A prime candidate for the most successful teaming in Hollywood history would be Paramount’s randomly tossing a trio of supremely popular entertainers into one show. Of course, we’re talking about Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour and the ROAD series (trivial “funnily enough” fact: although they’re known internationally as the Hope and Crosby pics, Bing always got top billing). The movies, especially the first four, now available in excellent new Blu-Ray transfers from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and Universal Home Video, not only accurately depict the coolest 1940s hep lingo, music and overall culture, but additionally show the evolution from three major stars into a smoothly honed human triad of laffs and (scripted) gaffs. While other studios lamely tried to imitate Paramount’s candle-power (most infamously at Warners with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson), no one could come close to the chemistry and camaraderie on display in the ROAD flicks; simply put, there’s never been anything like it. The ultimate “cool kids” movies (I guess a modern comparison would be something the Hangover pics, but, again, nowhere near the inspired, risqué clowning that Bing, Bob and Dottie spouted and strutted), it’s a pleasure to briefly discuss, and, more so, be able to own 1080p editions of ROAD TO SINGAPORE, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, ROAD TO MOROCCO and ROAD TO UTOPIA.
If there’s one genius responsible for the classic status that resulted in the critical and box-office kudos of the above, it’s perhaps cinema’s number one unsung hero writer – my personal comedic movie God – Barney Dean. Yeah, you’ve never heard of him (except, possibly, in my columns), but he’s the master of sitcom wackiness, one-liner gold, breaking down the third wall, off-camera asides, talking animal quips, anachronistic barbs and taking on the Production Code without them even knowing it.
Dean was once the king of vaudeville (or half of one, part of a comedy duo). Then-teenagers Hope and Crosby individually idolized the man, and both (but mostly Hope) based much of their schtick on his delivery. Talkies killed vaudeville, and practically did the same to Dean. Near death, he was literally rescued by Bing and Bob in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction manner that would insult the diabetic mentality of Frank Capra. But it happened. Not (as in the case of Gable and Colbert) one night, but midway through the second ROAD trip. He would spend the rest of his days working for the two stars. Incredibly, you can actually see the major shift in the Hope and Crosby personas during the duration of ZANZIBAR. Much must have been shot in continuity, for the first act plays like a straight follow-up to SINGAPORE; then, the snarky, take-no-prisoners hilarious dialogue kicks in and…OH, BOY!
Dean, from what I’ve been able to learn, was a really nice quiet, decent guy who never understood why writers hated him. Actually, the reason is simple: jealousy. They could never come close to his brilliant off-the-cuff bon mots and surreal sight gag evocations. It’s been the stuff of legend that Hope, when dining with bigwigs and stuck for a retort, would excuse himself and retreat to the nearest telephone where he would call his writers. This is true, except it wasn’t his army of writers – it was ALWAYS Barney Dean, who never let him down. Crosby, too, relied on Dean for support; hating to appear at benefits or hoi polloi events, Bing always made it a prerequisite that Dean accompany him. The eccentric satirist never let him down either, commenting on guests in ways that would often have the crooner collapsing on the floor with laughter.
Dean’s death in 1954 (coincidentally, the year I was born; screenwriter Ric Menello once told me that I was Dean’s reincarnation – the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. If only…) caused a dip in Bob’s and Bing’s verbal banter – their patter never being as snappy as it once was. Hope always credited Barney Dean (along with Frank Tashlin) as a cornerstone to his success.
Okay, don’t wanna put a damper on this piece; these are pure fun movies, so leave us move on.
Certainly no relation to the Warner Bros. 1931 pre-Code Road to Singapore, the 1940 names-the-same edition was originally planned for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie. This only goes to show the plug-in vehicle the suits at Paramount imagined. The ultimate recasting of three of their most popular stars created a Tinsel Town cocktail that to this day is still heralded in the Biz as the perfect example of casting nirvana.
