Monday, December 28, 2015

Road to Rio (Paramount, Hope Enterprises, Bing Crosby Enterprises, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Road to Rio, fifth of the seven-film cycle with Bing Crosby as the energetic but not-too-successful con artist and Bob Hope as his patsy, a series that kicked off with Road to Singapore (1940) — though they were only the third choices for the casting: Paramount at first planned the movie for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, later tried to do it with George Burns and Gracie Allen, and ultimately settled on Hope and Crosby. According to the recent PBS bio-doc on Crosby, Road to Singapore reinvigorated Crosby’s movie career after he had started to slump in the late 1930’s (though that wasn’t the impression I’d had); certainly it was a blockbuster hit for the studio and both its stars, thanks largely to the innovative approach of director Victor Schertzinger, in particular the so-called “breaking the frame,” in which the stars came out of character and addressed the audience directly, sometimes brilliantly spoofing movie conventions — as when in the second film, Road to Zanzibar (my favorite of the seven), Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hilariously ridicule the “invisible orchestra” that comes out of nowhere when the stars are about to sing, even if they’re supposed to be in an isolated location with no other people around for miles. Schertzinger died after Road to Zanzibar and I had been under the impression that Hal Walker took over the directorial reins for the rest of the series, but Road to Rio — the fifth film in the series and the first that was a co-production between Paramount and the stars’ own companies (you can tell because the opening logo simply says “A Paramount Release,” not “A Paramount Picture”), which has left the ownership of the film somewhat murky — was helmed by Norman Z. McLeod. The height of McLeod’s career was undoubtedly the two films he made with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), though in 1947 he made a bit of a comeback with this film and Sam Goldwyn’s Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously this was a director at home with zany comedy!

The plot of Road to Rio, in case you cared, deals with Brazilian heiress Lucia Maria de Andrade (Dorothy Lamour, leading lady for all the Road movies except the last one, Road to Hong Kong, in which Joan Collins replaced her) and her sinister “aunt” — actually her guardian — Catherine Vail (a marvelous performance by Gale Sondergaard at once copying and spoofing her work in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman — in both films she plays a master hypnotist) — who wants to grab Lucia’s fortune by marrying her off to Catherine’s brother, Sherman Mallory (George Meeker). Crosby and Hope play two out-of-work musicians (as one gag line in the film says, that’s pretty redundant), clarinetist “Scat” Sweeney (Crosby, whose actual instrument was drums) and trumpeter “Hot Lips” Barton (Hope) — ironically, there was a real (and quite good) jazz trumpeter named “Hot Lips” Page (his birth name was “Oran”), but he was Black. The film’s beginning is a virtual rip-off of Road to Zanzibar — the credited screenwriters were Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose, but lists Barney Dean as “contributor to dialogue (uncredited),” and given the way comedies were (and still are!) usually written, there were probably other gag writers from Hope’s and Crosby’s radio staffs — in which Crosby lands Hope a gig riding a bicycle at a carnival and doesn’t tell him he’s going to be doing it on a high-wire. (In Zanzibar Crosby enlisted Hope to be a human cannonball.) Needless to say, he loses control and the carnival staff have to get a net to save him — at one point, desperately hanging from the high wire, Hope turns to the camera and says, “This picture could end right here!” — but in the process they start a fire that burns down the carnival and force Hope and Crosby to stow away on an ocean liner bound for Rio. On board ship they meet Lamour’s Lucia, who’s about to commit suicide when “Scat” saves her — much to “Hot Lips’” irritation (previously the gag had been that every time the two got some money ahead, “Scat” got sweet-talked out of it by some woman) — and the two end up working their way across by joining the ship’s band. (There’s an hilarious scene showing them hiding out in below-zero temperatures in the ship’s refrigerator — Crosby got them on board by posing as a steward and dressing Hope as a slab of frozen meat for the voyage, and when he has to find him again “Scat” goes among the packages and says of one, “I’m getting close — it’s ham!”)

