How’s this for an official plot synopsis?
“Hope and Crosby have to flee Melbourne in order to avoid two marriage proposals, and find themselves in Bali, where they find themselves vying for the attention of the princess and are targeted by thieves.”
Well, those were the days, all right. Middle-aged white men literally fleeing the country because women wanted to marry them, only to find themselves lusting after an exotic princess.
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Road to Bali is the penultimate entry of the seven “Road to … ” films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Not for nothing that the synopsis refers to them simply as Hope and Crosby rather than by their character names – which is something this film franchise surely encouraged, as the actors had different character names in each entry. Road to Bali is not the highest regarded of the series; that’s probably Road to Morocco, which even earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. But due to a copyright renewal snafu, Road to Bali entered public domain in 1980. So, it is technically the most “accessible” of the films in that multiple cheap DVDs and online prints exist, and you can appreciate it without having seen the other entries.
There’s plenty of quarantine streaming fun to be had, traveling with this bickering pair of goofs as they make their way from Melbourne to Bali, and despite being a 1952 comedy, shot on studio backlots with what looks like stock photography establishing shots, there’s still a vicarious travel itch to be scratched given our current predicament.
As the synopsis suggests, plot is nothing more than an excuse to create a string of humorous set pieces featuring visual gags, snappy one-liners and lively song-and-dance numbers. What the synopsis withholds is that the film also involves deep sea diving with giant squid, lovesick gorillas in mourning and head-shrinking cannibals. Happy trails!
A remarkable quality of the Road to … series is they have so much fun acknowledging the artifice of film-making. The repeated breaking of the fourth wall addresses everything from the film’s silly structure to the actors’ real-life personas to Paramount, the studio releasing the film, in a way that suggests a curious place between highbrow self-reflexivity and lowbrow shoddiness. Sure, it all feels borne out of vaudeville more than Brecht, but that’s not to say there isn’t something modernist about intercutting a clip of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, or having Hope’s character awake from unconsciousness and ask: “What happened? Is the picture over?”
Alas, there are some icky matters – both on screen and off screen – to contend with in order to watch Road to Bali in modern day. Several of the supporting actors here would be excommunicated if they tried to wear these costumes on Halloween, and the gender politics are definitely a product of their time. There’s also the behind-the-scenes injustice for the film’s third lead, Dorothy Lamour. Despite her role in the success of the previous five films and her significant screen time in this film, Lamour worked for salary while Hope and Crosby enjoyed cuts of the profits. That wasn’t enough though, when the gang reunited for the last time on Road to Hong Kong, Lamour was replaced by the younger Joan Collins.
Which is all a shame because Lamour’s comic timing and athletic dance moves are a key reason these films work as well as they do. Credit is also due to Crosby’s frequent collaborators – the music and lyrics duo of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke – who contribute everything from toe tappers to swooning ballads here. But like any buddy comedy, it ultimately comes down to the on-screen chemistry between the buddies. Hope and Crosby are a match made in Hollywood heaven. Watching Road to Bali – and other titles in the series – you can see how much they prefigure the high-concept buddy comedies of Coming to America or Wedding Crashers several decades later. Reports differ on how much was scripted and how much was ad-libbed, but the resulting repartee feels akin to both tightly scripted screwball comedy and the loose freewheeling improvisation of The Trip.
As much as there’s an ongoing rat-a-tat-tat competition between the two characters, there’s a sweetness to their relationship, which one can imagine is as true of the performers as it is the characters. At a moment late in the film when things are looking grim, the two console each other: “At least we’re going out together.” The moment is surprisingly wistful, and not entirely played for humor. Of course, this is just for a beat. Then, it’s swiftly back to madcap pratfalls and wordplay, but not before they’re given one more reflection: “We’ve had a lot of laughs.”