On the ROAD Again

Between 1940 and 1962, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope starred in seven Road pictures, which Hope’s biographer, Richard Zoglin, called the “greatest buddy series in movie history.” That’s quite a statement when you consider Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Despite his obvious bias, Zoglin still makes a compelling argument for the overall quality and especially the originality of the Hope/Crosby films.

More than 60 years on, the series holds up remarkably well, to which I for one can personally attest, having just watched them in the order they were released.

In 1940, Crosby was already a top star at Paramount’s with at least 16 feature films to his credit. Hope, an established radio star, was a relative newcomer though he scored big in his first feature, The Big Broadcast of 1938, singing what became his signature tune, “Thanks for the Memories.” Six films and less than two years later, he had his biggest hit yet with The Cat and the Canary.

The first pairing of the two 37-year-olds was Road to Singapore, Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker of 1940. Hope was third-billed in this film; the second spot went to Dorothy Lamour, who played the love interest for both men in all the films but the last. Though Lamour was important to the comic mix, the ensuing films gave the two men equal billing, with Crosby’s name always first.

Along with the final film, The Road to Hong Kong (1962), Singapore may be the weakest of the pictures, though it establishes the undeniable chemistry of Crosby and Hope. The film’s major flaw is a backstory about Crosby as a wealthy playboy fleeing an unwanted marriage and bumping into Hope in Singapore. They get involved with Lamour in various con games to scrounge money. In between the comic stunts, Crosby croons tunes.

The rest of the films abandon all pretense of a traditional plot, opening with Crosby and Hope as hucksters of one variety or another, usually drawing in their dupes (and movie audiences) with an opening song and dance routine. It’s in Road to Zanzibar that Hope first breaks the fourth-wall between movie audience and screen characters, one of the series’ most original trademarks.

In Singapore, the fellas had escaped from some thugs by doing a patty-cake routine, knocking out the unsuspecting goons. They try the same gimmick in Zanzibar, but this time it’s the bad guys who land the punches, prompting Hope to mutter, “He musta seen the picture.”

These self-referential comments and asides to the audience (skewering everything from politics to Paramount, from Crosby’s ears to Hope’s nose), got more and more clever and hilarious as the movies progressed. In their own way, the Road pictures were every bit as revolutionary as the Marx Brothers’ zaniness, only more consistent.

The next three films are generally considered the best. Road to Morocco, the fourth-highest grossing film of 1942, puts the boys up against talking camels, nasty Arabs and a relatively unknown Anthony Quinn as a villain. (The future two-time Oscar winner, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, was also the bad guy in Singapore.) The quips, the tunes, the nuttiness are all razor-sharp.

Road to Utopia, filmed in 1944 but released in ’46, is the only period piece of the series, with Bing and Bob in Alaska during the Gold Rush. It was the only time Hope gets the girl in the end, but even at that Crosby has him one up. As old folks recalling their courtship and adventures, Hope and Lamour have a son that looks just like (and is) Bing Crosby.

In 1947, Road to Rio (the year’s top-grossing movie) has the boys and Lamour up to the usual shenanigans, bolstered by a musical number with the Andrews Sisters and a funny cameo by Hope’s radio assistant Jerry Colonna. Directing was Norman Z. McLeod, in his element, having overseen a W.C. Fields film and two Marx Brothers efforts.

Seven years later was Road to Bali, the only Road picture in color. The film’s most memorable moments are brief cameos by Martin and Lewis, a clip of Humphrey Bogart from The African Queen, and a conclusion with Jane Russell, Hope’s co-star in The Paleface and Son of Paleface.

In 1962, The Road to Hong Kong was full of cameos (Peter Sellers, David Niven, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra). A 29-year-old Joan Collins was their romantic interest.

Plans were being made for Road to the Fountain of Youth, but Bing Crosby died in 1977. Enough was enough anyway, but thanks, guys, for the terrific memories.