Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #40: "Road to Bali" (1952)

Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour hit the road for the next to last time in Road to Bali.

The flick: Road to Bali (Paramount Pictures, 1952) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.6

Director: Hal Walker (Road to Utopia, directed a string of early 1950s Martin & Lewis vehicles, including At War with the Army, Sailor Beware, That's My Boy, and My Friend Irma Goes West)

Caricature of Bing, Dorothy and Bob by Al Hirschfeld
Actors of note:
  • Bing Crosby (massively popular singer-actor known to fans as "Der Bingle" or "The Old Groaner"; starred in High Society, Holiday Inn, much more; Oscar winner for Going My Way; nominated twice more; his recording of "White Christmas" has sold about 100 million copies)
  • Bob Hope (actor-comedian who is arguably one of the most successful and famous entertainers of the last century; starred in The Ghost Breakers, The Paleface, My Favorite Brunette, etc.; hosted the Oscars fourteen times; made dozens of TV specials for NBC from the '60s to the '80s; renowned the world over for his work with the USO)
  • Dorothy Lamour (appeared in all seven Road movies with Bing and Bob; also appeared in Creepshow 2, Donovan's Reef, etc.)
  • Murvyn Vye (Pickup on South Street)
  • Peter Coe (House of Frankenstein, The Ten Commandments)
  • Ralph Moody (Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, much more; did a lot of Dragnet episodes and other Jack Webb-produced shows)
  • Leon Askin (The Robe, The Maltese Bippy, Airplane II: The Sequel; Gen. Burkhalter on the Bing Crosby-produced TV series Hogan's Heroes)

Other notables: There are cameo appearances by Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jane Russell, and Humphrey Bogart, plus Bing's brother, Bob (a popular swing bandleader in his own right) and Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV's The Addams Family),  Costumes are by Edith Head. Songs are by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.

Dorothy Lamour: Sarong... and yet so right.
The gist of it: George (Crosby) and Harold (Hope) are two American song-and-dance men performing in Melbourne, Australia, but they have to high-tail it out of town when a naive young lady (whom they've both promised to marry) arrives at the theater with her shotgun-toting father. After some misadventures involving trains and sheep, they sign on as deep-sea divers for an unscrupulous Indonesian prince named Ken Arok (Vye), little realizing that the job means all-but-certain death.

The treasure they're supposed to uncover is guarded by a giant killer squid who has sent many men to watery graves. Blissfully unaware of this, they travel with Ken Arok to a small, exotic island on the way to Bali where they are given the royal treatment and meet lovely Princess Lala (Lamour), with whom they both fall in love. Despite Lala's warnings, George and Harold go on the diving expedition, recover the treasure, and survive the squid, too, but Ken Arok tries to kill them to recover the gold and jewels they've found. George, Harold, and Lala escape on a boat bound for Bali, and a humorously contentious love triangle quickly arises as George and Harold compete for Lala's affections.

This romantic rivalry continues even after their boat capsizes and the three are stranded on a seemingly deserted island... only to find themselves in the clutches of Ken Arok, who arranges for Lala to marry the villainous King Ramayana (Askin) and for George and Harold to marry each other! Luckily, the volcano god disapproves of same-sex marriages and starts spewing lava everywhere. George, Harold, and Lala manage to escape, and the love triangle story is resolved in a way I'd rather not spoil since it's one of the movie's comedic high points.

Director Hal Walker with the Road to Bali cast.
My take: Of all the movies in this collection, Road to Bali was among the ones I was most eager to cover when I first rescued Mill Creek's 100 Comedy Classics from a grocery store bargain bin. First off, this is another one of those big-name, all-star Technicolor extravaganzas that slipped into the public domain purely by negligence on the part of the studio. It's the only one of Bing and Bob's famous Road movies to be filmed in color, and in a way it's the end of an era. Or the beginning of the end, anyway.

The boys had been cranking out a Road picture every few years since 1940 to great success, but they were both pushing 50 at this point* and the public's interest in the team must have been waning just a bit. The series' previous entry, Road to Rio, was released on Christmas day in 1947 and became the #1 grossing film of 1948. Looking over the Top 10 for 1952, however, I don't see Road to Bali at all. I do see a solo Bob Hope vehicle (Son of Paleface), plus -- even higher on the list -- Sailor Beware, a comedy that had the same director (journeyman Hal Walker) but featured the newer, younger, hipper team of Martin and Lewis, who pay their respects to Bing and Bob by making a brief cameo in Bali.

