Hope & Crosby’s “Road to” Irreverence
Road to Morocco airs Thursday, January 24th on TCM
Throughout film history, comedy teams have been a mainstay. From slapstick to verbal wit, there has been a team to match every taste. One of the most timeless, and oft imitated comedy teams, however, is Hope and Crosby.
The year was 1939 and Paramount had the mediocre property Road to Mandalay, a breezy light romantic, comedic romp to star the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, who promptly turned it down. It was re-tooled for contract players Fred MacMurray & Jack Oakie, but that never came to be. Meanwhile, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest stars at Paramount, his easy going on-screen style, coupled with his huge success as a crooner, meant that the studio was eager to find more interesting material for him. Bob Hope, also under contract with Paramount, was a rising comedic star with great success on radio. His filmography up until that point had some hits and misses. Viewing them now, you can feel Hope struggling to find his way, as he had not yet fully realized the quippy, smart-ass “coward” he would later hone to perfection in the 1940s.
When these two performers were first brought together, it was like a light bulb went off. They were immediately in-sync, bouncing and ad-libbing off one another. It was clear that Hope & Crosby needed to be teamed together, and Road to Mandalay now re-titled with the more exotic name Road to Singapore, was the perfect vehicle. Once they stepped on the soundstage together, the jokes flew, much to the chagrin of the writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman, whose script was some days thrown out completely in deference to their ad-libs. Contrary to popular belief, though, these weren’t just improvised “riffs,” but carefully crafted lines from each of their gag writers, who would take the script home, pump them full of material that reflected Bob and Bing’s personas, and return these torqued up pages before the shoots.
Part of Hope and Crosby’s unique comic styling was the timeliness of the gags and personal references. Hope would take shots at Crosby’s age, expanding waistline, incredible wealth and famous bad luck at the racetrack. Crosby, in turn, would make fun of Hope’s famous ski nose, bad jokes, and misses at the box office. For its time, Road to Singapore was groundbreaking in its ability to break the fourth wall (something only a handful of comics had done successfully up until then) its easy-going, meandering plot, and repartee between its characters.
While Hope and Crosby were never listed or promoted as a comedy team, they are revered as one of the greatest. Road to Singapore was followed by 6 more: Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morocco (the most successful), Road to Utopia, Road to Rio, Road to Bali, and their final “Road to” movie in 1962, Road to Hong Kong. All except the last co-starred beauty Dorothy Lamour. Crosby persuaded producers to replace her with Joan Collins (Bing wanted a younger romantic lead). Hope, however, didn’t want to tinker with a good thing, and had her brought back in for a smaller role.
The formula was simple: Hope and Crosby were some permutation of a hapless carny act, Hope always wanting to go back to the U.S., Crosby the con-man, talking Hope into doing something dangerous or perilous for greater financial return. They’d fight over everything, including women. Once they’d come across Lamour, there was a constant wrestle for her attentions, but Crosby’s smooth style and singing would invariably win her over. Only twice did Hope get the girl, but it took a glacier crack to force them together (Utopia) and hypnosis (Rio) to make it happen.
Between the “Road to” films, Hope and Crosby continued their solo careers, but the teaming was so successful, many of Hope’s films included references to Crosby, and even included Crosby in cameos. 1944’s The Princess & The Pirate has Hope unsuccessfully trying to woo Virginia Mayo only to lose her to her beau, Bing Crosby. 1947’s My Favorite Brunette (also featuring Lamour) had Hope receive a last minute reprieve on death row. The executioner, Crosby, is miffed. These cameos became so prevalent, a Bob Hope film didn’t seem complete without them. Hope and Crosby also had their own radio shows, where they would play up their “feud” to their respective audiences. (You could say Hope and Crosby were one of the first entertainment entities to successfully “cross” platforms.)
Road to Bali (1952), their one and only Technicolor outing, is so rife with inside jokes that the plot virtually disappears halfway through. Bing Crosby’s brother Bob enters one scene and fires a rifle. According to Crosby, his brother wanted a “shot” in the picture. Humphrey Bogart is seen pulling the African Queen through a jungle river, an elephant is shot out of the sky (“Those Republicans are everywhere”), comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis inhabit Dorothy Lamour’s dream, and out of nowhere an Oscar appears. Hope’s running gag was that he never received an Academy Award and he says to Crosby: “This one’s mine! You got one! (referring to 1944’s Going My Way). Even the end of Road to Morocco features Hope having a nervous breakdown only to be interrupted by a confused Crosby. “You had to open your big mouth and ruin the only good scene I got in the picture. I might’ve won the Academy Award,” Hope laments.
By 1962, the formula was exhausted. Road to Hong Kong displayed little of the electricity of the previous outings. It was done on the cheap and somewhat past the stars’ prime. Hope and Crosby were actually in plans to shoot another “Road to” film in 1977, “The Road to the Fountain of Youth” which (luckily) never came to fruition. Several attempts were made to capture the kinetic energy and spontaneity of the Hope and Crosby mystique, to mixed results. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd’s 1985 film Spies Like Us was an uneven homage (replete with a Bob Hope cameo) and 1987’s disaster Ishtar starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty fared even worse.
If you’re sampling the best works of the best comedy teams, you owe it to yourself to try Hope and Crosby. “Rio,” “Utopia” or “Zanzibar” would be my recommendations; but “Road to Morrocco” is continually at the top of most fans’ list.