On the Road with Bob and Warren and Dustin and Bing!
Updated: Apr 18
The following story is true. The names are the same because, that’s the way I roll. Your idiot felt sorry for himself. He fell off the wagon and rewatches a bunch of old movies. The hard stuff, Hope and Crosby, Beatty and Hoffman.
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were among the biggest stars of the 20th century. And they hung on to it too. Bing Crosby started on the road to prominence in 1923 as a teenager and, by 1925, was a featured artist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. And in 1928, as the lead vocalist of the Rythm Boys had his first #1 hit with a jazzy rendition of Ol' Man River from the Broadway hit Show Boat. During his lifetime Bing released 396 chart singles, including roughly 57 number-1 hits. He sang four Academy Award winners and still has the biggest-selling single record of all time, White Christmas. That's according to Guinness!
Bing was a top-rated Radio star and a four-time Academy Award Nominee, winning best actor for, Going My Way. Bing Crosby is the #3 all-time most popular movie star. John Wayne and Clark Gable precede him. He was a visionary, seeing the value of Audio Tape, Video Tape, and the San Fernando Valley. He founded the Pebble Beach Golf tournament and lived long enough to duet with David Bowie on Little Drummer Boy, making that hokey Christmas nugget hopelessly cool for eternity.
Bob Hope was born just a few weeks after Bing in Southeast London. At the age of four, his family immigrated to Cleveland. Near Cleveland, you know, in Ohio. After a brief stint as a professional Boxer - 3 wins, 1 loss, but oh, what a loss! He decided that if he was going to get beat up, it should be for doing something fun and began entertaining people on street corners. His act consisted of songs, dance steps, jokes, humorous stories, and an imitation of Charlie Chaplin. That impersonation got him a prize in an amateur talent show, and he started his career.
In 1925, Fatty Arbuckle discovered Hope as part of an act called the Dancemedians. Look, folks, it was a sorry time for entertainment. Fatty hooked them up with a pal who had a traveling show called Hurley's Jolly Follies (The less said about them, the better). It led to his first screen test, which he failed. That led to another, which led to his first comedy short, Going Spanish (1934). Hope was unhappy with it and told reporters, "When they catch John Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice.
But even that picture didn't slow him down on his journey to becoming what First Lady Nancy Reagan called "America's most honored citizen and our favorite clown." He has four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honorary Oscars (6), a congressional award, and a presidential award of freedom. He appeared in countless movies, radio and television shows, and war zones with his famous USO shows. He also hosted the Academy Awards show 19 times. Take that, Jimmy Kimmel!
He was an incredible workaholic. In the 1980s, I shot two television commercials with him. Well, actually, about 40. The last time we shot him was in the first-class club Pan Am terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York City. He flew in, and they wheeled him off the plane, wheeled him down to the set we built and lit based on the Hope people's instructions. He looked like he was dead. The lights were turned on, make-up applied, we rolled tape, Bob Hope rose to his feet, and the years fell away. It's Alive! "I'm Bob Fugazi Cadillac, Hope, telling you to get down to Fugazi Cadillac for special prices on the 1987 Coupe Deville!"
He did one take, followed by El Dorado, followed by Fleetwood. Then his assistant gave him another dealership, and we would repeat it. For at least 20 minutes, he performed plenty of commercial donuts. (It's a commercial where you get a celeb or something to hook the viewer, fill the middle with the hard-sell coconut cream, and then let the celebrity seal the deal.)
Hope co-starred in the highly successful "Road" movies with Bing Crosby. These also featured Dorothy Lamour as the love interest in all but the last, where she was replaced by Joan Collins. The series consists of seven films made between 1940 and 1962: Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia, Road to Rio, Road to Bali, and The Road to Hong Kong (1962). Though never officially a comedy team, their ease and comfort with each other in these films and the twelve other films they made might lead you to believe they are a secret comedy team, a closeted comedy team, if you will. Individually, they were amongst the biggest stars of their time, and they did these films for fun. Like the Ocean's Eleven films. I'd watch Ocean's 62, wouldn't you?
Note #1: Dorothy Lamour was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1914. She was a true "Nwalins" product, being of Spanish, French-Cajun, with a drop of Irish, that she knew of. She had a substantial career in Hollywood playing a variety of international princesses. Not Danish princesses, but from places of mystery with Jungles and Viziers and that sort of thing. Her first significant role was as Ulah, the jungle princess in the film Jungle Princess. You can't make this stuff up! Though blessed with a pleasant singing voice, she starred in numerous musicals and never became a recording artist. In her later years, she toured dinner theaters around the country, playing Reno Sweeny in Anything Goes!
Warren Beatty, born March 30, 1937, is an unbelievably successful multi-hyphenate. He was the face that launched the New Hollywood in the late 1960s. Over the last six decades, he has been nominated for 15 Academy Awards, four for Best Actor, four for Best Picture, two for Best Director, three for Original Screenplay, and one for Adapted Screenplay – winning Best Director for Reds (1981). Beatty is the only person nominated for acting, directing, writing, and producing the same film, and he did it twice! In Heaven Can Wait (with co-director Buck Henry.) and again for Reds.
