the shifting careers of its stars. On Road to Rio both Bing Crosby and Bob Hope received a share of the film's profits. Dorothy Lamour, who contributed as much to the series as the boys, was still working for a salary. Sadly, while in 1947 when Road to Rio was released Hope and Crosby were still at the peak of their careers, Dorothy Lamour's career had declined from what it was in 1940. In many respects, Road to Rio signalled the end of the series.

In Road to Rio Crosby and Hope play out of work musicians, Scat Sweeney and Hot Lips Barton who must escape on a Rio bound ship after starting a fire at a circus. There they become involved with the distraught Rita (Dorothy Lamour), who turns out to have been hypnotised to go through with a marriage purely for money. Never ones to walk away from a damsel in distress, the boys find themselves trying to save Rita before it is too late.

Road to Rio would be successful enough to guarantee a sequel, although it would be five years before the next "Road" picture would be released. Initially known as Road to Hollywood during its production, Road to Bali would be the only "Road" picture ever shot in colour. It was also the first "Road" picture to feature cameos of Hollywood stars, including Jane Russell, Humphrey Bogart, and the team of Martin and Lewis. While being shot in colour and featuring cameos from some of the biggest stars of the day, Road to Bali also marked a return to the outrageous humour of Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia. Indeed, the movie even features a volcano which speaks (perhaps topping Road to Morocco's talking camel).

Sadly, Road to Bali would be the last "Road" movie produced by Paramount. Paramount already had another successful comedy team in the form of Martin and Lewis, who already had successful films under their belt when they appeared in Lamour's dream sequence in Road to Bali. While Hope and Crosby were still successful in their careers, it may well have seemed apparent to some that their days were numbered. As to Dorothy Lamour, she was at the end of her film career. When Road to Bali was shot, her contract with Paramount was coming to an end and the studio made no offer to renew it. It should then be no surprise that while Hope and Crosby once more got a share of the profits in the movie, Lamour once more worked for salary. She tried to negotiate for a share in the profits of the movie's soundtrack album, but only found herself replaced on the record by an up and coming young singer named Peggy Lee. For Dorothy Lamour, sadly, it was the end of the road.

Road to Bali found Hope and Crosby this time playing vaudevillians Harold Gridley and George Cochran, fleeing the prospect of marriage by way of a deep sea expedition in the South Pacific. There they meet Princess Lalah (Dorothy Lamour) and find treasure that others want for themselves.

For many Road to Bali must have seemed like the end of the "Road..." pictures. Ten years after Road to Bali, however, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were reunited in a film that would be distributed by United Artists rather than Paramount Pictures. The Road to Hong Kong would be the last "Road..." picture, as well as the only one which included "The..." in the title. It is the also the only one which did not feature Dorothy Lamour as one of the leads. Even though Lamour was a full eleven years younger than both Hope and Crosby, she was considered too old for the romantic interest in the movie. Instead, that role would go to the younger Joan Collins. Lamour was only offered a cameo in the film. Naturally Lamour baulked at this. As the movie's financial backing depended upon her inclusion in the movie, her role was expanded, although she still only appears long enough to help the boys out and sing one song.

Even without Lamour as one of the leads, The Road to Hong Kong was very much in the same vein as the previous "Road..." movies. In jokes proliferated in the film and once more the fourth wall was utterly shattered. It also followed in the footsteps of Road to Bali in featuring a number of cameos, including Dean Martin, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Frank Sinatra.

Although part of a series which had begun in 1940, The Road to Hong Kong incorporated such Sixties motifs as space travel and spies. This time around Hope and Crosby play Chester Babcock and Harry Turner, an out of work song and dance team travelling through India trying to hock an "Interplanetary Fly-It-Yourself Space Kit." After being knocked on the head and developing amnaesia, Chester is taken by Harry to a Tibetan lamasery where he is not only cured, but gifted with infallible memory. This brings him to the attention of beautiful superspy Diane (Joan Collins) and an organisation called "The Third Echelon."

