When I think of a beach movie I don’t just think of white sandy beaches, swaying palm tress, and Annette Funicello in a two piece. I think of a movie the is easy, enjoyable, and fun. The sort of film that I can just sit back, relax, sip my iced tea, and laugh myself silly. And ROAD TO SINGAPORE is just that.
Directed in 1940 by Victor Schirtzinger and starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour, this was the first film in what would become the wildly popular and successful Road Movies series. The series would total seven movies following the exploits of Bob and Bing and Dorothy (who appeared in all but one film as the primary love interest) and would bring much success to not only the stars, but Paramount studios as well.
As anyone who has seen a Road movie knows, the plot is pretty simple and is mostly there to help Bob and Bing get from point A to point B with little to no trouble while having time to make plenty of jokes along the way. Bing is Josh Mallon and he, along with his buddy Ace Lannigan (Bob Hope), works onboard an American ship. They are having a fine old-time until the ship docks at port one day. While enjoying watching the other suckers head off to home with their wives and kids, Josh and Ace are gleefully recounting how lucky they are to be free and clear of all that responsibility when they are met by three glowering men. They have come to extend a wedding invitation to Ace, as it seems that one of his former flames by the name of Cherry is getting hitched and she would like Ace to be there as he is going to be playing the part of the groom. Not wanting to get roped into a shotgun wedding, Ace and Josh fight their way free and start a waterfront brawl in the process. The fight makes the front page, which is bad news for Josh not only because it embarrasses his father, a rich shipping magnate (Charles Coburn), but also because it alerts his fiancee Gloria that he is back in town. Gloria is, how shall we say, a bit of a bulldozer and is quite willing to overlook Josh’s behavior and design them a fabulous apartment to live in just as long as Josh remembers his promise to marry her. Josh is not that thrilled at the prospect but finally agrees, especially after the words “family honor” are thrown around.
The night of Gloria and Josh’s engagement party arrives but Josh is nowhere to be found. That is because he is visiting Ace, who has taken up refuge on his boat on what we can only assume are international waters. Originally planning to just drop off some groceries and run, Josh suddenly becomes involved in his own version of The Old Man and The Sea and spends the next several hours wrestling the fish into Ace’s boat. This of course makes him terribly terribly late to his party, a fact which isn’t helped much when he and Ace show up with the fish in tow. Some time later, after the fish has been cleared from the deck, Ace and Josh are enjoying the evening by singing some songs and doing some routines for the delight of the crowd. Gloria’s brother, who happens to a class A jerk, decides this is the right moment to throw some insults to the two which results in yet another brawl that makes the front page. But this one is on the front page of a gossip magazine which is less than thrilling to Josh’s father and his prospective father-in-law. Even worse, no one can find Josh as he has fled along with Ace and is somewhere in the region of Singapore.
More precisely, Ace and Josh are hiding out on the island of Kaidu. Living the high life and throwing cigarette butts wherever they darn well please, the pals head out one night to the local watering hole with their entire fortune (a whole $1.26) to get some drinks. While there they are treated to a show which stars a brooding latin type (Anthony Quinn) and his beautiful dancing assistant, Mima (Dorothy Lamour). Ace takes a shine to the pretty woman and this leads to some jealous whipping from her partner. Ace and Josh won’t take that lying down and they start, you guessed it, another brawl. This time however, the two men make their escape quickly and take Mima with them. What follows from there is the typical nonsense Road movie plot which all leads up to the question, who will get the girl?
ROAD TO SINGAPORE was a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for years but had never been picked up. The original story was that of two bachelors who were trying to escape their ex-flames whom they had met in Singapore, when the both meet a beautiful woman. This is clearly not what ROAD TO SINGAPORE is about. In fact, the story goes that Bob and Bing threw out the original script and just tried to outdo each other in making the crew laugh. This explains why the plot of most Road movies, especially with later entries in the canon, are pretty nonsensical. Bob and Bing just riffed off each other, each one trying to get a bigger laugh from the cameramen and assembled crew. It is rumored that during filming Dorothy Lamour turned to camera and said, “Hey fellas, I haven’t had a line for ages!” One day during the filming, the original screenwriters came to set to see how the movie was coming along. They were shocked to find that nothing of their original script remained, prompting Bob Hope to quip that if they heard any of their original lines of dialogue to “yell bingo”.
But this nonsensical joking is exactly the thing that I love about the Road movies. I first saw ROAD TO SINGAPORE when I was about twelve or so. I was spending a few days at my grandparent’s house and I was watching TV in their bedroom when I stumbled upon AMC which was showing a Road movie marathon. I had no idea what these movies were but I stayed up for hours past my bedtime watching one after the other, laughing hysterically. These were some of the funniest movies I had ever seen, and they also were the movies that rekindled my love of classic films. Are the Road movies perfect? No. Are some of the jokes a little dated or even not as funny to a modern audience who has no idea of the cultural in jokes of the time? Maybe. Are there some less than politically correct/slightly stereotyped gags and roles? Yes, I mean there is a whole section of this film where the boys paint themselves tan to “go native”. But none of this diminishes the appeal of the film to me.
On the whole, I feel like the Road movies get unfairly put down as lesser films. This is the original buddy movie! There is no greater chemistry than that of Bob and Bing. The riffing, ad-libbing, and one upping each other makes these films super funny. The Road movies also were clever send ups and spoofs of popular films of the day, such as Alaskan adventures, Arabian adventures, and high seas adventures. They are also a great combination of action, adventure, romance, and musical, basically something for everyone. One of the best running gags of the Road movies is that of Bob Hope breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience, usually leading to some overacting which Bing calls him out on. One of Bob Hope’s most famous running gags throughout his career, that of wanting to win an Oscar, had it’s start in the Road movies.
ROAD TO SINGAPORE doesn’t have all the gags that would become staples of the Road series, but the pieces are there and we can see where it is going. The chemistry between the three leads is bubbling under the surface and it already feels like a match made in heaven. It is a more traditional and grounded film but still fun in it’s own right. It holds a special place in my heart because it introduced me to the Road movies, to Bob and Bing, and to just how funny movies could be. So excuse me while I go and stick my feet in the sand, and spend some time in Kaidu with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.