Bing Crosby Rides Out The Fifties
You can watch Bing Crosby and his kind of musical going out with the tide in Paramount’s Just For You, a 1952 harkening back, or perhaps farewell to, earlier days when stars like Bing and vehicles like this were enough to pack houses and send everyone home whistling tunes bound for the Hit Parade. No way could Just For You compete with sophisticated groundbreakers being made at Metro among visionary talent like Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire. Everybody else’s musicals looked and sounded tired beside theirs. Crosby had signed with Paramount for seven years … but that was seven years ago (here he is at a forties high with studio chieftains Adolph Zukor and Barney Balaban). Popularity once taken for granted was harder to maintain with audiences far choosier than those who’d flocked to see Here Come The Waves and Welcome Stranger. Television cut into Crosby’s boxoffice, but everyone had that problem by 1952. His Mr. Music had a negative cost of 1.7 million and ended with domestic rentals of 2.2. 2.1 million was spent on Here Comes The Groom and 2.6 domestic came back. Just For You would be a return to Technicolor and the biggest budget for a Crosby since the forties (2.3 million). It’s a great showcase for his talent in maturity, with the added bonus of family conflict drama more engaging now that we know something of what went on in the star’s own household. 1952 was near twilight for screen fathers blessed with such respectful and obedient kids. Hard to believe Just For You came just three years before Rebel Without A Cause. Watching the two together, you’d think they were made fifteen years apart. Natalie Wood, at fourteen, enters in white gloves wearing a cape, complaining of having sat through what she calls a cornball production of "The Student Prince" for the younger set. This is her closest brush with rebellion. Natalie’s stated goal is to enter an exclusive finishing school and serve as hostess for Dad’s social gatherings. Young pup Robert Arthur, only months past accompanying Kirk Douglas to Ace In The Hole’s mine cave-in, addresses Bing as "sir" and barely rocks the boat over a teen-age infatuation with Jane Wyman, Crosby’s love interest. Adolescent angst as expressed here is but a mild bump on a fast track to maturity and realization Dad’s been right all along. The finish endorses a stint in the peacetime Army Air Force as ideal incentive for a young man to straighten up and fly right. Bing must surely have wished for similarly dutiful and motivated children at home!
The Country Girl was Crosby’s boldest break with formula (as emphasized by the noirish one-sheet shown here), a gamble necessitated by falling receipts mentioned earlier (Just For You had ended with 2.4 million domestic). Braver still was his willingness to play a washed-up, clearly Bing Crosby inspired, entertainer. Audition scenes cruelly parallel Frank Elgin’s tired shtick with much of what Bing himself had been getting by on during those last several years. The only things that really separate Elgin and Crosby are alcoholism and a cold water flat. Such flirting with self-abasement would become common in the sixties and thereafter, but few big names would venture there as early as 1954. This was a performance deserving of at least the Academy nomination Crosby earned, if not the award he lost to Marlon Brando. Bing’s character in Just For You stages Broadway hits of a sort The Country Girl dismisses as old-fashioned. Generation gap worries and mild ribbing about his age are front and center in Just For You, as if Bing were now easing some of Bob Hope’s putdowns into his screen persona. At least one toupee shows graying temples, and efforts at a vigorous dance (comically) throws the old trouper’s back out. Just For You Crosby plays for laughs much of what he’d perform in deadly earnest for The Country Girl. Which then, was the real Bing? A little of both perhaps, based on what I’ve read. Among insights Crosby gives us in The Country Girl are a glimpse of what he might be like when stage lights go down and the mask drops. Could anyone have been so relaxed and avuncular once cameras stopped turning? Frank Elgin reveals stresses that came with maintaining the Crosby image offscreen. Co-workers have testified to a distant and moody Bing when shooting paused on various Paramount vehicles. Never was he so convincing as when playing childish and fussy in The Country Girl. It’s a privileged peek at behavior a great many headliners indulged when audiences weren’t watching. Crosby’s actor enough, and honest enough, to expose not only their foibles, but his own. It’s a performance of great self-awareness, and his triumph.
