Bingtime

Once a year, Americans gather together to share gifts, sip eggnog and celebrate the memory of the greatest popular singer this country has produced, Bing Crosby. And because he wasn’t a bad actor, either, this week’s special seasonal edition of “New DVDs” in the New York Times examines “The Bing Crosby Collection,” a recent set of early Paramount Crosby vehicles released by Universal Home Video, and Paramount Home Video’s excellent new Blu-ray edition of Michael Curtiz’s 1954 “White Christmas,” derived from the original Vista Vision elements and looking very spruce in high definition.

Though it’s usually considered a commercial follow-up to the 1942 Crosby-Astaire-Berlin hit “Holiday Inn,” “White Christmas” also works as a sequel to and completion of the Curtiz-Berlin “This Is the Army” of 1943 — a symbolic attempt to move past wartime trauma and recover the innocence of a pre-war America “just like the one we used to know.” Alas, in the context of an escalating Cold War, this Arcadia is no longer accessible, if indeed it ever existed — a reality the film acknowledges with a sublimely subconscious Brechtian climax.

During the final reprise of “White Christmas,” the rear wall of the nightclub set lifts to reveal another set behind it: a New England scene right out of a department store window, complete with gently falling soap-flake snow. Crosby’s performance, as apparently effortless as always, is shaped by a melancholia never addressed by the screenplay (his troubled wife, Dixie Lee, had died just weeks before filming began), lending this apparent trifle an unexpected emotional depth. But that, of course, had been a Crosby specialty since the start of his career.

28 comments to Bingtime

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Talk about kismet – overnight (6am ET. 3am PT) Fox Movie Channel is showing Blake Edwards’ High Time starring Bing Crosby (letterboxed for those worried that it won’t be). They showed this print a couple years ago, and it was in fine condition.

    (There is a second showing during the daytime on January 25).

  • Johan Andreasson

    I spent part of Christmas last year reading “Pops”, Terry Teachouts’s biography of Louis Armstrong. I’m probably way behind a lot of people who post here, but that’s when it dawned upon me how much the relationship between Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby has shaped American popular music: Armstrong taught Crosby improvisational freedom and rhythmic ease, and Crosby’s warmth and lyricism guided Armstrong to making his biggest popular hits.

    Armstrong about Crosby: “I remember the first time a friend of mine in Chicago, he came to me and said, “Man, there’s a little cat comin’ up singin’, you got to dig him! His name is Bing Crosby. See, you got to dig him on Paul Whiteman’s records.” And that was my boy Papa Bing.”

    Crosby on Armstrong: “I’m proud to acknowledge my dept to the Reverend Satchelmouth. He is the beginning and end of music in America.”

    On that note I’ll probably revisit HIGH SOCIETY sometime during the holidays, and by doing so also get some Sinatra passing the tradition along.

  • Mike Grost

    Blake Edwards’ High Time is rich and inventive.

    There are signs of influence here from All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1956). Both films concern middle-aged people who try to develop renewed lives for themselves, over the objections of their grown children. Both characters do the socially unconventional. Both nearly lose their chance for a second marriage due to the machinations of their kids.

    Unlike the earlier Sirk film, the machinations here lead to actual social protest. One of the main characters is a student from India, and he leads a massive student protest against the events, that is explicitly tied in the dialogue to Gandhi. These scenes were made long before the anti-Vietnam War rallies led people to associate students and protests. They form an example, along with the suffragette protests in The Great Race, of Edwards’ interest in non-violence.

    Gavin MacLeod’s chemistry professor anticipates a bit the mad scientist imagery associated with Dr. Fate. Both men produce billowing clouds of smoke, for instance, and both laugh dementedly.

    The hero and heroine are often alone in large, gracious spaces: her house, or the plaza where they meet after the summer. By contrast, the dorm room the hero shares with his roommates is often cramped.

    Edwards often shoots rooms frontally, especially in their opening shots. This gives a geometric, rectilinear quality to the images. All aspects of the room, their walls, doors, and furniture, and see straight-on, making a series of rectangular regions on the screen. These often make complex, visually pleasing compositions. The various kinds of furniture often have an almost “still life” kind of feel.

  • Alex Hicks

    As Dave K. writes of Crosby in the Times, his “easy intimacy and casual charm that he cultivated as a vocalist carried over into his acting.” Yet it bears adding that Crosby wasn’t just a personable charmer. He refined the art of crooning, or popular singing as art and not merely shtick, of vocal skill made or seem easy, of using the mike and the natural delivery of the lyric to advance this end. As musician, he was a technical innovator, as much Griffith as Lilian Gish. Henry Pleasants writes s in The Great American Popular Singers, that his contribution to singing with conversational ease was key to the new sound led to be dubbed crooning. For example, continuing with Pleasants, “the octave B flat to B flat in Bing’s voice at that time [1930s] is, to my ears, one of the loveliest I have heard in forty-five years of listening to baritones, both classical and popular, it dropped conspicuously in later years. From the mid-1950s, Bing was more comfortable in a bass range while maintaining a baritone quality, with the best octave being G to G, or even F to F. In a recording he made of ‘Dardanella’ with Louis Armstrong in 1960, he attacks lightly and easily on a low E flat. This is lower than most opera basses care to venture, and they tend to sound as if they were in the cellar when they get there.” To draw on unreferenced quotes from musicologist J.T.H. Mize at the Crosby entry ar Wikipedia, Crosby could “melt a tone away, scoop it flat and sliding up to the eventual pitch as a glissando, sometimes sting a note right on the button, and take diphthongs for long musical rides.” He could interpolate “pianissimo whistling variations, sometimes arpeggic, at other times trilling” into a delivery.” On his conversational cool, Artie Shaw famously said, ”The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.”
    As radio programmer “Crosby developed the techniques of constructing his broadcast radio programs with the same directorial tools and craftsmanship (editing, retaking, rehearsal, time shifting) that occurred in a theatrical motion picture production. This feat directly led the way to applying the same techniques to creating all radio broadcast programming as well as later television programming. The quality of the recorded programs gave them commercial value for re-broadcast. This led the way to the syndicated market for all short feature media such as TV series episodes.” (“Crosby,” Wikipedia).

    As artistic innovator perhaps he had not just the breakthroughs of a Griffith but the range of a Welles — though better commercial luck, and never the girth. I think Crosby had established his celebrity –as male figure as well as voice via newreel as well as movies – well before he could have been termed “slightly tubby.” During the 1940s and 1950s he was, in Irish hoiuseholds to which Iam linked by marriage, something of a pinup among the ladies

  • Johan Andreasson

    Who am I to question the great Artie Shaw, and it is something of a photo finish, but to me Bix Beiderbecke, born March 10, 1903 wins by a nose as the first hip white person born in the United States with Bing Crosby, who hopefully wouldn’t mind a horse racing comparison, born May 3, 1903 as runner-up.

  • Vivian

    Bix Beiderbecke was definitely hip. I’m pretty sure that we can come up with even earlier examples of hip white persons born in the United States. I for one am going to introduce this as a parlor game at my family “celebration” tomorrow, in a futile attempt to lighten things up a little, or at least elevate the conversation.

  • Johan, if you’re interested in Crosby you should definitely read Gary Giddins’ superb biography “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams” — a 768 page study that still only gets us up to 1940, and the brink of Crosby’s true fame. It’s a brilliant critical study as well as a finely researched life, and Giddins goes into great detail about Crosby’s formation as a jazz singer, with an appropriate emphasis on his friendship and creative collaboration with Armstrong and Biederbecke. It’s not simply a question of Crosby appropriating Armstrong’s style, but of mutual and mutually acknowledged influences; between the two of them, they transformed American popular song. Crosby maintained his jazz credentials throughout his career as a pop singer. I just picked up a beautiful set of CDs on the Mosaic label that collect the small group recordings he made for his CBS radio show between 1954 and 1956; the pipes may not be what they were in 1935 but the creativity is undiminished.

    But, as Jean-Pierre is about to remind me, this is a movie blog, not a jazz forum, and Crosby continues to fascinate as an actor-auteur as well. The quintessentially “American” persona he created for himself — casual sometimes to the dangerous point of indifference, fundamentally decent and generous but always a little bit on the make — seems just as deep and representative to me as John Wayne’s work during the same postwar period that shot both Der Bingle and The Duke to iconic status.

