THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOOD”

BOOTLEG FILES 163: “The Road to Hollywood” (1947 slapdash designed to cash in on Bing Crosby’s fame).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Just as a duped public domain title.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It gives exploitation a bad name.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Don’t bet on it.

In looking at the title of this week’s column and the accompanying photograph of Bing Crosby, it might be easy to assume “The Road to Hollywood” was one of the merry comedies in the “Road” series. And that’s the idea – to make people assume that is the case. In truth, you won’t find Bob Hope or Dorothy Lamour anywhere in this film. And what you’ll find of Bing Crosby is strictly third rate.

“The Road to Hollywood” stars Bing Crosby, but was not made with his cooperation. The 1947 film is actually a slapped-together offering that recycles bits from four short comedies that Crosby made in the early 1930s. These films were not, by any stretch, prime Crosby material. In fact, it was something of a miracle that Crosby ascended to superstardom despite making these films.

Crosby arrived on the big screen in 1930’s musical opus “King of Jazz” as part of the singing group The Rhythm Boys. Eager to go solo, Crosby signed to do a series of short films with Mack Sennett, the onetime king of slapstick comedy. By this part of his life, Sennett was something of a has-been: he was unable to adapt his wild sense of comedy filmmaking from the silent movies to the sound films and he wound up working for the low-rent Educational Pictures, a crummy studio that churned out two-reelers featuring other silent has-beens (including Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon) as well as untried new talents (including two of Crosby’s future co-stars, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye).

But Crosby’s screen persona of the easy-going wiseguy crooner didn’t mesh with Sennett’s notion of comedy. Likewise, Sennett was not comfortable with situational (and dialogue-heavy) comedy, nor could he employ his penchant for wild chases in the no-budget realm of Educational Pictures. The resulting films were lumpy and dull, yet Crosby’s charming personality seemed to shine through despite his rickety surroundings. He eventually departed Sennett and Educational Pictures (which went kaput in 1938) for a long-term contract at Paramount Pictures, culminating in his Academy Award-winning performance in “Going My Way” and the aforementioned “Road” series. From 1944 to 1948, he was named America’s most popular male movie star, according to the Quigley Publications’ poll of movie exhibitors.

However, one person didn’t forget Crosby’s lousy shorts. Bud Pollard, a producer-director of all-black “race films” that were made exclusively for the segregated theaters in Jim Crow America, snatched up four of Crosby’s short films. Rather than re-release them as short subjects (which were still part of the regular cinematic schedule), Pollard decided to stitch them into a feature film.

However, the four shorts (“I Surrender Dear,” “Dream House,” “Billboard Girl” and “One More Chance”) had absolutely nothing in common outside of Crosby’s presence. Since it would’ve been impossible to blend a coherent feature from these different shorts, and since Crosby was not going to shoot new footage for this endeavor, Pollard decided to follow the worst possible course of action: he set himself as a narrator to introduce the early Crosby canon and pretend it was a biopic of Bing’s early career.

The problem that the films were not autobiographical was the least of the concerns. The real problem was that Pollard was a terrible screen presence. Sitting nervously in a director’s chair in an empty movie studio (did he sneak in after hours to shoot this?), Pollard mechanically read his lines from cue cards with the enthusiasm of an optometrist’s patient reading an eye chart – complete with squinting at hard-to-decipher letters.

None of the four shorts in “The Road to Hollywood” is properly identified, and sequences are ripped from each in such a helter-skelter manner that it becomes difficult to follow just what is happening. In fact, the production keeps turning into a different movie every five or ten minutes.

However, several themes keep running through these movies. For starters, Crosby wasn’t immune to appearing in racist comedies. One film has him sneaking into a movie studio to be near a former girlfriend, but a handyman squirts him in the face with black paint. He then covers his face with the paint and starts talking in an “Amos ‘n’ Andy” voice, which enables him to get cast as an African slave in the scene where his ex-girlfriend is performing. The minstrel show isn’t the least bit amusing, and one brief scene where the blackened Crosby sits on a bench next to a pair of blonde women is appalling: the blonde chicks look at their black benchmate, grimace, and move away.

Elsewhere in the film, Crosby brings his equal opportunity offender hijinks to a tribe of Indians. He croons for the female members of the tribe, who are presented as overweight and stupid. The male Indians are unimpressed and shoot arrows in Crosby’s backside.

Lame slapstick further permeates these frolics. Crosby winds up being chased by a lion at one point and tries to hide by jumping into an upright piano balanced at the top of a huge flight of stairs. The lion jumps in after him and the two have a major fight (the lion is clearly a man in a moth-eaten costume). This causes the piano to roll down the huge stairs. Hey, that’s actually the funniest scene in the movie. Elsewhere in the movie, Crosby presses flypaper in someone’s hand, squirts ink on someone’s shirt, takes a bubble bath, and instructs a bus driver to zoom into a lake. Yes, it’s Bing Crosby as you’ve never seen him: boring!

Incredibly, Pollard concludes this mayhem with a thoroughly irrelevant tribute to Crosby as a human being. This tribute doesn’t include any footage of Crosby, but instead packs a montage of newsreel footage of Allied troops liberating Europe, doctors examining injured soldiers, war refugees carrying their belongings in torn bags across rubble-strewn roads, and priests giving communion to young men in military uniforms. As this unfurls, Pollard praises Crosby’s humanitarianism and notes he is celebrated as a loving husband and father. The latter is ironic, for the same year witnessed the release of “Smash-Up: Portrait of a Woman,” a thinly-disguised biopic about Crosby’s calamitous marriage to Dixie Lee, a one-time showgirl who became an alcoholic after giving up her career to marry Crosby.

“The Road to Hollywood” clocked in at less than an hour’s running time, thus dooming it to the bottom berth in double features. Astor Pictures, a small exploitation distributor, released it with a deceptive advertising campaign that gave the impression it was a new Bing Crosby movie. Even though Crosby was the king at the box office, his fans stayed away from this phony flick.

Today, “The Road to Hollywood” exists as a public domain title. The duped prints in circulation are just plain awful, including periods where the soundtrack abruptly drops to a point of near whispering. A few DVD labels selling orphaned movies have it up for sale (I bought my copy for a dollar at a Walgreen’s in Connecticut), but no one else wants to touch it.

It is not certain what Crosby felt about “The Road to Hollywood” or even if he was aware it existed. In any event, the film’s cheapjack production and ridiculous presentation assured it a one-way trip on the Road to Oblivion.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 5, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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