In 1940, Paramount Pictures released the first of what was to become a series of six box office-topping romantic-musical-comedy-action films. The unlikely trio of stars of the films were a crooner and a comedian - who soon became one of cinema's best-loved double acts - and a glamorous Hollywood singer/actress.
In the late 1930s, Paramount had three highly bankable performers in its stable:
- Bing Crosby - a successful jazz singer and film actor
- Bob Hope - a comedy actor who had recently moved from Broadway into feature films
- Dorothy Lamour - a former Miss New Orleans and nightclub singer turned actress
The pairing of Crosby and Hope was inspired, with the two men having an instant chemistry. They were forever ad-libbing, generally at each other's expense, and trying to outdo each other to the point where Lamour wondered why she ever bothered learning the scripts for the films. Lamour herself was the perfect foil for Hope and Crosby - beautiful and exotic and equally at home singing with Crosby or setting up jokes for Hope.
I was the happiest and highest-paid straight-woman in the business.
- Dorothy Lamour
The plots of the six films - insomuch as they had a plot - were very similar. Crosby was a con artist or playboy of some description, with Hope as his unwilling sidekick. The pair's failed attempts at romance or moneymaking would lead to them fleeing America and taking refuge in some exotic location, where they would stumble across Lamour dressed in a sarong1. Hope and Crosby would vie for the affections of Lamour, all the while avoiding whatever trouble they were in to start with, plus whatever extra trouble they got themselves into. Crosby's charm and melodious singing would eventually win the girl, leaving Hope with only wisecracks and one-liners to console him.
The Road to Singapore (1940)
I just want you to stand there and admire me for a while. I just got an idea that's gonna make us a fortune. I don't know how I do it.
- Ace Lannigan about to get himself and his friend into more trouble
Joshua Mallon V (Crosby) is heir to his family business and, against his better judgment, engaged to be married. Meanwhile, his roguish friend Ace Lannigan (Hope) is having romantic troubles of his own. The boys decide to escape to Singapore, where they rescue dancing girl Mima (Lamour) from her unpleasant partner. While Mallon begins his successful romancing of Mima, Lannigan busies himself selling dubious cleaning products to the natives and less successfully trying to win Mima's affections. Eventually, the trio find themselves on the run from the local police, Mallon's family and Mima's ex-partner.
Widely considered to be the weakest of the six films, Road to Singapore does successfully introduce the Hope-Crosby-Lamour team2 and sets up a number of running gags for the series, notably the 'patty-cake' routine. This ploy, used by Hope and Crosby in times of desperation, begins with them playing a children's clapping game then, with their guards distracted, punching their way to freedom.
The Road to Zanzibar (1941)
He must have seen the picture.
- 'Fearless' Frazier, when their latest enemy is wise to the 'patty-cake' routine
Chuck Reardon (Crosby) is the manager of circus daredevil 'Fearless' Frazier (Hope). While on tour in Africa, their human cannonball act leads to the burning down of the circus tent and the boys on the run. Working their way across Africa, they raise enough money to return home, until Reardon spends it all on a dubious 'diamond mine'. Offloading the mine onto a gangster, the two end up on the run again. Stuck in the jungle, the pair meet up with con artists Donna Latour (Lamour) and Julia Quimby (Una Merkel). Latour has supposedly been sold into slavery and the boys are quickly persuaded to buy her back. Realising that the boys are carrying $7,000 from the sale of the diamond mine, the girls persuade them to act as an escort through the jungle, planning to get their hands on the cash.
The Road to Morocco (1942)
'We certainly do get around.
Like Webster's Dictionary we're Morocco bound.'