  • Blake Lucas

    That’s a really beautiful piece. I’m not even sure I’ve seen Bing’s place in movies looked at in this way before. The singer/actor really seems to have a place in Dave’s heart and he is eloquent to the point.

    I had been thinking of mentioning HIGH TIME because of Edwards and noticed it was on Fox. But as Tom noted the showtime and Mike has already done it some real justice, I’ll just mention in passing the other late Bing Crosby Fox film and it’s beyond me why the Fox channel is not showing this at Christmas, when I first saw it.

    That’s the seemingly forlorn, never celebrated SAY ONE FOR ME (1960), directed by Frank Tashlin. If HIGH TIME may be underrated, it still enjoys consensus masterpiece status compared to this. But this is a very appealing movie, with Bing once more as a singing priest, only because he is involved with a show business community, the songs come naturally to the film which is effectively a musical. And Bing introduces another lovely Christmas song “The Secret of Christmas” (Cahn-Van Heusen).

    It always seemed to me that logically Tashlin should have directed another Fox film RALLY ROUND THE FLAG BOYS two years earlier (and has been revealed here that he was the original director for it), while Leo McCarey should have been given this one to do, and I wonder if it was ever his project. There isn’t the 50s satire one may think of first when thinking of other Tashlin classics made at Fox. And yet he did a beautiful job, with lovely ‘Scope compositions once again and the same warm-heartedness that enriched the satire of THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? The alcoholic songwriter played by Ray Walston is an especially good character (weren’t we on this subject a little while ago?) and I really believe Bing’s reading of the film’s best line–sittng at a bar with Walston as the other drinks and trying to help him, he gets a bitter “I’m really too old to believe in Santa Claus” and Bing says calmly but with caring conviction “That’s too bad, Phil, he still believes in you”–is just beautifully done. Sincere sentiment without sentimentalism in this neglected gem.

    Happy holidays to all here.

  • And Crosby’s appeal was also international, exporting that American persona or type to the world.

  • Barry Putterman

    Over the course of ninety plus years, Artie Shaw said practically everything on an almost non-stop basis. His Crosby quote (also found on the back of Giddens’ excellent book) has some validity; but surely Vivian is right in assuming that 19th century America produced some native born hip white folks. What about Raoul Walsh? Or Rutherford B. Hayes? I encourage her to share the results of her family discussion with us on the morrow.

    Fox Movie Channel will be showing SAY ONE FOR ME on January 18th in pan and scan. On behalf of Carlye and myself, we thank them for this magnificent lump of coal.

    God bless us one and all.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Dave, I am indeed interested in Crosby. Thanks for the tips and Merry Christmas!

  • Mike Grost

    Dave Kehr’s article about Bing Crosby was fascinating.
    I’ve seen very few of Crosby’s films. And never knew Crosby was important in the history of popular music (I’m mainly a classical fan).

    A favorite Crosby film: Going Hollywood (Raoul Walsh). The title tune is a delightful extravaganza. Lots of Walsh films highlight the night sky and stars. The Going Hollywood number offers a variation: Crosby points to the ceiling of a train station, which has a painting of stars. There is also a tradition of mural and wall paintings running through Walsh.

    The whole number is so exuberant.
    “I’m on my way, I’ve got my beret, I’m going Hollywood!”
    *
    Am taking a time out from family Christmas celebration to say hi to everyone here.

    Happy Holidays!

  • Barry Lane

    Dave:

    Your comment about Crosby being actor-auteur is not only on the money, but where I was going a few weeks back in the Moonfleet entries. The personality of a dominant leading player is at least as important in the shape and style of a film as the director. And, of course, you might add, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer…but, the imprint of a star, to paraphrase James Stewart, is what give people Pieces of Time.

