Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Leperello sells Spotto (or The Sailor's Farewell): ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940)

I just watched THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948) starring the great Errol Flynn--perfect casting of course considering his reputation--and it managed to be thrilling despite its winkiness. I'm a fan of the Mozart opera, DON GIOVANI (which is to say I can tolerate more than most operas) so I was sad to see the Flynn version skips the "Hell" ending (see pic below) and fails to delve into the complexity of Juan/Giovanni's manservant, ultimate wingman and perennial drinking buddy Leporello, who waits outside with the horses for a quick escape beneath m'lday's boudoir window, then hears, no doubt, all Don's inevitable boasting. There's not been near enough characters like him: the Juan and Leporello pair bond is a fundamental archetypal bond which today survives only in the form of the sidekick or else falls into disrepair via the "Bromantic Comedy."

The true measure of a man when you're trying to hook up with a woman is whether said man be a wingman or cockblocker. Oft times they are one in the same. Once the class divide is erased then the issue of the rich kid footing the bill for his poor but hilarious confidente is mussed up and endangered. Such a Leporello-Juan relationship is nowhere better expressed than in ROAD TO SINGAPORE, with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. 

Most all the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "road" movies are sublime. The third, ROAD TO MOROCCO is commonly considered the most hilarious and inventive, but I'll take ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which gives us the boy's full back story and thus a better idea of class demarcations (Hope is the poor sailor friend to rich kid Crosby). Paramount knew comedy, and it seems the studio was most permissive regarding improvisational canoodling and futzing around in what Manny Farber would call 'termite art.'

Bob and Bing have a relationship that mixes constant fraternal antagonism (and backstabbing) with a post-modern detachment that never quite falls into the abyss of narrative disruption, which is a PBS fancy-pants way of saying you still get absorbed in the plot, even as the boys constantly eat the script. They dance on the lip of complete chaos but never fall in; they are classic "bad influence" friends of the sort weary sets of parents meet over drinks to figure out how to separate. Their worst enemies as far as getting girlfriends are always each other as they try to outmaneuver and betray one another every chance they get, but all while being perfect pals, both madly in love with the sweet and demure and ever-so-vaguely 'ethnic other,' Dorothy Lamour (left).

Bing always gets the girl, because he can sing. I generally hate when some guy starts crooning onscreen, but der Bingle brings such a smooth tone to his tunes no feather can stay ruffled. Even if you leave to go get popcorn during his romantic numbers, he forgives you. All I have to do is remember Mel Blanc's (?) impression of him and Sinatra as dueling roosters in Swooner Crooner, a cartoon I saw countless times through childhood, and I too swoon.

Usually we see only the evil versions of bad influence buddy friends onscreen, as in the girls of HEAVENLY CREATURES or DON'T DELIVER US FROM EVIL or the lads of BUTCHER BOY. But Hope and Crosby are the other end of the moral spectrum: they're knights of Camelot in vagabond clothing and mouths washed of poesy talk. Even if their gallant behavior is solely to placate the era's sharp-eared censors and strict codes, their de-sexualized lust strategies are calming, endearing examples of what Lao Tzu might call "the pursuit of emptiness." Neither one is going to "do" anything if they win Dorothy Lamour. They can't stay separate long enough, like comedic magnets, to get beyond (or even to) first base. 

It's possibly due in part to Hope's baby face and Bing's glassy-eyed ease in his own skin. What's Dorothy Lamour without Hope around, and vice versa? They're all 'mates,' Bob and Bing, married to each other the way young straight guys or a pair of outcast young male lions can sometimes be, freely wandering the savannah together, growling in good-natured antagonism, vowing 'no women' even as they fight over each flash of legs through the sarong of Lamour, who refuses to pick one over the other for more than a few minutes at at time. Even if they think they're winning, that in turn prompts them to remind each other where that train of lustful thinking leads: children and nagging! Round and round they go!

