The Book on Bing Crosby: Bing Goes to the Movies

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Bing Crosby was one of the very few new stars of the early talking pictures — we can't think of another — who hadn't previously been paid to talk. Most of the other imports to Hollywood had honed their verbal skills on the Broadway or vaudeville stage; reading dialogue was nothing new to them. Crosby had read only lyrics: he was a singer, part of Paul Whiteman's trio The Rhythm Boys. Who could even guess that, when the group broke up in 1930, Bing would be successful as a solo singer, let alone as a movie idol?

He surely lacked demonstrable dreamboat features. His slight shoulders led down to a slight paunch. His hair was already receding. In his first solo film, "I Surrender, Dear," there is a brief shot, as he runs from a house, of Bing without his toupee; not a pretty sight. Often he was too lazy to apply a hairpiece, so in movies he'd wear hats or caps with little plot justification. Most noticeable were his Babar ears; they made him look, one studio exec complained, "like a taxi with both doors open." (Crosby, who refused the mogul's demand that he have his ears taped to his head, did allow them to become a friendly butt of humor in his later career.) What one movie boss supposedly said after seeing a Fred Astaire screen test — "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little" — could be applied to the young Crosby by switching the "sing" and "dance."

But as Gary Giddins amply demonstrates in his biography "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940," Bing was an instant hit on records and radio, and in the movies. He starred in Paramount's "The Big Broadcast" of 1932 and would stay at the studio for 24 years, through 60 or so features, including six "Road" movies, three films with "Rhythm" in the title, two versions of "Anything Goes" and "Going My Way," which won him an Oscar as Best Actor. His career could have won him a lifetime award as Biggest Star. Or very nearly. He was the No. 1 box-office star five times (the only one between 1915 and 1980). After their first runs, "Going My Way" was the top-grossing film in Paramount's history, and "The Bells of St. Mary's" the top grosser in RKO history.

What was Crosby's secret? The seamlessness, the integrity of the package: His smooth, pleasant face perfectly suited his smooth, pleasant voice and the casual wit of his professional personality. One would call the Crosby style debonair, if the word didn't suggest class. Bing was of every class and none; his trick was to elevate the Joe Average attitude to a kind of masculine chic. It was an attitude, of a man at ease with himself and his success, that would help him dominate entertainment until the '50s. In pop-cultural history — Jolson to Crosby to Elvis — Bing was the calm before the storm.

You can see the Crosby style full-born in "I Surrender, Dear" (1931), the first of nine short films he would make for producer Mack Sennett. Already he is cast as himself, sort of: "Bing Crosby." Already he is the famous singer all the girls adore. Already he plays pranks on the unwary and has a comedy abettor, an ur-Hope wise guy played by Arthur Stone. Somehow, though, he made the prankishness look like the inevitable spillover of a frat-house exuberance.

Most significant, he also exudes that insouciance that made his dialogue sound like an ad lib. When a large angry man shoots a gun at his feet, Bing simply nonchalants, "Whatta hubba." And at the end of his one big speech, telling off a pretty girl's disapproving mom with a final "Nerts!", he turns to storm out the door but instead accidentally walks into a dresser. Quickly he murmurs, "My sense of direction is a little askew," and exits. Maybe Sennett couldn't afford a Take Two, but he had to love Crosby's aplomb in the face of embarrassment. So, for a long time, did movie audiences.

Crosby proved he could handle a silent-screen diva when he costarred with Marion Davies in "Going Hollywood." The plot was instantly familiar from the Sennett shorts: a girl (Marion Davies) falls in love with the voice of her radio Romeo. ("Oh, she mewls, "you're just a voice that croons about something that once was real.") In a nice melodramatic turn, Bing plays a man driven to drink by despair — an ancestor to his Oscar-nominated role in "The Country Girl." In 1932, though, Bing really did have problems with alcohol. Here, acting was autobiography.

The character he played in movies was honed on radio. As Giddins notes, Crosby enjoyed the most sustained radio stardom of any network performer, 1931–61. For more than a decade he fronted the "Kraft Music Hall," which had a bigger audience in the '30s than "Survivor" has today. Fifty million listeners a week: relative to the population then and now, those are Super Bowl numbers.

What the audience heard was, to their ears, pure Bu-bu-bu-bing: a distilled, romanticized, possibly fictionalized version of himself. With his regulars (comedian Bob Burns, announcer Ken Carpenter, Jimmy Dorsey's band and then John Scott Trotter's) and a guest list of movie folk, jazzmen and classical musicians, Crosby promoted an air of at-home geniality, ad-lib bon-vivance — almost all of it scripted by Carroll Carroll. The writer shaped and sharpened (that is to say, softened) Crosby's public personality, as other scripters would do in the films. Giddins says Carroll allowed "Bing to be Bing, only more so." He added flourishes to Crosby's facility for mixing sesquipedalian phraseology with hipster slang. One tangy aside was apparently not written by Carroll. After a solo by one-armed trumpeter Wingy Malone, Bing quipped, "Man, that was dirtier than a Russian horse-doctor's valise."

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