Long before meta-fiction became a hot literary fad, long before self-referential jokiness and breaking down the fourth wall became hip, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were cutting up and wink-winking at movie audiences in a zestfully cornball series of road pictures that were box-office gold in the 1940s and ’50s.
All told, the ski-nosed Hope and the satin-voiced Crosby starred in seven “Road to …” movies from 1940 to 1962, and beginning Thursday five of them will be aired over the Turner Classic Movies cable network in a special “On the Road” film event.
The black-and-white films – “Road to Singapore,” “Road to Zanzibar,” “Road to Morocco,” “The Road to Utopia” and “Road to Bali” – will be shown back-to-back Thursday evening into Friday morning and will be re-aired individually in February and March. The two not included in the program are “Road to Rio” (1947) and “Road to Hong Kong” (1962).
Although the actors were said to be bitter rivals off-screen and reveled in scoring snarky digs at each other, Hope and Crosby conjured up an easy-going on-screen chemistry that convinced audiences they were bosom buddies through thick and thin.
Throughout the series, plots were merely thin contrivances that allowed the duo to indulge in loosey-goosey improvisation, banter through loads of inside Hollywood gags, croon their way through a pop songbook of very good to so-so tunes by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen and compete for the sexy charms of their perennially underappreciated though well-endowed co-star Dorothy Lamour.
By today’s standards, the films rank as pretty corny stuff. But Hope and Crosby were masters at vaudeville-style banter, and their spoofing of action-movie conventions and their meta-cinematic asides in which they spoke directly to the camera, delivering digs at Paramount and all manner of sacred Hollywood cows, produced a kind of devil-may-care sass that audiences loved.
Subsequent biographies and interviews have revealed though that most of the “ad-libs” that the duo spun out so effortlessly were in fact lines carefully written by a gaggle of radio gag writers employed by each man. But those were the days of studio supremacy, when carefully cultivated public images were the norm and tawdry truth was routinely suppressed.
Nevertheless, the Road pictures are indeed priceless relics of a simpler time and place, and if you can tolerate two supreme Hollywood egos thrusting and parrying with oh-so-glib one-liners and smug insouciance, this TCM fest is worth a look.
The schedule is:
“Road to Singapore” (1940), 7 p.m., Thurs., repeating 1 p.m., March 11 – A runaway tycoon and his sailor buddy try to con their way through the South Seas.
“Road to Zanzibar (1941), 8:30 p.m., Thurs., repeating 9:15 a.m., March 14 – A lady con artist scams two out-of-work entertainers into financing a safari.
“Road to Morocco” (1942), 10:15 p.m., Thurs., repeating 1 p.m., Feb. 28 – Two castaways get mixed up in an Arabian nightmare when they’re caught between a bandit and a beautiful princess.
“Road to Utopia (1946), 11:45 p.m., Thurs., repeating 2:30 p.m., Feb. 28 – Two song-and-dance men on the run masquerade as killers during the Alaskan gold rush.
“Road to Bali (1952), 1:30 a.m., Fri. – Two song-and-dance men on the run dive for treasure while competing for a beautiful princess.
Around 1977, there were tentative plans for an eighth Road movie, to be titled “Road to the Fountain of Youth.” But Crosby died that year of a heart attack. Even so, rumors persisted that Hope might team with Red Skelton or George Burns to continue the franchise, but nothing ever came of that.
– Dennis King