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Bing Crosby Collection, The (DVD Review)

29 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$49.98 three-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard.

As one of the interviewees says on the recent Blu-ray and most recent DVD of White Christmas, Crosby was Paramount — which is true enough if you’re also talking about longevity (24 years) and not bringing directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and the early Billy Wilder into the mix.

But Crosby’s vehicles got better and certainly a lot smoother in the 1940s after he lost some baby fat and developed a looser screen persona. Starting right around the time the 1930s segued into the next decade, he began to suggest a guy lining up putts who just happened to find himself in front of the camera (which is actually kind of what happens in the great golf routine with Bob Hope that’s the highlight of 1947’s Variety Girl). This six-title set, which goes a long way toward filling some missing-on-DVD Crosby gaps, is almost all 1930s — another way of saying that you’re not going to find many unsung classics, though it is packed with movies hitherto tough to see in recent years.

The most historically significant is 1935’s Mississippi, which boasts Bing with W.C. Fields and with Rodgers and Hart (all in good form). It was conspicuously missing from the two Fields sets of Paramount releases that controlling Universal released several years back — either because they had a future Bing set on their mind or because of the occasional Don Imus-caliber racial asides Fields makes about an African-American singing group who appears on his character’s riverboat (and children at that). Given this, one also wonders if race played any factor in the omission of 1943’s Dixie on this set, as was originally announced. A biography of the eponymous song’s composer, minstrel-man Daniel Emmett, it would have made a nice inclusion, given that it was a) Crosby’s first color movie if you don’t count his pre-stardom appearance in 1930’s primitive two-color King of Jazz; and b) the source of one of his most durable hits, “Sunday, Monday or Always.”

Fields’ transgression aside, Mississippi is pretty solid in its best moments, which include a Fields poker game in which the deck turns out to be stocked with aces and during musical interludes that include “Swanee River,” which Rodgers and Hart definitely did not write. Yet for a movie running just 73 minutes, it has some high-end R&H tunes. “It’s Easy to Remember” is an all-timer, of course, while “Soon” and “Down by the River” were big Decca sellers for Crosby in their day.

The story, which eventually finds a way to put Crosby in an unflattering mustache, deals with a Philadelphia gent unaccustomed to Southern dueling (or Philly street-fighting) when challenged to defend his honor in the julep milieu of his now humiliated fiancée (Gail Patrick) and her old-school father. This plot twist lands him on Fields’ boat as one of the entertainers and opens the door to link him up with Patrick’s smitten kid sister (Joan Bennett), who was the right one all along. It is strange to look at the Bennett here and realize that as a brunette just a decade later, she would become e of all the all-time film noir queens working for Fritz Lang in The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.

With one exception, the other ‘30s releases reside on lower rungs. Chronologically, they are:

College Humor (1933): In his second feature, Bing is a professor at a university in which football players Richard Arlen and Jack Oakie letter in smoking and drinking; in one scene, Arlen (six years after he starred in the Oscar-winning Wings and 29 before he got gored by a rhino to open Howard Hawk’s Hatari!) slugs Oakie hard in the face — twice — as part of a fraternity ritual. John Wayne’s real-life USC football coach Howard Jones plays the coach here, George Burns and Gracie Allen cater a party and one of the students is played by Grady Sutton, who ended his screen career 46 years later in a Ramones movie. College Humor and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School; I like the symmetry.

We’re Not Dressing (1934): This is the last-minute substitution for Dixie, having previously appeared as well on Universal’s 2006 set devoted to Carole Lombard, whose filmy duds here are more of a selling point than the uncomfortable-looking bear to which Bing sings. This is an uncredited musical version of James M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, filmed under its own name in 1918 and 1957. Rich snob Lombard and badgered sailor Crosby get stranded on an island with a cast that could give the Gilligan crew a run for the money. They include Burns and Allen (who are already there), a pre-stardom Ray Milland and an Ethel Merman who was so young that she actually has a fairly cute figure. Maybe her later real-life husband of 55 days, Ernest Borgnine, saw the film at the time.

Here Is My Heart (1934): Due to literary rights wrangles, this play-based ship’s romance (only this time, Bing is rich, disguising himself as not) wasn’t sold to MCA in the late 1950s with most of the 1929-48 Paramount library. It fell through the cracks and was thought to be a lost film until Crosby’s widow Kathryn found a 16mm copy in a closet (given the recent discovery of the 1960 World Series’ game 7 in his wine cellar, maybe UCLA should open a preservation division in Bing’s house). The movie is spotty — but now that it’s almost unheard of to have two good Oscar-nominated songs in the same year, it’s pretty amazing to think that this movie introduced “June in January” and “Love Is Just Around the Corner” — both within its first 10 minutes. Also introduced: “With Every Breath I Take,” which Frank Sinatra covered on his brilliant 1957 Close to You album.

Sing You Sinners (1938): Too entertaining to be called one of the set’s also-rans, this Depression-flavored family comedy with a nightclub/racetrack backdrop casts Crosby, Fred MacMurray and a 12-year-old Donald O’Connor as brothers. Any movie that puts Fred in spectacles and grandmother drag is worth it just by itself, but his garb’s taking-one-for-the-team dimension is meant to serve a memorable rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael-Frank Loesser classic Small Fry. The only thing better than this is Crosby’s gonzo hit recording of it with Johnny Mercer, an eternal tickler.

The final selection is Welcome Stranger (1947), which re-teamed Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald following 1944’s Oscar winner Going My Way, which had been the most popular Hollywood movie produced during the World War II years. Instead of bickering cross-generational priests, they are bickering cross-generational doctors — a modification allowing Bing to have a love interest (Joan Caulfield, then one of the most beautiful women on screen). Though by no means a widely shared opinion, Stranger is among my favorites of all Crosby vehicles, especially during the Country Style hoedown number his character elects to perform for some dubious Maine locals when the regular square-dance caller can’t make it. Of course, somebody besides me must have really liked the picture. It either was or was very close to being the year’s top grosser, back when there wasn’t TV marketing around to successfully sell the lackluster movie flavor of the week.

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