Road to Singapore
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From the effortless look of them, you'd think that the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "road pictures" were destined to work like a charm from day-one. But Road to Singapore (1940), the first installment in the series, clearly shows that it wasn't that easy. Though several of the components that audiences came to know and love are there, including Dorothy Lamour as the romantic interest, and the apparently free-form repartee between the sarcastic leads, something is a bit off about the timing. The fact is, Hope and Crosby (and, almost incidentally, their director, Victor Schertzinger) had no idea where they were heading with the dialogue, but blindly trusted their instincts - and their personal joke writers - to invent something worthwhile. Just how worthwhile (i.e. profitable) these movies would finally become took everyone involved by complete surprise.
There's a plot to Road to Singapore, in the sense that it features a lot of things for Bob and Bing to mock. Even so, it's far more traditional than the rest of the films in the series. Crosby plays Josh, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate (Charles Coburn). A carefree sort, Josh wants nothing to do with his father's business, and basically avoids anything else that requires him to act like a grown-up. He even skips out on his bride-to-be (Judith Barrett) the day before their wedding, and takes off with his good buddy, Ace (Hope), to exotic Singapore. There, Josh and Ace launch an ineffective money-making scam involving an equally ineffective spot remover.
Eventually, both of the boys fall for a beautiful dancer named Mima (Lamour), who runs away with them to escape her violently jealous dancing partner (Anthony Quinn). Mima admits to being in love with either Josh or Ace, although, for much of the movie, she's strategically unclear about the particulars. Throw in a few songs, including one non-legendary ditty entitled "Captain Custard," and everything gets padded out to feature length. Audiences at the time didn't care about the skimpy material, though. The movie was a runaway smash, and Paramount quickly set about duplicating, and perfecting, its newfound formula.
Road to Singapore took such a winding route to the big screen, no one is really sure how it came into being. The most believable story is that a Harry Hervey adventure script called The Road to Mandalay was re-tooled by Paramount into a comedy vehicle for George Burns and Gracie Allen, who promptly turned it down. Then Fred MacMurray and Jack Okie supposedly rejected it, although, in later years, neither one of them could recall that ever happening. Then the title location was changed to the more exotic-sounding Singapore, and the script was given to Hope and Crosby. But that leaves out the very important detail of exactly who decided to team them up in the first place.
In the long run, it doesn't matter. You can bet that executives all over the Paramount lot were proclaiming their own genius when Road to Singapore became the highest grossing movie of 1940.
Hope and Crosby's disregard for the film's original shooting script is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Lamour later wrote in her autobiography that her first day on the set convinced her that there was simply no point in memorizing her dialogue- Bob and Bing would say whatever popped into their heads, or deliver gags that their writers had thought up the night before. "What I really needed," she said, "was a good night's sleep to be ready for the next morning's ad-libs. This method provided some very interesting results on screen. In fact, I used to ask to see the finished rushes to see what the movie was all about."
She wasn't kidding. One day on the set, Hope actually yelled to screenwriter Frank Butler, "Hey Frank! If you hear anything that sounds like one of your lines, just yell 'Bingo!'" Butler reportedly was not amused, although Schertzinger enjoyed his directing duties, which more or less consisted of shouting "Stop!" and "Go!"
It's interesting to note that Hope and Crosby were not the loving off-screen buddies that press releases and carefully orchestrated public outings implied they were. Though both men knew a major cash-cow when they were riding one, and thus were able to maintain a façade of deep friendship, they were highly competitive egotists who never missed an opportunity to belittle each other. And it wasn't always in good fun.
During the Singapore shoot, Hope took special advantage of Crosby's self-consciousness about his balding head and somewhat flabby behind, which generated the endearing nicknames, "Skinhead" and "Mattress Hip." Hope would also get his writers to secretly come up with zingers that would cancel out Bing's supposedly off-the-cuff jibes during shooting. Crosby, for his part, repeatedly called Hope "Ski Snoot" and loved pointing out that he was by far the better dramatic actor of the two. And he ribbed Hope mercilessly when he won a 1944 Best Actor Oscar® for Going My Way. So much for a partnership made in heaven.
Producer: Harlan Thompson
Director: Victor Schertzinger
Screenplay: Don Hartman and Frank Butler
Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Music Director: Victor Young
Art Design: Hans Dreier and Robert Odell
Choreography: LeRoy Prinz
Principal Cast: Bing Crosby (Josh Mallon), Bob Hope (Ace Lannigan), Dorothy Lamour (Mima), Charles Coburn (Joshua Mallon IV), Judith Barrett (Gloria Wycott), Anthony Quinn (Caesar), Jerry Colonna (Achilles Bombanassa), Johnny Arthur (Timothy Willow), Pierre Watkin (Morgan Wycott), Gaylord "Steve" Pendleton (Gordon Wycott), Miles Mander (Sir Malcolm Drake), Pedro Regas (Zato), Greta Granstedt (Babe), Edward Gargan (Bill)
B&W-85m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara