Road to Singapore (1940)

The theme of Road to Singapore is that men are better off without women.  The idea is that the bachelor leads a carefree life.  He need consider only his own whims and wants.  Unburdened as he is by any responsibility for others, even a modest-paying job will leave him flush with funds.  The only serious threat to his happy life is women.  The flesh being weak, he finds himself continually lured by the momentary rewards of carnal delight, which make him vulnerable to the trap being set for him. And that is because, according to this movie, while men are better off without women, women cannot do without men, but must ever pursue their one goal in life, which is to marry and have babies.

The ocean is symbolic of this freedom from women.  Back when this movie was made, only men were sailors.  While aboard ship and out to sea, men were perfectly safe from the enticements of the fair sex. And so, it is not surprising that the principal male characters in this movie, Josh Mallon (Bing Crosby) and Ace Lannigan (Bob Hope), both of whom are bachelors, are also sailors.

Of course, every ship must dock at some port from time to time, and that is when men are most in danger of losing their freedom, evident by the fact that some of the sailors Josh and Ace have sailed with are married, and when their ship arrives in San Francisco, those men are greeted by their wives. As Josh and Ace look on from above while still on deck, they see one wife smiling at her husband while she takes his entire pay and sticks it in her brassiere.

“There you are, Josh,” Ace says, “that’s married life for you.”

“Yeah,” Josh agrees, “isn’t that beautiful.  If the world was run right, only women would marry.”

Then they see another sailor being met by his wife.  She has their four children with her, and she immediately starts nagging and browbeating her husband.  She’ll probably have a fifth child on the way by the time he sets sail again.

As Josh and Ace watch this sorry spectacle, Josh says, “Let that be a lesson to you.”  Ace sneers at the idea that he needs a lesson about women, whom, he says, he can just brush aside.

But as they return to their quarters, they are greeted by three rough-looking men, the older of the three wanting to know which one of them is Ace Lannigan.  After finding out, he asks Ace if he knows a gal named Cherry.  It does not escape our notice that her name is also the word that is sometimes used to characterize a luscious maiden, whose virginity is ripe for the taking.

Ace acts as if he is not sure he knows a girl named Cherry, but Josh helpfully reminds him that she was that little blonde.  By this time, we have gathered that the three men are Cherry’s father and two brothers. The father tells Ace that Cherry is getting married, and she wants Ace to come to the wedding.  “Who’s the lucky guy,” Ace asks. “You are,” Cherry’s father replies.

Josh and Ace start doing a pat-a-cake routine, with Cherry’s father and brothers gathering around to see what they are doing.  Suddenly, Josh and Ace each sock someone.  They end up being arrested for being part of a waterfront brawl, but at least Ace escapes from the fate worse than death.

Cherry’s father never says that she is pregnant, only that Ace kept her out half the night, implying that they had sex.  Back in those days, that alone could be enough for a shotgun wedding.  As a result, this movie has it both ways.  If Cherry’s father had explicitly stated that she was pregnant, the situation would not be funny, for Ace never marries her.  But as long as they just had sex, without any reproductive consequences, then we are allowed to be amused by Ace’s scapegrace behavior, especially since we never see actually see Cherry, and thus cannot fully relate to her as a person.  On the other hand, by allowing us to wonder if Cherry is pregnant, the movie reminds us of just what it is that makes women dangerous. They have babies!

The police bring Josh to the office of his father (Charles Coburn), Joshua Mallon IV, a shipping magnate. It appears that the ship Ace and Josh were on is one of a fleet of eighty ships owned by the Mallon family. Mr. Mallon wants Josh to settle down, marry his girlfriend Gloria, and start working regular hours behind a desk.  Josh wants to remain a bachelor and have fun instead.  Mr. Mallon says that when he was Josh’s age, he was already married and his wife had given birth to Josh. “Suppose I had gone vagabonding around the world?  Where would you be now?”

“You got me there, Skipper,” Josh admits.

I have heard an argument like that against abortion from people who are pro-life, saying, “Where would you be if your mother had had an abortion?”  But, aside from this movie, I have never heard the argument, “Where would you be if your father had remained a bachelor?”  The one makes about as much sense as the other, I suppose.

Just then Gloria shows up.  She is certain she and Josh will be married, and she starts showing him her sketches for the apartment she has picked out for them and how it will be furnished.  It is stuff that only she cares about.  When Josh looks at a sketch of some shelves, he says he could put his ship models on them, his one small effort to see something positive in Gloria’s plans.  But Gloria gently reprimands him, saying, “Oh, honey, no.  They’re not smart anymore.”  Just as we begin to wonder why Josh would go along with all this, Gloria becomes seductive, talking about romance, reeling him in for a kiss.  Between his father’s demand that he carry on the tradition of taking over the family business, and Gloria’s charms, Josh appears to be doomed.

In the next scene, Ace is back out on the ocean in a small boat, doing some fishing, while hiding out from Cherry’s family.  Josh catches up with him in another boat and climbs aboard.  Having said to Ace earlier, “Let that be a lesson to you,” regarding the woes of married life, he now has to admit that his engagement to Gloria will be announced that night.

