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ROAD TO UTOPIA, 1946
Movie Review

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ROAD TO UTOPIA MOVIE POSTER
ROAD TO UTOPIA, 1946
Movie Reviews

Directed by Hal Walker
Starring: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope
Review by Michael Holland



SYNOPSIS:

The fourth of the famous Road series finds Bob, Bing and Dottie in a race to find an Alaskan gold mine. It all begins when the boys, lovable con artists that they are, take on the identities of two notorious killers, only to find themselves over their heads when those very killers, not to mention Douglass Dumbrille and his gang, race after them. Toss the beautiful “Scagway Sal” in the mix, and it’s gags galore as our heroes survive the snowy tundra with vaudevillian vex and witty oneliners!

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REVIEW:

Capping off this retrospective of Bob Hope’s Top Five Movies (at least in this reviewer’s opinion) – My Favorite Brunette, The Cat And The Canary, The Ghost Breakers and Nothing But The Truth make up the other four – we come to (FINALLY in some people’s opinion) one of the famous Road pictures – and this one my personal favorite of them – the hilarious, and certainly most outrageous of the Road series (not to mention these Top Five), The Road To Utopia.

I sat here for some time trying to come up with a concise yet entertaining synopsis, finally working out the above, but only after scanning the web for some inspiration, where I came across this from Jim Gay: “[Utopia] has the boys in the Klondike masquerading as the killers Sperry and McGurk, from whom they've stolen the map to a gold mine, which really belongs to Dorothy Lamour, who’s really ... and you know it doesn't really matter anyway. This is arguably the goofiest of the road pictures, with just enough plot to hang the jokes on, and a certain amount of time spent to see who gets the girl, while maintaining [Hope’s and Crosby’s] fierce and friendly rivalry. Along the way, animals talk, including the humorist Robert Benchley. You don’t care where you're going, just as long as you're with them. Put it there, pal. Put it there.”

Frankly, I couldn’t say it better myself. And it goes back to what I was saying in the Ghost Breakers review about that picture being a Bob Hope vehicle. “If I say [he wants to] play Private Eye, you get the idea. And if I say [he’s] battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea.

The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone’s playing, really – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope vehicle.” And that certainly applies to the Road series. No matter their character names or where the adventure is set – Singapore, Morocco, Alaska – it’s Bob, Bing and Dottie on the Road.

It seems we’ve been talking a lot about Hope hits based on plays, and those hits already filmed remakes (Canary, Ghost Breakers and Truth). But, like Brunette, Utopia is an original screenplay, this time by the great Norman Panama & Melvin Frank. In fact, Utopia was nominated for an Academy Award (alongside Notorious, lost to The Seventh Veil). And speaking of pedigree as I do in the Truth review, take a look at Panama & Frank’s. For you writers out there, imagine THAT list being yours? Yes, I’m jealous too. And while we’re talking pedigree, there’s director Hal Walker, who would also do The Road To Bali six years later, but take a look at where he started: working his way up through Zanzibar, Truth AND Morocco. Is there a better training ground for this wonderfully motley crew? I think not.

Rounding out that very crew is the great Robert Benchley who, here, acts as narrator, first introducing the film, then appearing pop-up-video style, fifty years before the popular show on VH1. You probably recognize his name from being one of the great humorists of his time – he was pals with Dorothy Parker and is credited with the line, “Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” * – or perhaps because his son Nathaniel Benchley wrote the novel The Off-Islanders (which became the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) or perhaps because his grandson Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws. It’s too bad R. Benchley passed before Utopia’s release, because, while he was his own worst critic, I think, as WE certainly do, he would have loved this.

