"Bingo" was what my grandmother used to call Bing Crosby, the king of the crooners. I think the world at large knew him as Der Bingle, or simply just as Mr. Showbiz. He was certainly one of the most popular performers of the 20th Century, excelling at popular music, jazz, movie acting and TV. Crosby's work in Hollywood is especially appealling, and a great insight into his celebrity appeal -- even while mired in the corniest material, Bing was cool. Always a bit aloof, he was nonetheless a remarkably relaxed performer, tossing off stellar performances and shifting moods at the drop of a hat. Here's a quick look at some (though not all!) of his long acting career. (For more about his musical legacy, check out my discography page.)
"Going Hollywood" (1933, MGM)
A very weird film, featuring a young (and super-cute!!) Bing Crosby, in his first lead role. He plays opposite Marion Davies, the uniquely untalented kewpie-doll starlet who William Randolph Hearst backed in flop after flop. It's meant to be a screwball comedy, but comes off as unintentional camp, particularly in any scene where Davies is called apon to sing, dance or act. Bing plays a crooner gone Hollywood, Davies plays a blonde nutcase who stalks him from coast to coast, insisting that their love was meant to be. Her character seems particularly psychotic in light of her bizarrely vacant delivery... The disconnected performance and lackluster plot combine synergistically, and after a while you just have to start cracking up... it's a scream! Like Davies, the movie looks great, but lacks substance. Bing looks good, too, but you really have to feel sorry for him, stuck in a turkey like this...
"Waikiki Wedding" (1937)
Fun film -- one of Crosby's best. It's a fluffy romantic comedy about beachcomber Bing wooing the unwilling "pineapple queen" who's been recruited as part of a fruit company's big promotional campaign. Naturally, Bing is pals with the natives, although midway they seem to turn on him and kidnap him and threaten to sacrifice him and his pals to their angry volcano god. Nobody's taking any of this too seriously, and that's part of what makes it great -- the tone of the film matches Crosby's lighthearted persona. The musical numbers are fun, too, especially early on when he scats along in the "uk-uk-uk" Hawaiian vocal style. Plus, this is Crosby at his cutest, no doubt about it -- he even gets shot in soft focus, to make him seem more babilicious. The only real sour note is the backlash-y (and extremely repetitive) gag about Martha Raye being so ugly no man would want her... some of those lines are really wa-a-a-a-ay over the top, and don't read well with a modern day audience. At least not with me. Still, I'd recommend this flick for anyone curious about Crosby's multimedia appeal. And check out a babyfaced young Anthony Quinn as the Polynesian chieftan!
"Birth Of The Blues" (1941, MGM)
A somewhat skewed but nonetheless well-intentioned retelling of the history of jazz. Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden lead the Basin Street Hot Shots, the fictional first all-white jazz band in New Orleans. Implicit in the plotline is the idea that it took an all-white band to really make jazz find a mainstream audience... Goofy and slow in parts, a bit stilted, but good clean fun, and Bing still looks pretty young. Lots of weird racial stuff -- buck-and-wing dancing, eye rolling and the like... Still, there are some great performances and it's worth it all just to hear Mary Martin say, "I want to learn to sing like the colored folk." Yikes.
"Holiday Inn" (1942, MGM)
If you thought the racial politics of Birth Of The Blues were suspect, wait'll you get a load of the blackface routine staged in honor of Lincoln's birthday! Yeah, that's right -- Lincoln's birthday. The gimmick here is that Bing, weary of the hustle and bustle of showbiz, retires to rural Connecticut, where he starts up a lodge that specializes in big holidays-only bashes. Naturally, his former partner, Fred Astaire, horns in on the action, pitting his hoofing up against Der Bingle's moon-june croon. Oh, and did I mention there was a girl involved? It's not really a very good film, and Irving Berlin's holiday-themed anthems are mostly pretty forced, all except for "White Christmas," which of course became a classic. The 1954 remake, White Christmas, may have been a better film (in a bland kind of way), but I'll take Astaire over Danny Kaye any day. A few odd, clever cinematic flights of fancy and a smattering of witty scenes, but hardly a classic.