The premise for the pic is beyond standard and definitely atypical of the series. Instead of stranded show business bums, Josh Mallon (the Crosby character) is the filthy rich “black sheep” son of a shipping magnate, engaged to a beautiful, but cold heiress (Judith Barrett). He far more prefers hanging with roustabout, uncouth Ace Lannigan (Hope), who doubles as his wingman for untold amorous encounters in faraway places.
Indeed, much of the plot is given to Bing’s family – pop Charles Coburn defiantly attempting to salve the angered Bing’s fiancée as his spawn sows those nasty wild oats.
Yeah, there are some funny lines and entertaining songs (“Captain Custard” by director Victor Schertzinger; lyrics by Johnny Burke), but the wicked asides to the camera, the unsavory traits of Alpha Bing and the zaniness of Hope still lay down the road(s). Lamour (the only time she would receive second billing in the series), renowned for her exotic “island” beauty (she was born Mary Slaton in New Orleans) is perfect as the abused damsel in distress – her jealous, sadistic lover being Anthony Quinn. For Bob’s expanding fan-base, Jerry Colonna, Hope’s beloved radio sidekick, turns up in an elongated cameo supporting role. The only thing that would remain intact for further excursions was the “patty-cake” punch-ups, sort of pre-WWII John Wick display of crowd-pleasing violence, sans assault weapons.
The script was written by Don Hartman and Frank Butler, two reliable comedy veterans; it was produced by Harlan Thompson, soon to be replaced by ace Paramount laff-pic mogul Paul Jones. The photography by William C. Mellor is lovely, as is the background score by Victor Young. Nothing to complain about, ROAD TO SINAPORE is a pleasant flick; yet, I’m sure not even Paramount wags anticipated the result. Calling it a 1940 box-office smash would be an understatement. In a year dominated by the likes of Rebecca, The Letter, The Grapes of Wrath, Northwest Mounted Police, The Philadelphia Story, High Sierra, His Girl Friday, Pride and Prejudice, Foreign Correspondent, Northwest Passage, The Shop Around the Corner and others, ROAD TO SINGAPORE slayed ’em in the cash-coffers department, rivaling or outgrossing them (in some burgs, it even killed the competition from the still-going-strong Gone with the Wind). The hit tunes, record sales and constant promotions on the Hope and Crosby radio shows didn’t hurt either.
1941’s ROAD TO ZANZIBAR is important to series aficionados as well as students of movie comedy, since it’s a pic where the characters begin to seriously evolve into the Hope-Crosby-Lamour threesome that we snark-lovers worship. And, again, it’s all due to Barney Dean.
The picture had already begun production when Dean was saved (no other word for it) by the two lead male stars. He was immediately put to work, and the results are startling. What underlines this fact is the likelihood that the movie (at least up until that point) was, as indicated earlier, filmed in narrative continuity; in effect, you can see the characters change within several scenes. Gone are the two besties out to help one another. Bing is no longer a slumming rich kid but, a denizen of equal stature to Hope. They’re now forever struggling vaudeville holdovers (where Dean achieved his fame) desperately trying to get out of the desolate exotic lands they’re stranded in. Lamour, too, is no more a victim of male domination, but a con-artist of equal stature, working her own grift (here with fellow cohort Una Merkel). Most importantly, Crosby’s persona takes the darkest hit; he’s now someone never to be trusted, who will willingly put his pal in danger to line his own pockets. This will become even more pronounced as the series moves on.
The plot revolving around winning/stealing and searching for an African diamond mine takes second place to the verbal bitch-slaps, sight gags and the beginning of the breaking-down-the-fourth-wall audience connections.
