Road to Zanzibar [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd March 2019).
The Film

The fascinating Hollywood Golden Age story of origin of the Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour/Bob Hope seven-film "Road to…" series, and how the memorable trio nearly did not happen, is elucidated with Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of the first four films in the series Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, the highly-influential Road to Morocco, and Road to Utopia (the latter not provided for review).

Things kick off with Road to Singapore (1940) when sailor Ace Lannigan (Hope) and shipping magnate heir Josh Mallon V (Crosby) get into a brawl with the father (Barbary Coast's Roger Gray) and brothers of a girl who try to force Ace into a shotgun wedding. Josh's arrest makes the papers causing his exasperated father Joshua Mallon IV (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' Charles Coburn) to put his foot down and insist that Josh go to work as manager of the maintenance department in preparation for his wedding to socialite Gloria Wycott (The Gracie Allen Murder Case's Judith Barrett). Ace crashes the engagement party and the pair put on a show, charming the ladies before getting into a brawl with Gloria's snobby brother Gordon (Target Earth's Steve Pendleton), landing on the front of the scandal sheets. Gloria's father (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington's Pierre Watkin) insists that Josh publically apologize for the incident but Josh's father has just received a postcard from his son who has hopped a ship with Ace to Singapore. The two are not exactly living it up in Kaigoon, setting up in a shack and scamming food. When Josh catches the eye of nightclub performer Mima (The Greatest Show on Earth's Dorothy Lamour) and incurs the wrath of her hot-blooded partner Caesar (Lust for Life's Anthony Quinn), she flees with Josh and Ace, setting up house with them and proving more resourceful than either of the two men who soon put their scheming skills to trying to woo her away from one another. Little do they know that they are being hunted, by Josh's father and Gloria, by the Mallon company's local office representative (Johnny Arthur), by the victim of one of the trio's soap schemes (Road to Rio's Jerry Colonna), by jealous Caesar, and soon by a native woman when they crash a feast and Josh mistakes a nuptial dance for run of the mill rhumba.

In Road to Zanzibar, sideshow barker Chuck Reardon (Crosby) and hapless daredevil Hubert "Fearless" Frazier (Hope) flee the carnival when they set fire to the big top with their human cannonball trick. They make their way across the country with Chuck badgering Hubert into variations on their act until Hubert breaks his leg on the latest. The police track them down but wealthy British tycoon Charles Kimble (Top Hat's Eric Blore) is suitably amused by them to pay their bail and settle their debts with the circus. Hubert is ready to go back to the United States and give up the business only to discover that Chuck has spent all their money on the deed to a diamond mine which they subsequently discover is worthless; Charles being the "eccentric" of the family who tells tall tales. Hubert settles things by conning Le Bec (Lionel Royce) into buying the mine for seven thousand dollars, promising to lead him and his bodyguards on the expedition. Soon they are on the run again, hopping the closest boat and winding up in Africa where the pair are implored by desperate Julia (42nd Street's Una Merkel) to help her rescue her friend Donna (Lamour) who has been captured by white slavers and set to be sold off at an auction. Gallant Chuck bids and wins Donna but this turns out to be a scam with Donna and the auctioneer splitting half the profits. Upon learning that Chuck and Hubert are carrying seven thousand dollars with them, Donna hatches the plan to trick them into funding a safari across the country ostensibly to reach her ailing father but actually to get her to wealthy heir who was courting her before his family put some distance between them. Under the guise of keeping her wiles in practice, Donna flirts with both Hubert and Chuck, giving them both the impression that she desires each of them. Julia finds this worrying and spills the beans when she comes to believe that Donna actually is getting interested in Chuck. Chuck and Hubert angrily quit the safari and stumble upon a native village decimated long ago and populated by skeletons. When they jokingly bang on the ceremonial drums, they inadvertently summon the rival tribe and may end up as dinner.

We're next on the Road to Morocco when childhood friends Orville (Hope) and Jeff (Crosby) are the unaccounted for stowaway passengers on a freighter that exploded when a cigar-smoking Orville mistook the Powder Room for a powder room. Floating in the middle of the sea on a makeshift raft, they just start debating who will eat whom when they spot land. Their desert isle fortunately turns out to be the coast of Morocco but their empty stomachs and lack of funds requires some ingenuity. When Orville asks how Jeff is able to run up a huge tab eating heartily at a local restaurant, he discovers that Jeff has sold him to a slaver. Despite Jeff's assurances that he has no plans on delivering on the sale, Orville is snatched and resold to another party. Jeff gives up after a week of searching and has to be guilted into to continuing the search with some supernatural direction from the specter of his Aunt Lucy (Hope in drag). Finally tracking down Orville, he discovers that he is not a slave but the groom-to-be of the beautiful Princess Shalmar (Lamour). Although she extends an invitation for Jeff to stay for the wedding, Orville is eager to get rid of him since he knows his friend will make a play for the princess. Shalmar tells Jeff that she is indeed attracted to him, which is all the more reason that she must marry Orville. Upon hearing of the princess' engagement, the sheik Mulay Kassim (Anthony Quinn) storms the palace ready to kill his rival; that is, until Shalmar takes him to see the wise man Hyder Khan (The Life of Emile Zola's Vladimir Sokoloff) who has divined from the stars that the princess' first husband will die a horrible death within a week while her second husband will live a long life. The sheik believes he will be the second husband, but Shalmar has set his sights on Jeff. Having fallen in love with Orville, the princess' handmaiden Mihirmah (Kansas City Confidential's Dona Drake) tells him about the prophecy and Orville decides to pay Jeff back for selling him.

