It’s probably a testament to their incredible individual success that the comedy duo of Crosby and Hope–that is, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope–isn’t as well-known among casual moviegoers as say, an Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. But for seven films spanning an astounding 22 years, Crosby and Hope took to the high seas, chasing girls, money, and laughs all over the world.
I first encountered the Road series while seeking a musical to watch some lazy weekend morning. Trusting the triple-pedigree of Hope, Crosby, and Lamour, I decided on Road to Bali, because at the time I didn’t know enough about the series to consider maybe watching them in some kind of logical order. What followed was an utterly delightful, charming, and hilarious picture, full of energy and vibrant humor that still played perfectly while watching it today.
Every movie in the series follows the same basic plot (two rakes escape some sort of trouble by venturing to an exotic locale and fight over its exotic iteration of Dorothy Lamour), which at times is just a loose string connecting their vaudeville stand-up and musical acts, but when it works, it totally works. There’s a huge reliance on in-jokes relating to the other films, but they’re not presented in an insular way–they actually take the time to pause and allow you to catch up. Often this is accomplished by literally addressing, nodding, and winking at the camera, informing you that that was a joke. There’s less a fourth wall and more a feeling of Bob Hope sitting next to you, explaining the movie. Even watching my first entry, which was actually one of the later in the series, it felt immediately relatable and recognizable, like watching old friends playfully bicker at a high school reunion.
There’s also enough meta-film humor to latch onto with even a passing knowledge of film history of the period, or really, films at all. A clip from The African Queen used as a punchline itself, for instance, or an extra from a different movie walking through the scene on their way to the other set. Bob Crosby walking on screen, firing a gun, then casually walking away–because Bing promised him a “shot” in the picture. There’s something almost conspiratorial in getting to laugh with the boys laying down the odds during the opening song that they’ll meet Lamour at some point in the movie (spoiler: they always do).
I also love that despite the fact that the humor could be described, at times, as cruel, no one in the Road series ever has the upper hand for long. Unlike other movies that focus on the comedy of tragedy befalling their heroes, neither Crosby nor Hope plays the whipping boy–or rather, they both do, in pretty equal measure. As soon as Hope’s pulled a clever prank on Crosby, well, Crosby will turn right around and sell Hope into slavery. That’s just the way it goes. As an audience, it’s fun to have your loyalties pulled in every direction, and having these two chaotic but likeable characters is a great way to play with the viewer’s expectations. Also, part of what really makes this onscreen pairing work is that there is a love, a friendship behind all the tricks and pranks that’s reflected from Hope and Crosby themselves.
The films can be hard to translate to modern viewers however, and may take a while to reach the younger generations. They rely a lot on situational and sight gags, so as funny as the movies are, they don’t tend to offer many one-liners or sassy 140-character jokes to prove to Twitter that you’re watching the movie. I tried to describe one scene from Road to Bali to someone who hadn’t seen it, but wound up all turned around, without Hope’s wickedly perfect timing on my side or the goofy visual gag to provide some context.
That being said, I think the films still have a crazily wide-reaching influence, and I’m guessing a lot of people may have experienced them tangentially, without even realizing what they’ve seen. The films have been spoofed cinematically by comics like Mel Brooks and Dan Aykroyd, enjoyed a curious pocket of of cultural significance in parodies from at least three different animated kids’ shows in the ’90s, and of course, have had “Family Guy” utilize the Road template six times throughout the series, with apparent plans for a seventh episode–presumably to match the total number of Road movies. The “Family Guy” episodes even use some of the same songs, with loosely changed lyrics, which means there’s a whole bevy of people out there who would recognize the tune of “Road to Morocco” immediately–but identify it as “Road to Rhode Island.”
Still, that’s a lot better than can be said for a lot of vintage movies, and I think it’s great that these movies essentially invented a story archetype–a template that could easily be, and has been, replicated over and over, precisely because it’s so universally fun and identifiable. But while the set-up may be easily duplicated, the humor and camaraderie of Crosby and Hope remain totally unique–and that’s what makes the Road series a lasting part of film history.