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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Singing Out, Drama In, For Bing

Man On Fire (1957) Puts Crosby With Family Problems

Another dramatic lead for Bing Crosby, only this time no singing beyond a title tune during credits. He's a divorced dad intent on keeping a son his former wife wants back. Man On Fire was cheaply made at Metro (one million the negative cost, real economy for the Lion by 1957), though it was less their picture than Crosby's, his company having co-produced and largely calling shots. Bing had renewed lease from his Academy nom for The Country Girl, but still sold better as cheery and tuneful. Him doing High Society was socko, but dour and even angry through B/W slog here left red ink on ledgers, his own and Metro's. Man On Fire was effective drama, Crosby fine in it, but seemed to ticket-buyers like Playhouse 90 blown up to theatre proportion. In fact, the story was earlier adapted to TV, so Bing doing it now had faint novelty beyond his essay of the part rather than Tom Ewell's for the tube. 1957 was not a good year for movies to play "small," audiences getting fill of that at home, and for free. Blockbusters were the lure, and a chamber piece, unless it was a fluke like Marty, had little hope for a breakout.

Crosby's "Earl Carleton" is bitter from a start over divorce having took place two years previous, and offscreen, so what we get is "after" character, no glimpse of who Earl was before the wife took off with another man. This leaves sour disposition unrelieved, Crosby hard put to lend any of signature charm and humor to downer content. I see more similarity between Bing and Elvis as vehicles are revisited. Serious scenes for both could be dicey because they did intense so ... intensely. Rage from these two could be unpredictable and not a little scary. Was it this way behind cameras? I'd hate to be one who ticked either off. Crosby was applauded (rightly) for casual air he brought to performing, but they sure weren't talking about moments where he lost his temper. Crosby had no fear of edgy. I assume there was more dramatic work later, for television if not features, him less a star than character man by the 60/70's.

Major point of interest in Man On Fire is Crosby interaction with screen son Malcolm Brodrick. It plays off contrast, and some similarities, to relationship we understood Bing to have with four boys at home, him not a demonstrative Dad by own account. It's like he's acting out rapport on screen that he wanted in private life, the Crosby sons by 1957 known as ongoing problems for their father. All that's another story, of course, and too much for tackling here, but parallel does lend layers of interest to Man On Fire. Too bad the film is so poorly served by old and full-framed transfer TCM uses. There's been no DVD as yet, so this is all we have, and cropped as it is, Man On Fire evokes dramatic anthology off a 50's TV tray. There's similarity with 1956's These Wilder Years, an autumn tour for James Cagney in serious mien and looking for a son he sired long ago out of wedlock. Sapped of star dynamism and in same B/W as Man On Fire, the pics are first-cousins in terms of mature leads forging new direction, but overcome by skimpy production and underwhelming scripts. Crosby and Cagney were too long defined by established personas to tamper more than slightly with them. Their public, diminishing in any case, wanted them a certain way, and wouldn't abide departure (both Man On Fire and These Wilder Years lost money). Crosby was fortunate to have a television variety format to sustain his position for balance of a lifetime, the Christmas specials if nothing else a guarantee that he'd not entirely lose a following.


Blogger John McElwee said...

From Griff via e-mail (Part One):

Dear John:

The Crosby dramatic outings in the '50s fascinate me a bit. After long years of making splashy musicals and comedies that were at best just serviceable* (that said, Bing did sing in these movies!), the performer took a swing at some fairly heavy dramas, like LITTLE BOY LOST, the well-received THE COUNTRY GIRL, and this one.

Your point that Crosby is practically tamping down his innate, well developed charm and really shying away from most expressions of humor (particularly in FIRE) is well taken. Some performers almost vanish when they do this for a dramatic role; their personas tend to evaporate when they play sober-minded "straight" roles. But there's a real, aching melancholy tone to these Crosby dramatic turns, vivid enough to make one wonder whether his usual, pleasing "nice and easy does it all the time" characterization was harder to achieve than it ever looked.

4:24 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

He's a haunted father in search of his son in a still recovering post-war Europe in LOST, an alcoholic has-been performer in search of a comeback in Odets' COUNTRY... but these are in a way deeply sympathetic roles. His divorced father, still furious at his ex-wife, in FIRE is the most unsympathetic character Crosby ever attempted (yes, even more so than his outwardly charming -- and secretly murderous -- country doctor in the TV movie of DR. COOK'S GARDEN). It's hard to like this guy -- he can't forgive his ex, he can't forgive himself -- and his refusal to allow his former wife even partial custody of their son seems unforgivable. You're right: we never see, and can barely imagine, what Bing's character might have been like in palmier days. All we really know of the guy is that the collapse of his marriage wrecked him emotionally. He loves his son, but he clings to the boy like he's the only worthwhile thing in his life. He can't afford to share him.

The movie could have used the steadying, experienced hand of a George Seaton, who guided Crosby in LOST and COUNTRY, but Ranald MacDougall (directing his second feature) isn't altogether without skill, and he gives the movie an interesting, almost suspenseful tone. Moviegoers had never seen Crosby like this before. For a big chunk of the picture, it's hard to guess what's going to happen to Bing. Will he finally learn some hard lessons? Will he completely sink into despair? Will he win his custody fight? Will he finally realize that Inger Stevens is growing fond of him? [All right, that last was sort of a given, but never mind.] FIRE isn't any kind of great movie, but it's unexpectedly absorbing and even surprising.

Since you mention THESE WILDER YEARS, I guess I have to say that this remains one of the great missed opportunities in Hollywood history. Cagney and Stanwyck at last be teamed in a movie... and it's this limp rag of a well intentioned melodrama. One imagines the two actors concocting better ideas for pictures over lunch in the commissary. Cagney is, of course, good in the film, and Stanwyck does subtle work with the material she's given here. All right, JC's scene near the end with Don Dubbins is well played and even to an extent poignant. But with both Cagney and Stanwyck in the movie, we really want to see something else, some other film. We wanna see the two leads tear up the screen with all their tempestuous power, see 'em stormily come together (and come apart)... and wind up as a perfect and equally matched couple with complimentary strengths.

-- Griff
* I'm obviously not thinking here of pleasers like HOLIDAY INN, GOING MY WAY, the Hope/Lamour pix or even WHITE CHRISTMAS -- rather, barely breathing stuff like the misbegotten JUST FOR YOU, the hard-to-forgive MR. MUSIC and many others. There's a famous bit of audio tape of Crosby dictating a bitter memo regarding his disappointment with the way WHITE CHRISTMAS turned out, given all the on-and-off-screen talent involved. Well, CHRISTMAS could probably be a lot better, but I can't imagine what sort of memos the performer must have dictated after seeing some of his other Paramount vehicles.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

The problems mentioned with the movies by Crosby and Cagney make me wonder if foreign films might be better for them (much like how Rita Hayworth had wanted to work with the Hakim brothers in France sometime in the late '40's.)

10:32 PM  

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