The men eat fire
Sleep on nails
And saw their wives in half. . . .
It seems to us there must be easier
Ways to get a laugh. . . .
--"Road to Morocco,"
lyrics by Johnny Burke,
music by Jimmy Van Heusen
There must be easier ways to get a laugh than spending a zillion dollars to make a lighthearted comedy. I happened to like a great deal of "Ishtar." All the talk about its cost has obscured the talents, but it is symptomatic of a larger evil--Hollywood's desperate belief that you can spend your way to the hearts of the public.
You can't. You never could. As one who worked (albeit without credit, as one of the myriad of young writers on Bob Hope's radio staff who "punched up" his movie scripts) on every "Road" picture from "Road to Singapore" to "Morocco," and was preparing to direct Bob and Bing Crosby in my own screenplay of "The Road to the Fountain of Youth" when Bing died, I feel qualified to comment on why I think the best comedian in "Ishtar" was a blind camel.
The charm of the "Road" shows was that they never took themselves seriously. Everyone was just making a buck and trying to cheer up a nation at war.
That, too, must be understood. "Road to Morocco" was released shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Movies were vital in offering a nation a chance to escape the cruel realities. No one doubted what Hitler would do if he arrived on our shores; he was riding a winning streak that had taken him through Europe on a greased Blitzkreig. He was developing a rocket that could hit New York from bases on the Continent. And Germany came within a whisker of developing the A-bomb before we did. Washington might have been Hiroshima.
The "Road" pictures hit a national nerve; editorials were written about their appeal to the American psyche. We were a young and vibrant country; we had never lost a war, never would. We could take time out to laugh, especially at ourselves, which is what the "Road" pictures did. Not satirically, with brittle wit, but warmly, forgivingly, perhaps a little too simply.
How could you take a movie seriously when a verse of its title song declared:
"For any villain we may meet
We haven't any fears.
Paramount will protect us
'Cause we've signed for seven years"?
The sign on my word processor: "Relax, it's only a movie."
The "Ishtar" people seemed to take themselves seriously. It has nothing to do with talent; it has a great deal to do with ego. Audiences feel it, even if they are not conscious of it at the time. Ego in a comedian can be death. Ego exists to be punctured. Self-deprecation is often the key to comedic success.
Bing and Bob had their egos but they stood back and laughed at themselves and allowed everyone else to do the same.
Crosby had a singing voice but his ease of style and innate comedy sense made him truly a comic presence. He won an Oscar for his priest in "Going My Way" and a nomination for his drunk in "Country Girl." You want to talk range?
It's always been my contention that every comic has to be a good dramatic actor first. It has been my fortune to help prove that several comedians could get along without laughs--sometimes, of course, unintentionally. With Jack Rose as my writing partner, we created a dramatic role for Danny Thomas in a musical biography of songwriter Gus Kahn, "I'll See You in My Dreams." Gus had a heart attack in the last reel--as Danny almost did when we told him he'd have to get through it without jokes.
He did, and very well.
For Danny Kaye, we wrote another musical biography (this one I also directed), "The Five Pennies," the story of jazz great Red Nichols, who gave up his career when his daughter contracted polio. Kaye's dramatic ability was infinite; he had a capacity to draw humor out of tragedy.
With Bob Hope, Jack Rose and I performed the same services in "The Seven Little Foys" and "Beau James." In "Foys," Hope had to play a death scene; in "Beau James," he played the dramatic role of New York's dashing Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Hope is always embarrassed by his own dramatic ability; he insists on breaking up the crew with ad-libs after he has impressed them almost to the point of tears.
"Ishtar" should have paid an acknowledgement to its heritage--"Road to Morocco"--for its style, its ambiance, its approach, the locale and a story and characters by the brilliant screenwriters who created the idiom, Don Hartman and Frank Butler.
Their "Roads," made for somewhere around $500,000 each, helped Paramount Pictures become one of the most profitable in Hollywood, so profitable that Paramount's grateful owners gave Hartman and Butler control of the studio, elevating them to executives in charge of production.