Bob, Bing, and the Case of the Traveling Matte

POP QUIZ: In which Powell & Pressburger classic did Bob Hope and Bing Crosby make a cameo appearance?
ANSWER: They didn’t, but The Road to Hong Kong led them (sort of) to the setting of Black Narcissus.

Allow me to explain.

One of the great pleasures of watching older movies is that you can frequently spot how studios recycled their valuable sets, props, costumes and other resources in the interest of stretching their budgets. These days, that hardly ever happens in a way that anyone would notice. For production artists working in the modern digital realm, it’s standard procedure to create images that will never be repeated in any other film. Think of the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy: George Lucas and Peter Jackson would never allow their production resources to be borrowed by other filmmakers unless they’re sufficiently altered to express an entirely new and different identity. As production techniques grew more sophisticated, it became harder (if not impossible) to spot elements of one film appearing in another. Sometimes the recycling is deliberate, but even in franchise sequels it’s generally avoided.

The final "Road" trip (1962)
The final "Road" trip (1962)

Back in the analog days, the physical resources of studios were constantly recycled. Poverty Row quickies used redressed sets, props and costumes out of absolute necessity. Second-tier studios like RKO were similarly obligated to recycle B-movie materials as often as possible, allowing production designers, set dressers and property masters to hone their ingenuity while making everything old seem new again. Major and minor studios alike have always maintained warehouses and storerooms of reusable materials, and some filmgoers (yours truly included) make armchair sport out of spotting studio materials as they constantly appear and reappear, forming their own behind-the-scenes legacy of film-production history.

A surprisingly conspicuous example of this history presented itself recently as I watched a DVR recording of The Road to Hong Kong (1962). This was the seventh and final “Road” comedy starring Hope and Crosby (released a full decade after The Road to Bali), and I’d recorded it during a “Gift of Hope” retrospective on the MGM-HD channel. I had somehow missed the film over the decades (I was a relative latecomer to the Bob & Bing party), so I was delighted to see it presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with dazzling HD clarity. If you’re going to kill 91 minutes with Bob & Bing, this is the way to do it.

Nobody’s ever going to call The Road to Hong Kong a classic, but with cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, David Niven and others, it’s a perfectly enjoyable lark for Hope & Crosby fans, capitalizing on the early-‘60s popularity of James Bond-ian espionage, the Cold War space race, and hot babes with gravity-defying hairdos. Bob and Bing play Turner & Babcock, a hapless pair of ex-Vaudevillians-turned-fugitive con-artists who get playfully entangled with Joan Collins (youthfully stealing the spotlight from “Road”-movie veteran Dorothy Lamour, who later appears as herself in a contractually obligated cameo required to secure the film’s financing). Joan’s an agent for the Third Echelon, a SPECTRE-like force of villainy led by Robert Morley, doing a roly-poly riff on Dr. No – a full year (according to IMDb release dates) before Dr. No’s U.S. premiere.

We first find Bob & Bing in Calcutta, where their do-it-yourself astronaut scheme goes predictably awry, resulting in Bob’s amnesia and a visit to a quack physician played by Peter Sellers (by far the best reason to see this movie). Hoping to cure Bob’s memory loss, the boys take the quack’s advice and trek to “the desolate Kolrabi mountains” seeking a miracle cure in “the distant and fabled lamasery of Jaipooli.” (I’m guessing on the spelling here.) It’s here, about 22 minutes into this goofy, black-and-white, song-and-dance comedy, that anyone who’s intimately familiar with Black Narcissus will get a pleasant shock of recognition: The so-called “lamasery of Jaipooli” was first seen by filmgoers 15 years earlier, in Powell & Pressburger’s 1947 masterpiece.

BEFORE: The Palace of Mopu in "Black Narcissus" (1947)
BEFORE: The Palace of Mopu in "Black Narcissus" (1947)

The Road to Hong Kong’s lamasery made its cinematic debut, in glorious Technicolor, as the remote Himalayan palace of Mopu, formerly a sensuously intoxicating “palace of women” built for a Hindustani potentate. In Black Narcissus, the palace is transformed by Catholic nuns into a dispensary and school for local children, but as Dave Kehr writes in his Criterion Collection DVD essay on the film, “the old palace exerts its influence over the sisters, and particularly over Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr)…who finds herself dreaming of the young man she left behind in Scotland.” Even more intense are the erotic impulses of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), whose fevered insanity propels Black Narcissus to its breathtaking cliff-side climax.

