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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Bing Crosby Collection

I'd assume someone at Universal's Home Video division likes Bing Crosby for numerous pics of his they've released on DVD. Will he sell? Again, you'd have to figure yes, unless U's impulse to pay tribute supersedes fiscal judgment. A latest batch contains six --- five of which are new to disc. Beyond value of covering Crosby's progress from near start in films toward a late forties' peak, these are valued guides to Paramount's evolvement as well, Bing having been there exclusively (save a few outside) for almost a century's quarter. To start from College Humor and finish with Welcome, Stranger (I went backwards) is fun for seeing Crosby learn on his job, and observing how Paramount tweaked the formula as they went. Do you suppose Elvis handlers consulted old Crosby vehicles when time came to launch Presley in films? There are surely things in common. Both traded in song, girls, and dumb comedy, with Bing at beginnings only slightly better served. To get bearings took time. Variety spotted Crosby's "pale face makeup" in College Humor and hoped Paramount would give him a new paint job next time out. A BC complication lay in fact he was past boyish from the go, thus casting as a student among college humorists was out. Jack Oakie was the same age, and Dick Arlen older by three years, yet both essayed pupils to Bing's crooning professor. Did Crosby project an old soul from beginnings on?

Crosby's romance was in his voice. Otherwise, he was a wee tubby with thinning hair and bat ears, good things in a long run that separated him from dullish leading men who'd not have known how to manufacture good will from offbeat physicality. Bing wasn't long joking about much of this (partner Bob Hope certainly would), and part of Crosby's charm was his knowing we knew how unfitted he was to standard girl-boy issue. For a while though, attempts were made, awkwardly so for occasions before the singer/neophyte actor understood fully where strengths lay. Quarrel scenes with romantic counterparts sometimes found Crosby a little too quarrelsome --- unflappable Bing to come would never have administered caveman stuff as he does with Carole Lombard in We're Not Dressing and Joan Bennett in Mississippi. It unnerves me to see him fly mad, almost like here's the guy after camera lights go down and it's not pretty. The always easy-going Crosby that evolved may have been guard against darker temperament beneath. Come to think of it, Elvis had similar danger when riled, one reason he was particularly good with fight scenes. Early Crosby surprises for how often he slugged things out in otherwise benign vehicles. Donnybrooks during Mississippi and Sing You Sinners would give Bob Steele and Ken Maynard cause for pause.

College must have seemed an unattainable paradise in 1933, based on what a depression public saw in theatres. Football games, petting parties, co-eds in scanties leaning out dorm windows ... how many in real life experienced that? (under ten percent of high school graduates were then going on to higher education). Attendance was exclusive to a privileged class, like idle rich stirring cocktails in screwball comedies, only this was youth on what appeared a four year spree. College settings were exotic as Arabian nights so long as few knew the real thing ... it would take a post-war GI Bill widening enrollments to demystify this sub-genre. You get impression watching College Humor that its writers never got within whiffing distance of ivy walls, having instead boned up on earlier pep rallies like Good News and The Plastic Age. Professor Bing violates twenty-first century edict by romancing a student, indulgence that today would land him in disgrace, if not jail. Fraternity hazing as administered by brutish Joe Sawyer upon likeable Jack Oakie was a scene disturbing enough for me to forward past. George Burns and Gracie Allen are in for less time than we'd like, only five or so minutes I wish had been expanded. Maybe it was originally, for all of College Humor looks jerry-built and obviously hacked from at least a reel longer (... cut to a series of disconnected ribbons, said Variety). Publicity stills like ones above suggest content saucier than what College Humor delivers. Did anticipation of censorship's rising tide cause Paramount to pull in horns?

We're Not Dressing and Here Is My Heart are two of a silly kind. Crosby's a radio crooner in the latter who's made millions at his work. Did wage-earning Bing get the disconnect there? Boo-boo'ing was lucrative, but not to extent suggested here (that would come later, and spectacularly, for BC). His character goes incognito to woo a princess coldly enacted by Kitty Carlisle. The Crosbys were by 1934 getting a blueprint down. Most were only as good as songs they introduced, and luckily tunes caught on. Sheet music moved fast as tickets to Here Is My Heart and kin. Pleasing names in support could make a difference. We're Not Dressing lucked into an ensemble rare to such thin wafers. Carole Lombard is Crosby's amour, plus there's Ethel Merman, Burns and Allen, Leon Errol, and youthful Ray Milland. A bear on roller skates augments a cluster of crooning to make such folly sustainable. Here's what differed Crosbys from Elvis shows a generation later. Bing's following knew they'd come away with at least one song to whistle, whereas Presley could go multiple rounds without charting any off a movie soundtrack. A better Crosby from the 30's group was Sing You Sinners, wherein musical support comes by less typical way of Fred MacMurray and adolescent Donald O'Connor. That trio in performance ranks among singing/dancing highlights of a decade at Paramount, and I'm almost surprised they weren't re-teamed at some point afterward.