The Road to Hong Kong would not repeat the success of the previous "Road..." movies. Every previous "Road..." movie had ranked in the top films of their years. This was not the case with The Road to Hong Kong. It would seem that Hope, Crosby, and Lamour's long, strange trip was over. In 1977 there were plans for another "Road..." picture, one which would reunite Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. It was to be titled Road to the Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately, the film never even made it into pre-production. On October 14, 1977, Bing Crosby died of a massive heart attack. Without Crosby, there could not be another "Road..." picture.

Although the "Road..." pictures had ended, they would not be forgotten. Television would guarantee that they would continually be introduced to new generations. They were released on VHS and then DVD. What is more, they would inspire other films. The notorious bomb Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, was meant as an homage to the films. John Landis would direct his own homage to the series, Spies Like Us, starring Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. The Dreamworks animated film The Road to El Dorado was another homage to the "Road..." pictures, albeit one set in the 16th century. On television, The Family Guy has made several episodes which serve as tributes to the series.

Seen today there can be no doubt that the "Road..." pictures were politically incorrect. While no stereotypes as blatant as Willie Best (famous for the line "Feet don't fail me now....") in The Ghost Breakers appear in any of the "Road..." pictures, stereotypes do appear in the movies (the African natives of Road to Zanzibar being a perfect example). And throughout the series Asians, Arabs, South Pacific island peoples, et. al. are played by European Americans. Today's audiences should perhaps keep two things in mind with regards to the "Road..." pictures. The first is that they were made at a time when ethnic stereotypes were prevalent in the media, many of them much more offensive than those which appeared in the "Road..." pictures. Second, the "Road..." pictures were spoofs of the adventure movies of the days, which were rife with such stereotypes. In fact, in spoofing the adventure movies of the day and the stereotypes they used, in some respects the "Road..." pictures pointed out the ludicrousness of such stereotypes. At any rate, like all films, the "Road..." pictures were products of their time.

Of course, audiences viewing the "Road..." movies today might also fail to grasp their place in history. There was a time when genre spoofs were rarely found among feature films, and rarely were they major motion pictures. Road to Singapore and its sequels were among the earliest genre spoofs and every single one of them were major motion pictures. Indeed, the production values seemed to increase with each succeeding movie until the Technicolour lavishness of Road to Bali. In many respects this should come as no surprise, as Bob Hope was a pioneer in the field of genre spoofs. His first hit, The Cat and the Canary, and its follow up, The Ghost Breakers, spoofed horror movies. Even as he made the "Road..." movies, Bob Hope continued to make other genre spoofs, including My Favourite Blonde (spoofing spy movies), The Princess and the Pirate (parodying swashbucklers), My Favourite Brunette (spoofing film noir), and The Paleface (spoofing Westerns). In many respects Bob Hope pioneered the genre spoof, and the "Road..." pictures he made with Crosby and Lamour were among the most influential in establishing the genre. Quite simply, without Road to Singapore, there might not be Blazing Saddles or the "Austin Powers" series.

While the "Road..." pictures were among the earliest genre spoofs that were major motion pictures, they were also unique in another way. From the Thirties well into the Fifties, most series films were simply programmers or B movies. Although often well written and well acted, the films in such series as "Blondie," "The Falcon," and so on simply did not have the budgets or production values of major motion pictures. There were two series that were notable exceptions to this rule. One was "The Thin Man" series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. The other was the "Road..." pictures. Starting with Road to Singapore, the films all had good budgets and very good production values. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, if anything else the films grew even more lavish until perhaps reaching a peak with Road to Bali.

Even being politically incorrect today and nearly seventy years old, the "Road..." series still stands up today. What makes the movies are not the way out sight gags, in jokes, or even moments of surreality. It certainly isn't the plots, which were more often than not paper thin. What makes the "Road..." movies are the interplay between Crosby, Hope, and Lamour's characters. The funniest moments in the "Road..." movies are more often than not the quieter ones, when Hope, Crosby, and Lamour are flinging one liners at one another. The reason the "Road..." pictures were hits to begin with, and the reason they hold up today, is that they remember what many comedies today forget--good comedy starts with good characters.

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