Whenever I read a biography about a movie star I always want to watch all their movies – the good, the bad. I was somewhat limited – after reading Hope: Entertaining of the Century – of only possessing a few of Bob Hope’s movies, so I watched Road to Morocco. It is the third of seven movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made – from 1940 to 1962 – that are known as the Road To series. Road to Morocco was made in 1942 and is often cited as people’s personal favorite.
The movie begins with a bang when a ship is blown up. Since this was made in 1942, the intended assumption must have been that the ship was attacked by a Nazi sub and that this movie therefore contained topical events related to the war. But it’s just a tease; there is nothing war related in this film. It turns out that there were two stowaways on board: Jeff (Bing Crosby) and Orville, also known as Turkey (Bob Hope). Orville went to the powder room to have a smoke and accidentally lighted up the powder.
The two friends make it to shore and they journey into Morocco on a camel singing one of the film’s great songs, “(We’re Off on the) Road to Morocco,” making allusions to everything from Paramount studios, cracks about the Hayes Code to the possibility that they will meet Dorothy Lamour. “Like Webster’s dictionary, we’re Morocco bound.”
When they can’t pay for their food, Jeff gets the idea that he will sell Orville and then rescue him after he pays for their dinner. But when he does manage to locate Orville weeks later, Orville is ensconced in the palace, all set to marry Princess Shalmar (Dorothy Lamour). In true Road To tradition, Jeff decides to move in on Orville’s girl. Shalmar certainly falls for Jeff – and his song “Moonlight Becomes You” – but there are complications. The desert sheikh, Mullay Kassim (Anthony Quinn), wants to marry her, too. She also originally meant to marry Kassim, but her astrologer told her that it was written in the stars that her first husband would die within a week of their marriage and her second husband would live. In order to marry Mullay Kassim, she chooses Orville to marry first, since he’s expendable. When Jeff arrives on the scene and tries to get her to switch from Orville to him, she naturally refuses.
Her astrologers, however, made a mistake. There was a fly in the telescope. It seems that there is no reason for her not to marry the man she loves the first time around. But now she loves Jeff, so she and Jeff and Orville and a slave girl who loves Orville (Dona Drake) try to flee and are captured by Mullay Kassim.
Not that I blame Mullay Kassim. Shalmar did originally mean to marry him and unceremoniously dumps him for Jeff. And the fact that Kassim tries to kill Jeff and Orville doesn’t make him a villain, either, if you consider that all of the characters in the film try to kill each other at one point or another. These people are cutthroat. Jeff considers eating Orville when they are on a raft at sea and later sells him in slavery. When Orville learns that Shalmar is only marrying him because he’ll die, he tries to get Jeff to take his place. And Shalmar is perfectly willing to allow Orville to die as her first husband. But it’s all done with such good humor that no one takes it personally, except Mullay Kassim.
The Road to Morocco is the quintessential Road To movie. All the Road To jokes are present in hilarious fashion. Bing Crosby always gets the girl (Lamour – she was in the first six Road To movies and had a cameo in the last), always gets Bob Hope in trouble, always sings a romantic song, is always cool and calm. Bob Hope, on the other hand, is always eager, always chasing women with minimal success, always a bit craven, a bit gullible, the most victimized and the most willing to ham it up.
Lamour is there primarily as a foil, but she is an especially good one and can also sing. That’s one of the things that makes the Road To series so good. They can all sing, dance a little and perform comedy with ease and nonchalance. And they come from a background in live performance. Bing Crosby sang in big band and radio, Bob Hope came up through vaudeville and Broadway, and Dorothy Lamour began as a band singer and sang in cafes. The movies give off the vibe of a live performance with the audience in on the joke.
Between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, there is also the much-celebrated sense of ad-libbing. They seem to be making it up as they go, though it was scripted beforehand (though sometimes only right before shooting – Dorothy Lamour eventually gave up trying to memorize her lines, because things changed so much). Their dialogue is often compared to jazz, improvisational riffing off each other. In author Richard Zoglin’s opinion, what they say isn’t all that funny, but how they say it and interact.
There are also some fun gags (the movies are sometimes more gags than actual plot) and pretty much anything can happen in a Road To film. One feature is the constant breaking of the fourth wall to address the audience. Even a camel has some bits of dialogue in Road to Morocco, wryly commenting on how ridiculous the story is. Near the end of the film, Orville summarizes the action thus far. Jeff says he already knows what happened.
“Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t.”
“You mean they missed my song?”
The costumes are also fun. Edith Head – who worked at Paramount Studios and did the costumes for most of the Road To films – loved working on the series. She would do a little research and have fun with it. She especially liked to design clothes for men, which she didn’t get to do as often. Bing Crosby preferred to dress a bit more conservatively, but Bob Hope was game for anything she gave him, which is why he always dressed more flamboyantly than Crosby.
The Road to Morocco has some of the series’ best songs, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. Below is “(Off on the) Road to Morocco”