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.|
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.|
|At the risk of disappointing my readers, I have yet to meet an Arab who possesses a human head collection.|
|This takes place in a restaurant, because Dan Seymour has no problem interrupting your dinner to enslave you.|
|A Russian actor, a Mexican actor, and a white actress play three Arab Muslims pretending to take astrology seriously.|
|Mikhail Rasumny attempts to look dignified without pants.|
|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.|
|Once again, at that time, in that context, I’d find it real hard to complain.|
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.|
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!|
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.|
|Bob Hope rocks the elderly-Goldilocks look.|
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?|
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.