Black Narcissus is perhaps best known as a tour de force of studio production. Aside from “a few day trips to an Indian garden in Sussex,” Michael Powell directed the entire film indoors at England’s legendary Pinewood Studios. To create the ghostly, windswept palace of Mopu, Powell (with his “Archers” partner Emeric Pressburger sharing co-director credit) recruited a peerless team of craftsmen including production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Both men deservedly won Academy Awards for their Technicolor work on the film, surely one of the most visually astonishing in the history of cinema.

"Pop" Day (self portrait, 1954)
"Pop" Day (self portrait, 1954)

Lesser known, and uncredited on the film itself (as was the norm for the period), is the timeless and stunning contribution of matte artist Walter Percy Day, whose matte paintings for Black Narcissus cemented his established reputation as “the Merlin of trick photography.” As the head of the matte department at Shepperton Studios, Day had perfected matte artistry in such visual-effects milestones as The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Nicknamed “Pop” because he worked closely with his devoted sons Arthur and Thomas, Day was also assisted on Black Narcissus by Peter Ellenshaw, an apprentice who eventually surpassed even “Pop” as a matte painter par excellence, especially during his tenure as a visual effects wizard at Walt Disney Studios.

It makes perfect (though arguably regrettable) sense that one of “Pop” Day’s matte paintings for Black Narcissus would eventually be recycled in a movie like The Road to Hong Kong (a United Artists release and the only Hope & Crosby comedy not produced by Paramount). To stretch his limited budget and exploit the cost-cutting measures available in England, director Norman Panama (under the auspices of production company Melnor Films) shot Hong Kong at Shepperton. It’s anyone’s guess how “Pop” Day’s gloriously colorful “palace of Mopu” became the black-and-white “lamasery of Jaipooli,” but visual comparison (see photos) suggests that Day’s original painting was brought out of storage at Shepperton and slightly re-painted (a common occurrence in matte departments) to create effects shots of Bing & Bob as they approach, and later escape from, the “distant and fabled” lamasery.

AFTER: Hope & Crosby approach the lamasery in "The Road to Hong Kong" (1962)
AFTER: Hope & Crosby approach the lamasery in "The Road to Hong Kong" (1962)

This kind of recycling happened all the time, for reasons well understood. But this particular occurrence of reconstituted matte work is curiously surprising since Day’s painting originated in what is universally hailed as one of the finest of all British films. Given the reputation of Black Narcissus, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s blasphemous to recycle “Pop” Day’s colorful matte work in a disposable, black-and-white comedy that draws ironic attention to special effects as a recurring sight-gag. After spotting the slightly modified painting in The Road to Hong Kong, I simply took note of it as just another amusing case of filmmakers taking a “nothing sacred” approach to shaving the bottom line.

Did “Mickey” Powell and “Pop” Day ever notice that their timeless image was recycled as a Hope & Crosby backdrop? We’ll probably never know. Just for fun, we can only wonder what might have happened if this incongruous borrowing had created a 15-year cinematic time-warp, placing Bing, Bob, and Kerr’s Sister Clodagh in the same place at the same time. As the saying goes, hijinks would surely have ensued.

(For background info about “Pop” Day, the author gives a gracious tip ‘o the hat to Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, co-authors of The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, one of the finest visual-effects reference books ever published. For more information about Day and his artistic legacy, visit this website devoted to his work.)


2 Comments

  • Mark Monlux

    March 4, 2009

    I’m constantly on the lookout for duplicate props in movies. To see you catch this matte painting reuse really tickled me.

  • Karl Holzheimer

    March 4, 2009

    Jeff, That’s amazing! I saw The Road to Hong Kong as a kid when it was originally released, probably at the Crest Theater. Obviously I had not seen Black Narcissus yet. Have you seen the British all-regions Blu-ray release of Black Narcissus? It is breathtaking. J&P have a copy.

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