Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1941, 91 min., Black & White
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Road to Zanzibar was the second of seven Crosby-Hope-Lamour musical comedy adventures, released in 1941 at a time when Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and safari pictures were popular. There wasn’t even supposed to be a second “Road” picture, but Paramount had bought the rights to a story that was so similar to Darryl f. Zanuck’s 1939 safari pic Stanley and Livingstone that the project was dead in the water . . . until someone decided that maybe they could do a parody of safari movies instead. In no time, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour were on the road again.

The Road pictures were always innocuous fun, spotlighting Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing (and sometimes dancing), and Hope’s second-banana one-liners. This outing, writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman upped the quips between Hope and Crosby, and with the pair ad libbing as well there emerged a crackling comic energy.

The plot is a little more complex than Road to Singapore (1940), and that’s also a good thing for contemporary audiences. Along with Road to Bali (the only color film of the bunch), this is one of the recommended “starter” Road pictures for families with small children. Kids immediately pick up on the fact that Hubert “Fearless Frazier” (Hope) is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the one who has to do the dirty or dangerous work in their rotating carnival acts. The film begins with Frazier as the “Human Cannonball.” But instead of himself being shot through a flaming hoop, he hides in a secret compartment and substitutes a dummy. When that dummy sets the tent and half the town on fire and all the animals are released, they skedaddle, trying different carnival scams in different towns. Next up: Frazier wrestling a live octopus in a tank, except that plan never happens because they meet a man at a restaurant who’s a diamond baron. He buys them expensive champagne and even bails them out the next day after the night gets out of hand. So naturally Chuck Reardon (Crosby) falls for the diamond mine version of magic beans. Instead of buying two tickets back to America on a steamer, he buys a “lost” diamond mine map from a rich baron who turns out to be so crazy that his children won’t let him make decisions anymore.

The safari is set in motion when Fearless takes the phony map and returns with a pile of money. He duped some tough guys, but before they can leave for the ship the guys turn up and insist they all go look for the mine the next day. When Fearless and Chuck manage to escape, they still end up on safari because they run into two stranded American women, one of whom is being sold at a slave auction. The women have their own con going and convince the Chuck and Fearless to go with them on safari . . . not realizing that they’re really taking Donna (Lamour) to a rich man she intends to marry. This being a road picture, the guys both fall for Donna, she falls for Chuck, and Donna’s friend Julia (Una Merkel) falls in step with the plan. Along the way there are safari dangers and delights, and it’s the animals (including the standard 1940s man-in-gorilla-suit played for comedy) and the Jack Sparrow-style encounter with cannibals that will keep the young ones interested, while older family members will enjoy the double-con and steady diet of one-liners and ad-libs.

Of course, this was Hollywood in 1941, and the title sequence drawings of “natives” are downright racist, as this was an era when artists took their cues from the Ubangi tribe that wore large plates in their lower lips to make them large, and the artists created offensive caricatures. So go ahead and pop the film in and suggest that everyone get their snacks and use the bathroom while the title sequence is running and that problem is solved. While there are also some unfair stereotypes with the natives in the film, at least the bulk of actors are racially appropriate—and during this age in Hollywood that wasn’t always the case. There’s also a scene where Crosby and Hope are streaked with brownface and dressed in native garb for a comic husband-choosing sequence, but at least that’s in context.

Critics were split on whether the second or first Road picture was the best, but as I said, the animals and safari adventure make this and Bali a good Road picture to start with if you have younger children. But the best of the bunch for families with older children remain Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, which are also being released on March 26 by Kino Lorber. As for the transfer, Zanzibar unfortunately has a little more “noise” or graininess than Singapore, but that also could have been the result of working with original elements that were far from perfect. This is, after all, an old film . . . but still a fun one.