31 July, 2009

The Road To Utopia

               Old Ski Nose himself wrote in 1977’s The Road To Hollywood -- ghostly written, no doubt, by his able Writing Staff;  and the legitimately great Bob Thomas -- “I didn’t get to Hollywood as early as B.C.  That’s Bing Crosby;  crooner, father, and member of the Lewis And Clark expedition.  When he arrived, there wasn’t anyone in town but a bunch of Indians waiting for John Wayne to show up.  Cecil B. DeMille was a prop boy.  Of course I’d have come sooner but I had an accident.  It was called a Screen Test.  But I’m getting ahead of my story, I’d better start at the beginning.”

               Bob Hope and Bing Crosby first met in 1932 when they bumped into each other on the street near a favorite hangout, The New York Friars Club.  They traded stories over drinks and eight weeks later were on the same bill at The Capitol Theatre.  Friendly, but only amiable off-and-on co-workers, each did his own thing, and their acquaintance was renewed in 1939 when Bing invited Bob to do some of the old Capitol shtick at the opening night of The Del Mar Racetrack.  The two were a huge hit with the audience, among them Paramount’s Head Of Production, Bill LeBaron … who got an idea they ought to do a movie together.

                  And so we come to (finally in some people’s opinion) one of the famous Road pictures -- and this one my personal favorite of them -- the hilarious, and certainly most outrageous of that Series:

                   The Road To Utopia
                   w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d Hal Walker
               The fourth of the famous Series finds Bob, Bing and Dottie in a race to find an Alaskan gold mine.  It all begins when the boys, lovable con artists that they are, take on the identities of two notorious killers, only to find themselves over their heads as those very killers, not to mention Douglass Dumbrille and his gang, race after them.  Toss the beautiful “Scagway Sal” in the mix, and it’s gags galore as our heroes survive the snowy tundra with vaudevillian vex and witty one-liners!

               I sat here for some time trying to come up with a concise yet entertaining synopsis, finally working out the above, but only after scanning the web for some inspiration, where I came across this from Jim Gay:  “[Utopia] has the boys in the Klondike masquerading as the killers Sperry and McGurk, from whom they've stolen the map to a gold mine, which really belongs to Dorothy Lamour, who’s really ... it doesn't really matter.  This is arguably the goofiest of the road pictures, with just enough plot to hang the jokes on, and a certain amount of time spent to see who gets the girl, while maintaining [Hope’s and Crosby’s] fierce and friendly rivalry. Along the way, animals talk, including the humorist Robert Benchley.  You don’t care where you're going, just as long as you're with them.  Put it there, pal.  Put it there.”

I couldn’t say it better myself.  And it goes back to what I was saying in the Ghost Breakers review about that picture being a Bob Hope vehicle.  “If I say [he wants to] play Private Eye, you get the idea.  And if I say [he’s] battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea.  The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone’s playing, really – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope vehicle.”  And that certainly applies to the Road series.  No matter their character names or where the adventure is set, it’s Bob, Bing and Dottie on the road.

We’ve been talking about Hope hits based on plays, and those hits already filmed remakes (Canary, Ghost Breakers and Truth).  But Utopia is an original screenplay, this time by the great Norman Panama & Melvin Frank.  In fact, Utopia was nominated for Best
Screenplay (alongside Notorious, lost to The Seventh Veil;  as if either of those are actually better).  And speaking of pedigree as I do in the Truth review, take a look at Panama & Frank’s.  For you writers out there, imagine that list being yours?  Yes, I’m jealous too. 

A Utopia-specific aside, if you’ll permit:  For our movie today, Panama & Frank wrote the famous line of all the Roads.  It happens when Bob and Bing first arrive in The Klondike, posing as the killers.  Bing tells Bob to act tough when they go into the bar.  “What’ll you have?” asks the heavy, Douglas Dumbrille.  Bing growls, “A couple of fingers of rotgut” to which Bob quips, “I’ll have a lemonade,” then growling, “In a dirty glass.”  Melvin Frank has said the line has always haunted him.  Whenever he did interviews, he expected to be asked about Writing & Producing & Directing the likes of Cary Grant and Danny Kaye (sure, even Bob and Bing).  But he was always written up as “the man who wrote the line, ‘I’ll take a lemonade … in a dirty glass.’” 

While we’re talking pedigree, there’s director Hal Walker, who would also do The Road To Bali six years later, but take a look at where he started:  working his way up through Zanzibar, Truth and Morocco.  Is there a better training ground for our motley crew?  I think not.

Rounding it all out is the great Robert Benchley who acts as Narrator, first introducing the film, then appearing pop-up-video style, fifty years before the popular show on VH1.  You probably recognize his name from being one of the great humorists of his time -- he was pals with Dorothy Parker and is credited with the line, “Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” * -- or perhaps because his son Nathaniel Benchley wrote the novel The Off-Islanders (which became the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) or perhaps because his grandson Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws.  It’s too bad R. Benchley passed away before Utopia’s release, because, while he was his own worst critic, I think he would have loved this.

Wait a minute!  Benchley passed in ’45 and Utopia was released in ’46!  True, but the film was shot in ’44 and not released for two years.  Why?  Couple of theories.  One, Crosby’s pious turn in Going My Way took precedence over his wisecracking scoundrel here;  and, two, his being absent from his NBC radio show at the time would have prevented his promoting the film’s songs (both Personality and Put It There, Pal became big hits).  Both are possible, but my money’s on -- theory three -- the fact that every studio had a lineup of war-related movies in the pipeline and, with the war coming to an end, they needed to get those released first.  A comedy could easily be pushed a year (or two) while a war movie would need to get out while its propaganda carried it.  (But, yes, I digress.)

