Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review - Road to Utopia

August 24, 2017

Road to Utopia – U.S., 1946

There is nothing in Hollywood today that even remotely resembles the comic pairings of the past. Consider these numbers: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made 17 films together, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello 37, and Laurel and Hardy 25. Compare that to later duos such as Cheech and Chong (8), David Spade and Chris Farley (2), and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (9), and there really is no comparison. Just why this change took place is unclear. Perhaps Hollywood executives decided that audiences had tired of seeing the same partnership time and again, or maybe the push for individual success and box office glory led actors to avoid being paired up with the same actor too many times. The culprit may also have been the loss of the studio system, an institution that enabled both members of a comedy team to remain under contract at the same studio and – whether they liked it or not – make films together for a long time.

While not having the longevity of other classic partnerships, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour had quite a run. They made seven comedies together, a heptad often referred to as the “Road to” films, as each one has a name that includes those words. The films were enormously successful. According to Ultimate Movie Rankings, adjusted to inflation, the first in the series, Road to Singapore, made over $140 million; 1942’s Road to Morocco more than doubled that figure. And yet I suspect that for many members of my generation Bob Hope was primarily famous for his NBC specials and guest spots in occasional movies, such as Spies Like Us. Some time ago I looked up Bob Hope on IMDB and was surprised to learn that he had 91 credits, many of those feature length films in which he played the lead character. As for his co-stars, Bing Crosby died when I was just three years old, and Dorothy Lamour did not appear regularly on the silver screen after 1964. It is easy therefore to see how their work might be less familiar to contemporary audiences than it should be.

Road to Utopia is the fourth – and some say the best – film in the Road to series, and to spend time explaining its plot would be somewhat foolish, for what makes the film fun is not the story per say, but the interaction of the character and their contagious energy. Jokes fly at such breakneck speed that it is virtually impossible to catch them all. In fact, this is a film that doesn’t really let its cast stop for air. The film also has a narrator that is tasked with explaining the plot before the opening credits even roll, yet he abandons the attempt almost immediately, electing instead to (humorously) disparage the film. At one point later on, he reappears at the top of the screen and roots for Hope and Crosby to meet their untimely end – to spare him from the bad jokes, you see.

In the film, Hope and Crosby are Chester and Duke, traveling performers/conmen who come across a stolen map of a mine in Alaska and there meet a woman who woos them both in an attempt to get the map. In addition, there are inept thugs, talking fish, cuddly bears who complain about not having any lines, and even an appearance by Santa Clause, who brings with him what is likely to be considered some politically incorrect Christmas gifts for Chester and Duke, despite their having been pretty naughty. Also thoroughly enjoyable is Chester’s and Duke’s masquerading as two violent thugs. What they do with their voices is rather inventive.

Throughout the picture, Hope and Crosby also entertain the audience musically. Crosby has by far the better voice of the two, yet Hope holds his own nicely, displaying some truly impressive footwork and filling his musical numbers with energy and infectious smiles. It is telling, however, that only Crosby is called upon to sing a love song. Lamour also gets into the act, singing a jazzy tune and seductively moving her shoulders to the beat. It’s no wonder both Chester and Duke are smitten instantly.

It is also interesting to note just how often Hope breaks the fourth wall. In an early scene, when Duke arrives after a long absence, Hope looks at the camera and remarks that he thought the film “would be an A-picture.” In another, the narrator reappears to remark that Crosby just said the exact same things that Hope said a moment earlier, to which Crosby relies, “Why she he get all the laughs?” It all so wacky and fun. It’s also reminiscent of some pre-code comedies, and it’s hard to believe that some of Hope’s lines got past the censors. For example, in one memorable exchange, Lamour remarks that Hope may have meet her in his dreams, to which he replies, “You wouldn’t be seen in those places.” The story’s not half bad either. Those people who like their satire both zany and narrative will be pleased. In fact, while the critic in me wants to point out gaps in logic, such as the villain’s insistence on using Lamour’s character as bait and not the most evil Kate, the kid in me just won’t let him harp on such things.

I will not say that all of the jokes in the film will resonate with contemporary viewers. After all, what we think of as clever has changed quite considerably over the years. However, seeing Hope, Crosby, and Lamour have such a great time on the screen makes it all worthwhile. Director Hal Walker clearly knew how to capture Hope and all of his mad ad libs, double takes, and double entendres. I’m sure some of his job consisted of just saying action and capturing what Hope did, yet skilled directors bring out the best in their casts, and it is clear that the Hope, Crosby, and Lamour are at the top of their game. Is some of it dated? Sure, but it is also great fun. I can’t wait for another road trip. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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