Welcome, Stranger jumps nearly a decade and shows how expertly Crosby honed his act by 1947. There was Going My Way in between, his biggest hit so far and such a personal triumph as to crown Crosby Most Valued Player at Paramount (he was routinely billed over Hope in Road pairings). What Bing gained beyond #1 status was rapport with other actors so relaxed you'd think he was visiting sets rather than working on them. The "one of us" ID all performers seek from their public had its fullest expression via maturing Crosby, and Welcome, Stranger was another he'd nail perfect. Everything you like seeing Bing do, he does here. Stranger borrows what pleased best about Going My Way (and follow-up The Bells Of St. Mary's) with collars turned frontward this time and small town appeal broad beyond priestly environs that forbade romance for Crosby's character. Hayrides, square dances, and picket-fence values call up pleasant memory of Will Rogers and a middle America he presided over. Bing Crosby feels very much like Will's successor in Welcome, Stranger, dispensing pills and common sense with song, an act lots tougher to put over in a gone-cynical postwar market. Would Bing have clicked even better against Americana backgrounds rather than showbiz ones? We forget how bound he was to entertainer roles, with drama, comedy, whatever, played out on varied backstages. Welcome, Stranger is a plain-folks alternative that I'll bet was a favorite Crosby for a lot of patrons then. For sure, it's one of mine.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Here's my hometown playdates:

July 27-29, 1933 - CAPITOL Theatre

April 30-May 2, 1934 - CAPITOL Theatre

December 27-29, 1934 - CAPITOL Theatre

March 25-27, 1935 - CAPITOL Theatre
November 4-5, 1935 - VICTORY Theatre

October 3-5, 1938 - CAPITOL Theatre
February 13-14, 1939 - VICTORY Theatre
May 15-16, 1939 - SPENCER Theatre played with co-feature SERVICE DELUXE

October 7-11, 1947 - CAPITOL Theatre
March 3-4, 1948 - ROCKWELL Theatre
September 8-9, 1948 - SPENCER Theatre

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Count me as an unabashed, unapologetic, Crosby fanatic. Simply the finest, sweetest voice of cinema’s Golden Age. Add to that, an incredibly appealing performer. Crosby’s romance was not only in his singing voice, but in his speaking voice as well. Pull out Holiday Inn, and close your eyes and listen to how he handles dialogue. Somehow all-American and unique at the same time. Crosby sounded as graceful and assured as Astaire moved… it’s really a remarkable gift. He also delivered fabulous line readings and performances.

Also – most people who only remember the later, TV special/Minute Maid pitchman forget that Crosby was ‘cool.’ In the 30s especially, he was a red hot jazz baby. All-in-all, a remarkable career.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Bob, have you read Gary Gidding's biography of Crosby, POCKETFUL OF DREAMS? Absolutely fascinating...700 pages and it only covers the first half of his life.

6:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson writes in with a question about "We're Not Dressing":

Was this an authorized adaptation of James Barrie's "The Admirable
Crichton", or just a nervy swipe? Characters actually refer to the play by
name, as if to head off any protests. And Bing luring the upper-class
castaways to his campfire is extremely close to a key scene where the butler
Crichton does the same thing -- and nobody mentions the play this time.

True, the movie discards most of Barrie's (very modest) satire. The play is
about a normally conservative butler who becomes the benevolent lord and
master over his shipwrecked betters, creating a prosperous little Eden with
no Burns & Allen to provide supplies. Then, with rescue, they all revert to
their old positions with minimal protest. The movie keeps the core idea of
the aristocrats suddenly becoming dependent on a competent peasant --
complete with a romance not possible under the old status quo -- and a
rescue that represents a sort of counter-revolution.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Hello Paul -- You bet I have! I've been waiting for the next volume -- Gary sure is taking his time! I hope it's as good as the first book.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

Excellent posting John. I think it doesn't hurt Bing Crosby's modern day popularity that he's in 3 often played holiday films, Holiday Inn, The Bells of St. Mary's and White Christmas.

5:55 PM  
Blogger J.A. Morris said...

Thanks John,another great post.

It may sound like heresy,but I actually prefer Crosby as an actor than a singer. He has just such a natural,relaxed screen presence and he was underrated as a comedian/comic actor.
But aside from his Christmas music and 'Swing On A Star'(and some of his very early songs w/Whiteman) ,I don't listen to much of his music.
The Bing movie I hope they release on dvd is 'The Big Broadcast'(1932). Not just because Crosby is good in his(far as I know,which makes it historically significant)first starring feature as the lead,and the singers & comedians are great(Burns & Allen,Cab Calloway,Mills Brothers,etc), but because my Great Uncle Johnny Morris is in it too, his only surviving appearance in a feature length film. Morris is the singer/drummer in Vincent Lopez' band,he was nicknamed "Paradiddle Joe" and co-wrote the song of the same name.
'The Big Broadcast of 1938' has been released on dvd, why not this one?

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Crosby's my favorite singer of his time; as my wife once described it, his voice was "unearthly" (which she meant as a compliment!) Simply no one else like him. First rate actor, too. Who else could play priests and wiseguy conmen (as he did in the "Road" movies) and make them both convincing?

On the other hand... when my mother lived in L.A. in the late
'30s, she was already hearing stories about Bing's familial disciplinary tactics (as he might have put it) -- "and I've never really cared for him since," she told me.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I've recently seen Welcome Stranger and Top o' the Morning for the first time. Both team Crosby with Barry Fitzgerald. They've reinforced how good Leo McCarey's direction of Going My Way is. The other two films don't come close in terms of comedy or sentiment.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

This is one of a number of DVD sets which I purchased at the time of their release to get a copy of but a single title in the set - in this case, the great film "Mississippi", with Crosby and Fields; but now, in the pandemic year 2021, my then-resentment at needing to buy titles I wasn't interested in seeing has been turned on its head, as having more time to fill than I had anticipated, I continue to find good films on my shelves to watch - films I almost didn't even know, or had almost forgotten, that I had.
Long story short: having had these films on my shelf for over a decade now, I finally took a look at them just to pass the time (partly as a result of looking at this posting - I do enjoy looking at GPS' archived posts) - and I found all of them, each and every film in this collection, enjoyable. True, they might not be "great" or "ground-breaking" or "critically acclaimed", but they all have their moments.
In sum, a nice collection of good films, with one truly great one in the mix.

9:05 AM  

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