Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Road to Morocco (1942)

In their heyday, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope teamed up to make seven Road to… films. Road to Morocco, the third one, made history as the first feature film to have characters break the fourth wall. It serves as a typical example of contemporaneous Hollywood comedies, of the chemistry common in comedy teams in the days of vaudeville, and most annoyingly, of how film portrayed Arabs at the time.

Arabs in Road to Morocco: Devious, Barbaric, Filthy (the Usual)

Of course, Road to Morocco came out in a different time, a time in the midst of World War II when the Vichy French government held onto Morocco,1 even though as Jack Shaheen pointed out in Reel Bad Arabs, most Moroccans sided with the Allies. In any case, what we call “political correctness” didn’t really exist in 1942 and racism ran rampant everywhere.

This still from early in the film demonstrates my point; many Chinese-Americans at the time actually wore these buttons.
The Road to… films aimed to spoof adventure films of the time. Road to Morocco stands out as a showcase of Arab stereotypes in film, even beyond the films it supposedly parodies. Although I did find the film funny in places and I have no problem laughing at myself, it still strikes me that all the usual Arab stereotypes show up… The men appear dirty, toothless, and rapacious. They enthusiastically embrace slavery2 and treat women like Monopoly money. With the exception of one slave woman, every last Arab character in the film has an ulterior motive or some degree of malevolent intent. As a spoof of a genre, all the usual scènes à faire show up: the pampered but heavily-guarded princess; perpetually angry grocers; murderous palace guards; rapacious sheiks; mute, subservient women; obedient, resigned slaves…

In what will surprise nobody, no actual Arab actors appear in the film. In that sense, with everything else, the depiction of Arabs feels much like the depiction of Native Americans in F-Troop: not openly malicious, but certainly pernicious in its reinforcement of misconceptions.

Before we even see any Arab characters, Hope & Crosby give us an idea what to expect by listing some stereotypes. Crosby makes reference to the Dance of the Seven Veils. Hope sings, “The men eat fire, sleep on nails, and saw their wives in half”—a Hindu performance piece, a bit of Indian mysticism, and a stage magic trick that debuted in London, respectively. But hey, India and Morocco lie only 5053 miles apart, so one could easily confuse them, right? I just wish someone told me sooner about my racial ability to eat fire and sleep on nails; I could’ve saved a lot of money on an oven and made a mattress for pocket change at Home Depot.

When we arrive at Karameesh (the film’s fictional surrogate for Marrakesh), we see a people with no regard for life. The majority of the men brandish swords in public and constantly imply that they’ll stab or amputate on anyone who even mildly inconveniences them. For instance, a Moroccan waiter (played stereotypically by Cy Schindell) upbraids the two protagonists for their edacity, menacingly brandishing a dagger and a tally stick as he shouts maledictions about how many “kolacks” the pair owe him.3

Like Adam Sandler’s SNL characters, he also appears capable of only one facial expression.
The disregard for life manifests itself with particular gruesomeness inside an erstwhile courtroom in Karameesh’s palace, where amputated heads sit on pedestals like a hunter’s trophies, posthumously nodding back and forth in a silent eternity. The film effectively tells us that Arabs take pleasure and pride in a draconian legal system and capital punishment.

At the risk of disappointing my readers, I have yet to meet an Arab who possesses a human head collection.
The Arabs who don’t overtly want to kill or amputate simply satisfy themselves by profiting from slavery. An Arab slaver (played by Dan Seymour, who would have a decades-long career of playing corpulent Middle and Far Eastern stereotypes) sets the main plot in motion by causally buying Hope’s character from Crosby’s.

This takes place in a restaurant, because Dan Seymour has no problem interrupting your dinner to enslave you.
The plot eventually turns on an astrological prediction made for Morocco’s royal family. The idea of basing major life decisions on astrology makes the Arab characters seem gullible in itself; this only worsens when it turns out the gormless astrologer made a silly mistake. This entire segment only speaks to how little the writers knew about Morocco, since in real life, Morocco’s Sunni Muslim ruling family would certainly have kept with the Qur’an’s categorical rejection of astrology.

A Russian actor, a Mexican actor, and a white actress play three Arab Muslims pretending to take astrology seriously.
Oh, Hollywood.
The Arabs’ gullibility intensifies near the end of the film. As always happens, the love interests get kidnapped and it falls to our heroes to rescue them. They prank their way to winning the day in a climax that, while funny, makes the Arab characters look uniformly gullible, impulsive, and undignified.

Mikhail Rasumny attempts to look dignified without pants.
Dorothy Lamour (the series’ female foil in the vein of Margaret Dumont) plays Princess Shalmar, who buys Hope’s character in hopes of marrying him and making him a prince. As with nearly every other Arab character, her blandishments belie a malevolent ulterior motive, adding to the sneaky and underhanded Arab stereotype and the disregard for life that plagues Arabs in film. One could scarcely find a less Arab-looking actress than Dorothy Lamour, but she stars as the leading lady in every Road to… film, so I can respect that.

If I ever found myself in Hope’s position, sharing a bed with a “princess” like Lamour, you certainly wouldn’t hear me complaining about how Arab she looks.
Dona Drake—who looks about as “Arab” as Lamour—plays the only pure-hearted Arab in the film, a slave girl named Mihirmah. While she genuinely wants to protect Hope’s character, she throws herself at him with an abandon that makes her seem naïve, slow-witted, and poorly-written. A woman behaving in 1943 America the way she does in this film would receive relentless opprobrium and shaming.

