One thing in Hollywood that has never changed (and probably never will) is the suits that run the studios; they’re clueless now and they were equally clueless way-back-when. Case in point: When a script called Road to Singapore (that had been kicking around Paramount for almost five years) was suggested as a starring vehicle for singer Bing Crosby and comedian Bob Hope, one executive said the movie would never be made because Crosby wouldn’t stand for playing straight man to Hope.
As we now know, although he could hardly be described as a “straight man,” there was nothing Der Bingle enjoyed more than trading one-liners with Ol’ Ski Nose. In his superlative biography Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, Gary Giddens quotes a childhood acquaintance of Crosby’s as saying that the Road pictures were the only films that captured the spirit of the Bing he grew up with.
Directed by Victor Schertzinger and written by Frank Butler and Don Hartman, Road to Singapore (originally March 22, 1940) was an immediate mega-hit with filmgoers who especially craved escapism with the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe. (Not surprisingly, the movie was particularly popular with British audiences.)
Subsequent Road pictures would anticipate the insane, off-the-wall humor associated with the Zucker Brothers’ Naked Gun series, but Road to Singapore is a relatively straight-forward musical comedy with a few satirical swipes at the then-popular “jungle romance” movies of the period. The career of Dorothy Lamour, who was a fixture in these films starting with John Ford’s The Hurricane, was given a jump start when she was cast as Crosby and Hope’s gal Friday in the Road pictures.
Josh Mallon (Crosby), heir to a shipping empire, would rather hang out with buddy Ace Lannigan (Hope) than concentrate on his business obligations, but when his father (Charles Coburn) insists on him setting the date with his fiancée Gloria Wycott (Judith Barrett), he gives in. The wedding is to be announced at a high society party on the Mallon yacht. At the party, Josh and Ace are entertaining the ladies with a song-and-dance routine, when Gloria’s surly brother Gordon (Steve Pendleton) drunkenly insults them and a donnybrook breaks out.
Not wanting to face his father’s wrath, Josh joins Ace on a journey to Singapore. (Despite the film’s title, they never reach Singapore.) They rent a hut on the island of Kaigoon and swear off women. Of course, as soon as they visit a night spot for a beer, there’s both drawn to a dancer named Mima (Lamour) who performs a trick bullwhip act with her partner Caesar (Anthony Quinn). When Caesar jealously turns the whip on Josh and Ace, yet another brannigan breaks out. (There are three such brawls in the film’s first half-hour).
Setting up house with Mima in a kind of Platonic ménage à trios, Josh and Ace reluctantly find themselves becoming increasingly more domesticated. When their meager financial resources are depleted, the three concoct a cleaning solution and take to the streets to peddle it. Their first mark is Archilles Bombanassa (Hope’s radio stooge Jerry Colonna). Ace spreads the cleaning fluid on a spot on his suit jacket and, with much suds, the spot is gone. Unfortunately, so is the lapel the spot was on! As Achilles hollers, “Fake,” our heroes take a powder.
Josh: Fine thing! Why didn’t you try out that stuff before you used it?
Ace: I did! Once before, in Brooklyn!
Mima: What happened?
Ace: Same thing!
The next day, Josh’s father and Gloria turn up at the shipping office that Achilles works at searching for Josh. Taking a look at the photo of Josh the senior Mallon shows him, Achilles says he knows for a fact that Josh is right there in Kaigoon…
Road to Singapore is available from Netflix and Amazon and will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on April 23.