Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road pictures are pretty iconic, but of course there were times when Bob went on jaunts sans Bing, such as in the rollicking 1963 comedy, Call Me Bwana. Wow. This movie. Heh.
A probe has landed in the African jungle after a trip to the moon and the leaders of the United States and Russia are debating (separately, of course) as to how to get it back. Yes, one is Kennedy and the other is Krushchev. We don’t see their faces, but Kennedy’s Boston accent is a huge tipoff, and both are sitting in rocking chairs, although Krushchev’s squeaks. Anyway, they all agree Matthew Meriweather (Bob Hope) is the guy to accomplish this mammoth task, seeing as he’s an intrepid explorer, or Great White Hunter as he calls himself. He’s even written a bestseller, In Search of the Ekele Tribe.
Only Matthew Meriweather is not what he seems. His apartment might be full of traditional African tchotchkes and his help might dress like an askari and a Polynesian bombshell respectively, but his apartment is in the middle of Manhattan and he’s about as much of an explorer as Gilderoy Lockhart was a great sorcerer. The difference is that Matt doesn’t enchant people with forgetting spells so they can’t rat him out.
Matt gets all his material from his uncle’s diaries, and since the man wrote volumes, Matt has been mining his words for a long time. His assistant cautions him that he can’t keep up the charade forever, but Matt is unconcerned. He likes living the high life and doesn’t think it will ever end.
When federal agents come to Matt’s apartment to recruit him for the mission, Matt is a no-go, or at least that’s what he thinks. When he tries to sneak away to his aunt’s house on Cape Cod, the agents are waiting in the elevator for him. Matt has nothing else to do but accept the terms, the tracking device (for finding the pod, of course) and the cyanide pills they give him, not to mention the poisoned needles and the hand grenade. Just in case the mission goes really, really bad, of course.
Matt’s not going alone, though. Coming along are CIA agent Frederica or “Fred” Larson (Edie Adams) who’s there to help protect him, a situation which Matt isn’t opposed to in the least. The Russians have also sent their own operatives: anthropologist and professor Luba (Anita Ekberg) and Dr. Ezra Mungo (Lionel Jeffries), sham pastor and the head of the Better World Tomorrow Society. His organ doubles as a ham radio and he pretends to be Luba’s dad.
The mission gets off to an explosive start when the champagne sent to Matt’s room to commemorate his arrival blows a hole in the floor. Then Matt realizes his luggage was switched and he goes to find out where it went, which of course takes him across Luba’s path. Naturally, Matt is smitten and naturally he invites Luba and her “dad” on the mission. Mungo brings his organ, of course.
It’s immediately apparent that Matt is not the intrepid explorer he’s been made out to be. He leads the group in circles, even somehow ending up on a golf course, where Arnold Palmer is busy plying his trade, and no, the drink that bears his name is nowhere in sight. However, he does have a set of clubs for Matt, left by his pal, Crosby. Nice vigorous nod, that.
The spies who are trying to nab Matt aren’t as competent as they might seem either, seeing as their schemes never turn out right. For one thing, Mungo and his two henchmen try to spirit Matt away from the tent where he’s taking a bath, but they bag a lioness instead. It’s not much of a spoiler that everyone finds what they’re looking for, like the pod, not to mention a few other things, but nothing turns out the way anyone expects.
Call Me Bwana is quite a ride, although it does have its weak spots. No one seems to care that Matt is a total poser, and they certainly don’t call him out on it. The journalists who meet Matt when he arrives in Africa mention offhand that Matt has never been photographed on one of his expeditions before, but that’s as far as suspicions go. And Fred is much cooler than Luba, who always seems duplicitous even when she says she’s reformed, so it’s weird that Matt only has eyes for Luba.
While a little dated, the movie can be funny as all get-out, especially from the point when Arnold Palmer shows up. After that, it takes on a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang quality only with rockets and trucks, and it’s eye-popping even though the special effects are obvious. Or the movie could be nicknamed The Little Pod That Could, seeing as that pod has long-range capabilities probably no one suspected (I’m not going to spoil anything). No wonder everyone wanted to get their hands on it. And the way Matt constantly succeeds, I kept expecting him to say, “Wowzers,” and for Krushchev to be off somewhere fuming like Dr. Claw.
The one thing Bwana doesn’t have is location shooting. While some exteriors may have been taken from actual safaris in Africa, the entire movie was filmed at Pinewood Studios in London. The jungle scenes look surprisingly decent even though they’re clearly fake. Staying in England disappointed Edie Adams, who so looked forward to going to Africa that she ran to her doctor and got all her innoculations.
As any fan of the veteran comedian knows, the best way to enjoy one of his movies is to sit back and laugh at each comedy situation as it arises and forget about any relationship to a plot. Taken this way, Bwana is enjoyable hot weather entertainment.
We’re going back to the beach tomorrow, and the only spoiler I’m going to give is this: Don’t forget the Pepsi and the Baskin Robbins as you careen down the road in your souped-up Buick after a hearty meal at the International House of Pancakes. Cryptic? Yep. It’ll make sense mañana. Hope to see you then…
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.