"Star Spangled Rhythm" (Paramount, 1942)
Crosby croons the closing number in this flimsily-scripted wartime tossoff in which Paramount Studios hosts a patriotic all-star revue to entertain our men in uniform. Eddie Bracken is a goofy sailor back home to get a girl... Lucky for him that Betty Hutton -- in her first major role -- has her eyes set on him as well. She fast-talks and finagles (in a very Lucy-like way) to get Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray and a bunch of other stars to come on board for the (spontaneous, yet amazingly elaborate) really big show, and in the process Hutton gets her man. The song and dance numbers, despite being written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, are notably not first rate, although the Golden Gate Quartet have a nice cameo (even if they are playing train porters...) and a trio of starlets -- Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour and (aroooogah!! woof! woof!) Veronica Lake -- do a hilarious number together, based on their images as stars. Also notable is a silly, prolonged skit in which men pretend to be women (eek.) and Bing's big patriotic number at the end, which is some of the clumsiest wartime propaganda committed to film. Betty Hutton is given the film's biggest role, and though she hams it up, she's still totally adorable. Let's see more of her!! Film buffs will also enjoy the chance to see director Preston Sturges and studio legend Cecil B. DeMille onscreen.
"Here Come The Waves" (Paramount, 1944)
Split screens and rear projections let Betty Hutton star -- twice -- in this rousing patriotic film about a pair of twin sisters who join the Navy as WAVEs and in the process find true love. One sister, Suzie, holds a torch for world-weary pop singer Johnny Cabot (played by Crosby, of course), while her older sister Rosemary, subjected to Suzie's endless moonstruck swooning, finds both the crooner and his fame repellant. Hutton switch-hits as a ditzy blonde and a responsible redhead, appearing onscreen with herself throughout the film, while Bing just turns on his natural charm. Actually, he's one of the few actors who was ever able to upstage Hutton -- Crosby's simply more magnetic than she is, and at times their charismas seem to cancel each other out. (She doesn't really come alive onscreen until the end of the film, when she get's to cut loose on the cute "Man In Poughkeepsie" skit, which shows us what gals would be like if they acted like men Hutton whips out her "little red book," phones a few fellows up, and lets loose with some great song and dance.) Co-starring with Crosby is ex-athlete Sonny Tufts, who while he occasionally muffs his lines, is a pretty solid, amiable presence. The plot creaks a little, but the film provides a great glimpse into WWII popular culture, particularly a concert scene showing the bobbysoxer phenomenon, along with the general ambiance of a nation optimistically at war. On the downside, the blackface routine for "Ac-cent-u-ate The Positive" is disturbing, although the closing number, with several platoons of singing, marching Waves, and a glimpse at their wartime work, is brilliantly staged and worthy of comparison to Busby Berkeley's best choreography. A nice '40s film, and one of Hutton's bigger roles.
"Going My Way" (Paramount, 1944)
At the height of his wartime fame, Bing Crosby plays a hip young Catholic priest who arrives to help a troubled parish struggle back to its feet. Of course, what passed for young and hip back then, in this lily white, family-friendly comedy-drama may seem pretty silly these days -- Bing is convincing, though, as he use his suave social skills to listen to and help out those in need. Veteran scene-stealer Barry Fitzgerald plays the doddering, crusty old Irish priest who runs the church before Crosby's arrival... The rest of the supporting cast isn't as strong, but the film still has its charms. Mostly it's just a great chance to observe Crosby at his most magnetic and self-assured. The film also previewed hits like "Swinging On A Star" and Bing's version of "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra," both of which are longtime favorites.
"Blue Skies" (Universal, 1946)
Bing sings and Fred treads in this sketchily-plotted musical, which pits Astaire and Crosby against one another, rivals for the hand of the blonde, domestically-minded Joan Caulfield. This frothy postwar frolic has a wild Techncolor exuberance, with crazy explosions all over the pastel-lined spectrum (and an odd tilt towards purple). The sad thing, though, is that this isn't a very good movie -- the plot is razor thin, barely a hint of an excuse to stage a bunch of great (and lesser) Irving Berlin tunes. Some numbers fall flat (and Billy DeWolfe's interminable, painfully unfunny drag routine brings the movie to a screeching halt)... Still, Astaire's killer performance on "Puttin' On The Ritz" is the stuff that legends are made of: as he's angelically hoofing his heart out, a curtain parts behind him, revealing a phalanx of distant, miniature Astaires, keeping time with the big guy. A technical and aesthetic triumph! This flick might be worth it for that routine alone, although Bing gets in some choice vocal performances as well. A dud scriptwise, but it still has two of the greatest performers of the 20th Century, both still at their peak.
"Riding High" (1950)
A remake -- by Frank Capra -- of Capra's great 1932 horseracing film, Broadway Bill. The original was so good that I confess I can only see this version as a bit of a curio. Apparently Capra was on such a tight budget when he shot this new version that he had to recycle the original '30s racing scenes into the new footage.