Hope and Crosby gave it one last shot a full decade later in 1962 with Road to Hong Kong, but the ship had definitely sailed by then. They remained friends all their lives and, of course, had tremendously successful solo careers of their own. For the most part, the two men moved to television, becoming eternal "guest stars" on talk shows, variety shows, and specials. They were venerable elder statesmen from the 1950s onward and would remain so for the rest of their lives, with their reputations only slightly tarnished by support of the unpopular Vietnam War (in Bob's case) or accusations of child abuse (in Bing's case).

We tend to think of them now as as middle-aged men on a golf course somewhere in Palm Beach. Road to Bali, however, is a reminder that Der Bingle and Old Ski Nose were once actually kind of cool and irreverent. Today's film comedians are expected to make in-jokes, break the fourth wall, and generally treat the plot with as little respect as possible. That air of ironic detachment comes in large part from Bob Hope. And in the good-natured ball-busting that goes on constantly between Hope and Crosby throughout this film, we can see the beginnings of the male camaraderie on display in modern-day films like This is the End and the Hangover trilogy. I can remember a Rolling Stone interview in which David Letterman, the king of irony, expressed his admiration for Hope's early work and lamented the fact that his comedic ancestor went on to be the symbol of everything old-fashioned and unhip in comedy. As Road to Bali shows, it's a bum rap.

Another, secondary reason I was looking forward to this movie was simply because of a longstanding interest in the island of Bali. A dark, surreal 1954 Woody Woodpecker cartoon called Alley to Bali made an enormous impact on me as a kid, and years later I discovered a 1957 Patience and Prudence B-side called "Very Nice is Bali Bali" that makes a convincing case for the province. Technically, I don't think the characters in this movie ever quite get to Bali proper, though Dorothy Lamour does wear a headdress similar to one from the Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
* A near-constant running joke in this film is how much older Bing Crosby is than Bob Hope. In truth, they were born in the same month, May 1903, just a few weeks apart.
Bandleader Fred Waring in his heyday.

Is it funny: Sure, for the most part. Personally, I'd say the film hovers between "fairly funny" to "pretty funny" for the entire running time and has several sequences in which it rises to the level of "quite funny indeed," largely thanks to Bob Hope. The plot of Road to Bali is extremely shaky, and the film is best when Hope and Crosby simply ignore it and crack wise, directing their zingers at each other or straight to the audience.

My absolute favorite parts, in fact, are the ones in which Hope completely abandons the narrative and talks directly to the camera, as when he tells us that Crosby is about to sing and that we should use this opportunity to get some popcorn. And he's right, too: Bing's song, a romantic ballad to Lamour, is rather dull. The musical numbers, by and large, drag the film down.

The series was a bit past its prime and the dreaded "sequel-itis" had started to set in, but Bing and Bob were obviously having a blast making this thing, and some of the fun is contagious. Since this was the sixth film in the series, the actors could have a little fun with the conventions of the Road movies. One particular tradition of these films, for instance, was the famous "pat-a-cake" routine in which our two heroes would play the children's clapping game as a pretense for punching out the bad guys. In this movie, the bad guys are wise to 'em and duck out of the way, so Bing and Bob knock each other out instead. The meta-humor reaches its zenith during the finale, when Bob tries desperately to keep the movie from ending and resorts to pushing the words "THE END" off the screen.

Many of the jokes in the script are topical, and not all of them have worn well. In 1952, for instance, you couldn't go wrong with a Fred Waring joke. In 2013, you can only go wrong with a Fred Waring joke. And even though guys in mangy gorilla suits are one of my favorite comedy conventions, I'd have to say that Road to Bali really doesn't bring anything new to the field of gorilla-based comedy.

On the other hand, the film does bring something new and highly disturbing to chimpanzee-based comedy. There's a very weird, unappetizing flashback scene involving a chimp with Bob Hope's face. Forewarned is forearmed, reader.

A chimpanzee in a hideous Bob Hope mask. Now that's comedy!

My grade: B+

P.S. - A little -- or a lot, depending on your vantage point -- of racism is kind of built into the Road series, I'm sorry to say. Though set in far-flung locales around the world, the movies themselves were filmed entirely within Los Angeles and played fast-and-loose with cultural and ethnic authenticity. I'd very highly doubt that many or any of the main cast members or extras were Indonesian at all, let alone Balinese. I'd guess that the "research" for this film consisted of looking up "Bali" in the encyclopedia and then just studying the pictures without reading the text. The natives in this movie have no language of their own and merely converse in heavily-accented pidgin English, even when conversing among themselves. There are lots of jokes about head hunting and cannibalism, of course, and women are treated solely as exotic sex toys. Amusingly, Leon Askin plays his role as an Indonesian exactly the same way he played a Nazi general on Hogan's Heroes.