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As Universal sends Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour on the road again in a digital new vehicle (in a four disc DVD set), Keith Lofthouse tags along for the ride; and what a gag-filled ride it is, entertainment like they don’t make ‘em any more. 

This welcome box set contains The Road To Singapore (1940), Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942), Utopia (1945). In all, The Road series led to seven exotic places, firstly to Singapore (1940) and lastly to Hong Kong (1962), for fun, frivolity, music and romance. Bob Hope was always the cowardly conniver, always on the lookout for a con or a swindle and Bing Crosby was the “straight man” who went along for a sly ride and would invariably end up with the sarong-swathed girl (Dorothy Lamour). Bing would sing and Bob would bungle some kind of sting, but whenever they were stuck in any kind of jam they would resort to the old “pat-a-cake” routine, a children’s rhyme that would bamboozle their enemies, set them up for a slapping and allow a timely escape for the cockleshell heroes. 

The remarkably resilient seven film series that was never meant to be began as The Road To Mandalay, a scrappy script about a couple of scruffy sailors on the lam in the South Seas. The head of Paramount at the time wanted Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie to play the fools. When they turned it down, it was re-imagined for Burns and Allen, with Bing Crosby crooning a few tunes, but George and Gracie were too big and too busy to bother. It was then that the studio exec realised that Bing and Bob had been trading insults, pitter-patter and payback on popular radio shows for years. They were, of course, perfect for Mandalay, which was re-routed to Singapore and to instant success that catapulted its male stars to an 11-year stretch in the box office Top 10. 

"the formula of slapstick and absurdist humour,"

The first of four films in the set is perhaps the weakest, but it is important historically, for it patterned the formula of slapstick and absurdist humour, songs, ad-libs, jibes and asides, for the funnier films that followed. Crosby and Hope are a couple of bachelor boys who flee to a tiny island south of Singapore to avoid unwanted marriages. There they discover the beautiful Mima (Lamour), a dancer in distress due to the undue attention of her sleazy partner Caesar (Anthony Quinn who was furious to be tagged in the film’s publicity as “Cecil B De Mille’s son in law”). Forced to sell spot remover to the natives in order to survive, the threesome get themselves into a bigger fix when the spots refuse to move. 

When Singapore zoomed into the Top 10 money-makers that year, it was onto Zanzibar where the characters were given different names but a slightly more polished circus act. Hope is “Fearless” Frazier, The Human Cannonball and Crosby is the guy who lights the fuse, sending a Fearless dummy flying through the air, slamming into a tent and starting a fire that burns the carnival down. Fleeing to darkest Africa the con-men are conned by a bogus slave girl (Lamour) seeking free passage to the other side of the continent where she intends to marry a British millionaire. 

If Singapore was a soft send-up of adventure yarns, Zanzibar zeroed in on jungle flicks and Paramount again had a Top 20 hit. But on the set of Morocco, it almost came to a dead end. In a narrow alleyway, Crosby and Hope were meant to flee from the path of wild horses, but the horses jumped the cue and stampeded down the alley catching the terrified stars halfway. They only survived a trampling when Crosby crumpled into a small depression and Hope flattened himself against a shallow doorway. Critics are mostly divided on Zanzibar and Morocco as the funniest in the series, but Morocco gets my vote. Here the Crosby / Hope “ad-libs” were liberated as never before. After being shipwrecked on the North African coast and clambering onto the back of a camel, Bob quips: “I’ll lay you eight to five that we’ll meet Dorothy Lamour.” Sure enough, after Crosby sells Hope into slavery to pay for dinner, Hope becomes the boy toy of Lamour’s lovely Princess Shalmar. Later, the camel even gets into the act when it peers directly into the camera and mutters: “This is the screwiest picture I was ever in.” Musically, the film gave Crosby another best-seller (“Moonlight Becomes You”) and Quinn, who was still trying to squirm out of his Paramount contract, was the villain again. 

"without a battalion of writers"

The war stalled any addition to the series for three more years until the arrival of Utopia symbolised a more settled peacetime. In flashback, Chester (Hope) and Sal (Lamour) recall how they struck it rich in the goldfields of Alaska, with the help of long lost friend Duke Johnson (Crosby) and two halves of a map to a goldmine once owned by Sal’s father. Again, they were lucky to escape unscathed from another potentially serious mishap. In a mountain cabin, Bob and Bing scrambled under a rug to hide from a grizzly bear which was trained to step over the raised lump as it searched for the two men. But instead the growling grizzly stood on top of the cowering couple and menaced them with a mauling. The beast was hauled off by its trainer but the rattled Roadies refused to work with the animal again…and the very next day that same bear ripped an arm from his trainer. Hope, who often said “never work with children or animals” was living proof of the wisdom. His detractors believed that Bob couldn’t be funny without a battalion of writers churning out some of the wittiest lines ever written. 

But it was no less of a genius than Charlie Chaplin who, after watching Hope work with his wife Paulette Goddard on The Cat And The Canary, told him “you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen.” Before Singapore, Crosby’s velvety voice had made him a rich man and he was set to retire to breed racehorses. The Road movies extended his career by 20 years and as for Lamour and her 50-odd films, today she is best remembered as the girl on the Road, with Bing and Bob, in sand and sarong. 

Published December 11, 2003

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