Wait a minute! Benchley passed in ’45 and Utopia was released in ’46! True, but the film was SHOT in ’44 and not released for two years. Why? Well, there are several theories, including the two leading ones that [a] Crosby’s pious turn in Going My Way took precedence over his wisecracking scoundrel here, and [b] his being absent from his NBC radio show at the time would have prevented his promoting the film’s songs (both Personality and Put It There, Pal became huge hits). Both are possible, but my money’s on the fact that every studio had a lineup of warrelatedmovies in the pipeline and, with the war coming to an end, they needed to get those released first. A comedy could easily be pushed a year (or two) while a war movie would need toget out while its propaganda carried it. (But, yes, I digress.)After three previous Road pictures – including Zanzibar and Morocco which, alongside Utopia, I consider to be the top three of the series – we find Bob, Bing and Dottie in what plays as a grandslam after three previous homeruns. Everything is bigger. Everything is broader. It’s as if they knew they had a good thing on their hands but, instead of playing it safe, went for broke. Bosley Crowther, in his original NY Times review (28 February, 1946), writes, “A ‘Road’ show is always an occasion for the cut-ups to have a marvelous time and in this case the comic inventors (stars and writers and director) ran wild.” Wild LONGSHOTS with no less than Benchley’s bits, talking animals, multiple breaks of the fourth wall, a visual Paramount logo in the middle of the movie, an actor cutting through a scene to get to his soundstage, a cameo by Santa Claus, and (the grand culmination) THE Road song, Put It There, Pal. (And if you’re wondering just how great a song it is, measure it thus: Family Guy has paid homage to it.) ** But where Utopia could haveso easily (and so quickly) gone off the rails, Panama & Frank wrote – and Cast & Crew executed – a script that works. That works well. That, even more wonderfully for us, works just as well today. Crowther goes on to agree that, “Where this sort of clowning might be juvenile and monotonous in other hands, it has rich comic quality in the smooth paws of [all] involved.”

Indeed, as goofy as some of it plays (and, admittedly, some of it does), it’s goofy so grand that by the time you question it, you’ve already laughed at the joke.

Whenever I (re)watch a movie for the purpose of a review, I always have a pen and paper handy, to jot down things I might want to talk about. And I usually get through half a page or so. “Oh THAT’S funny,” I’ll say. Scribble. “Oh THAT’S an in-joke I ought to talk about.” Scribble.

“Hey look, there’s Jack La Rue as a henchman. He’s a henchman in Brunette as well!” Scribble.

For Utopia? Two full pages. Looking back on them now, I think, “So where do I start?” And the truth is, nowhere; rather, I can’t start ANYWHERE for fear of not being able to stop. And,honestly, you’re lucky for it. First because you don’t have to sit through MY scribbling when Panama & Frank’s (and Burke & Van Husen’s songs) are so much better. And second because itgoes back to what I said about talking-plot in the Ghost Breakers review: These films are treasures to be discovered. You don’t need me telling you how great the story and jokes are.You know I think so. So hopefully I’ve done enough here to make YOU want to watch it. And if you’re a Hope fan – certainly if you’re a Road fan – well, I think you’re in good hands.Put it there, indeed.

* I didn’t want to dive too deeply into this, particularly in the middle of a review of a Hope film, but couldn’t help but share; hence here in an unofficial footnote. Regarding the origin of Benchley’s famous “martini” line, in The Major And The Minor (1942), he says to Ginger Rogers, "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" and Billy Wilder (cowriter and director) credits Benchley with the line. Benchley, in turn, credits it to his friend Charles Butterworth. Indeed, in Every Day’s A Holiday (1937), we see Butterworth tell Charles Winninger, "You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini." Mystery solved?You be the judge.

** Throughout this Top Five Retrospective, I’ve talked a lot about the in-jokes in Hope’s films (and there are many throughout), but never have they run so rampant as in Utopia, CERTAINLY not to the extent of their getting their own song, THE Road song for the film, the genius (and, as mentioned before, eventual pop hit of its time), Put It There, Pal. I didn’t want to spend time during the review itself to talk about it (specifically), but I also can’t help but share some of thebackstories to its great lines (in-jokes audiences would have certainly been in-on when the film was released). You can find the song on iTunes and it’s certainly worth the purchase. I hope you enjoy …

Hope’s line to Crosby: “I’ll be just like your horses …” Crosby was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing; so far as to, along with Charles S. Howard (owner of Seabiscuit) found the Del MarThoroughbred Club. Crosby’s line to Hope: “I’m glad you’re fooling Pepsodent” Pepsodent toothpaste was the solesponsor of Hope's radio show from 1938 to 1948. The program was such a success, for both parties, that he became inextricably tied to the product.

Hope’s line to Crosby: “I hear your show on Thursdays, what a lot of eggs you smash” Crosby’s NBC radio show aired Thursday evenings and, when singing, he habitually juggled eggs (nojoke). Frank Capra once said of him, he was the only actor you could confidently ask to "juggle eggs while reciting the Gettysburg address" and get it right in one take.

Crosby’s line to Hope: “Well at least I don’t depend upon Colona’s big moustache” Popular comedian Jerry Colona (who shines in Fred Allen’s great It’s In The Bag) was a regular onHope’s radio show.

Hope’s line to Crosby: “You’ve got that something in your voice so right for selling cheese” Crosby’s NBC radio show was sponsored by Kraft. As Paul Harvey said for so long on HIS popular radio show, “And now you know the REST ofthe story.”

Cheers …

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