Eight of the films he produced earned 53 Academy nominations. In 1999, he was awarded the Academy's highest honor, the Irving G. Thalberg Award. Beatty was nominated for 18 Golden Globe Awards, winning six, including the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2007. Blah, blah, blah, what I'm saying here is he is a huge star.
Dustin Hoffman, born a few months after Warren Beatty in 1937, is one of the key actors in forming (here's that term again) New Hollywood. Hoffman is known for his versatile portrayals of antiheroes and emotionally vulnerable characters. He is also not classically handsome like Warren Beatty (Understatement!) He is the recipient of tons of awards, including two Academy Awards, four BAFTA Awards (The British Oscars), five Golden Globes Awards, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. Not only those but Hoffman also received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1997, the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1999, and the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2012. No less a mega-star than Robert De Niro described him as "an actor with the everyman's face who embodies the heartbreakingly human." (It's always a risk to quote DeNiro. But if you read it a couple of times, you get what he is saying.)
Now we get to the meat of this, in their lifetimes, like Bing and Bob, Warren and Dustin are massive movie stars in theirs. I assume they are friends because why else would they choose to make a tribute to Hope and Crosby's Road films with their own confused effort, Ishtar?
The classic Road movies are simple silly affairs. When Bing sings, he is ridiculed. When Bob tells a joke, they boo. The pair are stranded in a locale, usually attempting to game the system through some con or another to escape and fail miserably. Also, they could be more successful in wooing the girl too. But it's all in good fun. It's like how you remember Seinfeld. Was it as good as you remember it? Yeah, kinda.
Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers are inept songwriters who are down on their luck but dream of becoming a popular singing duo like Peter and Gordon, Sonny and Cher, or maybe even Simon and Garfunkel. Though poorly received at a local open-microphone night, their agent Marty Freed gets them a gig as lounge singers in a hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco. Why were they poorly received? Unlike Hope and Crosby, Beatty and Hoffman suck. The film production went to great lengths to have the worst songs written by the best songwriters available.
Paul Williams began working on the songs the duo would sing. Let me share what he said, then. "The real task was to write believably bad songs." Williams enjoyed the process, "It was one of the best jobs I've ever had. I've never had more fun on a picture, but I've never worked as hard." Director Elaine May (we'll touch on her later) insisted that Williams write whole songs, even though only a few lines would make it into the movie. Paul Williams is a significant songwriter. Some of his credits are, Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Helen Reddy's "You and Me Against the World," the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," and "Rainy Days and Mondays." and freaking Barbra Streisand song, "Evergreen!"
Note #2: Paul Williams is also known for writing the score and lyrics for 1976's Bugsy Malone (the all kid Gangster musical starring Jodie Foster and introducing Scott (Chachi) Baio. He was also the songwriter and star of Brian DePalma's bat-shit-crazy Phantom of the Paradise. You may have heard the term, 'Big in Japan" Well, Phantom of the Paradise was "Huge in Canada!" For some reason, Winnipeg went nuts for it. Ah, to be huge in Manitoba! I'll discuss both pictures in an upcoming issue of our regular journal.
When they arrive in the fictional neighboring country of Ishtar, Chuck agrees to give his passport to a mysterious woman who claims her life is in danger. Played by Isabelle Adjani, a fine replacement for Dorothy Lamour, She promises to meet him in Marrakesh. Unfortunately for Chuck,She the Embassy delays his new passport. Lyle forges on to Morocco, hoping to save the gig. Chuck meets a CIA agent and agrees to be a spy for the CIA. In return, the CIA will expedite Chuck to Morocco by show time!
Together again, Chuck and Lyle unwittingly become involved in a plot to overthrow the Emir of Ishtar. The mysterious woman, Shirra Assel, sneaks into Lyle's room to steal his luggage. But she meant to break into Chuck's room and steal his luggage. Why? Does it matter? She hid an ancient map in his luggage, and she needs it to command the loyalties of the left-wing guerrillas who hate the Emir of Ishtar. ( a woman commanding the Islamic guerillas? Please!)
A major problem in making the film in North Africa in 1985 was that the Palestine Liberation Army hijacked the Cruise Liner, Achille Lauro. In doing so, they tossed a close friend of Jack "King " Kirby, Leon Klinghoffer, and his wheelchair off the boat. The Israeli military bombed Palestinian targets. The production was based out of Morrocco. The Moroccan authorities were busy fighting their own war against Polisario Front Guerillas, who were still pissed over the Spanish occupation of Morrocco that ended ten years prior. According to state department interviews, the whole region was the proverbial powderkeg. Locations were swept for land mines, and Dustin Hoffman had a security detail provided by the CIA due to the possibility that the PLO planned to kidnap him and throw him off the back of a boat. (I joke to stop from crying.)
