Directed by: Hal Walker
Starring: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Hillary Brooke, Douglass Dumbrille, Robert Benchley
“For those of you who don’t go to the movies, let me introduce myself—my name is Robert Benchley ... well, no matter. For one reason or another, the motion picture you’re about to see is not very clear in spots. Now someone in what is known as the ‘front office’ has decided that an occasional word from me might help to clarify the plot and other vague portions of the picture. Personally, I doubt it. Shall we go?” So begins Road to Utopia with Bing and Bob off on another road, in the fourth—and many say funniest—of their famous “Road” series. If nothing else, it may be their wildest, with a talking fish, a talking bear, Santa Claus and the Paramount mountain all making appearances. And, of course, Dorothy Lamour shows up as a plucky lady in distress and gets a couple of her best songs—“Personality” and “Would You?” For purposes of the film, Utopia is Alaska during the Gold Rush and the marginal plot involves a stolen map to a gold mine rightfully owned by Lamour. There’s not even the slightest attempt at reality. No sooner does Bing walk onscreen in the movie’s framing story than Bob turns to the camera and complains, “And I thought this was going to be an A picture.” It’s that kind of movie. Plus, Bing gets to be in a talent contest competing with a monkey. Who can ask for more?
Now, for those of you who don’t know what a “Road Picture” is—an unthinkable notion to me, but having run into someone who’d never heard of Bing Crosby makes me wary of assumptions—I will explain that it’s a movie that stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in a musical comedy of somewhat slapdash nature that verges on the surreal. There are, in fact, six—or if you’re charitable, seven—of these films. They began quite accidentally with an unassuming film called Road to Singapore in 1940. It starred—in this order—Bing, Dotty and Bob, which was indicative of their box office status at the time. (Lamour would later claim that she was the big star, but then Lamour claimed many dubious things over the years.)
It was a comparatively straightforward story next to the subsequent films—and cast Lamour in her then usual South Seas exotic role—except for some in-jokes about Paramount Pictures and the supposed ad-libbing of Bing and Bob. I say “supposed” because only a handful of things were actually ad-libbed in the strict sense, owing to the fact that the boys both kept gag writers on the set for the purpose of outdoing each other with things that weren’t in the script. Very little of it was their own, but they had the happy facility of making it all sound like it was off-the-cuff—and it caused a good deal of consternation with their co-star (especially, since she was saddled here with a straight role) and director Victor Schertzinger, though Schertzinger realized what it was doing for the picture and let it keep happening. The result was a huge hit that immediately spawned Road to Zanzibar (1941)—a much wilder affair with extended bouts of surreal comedy and a comic role for Lamour. That, in turn, spawned Road to Morocco (1942), which spawned this film, and so on.
Concept-wise, the recipe was simple. Bing and Bob would be low-rent entertainers and/or con-artists who would get in trouble of some kind—here the con game of “Ghost-o” gets busted—and they end up off on the “Road to” wherever, which will be fraught with adventure and on which they’ll run into and fight over Dotty. This was so established by the time of Road to Morocco that the title song included the lyrics, “I’ll lay you eight-to-five that we meet Dorothy Lamour.” That was part of the secret of the films’ success and their appeal—the whole thing was an in-joke that the audience itself was in on.
This afforded the movies a free-wheeling sense where the boys could reference other movies, themselves, their personal lives, their radio shows (and their sponsors—Kraft for Crosby, Pepsodent for Hope), and the previous “Roads.” They could also talk to the camera and just as important any pretense of realism went out the window. This not only afforded the writers an easy out—they could just ignore any corner they painted themselves into—but it gave the entire enterprise a giddy sense of freedom unlike anything before them. And one that has rarely been seen since, come to that—except for perhaps Richard Lester in the 1960s.
Is Road to Utopia the best? Oh, I don’t know. I love the first five films unreservedly and like the sixth, Road to Bali (1953), even though it undeniably feels a little tired. Someone once described Bali as feeling like the work a couple of indulgent uncles and an aunt dressing up “one more time” to please the children, and there’s some truth to that. Utopia is nothing like that. It’s fresh and funny and sharp. You might not get all the period references, but it won’t matter in the overall lunatic scheme of things. It moves too fast and too wildly to much notice.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Road to Utopia on Tuesday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.