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'Road' Movie Series: Pop Culture for the Sake of Pop Culture

The amazing 'Road' movie series

I've made no secret of the fact that my Mike Taylor/Tony Solantro novels are very much influenced by the movies. The classic films of the '30s and '40s, mostly. That said, no other films influenced the style of my book series more than the Road comedies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and the girl forever associated with the sarong, Dorothy Lamour.

These things were an industry phenomena, not only because they raked in the bucks like no previous musical-comedy series, but for the very nature of what they were – '40s pop culture for the sake of being '40s pop culture, quite unashamedly not pretending to be anything else. A reviewer once likened Hope and Crosby to a modern-day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in search of adventure, but with other things also on their minds, e.g., sex, loot, a hint of larceny.

It was established early on that Crosby was the schemer and Hope his trusting companion, who, though a coward at heart, had just enough bravery to attempt his comrade's get-rich-quick schemes – which usually ended in disaster.

One thing that instantly set those movies apart was the presence of three established stars in their own right in one series. (This was long before franchises like that of the Ocean's gang, whose actors, when unable to make the top-ten box office list individually, cram the movie full of names and then crow about how well “their” film did.) Crosby, Hope, and Lamour's solo starring pictures did very well on their own, thank you very much. In fact, one source claims the reason the studio held back so long after releasing the third in the series – almost three years – was that the stars were bringing in so much money in their own pictures the Paramount moneymen cringed at the waste of throwing 'em all into one.

It was also true that by the very nature of being such huge stars, these three were able to get away with jokes and plotlines that lesser lights would have been taken to the woodshed for.

Hope in the desert wastelands to Crosby: “Let's hop over the next hill and see what's dune …”

Ugh. But on the screen, in the midst of the almost surreal atmosphere, the line plays remarkably well.

And of course there were the songs, usually by that great team of Johnny Burke and Jimmy van Heusen, turning out such standards as “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Personality,” and the fabulous “But Beautiful.” Yeah, there was a lot of great music in those silly films.

There were seven Road adventures altogether, starting in 1940 with Road to Singapore and ending in 1962 with The Road to Hong Kong (with Joan Collins replacing Dorothy Lamour, who could be spotted in a cameo). All but the last entry were among the top box office grossers of the year.

Bob Hope, Bing Crosby in Road to SingaporeThere was quite literally nothing else like them at the time, and aside from some inside Hollywood jokes that might take a little research to understand today the strangest thing about these examples of '40s pop culture is that they are ageless – a paradox if ever there was one.

It all started innocently enough, with no thought of creating a series. The Road to Singapore script had been passed over by a number of Paramount stars, from Fred MacMurray to George Burns and Gracie Allen, before being handed to the contracted trio.

In late 1939, Crosby was just about at the end of his cinema string with a series of progressively lame formula pictures in which he played crooner Bing Crosby (something akin to what Elvis Presley would churn out in the '60s). Relative newcomer Hope was languishing in B comedies, which, though profitable, were not where he pictured himself on the Hollywood ladder. Lamour looked great and could sing pleasantly, but the former Miss New Orleans of 1931 seemed destined to play exotic island girls until her looks faded along with one of her film's Technicolor sunsets.

Directed by Victor Schertzinger, the finished Road to Singapore emerged as a rather tame South Seas comedy-adventure with music. However, the chemistry between the stars was instantaneous and contagious. So were the box office results. Thus, almost overnight the trio found themselves at the top of the Hollywood heap – Crosby for a much-needed second time.

The public ate up the combination, leading one reviewer to comment in retrospect that when compared to the zany anarchy of the rest of the series, Road to Singapore must be regarded as one of the most successful failures in Hollywood history. It was here for the first time that Hope and Crosby did the “pat-a-cake” routine, wherein whenever in need of a quick, violent exit from the clutches of villains they would cheerfully begin playing like children off each other's palms before suddenly unleashing a punch to the jaws of their captors.

Road to Zanzibar by Victor SchertzingerJustifiably smelling a potential goldmine, the following year Paramount released Road to Zanzibar, with Schertzinger once again assigned as director. This time around, slight signs of the series' famous anarchy began to show.

A send-up of jungle safari pictures, Road to Zanzibar features Hope and Crosby straining to get off the chain. The “we know this is a movie and so do you or you wouldn't be sitting in the audience” attitude began to furtively raise its head. Ad-libbing while the cameras were rolling became frequent. (It has been said that many of these “ad-libs” were carefully scripted into the margins of Hope and Crosby's individual shooting scripts by their radio writers. The fun was that reportedly neither sprang their quip on the other until the scene was actually being shot.)

The pair's banter shot back and forth like a ping-pong ball at warp speed – so much so in fact, that during one scene with Dorothy Lamour she reportedly threw up her hands and shouted, “Will you two idiots let me get my line in?"

Though a frequently hysterical outing, nothing really other-worldly takes place in Zanzibar, with the possible exception of Crosby and Lamour's moonlight canoe ride on a jungle river. She comments on romantic scenes in movies where a couple are in a boat – just like they are – and suddenly a full orchestra comes up for the pair to sing a love song. Agreeing to its ridiculousness, Crosby proceeds to get a harp chord from dragging his hand in the water, tells a bird overhead what key to sing in, and before long the entire musical background is complete for the lovely “It's Always You.”

Audiences adored laughing and winking knowingly at one another as “insiders.” After all, hadn't they always rolled their eyes at full orchestras in the jungle, as well?

When the boys reprise the “pat-a-cake” bit to escape from cannibals, the natives find it so hysterical they all join in the game and end up slugging each other senseless as Hope and Crosby beat an unnoticed retreat. Again, Paramount execs rubbed their hands at the box office jingle.