While eternally free, Bob and Bing's path is one of flight; reacting against the terror of returning 'too soon' from the idyll of boyhood. In the beginning of the film, Bing's dad (Charles Coburn) admonishes his son to settle down: "Your galavanting is over, young man!" But we've not seen any of this previous galavanting - there is no past when you live in the moment! Bing's barely begun the picture; he's not about to settle down so soon after the opening credits. The boys would seldom be back in the states after this first outing. I don't think Bing ever saw his dad again. They just kept running!

Their rapport is always the same: Bing is the leader in the end by virtue of his sharp wisdom, calm demeanor and his singing; Hope's always been excellent at mirroring and playing off his fellow actors, using his natural heterosexual nervousness around hot babes as electricity that juices him into flurries of action and barking. Bing meanwhile seems much more calm around the ladies, playful and relaxed, waiting for the meat to drop so he can grab it, and Bob uses this space to become a great meat dropper. The tension Hope works with centers around babes, or food, or money. His need for whatever's lacking is unending; he's 'fear and desire,' and Bing is more the calm, cool, Zen center.

In an earlier post I discussed my deep appreciation of the "Thanks for the Memories" number that serves as a quiet show-stopper in the otherwise ROTM film BIG BROADCAST OF 1938.  That was Hope's first big picture and how interesting it is that only two years later he slammed this home-run, ROAD TO SINGAPORE, kicking off the immensely popular road pictures and displaying that great range of cowardliness and courage, a two-fisted Romeo and conniving goofball, immature layabout and solid citizen. In the first few reels, Hope even looks kind of handsome in his black sailor sweater and cap. (The scene represented by the picture below, however, is a whole post in and of itself):

Yes sir, racist, perhaps, but would you admonish children if they're up in their bedroom wearing bedsheets and pancake mix, pretending to be native tribesmen? Jokes reflect their era and stereotypes run rampant, but it's all just for laughs... like Stanley Cavell writes about screwball comedy in his essential Comedies of Remarriage, the core of post-code 'screwball' comedy is the play-acting of children, such as 'house' and 'dress-up' and the 'paddy cake / paddy cake / baker's man" chant that comes right before the boys start punching cops (but in a fake fighting way, like brothers do). The censorship code kept everyone locked in their room, grounded in pre-sexual juvenalia, bu--like Cary Grant or Groucho Marx--Hope and Crosby seem to find a special way to use libidinal restriction to make the world edgy, alive, and full of laughs -- and sexy almost as a side benefit. Rather than all the strident leering and wolf drool of say, Frank Tashlin or 80s sex comedies (wherein the sexier it tries to be the less sexy it actually is), Hope and Crosby are sexy because they never try to get past first base.

The film begins with the lads having recently come back from an ocean voyage, watching from on deck as their sailor brethren are corralled and abused by their waiting spouses. No sooner have they badmouthed marriage than a hick shotgun wedding party tries to corral Hope because he kept a girl named 'Cherry' out "half the night" at the movies. The implied sex or pregnancy is never addressed: it all being a crazy misunderstanding - and we believe it - as the pair have the impish charm of eternal youth that makes sex seem a vulgar impossibility. One of my favorite Hope moments comes when his face lights up at the name 'Cherry' only to suddenly slowly drain into dead seriousness before looking them in the eye and slowly shaking his head no, no idea who that girl is. A couple of brawls later and they've escaped to Singapore and a life of ease. The boys may or may not be innocent but really, as long as we don't see it, did it really happen? What does happen is that someone needs to chase them to keep the party moving, and no one does that better than Anthony Quinn as the whip wielding Lothario who 'raised' Dorothy Lamour as his daughter and now, her time to be married, she has come.

