April 1, 2019
Stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Douglass Dumbrille.
The “Road” pictures were famous for breaking the fourth wall in what at the time were radically innovative ways, but No. 4 Utopia — filmed during mid-war but not released until 1945 (and ’46 in the U.S.) — was something else. It didn’t just break the wall but blew the hell out of it — a little like that bridge in The Wild Bunch that explodes and drops the horses going across it (their riders, too) into the big drink. It’s a Yukon farce where talking animals rate one-liner quips and an actor/extra shortcuts his way through a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope boiler room scene on his way to another soundstage. Even Santa Claus rates a cameo. (With a couple of babes in his Christmas bag.)
As is true of many fans, Utopia has always been my favorite of a seven-comedy series that spanned 22 years — though the great Gary Giddins gives this honor, in the recent second volume of his dream Bing Crosby bio (Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940-1946), to No. 3 Morocco. (It’s close, either way.) Kino Classics has just released both of them — as well as the preceding Singapore and Zanzibar entries — on Blu-ray, which now means that all seven titles (Rio, Bali and Hong Kong preceeded) are available in hi-def versions. Of this new quartet of the first four made, no one likely had to be institutionalized for exhaustion from all the work done in the remastering — and yet, my younger son happened to drop in while I watching Utopia and expressed surprise that “something like this” (judging by content and age) could “look this good.” So there you go.
Utopia is unique in the series because its title has nothing to do with the setting (snowbound Alaska); is the only period piece; and is the only Road pic where Hope ended up with Dorothy Lamour (this is no spoiler because the story is told in flashback). The story dynamics, however, adhere to the formula than started to take hold with No. 2 Zanzibar following the fairly straightforward Singapore launcher (which nonetheless cleaned up at the box office). Both stars play semi-vaudevillians with heavy chiseler streaks and libidos, though Hope’s yen for the opposite sex is a little more “out there” while Crosby plays it cooler. The plot hinges on a stolen map to an Alaskan gold mine that by rights belongs to Lamour, who has taken a chanteuse gig at a local nightspot owned by so-called family friend Douglass Dumbrille. Of course, once you see Dumbrille for the first time — even if you don’t know the kind of roles he nearly always played — it’s obvious that he’s not to be trusted.
This is the hook, but the dialogue exchanges are sharp; Hope’s one-liner at Crosby’s entrance is one of the greatest screen put-downs I’ve ever heard, and people are still amazed that the final classic gag got by the Production Code. In retrospect, the Oscar-nominated script here is the high point of the lengthy Norman Panama-Melvin Frank association — aside, that is, from Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester from 1956, which is one of the most beloved cult comedies of all time (and would make a fabulous VistaVision/Technicolor Blu-ray if there’d ever been a single person at Paramount Home Entertainment who’d ever heard of any movie made before 1980). We also get humorist Robert Benchley, who didn’t live to see the film released, popping in for sardonic asides that apparently have always gotten a pro/con response (I had no idea they were controversial because I’ve always found them funny). And even the sometimes undervalued Dorothy Lamour gets some licks in with a spot-on senior citizen turn in the non-flashback frame.
In addition to recycling a long-ago featurette on the series, there’s a new joint commentary by producer/historian Greg Ford (who has one of those vocal deliveries that makes normal conversation come out funny) and the second-to-few music historian Will Friedwald. Even the score here is on the high side of the series, with “Put ‘Er There, Pal” a team classic and “Personality” the best song that the any of the Road pictures ever gave Lamour (it was also a huge Capitol hit for Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers during the first Christmas/New Year’s after the war).
We also get the 1945 short subject Hollywood Victory Caravan, a bond-drive effort that in some ways anticipates 1947’s Variety Girl (which includes an uproarious Crosby-Hope golf routine) in the way it advances the thesis that a sweet young innocent can easily find a way to get her run of the Paramount lot, whereupon she learns that Alan Ladd, Barbara Stanwyck, Crosby, Hope and more are regular folks just like us. (I wish she’d run into Lawrence Tierney, but he was at RKO or playing Dillinger for the King Brothers.)
She also manages to get Crosby and Hope to sleep together on a train, but we won’t go there. There’s also Ladd sucker-punching (or sucker-tripping) William Demarest; an elaborate production number where Betty Hutton does more tap-dancing than I’ve ever seen her do; a throwaway walking shot that suggests that Diana Lynn had a really proportioned figure; and a ringer show-up by non-Paramount star Humphrey Bogart, who pushes audiences to purchase post-war Bonds while looking to me as if he might have really tied one on the previous night.