Feb 1, 2008

DVD Review: The Road To Hong Kong (1962)

The Road To Hong Kong, recently reissued in MGM’s Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection, was the final Hope and Crosby "Road" movie, trailing its predecessor by nearly a decade. It’s a strange film, because it straddles two film genres that I tend to think of as being of entirely different eras: "Road" pictures and Sixties spy spoofs. Obviously it comes very late in the game for the former, but also finds itself (strangely) on the cutting edge of the latter. Whereas the vast majority of spy parodies rode on Bond’s coattails, The Road To Hong Kong slipped in before the pack (and even just before Dr. No), actually anticipating the genre it was sending up! And it really does a surprisingly good job, right down to a pre-title bit (a vaudeville routine, representing that one foot squarely in the past) and even a title sequence designed by Maurice Binder. With its mixture of Oriental imagery and rockets, it oddly prefigures his work on You Only Live Twice five years later.

Speaking of You Only Live Twice, The Road To Hong Kong begins pretty much the same way: with a group of American technicians (in Hong Kong) monitoring space transmissions and detecting the presence of a spacecraft neither the Americans nor the Russians can account for. I sincerely doubt that Roald Dahl had this movie in mind when penning the screenplay for the 1967 Bond movie, but the number of plot similarities is astonishing, from the villain declaring his organization "a third world power" down to the heroes donning space suits as a means of disguise to escape by rocket from the villain’s underground headquarters. It’s easy to watch The Road To Hong Kong as a parody of You Only Live Twice–until you remember when it was made!

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby play their usual Road sorts: traveling hucksters trying to con their way through India with an act about a rocket harness that doesn’t really work. Crosby talks Hope into flying the contraption, a predictable disaster that results in Hope losing his memory.

Just when you’re settled in for the same old (ever enjoyable) Road movie routine (lulled by the black and white photography into thinking it’s nineteen-forty-something), Sixties icon Peter Sellers turns up doing his hilarious Indian accent (maybe it’s not P.C. to admit it, but every time I hear Sellers use that voice, I crack up) as the Hindu physician who first assesses Hope’s condition. Unsurprisingly, Sellers’ doctor is far from competent, so the duo end up seeking the help of a mystical herb, said to restore memory, found only in a remote Tibetan lamastery.

At the airport, Crosby tries to coach the hopeless Hope (who’s forgotten everything, even the word "bosom") on how to pick up women. Thanks to Hope’s grabbing the wrong bag (a signal), his charmless, innuendo-laden routine actually nets a catch that turns his partner’s head: Joan Collins. Collins plays an agent of the nefarious Third Echelon (that power I mentioned that rivals the US and the Soviet Union), and, believing Hope to be such as well, mistakenly saddles him with stolen space secrets.

The lama-stery does, in fact, yield a miracle cure (as well as an extremely brief David Niven cameo and Bing Crosby in a Lotus position singing "Sip a little Oolong tea" in a hilarious baritone), not only restoring Hope’s memory, but also making it temporarily photographic. Therefore, once the rocket secrets have been accidentally destroyed, he still retains them in his generally useless noggin. (Just like Chuck!) Now, of course, he’s valuable to the Third Echelon.

After some stock footage of Hong Kong, our hapless duo end up on a couch that plunges through a secret passage and slides them into an underground lair. (Seri-ously! Maybe Dahl did have this movie in mind after all when penning You Only Live Twice!) The lair in question belongs to Robert Morley (in a Dr. No-ish getup), leader of the Third Echelon, and is eerily similar to that of the good doctor’s, complete with magnifying porthole windows into an ocean teeming with sharks. Morley’s Number 2 is played by spy regular Walter Gotell (the future General Golgol), two years before his role as the commandant of SPECTRE Island in From Russia With Love. Morley relishes a choice monologue ("I’ll deal with humanity as I please and I’ll do with humanity as I choose and I’ll do it from the moon with my radial lunar bombs!") before vowing to "rebuild the world according to my own image after my own specifications!" In a wild parody of comic book villainy, he unwittingly becomes the very blueprint for the breed of spy villains to come.

The heroes’ space-suited escape plays hilariously, because the suits happen to be made for chimps (thus contorting Bing and Bob into apelike crouches). After some side-splitting business wherein Hope has his outfit stuffed with live fish (oh, there’s a perfectly good reason) and a cameo by Road queen Dorothy Lamour, the pair are launched into space, a location it would take 007 eleven movies to reach!

The finale on the moon (The Road to the Moon probably would have been a better title for this one) would be forgettable were it not for the incongruous appearance of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, another pair I wouldn’t expect to pop up in a Road movie. Yes, the Chairman of the Board turns up in a wacky space suit. I forget why, exactly, but that’s not the point, is it? Ultimately, with this cameo the movie goes out with a final reminder that the whole affair is weirdly unstuck in time. It’s a relic of a bygone era that somehow manages to foreshadow the Swinging Sixties and the entire Bond canon at once. (Did I mention Morley escapes in a mini-sub, ala Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever? There are really too many 007 coincidences to list them all.) It’s not a great Road movie, and it’s not a great spy movie, but it contains plenty of inspired bits (the fish and the oolong tea stand out) and fans of both genres are sure to find something to like.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

Another great review. It's odd, but if you coupled Road To Hong Kong with Carry On Spying, you basically get the whole plot of You Only Live Twice.