After three previous Road pictures – including Zanzibar and Morocco which, alongside Utopia, I consider to be the top three of the series – we find Bob, Bing and Dottie in what plays as a grand-slam after three previous homeruns (swear to God they talk like that).  Everything is bigger, everything is broader.  It’s as if they knew they had a good thing on their hands but, instead of playing it safe, went for broke.  Bosley Crowther, in his original New York Times review, writes, “A ‘Road’ show is always an occasion for the cut-ups to have a marvelous time and in this case the comic inventors (stars and writers and director) ran wild.”  Wild longshots with no less than Benchley’s bits, talking animals, multiple breaks of the fourth wall, a visual Paramount logo in the middle of the movie, an actor cutting through a scene to get to his soundstage, a cameo by Santa Claus, and (the grand culmination) the Road song, Put It There, Pal.  (And if you’re wondering just how well it holds up, measure it thus:  Family Guy has paid homage to it.)  **  But where Utopia could have easily gone off the rails, Panama & Frank wrote -- and Cast & Crew executed -- a script that works.  That works well.  That, even more wonderfully for us, works just as well today.  Crowther goes on to agree that, “Where this sort of clowning might be juvenile and monotonous in other hands, it has rich comic quality in the smooth paws of [all] involved.”  Indeed, as goofy as some of it plays (and, admittedly, some of it does), it’s goofy so grand that by the time you question it, we’re already on to the next bit.

Bob Thomas, in his section of The Road To Hollywood, writes, “What is farce?  Critics and lexicographers have agonized over the question for centuries, and none has provided a satisfying definition.  The Random House Dictionary of the English Language offers as good an explanation as any:  ‘a light, humurous play in which plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather thn upon the development of character.’  However it’s defined, farce is indisputably the most hazardous of comedy forms, requiring a touch that is sure, yet transparent.  Without the proper ingredients and the finesse of master chefs, the soufflé becomes a pancake.  No comedian of the sound era can play farce with greater surety than Bob Hope.  His deftness with lines, no matter how outrageous, makes him an ideal farceur.”

Whenever I rewatch a movie for the purpose of a review, I always have a pen and paper handy, to jot down things I might want to talk about.  And I usually get through half a page or so.  “Oh that’s funny,” I’ll say.  Scribble.  “Oh that’s an in-joke I ought to talk about.”  Scribble.  “Hey look, there’s Jack La Rue as a henchman.  He’s a henchman in Brunette as well!”  Scribble.  For Utopia?  Three full pages.  Looking back on them now, I think, “So where do I start?”  And the truth is, nowhere;  rather, I can’t start anywhere for fear of not being able to stop.  And, honestly, you’re lucky for it.  First because you don’t have to sit through my scribbling when Panama & Frank’s (and Burke & Van Husen’s songs) are so much better.  And because it goes back to what I said about talking-plot in the Ghost Breakers review:  These films are treasures to be discovered.  You don’t need me telling you how great the story and jokes are.  Obviously I think so.  So hopefully I’ve done enough here to make you want to watch it.  And if you’re a Hope fan -- certainly if you’re a Road fan -- well, then you’re in good hands.

Put it there, indeed.

* I didn’t want to dive too deeply into this, particularly in the middle of a review of a Hope film, but couldn’t help but share;  hence here in a footnote.  Regarding the origin of Benchley’s famous “martini” line.  In Billy Wilder's The Major And The Minor, he says to Ginger Rogers, "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" and Billy Wilder (co-writer and director) credits Benchley with the line.  Benchley, in turn, credits it to his friend Charles Butterworth.  Indeed, in Every Day’s A Holiday, we see Butterworth tell Charles Winninger, "You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini."  Mystery solved?  You be the judge.
** Throughout this Top Five Retrospective, I’ve talked a lot about the in-jokes in Hope’s films (and there are many) but never have they run so rampant as in Utopia, certainly not to the extent of their getting their own song, “Put It There, Pal.”  I didn’t want to spend time during the review itself to talk about it (specifically), but I also can’t help but share some of the backstories to its great lines (in-jokes audiences would have certainly been in-on when the film was released).  You can find the song on iTunes and it’s certainly worth the purchase.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “I’ll be just like your horses …”  Crosby was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing;  so far as to, along with Charles S. Howard (owner of Seabiscuit), found The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Crosby’s line to Hope:  “I’m glad you’re fooling Pepsodent”  Pepsodent toothpaste was the sole sponsor of Hope's radio show from 1938 to 1948.  The program was such a success, for both parties, that he became inextricably tied to the product.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “I hear your show on Thursdays, what a lot of eggs you smash” Crosby’s NBC radio show aired Thursday evenings and, when singing, he habitually juggled eggs (no joke).  Frank Capra once said of him, he was the only actor you could confidently ask to "juggle eggs while reciting the Gettysburg address" and get it right in one take.
Crosby’s line to Hope:  “Well at least I don’t depend upon Colonna’s big moustache”  Popular comedian Jerry Colonna (who shines in Fred Allen’s It’s In The Bag) was a regular on Hope’s radio show, and on the U.S.O. Tours.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “You’ve got that something in your voice so right for selling cheese”  Crosby’s NBC radio show was sponsored by Kraft.

              As Paul Harvey said for so long on his popular radio show, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

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