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Monday, October 07, 2019

Happy Meet of Music and Mirth

Crosby-Fields in Mississippi (1935)

Real Life Showboat and Necessary Companion, the "Atta Boy" Pushing the Mighty "Majestic" From Behind

I had showboats figured for amusement palaces lazily floating down river to minstrel tunes and roisterous comedy. Steam-huffing engines drive paddlewheels as hundreds are entertained in a theatre linked to gambling tables adjacent to dining halls, all this aboard a craft set upon the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers, more legend, as it turns out, than fact. I was surprised by the separation of real from imagined. Turns out showboats didn’t even operate on their own power. What steam there was came courtesy a tow craft situated behind the showboat, latter not only pushed from thither to yon, but often as not sat upon a barge to ease floatation. Sounds cumbersome, far from romance of the river as seen in varied versions of Showboat and whatever other films set their action aboard. One that stands out is Paramount’s Mississippi, where W.C. Fields drove the pilot wheel and Bing Crosby sang when not besting Fred Kohler in a fight-to-death. 75 minutes to glory in, remade from a silent, then a talkie with Buddy Rogers. One of the Bing Crosby collections has Mississippi on DVD. It is as pleasing as anything Crosby or Fields ever did.

Edward Sutherland Directs Bing Crosby and Joan Bennett

Irvin S. Cobb Is a Visitor To The Set

Mississippi melds Bing Crosby for music with W.C. Fields for comedy, an even match with no sense of competition or Fields trying to wrest scenes from the singer. He understood benefit of sharing with a biggest of Paramount names, the Fields humor more effective for being spotted throughout rather than him having to haul all of six or seven reels. Fields was still this side of starring vehicles in any case, being part of laugh ensembles from Million Dollar Legs, to International House, Six Of A Kind, whatever made for name-crowded marquees. For many, he still works best when not headlining, the Fieldsian highlights of Mississippi featuring some of his best work, plus his being ideal-cast as a showboat skipper. A Crosby audience that might otherwise ignore Fields got exposure to him here, Mississippi brief enough so that we don’t resent music at expense of comedy, or the reverse. In fact, both work well, outstanding Rodgers-Hart tunes at Crosby’s service, which we enjoy hearing even when they interrupt a Fields routine. Romance as salve to slapstick was ingrained reality of the mid-30’s. Here it works to satisfaction of all, Fields more fortunate in this respect than Laurel-Hardy or the Marx Bros. elsewhere.

Fields had gag men always on alert for ideas he could use, comics at liberty, humor scribes, vaude vets, all kept as friends because Fields liked their company, and they knew his persona well enough to nourish it with bits. Fields had freedom too to ad-lib or show up with useful stuff dreamed up the night before or morning of. James Curtis tells much in his W.C. bio of Fields the architect and ongoing manager of a screen image always in progress toward goals he sought, that meaning sometimes a balk at business he knew did not jibe with the character and/or talent. For instance, a calliope Paramount built at great expense and expected Fields to play for a set-piece (presumably filmed, certainly mentioned in publicity for Mississippi, but not seen by the public). Fields knew it was wrong for him, explained why, then stood ground against using the device. The great ones had instinct for what they could, or should not, attempt. We’ve read the brouhaha over Judy Garland and Annie Get Your Gun. She fought, resisted, wouldn’t show, then finally was replaced. It has been suggested, rightly I suspect, that Garland knew from outset she was wrong for this part, “acted out” rather than owning-up to what her senses told her was miscasting. How many players had enough sense of self, or better put, humility, to admit they weren’t right for a role, or that comedy of particular sort would not play to their strength? Fields, like many if not most others, lodged his complaint by indirection, as in not cooperating. How could he play a routine he didn’t fully believe in?

Fields as "Champion Calliope Player" Did Not Make a Final Cut

The Fields of Mississippi is more a known quantity than the Crosby of Mississippi. Here was real departure from froth the crooner had so far engaged, Booth Tarkington’s source story one that Crosby would have to accommodate rather than have it accommodate him. As gentle scion of the North, Crosby disdains a challenge to duel and is branded a coward by his southern fiancée and family, us left to wonder if they have a point, considering “Tom Grayson’s” soft nature and appearance. Not before had Crosby been called upon to assume fighting stance, his new identity as “Colonel Steele, The Singing Killer” bought with blood he spills in a ferocious brawl with Fred Kohler, as vicious an opponent as any (in fact, many) series western name ever met. Is this the only fist meet Crosby had in all of a career? I’ve not seen whole of his output, so that question I will put to readership. Surely screen-Bing never fought and killed a man over years he entertained in films and on TV. Emphasis on Crosby v. Kohler is to make point that both Crosby and Fields of Mississippi register strong, us not waiting for either to go off so the other can come back on. I don’t think Fields ever co-starred so felicitously with an equal name, Mae West being sole other time it was tried, and to my mind, her stint with Bill ran second to Crosby’s.


