The Road to Hong Kong (1962)

Director: Norman Panama
Starring: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Joan Collins, Robert Morley, Walter Gotell, Dorothy Lamour
Cameo appearances: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra
Music: Robert Farnon
Songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen

I’ll confess that I am too young (ha, ha) to have watched and been a fan of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. And this is the only ‘Road’ movie that I have seen. I chose to watch it because of the espionage related plot. From other sources this film is generally derided for being the weakest of the ‘Road’ movies, but from my point of view this is a fairly decent 1960’s spy spoof.

What I find quite remarkable is that Road To Hong Kong was released in the US on 22 May 1962, a good 4 months before Dr. No was released in the UK (I mention the UK because The Road To Hong Kong was filmed in England. Incidentally Dr. No wasn’t released in the US till January 1963). Why am I comparing release dates? Well, The Road To Hong Kong is one of the better Bond send ups – only it was made before there were Bond films to send up. Firstly, the film features a title sequence by Maurice Binder. Secondly the production designer is Syd Cain, who worked uncredited on Dr. No (under Ken Adam), and as head on From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Live And Let Die. Apart from Bond, Cain worked on, Hot Enough For June and The Billion Dollar Brain. Then we have the cast: Walter Gotell appeared in seven Bond films and provided the voice of General Gogol for the James Bond Jnr animated series. Next we have Niven and Sellers, who both appeared in the 1967 comedy version of Casino Royale. Okay Robert Morley and Joan Collins never appeared in a Bond film, but both of them are not strangers to the world of espionage. Morley appeared in Hot Enough For June, Some Girls Do, and When Eight Bells Toll, plus many others. Collins appeared in the TV shows The Persuaders, Mission Impossible, and The Man From UNCLE. Theatrically she appeared in Subterfuge with Gene Barry. I think I have laboured the point, that while The Road To Hong Kong may not have been a very successful ‘Road’ picture, it was a very fertile training ground many of the people behind Bondmania and the spy-craze that swept the world during the sixties.

Let’s have a look at the story. After the title sequence, which features a vaudevillian dance routine from Hope and Crosby, the film opens in Hong Kong, at the American Intelligence Organisation headquarters. They are concerned, because the Russians have just sent two men around the moon in a spacecraft. The most disconcerting thing for them though, is that the cosmonauts have American accents. They play a tape recording to demonstrate. The voices are of Hope and Crosby. At that moment a girl, Diane (Joan Collins) is allowed into the room. She claims to have knowledge of the space mission. She says it wasn’t the Russian who sent up the spacecraft. It was a group called The Third Echelon. She describes them as ‘more desperate, more intelligent, and infinitely more dangerous the the Americans or the Russians’. Diane, who used to be an agent for The third Echelon, explains the story via flashback…

Ten days previously, in Calcutta, Harry Turner (Bing Crosby) and Chester Babcock (Bob Hope) are trying to sell a ‘Fly It Yourself’ interplanetary space suit to a gullible crowd. Harry is spruiking the suits virtues, how anyone can fly it, and you can go anywhere you want to go with one. These spacesuits consist a silver top and pants. Added to this are a helmet with a propeller on the top, and an engine, with another propeller strapped to the backside. To continue the Bond association, which I started in the opening paragraphs, the suit is like a cross between Little Nellie, the gyro-copter used in You Only Live Twice and the jet rocket pack that Bond used in the pre-title sequence in Thunderball. The innocent dupe, who was going to test fly the suit for the crowd does a runner at the last minute. Harry convinces Chester to put on the gear and demonstrate. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong.

Chester ends up in hospital with amnesia. He cannot remember Harry, or even his own name. Chester is then taken to the best neurologist in India, who just happens to be Peter Sellers. Sellers Indian routine will be familiar to anyone who has watched Blake Edwards The Party. I know that in some circles, The Party is considered a comedy classic, but in my opinion, Sellers cameo in this movie is funnier. But that is a personal taste thing, you’ll have your own opinion.

