Monday, December 1, 2014

Road to Zanzibar (1941)

Road to Zanzibar was the second of the hugely successful Road movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Road to Singapore had been a major hit in 1940 and this follow-up movie put even more emphasis on the comedy. The Road movies were not only immensely funny - they were also genuinely witty and can even be described as ground-breaking with lots of self-referential gags and with Hope and Crosby breaking the fourth wall with wild abandon.

The plot is fairly thin but it sets up the zany situations perfectly and they are mined for their full comedic potential. And the script provides more than enough gags to keep any comedy fan happy.

Fearless Frazier (Hope) and Chuck Reardon (Crosby) are a couple of American carnival performers in Africa. Needless to say their act consists of Fearless doing various dangerous stunts that Reardon has thought up. Their latest act features Fearless as a human cannonball. The act proves to be more spectacular than intended - it ends up burning down the entire carnival. Now our two intrepid heroes are on the run from the local police. Fearless yearns to return to the US but when Reardon is despatched to buy the tickets for the ship he returns to announce that has spent all their money. He has bought a diamond mine. Fearless and Chick are con artists themselves but this time they’ve run into an even better con man in the shape of Charles Kimble (Eric Blore).

The attempts by Fearless and Chuck to get their money back land them in even bigger trouble and just when they think they’re ahead they run into two American girls, Julia (Una Merkel) and Donna (Dorothy Lamour). Julia and Donna turn out to be con artists also and Fearless and Chuck find themselves duped once again. They’re conned into leading a safari across Africa, supposedly so that Donna can be re-united with her dying father but in reality they’re taking Donna to the man she intends to marry. This causes plenty of complications because Fearless and Chuck have both fallen for Donna. The safari ends with Fearless and Chick being on the menu when they encounter a tribe of cannibals.

The laughs come thick and fast, especially in the first half hour which sets a cracking pace.  The action slows down a little in the middle with a couple of songs being thrown in but the songs are actually pretty good and with a singer of Crosby’s calibre the musical numbers become a plus rather than a minus.

What puts the Road movies into the top class of American film comedies is the interplay between Hope and Crosby. You’d expect Crosby to be the straight man but in fact Hope just as often finds himself the butt of the jokes. Crosby proves himself to be just as adept at humour as Hope and they both alternate between being the straight man and the comic. Self-referentiality would be a major feature of this and the four subsequent Road movies and this self-referentiality is done with great style and finesse.

Hope was never funnier than he was in the Road movies. He and Crosby did not get on too well in real life but they were one of the greatest of all movie comedy teams. The verbal fireworks are mixed with a liberal sprinkling of visual gags.

The Road movies are clever but most importantly they are very very funny. Dorothy Lamour as always provides fine support but The Road to Zanzibar also benefits from a superb comedic performance by Una Merkel as Julia. Eric Blore adds even more comedic depth.

Some of the humour here may be considered today to be a little on the politically incorrect side but it’s basically good-natured. The interplay between Crosby as the manipulator and Hope as his victim could have come across as rather cruel in the hands of lesser artists but in the Road movies this pitfall is on the whole successfully avoided. These are feel-good movies in the best sense of the word.

Paramount’s Region 4 DVD is a bit light on extras but it offers a very good transfer.

Road to Zanzibar is quite simply one of the best comedies of its era and it stands up remarkably well today and it still feels fresh and innovative. This is pure comedy gold. Very highly recommended.

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