Roll up, roll up and see Fearless Frank (Bob Hope) the incredible human bullet fired from a cannon and through a blazing hoop where the kerosene he has been slathered in will ignite, creating an amazing fireball effect! Of course, the boss of this operation is Chuck (Bing Crosby), and he is the one who gets to fire the cannon then take in the profits from the carnival-going public, and he is full of ideas about their next few stunts which Fearless will participate in solo while Chuck reaps the rewards. All very well, but when the cannon is fired, and the dummy is sent rocketing out into the night sky, it sets the big top alight and sends the double-crossing duo fleeing from angry punters and the cops...
Whether Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour ever actually reached Zanzibar was a moot point in the context of what passed for a plot, as it was almost as if the writers had chosen the name because it sounded exotic and not because they were familiar with the geography of East Africa. Surely not! But considering the characters want to return to the United States then they would be heading in the wrong direction if they were off East, so as you could surmise, this was all rather foolish - and the fans would not have it any other way. Back in the nineteen-forties that fanbase was huge as this series offered precisely the tonic a troubled world needed, and it was this that established the formula.
There had been The Road to Singapore the year before this one, and it had done fairly well, so it was just a chance decision to reunite its three stars that had Zanzibar going into production. Not only did it set the formula before the cameras, it set it behind them too, as Hope and Crosby battled to land the funniest lines, both ad libbing and with a writer hired to pen off the cuff gags for each of them, as meanwhile Lamour wondered if she would ever get a word in edgeways. But this quickfire delivery of the jokes became the series' trademark, along with the frequently surreal situations the cast would find themselves in, not something originated in this franchise - there was a debt owed to the classic Marx Brothers efforts of the thirties.
However, Hope and Crosby had carefully nurtured their own screen personas and ensured their strengths were played to, and the result was flocked to by audiences for whom this was the hippest movie around, a curious state of affairs considering how conservative the three leads would become in the latter years of their long careers. Sometimes the right performers come along and lightning strikes, and so it was here, though the sheen of fashion was not one to last long, and the Road movies are by now relegated to a cult of followers of Golden Age Hollywood, among the more dedicated aficionados at any rate. Watching Zanzibar's idea of what Africa was like you may not be entirely shocked at that.
Most Americans' notion of Africa was derived from the megahit Trader Horn, and that had been massive ten years before so was already outdated, or should have been, leaving the Tarzan series to carry the image of what the continent was like. That series was not even dedicating itself to using black extras in its jungle scenes, leaving the odd sight of Tarzan sharing the screen with white natives, so all credit to director Victor Schertzinger (a songwriter and director who died suddenly the year this was released) for casting African Americans as the locals. Naturally you have to temper that praise with what they were asked to do, but at least they were not any more buffoonish than the white characters, and were afforded some honest laughs as the film acknowledged how ridiculous and artificial the whole thing was anyway. That apart, Bing crooned immaculately, Bob's quips ran thick and fast, and Dorothy was, well, decorative but did generate some tension in the plot as half of a conwoman duo with Una Merkel. Though the most hilarious bit was probably the gorilla obsessed with blowing out matches, and they would follow this up with better entries, Zanzibar set the seal on a lot of comedy to come.