Judge Ben Saylor invites David Bowie to drop by his house at Christmas.
It's Der Bingle in the time of Kris Kringle!
Bing Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" is one of the most recognizable and enduring staples of the holiday season. It's fitting, then, that Infinity Entertainment has released this set of Yuletide specials featuring the entertainer.
Bing Crosby: The Television Specials, Volume Two contains four television specials starring Crosby. The first, titled simply The Bing Crosby Show, was broadcast on Dec. 11, 1961 and follows Crosby on a tour of London. The 50-minute program is a mix of musical numbers and comedy bits. In addition to Crosby, "Goldfinger" chanteuse Shirley Bassey turns up near the end for a couple of numbers.
Aside from the December broadcast date and a pair of Christmas songs (including "White Christmas") to bookend the show, the first special doesn't really have anything to do with Christmas (which is owned up to by Robert S. Bader in the booklet accompanying the DVD). Watching the special today, it's hard not to find some of it corny, but that's part of the fun, too.
The second special, The Bing Crosby Show for Clairol, was broadcast Dec. 24, 1962. This one is in color and runs about 51 minutes, and teams Crosby up with Peter Pan star Mary Martin. Musician/composer André Previn is also part of the proceedings. Unlike the previous special, which had a plot of sorts involving Crosby's efforts to trace his family tree, this program is strictly musical numbers. As such, it moves slower than the first special. Its connection to Christmas is nonexistent until about the last 10 minutes of the program, when a series of Christmas numbers close the show. During this portion, Crosby, Martin, and Previn are joined by the United Nations Children's Choir, with "White Christmas" again closing out the program.
The next special jumps ahead in time almost 10 years. Bing Crosby and the Sounds of Christmas is, as is implied in the title, all about the big day. Broadcast on Dec. 14, 1971, the 50-minute program finds Crosby joined not only by crooner Robert Goulet and opera singer Mary Costa, but also wife Kathryn Crosby and children Mary Frances, Nathaniel, and Harry.
Bing Crosby and the Sounds of Christmas is a much stronger special than the first two on this set, with lots of fun numbers. One highlight is an extended medley duet between Crosby and Costa that includes "Jingle Bells," "Sleigh Ride," "The Bells of St. Mary's," and many more. Another memorable moment has Crosby singing "The Christmas Song" with only his young son Harry on guitar for accompaniment. There's also time for the ambitious, with Crosby and Goulet performing a musical interpretation of the O. Henry story "The Cop and the Anthem." There's also the corny, represented by the bad-joke-filled "Christmas Alphabet," and the bizarre, represented by a rendition of "Christmas Island" by Mr. and Mrs. Crosby that turns them into a pair of singing dolls via some weird special effects. The show closes strong with an extended medley featuring the whole cast along with the Mitchell Singing Boys.
The disc's last special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, was also the last such program the singer would make. Taped five weeks before Crosby's death and broadcast on Nov. 30, 1977, the special again includes Crosby's family. For this special, the Crosbys are invited to the country estate of distant relative Sir Percy Crosby. Upon arrival, however, Sir Percy is nowhere to be found, leaving the Crosbys to engage in a retinue of Christmas songs and comic bits. David Bowie drops by, performing a fantastic duet of "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" with Crosby. This number is one of the high points of the whole set.
This final special also has a few guest stars, with Twiggy in the mix for a lovely duet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Stanley Baxter plays Sir Percy's housekeeping staff (male and female), and Ron Moody (Oliver!) is Charles Dickens, as well as Scrooge and Fagin, for a special Dickens-themed musical number. (He also plays Uncle Percy toward the end of the special.)
Aside from the awkward inclusion of Bowie's "Heroes," this is a strong special that is all the more poignant for the fact that Crosby passed away so shortly after its completion.
The four specials are spread evenly across 2 discs. The liner notes say that each special has been "carefully restored from the original production masters," although the back of the package admits, "occasional flaws in the image quality and audio fidelity may be apparent." Generally speaking, the image quality improves from special to special, and the occasional bleariness and other flaws in image quality never detract from the overall experience.
For extras, on disc one, there is a 1957 holiday episode of the Frank Sinatra Show where Crosby stops by Ol' Blue Eyes' house for the holidays. This 26-minute show has plenty of great music from both singers, as well as amusing slang terms from Crosby, like "drape" (his coat) and "skimmer" (his hat). The disc also has about 12 minutes of outtakes from the second special. On disc 2, there is a 1-minute PSA for Toys for Tots starring Crosby, along with Bing's Britain, a tourism promotional film for the United Kingdom. A short booklet describing the specials is also included. Amazon.com lists a version of this set that comes with a 10-track CD, which, strangely enough, is cheaper than the CD-less edition I was given to review.
It's a bit of a stretch to subtitle this set "The Christmas Specials," given the first two specials' smaller amount of Christmas material, but this is still a must-own for Crosby enthusiasts. There's a lot of great holiday music in here and plenty of family-friendly fun all around. Bing Crosby was a one-of-a-kind performer, and the holidays clearly meant a lot to him. For some old-fashioned Yuletide entertainment, Bing Crosby: The Television Specials, Volume Two is a great way to go.
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Studio: Infinity Entertainment
• Bonus Episode
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