There are two clip-reel-worthy, funny moments in the film. #1 Dustin Hoffman tries to get Warren Beatty to pronounce the word that can be used to describe a part of the anatomy that has recently been the cause of some trouble for a 500-year-old statue. But more commonly, it refers to a stupid person or an idiot. Yiddish is a precise language with plenty of variations on that specificity. (If you are thinking of another word, don't be a putz!)
Warren says, "... what a smuck I was." (for coming to New York) Dustin corrects him, "Schmuck." Warren repeats, "Smuck." Dustin tries, "Say, Shmuh."
Dustin, "Now Uck."
"Put them together real fast."
"Smuck!" Warren fails. Hilarity ensues. The other is a true throwback to the silent era. If not the silents, it is a Mel Brooks throwaway. Warren Beatty's Lyle attempts to find a camel salesman named Mohamad and gives him the secret code of "I want to buy a blind camel," per Isabel Adjani's instructions. Lyle finds the wrong Mohamad and ends up actually buying a blind camel. Hilarity ensues, again. Kinda.
Chuck and Lyle accidentally mail the map to their agent Marty Freed, who coerces the CIA into supporting Isabelle Adjani's social reforms in the Ishtar, backing and recording an album written by Chuck and Lyle, as well as fronting a tour starting in Morocco. The audience is filled with the military with orders to uproariously applaud every song. Which, as stated earlier, were the worst songs ever written.
Ishtar is nowhere near as enjoyable as six of the seven Hope and Crosby Road films. It is not unenjoyable to watch, however unfocused and poorly thought out as it is. Elaine May is a great director and writer who has never found her sweet spot. After a great career in improv with Mike Nichols, she followed him into directing. I can recommend to films she directed without hesitation, The Heart Break Kid and Mikey and Nicky. One great documentary, American Masters: Mike Nichols. As an actress, she is peerless, something she doesn't often do enough. A recent Tony Award winner and steals Woody Allen's Small Times Crooks from an excellent cast. She wrote a brilliant screenplay for, The Birdcage and contributed to several other great films. She is an Oscar, Grammy, Tony, Golden Globe, and Kennedy Center honoree. Not too shabby. However, she did not win any awards for Ishtar.
In the aftermath of the death of John Belushi from an unintentional drug overdose, Robin Williams said, "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you are making too much money." And it's the #1 export of Columbia that I blame for Ishtar. I'm not saying anyone in the cast, crew, or studio was using it (wink-wink), but everything about it seems to smack of drug-induced, illogical motivation. "This is gonna be genius!"
It was considered the worst film of all time upon its release. In recent years it has been upgraded to "Not that bad." It was considered the second biggest flop of the 1980s after only Heaven's Gate! Let's face it,folks; this was before Hollywood knew just how big a flop could be. Nobody could have predicted 47 Ronin costing $225 Million and recouped 68 cents. And that's not the only one.
Note#3: Heaven's Gate was around fifty million, and Ishtar was around fifty-one million.
All the Hope and Crosby Films are watchable. The jokes are okay, but there are so many that you can't help but get into the film's rhythm. The songs are entertaining. They are mild parodies of contemporary movies that most people haven't seen except you lot. Ishtar is watchable. It's got a great cast besides Dustin and Warren (I'm on a first-name basis because I once met Warren Beatty's wife, Annette Benning's support dog). It's got Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper, Carol Kane, Fred Melamed, David Margulies, and the sorely underutilized (career-wise) Max Headroom star Matt Frewer.
If that isn't enough, it was shot by the GOAT of cinematography, Vittorio Storaro.
Ultimately one has to wonder about the times and inflation. All seven of the classic Road films could be made at least three times over on the same budget as Ishtar. Even adjusted for inflation, they could have made fourteen of them. The road films were shot in Hollywood, in a studio. The stars went home to their families after their day of work. Bob, Bing, and Dorothy didn't have to worry about terrorists, wars, kidnapping, or land mines on the set. The risks, the locations, and the bad songs don't really add up to a better film. I don't regret watching Ishtar twice, but at 20 minutes longer than any of the road films, it pales by comparison. Did we as a society change so little that we couldn't (and still can't) get the Joke? That shouldn't be. Ishtar had more empirically provable talent on the screen. It should have been a laugh riot! And yet I enjoyed the first six classic Road pictures more, and the Road to Hong Kong about the same.
Sometimes while I lay in bed, and can't sleep. My brain is vexed by this question: Why was Ishtar not better? I could worry about world peace, the environment, or my insignificance on this big blue marble hurtling through the endless cosmos, but I can't do diddly about those. Come to think of it, Ishtar is out of my hands too, but it still bothers me.
Photo Credit: Max Roberts (my nephew)
Luckily you can watch and rewatch all the films mentioned in this piece and make up your own damn mind.