Once again, at that time, in that context, I’d find it real hard to complain.
Frankly, I feel like Mihirmah’s existence serves as a another snide shot at Arabs, that not only do Arabs have no moral qualms about slavery, but that in their civilization, puissance has an inverse relationship to wisdom and rectitude.

Other Butts of the Joke

Like contemporary comedies, Road to Morocco doesn’t stop at mocking Arabs. In possibly closest thing to accuracy in the entire film, Muslim merchants give a developmentally-disabled man food for free in keeping with the Islamic tenet of beneficence toward the less fortunate.

I just wish the film didn’t depict this in a way that feels vaguely mean-spirited in itself.
Like clockwork, Hope and Crosby see this and get dollar signs in their eyes. They immediately veer into ableist humor for a long and—by today’s standards—awkward scene. Of course, mocking the disabled has remained a comedy staple to this day, so I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how offended to feel by this.

As with innumerable films of the period, black characters invariably occupy servile positions, carrying white characters, dancing, or manhandling those who fall out of their masters’ favor.

Black slaves carry a white princess on a palanquin, probably the closest look we actually get at any of the many black extras.
Let’s not get me wrong, though. As much as I hate the relegation of non-whites in film to servility and dancing, I do approve of this dancer!
Obviously, Road to Morocco didn’t invent racism or ableism in film, and these examples typify what one would see in film at the time, but it still remains important to point these things out as they arise. The racism stands out as especially odious in this film because jokes about slavery abound throughout.

Acting and Other Performances

One must note that, despite its many flaws, Road to Morocco’s decidedly jejune script obviously served simply to bring together Hope, Crosby, and Lamour and giving them an avenue for singing and working their improv-heavy comedy. Overall, I found myself enjoying both the comedy and music in spite of everything else.

Although there always exists some risk in making a sweeping statement about film history, for years I’ve had a theory that, while modern films have better acting than those of Old Hollywood, the latter feature actors with better chemistry. (I believe vaudeville played a role in this, especially for groups who had many years to hone their acts like the Marx Brothers.) Crosby and Hope have the kind of chemistry that makes it very easy to see why there exist seven of these films. Even as they talk with insouciance about killing each other or selling each other into slavery, they do it with a spontaneity and call-and-response rhythm that makes them incredibly charming. One can tell just from watching them that ad-libbing abounded, to the point that on some days, production just threw the day’s script out entirely.

These two could even make starving on a drifting raft look fun.
Hope also gets a very funny secondary role as Aunt Lucy, a ghost who periodically appears (using then-sophisticated chroma keying technology) in dream sequences, lecturing in falsetto to guilt the men out of their inanition.

Bob Hope rocks the elderly-Goldilocks look.
Crosby gets to ply his trade as well, pushing the narrative with several musical numbers. Although I’ve heard few positive things and many negative things about him as a person, I must admit the man had one heck of a set of pipes. Lamour and Hope get to sing as well. Hope brings the comedy and Lamour has a stunning, resonant voice in her own right. As in Fleischer Studios’ contemporary cartoons, the comedy and the music play well off each other, adding charm to the entire production.

As many problems as Old Hollywood had in depicting the Middle East, I must admit that Old Hollywood films set in the Middle East often have beautiful matte work. Road to Morocco holds its own there, with a set design that gives the film a vibrancy one wouldn’t expect considering production took place in a studio backlot. Director David Butler often juxtaposes Crosby with these mattes as he sings, giving the songs a pleasant air of romance.

The perspective looks a little off around the vanishing point, but the artist has probably died, so who cares?
Nowadays, the Road to… films probably remain best known as the basis for a number of episodes of the perennially unfunny and frustratingly perdurable Family Guy.4 Seth MacFarlane fell in love with the format and has voiced Brian and Stewie Griffin acting out the Crosby and Hope roles in an ultimately futile attempt to single-handedly replicate Crosby’s and Hope’s chemistry. For all of Road to Morocco’s issues, like everything else that appears on Family Guy, given the choice, I’d recommend watching the original film over Family Guy’s plagiarism couched as parody.

In fact, consider that my net review this film: if you ever have to choose, watch this instead of Family Guy.

1 In fact, the Allied forces carried out Operation Torch to invade Morocco literally two days before this film hit theaters!
2 Morocco had, in fact, abolished slavery in 1922.
3 Despite that the made-up word “kolacks” evokes an image of some backwards economy that just discovered how money works, at the time, Morocco actually used francs for currency.
4 Road to Morocco, in particular, probably also inspired Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, a villainess played by Carolyn Jones in the 1966 Batman series. The episodes “Marsha, Queen of Diamonds” and “Marsha’s Scheme of Diamonds” bear a number of similarities to Road to Morocco. As an enormous fan of that show, I won’t complain.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent and balanced review of a film I laughed at as a kid. I saw it with different eyes again, much later. Even in the supposedly enlightened 1970s, when I first saw it rerun on TV, the mainstream audience just accepted significant amounts of casual racism.

    One trivial note: I can't speak for which film was the first feature to have its characters break the fourth wall, but many others did before this one-- from Men Who Have Made Love to Me (1918) to Hellzapoppin, released a year before Road to Morocco.