Road to Morocco by David ButlerWith the 1942 release of the third entry, Road to Morocco, the die was cast for the rest of the series. Hope and Crosby had finally broken the chain. Directed by silent-comedy performer David Butler, this Road installment was an Arabian Nights spoof, crammed with outrageous sight gags and dialogue. It is probably the outing best remembered by fans today.

The pair opens the picture riding a camel through the desert while singing the film's title song with lyrics like, “As for any villains/we haven't any fears/Paramount will protect us cause we're signed for five more years!” From that point on, Road to Morocco moves quickly, with Crosby, in need of some quick cash, selling Hope into what he believes is slavery. (In all fairness, he does intend to break him out later.) A horrified Hope glancing at the big burly man who has just bought him, snatches Crosby's lapels.

“You know what they do with slaves in this country? They beat 'em and make 'em pick cotton!"

“They don't pick cotton, here,” Crosby assures him.

“Well,” Hope replies. “They beat 'ya for whatever they're picking! I know, I saw Uncle Tom's Cabin twice!"

When it turns out Hope has actually been sold to the luscious Princess Shalmar (Lamour), Crosby comes to a rescue that Hope, of course, wants no part of. The battle of who'll out-con the other for the girl and the throne begins; one that was to become a trademark of the relationship.

When “pat-a-cake” is tried on desert sheik Anthony Quinn and his henchmen, this time it's Hope and Crosby that end up flat on their backs. Rubbing his sore jaw from the ground, Crosby says to his partner, “Yeah, Junior … that thing sure got around!” Hope: “Yeah, and back to us!"'

Road to Morocco is slick, glossy, and gorgeously photographed by veteran William C. Mellor. It remains the only Road film to date selected for registry by the National Film Preservation Board.

By then, audiences were coming in pre-conditioned to what they were about to see, although “participate in” might be a more apt phrase. There was no fourth wall for the actors to break – by talking to or about the audience – because that wall was never put up to begin with. For instance, when Hope, Crosby, and Lamour sing a reprise of “Moonlight Becomes You” in the middle of the desert, their voices interchange in each others' mouths with every chorus. A camel remarks, “This is the screwiest picture I've ever been in!” Well, after all, it's a Road picture.

Despite all the on-screen craziness, in one of the ironies only Hollywood can produce Road to Morocco was, of all things, nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay (for Frank Butler and Don Hartman).

You wouldn't think they could – or would have dared – to push the envelope any further, but they did. It had been nearly four years between “Roads,” but the public had not begun to tire of the franchise.

Released in 1946, Road to Utopia is the series' only period piece. Set in turn-of-the-20th-century Klondike, the comedy is filled with Hollywood inside jokes, talking animals, and ad-libs like none before or since. It was bona fide film anarchy. Therefore, it was only – ahem – natural that another nomination for best original screenplay (for Melvin Frank and Norman Panama) would follow.

But since Utopia was such lunacy, there was really no comedic place left to go. As a result, the formula was slightly tweaked to that of a standard musical comedy for Road to Rio in 1947, which in many ways remains the most well-crafted and “legitimate” picture in the series. The addition of the Andrews Sisters as guest stars suggests that the variations on the trio's modus operandi was wearing thin even if the fun had far from faded. Despite the downshift in format, Road to Rio remains a delight.

With the 1952 entry Road to Bali – in Technicolor – the old anarchy returned, though for the first time there was a mechanical air to it. All the tried-and-true Hollywood inside jokes and cameos are there, among them a memorable Humphrey Bogart tugging the “African Queen” down a jungle river, but while Road to Bali is very funny, it does feel calculated for effect. The free-wheeling spirit had been dulled.

Bali was the end of the Road for Paramount, but not for Hope and Crosby. Ten years later, they bankrolled funding for The Road to Hong Kong (note the addition of the article), shot in England and released through United Artists in 1962.

Bing Crosby, Joan Collins, Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong
Bing Crosby, Joan Collins, Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong

With Hong Kong, the old Hollywood double standard – older actors can be paired with younger actresses, but not the other way around – was to raise its head in the case of Dorothy Lamour. Over the loud objections of Bob Hope, youthful Joan Collins was cast as “the girl in the middle,” with Dotty relegated to a “guest star” role near the end of the film.

Incidentally, Hope was right. The whimsical chemistry is missing between him, Crosby, and Collins, a point driven mightily home when Lamour shows up and the magic of the old days suddenly shifts into high gear. Despite this near-blasphemous recasting, with the Road to Utopia team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank writing and directing, Hong Kong didn't fare badly.

The Road to Hong Kong turned out to be the team's swan song, but only because of Crosby's death in 1977. At the time, plans were in the works for “The Road to the Fountain of Youth". I should add that unlike most swan songs, The Road to Hong Kong is actually better than the previous Road effort. The '40s pop-culture phenomenon was really ageless, after all.

A Paramount writer once said there was a simple formula for a Road picture: “Get 'em up a tree, throw rocks at 'em, get 'em down from the tree.”

Personally, I'd say: Add exotic locales, great songs, anything-for-a-laugh jokes, audience “participation,” and three stars who click like a well-oiled machine, and that's really all you need.

It's difficult to capture the feel of these films on a page … trust me, I know. So, treat yourself to a look at some random moments of craziness from the series in the DTS-TV production, “Road Smiles.” If you're a fan, you're probably already smiling at the thought. If you're new to the pictures, be prepared to become a fan.

© Derek Taylor Shayne

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2 Comments to 'Road' Movie Series: Pop Culture for the Sake of Pop Culture

  1. doug

    I am not alone! I've watched these movies time and time again…

  2. Fred

    What's not to love about Bing, Bob, & Dotty? Excellent essay, thanks.