Road to Bali

Road to Bali. Paramount Pictures 1952.
Road to Bali. Paramount Pictures 1952.

Before watching the movie:

I feel I know so much and yet so little. I know that the “Road to” movies staring Crosby and Hope were a staple, and I’ve seen a few of the Family Guy “Road to” episodes starring Brian and Stewie, which are supposed to be homages. I wouldn’t be surprised if this series was the genesis of the “road movie” genre. It’s easy to guess that the plot will be light and servicing some fun antics, exotic scenery, and more singing than I’d necessarily want in a movie.

But beyond that, I’m not sure. I worry that the exotic locale might be treated in a way modern audiences might find embarrassing. I probably should have chosen the first movie in the series instead of the sixth out of seven, but this was what was available (and thanks to my grandparents for the loan of the set I found this in).

It’s June, summer is here, and it’s a time when it’s a bit more okay to have more fun than originality. I don’t think this movie could go too far wrong.

After watching the movie:

Best friends and good-natured rivals George and Harold make a quick escape from some complicated marriage proposal schemes in Melbourne, and, via a slow-moving herd of sheep, find themselves accepting a job as deepwater divers in Bali. The prince contracting them has had many previous divers die trying and failing to recover a lost treasure underwater, killed if not by the giant squid nearby then by the prince’s hand. The prince’s cousin, Princess Lala, warns the boys, who immediately compete for her. Successfully recovering the treasure, the three escape the prince and sail away to wreck on another island, where a lot of singing and indecisiveness occurs, for Lala loves them both and can’t choose between them.

As I expected, the plot is a bit wispy. There’s a couple of friends, there’s a girl to fight over, and there’s an adventure. They seem to pass through several stories over the course of the movie, escaping each one before it properly resolves. The only part that’s consistent is the lead characters, who are often so entertaining one doesn’t notice the way the story meanders. It’s all well and good that they escape the story that’s happening in Melbourne, because it’s there to serve as an introduction to the characters. But then the story that’s supposed to be what’s being set up not only stops for an extended vaudeville show enhanced by some (rather good) visual effects, but is completely abandoned halfway through to give the characters some time alone, and then suddenly an almost completely unrelated climax overtakes them. But the plot is not the point, and it serves merely as a conduit for the entertainment, much like the purpose of a bland tortilla chip is to carry and justify a load of salsa.

Pleasantly, the handling of the Indonesian natives usually isn’t cringeworthy. A social justice scholar could probably spend several pages decrying it for things like Native Appropriation, but I feel that the underlying image of the locals isn’t that they’re lesser than the Westerners (sometimes they even get some good jokes at the West’s expense), just different and often interesting. It’s only slightly more shallow than modern celebrations of multiculturalism. The only thing I was really embarrassed by was the meaningless use and overuse of the image of many-armed Hindu gods, but it only occurs twice, and the second time I was less upset by it and more wondering how they managed to get a second pair of moving arms on the dancers that couldn’t possibly have someone else behind them. I also wonder if there isn’t something coded in Lala being half-Scottish, if she couldn’t be a love interest if she were fully Indonesian.

One of the jokes the film relies on, and I understand the entire series relies on, is the characters breaking the fourth wall. However, this early version of the technique, probably coupled with the sense of being on a sound stage as much as they can get away with, really left me feeling less like the characters were commenting on and exploiting the medium and more like a couple of Vaudville performers working a crowd it just happens they can’t see or hear.

It’s nice to watch this film and know that even back when color films were the new technology of the industry, safe, fun, visually-oriented movies were being made as automatic crowd pleasers. The current state of cinema doesn’t have a monopoly on that institution. This is enjoyable, but not life-changing. It’s 90 minutes of pleasing fluff. Just what I was looking for.


Watch this movie: and have a laugh in safe, familiar territory halfway around the world.

Don’t watch this movie: for beautiful location shots and clever twists.

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