Taken individually, the "Road to…" movies seem rather unambitious efforts to exploit the chemistry between Hope and Crosby, with comic episodes structured around songs and dance numbers staged on a large scale. Binge-watched, or at least grouped, one sees the progression from the tentative nature of Road to Singapore bookended by a song and dance number in a cramped stateroom set to the studio backlot native feast and dance, or the soundstage jungle of Road to Zanzibar (possibly recycled from another production), to the more assured Road to Morocco's more spacious-looking Kasbah sets and deserts (a mixture of location and second unit footage with the special photography of Paramount veteran Farciot Edouart sometimes compositing the stars into the foreground or creating joins between foreground set elements and motion background plates or matte painting extensions. Also evident are the ways in which the series lampoons various Hollywood genres rather than embodying their of the time but now "problematic" aspects: from jungle epics to desert sagas in the case of the three films here. One can also see the influence these films had on popular culture with Road to Morocco a seemingly particularly point of reference for some of the humor in the Looney Tunes cartoons onwards; indeed, one can probably trace every desert mirage sight gag back to this film while millennials might finally understand Seth McFarland's many references to the series on Family Guy. Also evident is how self-aware the series was from the start, with Hope noting "He must've seen the picture!" of a tough who does not fail for their "Patty Cake" routine from the first film, and Jeff's "I'll lay you eight to five we meet Dorothy Lamour," in Road to Morocco (indeed, Lamour's introductions are withheld to the second act of the second and third films). While Crosby was the series' dreamboat who gets the girls and Hope the hapless comic relief, but the subsequent series entries seem to make attempts at balancing this out with Merkel's Julia getting the cold shoulder from both men in favor of Lamour in Road to Zanzibar while Hope gets a love interest all his own in Road to Morocco (although he seems to settle for her after initially using her as an excuse to unload the princess on Jeff). In terms of conflict, the first two films seem to establish antagonists on a scene by scene basis – even the cannibals of the second film are just there to effect a comic setpiece – while returning Quinn gets a chance to project some menace as the sheik in the third film and the entire third act is a succession of events leading up to a big climax with elements of comedy and danger that proves the most satisfying of the three films. Four films would follow, with Hope and Crosby exerting more control over the last three (one of the reasons why the rights to the series were divided during the home video days). However prolific his subsequent filmography, Crosby would be better remembered for his singing career than his acting – apart from perhaps holiday perennial White Christmas – compared to Hope whose subsequent films like Paris Holiday, Call Me Bwana, and I'll Take Sweden were not as popular (although I do admit Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! is an extremely entertaining guilty pleasure) his reputation as a movie star was bolstered by his extremely prolific USO performances, TV specials and sitcom guest shots, and talk show appearances.

Video

Although released theatrically by Paramount, the first four films in the series wound up with Universal along with much of Paramount's pre-1950 library and released through Universal on cassette and laserdisc in 1993. They made their DVD debut in 2002 individually and as part of the The Bob Hope Tribute Collection, and quickly followed in 2004 in the On the Road with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby set. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen masters date from the DVD era with the 1997-2012 Universal logo preceding the vintage Paramount one. The masters are look quite good for the most part, although Road to Zanzibar (which has windowboxed credits that zoom into fullscreen during a panning camera shot in the first scene) seems to have more evident edge enhancement when the image is zoomed in. Although the Road films have pedigree, it was unlikely that they would get remastered again without a third party commissioning new transfers and Universal assenting (which would probably result in a higher price tag like Shout! Factory's limited edition steelbook 4K remasters of some of their Scream Factory Universal and MGM horror acquistions). The seams of Road to Morocco's special photography composites are far more evident than before, but this actually makes the technical ambition of effects that would be refined in later years all the more pleasurable to assess even if laughable at the same time.

Audio

All three films have DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks that are of similar quality and limited by the original mixes. Dialogue is always clear and the music rarely distorts at the high end although the Westrex Noiseless Recording is never truly noiseless during silent passages but those bits are also never distractingly hissy (although what little hiss there is might be exacerbated if you have ProLogic or virtual surround modes on by default). All three have optional English SDH subtitles.

Extras

Most of the disc extras for the three films are ported over from the DVDs, starting with the "Bob Hope and the Road to Success" (14:13) piece on all three discs, and the Hope-oriented "Entertaining the Troops" (6:20) on Road to Singapore, "Command Performance 1944" (6:47) on Road to Zanzibar, and "Command Performance 1945" (5:05) on Road to Morocco, and theatrical trailers for all three (2:37, 2:40, and 2:12 respectively) along with Road to Utopia. Road to Singapore also has the "Sweet Potato Pie" Sing-Along (2:40) from the DVD edition. Road to Morocco also carries over the "Road to Morocco" Sing-Along (2:08) but also adds a "Trailers from Hell" (2:36) segment with John Landis. The most impressive extra of the three is the Audio Commentary by film historian Jack Theakston which encompasses discussion of all four of the films. He reveals that Road to Singapore had been kicking round the studios for a few years originally as a drama and reworked into a comedy initially pairing Crosby with George Burns and Gracie Allen – who pulled out over dissatisfaction with the script – and Norm Taurog (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) slated to direct under the titles "Follow the Sun" then "Road to Mandalay" then "Road to Burma". He notes that director Victor Schertzinger had directed roughly eighty films before Road to Singapore while working as a composer (having started as a musical composer and director before getting into film scoring and continuing to score films into the thirties even as he was also directing others), and that his musical comedy experience lead to his hiring here. Schertzinger was to direct the original planned third film "Road to Moscow" but the studio was concerned with the coming war and production was delayed during which Schertzinger died of a heart attack while helming The Fleet's In (also starring Lamour). Since the track accompanies Road to Morocco, discussion reverts to the film when something of interest happens. Interestingly, he is of the opinion that the film's less than convincing effects are a sort of meta-commentary.

Overall

 


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