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"As far as I'm concerned," says Hope, "this picture is over right now."

The Road to Utopia

1946. Paramount. Directed by Hal Walker; written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. With Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour


I've been looking for years for the movie where a song intro starts up on the soundtrack and a character looks around to see where the music is coming from. This is it, and the smart-alecky actor is, of course, Bob Hope. He both performs in this movie and offers a sort of running commentary on it.

It's at the running-commentary level that this movie scores most of its points. The ostensible story, with song-and-dance men "Duke" and "Chester" high-tailing it to Alaska with a stolen treasure map, is idiotic. The fun of the movie is that we know it, Hope and Crosby know it, the writers and director know it, and we're all carrying on a background conversation to that effect. It's like both strands of Mystery Science Theater 3000 rolled into one.

Even before the opening titles, Robert Benchley comes on to destabilize things. He appears in his classic lecture-hall setting and begins, "For those of you who don't go to the movies . . ." An immediate conundrum: we wouldn't be seeing him if we didn't go to the movies. His purpose, he says, is to warn us that "the motion picture you are about to see is not very clear in spots. In fact, it was made to demonstrate how not to make a motion picture. . ." He announces that "someone in the front office" has asked him to appear from time to time to "help clarify the plot and other vague portions of the film." And indeed he does pop up in a corner of the frame to tell us things like, "This is a device known as the flashback." During a crowd scene he materializes and stammers: "Hmm, this seems to be a scene they put in after I saw the picture in the studio. Obviously, uh . . . a lot of extras. . ." Just when you suspect that Benchley was added later to salvage a mess of a picture, the characters in the movie start talking back to him.

Far from an afterthought, Benchley fits right in with the tone of the film. The 4th wall gets trampled here. When Crosby first appears, the Hope character groans, "And I thought this was going to be an A picture!" Hope jokes about Crosby's and his own (radio) sponsors, their agents, Crosby's race-horses, Crosby's singing (they lose a talent contest and Hope grumbles, "Next time I bring Sinatra."). When the camera moves in on Hope clinching with Dorothy Lamour, he turns to us and says, "As far as I'm concerned, this picture is over right now."

When the boys spot a mountain in the distance, it turns into the Paramount logo (by the way, I thought the best thing about "Waterworld" was the way the Universal logo was used to segue into the story). Lamour in parka dissolves into Lamour in sarong. Animals talk (usually to complain about their parts). When Hope curses the villain, "Why the dirty. . ." the sound drops out while his lips keep moving. Observes Crosby, "I told you they wouldn't let you say that."

Well, it just goes on and on. The way that the actual "content" is subordinated to the commentary ressembles a USO show or a radio program where the performers glide in and out of character. The real point of the enterprise is the comedians fooling around, being their own famous and prosperous selves, kidding familiar conventions and inviting us to share their irreverence. In many ways, Bob Hope (I think the spirit behind the Road movies is basically his, though Crosby makes a wonderful foil) was an extremely modern comedian; he isn't just funny, he's a category-breaker, a meta-comic. The Road to Utopia seems emblematic of
the post-war 40s, when audiences had grown too wised-up, too cynical, too weary to accept straightforward comedy and hankered for something subversive instead.

(If anyone out there is inspired to watch this movie, could you let me know if Hope's comment to Crosby, "You could beat the monkey alone," is the double-entendre that I think it is.)

(9/4/1995)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein