Honestly, I never remember it’s her in Donovan’s Reef, which I’ve seen more recently and more frequently than any of the Road pictures. Arguably, her role in that one is what you can picture several of her characters in those movies ending up doing—sitting around a tropical bar, playing the entertainment and pining over a man who’s too much of a child to pay proper attention with her. That Lamour herself didn’t end up in that life is fortunate for her. After all, even she acknowledged that her career was built on a sarong and that you can’t “lean against a palm tree and sing ‘Moon of Manakoora'” forever. And Hollywood has never shown much ability to understand what to do with sexy women as they age.
She never actually wore a sarong in the Road pictures except as a brief sight gag. Those movies didn’t much overlap. In fact, the first one, Road to Singapore, was originally intended as a parody of her earlier movies. She started out as Ulah, the eponymous Jungle Princess in a movie I’ve never seen. There were several other sarong roles after that; she was in and out of them for about the first ten years of her career. She also spent an awful lot of that decade in brownface of one kind or another, taking a break for yellowface for Disputed Passage.
In 1940, she was so well established as “the Sarong Girl” that the parody film was planned, originally to costar Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie. I don’t know if Oakie’s being in The Great Dictator was what changed things; perhaps there were scheduling issues. Anyway, it was then somehow rewritten to costar George Burns and Gracie Allen before being settled on as a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby pairing. I am desperately curious about the rewrites involved in the whole thing—and of course what we saw onscreen is unlikely to be the script anyway, given that she once had to interrupt them to demand they let her get her line in, because they were so busy ad-libbing.
She did five more over the next twelve years, interspersed with various other films including a few more sarong pictures. Road to Bali, in 1952, was a success—but when United Artists did one last picture ten years later, The Road to Hong Kong, Bing Crosby requested a younger costar, and Joan Collins took the Lamour role. Lamour got a small part, because Bob Hope wouldn’t do the movie without her, but I’m a bit surprised he let them get away with that. I don’t think I would’ve accepted the role, myself.
For the rest of her life, she still kept active, though. Even if she was never quite the same star again, she still did manage to keep busy. She did dinner theatre, TV, and was even on the Baltimore cultural commission. She remained married to her second husband for thirty-five years, until he died, and then kept a dog that she referred to as her boyfriend. She’s not the cultural phenomenon of her costars, but she doesn’t deserve to be so forgotten.