  • Alex Hicks

    Talk of a nineteenth century White hipsters would seem to break with the idea (implicit in Shaw’s attribution) that hip originated in Afro-American jazz culture, adding complications to the differring uses of hip among multiple twentieth generations from early White jazz guys, through the Beats and Baldwin and Mailer and McQueen and Pynchon and Nolte and Bill Murray through to contemporary young rich Columbia and young artie Brooklyn “hip.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, I hope that you take no offense in this as none is intended; but American film history has so many ties to the concurrent history of American popular music that it would be in your interest to become a bit more familiar with it even if it isn’t to your particular taste. Many connections and broader historical understandings could be lost otherwise.

    Barry Lane, it is truly a comfort to know that no matter what is said, you will find a way to interpret it into an affirmation of your own viewpoint. You are truly a poster-auteur!

    May this day be merry and bright for posters and readers of all viewpoints.

  • Barry Lane

    Barry Putterman:

    Just like everyone else, my religous views have been personalized.

    Merry Christmas.

    Barry

  • jbryant

    Mike, expanding on what Barry P. wrote — you know Elvis Presley, from Curtiz’s KING CREOLE and Karlson’s KID GALAHAD? HUUUGE in the history of popular music. So were those guys from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Frank Sinatra also had a lucrative recording career between films. :) Sorry, couldn’t resist. Happy Insert-Your-Holiday here, everybody!

  • Shawn Stone

    Great piece on Der Bingle. I’m really looking forward to SING YOU SINNERS, which Giddins wrote was a personal favorite of Crosby’s because he got a break from playing a romantic lead.

    Since Paramount is carrying on the tradition this holiday season with TRUE GRIT, it’s worth mentioning that HERE IS MY HEART and MISSISSIPPI are both remakes; it’s a tribute to Crosby’s versatility and appeal that the studio thought roles originally filled by Cullen Landis and Adolphe Menjou a decade earlier were suited for Bing.

  • Larry Kart

    Jazz humor: In the liner notes to his 2009 album “Chill Morn He Climb Jenny” (Sunnyside), trumpeter John McNeil wrote this about the Burke-Van Heusen tune “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?”:

    “This song is from the film ‘The Bells of St. Marys,’ starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Bing played a priest and Ingrid a nun, a tribute to their acting skills.”

    P.S. The title of album is an anagram for the names of McNeil and tenor saxophonist/co-leader Bill McHenry.

  • Blake Lucas

    Larry, I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the quote. And yet, it’s kidding on the square, isn’t it? Because they were both completely convincing.

    Just to correct my error re the SAY ONE FOR ME date (I gave it as 1960, so I guess I was thinking of HIGH TIME, Fox’s other film starring Bing). SAY ONE is 1959 which puts it closer in date to 1958’s RALLY ROUND THE FLAG BOYS and makes me wonder more about some possible McCarey/Tashlin trade off as Tashlin was originally supposed to do RALLY. Though both were writers, neither McCarey nor Tashlin scrpted SAY ONE FOR ME–it was one Robert O’Brien, a name I don’t know.

    Even if I wish SAY ONE FOR ME were a more known film, I cannot recommend a Tashlin in pan and scan, anymore than I could an Edwards like HIGH TIME or for that matter even a McCarey, who may have cared least about ‘Scope composition of these three directors. After years of enduring it for films I wanted to see in some fashion, I finally came to a decision maybe five or six years ago that I just didn’t want to see p/s anymore, and would be willing to miss the film instead. Films deserve to be seen as an integral whole as they were made–and it really isn’t even an issue if someone was especially brilliant in their use of wide screen, as Tashlin and Edwards both were.

    Of course, this issue has come up before with regard to the seeming arbitrariness of the Fox channel even though Fox pioneered CinemaScope and should take pride in that every day. They show plenty letterboxed, but others they just don’t, so now, like everyone else in the known world, I’m hoping each day that they will change their minds about Jack Lee’s CIRCLE OF DECEPTION because I really want to see it again.

  • Larry Kart

    Blake: Yes, on the square for sure.