Blogger Neely OHara said...

The only fisticuffs I’ve ever seen Crosby involved in were the inevitable “Patty Cake” punches thrown in tandem with Hope in the “Road” pictures.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Crosby was told Fields was stealing every scene he was in. Crosby replied, "Won't that be good for the picture." Don't know if the story is true or not but if it is Crosby had enough sense to know that no one could steal a scene from him however much they tried.

This is on a complete W. C. Fields set from Universal as well as from the Crosby set.

It's a fine film, one I enjoy watching and re-watching.

Did not know SHOWBOATS did not travel on their own power.

Great post. Thanks.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Lots of Sennett alumni here: Crosby, Fields, Sutherland, and Bobby Vernon in the picture of Sutherland directing.

5:26 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

You make a great point about the tired music subplots that Laurel and Hardy were burden with. Apart from delightful tunes like "Honolulu Baby" and "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" Laurel and Hardy films came to a stand still when the musical number were presented (and I would also include the musical numbers in "Babes in Toyland" in this tired category).

5:50 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Crosby gets into a major fistfight in Sing You Sinners, a picture that Crosby biographer Gary Giddens thinks is one of Crosby's strongest of the 1930s. I've seen a fair amount of Crosby's '30s films and mostly they're fluff, but Sing You Sinners is a strong film in addition to having good songs and comedy. Co-stars Fred MacMurray and Donald O'Connor.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Lee R said...

Bing also had a fight with the guy who was trying to keep him and his son apart in the movie "Man On Fire". And he managed to off a few people in the TV movie "Dr. Cook's Garden". Speaking as a long time fan of both Fields and Bing, I am always pleased to watch Mississippi.

Speaking of being a long-time fas, as for music in Laurel & Hardy movies, yes when it came to all the stiff opera type singers interrupting the L&H action it was a major pain to sit thru and endure (esp. in the pre-fast forward days). BUT as far as L&H themselves singing or dancing to their own songs this was a true delight to see.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I cut the song in the diner from my 16mm print of THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE CIRCUS. It improved the pacing of the film 100%.

Then I left just the tag where they walk out singing. That got a huge laugh. Improved the film 200%.

Try it with your digital copies.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Crosby was one of the few stars who had no problem with strong costars. He knew that anything that made the movie stronger made him look better.

9:31 AM  
Blogger David Lobosco said...

I am a lifelong Bing fan - I have listened to Bing as long as I can remember (I am 45), and I heard good things about your blog from a fellow Bing fan. Loved the story about Mississippi. It truly is an underrated Bing film.

Great work!

12:20 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Love in Bloom", also 1935, had Burns and Allen working with a calliope in a modern carnival. Any chance gags or prop were recycled in one direction or another? "Love in Bloom" is an oddball film: George and Gracie are just this side of villainous, taking advantage of the heroine (a relative). Also, Gracie is shown to be PLAYING dumb, tricking a cop into tearing up a ticket.

On the broader issue of musical numbers: Not sure if it came up here, but on the producer's commentary on "Bugs Bunny Superstar" he says that experience taught him that one solid hour of Loony Tunes was all a regular audience could really enjoy in a sitting. So BBS padded that road-tested hour into a feature with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage: amusing stuff, but a definite breather between gutbuster toons. Consider how many "pure" comedies -- those driven by comic stars rather than story -- clock in way shorter than dramas, and even then there's a vestige of a romantic subplot to fill a reel or so. And Thalberg allegedly told Groucho the brothers would be half as funny but twice as successful -- true at first, when carefully developed comedy was spread over a carefully developed A picture.

I like the numbers in old Paramount comedies, where they tend to be agreeable and often casual (Groucho and later Hope would tell the audience it was a good time to step outside, but the numbers are never THAT tedious). Big numbers, when they occurred, usually had a comedic purpose (check out Lydia Roberti as "Mata Macree" in "Million Dollar Legs"). The Marx Brothers came by way of Broadway, so big musical comedy numbers sometimes complemented Groucho's patter songs and his brothers' instrumental interludes. Wheeler and Woolsey started with a similar Broadway approach, like the Marxes they started with film versions of their stage successes.

I also like the tuneful interruptions of Laurel and Hardy at Roach. The boys always had an old music hall aura, so a quaint musical olio, with or without Ollie singing, felt natural. As for the operettas, a big part of their appeal is how they feel like genuine light operas that the boys just wandered into, with just enough cheerful singing to support the mood and give a little air between major set pieces. If Charley Chase had broken into features, it's probable there would have been songs on a regular basis -- if for no other reason than Chase could and would sing whenever he had an excuse.

