Archive for Bing Crosby

Country Matters

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back!
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of, among other things, A STAR IS BORN versus THE COUNTRY GIRL. Both had leading ladies — Judy Garland, Grace Kelly — in competition for the “Best Actress” Oscar. And both were dramas-with-songs where the songs were written by the same team, Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (words).
“Harold Arlen?” you ask. Utterly first-rate composer, of a stature with Porter and Gershwin and Kern, yet sporadic luck as far as movies are concerned. High-points would be THE WIZARD OF OZ and the ‘50s STAR IS BORN. And then there’s THE COUNTRY GIRL.
Perhaps THE COUNTRY GIRL Is a shade less rewarding than STAR IS BORN — I’d attribute it to the difference between directors George Cukor (STAR) and George Seaton (GIRL) — yet the distance ain’t *that* huge. Both deal with people in the performing arts. In COUNTRY GIRL, that means a former star (Bing Crosby) attempting a stage comeback with the help and/or hindrance of his wife (Grace Kelly) and young director (William Holden). Both feature an older male (here Crosby) threatening to self-destruct via alcohol. Both even contain a faux-calypso ad jingle to be recorded — though these days one only finds the STAR IS BORN jingle among the “extras.”
The Oscar went to Kelly, of course, though I — while no Judy Partisan — would call Garland the more deserving. Kelly’s eye-popping for dramatic effect is a bit strenuous, and her telling Holden “Why are you holding me? I said, *why* are you *holding* me?” shortly before their kiss is the stuff of Imogene Coca comedy. Yet one can understand how Kelly’s dowdiness-for-virtue, in the early reels, yielding to an Edith Head party dress at the end would appeal to Oscar-think. There’s an affecting two-shot, too, of Kelly hiding her face from eager Crosby to disguise the pain at Holden’s accusations.
“To me you’re as phony as an opera soprano!” jeers Holden.
WHAP! goes Kelly’s hand on Holden’s face.
“Did I forget to tell you I’m proud?” she responds.
(Note to Oscar-conscious screenwriters: be sure to include one moment where the character asserts his/her worth.)
It’s all a well-heeled adaptation, with sharp-ish moments, of a 1950 Clifford Odets’play, one which won a “Best Actress” Tony for Uta Hagen. Only it’s smoothed-out, in an up-market ‘50s Paramount sort of way. There’s still startling animal imagery in the dialogue (“What’d I bring you, a basket full of snakes?” Holden asks Kelly), but the sudden epithets are gone. We have to wait till Odets-written SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS to hear Barbara Nichols call Tony Curtis “Eyelashes.” Holden no longer refers to Kelly as “Lady Brilliance.”
There’s a different sort of music, though, in the Arlen & Gershwin numbers. They recapitulate the STAR IS BORN trick of using apparent pop-songs to talk about the characters singing them. Just as “Gotta Have Me Go With You” was about James Mason’s need for Judy Garland, the spieler number here (“It’s Mine, It’s Yours”) is about the need to believe, no matter what, in Crosby’s ability to make good. A duet with a barroom chanteuse (“What you have learned is, is: / You haven’t learned a thing” sings Crosby) is about falling off the wagon and the dubious possibility of change.
Foggy memory brought me to COUNTRY GIRL with inaccurate notions of the plot’s resolution. Not to offer “spoilers,” but … let’s just say there’s a special category of ‘50’s drama wherein ill-advised romance is resolved by one character pursuing another in long-shot. PICNIC, f’rinstance, or the PAL JOEY movie. Or what we find here.
Kelly is proficient, if a bit flat-out and obvious; Holden gives the sort of sharp-edged, cagey performance that’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen SUNSET BOULEVARD; and Crosby’s hollow-eyed, anxious performance is the biggest surprise of all. A friend likes to quote John Ford on RED RIVER to describe Crosby here, and I’ll second that: “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act!”
One misses, among other things, the Gene Allen designs and the Skip Martin arrangements of STAR IS BORN. Also whatcha call directorial style. But there are definite virtues to this COUNTRY GIRL— including its glimpses of populist musical theater and those who made it in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
THE COUNTRY GIRL falls short of A STAR IS BORN, in other words, but not *that* far short.
*
The cast for THE COUNTRY GIRL includes, as David Cairns would say, Lisa Fremont, Father Chuck O’Malley; Joe Gillis; and Deputy Charlie Norris … along with cameos by Ursus and Anita’s Bernardo.

Crosby Stille Nacht

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 7, 2019 by dcairns

The Unbearable Lightness of Bing — I’ve written before about Leo McCarey’s baffling descent — or ascension — into demented Catholic mania — now I’ve made a more sympathetic video essay for Arrow Video to accompany their lovely Blu-Ray of THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S in which, with the aid of editor Stephen Horne, I attempt to burrow into that weirdness and the improvisational techniques and freeform narrative approach that McCarey employed.

You can buy it, for your own pleasure or as a gift for the Bingrid fan in your life.

And remember —

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.”