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Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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.

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