FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
Considering that so much of THE ROAD TO HONG KONG revolves around the matter of memory, I'm surprised the script didn't work in any references to Bob Hope's once-signature song, "Thanks for the Memories." But then, the film is meant to be a trip down memory lane just by virtue of existing, given that the last Hope-Crosby "Road picture" had appeared in 1952.
Though I'd enjoyed the earlier pictures, something seemed to be missing in the duo's Hong Kong adventure. Was it that the actors had just done the same basic routines too many times? Was it that the "Road" idea worked better in an era where Americans generally believed that the whole world was their oyster, rather than finding out that the rest of the world considered them a painful irritation; one that didn't tend to yield any pearls of wisdom? Was it that Crosby allegedly didn't want the duo's long-time leading lady Dorothy Lamour as the female lead, so that Lamour was reduced to a cameo role while the much younger Joan Collins became the new leading lady?
It could be all of these, of course, plus the toll that age levied on Bob Hope. Bing Crosby's rep as a singer wasn't materially affected by the passage of years, and Crosby was able to branch out into serious roles, while Hope's few ventures in that direction (BEAU JAMES, SEVEN LITTLE FOYS) didn't reveal in him any significant abilities. So as Hope aged, his humor got a little less that of a "young blade on the town" and more of an "old roue on the make." There's no doubt that Hope and Crosby bring some decent energy to their roles as the knockabout "Road guys," but once they're a good ways past middle age-- as some of their own jokes attest-- the characters are just a little harder to believe.
It also strikes me as odd that scripters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank chose to send the Road-guys to Hong Kong. Some of the film's scenes do take place in Hong Kong, but the most crucial ones happen either in (a) a LOST HORIZON-like lamasery, where arch-finagler Harry (Crosby) takes his amnesiac chum Chester, and (b) an isolated Chinese island. where a clandestine organization, the Third Echelon, makes its base. I suppose it's possible Panama and Frank wanted a locale that loosely suggested all the spy-jinks that were in the cultural wind at the time. Additonally, maybe they knew that the bloom was off the rose as far as having the two stars court lovely ladies in romantic otherworlds like Singapore and Zanzibar, so they just wanted a locale that gave them the chance for many corny jokes about Chinese culture.
As noted, memory is the reason Harry and Chester get mixed up in spy games. The lamas not only cure Chester's amnesia, they introduce him to a memory-enhancing drug. Harry gets the bright idea of using the drug in a memory-act and swipes the drug. On their way back to civilization, Chester memorizes a vital rocket-fuel formula, one that the agents of the Third Echelon need. Their agent Diana (Collins) brings the duo to the secluded island, where the unnamed leader of the group (Robert Morley) informs that his group wishes to send a missile to the moon. Since the two knockabouts no longer have the memory-enhancing drug, the leader chooses to use Harry and Chester in an attempt to successfully orbit the moon. The trip is a success, and the guys even manage to make it back to Earth safely-- though during the flight some of the rocket's mechanisms malfunction, resulting in what might called the Hope-Crosby version of Chaplin's MODERN TIMES. In addition, due to exposure to lunar rays, Chester will now automatically recite the valuable rocket-formula stored in his memory whenever he sees anything that resembles the moon.
Others have commented on the way HONG KONG anticipates the "superspy genre" that would be launched with the release of the DOCTOR NO film later that year. It would be interesting to know if Panama or Frank had been exposed to any of Ian Fleming's prose bestsellers, not least the DOCTOR NO book, released in 1958. To some extent Morley's spy-chief-- whose real aim is to establish a base on the moon and thus rule the Earth-- seems like a blending of Fleming's mad doctor and the political fervor over the 1950s "space race."
Though HONG KONG has a lot of genuine SF-elements, it follows the tradition of earlier ROAD pictures by having characters break the fourth wall, or even change their circumstances by invoking "special effects." I term this the naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope, since none of them are supposed to be regarded as diegetically "real."
Overall, HONG KONG isn't very funny, though it does have an admirable energy at times. I don't feel like picking on its politically incorrect humor, given that I think every culture ever born has had some chauvinism, so it doesn't bother me when Hope's character enters a Chinese house and declares that it was decorated in "Egg Fu Yung." Still, the boys are really pushing it when they actually dress up as Chinese characters for a few protracted-- and somewhat painful-- sequences.