1962’s The Road to Hong Kong marked the end of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s famed cinematic partnership. When the boys joined forces for the 1940 farce Road to Singapore, they were hardly the first fast-talking comedy duo to hit the screen. Still, the pairing’s popularity made an impact on many similar acts in the years to come. The madcap nature of their vehicles led to such teams as Abbott & Costello following suit by incorporating more fourth wall-demolishing humor and zany parodies of contemporary movie conventions into their own vehicles. It was a method of remaining current as they basically rehashed the same schtick, so by the time The Road to Hong Kong rolled into theaters ten years after the previous entry in the series, the flick didn’t feel hopelessly old-fashioned. That’s not to say that this doesn’t go almost completely off the rails in its last act — the result of a last-ditch effort to give viewers more goofball gags for their buck — but the experience of its leads pays off in a stream of laughs that flows steadily throughout its first two-thirds.
Hope and Crosby play Chester and Harry, two schemers attempting to fleece Calcutta’s populace as our story begins. It turns out that futzing around with homemade jet packs isn’t the smartest idea, as the pair’s con backfires and leaves Chester with a nasty case of amnesia. Their search for a cure leads the guys to darkest Tibet, where they do one better and come upon an herb that allows those who consume it to quickly memorize any document laid before them. With Chester’s newfound skills, Harry smells a new swindle in the making, but they must deal with matters of more global importance first. During their quest, the boys run into fetching secret agent Diane (Joan Collins), leading to a mix-up that has Chester reading some top secret documents…before destroying them soon afterwards. With a shady organization gunning for the information in Chester’s noggin and some mad monks who want their wonder herb back, our hapless heroes high-tail it all over the globe before ending up in Hong Kong, gateway to the both the Orient and even more mischief waiting to be sowed.
Just as its predecessors stayed hip by lampooning popular cinematic trends of the era, The Road to Hong Kong does much of its jesting at the burgeoning spy movie craze’s expense. With the addition of outer space elements later on in the story, the flick veers dangerously close to resembling Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, but the final product thankfully feels far less humiliating for its stars. At this point, Hope and Crosby had been at their game for too long to let themselves get caught not having a blast; if they were tired or desperate at any time during production, they’ve got some awfully sturdy poker faces to hide it. While the two have aged visibly since they first took on these roles, they still possess the timing of younger men, with rapport as crackling as ever and one-liners that earn the groans that commence following their delivery. Plus, should Hope and Crosby’s traditional verbal sparring wear thin, they can always be counted on for piles of self-aware jokes, zingers poking fun at their real-life careers and references to fact that they’re in a movie right this second. The boys summon the special effects crew to cheat their way out of a jam on a number of occasions, and Dorothy Lamour cites her previous franchise scrapes in an extended cameo, all instances that are presented in good fun and without a shred of genuine malice.
The Road to Hong Kong is mostly harmless, although there are a few moments that aren’t as amusing now as they may have been once upon a time. One skit has Peter Sellers putting in an appearance as an Indian doctor, an almost useless aside that wouldn’t be funny even if it weren’t replete with cringe-inducing pidgin English. The same goes for the climactic musical number, wherein Hope dons the worst stereotypical Chinese get-up this side of Fu Manchu. Such sequences are few, but they’re still relics of a bygone time in comedy that simply don’t hold up at all. Also, the banter tends to take a back seat to lame physical slapstick in the movie’s latter section, with set pieces like Chester and Harry being forced to scarf bananas in a spacecraft designed for monkeys coming off as more gross than comical. Admittedly, a good deal of The Road to Hong Kong‘s charm has been lost by the time it reaches its last (and certifiably insane) minutes, but not all of the work accomplished by Crosby and Hope’s combined charisma has gone to waste. They’re experts at selling the most weathered wisecracks and getting your feet tapping throughout the most arbitrary song-and-dance numbers; even though series stalwart Lamour only appears towards the end, Collins assumes her duties as the flick’s girl Friday with pluck and energy.
Though not without its fumbles and stumbles, The Road to Hong Kong is a decent enough note for Hope and Crosby’s career as co-cutups to go out on. Barring the odd insensitive gag or two, the film is too innocent to dislike with any passion, as the doofiest of grins becomes planted on one’s mug more or less for the run of the show. Movies like The Road to Hong Kong are hard to come by at the local multiplex these days, but at least they’re still around in the form of home media, ready to remind us that jaunty tunes and wiseass remarks never truly go out of style.
(The Road to Hong Kong is available on Blu-ray through Olive Films.)