Sellers cannot restore Chester’s memory but he recommends a lamasery in Tibet (for those that don’t know, a ‘lamasery’ is where the ‘lamas’ live, as in Dalai Lama etc…). So, Harry and Chester prepare to catch a plane to Tibet. At the airport Diane is meeting an agent who has stolen a top secret Russian rocket fuel formula. The formula is passed to Diane on a series of cards, which she secrets away. In turn, she is to pass them on to a photographer who will take shots and make microfilm. The photographer is also to meet her at the airport. She’ll recognise the photographer from a symbol on his luggage – three concentric circles. Naturally there’s a mix up with the baggage, and Chester winds up carrying the photographer’s case. Diane approaches him and slides the formula into Chester’s coat pocket. Then Harry and Chester board their plane for Tibet, before Diane has time to realise her mistake.

Harry and Chester arrive at the lamasery, and indeed they can cure Chester. In fact the secret herb that can restore his memory, can also help him remember anything he reads. Chester takes the drug and is cured. But now Harry and Chester are not allowed to leave the lamasery. They belong to the temple. This wont do, so the boys escape using the old patty-cake routine. Once you see it, you’ll know what I mean! As Harry and Chester are con-men always looking for an angle to make money, they also steal a phial of the herbs. They figure they can use it on stage for a ‘memory routine’.

They fly back to Calcutta, and in their hotel room they decide to test the herbs. For the test they need something to read, and Chester pulls out the rocket formula from his jacket pocket. Chester takes the herbs, and reads the cards. Harry tests him on his knowledge and as he is successful, burns the cards. Unwittingly, now the formula only exists in Chester’s mind.

Diane is still after the formula, and makes an arrangement with Harry. She will pay them $25,000 if they will go to Hong Kong and recite the formula. It is an offer too good to refuse, and off go our two intrepid heroes. Harry and Chester arrive at the home of the leader of the Third Echelon. By an amazing elevator, they are taken to an underground, and underwater lair which houses a rocket base. I must make mention of the set design at this point. It is all staggering good. Sure it is a little on the cartoon side, after-all this is a comedy, but everything from the control rooms, the rocket launch site, the submarines, and even the interior of the rocket capsule, with the banana feeding machine is extremely well done.

The leader of the Third Echelon is Robert Morley. He demands that Chester reveals the secret formula. But this time the herbs don’t work (they have been substituted for tea). Chester cannot remember. Harry and Chester are sentenced to be killed. Their reprieve comes via one of the scientists, Dr. Zorbb (Walter Gotell). He suggests that they send Harry and Chester up into outer space instead of the two monkeys that were originally going to be sent.

As you can see by the plot, it’s all very silly, as you expect from Hope and Crosby. But generally it is all pretty good fun. As this is the first ‘Road’ film in ten years for the boys, there are plenty of jibes about their respective ages. And as you’d expect, it’s the banter between the two stars that really drive this film along. Sure, you heard some of the jokes before (‘walk this way’), but these guys are old friends. For fans of the other film in the series, don’t expect too much from Dorothy Lamour. Her role is barely more than a cameo towards the end. As I mentioned at the top, as a ‘Road’ film, this may not be the funniest or the freshest, but at the beginning of the sixties, film styles were changing, and maybe without even realising they were doing it, the team behind The Road to Hong Kong were providing a taster of things to come.

The Road to Hong Kong (1962)

The Iron Petticoat (1956)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Ralph Thomas
Bob Hope, Katherine Hepburn, Noelle Middleton, James Robertson Justice, Robert Helpmann, Sidney James
Music by Benjamin Frankel

Here’s a film from a gentler time (well in terms of movie making, at least). What we have in The Iron Petticoat is a delightful comedy farce that features two of cinemas biggest stars, Bob Hope and Katherine Hepburn. The film lets you know it’s a light piece of fluff from the very get go, when the words ‘Once upon a time…’ flash upon the screen. So the story is a fairy tale.