The credited screenplay by (once again) Hartman and Butler (from a story by Sy Bartlett) is appropriately slick, but the gems and howlers are pure Barney. One bit still amazes me as to how it got by the censors. In a nightclub, celebrating their new friendship with a diamond entrepreneur millionaire (a fraud, played with aplomb by Eric Blore), the boys are beside themselves with giddy joy. Ogling a hot dancer (Iris Adrian) on stage, while a head waiter brandishes a magnum of champagne is a simultaneous pip. “Piper Heidsieck,” declares the restaurant employee while a panting Hope’s eyes bug-out at the shimmying specimen of female pulchritude on-stage. “[I’d like to] pipe her Heidsieck,” he lustily confesses. For years, friends claimed I made this up – that there was no way it was in the final cut. But it is.
ZANZIBAR has its prerequisite of hep tunes, some which became hits. The pic was photographed by Ted Tetzlaff. I’ve never seen a great print of this title; don’t know what happened, they all look occasionally murky. This Blu-Ray is no exception, but is certainly the best quality I’ve ever laid my peepers on. The score by Victor Young was, like its predecessor, contains input from director Victor Schertzinger, once again, on-board to handle the show. While certainly competent, he lacked the pizazz to keep up with the cool asides, antics and rapid-fire pacing needed to take the series to the next level. This would be his last ROAD.
As far as I’m concerned, 1942’s ROAD TO MOROCCO is the first true surreal Hope-Crosby-Lamour gag-a-thon – in essence, what comes to mind when one thinks of the ROAD flicks. It’s the series’ initial full-throttle Barney Dean epic, and his touch is evident from fade-in to fade-out. Not only do we have the broken fourth wall, animals commenting on the action to the camera, supernatural happenings, and over-the-top risqué dialog, we also have that nudge-nudge connection with the audience. Furthermore, the clever asides spill over onto the movie’s score – easily the best of all the ROADs, (with Crosby’s “Moonlight Becomes You” topping the charts for weeks, perhaps only bested by Bing’s “White Christmas” from the studio’s other ’42 blockbuster Holiday Inn; certainly, a good year for Paramount) The inspired lines (credited once more to Hartman and Butler) absolutely match and blend into the lyrics from the score by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke. The ditties are indeed wonderful and contain a number of personal references, how they’re not worried of on-screen peril (“Paramount has us signed up for five more years”), blossoming romance (“I bet you ten to one that we meet Dorothy Lamour”) and, perhaps one of the greatest lyrics ever (“like Webster’s Dictionary we’re Moroccan-bound”).
The director, David Butler, was a big step up from Schertzinger – faster-paced, amenable to kitchen sink gags, laffs and mishaps (an outtake of a camel spitting in Hope’s face – causing Crosby to lose it – was left in the final cut, and fits perfectly).
Topical stuff is admittedly cringe-worthy with radio announcer Richard Loo, having to don an oversized badge announcing “I am Chinese.” And, for once, there’s hope for Hope; a dangerous liaison with Lamour (she’s a princess, supposedly head-over-heels in love with the turkey – in reality to appease a prophecy that her first husband will die a quick, horrible death) results in a not-so-shabby rebound. Turkey’s (oh, that’s actually his character’s name) standby babe is the gorgeous starlet Dona Drake. Hubba-hubba! Anthony Quinn, once again, plays the villain – a nefarious, sadistic sheik. But the real menace, especially to Hope, is what Martin Scorsese termed as the unravelling of Bing Crosby’s truly nefarious demeanor. Unquestionably, Bing is borderline psychopathic in this entry, selling his pal to white slavers (“You can’t sell me. You don’t own me,” shrieks a terrified Hope. “I know, he does,” calmly replies Crosby, counting the cash as he nods over to a Bluto-esque looking grotesque). Crosby additionally refuses to give his partner a split of the money just in case a purported unshackling escape plan goes south (“Why throw it away?”). The boy’s dead Aunt (also Hope, replete with Here Comes Mr. Jordan references) must shoot lightning bolts into Bing’s derriere to get him to behave. The crooner later tries to sell Turkey on damsel-in-distress heroics by suggesting skinning a horse alive and having Hope trot into the Arab camp inside the pelt. Yikes. And, yep, to back up my previous Hangover mention, there are actual fart jokes (a la whoopie cushions) and allusions to reefers.
