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Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Vol. One (DVD Review)

31 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$29.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Edie Adams, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee.

Crosby was unquestionably the most important American entertainer from the first half of the 20th century, yet he was already approaching “emeritus” status when I began playing his old 78s and seeing him in the first-run theatrical engagements of White Christmas, High Society and the VistaVision remake of Anything Goes well before I even got out of elementary school. He was the first superstar vocalist to make it just as significantly in the movies, a feat duplicated by only five others: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Doris Day and Barbra Streisand. Or OK, nine, if you count the Beatles, but their pool wasn’t nearly as large, and they didn’t really have “acting” roles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

Crosby’s “Road”-mate Bob Hope began his TV specials very early, plugging Frigidaires on NBC by 1950. But aside from a couple guest shots, Bing didn’t take his first plunge until the Sunday night after New Year’s in 1954 (January 3), and this is the first of four shows on this spotty mix of curios and the genuinely super.

Crosby was an early investor in and promoter of audiotape (just what he needed: more money), but videotape wasn’t yet in use when CBS aired this opening salvo, which was filmed. Jack Benny was one of two guests — albeit the one who ended up rating less ink — and you have to go a long way to find a more transparently phony laugh track than the painful one utilized here. The conversation piece of this half-hour show was and is a dance performed by Sheree North — soon to be groomed by 20th Century-Fox as a blonde-and-built successor to an increasingly uncooperative Marilyn Monroe and seven months before North’s scene-stealing jitterbug with Jerry Lewis in Paramount’s Living It Up. For its day, her gyrations here for Bing and Jack were, uh, provocative — so much so that the sponsor was reportedly miffed.

The two best shows are sandwiched in the middle, including a Sept. 29, 1959, ABC airing that’s kind of a classic, as it ought to be with guests Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Louis Armstrong. In one great ensemble sequence with the first three, each rates an individual piano player: Paul Smith, George Shearing (who often worked with Lee) and Joe Bushkin. Sinatra sings Willow Weep for Me with his landmark Only the Lonely LP voice and arrangement, while Crosby and Armstrong duet as affectionately as ever. The other solid show — as good comedically as the ’59 show is musically — is a May 14, 1962, NBC special with Hope, Edie Adams, son Gary Crosby, clarinetist Pete Fountain and the Smothers Brothers. To promote The Road to Hong Kong, which opened somewhat geriactically in theaters a week later, Bing and Bob reminisce about the “Road” series, and the banter is loose and very funny. A 1942 shot of them in their Road to Morocco turbans flashes on a screen, and one of them comments that they’d better not be on the Road to Israel.

The final show (Bing Crosby: Cooling It) aired on NBC April 13, 1970 — or about three weeks before the Kent State killings during campus war protests. It’s weird to see Crosby in this time-frame straining to go with the counter-culture flow, though he tries by singing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" and taking a shot at Mama Cass’ "New World Coming." The show is pretty grim until the very end, when Crosby and Dean Martin prove excellent foils for Flip Wilson’s in-drag “Geraldine” and when the two singers share a medley. Somewhere down the road, additional guest star Bernadette Peters’ body got some desperately needed toning, but it hadn’t happened yet.

It was rare to see Crosby interviewed in any depth — did he ever do a talk show? — but there’s a 1967 beauty in this set’s outstanding bonus section. The source is an Australian TV show called “Girl Talk,” and the program-length chat was filmed very early in the morning outside Crosby’s San Francisco residence, which doesn’t exactly lower the neighborhood’s property values. He’s very forthcoming with a host he seems to like, and it’s touching to hear him gush about Grace Kelly. The hostess promises that the next show will feature Sterling Hayden. Please, someone, find it.

The other standout — in an array that even includes a 1964 pitch for a Thermo-Fax machine — is a spring 1952 episode of “The Christophers,” a religious program I used to watch on Sunday mornings because it was the first thing ABC ran after the test pattern and The Big Picture (Army Signal Corp films), which I also used to watch. I always liked “The Christophers’” Father James Keller, who was nothing like the charlatans we see on so many so-called spiritual shows today. And here he is with Crosby, Hope, golfer Ben Hogan, baseball slugger Ralph Kiner and a seemingly awed Phil Harris (though Hope keeps injecting wisecracks into the religious talk).

The jumping-off point is Hogan’s miraculous personal/professional recovery from a 1949 highway mishap that should have ended his career or even killed him. Any golf junkie will love seeing this because Hogan — whose image was that of a chilly all-business type — is warm, smiling and conveying the impression that he’s happy to be on the show. Judging from the goodies in this collection, it’s pretty obvious that Hope isn’t the only one who kept a huge personal archive.

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