- Theme song from Road to Morocco
Surviving a shipwreck, Jeff Peters (Crosby) and 'Turkey' Jackson (Hope) find themselves washed ashore on a beach. Taking a ride on a passing camel, they reach the nearest city, where Peters sells Turkey into slavery to pay a restaurant tab. Overcome with guilt, he sets off to rescue his friend. His friend, however, doesn't want rescuing - Turkey finds himself engaged to marry the beautiful Princess Shalmar of Karameesh (Lamour). Peters' changes his plan from rescuing his friend to taking his place. Unknown to the two would-be bridegrooms, a prophecy states that the first husband of the Princess will die a violent death. Evil chieftain Mullay Kassim - an early film role for Anthony Quinn - intends to make sure that this occurs so that he can marry the princess himself.
Road to Morocco marked the Road... films hitting their stride and it was nominated for two Oscars: Best Screenplay (Frank Butler and Don Hartman) and Best Sound Recording (Loren L Ryder). One of the film's funniest moments, however, was completely unscripted. In a scene with Hope, Crosby and a camel, the camel decided to spit heavily in Hope's face. Fortunately, the cameras were rolling and the director was so amused by the expressions on the actors' faces that he kept the shot, with Crosby complimenting the camel on its impeccable taste.
The film also saw an increase in the self-referential and slightly surreal moments that were a staple of the Road... films. For example, the film features a camel remarking that 'this is the screwiest picture I was ever in'. The film also features Hope as the ghostly Aunt Lucy, who appears to remind Peters of his obligations to his friend.
The Road to Utopia (1946)
I'll take a lemonade... in a dirty glass.
- Chester Hooton posing as a tough gangster in an Alaskan bar
Road to Utopia, unlike the others in the series, has a historical setting, taking place in the Klondike Gold Rush3 of the 1890s. Duke Johnson (Crosby) and Chester Hooton (Hope) are vaudeville entertainers who set off for Alaska to make their fortune. Running into a couple of crooks on the boat, they steal a map to a gold mine and make their escape. In Alaska, they run into Sal Van Hoyden (Lamour), who is the real owner of the map and the mine. Sal is working with an old friend of her father's to retrieve the map, unaware that she is being double-crossed. What follows is a chase around the wilds of Alaska, with everyone desperate to get their hands on the map and the gold.
Although filming began almost immediately after Road to Morocco, the release of Road to Utopia was delayed by four years to protect Bing Crosby's image as Father Chuck O'Malley, a character he played in the films Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary's (1945).
Road to Utopia featured the new writing team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who were nominated for an Oscar. They continued to expand the running gags (including more talking animals) and industry in-jokes. A distant Alaskan mountain bears more than a passing resemblance to the mountain of the Paramount logo, which Hope's character (and, by extension, Hope himself) refers to as 'bread and butter'4.
Less subtly, the film also has a narrator (Robert Benchley) appearing on screen to 'clarify the plot' and offer commentary on certain scenes.
The Road to Rio (1947)
Do you want me to kiss you now, or should I tease you for a while?
- another Hope character still trying to win Dorothy Lamour
This time out, the boys are struggling musicians. Scat Sweeney (Crosby) and 'Hot Lips' Barton (Hope) manage to set fire to the carnival tent in which they are performing and stow away on a boat bound for Brazil. On the boat they meet Lucia Maria de Andrade (Lamour), who has been hypnotised by her aunt and is being forced to marry against her will. The boys manage to stop the wedding and promptly fall in love with Lucia themselves. Lucia's fiancï¿½ and aunt immediately set out to eliminate our heroes.
Road to Rio relies less heavily on the in-jokes of the previous films and is largely plot driven. In a further departure from the previous films, Hope's character finally succeeds in winning Lamour.
The film features two notable guest appearances. Singing group the Andrews Sisters perform with Crosby on the song 'You Don't Have to Know the Language', while comedy music group the Wiere Brothers appear as Sweeney and Barton's non-English-speaking backing group. Some of the funniest moments in the film come from the Brothers' unsuccessful attempts to use the few words of English taught to them by Crosby's character.
Road to Rio marked an important change in the working relationship between the three leads and the studio. While Dorothy Lamour remained on a salary for the film, Crosby and Hope received a share in the profits, an arrangement that was to lead to something of a falling out on the next film.