While in Rio they try to assemble an authentic American band for a nightclub owned by Señor Cardoso (Nestor Païva), but, unable to find any other American musicians in Rio (at least ones willing to work for them), they recruit a local ensemble played by the Wiere Brothers, a European comedy team (oldest brother Harry Wiere was born in Berlin on June 23, 1906; middle brother Herbert Wiere in Vienna on February 27, 1908; and youngest brother Sylvester Wiere in Prague on September 17, 1909) who had made their film debut in the U.S. in a short in 1937 and kicked around Hollywood, appearing in Walter Wanger’s Vogues of 1938 and getting a buildup from 20th Century-Fox. They were put into The Great American Broadcast (1941) in hopes that they would replace the Ritz Brothers, who’d made an acrimonious exit from the studio two years earlier, but their act was just too subtle and too European to appeal to American audiences. They got shunted off into a couple of “B” movies — Swing Shift Maisie with Ann Sothern for MGM and Hands Across the Border with Roy Rogers for Republic — and then got to work on this one, a major production with “A”-list stars. The gag is that they’re trying to pose as American musicians when they don’t know a word of English, so Our Heroes teach them each a jive phrase — “You’re telling me!,” “You solid, Jackson!” and “It’s murder” — which they repeat over and over until Cardoso “outs” them by noting that they can’t read the “No Smoking” sign on the wall of the club’s dressing room. (They did a short-lived TV series called Oh, Those Bells! in 1960 but made only one more film appearance, as three bumbling detectives on Elvis Presley’s trail in the 1967 film Double Trouble.) Along the way, the Hope and Crosby characters get into various scrapes, including one in which as stowaways they have to pose as the ship’s barbers and accidentally shave off the moustache of one of Catherine’s thugs — a gag McLeod self-plagiarized from the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, in which they played stowaways. Eventually they learn about the existence of a set of papers in Catherine’s possession that will prove that she and Sherman are crooks, and they’re supposed to break into Catherine’s bedroom, open the safe and steal the papers, only Hope drops something and makes a loud noise (which started to remind me of the scene in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in which Chico and Harpo, assigned by the bad guys to steal Freedonia’s war code and plans from a safe in Margaret Dumont’s room, only the safe has a musical alarm, it blasts away with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and nothing the Marxes can do — not even smash the thing to smithereens — can turn the music off), and a chance remark that they’ve made themselves “sitting ducks” causes them to quack for the next minute or two.

The person who’s trying to get Our Heroes to steal the papers is Rodrigues (Frank Puglia in one of his ultra-rare appearances as a good guy!), who at one point literally appears as a deus ex machina: wondering how they’re going to get to the wedding of Sherman and Lucia, Hope snarls, “I’ll be someone’s going to come out from behind that tree with enough money for us to hire a plane,” and sure enough, there’s Rodrigues with enough money for them to hire a plane. (We don’t actually see the plane in flight, but when it lands it turns out to be a quite cool compact two-seater.) Of course, Our Heroes break up the wedding, and Bing ends up with Lamour (as he usually did in these productions), while intercut with Hope and Crosby trying to get to the house where the wedding is taking place to give the Brazilian prefecto —who’s there to perform the ceremony but is also the area’s principal law enforcement officer and the man Rodrigues told them to give the papers to (ya remember the papers?) — is Jerry Colonna, Hope’s sidekick on his radio show (who had passed away just before his 1967 Southeast Asia military tour; on the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special shot that year Hope narrates about how much Colonna was missed), leading the Seventh Cavalry to the tune of the big theme at the end of Rossini’s William Tell overture — easily recognized by moviegoers then and now as the theme of the Lone Ranger radio show. When the Seventh Cavalry arrives too late to save Lucia from having to marry the bad guy Colonna shrugs his shoulders and said that this was the first time in movie history the Seventh Cavalry had been late, but it had to happen sometime. Road to Rio is a delightful movie, not the best of the Road films but sprightly and entertaining in the goofy way of the series, and the frame-breaking gags hold up well as lampoons of the conventions of filmmaking then and now. This film also features some great songs by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, including “But Beautiful” — offhand, I think it’s the only song from a Road movie that ever became a standard (though the title song of Road to Zanzibar is surpassingly lovely and should have!) — and a guest appearance by Carmen Miranda’s backup band, with Hope fronting them in full drag as Miranda: that’s a delight!