The film opens at the US Air Force Headquarters in Germany. On the radar a Soviet MIG flies into US airspace. Two planes, Foxtrot Red and Blue are sent out to intercept the hostile craft. It turns out that the MIG isn’t so hostile, and the American pilots sheppard it to the airfield where it is forced to land. The Russian pilot is taken prisoner and marched off to be interrogated. When we first see the pilot, Catpain Kovelenko, he is wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles and a large overcoat. The interrogator asks that the Captain removes his flight paraphernalia, which he does. It is only then that we realise that he, is in fact a she. The Russian pilot is played by Katherine Hepburn, and once again the film-making team of producer Betty E. Box and director Ralph Thomas are presenting us with a story that features strong female characters breaking out from the traditional stereotypes. Box and Thomas’ films always have strong female characters which is often overlooked in criticism of their films. In Deadlier Than The Male, two girls, Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina are the most physically aggressive and deadly characters in the film. Prior to that, Kocina also appeared in Hot Enough for June where she played a Russian Intelligence officer who refused to kowtow to the male officers around her. Before the Women’s Liberation movement changed public perception of a woman’s role in society, Box and Thomas were making films that highlighted the equality of the sexes, but wrapped it up in genre films that had hitherto been solely the domain of rough misogynist men. The Iron Petticoat was made in 1956 and right from the beginning they are letting us know, that flying ace, Captain Vinka Kovelenko is every bit as strong and capable as any of the men in the movie. Those of you who are more perceptive than I, may have gleaned that little bit of information from the film’s title, The Iron Petticoat – it just screams ‘strong woman’.

It appears that Captain Kovelenko has defected because she was overlooked for a promotion – the position went to a bloke – those dirty sexist commies! The powers that be decide that she will be a great propaganda tool and decide to convert her to the wicked ways of Western capitalism. To do this they need a man to sweep her off her feet. Someone she can relate to. They choose one of the American pilots that brought the Captain in, Major Charles ‘Chuck’ Lockwood (Bob Hope). But Chuck has other things on his mind. He is all set to go on leave to London where his fiancee is waiting. And this will come as no surprise to fans of Bob Hope, once again he plays a conniving little character who is looking to marry into the easy life. That is to say his character is penniless, and the girl he intends to marry is filthy rich.

Lockwood’s leave is cancelled, and he is forced to chaperon Captain Kovelenko – I keep referring to her as Captain Kovelenko rather than just Vinka or Kovelenko because she is always in uniform, and as Bob quips ‘Women in uniform bother me. I don’t know whether to kiss them or salute them.’ Lockwood goes to work on Captain Kovelenko, trying to convince her of the superiority of the Western way of life. In turn, she starts to work on Lockwood and convince him the Communism is the better way of life – she wants him to defect with her back to Moscow. Lockwood, on the other hand, simply wants to get to London and will do anything to do it. He tells Captain Kovelenko that he’ll defect if she’ll go to London with him. I know that seems weird on paper, but Captain Kovelenko, as an honoured guest, who they are trying to convert, can demand to go anywhere – and the Americans will agree. If she demands to go to London, then Lockwood would have to go to. So they do.

In London the Russians, headed by Colonel Sklarnoff (James Robertson Justice) get involved and try to kidnap Captain Kovelenko back. All the time, Lockwood is sneaking around behind Captain Kovelenko trying to seal his marriage deal. And as you would have no doubt guessed, eventually Captain Kovelenko and Major Lockwood fall in love. The Iron Petticoat is a very entertaining romantic comedy, slapstick farce. It’s not quite Bringing Up Baby, but it does the job. Hope gets to fire off a few of his trademark one-liners. One of my favourites is after Captain Kovelenko suggests that American women are all nail polish and fake bosoms – Bob quips ‘Yeah, they’re inclined to make mountains out of molehills’. Don’t groan. That’s comedy gold!

The films biggest conceit is that you have to accept that Bob Hope is a top-gun Air Force pilot. Once you get past that, and it takes a bit of doing because Bob plays the buffoon so well it’s hard to believe he could handle any piece of hi-tech equipment, then the film is good fun. It’s an old fashioned film, and if you can relate to films of this vintage, and farcical comedy, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in The Iron Petticoat. Younger viewers, who are used to more aggressive forms of comedy may find that this doesn’t hold their attention.

The Iron Petticoat (1956)