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Saturday, April 21, 2007

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 is 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 that Dad was right all along. A neat finish endorses the peacetime Army Air Force as ideal place 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 over a last several years. All that separates 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 is 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 disappointment 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 had grossed steadily for them over nearly a quarter of a century. Contemporary DVD reviews reflect low regard for Anything Goes, though Variety dubbed it a sock musical package. Does sentiment for an aging Crosby make me side with the latter? I won’t argue it’s sock, but there is valiant effort here to turn clocks back to when old standards and musical chairing among lovers was enough to fill 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 is brought on to prop up "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 sight for relaxed to the point of slumber Crosby. They share romance aboard a (never rocking) ship seemingly bound for nowhere, as indeed it was in terms of profit. 

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 is jazz being highlighted here, Crosby always comfortable in that milieu. He was (approximately) 53 --- I’ll not try being precise as to that age, in deference to question 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 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 released on DVD. All are worth checking out.


Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

I've been enjoying your site for a few weeks now. I love your overviews of specific films and performances, including all those promotional pictures and posters. Thanks for all your efforts in creating these excellent posts!

12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm heartened by what seems a fairly widespread appreciation of Bing's dramatic ability, but I think he's way underrated as a comedian. Just his facial expressions in response to other characters' antics are always priceless, and he's a master of the throwaway punchline.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it very hard to believe that this man was the one of the top box office draws in the 40's (on the top 10 list for most of the decade). Hardly any of his films are widely distributed outside of the Road pictures and Going My Way. Perhaps this is due to Paramount/Universals not promoting their classic films the way Warners has promoted the MGM/RKO/Warners catalogue. Because of this one assumes he was an also ran when the reality was that his box office in the 40's dwarfed that of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford -- even Garland. These are performers we think were the bigest stars of their day because their films are always being shown on TCM, unlike Crosbys. Crosby's type of film simply didn't age as well as the others -- was that what was meant when you referred to the MGM musical team as "visionary"?

In any event, I became acquainted with Crosby in the 60's via his Xmas specials. His children were around my age so I could relate much better. I had no idea that that was his *second* family and that he had been anything more than a popular singer of my parents era.

8:50 AM  
Blogger The Siren said...

I will confess to loving White Christmas, though it suffers from the same sentimentality that all Crosby films seem to have. He was definitely more impressive in The Country Girl than Grace Kelly, who should not have won the Oscar over Judy Garland that year (or Dorothy Dandridge, for that matter).

He did have a way with a line, and of course his singing was great. But at the moment he doesn't seem to translate well to modern times. Perhaps that will change. I would not have thought we'd see an Ava Gardner revival, for example, but Lee Server's bio seems to be sparking just that.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If anyone out there wants to go to the bother of seeking out a video copy of Crosby's 1936 version of 'Anything Goes' (Re-titled 'Tops is the Limit' for televsion showings) and very stylishly directed by the great Lewis Milestone, I think they'll have a nice surprise in store!"

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you have stills of white christmas great site tyty so much

1:39 PM  

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