At first glance, the 1940 comedy Road to Singapore appears to be a silly movie with a thin plot, strung together with musical numbers to give it a legitimate running time.
Road to Singapore is a yarn about two buddies (Crosby and Hope) who flee to southeast Asia to escape the prospect of marrying two perfectly lovely women. (Rejecting these women by bolting to the other side of the world seems a bit harsh, no?)
Crosby and Hope take refuge in Kaidoon where they rent a hut and try to live a life of leisure. No more women for them – no siree! – until they meet Dorothy Lamour, with whom they both fall in love. Two questions then dominate the remainder of the movie: (1) Which man will Lamour ultimately choose, and (2) what will be their primary source of income?
Now, let’s not write this movie off too quickly. For one thing, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines. An example is when Crosby’s displeased father (Charles Coburn), learns that Crosby has fled via boat. Coburn responds ruefully, “He must be somewhere – unless he’s fallen overboard, which is too much to hope for.”
In another scene, Hope and Crosby compare notes on their love lives:
Hope: “The minute women look dreamy at you, you send for a preacher.”
Crosby: “Well, the minute women look dreamy at you, their father sends for a preacher.”
Believe it or not, Road to Singapore is a significant film for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a spoof of popular movies of the era that were set in southeast Asia. Some of these films include Red Dust, Lady of the Tropics, and The Letter. The Crosby & Hope send-up has the exotic feel of these movies with none of the seriousness.
Secondly, Singapore is the first of seven road movies that Crosby and Hope made between 1940 and 1962. All of these comedies were satires of movie genres of the day, and feature running gags introduced in previous films.
Thirdly, the film introduces a couple of elements that would become trademarks of the series. The first is improvisation. Crosby and Hope were clever entertainers and, while the some of their humour may seem outdated, you have to admire their nimble thinking. The series’ second trademark is known as “breaking the fourth wall” where characters address the camera directly. Hope’s characters used this most often in this series but, in the first film, it a woman who addresses the audience when she realizes Crosby has dumped her.
Finally, this was the first movie in which Crosby and Hope starred together. This film cemented a friendship that began in the 1930s in their New York days, when their improvisational banter was the hit of every party. They shared a love of comedy, golf and a great admiration for each other. Their close friendship lasted until Crosby’s sudden death by heart attack in 1977. Hope later said, “If friends could have been made for each other, I would have asked for one just like Bing…. I miss him.”
You could say Road to Singapore is a lighthearted romp through Paramount Pictures’ Polynesian-style sets, but it’s a significant cultural marker and a testimony to a true friendship.
Road to Singapore: Starring Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope. Directed by Victor Schertzinger. Written by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. Paramount Pictures Inc., B&W, 1940, 85 mins.