TCM Fest 2013: Opening Night, by Scott Nye
I’ll be doling out a few installments of my coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival in the days to come, the rest of which will cover between three and six of the fifteen films I saw over four days (I’m telling you guys, it’s a blast), but I figured we’d start simple, with the one film I saw opening night. It also helps that it doesn’t really fit into any of the categories I set up going forward, but indeed how the hell could it fit into any category other than its anarchic own? I speak, of course (what am I saying, there’s nothing obvious about this), of the truly great Bob-Hope-and-Bing-Crosby-starring Road to Utopia.
Now, I’ve only seen one prior film in the duo’s seven-film series (and you thought the Fast and Furious saga was getting up there), and as much as I enjoyed it, there really is something else to seeing these kind of old-fashioned, throw-everything-to-the-wall comedies in a theater, with a loving audience. Made in 1946, this was still a time before any concept of watching movies at home, in private, was really on anybody’s radar, so it was expected that they would play to large crowds. Television ownership could be measured in the thousands, and commercial broadcasting was still at least a year away. So when you watch a film like this, which breaks the fourth wall constantly in various direct and indirect ways (including a narrator who periodically pauses the action to make a comment, sometimes as innocuous as, “awful lot of extras, aren’t there?”), what can seem somewhat hokey at home suddenly becomes indispensable when you’re sitting with dozens of others, and this was very much in the minds of its creators; in fact, it was second nature. Having a character turn to the camera and say, “you know, folks” can be charming at home, and you can kind of intellectually see how it works, but when you’re in a theater, out for the evening specifically to be entertained, the immediacy is much more palpable, and you get the sense of watching a live show.
That the film is so wildly, relentlessly entertaining beyond these audience involvement bits almost seems like a bonus, but with two stars who had such a sharp, potent (and potentially explosive) chemistry unleashing insults, double-crosses, wild schemes, and one-upmanship at a fiery speed, I would’ve loved every second, had some of those not been covered up by uproarious laughter. This thing knows exactly how to work a crowd.
Comedian Greg Proops introduced the film, and perfectly set the stage for the evening, noting that Hope and Crosby were the rare screen duo who (or whose personas, rather) absolutely despised one another, recalling that in Road to Morocco, Crosby sells Hope into slavery. Proops likened Hope’s screen persona to Daffy Duck, which is an astute observation, and one could easily see the cool, collected Crosby as a Bugs Bunny type to counter it, years before Warner Brothers would attempt such a pairing in their Looney Tunes series. He helpfully indicated that they really pushed the boundaries of the Production Code with (sometimes very buried) innuendo hinting not only at traditional ideas of sex, but very specific actions, including, as Proops delicately put it, “self-love.” Road to Utopia engages with a level of bawdiness we might expect from Pre-Code pictures, hardly from those of the (just barely) postwar years.
In lieu of a local 35mm screening (the print we got to see looked gorgeous), though, feel free to gather together a handful of friends for this, and get ready to laugh your ass off. This is a film engineered to do almost nothing else, but when it’s this good, it doesn’t need to.
As I noted at the top, this is but the beginning of my TCM Fest coverage, which will cover everything from well-stocked classics like The Seventh Seal and On the Town to I Am Suzanne!, a virtually unheard-of film about female identity set in the world of puppet theatre. Stay tuned!