Archive for Bing Crosby

Nunsplaining

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2017 by dcairns

Bing upstaged by kitten in boater. I guess this is what you’re reduced to when you can’t allow your comedy any trace of meanness.  But I admit I like the funny awkwardness of the composition.

A kind of morbid seasonal curiosity drove us on, remorselessly, into THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to GOING MY WAY. It’s exactly the same length, two hours and five minutes, making this quite a Bing-binge. It’s exactly as shapeless as its predecessor but somewhat more amusing.

Bing walks into view from the side, just as he walked out of GOING MY WAY, a touch you can only appreciate if you watch them together, but he exited GMW walking right to left and enters this one left to right. What’s the matter, Bing? You call your movie GOING MY WAY, but just what IS your way? You seem UNCERTAIN.

The pleasure-needle briefly wobbles into the red when we meet Una O’Connor who warns Bing balefully about the deleterious effects of being “up to your neck in nuns.” Fine words, delivered by a woman with just the right Gothic horror comedy credentials to put them over big. But in fact, the nuns are fine, and Bing gets on perfectly well with them, and the movie resolves this inconsistency by having Una largely disappear for the next two hours so as not to remind us of the false promise of dramatic tension.

There are other amusing issues of continuity. Teenager Joan Carroll (one of those weird little adults they have as teenagers in the forties) shows up with lipstick and Bing wipes it off, revealing one of the few un-touched faces to be seen in Hollywood films of the period. But in her very next scene she has lipstick again, just paler, the kind we’re not supposed to notice. And she needs it, I guess, to stop us noticing that Ingrid Bergman, a nun, also wears subtle but quite apparent lipstick throughout. (In THE NUN’S STORY the sisters all wear make-up but it’s cunningly invisible.)

Bergman brings the entertainment, though. It’s the entertainment of seeing a lusty woman in a habit. When she smiles, it’s not only one of the most beauteous smiles in cinema, it’s far from beatific. It’s full of sex. When she tells Joan Carroll about all the things she should experience before deciding if she wants to be a nun, she seems to be really getting into it, and when she says “not until you’ve known all this…and more,” it’s not “more things that we have time to get into here,” it’s “more things than I can tell you about while the Breen Office is eavesdropping — wait until the fade-out.”

Also having her natural exuberance stifled is Ruth Donnelly, the Frank McHugh of this movie, a zesty pre-code malefactor now tamped down and smothered in vestments for the repressed post-war world. It’s like McCarey was on a personal mission to leach the good, dirty fun out of everything. William Gargan also turns up, simpering — he’s a different case, since his attempts at pre-code stardom fizzled, and he got a new lease of life in wartime while some of the proper leading men were away fighting.

Who else? henry Travers as the millionaire from whom the nuns want to get a new school. Casting someone convincingly irascible and Scrooge-like would seem the minimum requirement to generate some dramatic zing and tension, so McCarey, naturally, goes the other way in order to flatten and confuse his film, casting a mild, befuddled performer who was about to play an angel. McCarey’s strategy in these films is to throw a wet blanket over anything threatening to become suspenseful. It’s not incompetence, it’s genuinely his aim. But I can’t really sympathise with it.

Henry Travers upstaged by dog. See top.

He does pull off one terrific moment with this approach, I’ll admit. When Travers has his conversion and becomes a saintly philanthropist, he tells Ingrid she can have her new school and he’s just off to sign the papers. Those of us who have seen a few films, and noticed Travers’ jaywalking one scene earlier, wonder if he’s perhaps going to be struck down by an automobile before he can reach the office. He exits, there’s a pause, then a screech of brakes and cries of alarm. Ingrid opens the door in time to see him emerging from under a truck, waving. He’s fine! A sort of heart-warming narrative double-cross. Pull off a couple more of those and you might have a picture.

I will admit that the nativity play rehearsal is funny and charming and uses McCarey’s way with improv to get very natural performances from kids who are supposed to be giving bad performances in a play. I especially like the lead boy who can’t breathe. This is the only film I know of where “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” is sung apart from FULL METAL JACKET. McCarey reports that the sequence worried the studio suits, who feared it might be blasphemous, “But they weren’t Catholic.”

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Crosby Stille Nacht

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2017 by dcairns

Managed to avoid seeing GOING MY WAY all my life but finally weakened — needed to get more of a Leo McCarey overview. This one’s kind of a tipping point, the moment the conservative side of the Catholic Republican, called “Machiavellian” by John Huston, starts to emerge onscreen. The anti-Communism would follow soon after. (OK, there’s a religious streak in LOVE AFFAIR, but it’s at least subordinate to the story.)