  • Barry Lane

    Not quite thirty years ago Kathryn came up to Toronto doing a major promotional tour. Her manager in this enterprise was a schoolhood friend and so my wife and I got to know her, and about Bing. First, about Kathryn. We could not believe she was as great and nearly perfect person as she seemed. But, indeed she was, and in fact when I swallowed something incorrectly at breakfast, she saved my life. Kathryn, among her many accomplishments, large and small, had been a nurse. We just loved her, and it was our impression, Claude’s and mine, that she just loved Bing. I’m writing this stuff because of the undercurrent to the comments about great acting in Bings religous portrayals. Unquestionably a great actor, and undoubtedly a sometimes flawed fella, although that goes for me too, it is also clear he was a great and good man. I think it is too late Christmas Day form more detail. In fact, to deal with the innuendo, no more is required, at least for or from me.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Some more Netflix live streaming finds:

    The Spanish Cape Affair (Lewis D. Collins/1935)
    One of the very first Republic productions, this is noteable as the first screen version of an Ellery Queen mystery, with Donald Woods as the suave detective and Helen Twelvetrees as one of several suspects in a series of murders at a Malibu estate.

    Magic Fire (William Dieterle/1955)
    Dieterle’s return to Germany is a biopic of Richard Wagner. The Netflix descripition warns that it “ignores some of Wagner’s whopping character flaws.”

    Mary Had a Little… (Edward Buzzell/1961)
    Buzzell’s only non-US studio film, made in the UK and co-starring Hazel Court, this was promoted as being “England’s first sex comedy.”

    I’ve only seen the first (a clear attempt to make an A picture on a B budget, certainly as good as most RKO mysteries of the time, but not distinctive enough to replicate the success of the concurrent nascent Thin Man series. But the randomness of these obscure oddities popping up is part of the fun of going through their catalogue (not readily listed; one needs to cross-check by directors or actors to find out what they have as far as I can tell).

  • Barry Putterman

    I suppose we would all like to think that our standards of behavior are consistent and immutable, but as some old tennis player used to smirk in camera commercials; “image is everything.” And, in fact, Crosby makes an interesting cross reference wit Sinatra on that point.

    Over the course of their careers, Crosby went from jaunty jazz singer to genial reg’lar guy while Sinatra went from bobby soxer dreamboat to sensitive macho man. As such, Sinatra’s arguably wider and deeper character flaws became accepted as an inevitable part of his artistic sensibility while Crosby’s became seen as hypocritical repression.

    I suppose it is a bit of a stretch to think of Crosby as an actual rather than a McCarey inspired priest. But on the other hand, given the revelations regarding the behavior of certain priests over the past decade, where exactly is the center of that joke.

  • Barry Lane

    Barry Putterman:

    A wonderfully well reasoned and written comment. No problem from me on it.

  • David Auerbach

    Somewhat off-topic, but I’ve been bothered for years by a scene I remember seeing in a movie, but I can’t remember the movie. Here’s the scene: A couple are walking in a small snow-bound town on Christmas. They’re alone, everything is closed. I have a vague memory that they are sort of playing hooky. They finally find a Chinese restaurant, which is, of course, open. They are the only clientele, and the benign elderly owner brings them food, as their courtship continues.
    What movie is this? (Of course, I could have ever so many specifics wrong…)

  • Tom Brueggemann

    For those who might not be aware of it –

    TCM tomorrow and then overnight is featuring a treasure trove of Will Rogers/Fox films, including some that have likely not been shown on TV much since 1960s-70s syndication packages.

    The schedule (ET/PT)

    Tues 12/28 & Wed 12/29
    8p/5p Connecticut Yankee (David Butler)
    10p/7p Doctor Bull (John Ford)
    11:30p/8:30p Doubting Thomas (David Butler)
    1a/10p In Old Kentucky (George Marshall)
    2:30a/11:30p Life Begins at 40 (George Marshall)
    4a/1a Too Busy to Work (John Blystone)
    5:15a/2:15 Down to Earth (David Butler)

    The last two are new to me; Doubting Thomas replaces the originally scheduled Handy Andy (David Butler), another long-unseen film.

  • This is great news about Ford’s DOCTOR BULL returning.
    The other films sound nice too.
    The two John Blystone films seen here have been charming, in a light way.

    I will also re-check THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY. Memory says it is fairly remote from the Ellery Queen novel (one of my favorite writers), but Cook is a likable leading man.
    *
    I really admire and enjoy jazz. Just don’t know much about it, especially compared to the experts here.