The Road to Bali (1952)
He's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go out and get the popcorn.
- Harold Grindley comments on his partner's vocal abilities
Song-and-dance men George Cochran (Crosby) and Harold Grindley (Hope) are touring Australia when various misunderstandings end with them engaged to local girls. Fleeing to Bali and taking jobs as deep-sea divers, the pair find themselves hunting for sunken treasure on behalf of an evil prince, who has failed to mention that the treasure is guarded by a sea monster. The boys also find time to rescue Princess Lala (Lamour) and flee to the jungle with her.
Lamour was on the verge of leaving Paramount when she was asked to appear in one last Road... film - the only one in the series to be filmed in colour. The film also includes a cameo by Jane Russell: after losing Princess Lala to Cochran, Grindley takes up a snake-charmer's pipe and conjures up a girl of his own. Naturally, she too prefers Cochran's company...
As with Road to Rio, Hope and Crosby received a share in the profits, while Lamour received her Paramount salary. When the trio came to record the soundtrack album of the film, Lamour tried to negotiate for an equal share in the profits. When talks broke down, singer Peggy Lee was hired to sing Lamour's vocals.
The Road Goes On
Road to Hong Kong
Road to Bali was the last Road... film that Paramount produced. However, ten years later, United Artists put Hope and Crosby back on the road.
The most obvious change since Road to Bali was that Dorothy Lamour, having committed the cardinal sin for a Hollywood actress of growing older, was replaced by Joan Collins. Lamour was offered a small walk-on part, but she refused to appear until the part was rewritten and enlarged. As the finance for the film depended on Lamour's participation, the producers had no choice but to acquiesce.
The film features con-men Harry Turner (Crosby) and Chester Babcock (Hope) attempting to sell space suits in the Far East. When Babcock receives a blow on the head, he loses his memory. Turner takes him to see the High Lama in Tibet, who gives Babcock the gift of total recall. The boys run into secret agent Diane (Collins) and Babcock accidentally memorises and destroys a secret rocket fuel formula. Going on the run, the boys take shelter with 'Dorothy Lamour' to hide from the agents who are determined to retrieve the formula from Babcock's brain.
As well as Lamour's appearance, the film features a host of familiar faces, including Robert Morley, Walter Gotell5, Roger Delgado, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dean Martin, David Niven, Peter Sellers and Frank Sinatra.
Road to the Fountain of Youth
In 1977, plans were developed to reunite Hope, Crosby and Lamour for one final Road... film. Given the advanced ages of the three stars6, the film was to feature the characters reminiscing about past adventures, possibly including clips from the previous films. However before the production could get anywhere, Crosby suffered a heart attack while playing golf in Spain and, sadly, never recovered.
Spies Like Us
Mind if I play through?
- Bob Hope (as himself) playing golf in the desert
In 1985, director John Landis teamed up with writer/actor Dan Ackroyd to produce an homage to the Road... films. The result was Spies Like Us, starring Ackroyd and Chevy Chase. They play a pair of government employees who are unknowingly recruited to act as decoys for a pair of real secret agents. They are given very brief training and sent out into the field. Mainly by good luck, they manage to realise what is happening to them, hook up with one of the real agents, reprogramme a Soviet missile and avert World War III. Unlike Hope and Crosby, both Ackroyd (playing the Crosby-type character7) and Chase (the Hope character) end up with a girl.
Road to Mars
The book, which is presented as a 'post-modern novel', tells the story of two future comedians, Alex and Lewis, who are working the cruise liners that travel the solar system. Accompanying them is an android called Carlton, who is secretly writing a thesis on comedy. The book is part-narrated by an academic who has discovered Carlton's thesis and sees it as an opportunity to win a Nobel prize. Throw in the usual romantic entanglements and slapstick, as well as a very generous dollop of self-reference, and you have the modern equivalent of a much-loved series of films that, although made in the 1940s, are still being enjoyed today.