GOING MY WAY is a rather unlikely success story, since it’s plotless and rambling and very long (by 1940s standards — it’s a good but shorter than THE LAST JEDI). But it beat DOUBLE INDEMNITY to the Oscar, one has to assume due to its perceived spiritual uplift (the Wilder Chandler noir has little of that). It’s a relentlessly nice film, whose chief strategy is to defuse dramatic potential rather than ignite it. McCarey, a comedy genius whose humour is subtly rooted in reality (while still embracing all available aspects of movieness) sets himself the tricky task of getting laughs out or priests, without being disrespectful, an almost impossible task, and stringing together a collection of incidents without a driving force of plot or any escalation of conflict (the priest hero always finds a way to de-escalate it). I think the shapelessness is deliberate: McCarey is trying to capture the randomness of his own life, which was interrupted by affairs, marital tiffs, drunken benders, car crashes, Oscar wins, falling down an elevator shaft… much more interesting stuff than we see in GOING MY WAY, now that I think of it. But the church spontaneously combusts in this one, and it truly is random.

Bing Crosby is a young priest. Barry Fitzgerald is an old priest. Some disagreement is allowed to simmer between them about methodology, but nothing ever comes of it. Also, the mortgage-holder is threatening to foreclose on the church, even though his son helpfully points out that this is a thing that never, ever happens. The Church is not a poor organisation as far as I’m aware, so this gesture towards dramatic tension doesn’t convince, but McCarey, having set it up, forgets about it for an hour at a time anyway, so there’s no point getting upset.

Crosby arrives and gets into scrapes. It seems priests get no respect: old women and atheists shout at them in the street. Already, Jean Renoir’s assessment that McCarey had the best understanding of people of anyone in Hollywood, is under threat: such a feeling for humanity can’t thrive with a toxic injection of propaganda. And yet it doesn’t roll over and die: you get unruly eruptions of real behaviour amid the schmaltz. And, near the end of the line for McCarey, you get MY SON JOHN, a film made by a madman, in which the human story is at odds with the political message, resulting not in the complexity McCarey was after but in crazy incoherence.

GMW isn’t quite as chaotic as that, or as it appears. Walking home one night from his boys’ club outing (our priest reforms all the local juvenile delinquents, even though their crimes are presented as merely amusing hi-jinks), Crosby passes the Metropolitan Opera and meets an old flame. And she’s playing Carmen, so we get an entire aria. The film is a kind of musical, or at any rate it’s touting a soundtrack album. It looks like the operatic career is solely an excuse for a bit of culture. But it does come back and play a plot role. McCarey inserts things at random, seems to forget about them, then returns to them and links them to other plot elements to solve problems or create fresh ones. It’s still not a very sophisticated story, but it has a little more design than at first appears. Then the church burns down for no reason. I guess a shot of a candle falling over or something would too forcibly suggest an Act of God, which would raise uncomfortable questions. (SUPERMAN III dialogue: “It was an act of God!” “In a church?”)

Sportswear imparts an uncomfortable Jimmy Savile look to Bing.

It needs mentioning that, in addition to discovering a soulfulness in Crosby, who is elsewhere an effective scoundrel in the ROAD pictures, the movie effects a form of castration on Frank McHugh, wheezing dirty imp of pre-code days, now a gurgling priest, his smutty laugh replaced with a warm chortle which McCarey keeps cutting to until the chubby clergyman leaves humanity behind and comes to resemble a punctuation mark or musical note or piece of found footage, dropped in whenever a warm chortle is needed.

This is a scene where McHugh has come to deliver sad news, which gives you some idea.

And then Crosby gets a new posting and just strolls off, not into the distance as is customary, but sideways, sidling offscreen (into a lucrative sequel, as it happens). THE END appears softly, in Hallmark Christmas card font, without fanfare, the lack of music and closure undercutting its finality. Death is completely absent from the duties of these priests, and from the movie: when a minor character goes to war and is reported injured, everybody is amused by the ironic circumstances of the accident and nobody asks if he’s going to be OK: we can assume he’s fine, apparently. Everybody’s always fine. Everything’s fine.

Merry Christmas!

 

Sex Poodle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on September 28, 2017 by dcairns

Billy Wilder never had a good word to say about THE EMPEROR WALTZ, a post-war mis-step on the path to SUNSET BLVD. This Bing Crosby period musical really deserves to be seen — not that it’s a good film, but it shows Wilder’s talents straining and grinding against thin air in a way they never had to again. Fascinating!

This fortnight’s Forgotten, over at The Notebook.