The magnetic pull of Lamour is enough to drive a wedge between the our heroes, because Hope isn't Crosby's servant--this is America, buddy!---and yet neither Hope or Crosby is apparently ever sexually intimate with her. Hope and Crosby sleep together in one room and she in another. When Hope tries to go to her in the middle of the night, Crosby stops him and vice versa. They never think to share her, as she shares herself with them, and when either gets a chance to be alone with her, he can only either badmouth the other or sing a song. Thus they are like fishermen who throw whatever they catch back as they don't really like fish. Theirs is the 'boyfriend/girlfriend' of childhood wherein there's no sex or kissing and any actual contact is usually antagonistic. The relationship often exists more in conversation with your second grade buddies than in actuality. In their constant jostling for top dog position, Lamour becomes the ultimate McGuffin, but me, I like Gloria, the rich socialite Bing's engaged to and always running out on. She never seems jealous, piqued or put off. She calms down her flustered prospective father-in-law as they go gallivanting all over the Pacific in search of errant Bing. "You haven't seen me in a sarong," she tells him. "I'm quite a dish," and I believe her (for proof, see below right.) I'd marry her in a second because Lamour's character is very normal and conventional, Gloria at least has fun - even being jilted time and again she's never bitter, just bemused. She wouldn't be a harridan like say, Bulldog Drummond's or the Falcon's fiancees, ever demanding they stop doing what they love and settle down to boring staid respectability, even obstructing justice and endangering innocent people to do it in a way as to make it seem like the films are underwritten by some self-hating conservative censor ever trying to bite his own tail off. Oh yeah, we all come to see Drummond or 'Gay' Lawrence not solve crimes and just get yelled at for 90 minutes. But Judith Barrett's Gloria is about as far away from that as it's possible to come, all the way into Myrna Loy territory, if someone was smart enough to let her. She's way more fun and free than Lamour's innocent. Being poor and free looks like the same thing when you're neither of the two.

Judith Barrett - quite a dish
Before teaming up with Bing, Hope had already shown flair for the adventure-comedy, able to hold his own agains the overplaying of Martha Raye one minute and nail a touching duet the next in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, and setting a new high water mark for the ubiquitous old dark house quipping comic relief hero in CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) while Bing held his own against Raye in WAKIKI WEDDING (1937) and subjugated a hoiti toiti Carole Lombard castaway in WE'RE NOT DRESSING (1934, which included the Raye-ish Ethel Merman). But when they weren't busy chasing off the brass belters and orbiting around the timid torchers, Bing and Bob always seemed a bit lonesome, like no one in the room could match their insouciant wit, their ability to be 'in' the film but not 'of' the film --to be play wolf-ish one minute then touchingly honest and sweet the next (without ever becoming mawkish or smarmy --no mean feat). They were like those two brilliant kids with no one their own age or hip intelligence to play with at the beach. But when Bob and Bing were put together they both lit up with a magic instant best-friend chemistry. Every good parent knows that if you want the kid to have a good time at the beach, you have to let him bring a friend. Though if they both like the same girl, look out, brother!

Call me crazy but comedy took a one-two punch for the worse with the success of THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR remake in the late 90s. They brought scatological humor out of the bathroom and onto the dinner table and comedic civilization has since crumbled into balls and scrotums. Hope and Crosby, they got class! They're peppy! Fun for the whole family, sure! Spotto! Sure they're not exactly cutting edge today, but relative to the overall Mickey Rooney squareness of the post-code / pre-WW2 era they toiled in, they were leagues ahead, and they've aged way, way better than Martin and Lewis. Hell, I'd rather hang out with Bob and Bing than the all the dick-wagging navel-gazing schmucks of today. Hope and Crosby didn't need to talk about their dicks, they just plowed the chorus and kept it on the DL, feigning a sexual naïveté that only the well-laid can feign. To make childish behavior ennobling is only ever embarrassing, like Adam Sandler doing MR. DEEDS. In order to grow down you have to first grow up, otherwise you're just stunted.

I turn to the holy Cavell when struggling to explain the timeless appeal of the Hope-Crosby ROAD films. His analyses of the era's key screwball comedies are comforting to me in the same way the ROAD movies are, like the friends who never fail to take you back into their inner circle even after you blew them off for the last three years to be with your controlling girlfriend (1). Now you're back--wrecked and sad--and they take you in like you never left. They are the cool uncle who takes the pain away with a single deadpan smile. They are the hearth; the earth father; our Iron King; our blue mood saviors. They are every moth-eaten Romeos chance to start again, with an unslain Mercutio, ten cents, and a zauberflote carved from a sweet potato. And now a word from the folks at PBS... for every ten dollars donation you get a year's supply of Spotto!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...