film 6 of 8

Road to Morocco

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 29, 2014

Okay, these Road movies are starting to get pretty good. Plot eventually takes over here, which is to say that they spend too much energy resolving the threadbare, culturally oblivious and demeaningly stereotypical thing. As far as that plot, or the nominal point of the exercise goes, Road to Morocco is actually like that one strand of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, where a swarthy villain menaces Romance, and has to be violently dispensed with. Boo! But at the film’s start, and at the end, and with good frequency throughout they uncover the apparatus and crack wise and generally—not just indulgently—enjoy themselves. So this is fun.

The indirect character intro (“except for two unidentified stowaways”) is nicely reminiscent of Three Stooges movies. Bing’s slightly veiled discussion about eating Bob reminds and renews how gleefully amoral these films are. Their cultural insensitivity probably needs to be rolled into, considered in the light of a general, probably salutary impoliteness. The kissing camel part is funny. They extend it quite a bit past the point of plausibility—again, this is precisely where and how these films are getting successful. Make it nonsensical, then double it. Calling Jerry Lewis! This is a terrific title song. The single, as it were, is even better.

Now where is this all taking place, exactly? Casablanca is a coastal city, right? We might blame this film, or Hollywood entire, for its complete disinterest in geographical or historical or cultural reality. That’s definitely part of the historical and ideological picture, and there’s often blame to lay. But maybe we don’t have to only and always get offended. These settings, which are really impressively deluxe, have nothing to do with any reality at all, nor does anyone really want them to. And we know it, don’t we? Without any intent these impressive designs are reminiscent of the first episode of Paul Leni’s pioneering German film Waxworks (1924). That echo opens up a whole other genre, sensibility, blessed abundance. You know, “once upon a time,” and caves of wonders, and all that great stuff. This luxurious artificiality is also similar to, say, the preposterous Venetian conceits in RKO’s Top Hat (1935). Preposterous and great: the German fantasists and H-wood generally are interested in spectacular effect, and not accuracy, or verisimilitude. That’s fine, so long as we are informed and aware.

So Road to Morocco isn’t doing any research or taking any kind of cultural care, but do I see a little bit of Islam’s kindness toward the afflicted? They’re on their way to another crass gag, but this moment is actually really nice. It’s broad and caricatured, but quite positively and even stirringly so. To the film’s considerable dis/credit, its heroes take this good example of ethical integrity and try to turn it to their own cynical advantage by having Bob/Orville act like a retarded person. Even better—now they run into a guy who talks like he has a cleft palate, and who takes offense. Zaniness follows, of course.

Bing sells Bob into slavery! Again, by total accident, we are getting a tiny glimpse of the complicated roots of slavery and conquest. Hernán Cortés had some native allies, interested in deposing their indigenous. The same went, I believe, for West Africa. We needn’t overly celebrate these unintentional historical insights, but good things happen when the viewer pays attention, or takes it upon himself to make connections.

Ms. Lamour’s character is quite the libertine! Movies will obviously, eventually go disastrously too far with this, but back here it’s kind of fun, with implications. Let’s not accuse Road to Morocco of being a feminist text, but this woman has some power, and it’s only partly contained in her sexuality. The harem settings, the ease and implied sensuality—Bob is reading a book called “How to Make Love”—are kind of fabulous. But although in the script the princess is completely subject to the whims of the horrible sheik (poor Anthony Quinn, poor olive-skinned people generally), the fact is that the harem hierarchies are really fascinatingly inverted. She’s a bit like Titian’s Danae, lounging around all luxuriantly. Except, of course, that she’s wearing clothes.

The deceased Aunt Lucy (Hope in drag) is only sort of funny, except when she shows up at the frame’s margin playing a harp solo during one of Bing’s numbers. My family and I were all very glad that their annoying patty-cake schtick didn’t work this time. The reprise of “Moonlight Becomes You,” where they switch the voices of the three principles on the soundtrack, is really dumb and obvious. Tremendously funny too. Ditto the mirage that looks just like a hamburger place.

The long sequence in which our hapless heroes make that ridiculous rescue attempt is kind of great. Especially—and this is very consistent with the world they are creating, and the characters who people it— because of the fact that they eventually prevail, and because of the manner in which they do so. You might find some uncomfortable colonial parallels here, which is somewhat apt. But there’s more to it. Notice how and why they win—they sow discord into this fragile tribal detente by ventriloquizing flatulent noises and lighting hot feet. In other words, juvenility and vulgarity—precisely how Hollywood took over the world! Or, more simply, isn’t this a tonic in fearful times of war? Think of North Africa, circa 1942. Meet Me in St. Louis is doing the same thing as it celebrates home values and sustains an anxious populace. This obviously isn’t Meet Me in St. Louis (!), but diversities of operation are good for you. Similar claims would some day be made about the excesses of The Wedding Crashers. Maybe/not, but the fact is that a little careless naughtiness once in a while is good for you.