Or: From Russia with Schlub. A fair-to-middling, overlong Bob Hope spy comedy with sci-fi elements, Call Me Bwana (1963) is intermittently funny with a smattering of genuinely clever ideas and a good supporting cast. Hope is less energetic than usual and he's not helped by Gordon Douglas's traffic cop direction but the jokes (credited to Nate Monaster, Mort Lachman, Bill Larkin, and Johanna Harwood) are generally better than those found in Hope's previous made-in-Britain sci-fi spy romp, Road to Hong Kong (1962), which was better-directed but weaker in other ways.
The picture was probably also influenced by John Wayne's Hatari! (1962), though it's possible Call Me Bwana's wheels may already have been in motion before Wayne's movie was released.
Mainly though Call Me Bwana is of interest because it was the only production of Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's Eon Productions that wasn't a James Bond movie. Sandwiched between Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), Call Me Bwana was made by many of the same crew, resulting in a kind of freakish genre hybrid: a Bob Hope comedy that sort of resembles a 007 picture. Further, soon after its release, a billboard for Call Me Bwana was central to a pivotal, amusing scene in From Russia with Love.
Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" of DVD-Rs, manufactured-on-demand discs, Call Me Bwana gets a blah but adequate 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer with no extra features.
When an unmanned NASA space probe, returning from a historic mission gathering moon rocks, crashes in Darkest Africa, government agents draft famed African explorer Matt Merriwether (Hope) to retrieve it before the Russians can get their unwashed mitts on it.
Merriwether, however, is a fraud, pilfering material for his bestsellers from his explorer uncle's secret diary. Nonetheless, to Africa he goes, accompanied by female security agent Frederica Larden (Edie Adams). Landing in Africa - the country goes unnamed, but a map suggests it's the Congo - Merriwether teams up with a voluptuous blonde scientist, Luba (Anita Ekberg), and her missionary father, Dr. Ezra Mungo (Lionel Jeffries, in a role intended for Terry-Thomas) - actually Soviet agents.
The project was the result of Eon's initial arrangements with distributor and co-financer United Artists, the idea being that Eon would produce one Bond and one non-Bond movie per year. According to Broccoli's autobiography, Sean Connery rejected various projects intended to spotlight him, while Saltzman nixed another idea for a movie starring the Beatles in favor of the Hope picture. All this might be true, but it also speaks of Broccoli's ill will toward both Connery and Saltzman.
In any case, the intent was to film Call Me Bwana on location in Kenya, and Edie Adams even went through a painful series of inoculations in preparation, but for various reasons only a second unit crew ended up going to Africa. Everything else was shot in England and in front of process screens, none of which is any more convincing than the average Jungle Jim movie. Though Hope does get to interact with a some African wildlife (and a few Indian elephants), Hatari! it's not.
And apparently the film was constantly tinkered with during production, Edie Adams later claiming her role in the story literally changed from day to day. There are hints of this in the movie. At 17:58 there's a strange jump-cut as Adams and Hope are chatting aboard a passenger plane, with Adams's make-up and the length of her hair suddenly changing dramatically, as if the two bits were shots weeks apart. The awkward structure also suggests Adams was Hope's original leading lady, but that her part was whittled down to a basically thankless supporting part - she all but disappears during the climax - while Ekberg's was beefed up once she came aboard.
That's unfortunate because the underrated, funny Adams is a good match for Hope, while Ekberg is clearly past her prime as a blonde bombshell (the filmmakers struggle to hide her sizable gut) and she's dubbed in any event. Jeffries is in top form, as always, though it's amusing to see the 36-year-old actor constantly referred to by Hope and others as an "old man." Hope was 23 years older than Jeffries.
But there are some good jokes here and there, including a funny gag involving a baby elephant, and there's a hilarious payoff to a tarantula scene directly spoofing the one found in Dr. No. When Merriwether gets lost in the jungle, he stops off at a service station to pick up a Michelin road map, and when he tips a bellhop, enters his hotel room to find it ransacked by spies, quips, "Maybe I over-tipped." Picking up the phone he says, "Hello, room service? Send up another room."
The James Bond connections abound. Ekberg is dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who was also the voice of numerous Bond girls, including Honeychile Ryder in Dr. No, Domino in Thunderball, and Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice. Co-writer Harwood also co-wrote Dr. No and From Russia with Love. Composer Monty Norman, cinematographer Ted Moore, editor Peter Hunt, and art director Syd Cain all had long associations with the 007 franchise. John Stears did the obvious if plentiful miniature effects, including a funny sight gag featuring an uncredited Miles Malleson, who goes unlisted on the IMDb. Even title designer Maurice Binder gets into the act, though his work here is among his least memorable, if still distinctively his.
Video & Audio
Call Me Bwana looks just okay, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen image (1.78:1 here, approximating its 1.66:1 OAR) a bit soft and muddy when it should be sharp and bright. The region 1 DVD-R has average English-only audio; no subtitles or alternate audio is available, and no Extra Features.
As Bob Hope comedies go this is no better than average though the picture has other elements that movie fans may find interesting. Tepidly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.