You know you’re sampling Formula Crosby when the opening shot reveals a marquee --- Bill Benson --- My Kind Of Music --- 3rd Year, or Jordon Blake Presents Carolina Hill in "Forever and Ever." Crosby character's status as ongoing Broadway sensations in both Just For You and Anything Goes is a given, which raises the question --- just how would his kind of music have been received on the Great White Way in the fifties? Could producers have sold a show constructed entirely around Bing Crosby and his familiar persona? Anything Goes (released April 1956) proposes a resounding yes. Amidst a musical landscape about to be overrun with Elvis and rock n’ roll (Rock Around The Clock was just out and Love Me Tender would be along in November), Bing’s Bill Benson is besieged with offers to launch a new show within moments of closing a three-year run on his last. Were movie audiences still buying into such a conceit? Dire returns for Anything Goes suggested they weren’t. Paramount invested 3.2 million in the negative. Fantastic rentals from White Christmas (8.1 million) and The Country Girl (6.4) indicated a comeback for Crosby, so imagine the disappointment felt when Paramount counted a mere 1.7 million in domestic rentals from Anything Goes. It would be their last musical foray with a star who’d grossed steadily for them over nearly a quarter of a century. Contemporary DVD reviews reflect low regard for Anything Goes, though Variety’s 1956 rave dubbed it a sock musical package. Is it sentiment for an aging Crosby (my age when A.G. was released) that makes me side with the latter? I won’t argue it’s sock, but there’s a certain pathos inherent in such valiant efforts to turn the clock back to days when old standards and musical chairs among mismatched lovers was enough to fill theatre cash drawers. How could Paramount (and Crosby) have known all this was fast coming to an end? Cole Porter lyrics are both cleansed and modernized to comply with Code restrictions and TV gag references. Co-star Donald O’Connor supplies at least passing contact with present day entertainment realities. He’s the upstart video sensation (based on Eddie Fisher and Coke Time?) who’s brought on to prop up (the addressed as) old-timer Bing. The success of Euro art movies may have resulted in French star Jeanmaire’s casting here, though it’s hard selling this fiery (22 year-old) continental’s love at first sighting for relaxed to the point of on-screen slumber Crosby. They share romance aboard a (never rocking) ship seemingly bound for nowhere, as indeed it was in terms of profit. Imagine a musical Between Two Worlds. I half expected Sydney Greenstreet to adjudge them all boxoffice persona non grata and condemn the lot to endless wandering before oceanic process screens.
High Society was an enormous hit, though I wonder how much Crosby was credited for it. This was his last musical lead among grown-up co-stars before submitting to the youthquake that resulted in Say One For Me and High Time, both of which sought to ease Bing toward relevance in rock and roll's new order. High Society allowed a reprieve before the necessary transition, for it’s jazz highlighted here, and Crosby was always comfortable within those environs. He was (approximately) 53 --- I’ll not try being precise as to that age, in deference to raging controversy regarding his actual birthdate going back to, well, his actual birthdate. Suffice to say the pairing with Grace Kelly was believable despite a several decades age difference. Crosby was one star a lot of people would miss as members of his generation were swept aside to accommodate younger players. There was, and would continue to be, healthy demand for him on television, but even Crosby must have realized paid admissions without the added marquee lure of Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra would be few. In a year of almost steady loss for Metro, High Society managed ten million in worldwide rentals for the star combination. Closest MGM runner-up in 1956 was Teahouse Of The August Moon (9.3 worldwide), though in terms of profit, both were slammed by, of all things, The Fastest Gun Alive. That economical Glenn Ford western brought home a staggering two million dollar gain, easily surpassing the 1.5 profit for High Society and Teahouse’s 1.6 in black ink. As for Bing Crosby, High Society would be his last starring musical to go into the positive column. Forthcoming vehicles at Fox lost money. Say One For Me in 1959 was down by $119,000, while High Time the following year took a two million dollar bath, despite teen pandering berths for Fabian and Tuesday Weld in support of Bing. Frequent guest appearances, Hollywood Palace hosting, and eagerly awaited Christmas specials would assure a far wider audience via television for the remainder of his life, so it’s doubtful Crosby regretted the feature loss in any case. Many of the latter have been (surprisingly) released on DVD. All are worth checking out.