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For Paramount Pictures in the 1940s, it was an opportunity that seems like a no-brainer in hindsight. The studio had two contract players of enormous popularity in the broadcast medium, who had already established an obvious on-stage rapport with each other on their respective programs, and were clearly poised to become a popular comedic screen duo. Armed with their radio gag writers to bolster the screenplays, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hit the "Road" with a string of popular comic adventures laden with outrageous sight gags, in-jokes, and humorous asides to the audience, to say nothing of the presence of the alluring Dorothy Lamour (usually cast as South Sea sirens). The fourth entry in the series, Road to Utopia (1946), takes full advantage of each of these winning elements and is still considered one of the best entries in the series.
The Oscar®-nominated script, courtesy of longtime Hope scribes Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, opens with the three principals in age makeup, as the wealthy Chester Hooton (Hope) and his wife Sal (Lamour) are idling in their mansion, wistfully dwelling on how they gained a fortune and lost their best friend. At that moment, the long-thought-dead Duke Johnson (Crosby) arrives on their doorstep, and the narrative segues to Gold Rush-era San Francisco, where Duke and Chester were unsuccessfully plying their trades as song-and-dance men and bunco artists. In dodging the cops, they wind up on a steamship bound for the Yukon.
Their fortunes don't change for the better; not only do they lose their tickets, they wind up antagonizing two of the territory's most dangerous thugs, Sperry (Robert Barrat) and McGurk (Nestor Paiva). After improbably overpowering these cutthroats, Duke and Chester assume their identities taking their clothes, their gear, and the map to a gold mine that the thugs murdered Sal's father to obtain. Sal is summoned north by her father's shady attorney (Douglass Dumbrille), and believing the boys to be the killers, sets out to seduce them into giving up the map. The balance of the tale involves the expected romantic rivalry, a raucous race to the claim with the heavies, and an ending that somehow got past the censors of the day.
Although Road to Utopia wrapped in March 1944, distribution was held up for nineteen months. The cited reasons have ranged from the studio's continued and profitable exhibition of the prior "Road" opus, Road to Morocco (1942), to an avoidance of distracting attention from Crosby's much-lauded performance in the current hit, Going My Way (1944). While all of the series heartily disregard the "fourth wall" separating the audience from the action, Road to Utopia took the extra step of having the esteemed humorist Robert Benchley provide a running commentary on the script via a series of cut-ins. Benchley, who spent his later days adapting his wit to the screen with a popular series of short subjects, passed away before the film reached theaters.
In her autobiography My Side of the Road, Lamour recalled Utopia primarily for her musical number "Personality," in which she donned a seemingly sprayed-on evening gown. She recounted that on the morning of the shoot, after three hours in wardrobe and makeup, Hope and Crosby pulled a complete no-show. "Finally at 4:30 Gary Cooper ambled onto the set and asked what was going on. I recounted my tale of woe. 'Dottie,' he said, 'you shouldn't let those guys take advantage of you. Why don't you just give them a taste of their own medicine?'" Coop escorted her off the set, and Lamour refused to return when her co-stars finally put in their appearance. "The next day was all patched up," she recalled. "But they didn't pull another stunt like that ever again."
Producer: Paul Jones
Director: Hal Walker
Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier
Music: Leigh Harline, Jimmy Van Heusen
Cast: Bing Crosby (Duke Johnson/Junior Hooton), Bob Hope (Chester Hooton), Dorothy Lamour (Sal Van Hoyden), Hillary Brooke (Kate), Douglass Dumbrille (Ace Larson), Jack La Rue (LeBec).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg