Critics often bemoan the lack of creativity in today's Hollywood, lambasting the industry for churning out nothing but sequels, remakes, and endless "franchise pictures," but that's only because they've forgotten (or are simply unaware of) the moviegoing audience's long appetite for formulaic regurgitation. For proof, look no further than the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope 'Road to...' pictures of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, which saw the two enormously popular actors star in a series of seven big-screen adventures, which were essentially the same mistaken-identity comedy flick remade over and over, with the audience lapping it up each time.
The fifth and sixth entries in the Hope-Crosby franchise have now come to HD DVD in this double-feature disc from BCI, which includes 1947's 'The Road to Rio,' and it's follow-up, 'The Road to Bali,' which hit theaters five years later in 1952. Neither is (arguably) the best in the series (lacking the absolute zing of the earliest flicks), but they're as good a representation as any of them in showcasing the charms of the two stars, and the durability of a comedy concept that still delivers genuine laughs almost half a century later.
This double feature kicks off with 'The Road to Rio.' The plot has the formula down pat: the pair play two inept (and cheap) vaudevillians, Scat Sweeney and "Hot Lips" Barton, who stow away on a Brazilian-bound ocean liner. No sooner does the boat set sail, however, than Scat and Hot Lips get mixed up in the apparent "suicide" of Lucia Maria de Andrade (Dorothy Lamour), which turns out to be a hoax. Seems Lucia has been tricked into a plot by a sinister hypnotist to marry off her niece to a greedy fortune hunter, who Bob and Bing will eventually (if advertently) bring to justice. Laughter, romance and a little song 'n dance ensue...
The second flick on the disc, 'The Road to Bali,' sees Bob and Bing playing Harold Gridley and George Cochran, two confirmed bachelors who, after fleeing Australia to avoid marriage proposals, find themselves hired as deep sea divers embroiled in a plot by the nefarious Prince of Bali to recover lost sunken treasure. As with 'Rio,' there's plenty of women for the taking, in particular Princess Lala (Lamour again), who is secretly trying to foil the Prince's plot. Oh, and Bob and Bing also find time to do a few vaudeville numbers...
The old axiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies perfectly to both of these films. The chemistry and easy repertoire between Crosby and Hope is obvious, so it's no surprise it's not tampered with here. Though my personal thoughts on Crosby are a bit colored these days by later allegations of familial abuse (if Crosby is not considered the male Joan Crawford, he's close), in both 'Bali' and 'Rio' he comes off as the charming uncle you'd want to see getting drunk at your wedding. Hope is even more enjoyable, though, as he is somehow able to play the "straight man" and the instigator at the same time, and is just so darn lovable. Along with the alluring Lamour, the trio seem to be having a grand old time, even if they must have been pretty bored with the whole "road movie" formula by the point of 'Rio' and 'Bali.'
Beyond just the mega-wattage of their stars, these road pictures hold up through their sheer desire to please, to the point that they eventually start to feel like big-screen variety shows. The vaudeville aspect is more than overt -- the plots often feel constructed simply to shoehorn in another tap dance or comedy routine, yet it's so forced it actually becomes charming. Then there is the parade of "guest stars" (Dean Martin! Jerry Lewis! Jane Russell!), who mug for the cameras (and are often so out of place)that it's better than watching an entire season of "The Love Boat." Add to that some truly hilarious special effects (love that giant rubber squid), ultra-clean comedy shtick that's even tamer than a G-rating, and some nice Technicolor (at least on 'Bali,' the only of the "road" pictures not shot in black & white), and you have a surprisingly fun double feature that's pure nostalgia.
Following 'Ultimate Force' (a title I was not particularly impressed with), 'The Road to Bali/The Road to Rio' is the second high-def release from BCI that I've reviewed. My previous disappointment, combined with the fact that these two Hope-Crosby road pictures are now over a half-century old, didn't exactly inspire confidence, which is perhaps why I was so pleasantly surprised by this HD DVD -- both films look far better than I expected, maybe even better than they have any right to.
Both 'The Road to Bali' and 'The Road to Rio' are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and pillarboxed for 16:9 screens. The 1080i/MPEG-2 encodes benefit from nicely remastered source prints that are generally free from major blemishes such as scratches, excess dirt and dropouts. I did think that 'Bali' looked somewhat sharper and cleaner than 'Rio,' but the film was also produced about five years later, so the elements were probably fresher.
The biggest distinction between 'Bali' and 'Rio' is that the former was the only Hope-Crosby road picture to be shot in full color, and Technicolor to boot. That certainly elevates it a above 'Rio' in the snazzy department. Hues on 'Bali' are fairly smooth and evenly saturated, if sometimes noisy. There are also some clear registration issues (quite common with Technicolor features), so colors can appear fuzzy or soft, as the red/green/blue "strips" no longer align perfectly.
Still, it's rare to see titles this old enjoy such pleasing transfers. Blacks are deep on both features, and contrast is well-modulated. There's a nice bit of detail to the image and even a fair amount of depth, though again, given the vintage and photography methods of the period, don't expect the kind of razor-sharp and textured presentation you'd get with a modern release (here, again, though 'Bali' trumps 'Rio'). I also thought 'Rio' may be a bit too bright, and black levels could have been richer. These are also pretty nice encodes, with only slight pixel break-up in grainier shots, as well as some minor jaggies.
No, 'The Road to Bali' and 'The Road to Rio' can't compare to some of the fantastic restorations done recently by the major studios, but I'm sure fans will be very pleased.
Both 'The Road to Bali' and 'The Road to Rio' feature Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono tracks only. The audio is not nearly as impressive as the video, however, with pretty dated elements that haven't held up all that well over the past few decades.
Typical of soundtracks from this era, there is a brittle and flat feel to dynamics. High-end can be screechy at a considerable volume level (which is needed to boost the flat dialogue reproduction), and bass is anemic to say the least. Obviously, as these are mono mixes, don't expect even phony envelopment. On the plus side, there are no major dropouts or obvious audio defects, so both 'The Road to Bali' and 'The Road to Rio' are perfectly listenable given their age.
A budget release from BCI, I suppose just having two movies on a single HD DVD is a bonus in and of itself. Otherwise, there are no extras.
'The Road to Bali' and 'The Road to Rio' are both fun little pictures, though perhaps not the absolute best of the Hope/Crosby collaborations. This HD DVD double feature is certainly a very nice way to watch them, with better-than-expected video and decent audio. No, there are no extras, but given the films' vintage, that's not surprising. Worth a look for high-def enthusiasts in the mood for a little old school comedy.