At Universal, Abbott and Costello were frequently surrounded by popular singers and nightclub acts. Bud and Lou represented a different live theater tradition: burlesque, where the star comics were laced through a revue of unrelated acts. In time there were fewer breaks for the Andrews Sisters and the like; the reasoning presumably that Bud and Lou didn't need big-name support. But there would still be occasional musical numbers and other diversions. The monster comedies of course had horrors to keep the audience alert between routines. "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" had the peculiar idea of adding a SECOND comic team -- the bank robbers -- to tide us over when the stars were off camera. Wonder if it was originally planned to have Bud and Lou play both pairs.

Songs are more problematic in MGM comedies, where they tend to be elaborate and expensive production numbers. They were part of the cast-iron assembly line product that the Marxes, Keaton, L&H and others were hammered into, at times interchangeably.

3:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Fascinating observations, Donald, and I agree with your conclusions. Music is almost always welcome in a comedy, certainly so where the comedians sing or dance, especially as you say, where it evokes tradition from vaudeville or music halls, even operettas.

Am looking forward, by the way, to the upcoming Blu-Ray box of Abbott and Costello features.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While I am intensely grateful BUGS BUNNY SUPERSTAR offers the material with Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng I know from personal REPEATED experience that audiences can handle four hours worth of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

There is so much rich material in those films that the public is largely unaware of.

When I brought Bob Clampett and his wife Sody to Toronto in 1979 I offered THREE DAYS of cartoons promising 200 titles. I had three times that number in the projection booth. As soon as the audience got restless I shifted direction dramatically.

That would not have been possible if I had followed the conventional route with themed programs which sound exciting on paper but which are as dull as yesterday's dishwater in reality. I have always aimed at non-fan audiences as they watch and enjoy.

Fans sit there and when a title comes onscreen they have read is not particularly good they say, "That's no good." That poisons the film's impact on the audience.

I found that almost all of the cartoons that got negative reviews worked wonderfully.

I learned that when I began programming four hour animation marathons. I thought, "How much harm can one bad cartoon do in a four hour festival?" I needed material so I put everything I had on the screen. To my delight I learned that cartoons the writers disparaged the audience loved. I was offering a different four hour marathon every week.

A paying audience is, as has been observed often, the only teacher.

Of course I paced those programs deliberately putting in films I liked personally but which were short on laughs.

I have found from experience that a fence to keep out fans is a damned good idea.

These works were created for the general public not for the elite few.

When I invited Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Grim Natwick, Bernard B. Brown and Shamus Culhane to Toronto the fans said, "We're not interested in them. We only want to see the films."

I have always felt that for the work to be interesting the people who create it have to be more interesting. I brought them up for me. Then I promoted around the world through David Mruz's fanzine MINDrot (later ANIMania).

Ditto with my current programming. One of the main reasons I am ranked among the fifty greatest male speakers of all time is that I challenge myself constantly.

That is also why the author of THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES, Jane Jacobs, said, "The best part of a Reg Hartt program is what he has to say."

Fans I meet on the street say, "We'd go to your programs if you did not speak."

My current theme, borrowed from Jane Jacobs (with her permission years ago) is THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE MOVIES.

The movies as a medium are dead and have been for decades.

Back to ABBOTT AND COSTELLO, they created a body of work that is essential study for anyone and everyone who wants to make motion picture comedy. They and their writers knew how to use and reuse (and re-reuse) material. Ditto W. C. Fields, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and more.

But to really learn from them these films have to be seen not in college and university classrooms but in theatres before paying audiences.

Another thing, shoot the "experts" as they walk through the doors I mean that metaphorically).

7:22 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for the notice about the upcoming Blu-Ray collection, John. It looked for a minute like the content was identical to the DVD release except for new audio commentaries... but Shout! Factory has a surprise on the last disc: eight Abbott & Costello one-reel digests from Castle Films! I'm absolutely amazed by that.

Here's the link to the full list of contents:

8:32 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

Outstanding post, John. Fans of Mississippi should seek out a copy (never officially released) of Richard Rodgers auditioning the full score that he and Lorenz Hart wrote for the film. It contains several charming tunes not used in the movie, including a rhythmic patter song for Fields' character, similar to R&H's rhyming-dialogue songs for Love Me Tonight. Another discarded melody was later rewritten by R&H to become Johnny One Note, introduced in their Broadway smash Babes in Arms. Mississippi's most famous song, It's Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget), was a late addition, requested by Paramount after R&H, fed up with Hollywood, had begun their return to Broadway.

As delightful as the unused R&H songs are, it's hard to argue with the final choices in the film.

2:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I checked Amazon and Google for this soundtrack, Steven. Looks like it was issued as an LP, "Rodgers and Hart in Hollywood," but is not available on CD. Sounds like a great recording. The score for MISSISSIPPI is a real favorite. When I ran the feature in college (1974), I promoted the songs as heavily as Fields.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thought your picture was one of Price's Poe pictures. Instead I found it's for a 3D release of HOUSE OF WAX. Great poster.

6:47 PM  

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