Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Road to Utopia (1946)

Director: Hal Walker

It had been three years since movie audiences had seen the team of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour in their last Road to… picture. Since then World War II had ended, Lamour had become one of the many famous pinups during the war, Bob Hope was a treasure for his USO work, and Crosby had become an Academy Award winner and greatest box office draw in Hollywood. In February 1946 audiences were once again reunited with the trio in Road to Utopia, the forth of the famed comedy series, this time taking us on an adventure to the Alaskan Klondike where, of course, nothing goes as planned.

Road to Utopia is a comedy about two vaudevillian performers at the turn of the century who look to make a fortune in an Alaskan gold rush. A wealthy elderly couple Sal and Chester (Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope) are reunited with their long-lost friend, Duke (Bing Crosby), and recount to adventures that brought them together. They recall how Duke and Chester depart the world of vaudeville and trek up to Alaska and come across a stolen map to the gold mine held by murderous outlaws McGurk and Sperry (Nestor Paiva and Robert Barrat). The mine is the property of Sal after the recent death of her father, however she never received the map to destination of her possible claim to fortune. As a na├»ve young lady in a strange wilderness that is Alaska Sal is taken advantage of by her father’s old friend, a saloon keeper named Ace (Douglass Dumbrille) who hopes to take the mine for himself and his jealous girlfriend Kate (Hillary Brooke)

Old friends reunited
What follows is a series of events that are wacky and wild as Duke and Chester become smitten by the beautiful Sal as they attempt to keep the map away from the two thugs, as well as the devil Ace and Kate. Their adventures at times have Duke and Chester disguise themselves as McGurk and Sperry, get caught in a silly high speed dog sled chases through the winter wilderness, and even have a amusing run in with some of the native wildlife, all the while not taking humorous jabs at each other. Additional humor comes from the continual breaking down of the forth wall as they reference the insincerity of this being just a movie, as well as references of themselves as the celebrities they are. When Duke makes his final sacrifice helpless cornered to face all the film’s baddies, allowing Sal and Chester to get away with the map, we transport back to the elderly trio happily looking back with an of-course-he-got-out finale. Therefore, the final joke is on the audience as this senseless movie comes to a silly end.

By this forth Road to… film Paramount knew it was simply printing money by producing yet another Hope/Crosby comedy. And this one could not take itself any less seriously, which only adds to its humor. The film does more than allow the instances of ad-libbed Hope and Crosby dialogue by the two stars take punches at each other, they go beyond the movie to laughing at each other’s personas away from their characters within the movie. The breaking down of the forth wall, which the picture does numerous times takes jabs at Hope’s associations with understood corporate sponsors, the movie making process, and even at the studio, Paramount Picture. Its wall-to-wall gags that would be best enjoyed by the audiences in the know of 1945/46, but with a little understanding can still be honored today for the creativity it had at breaking down the structure of a Hollywood comedy at that time.

Bob Hope and Big Crosby return at the top of their form, ribbing on each other left and right, expertly timing and deliveries of jokes as they present another loose plot about something overall silly and nonsensical. Dorothy Lamour’s role as Sal limits the appeal for her in this picture to simple eye candy, as she does relatively little in the movie that can be called striking. Even the supporting cast including Hillary Brooke and Douglass Dumbrille as the evil saloon-keeper and his girlfriend, or Robert Barrat and Nestor Paiva as the thugs Sperry and McGurk all leave no lasting impression other than set up Hope and Crosby for their next set of punchlines in the film’s weak plot.

Somewhat out of place in the appearance of humorist Robert Benchley who appears as himself, pausing the film from time to time in the corner of the frame to interject his humorous quips on the structure of comedy and this picture. At the time of production Benchley’s career as an actor unfortunately best found him in bit supporting roles in lesser pictures or shorts. Paramount was attempting to use his history in the business to packaging him as a type of lecturer on comedy, thus how he appears here. However, his random appearances can be a bit jarring seen out of context by audiences not aware of Mr. Benchley and his movie history. His role feels out of place and mostly unnecessary as he interrupts the picture on multiple occasions, explaining his purpose and the comedic structure of the picture, but to no grand payoff, feeling more like a half-baked afterthought of the studio. The sad conclusion to Robert Benchley in this appearance is his untimely death three months prior to the film’s release from complications from years of drinking heavily. It was a sad end to one of the day’s leading funny men.

Now why did it take over three years between Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia if the franchise was making so much money? The truth lies in a fuzzy world of Hollywood politics. It would be easy to just say the answer is World War II, but Road to Utopia was in fact shot between December 1943 and March 1944, but was help back almost two years before it was released in February 1946. Maybe Paramount wanted to wait for a more opportune time to maximize profits when the end of WWII reopened overseas markets. However, co-star Dorothy Lamour stated that she believes Paramount was on a campaign to establish Bing Crosby as a serious actor with his performance in 1944’s Going My Way and 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. These pictures earned Crosby two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, including one win, and established him as the greatest box office draw in Hollywood and capable of carrying a drama.

Road to Utopia would be one of top ten grossing films of 1946 and garnered general and critical praise. You can say Paramount was in Utopia with the take away from this picture. Hope and Crosby’s characters where looking for gold, but Paramount found gold in this rather inexpensive feature. Two more Road to… movies would be release in the next six years, along with a third a decade later making this comedy franchise the most profitable of its day.

The film does not exactly stand up to the test of time. It does need a basic understanding of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to fully appreciate the film, its appeal, and humor. With that the movie is a delight and a wonderful jab at mid-1940s Hollywood and culture. It is a bit dated, but that is where its humor lies. It was a comedy of its day, and for that time it was a mild comedic breakthrough that took wisecracks at the world of Hollywood while making it a good chunk of money along the way.

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