ROAD TO MOROCCO was the biggest ROAD ever; by year’s end, it was cuddling up with Mrs. Miniver, Reap the Wild Wind, Now Voyager, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Woman of the Year, Bambi, Casablanca, Major and the Minor, The Palm Beach Story, Wake Island, Holiday Inn, Pride of the Yankees, etc.
The Kino Blu-Ray looks terrific, with the genuine desert photography (Yuma, Arizona) and interior-exterior sets by Hans Dreier and Robert Usher displaying every grain of sand. Audio commentary by Jack Theakston completes the package that also includes trailers and related featurettes.
The best of all the “Roads” (and, not surprisingly, my personal favorite), 1946’s ROAD TO UTOPIA took everything that made the series great, and packed it up in one hilarious, tuneful package that still bowls me over to this day.
The only entry to be a period piece, taking place during the Yukon gold rush from the early twentieth century, viewers are surprised in the opening to see elderly Hope and Lamour as a successful happily married couple. Then, after 35 years, they hear the crooning pipes of Crosby in the distance. “Can it be?,” coos an excited Dotty. “Who’d be selling cheese this time of night?” reponds Bob (Bing’s radio sponsor was Kraft). In struts a dapper seventy-ish Crosby with two smokin’ hot twentysomething helpers. And before Bob can mumble the priceless “And I thought this was going to be an “A” picture,” away we go, via flashback, as the flea-bitten vaudevillians end up in the frozen north with the finest array of comic villains ever (Douglass Dumbrille, Hillary Brooke, Jack LaRue, Robert Barrat, Nestor Paiva). The movie also features the final screen appearance of Robert Benchley, who provides narration and iris-in-and-out cameos.
The score includes what would become the Hope and Crosby anthem, “Put It There, Pal” among other hits (by van Heusen and Burke). The terrific screenplay was nominated for an Oscar (it helped make credited scribes Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; but, would they have thanked Barney Dean at their acceptance speech?), and the movie made The New York Times annual 10 Best list. While praiseworthy in any period, remember that this was also the year of The Best Years of Our Lives, Notorious, The Big Sleep, Stairway to Heaven, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, My Darling Clementine, The Killers, Great Expectations, The Razor’s Edge, etc. UTOPIA also guaranteed continuous employment for house director Hal Walker (an a.d. on ZANZIBAR and MOROCCO, who would go on to direct several of the Martin & Lewis smash hits.
True, there’s some lip-biting sexist byplay (referring to the pic’s stunning females as “stoves”), but that ain’t a patch as to what went on off-screen. Paramount knew it had a blockbuster when UTOPIA wrapped in early 1945. With the war winding down, the studio realized that this would be the ultimate reunion/date pic, and held up the release until March, 1946. It proved to be a wise decision. They couldn’t crate up the cash quick enough it was coming in so fast. Both Hope and Crosby weren’t unaware of this either, and, from here on it, demanded that they get a piece of the “Roads,” to be divided between their own production companies. Unfortunately, no such compensation was similarly made for Lamour, who was an integral part of the franchise. And she didn’t stay quiet about it. It would be a justified bone of contention betwixt her, Paramount and Hope and Crosby until the actress’s passing in 1996.
ROAD TO UTOPIA looks fantastic in 1080p; d.p. Lionel Lindon would be beaming. Extras on the disc include audio commentary by Greg Ford and Will Friedwald, a Hollywood Victory Caravan short with Bob and Bing, and more.
A bona fide riotous classic, ROAD TO UTOPIA deserves a spot in any comedy library, regardless of what you think of the series or its stars. And, as with “pipe her Heidsieck,” how the hell they got by the censors with that final gag remains a mystery to me!
ROAD TO SINGAPORE (CAT # K23625).
ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (CAT# K23626).
ROAD TO MOROCCO (CAT # K23627).
ROAD TO UTOPIA (CAT # K23628).
All black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. SRP: $24.95@.