One of these days, I’ll learn to contain my emotions when I find out that someone hasn’t heard of a particular movie. Today is not going to be that day however. My roommate has never heard of the Road movies, the classic Hollywood series of seven comedies released between 1940 and 1962 starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. And she’s not the first young whippersnapper I’ve met to not know these movies. Bob Hope was a staple in my formative years (which is why I’m a sucker for good puns), so let me lay down some education for you fine folks who may not know the silly, and politically incorrect, joy that are the Road pictures.
The 1940s through the early 50s are often regarded as a Golden Age for Hollywood, mainly because the business was booming as folks flocked to the movies to escape the harsh realities of the war overseas. Studios were more than happy to not only capitalize on that need for escapism, but to also provide a source of valuable entertainment to contribute to the greater good (God bless Hollywood). The first Road picture, Road to Singapore, came out in 1940 as Americans were feeling hostile towards the Hitler’s Germany while still resisting involvement. Installments followed in ‘41, ‘42, ‘46, ‘47, ‘52, and ending in ’62, in between Hope and Crosby’s other projects, including Hope’s famous USO tours. But the series itself was wildly successful, generating a lot of revenue and even an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Road to Utopia (1946).
Originally when the studio execs at Paramount wanted to do a comedy spoof on the travel/adventure movies of the time that would take place in exotic locales (the heart of Africa, the South Seas, etc), they came up with the Road to Mandalay, and offered the lead roles to several popular comedy duos at the time, including Burns and Allen. Paramount opted instead to pair up Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, both of which were big names already, especially due to their radio shows at the time. It was really their chemistry when they would cross over and guest star on each other’s shows that drew attention to the pairing. By the time they changed the name to Road to Singapore, they cast Dorothy Lamour, who was very popular at the time for playing a convincing South Seas girl (ie she looked great in a sarong). The rest from that point is history.
Before I go much further, let me lay em out for you:
- Road to Singapore (1940)
- Road to Zanzibar (1941)
- Road to Morocco (1942)
- Road to Utopia (1946)
- Road to Rio (1947)
- Road to Bali (1952)
- The Road to Hong Kong (1962) – Note that this one starred Joan Collins as the female lead and Dorothy Lamour only made a cameo, because Bing Crosby was a bit of a prick and decided that they needed a younger starlet.
- Road to the Fountain of Youth – This was never made. It was slated to start production in 1977 but Crosby died that year.
Now these movies were not a narrative series but more of a thematic series. I almost think of it as a much simpler version of the Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost movies. The best part is you can watch them in any order, and it matters not. There is no through line to the stories, and Hope, Crosby, and Lamour do not play the same characters, though the roles are often the same. Crosby is a smooth talking, smooth singing trickster, and Hope is the more naïve, temperamental clown that gets to do all the dirty work. They’re both completely obsessed with the ladies, and that’s when Lamour gets thrown in to add some competition to the friendship while they save the day from whatever big bad is driving the story.
The other things the movies have in common with each other is a smattering of musical numbers, a very thin plot, and a few recurring gags. These gags, and the lighthearted physical comedy are really the heart of the movie, and add the vaudeville flair that is tied so deeply to Hope and Crosby’s showbiz roots. In every movie, you can expect a scene where when confronted by a big oafish henchman, Hope and Crosby look to each other, play a game of “pat-a-cake” and end it with a duel punch to the meanie. Of course, by the third movie Road to Morocco, the bad guy takes them out just prior to landing the punch, and the heroes fall to the ground saying:
Crosby: Yessir, Junior, that thing sure got around.
Hope: Yeah, and back to us!
Classic. And that fourth wall gag gets around these movies, too. Hope’s characters consistently address the audience, and there are many nods within the movies to the series. At the end of Morocco, Lamour turns to Crosby and says “I have a strangest feeling we’ve been through all of this before.” These sweet little nods reeled the audience in and made them part of the joke, the same way that radio did at the time. In fact, being that Crosby and Hope were comedy radio veterans, they had their own team of writers hanging out on the set, resulting in more adlibbed and written-on-the-spot jokes than the gags that were actually included in the original script. It made a lot of hassle for Lamour and the other actors who would memorize their lines and scripts ahead of time, just to have them thrown out the next day.
I may be wearing my pretentious pants right now (they’re a little tight), but I do find myself shocked that so many people I’ve met in my travels have never seen or even heard of the Road pictures. If you’ve seen Family Guy, I bet you’ve seen the movies spoofed on a semi regular basis. Case in point, this ditty from “Road to Rhode Island” episode:
Now, compare that to this song from Road to Morocco (my personal favorite).
And on top of Family Guy references, movies like Spies Like Us and The Road to El Dorado were direct spoofs/homages to the Road movies. Lest we also forget Mel Brooks (Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m a Mel Brooks addict) gave a shout out in History of the World Part 1 as the heroes escape from the Romans singing, “We’re off on the road to Judea…”
Basically, these movies are just plain fun, and if you’re looking for a classic comedy to enjoy, I highly suggest anyone of them. Take note that at the time, the world was a bit more racist and a bit more sexist, so yeah some of the jokes you’ll have to roll your eyes at and move on, but really these are movies with a heart of gold that provided the very important service of entertaining people through some very hard times. Every once in a while, we need a fluffy movie to make it better, and frankly, I’d choose a Road movie over another explosion laden Michael Bay movie any day.