Had the engagement been announced at a party somewhere in the city, Josh’s marriage to Gloria would have been sealed.  But the engagement is to be announced on Mr. Mallon’s yacht, which means at sea. As noted above, the ocean is bachelor territory, giving Josh the home advantage.  As a result, Ace and Josh scandalize Gloria’s family with their carrying on at the party, eventually resulting in a pat-a-cake routine for Gloria’s obnoxious brother and friends, causing a society-page scandal.

The next Mr. Mallon hears from Josh, he and Ace are in Honolulu, and on their way to Singapore. They must get there by means of a ship sailing across the ocean, which makes sense, because the next best thing to being on the ocean as a way to avoid women is to put an ocean between you and the women you wish to escape from.   The word “road” in the title is therefore figurative, for had they remained on land, which is what a road would imply, their liberty would be in peril.

They don’t actually get to Singapore, but end up on the fictional island of Kaigoon instead, somewhere in the vicinity of that country.  They manage to rent a small shack, and having settled in, they swear off women completely.  That means they are free to be lazy slobs, flicking ashes on the floor with impunity. They decide to splurge and go out for a couple of beers at a local joint.  Once there, they watch a performance by Caesar (Anthony Quinn) and Mima (Dorothy Lamour).  It is partly a dance they do, and partly a routine where Caesar dominates the submissive Mima with a whip.

Josh and Ace begin losing their resolve regarding women, especially when Mima seems to be attracted to them.  Caesar doesn’t like that, so a fight breaks out, and the next thing you know, Josh and Ace abscond with Mima and bring her to their little shack. Mima tells of how her mother worked with Caesar as a performer after her father died. When her mother died, she kept on with Caesar in performances too. This was not a problem when she was a child, but now, as a woman, she worries that Caesar has designs on her, so she is glad to be away from him.  If Josh and Ace are supposed to be better off without Gloria and Cherry, Mima is their complement, for we know she is better off without Caesar.

The next morning, she begins keeping house, ordering Josh and Ace about, domesticating them.  But as both men are falling in love with her, their hopes of holding on to their freedom seem to be slipping away. Things seem especially grim when Mima starts talking about Josh and Ace getting jobs. But Ace figures out a scam involving soap suds presented as a miracle spot remover, called Spotto. It begins with a song and dance routine by the three of them to bring the suckers in first.  Of course, it turns out to be a disaster. During a demonstration, Ace ruins a man’s suit by putting Spotto on it. The three of them have to flee the marketplace.

Both men start romancing Mima, but, after all, Josh is played by Bing Crosby, who is a crooner, and when he and Mima begin singing a duet, “Too Romantic,” they make us believe in love again.  And if they can make us believe in love again, we know they believe in it too.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Mr. Mallon has been informed of Josh’s whereabouts, and he and Gloria catch a plane out to Kaigoon, where Gloria plans on using her womanly wiles to bring Josh back home so they can be married.  But it doesn’t work. Josh refuses to go back, intending to stay in Kaigoon and marry Mima.  But Ace wants to marry her too.

For Ace, Cherry was just for one night.  As for Josh, he was being pressured into getting married, and since Gloria was available, pretty, and his social equal, she was the logical choice for him.  But he didn’t love her. With Mima, however, it’s different.  Both men are truly in love with her.

When Mima saw Gloria and found out about Josh’s position back in America, she decided that he belonged with Gloria.  And so, though she loves Josh, yet she pretends to love Ace instead.  As a result, Josh decides to go back with his father and with Gloria.

Under threat of deportation, instigated by Caesar, Ace has to leave Kaigoon, and Mima goes with him. Ace soon realizes that Mima really loves Josh, that she “went noble” in giving him up.  But he goes noble too, deciding to stick by her as a friend.

The ship Josh is on that is sailing back to America stops at a tropical port, where a man comes aboard complaining about his suit being ruined by someone selling Spotto. Josh realizes that Ace and Mima must be nearby.  Although Josh thinks Ace and Mima are in love and are now married, he decides he still wants to be with his friends and hops on a boat that is heading for land.  As Gloria watches him leave, she says, “That little scene is called ‘Spurned at the Altar,’ or ‘The Sailor’s Farewell.’”

When Josh catches up with Ace and Mima running the Spotto scam, he finds out that they aren’t married, that he was the one Mima was really in love with.  Josh and Mima hug each other.  But another man with a ruined suit brings the police with him to arrest Ace.  Ace and Josh do their pat-a-cake routine, and the movie ends with a fadeout as they punch the two unsuspecting policemen, after which we imagine Ace, Josh, and Mima escaping.

The movie ends in a way that allows us to give no thought as to what comes next, or perhaps to imagine that things will go back to the way they were, the three of them living together, enjoying their friendship with one another.  But we know that cannot be.  Because it is true love, Josh and Mima will marry.  Being faced with the responsibilities that come with being a married man, especially once he finds out that Mima is going to have a baby, Josh will return to San Francisco with her, where he will take that job working behind a desk, just as his father wanted him to.  Ace, on the other hand, will return to the sea, probably aboard one of the ships owned by the Mallon family.  In the years to come, as he stands on deck and gazes out at some distant shore, he will sigh with fond regret as he recalls the unrequited love he found on the island of Kaigoon.

Let that be a lesson to you.


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