"Angels In The Outfield" (MGM, 1951)
Sort of an odd, sports-oriented remake of Miracle On 34th Street... Paul Douglas stars as a surly, pugnacious major league coach who's got a team that's worse off than the Cubs. When things are at their worst, he gets a boost from above. Due to the intervention of the angels and a good-hearted woman (Janet Leigh), Mr. Meanie Pants becomes a warm & fuzzy model citizen. This movie marks the exact moment at which the goodie-twoshoes Eisenhower era swooped in to whitewash the smart-alecky, streetwise worldliness of the 1940s. Bing Crosby makes a quick cameo in his real-life capacity as a ball club owner; the Philadelphia Whoozits appear as themselves in the long shots of the baseball diamond. Cute, but a little weird and very 1950s.
"Here Comes The Groom" (Paramount, 1951)
When folks discuss the great films of Frank Capra, this film seldom seems to come up... and there's a reason! This was a pretty terrible film, one of Bing Crosby's least charming outings, and certainly a low point for Capra. The script is atrocious, the realization is shoddy and abrupt, and the film's end may make you feel a little queasy. Here's the plot: Bing is a foreign correspondent, off in postwar Europe, writing heartwarming stories about French war orphans. His editor wants something juicier, and his jilted American fiancee does, too. So, Bing has to come back to the States with, naturally, a couple of toussle-haired raggamuffins in tow and a song in his heart. Alas! He is too late: his sweetie (played by a remarkably shrill Jane Wyman) has dumped him in favor of her millionaire boss, amiably portrayed by Franchot Tone. In fact, it's Franchot Tone, easily outshining Crosby, who gives this ricketty film its one glimmer of class... A long scene between him and Bing, when they size each other up, is the single redeeming sequence... Everything else is rough, slipshod and frantic, including Capra's directorial work, particularly the editing. Bing does his best to be cool and hip, but his schtick just isn't working this time around... Mostly it's the film's fault; this is an amazingly substandard production... It's worth skipping, even if you're a big Bing Crosby fan.
"Just For You" (Paramount, 1952)
Der Bingle and Jane Wyman team up again for this glossy Technicolor spectacle, in which Broadway star Bing is torn between his duty to his children (who are alienated because of his workaholic tendencies) and his budding love life (which, unfortunately, involves Jane Wyman, who I find quite unappealing). It's an okay film, very white picket fence-y and Eisenhower-ish... The musical numbers don't have any cohesion, but that's okay -- they're clearly just meant to be eye candy and pad the film out... (Cast notes: Bing's son, Gary, plays his petulant son, while a teenage Natalie Wood plays the daughter... and sparkles in many a scene...) Kind of a ho-hum, melodramatic plot, but it's an entertaining enough movie, with some choice moments of campy fun. Not bad.
"The Country Girl" (1954, Paramount)
Crosby as you've never seen him before! Bing plays a washed-up alchoholic actor who's been given another shot at the big time, yet manages to sabotage himself at every turn. Grace Kelly is his sort-of codependent wifeypoo, and William Holden plays a theatrical producer who is continuously manipulated by the conniving and devious Crosby. Early on the movie sets a striking emotional tone, very complex and alarming, although mildly undercut by the preachy, gee-whiz attitude folks had back then towards Psychology (with a capital "P"!) Great performances. Crosby in particular is very convincing, and Holden and Kelly also give strong, though stagey, performances. Definitely worth checking out!
Various Artists "Hollywood Rhythms v.1: Radio Rhythms" (Kino Video, 1997)
A fascinating collection of musical one-reelers shot by Paramount at the dawn of the talkie era, and meant to be shown before the feature film. Bing sings on the 1931 short, "I Surrender Dear," a slapstick comedy with iffy sound and poor timing, but full of charm nonetheless. Crosby is curiously ill at ease in many of his scenes -- a big switch from the super-suave gentleman we know from later years. Fellow crooner Rudy Vallee also appears in two films (which is about one too many), the best of which is the goofball "Musical Justice" -- wherein crimes of the heart and musical no-nos are adjudicated in Vallee's courtroom. The real winners on this collection are the gals: torch singers Lilian Roth and Ruth Etting are both gorgeous and magnetic in their respective films ("Meet The Boyfriend" and "Favorite Melodies") while mousy-voiced novelty singer Helen Kane is adorable in her college-themed (and rather sexist) "A Lesson In Love." Note to the modern viewer: several of these films feature racist humor, particularly Hoagy Carmichael's medley of "southern" themed songs... You kind of have to take it with a grain of salt, as part of the general backdrop of the culture, circa 1930. And even if it sticks in your craw, these films are still a great glimpse into the entertainment industry of the time. Cool stuff!
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