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Road to Zanzibar (1941)

It’s been nearly a year since I saw my first in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to…” series, 1942’s Road to Morocco. Apparently I’m watching these backwards because here we are on the Road to Zanzibar. Anytime we get a move set in the 1940s depiction of Africa you gotta go in knowing what to expect, and thankfully this movie isn’t as dated (racist) as I feared. But being the second of the “Road” movies it’s surprising how slight this feels, and even more so than Road to Morocco.

Bob and Bing play circus performers “Fearless” Frazier (Hope) and Chuck (Crosby) who are touring the continent of Africa….because. A series of events see them buying a diamond mind, losing their money, and being swindled by a duo of con artists played by Dorothy Lamour and Una Merkel.

I wonder how much of Road to Zanzibar’s flimsy plotting comes from its original production. This wasn’t meant to be a sequel to Road to Singapore (1940) and originally the roles were offered to Fred MacMurray and George Burns, but both turned it down. From there the studio struggled to find players to fill the roles before falling back on Bing and Bob, who had found success with the previous feature. If that’s the case, then that might explain why this doesn’t feel as plotted as Road to Morocco.

Barely hitting 90-minutes, Bob and Bing have their banter down in spite of a complete absence of character. Bob is a literal human bullet, forced into all manner of hijinks at Bing’s request and Bing is smooth. I’ll admit, despite a general apathy towards both actors in general, Hope comes out at the better of the two men in this movie. Where Crosby runs on pure charisma, attempting to woo Lamour’s Donna and little else, Hope has an actual arc. Fearless is used to being second banana to Chuck and, in the beginning of the feature, actually dumps him in the hopes of moving on. But, of course, he understands the two are a pair.

Once Donna arrives, Lamour and Hope continue to build off their relationship, showing genuine chemistry with each other, so much so that it’s sad when she inevitably ends up with Crosby. You can also tell with this second outing that some things that would become synonymous with the “Road” movies haven’t been established 100%, namely the meta humor.

Compared to Road to Morocco, Crosby and Hope aren’t commenting on the making of the movie nearly enough, though there are moments. The two have play a game of patty cake in the beginning that culminates with them screaming “this guy’s seen the picture.” Wait till the end for it to make sense. The best bit is something seen in Road to Morocco, wherein Crosby and Lamour have a love scene in a boat while commenting on film’s attempt to produce music out of nothing. Cut to the pair dipping their hands in the water with harp music playing.

As much as this movie is about Crosby and Hope I was in love with Lamour and Una Merkel. The pair play women trotting out a white slavery routine to get money and I’d have watched them go up and down the different continents peddling a similar routine. Interestingly, the relationship triangle between the “Road” trio pops up here and there but the script never feels particularly interested in it. At one point, Fearless and Chuck end up in an extended sequence in a headhunter’s village – probably the most stereotypical element of the entire movie – with Donna blithely showing up in the final two minutes. Compared to Road to Morocco, where Lamour was a key figure, she’s an ancillary pretty face.

Road to Zanzibar, so far, is the flimsiest of the Hope and Crosby movies I’ve watched. It has its fun moments, like Merkel and a funny dance sequence involving drums, but the script must have been about ten pages for all the narrative that takes place.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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