12/26/07

BING CROSBY--THE BAD BOY ERA PT. 1

therhythmboys

Apropos of my post (12/20) on Dixie Lee Crosby, I thought we'd investigate who exactly her as yet unknown (but infamous in other ways) boyfriend/soon to be husband/soon to be major celebrity figure was at this time in their mutual lives (1929). Though this "Bing" Crosby fellow who was by no means as successful as the young Dixie Lee, he would woo and win the young Fox starlet and soon, alas, eclispse and crush her in every possible way.

In the mid 1920's, Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby, from Spokane Washington, was the member of a vocal duo act with Al Rinker, a fellow Spoaknian who Bing hooked up with in the mid twenties and who encouraged Bing to abandon his law studies for an unpromising show-biz career. By chance, they caught the eye of Paul Whiteman, then one of the leading popular bandleaders of the day, who added a third member, Harry Barris, and dubbed them the "the Rhythm Boys". Their recordings with the Whiteman band created quite a stir (as did their personal appearances) and when Whiteman was recruited by Universal Pictures to participate in one of those early "all talking, all singing" extravaganzas that anyone who reads this site knows both obsess and annoy the hell out of me, the band came west and Bing, instantly, was singled out for screen tests. Why? Well, watch the below clips and see whose face you keep watching throughout the number--and it's not, I think, because Bing is the one we recognize; he has that unnamed, hard to define charisma that draws you into whatever he's doing. (Those early glimpses of Judy Garland with her far less charismatic sisters function in the same way--it's young Judy who instinctivey understands the camera and who we are instantly drawn towards). In some ways, Bing does less than either of his co-horts (Barris on the piano, is so amusingly hyper that he threatens to tumble right off the screen)--but being seen "doing less" in fact became the Crosby signiture 'tude. Despite his cool and his clear mastery of how to handle the camera, none of Bing's screen tests of this period led to anything and "King Of Jazz", the resulting film featuring the Whiteman band, remained Bing's only screen appearance for the next couple of years.


This was also a period of extreme self-indulgence for Crosby--he was drunk much of the time (who wasn't?) and constantly got into scrapes involving the law, including several near-fatal drunk driving accidents. This apparently cost him the big finale number in "King Of Jazz" , the execrable "Song Of The Dawn" which was given to the now justly forgotten John Boles. At the time this appeared to Crosby to be the big chance that got away but years later he correctly saw that the material was far to pompous and solemn for him and indeed might have laid an egg large enough to have kept him out of movies forever after. It's interesting to consider this possibility, for some bigger names than Bing's at the time--Rudy Vallee for instance--made disastrous movie debuts (few things on earth are more ghastly than Vallee's 1929 "The Vagabond Lover") and weren't heard of again, cinematically speaking, for another decade. (Vallee was of course immensely popular on radio and records--as was Bing--but only emerged as an actor in the 1940's as a comic second-banana courtesy of Preston Sturges use of him in "Palm Beach Story"). Bing's burgeoning movie career--nourished by his popularity on radio--eventually led to full-fledged stardom and later a Best Actor Oscar (for "Going My Way"), thereby cementing Crosby's pre-eminent position as the twentieth century's first multi-media star, equally conversant and beloved in every medium.


Below are two clips from "King Of Jazz". What can be said of this film? It's a fascinating artifact that has little to do with jazz--Gary Giddins in his Crosby bio "A Pocketful Of Dreams" notes that the only black person in the film is "a smiling six year old girl cradled in Whiteman's lap for a laugh." Doesn't the last name "Whiteman" really just say it all? Despite this, the film is elaborately produced, inventively directed (by the Broadway extravaganza master John Murray Anderson) and contains enough eye-popping visuals to warrent a look by anyone interested in music, theater, film and dance from this period.





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