I was fortunate enough to have parents who were part of the “Greatest Generation” so I was exposed to all of the classics at a very early age. From Big Band music with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman to black and white films, radio shows like Inner Sanctum (1941), and old television series like The Honeymooners (1955), I learned to appreciate popular culture history.
So, it was no surprise that my mother introduced me to the joys of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road pictures. Starting with Road to Singapore (1940) and ending with The Road to Hong Kong (1962) these movies were formulaic but that was part of their charm. The plots were similar with the duo being performers trying to get ahead and woo Dorothy Lamour at the same time. Hope and Crosby were so beloved because they could improvise their dialogue. Nothing sounded forced, they made their banter seem effortless. Their ability to play off of one another and their onscreen chemistry was a winning combination. Shenanigans abounded in this series and they also incorporated the idea of “breaking the fourth wall,” where they would let the audience in on their jokes. You felt as if you knew these guys and that also served to make their efforts box office successes.
Offscreen, they rarely hung out together but they had mutual respect for one another. They met while touring the vaudeville circuit and struck up an instant rapport. Actually, that is how they were “discovered” by a Paramount Pictures executive who thought that their gags would translate onto the silver screen exceptionally well. Interestingly enough, they were polar opposites in terms of personality. Hope was outgoing and effusive while Crosby was more inclined to keep to himself. However, the pair were business partners investing in an oil well and the Cleveland Indians. It was hard to imagine one without the other but then that is what usually happens after several successful ventures. The same thing occurred with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as well as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
It would probably be safe to say that Crosby was the straight man to Hope’s more comedic characters. Bing’s Yin to Bob’s Yang, in a manner of speaking. Hope would joke about his overacting by claiming he was looking for his Oscar. In real life, Crosby won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944). Upon hearing that his onscreen amigo won the coveted award, Bob responded, “Any man with four kids who played a priest deserves an Oscar!” Of course, people being people and the twosome were only human, there were times when they didn’t see eye to eye. Supposedly, Hope revealed to an associate that he didn’t like Bing and that he was simply a “dollar sign” to him. There was talk that Bob secretly resented Crosby for being more popular and it was even deemed a rivalry of sorts but they managed to keep that from bleeding into their public personas.
There is something inherently enjoyable about watching these precursors to the “Buddy Comedy.” Comedic timing is a skill and, in my mind, it cannot be faked. Either you have it or you don’t. It is an invaluable talent. During the 1980’s there was a run of movies where you had unlikely duos teaming up. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the popular Lethal Weapon (1987, 1989, 1992, 1998) series, Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango & Cash (1989) and now you have Hobbs & Shaw (2019) from the Fast & Furious (2009) films. But, while there are amusing moments in these pictures, they aren’t comedies. They are action-oriented productions. So, is the idea of the comedy pairing dead? No, it isn’t. In fact, its lineage can be traced to an unlikely genre, horror.
Yes, I said horror. Specifically, in films featuring Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi like My Name Is Bruce (2007), Man with the Screaming Brain (2005) and the television series, Ash vs Evil Dead (2015). These two clearly take their cues from Hope and Crosby. Campbell has made no secret that he is an admirer of Bob Hope’s comedic prowess. In a recent chat with me, he revealed that his sequel to My Name Is Bruce, Bruce vs Frankenstein (which he is currently working on) is his version of the “Bob Hope Road movies.” Of course, Ted will most assuredly be involved in that endeavor. Part of why their on-screen relationship is effective and they are able to play off one another well, is that they have been close friends for many years. While their older cinematic counterparts were business partners only, Campbell and Raimi grew up together in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Ted is the youngest of the Raimi clan and Bruce was a babysitter of sorts taking him to and from cello practice. In a sense, there is almost a “sibling” connection between the two men.
In My Name Is Bruce, as with most of Campbell’s productions that Ted is involved in, Raimi ends up playing multiple roles. When he is acting as Mills Toddner, Bruce’s smarmy agent, you can see he is in the “Crosby” role. At that point in his career, Campbell had established his larger than life, braggadocio personality with his fans. His characters were always quick with a come on and fancied themselves ladies’ men which was perfect since Hope’s alter egos were in the same league. Let’s face it, Bob’s characters were always a tad bit self-centered. The give and take between Bruce and Ted illustrate their innate senses of comedic timing. Even the delivery between the two actors and their demeanors are strikingly similar to Hope and Crosby. It is a partnership that clearly works.
Another terrific example of this comedic kinship takes place in Man with the Screaming Brain (2005). Raimi plays Pavel, the not so bright assistant of mad scientist Dr. Ivanov (Stacy Keach). In the scene that he shares with Campbell, he tries to persuade the actor (who plays a wealthy pharmaceutical executive named William Cole) to go and visit Dr. Ivanov who has a wonder drug that could “change history.” Of course, Campbell has a sarcastic retort conveying his importance and that he doesn’t have time to visit some “quack doctor in bullshit Bulgaria.” Ted’s overly animated facial expressions are priceless. They are a perfect match for Bruce’s brusqueness.
It’s the give and take between the two men that is hard to beat. They instinctively know how to play off one another and that translates well onscreen. Another interesting trait to notice is that neither of them try to outdo the other when it comes to comedy often switching roles. Sometimes Ted will be the “straight man” like Mills Toddner and then other times he will hand that baton off to Campbell. The Ash vs Evil Dead series was another excellent example of this ability to be interchangeable comedically. In the episode, “Last Call,” Ash Williams and his best pal, Chet Kaminski (Raimi) team up to find the stolen Delta 88 and the Necronomicon. They intend to do this by throwing a raging party at the bar where Chet works with the featured drink being a Ketamine laced concoction known as a “Pink Fuck.” There is a little routine that the two of them do while mixing drinks that is like Bryan Brown and Tom Cruise in Cocktail but of course, a goofier version. One could only imagine Hope and Crosby conjuring up a plan like this (minus the tranquilizer laced drinks) to find something they lost.
In the following episode, “D.U.I.”, Chet and Ash are up to their old hi-jinx again when they decide to pursue the Delta which is possessed by the Book of the Dead. There is a hysterical scene involving the two fighting over the Gremlin that Ash has commandeered from his buddy to chase after his beloved vehicle. It’s like an old 1970’s car chase on a cop show like Starsky & Hutch. No matter what the outlandish circumstances are Raimi and Campbell approach it with the same precise interactions as Hope and Crosby. Sure, it’s in another genre but the dynamics are there. Within the horror community, the pair are definitely revered. Even when they were together on Xena: Warrior Princess (1995) as Joxer and Autolycus respectively, those episodes could stand toe to toe with the old Road films. Apparently, offset the two have the snappy comebacks like an old Vaudeville team because when they were together during the second season of Ash vs Evil Dead, Dana DeLorenzo in an interview with UPROXX christened it, “The Bruce and Ted Show.”
Much like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, for Bruce and Ted’s fans, you can’t have one without the other. Maybe, if we’re lucky, fingers crossed, we will get to see Bruce vs Frankenstein to herald in a new age of the buddy comedy.