Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Kooks in the Congo: Congo Maisie and Road to Zanzibar

Congo Maisie (1940)

When I sat down to watch Congo Maisie all I knew was that it was a movie about a Brooklyn chorus girl (Ann Sothern) who gets stranded in the jungle. I expected some hijinks and not much else, so I was taken by surprise by the plot that was actually kind of thoughtful and complicated.

What I didn’t know was that it was the first of a long line of sequels to 1939’s Maisie. Other installments (ten films in all) have her joining the Gold Rush, entering the world of boxing, building airplanes for the war, graduating business school, and becoming a spy. I can see why it was a successful series. Sothern’s undeniably charming in the role.

In Congo Maisie she’s in Africa trying to get to a gig, but she stows away on the wrong boat and ends up heading upriver deep into the jungle. The only other passenger on the ship is a grumpy, selfish businessman named Michael Shane who’s heading back to his rubber plantation after a brief stay in civilization. There’s a bit of a mystery around Shane. The riverboat captain keeps calling him “Doc,” which ticks Shane off. When the boat breaks down and has to put the passengers ashore until repairs are made, we find out why.

The deal with Shane (and also Crosby and Hope) after the break.

The closest settlement to the landing spot is a medical facility owned by an American corporate plantation. Apparently Shane used to run the place until he got tired of taking orders from fat cats and decided to go into business for himself. The current medical team is headed by Dr. McWade who lives there with his wife Kay. They take Shane and Maisie in, but things get tense when Shane starts putting the moves on Kay, who doesn’t seem to mind so much.

There’s also a problem with the local villagers. When Shane used to live there, he made sure to visit the village often. He’d been in constant conflict with the local witch doctors who sought to hold onto their control by keeping the villagers in fear. Shane had won the power struggle, but McWade’s been neglecting the village and the witch doctors have regained their influence to the point where things are about to get violently out of control.

Like I said, I expected a light comedy, but Congo Maisie is full of interesting characters who have to make some serious choices. Shane is a complex character – sullen and mean most of the time, but occasionally vulnerable and caring. Maisie’s attracted to him, but knows he’s trouble and I never was able to predict what she’d do about that. Same with Kay, who’s much more naïve than Maisie, but who also clearly loves her husband. McWade himself is also fascinating because – while he’s a more compassionate doctor than Shane – he’s also not as equipped to handle the situation he’s been put in.

There are no gorilla fights – and the whites’ attitudes toward the villagers are exactly what you’d expect from a ‘40s jungle picture – but I enjoyed the movie much more than I expected to. I thought I might be entertained for an hour or so, but it’s stuck with me for considerably longer than that. 

Four out of five pet chimps.

Road to Zanzibar (1941)

Though I’ve never seen another one of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road movies, I’ve seen enough of their separate films to know what I was getting into with this one. I was surprised at how much I liked Hope in it though. He’s usually a bit silly for my taste, but Crosby tones him down some.

On the other hand, I didn’t like Crosby as much here as I do in, say, White Christmas or the Father O’Malley movies. I like soft-spoken, witty, gentle Bing Crosby. Here he’s selfish and manipulative, always screwing over Hope for his own benefit.

Still, the chemistry between the two is undeniable and it’s easy to believe that they’re old – if imperfect and squabbling – friends. The plot of the film, if you can call it that, is really three separate, loosely connected stories. Hope plays a carnival stuntman named Fearless Frazier; Crosby is his barker and the brains behind the operation.

The story opens with their having to flee a gig in Africa after burning down the Big Top with their human cannonball act. They decide to head home to the States, but Crosby sees an opportunity to buy a map to a diamond mine and uses all their savings to take it. Hope is furious at first and dissolves the partnership, but he relents after he’s able to sell the map for more than they paid for it. Unfortunately, the new buyers are a couple of rough customers and want to force Hope and Crosby to lead them to the mine in person. The duo escapes, but they’re now on the run again. End of first story.

The second plot begins when the boys meet a damsel in distress. Una Merkel plays a woman who claims her best friend (Dorothy Lamour, a staple in the Road movies) has been kidnapped by slavers. Merkel talks the fellas into buying Lamour back, but it’s quickly revealed (to us; not to Crosby and Hope) that the girls are in with the slavers and are splitting the dough with them that they make from the scam. When the girls learn that Crosby and Hope have a lot more money than they thought, they come up with a scheme to have the men pay for a safari that will take the girls to see Lamour’s sick father on the other side of Africa.

In reality, Lamour’s got a rich sucker on her hook and needs to get to him to seal the deal. That plan starts to derail though when she falls for Crosby. Hope – also in love with Lamour – provides comedy in his hapless conviction that she loves him instead of Crosby. Merkel just wants to get Lamour through the jungle unattached so that they can carry out their plan.

The third story begins after Crosby and Hope figure out what the girls are up to. For some dumb reason, they send the safari that they’ve paid for off with the girls and decide to strike out on their own. It isn’t too long before they stumble across a village of cannibals, get declared gods, and then have to wrestle a gorilla to defend the title. It’s a horribly inappropriate scenario, but I appreciated that – for the most part – the villagers aren’t portrayed as stupid for laughs. In fact, the village leaders (though speaking in “Umba Gumba”-type language) are shown to be pretty shrewd. It’s Hope and Crosby who are the dimwits. The duo’s escape from the village could be interpreted as making the villagers look dumb, but there’s another, less offensive way of looking at it too and since I was still chuckling from the gorilla-fight, I chose to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt.

Still, I can’t defend the scene in general and don’t want to. Watching ‘40s jungle movies is like eating fish. You swallow the meat and spit out the bones. And Bob Hope’s wrestling a guy in a gorilla suit is pretty tasty.

The film wraps up with a reunion between the guys and girls. I won’t spoil it for you, but it shouldn’t be hard to guess how that goes. It’s a disjointed film with some unlikable characters and stereotypes, but – surprisingly, for a guy who grew up thinking Bob Hope was really not funny – Hope makes it worth watching.

Three out of five gorilla fights.


Unknown said...

I watched Road to Zanzibar years ago... All I remember is the Batman comic I was reading while it was on.

Great reviews!

Michael May said...

Ha! Thanks! :D


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