This review is one of Judge Clark Douglas' less well-known efforts.
6 musical favorites starring der Bingle!
Though best-known for his distinctive singing voice, the esteemed Bing Crosby also managed to maintain quite an impressive acting career. He collaborated with Bob Hope in the popular Road to… movies and won an Academy Award for his performance in Going My Way. However, you won't find any of that stuff in The Bing Crosby Collection from the Backlot Universal Series. This particular collection is devoted to spotlighting a series of less well-known Crosby flicks made between 1933 and 1948. Is it worth a look, or should these films remain forgotten? Let's dig in.
College Humor presents a particularly thin plot that serves as little more than an excuse to set up a series of musical set pieces. Crosby gets one of his first leading roles as Music Professor Frederick Danvers, a nice guy with a tendency to break into song at unexpected moments. One of his students is Mondrake (Richard Arlen, To the Shores of Hell), the star of the school football team. Mondrake is in love with Barbara Shirrel (Mary Carlisle, Dead Men Walk), sister of the dumb-but-lovable Barney (Jack Oakie, The Call of the Wild). Unfortunately for Mondrake, Barbara has eyes for Professor Danvers. Using this romantic entanglement as the glue that holds this rambling affair together, College Humor veers between big musical performances and wacky comedic sequences. In terms of the former, the highlight is probably the Busby Berkeley-style number "The Old Ox Road" (which utilizes just every major cast member), a fun sequence that offers an enthusiastic endorsement of co-ed make-out sessions. The comedic portions of the film are less successful, too often relying on painfully over-the-top slapstick. The only time the comedy really works well is when George Burns and Gracie Allen turn up to do their patented routine. Their pitch-perfect back-and-forth is both subtler and funnier than anything else the film has to offer. Oddly enough, Crosby has less screen time than Arlen and Oakie despite his leading-man status. Also, while College Humor isn't exactly striving for realism, it's awfully hard to buy most of the actors (some of whom were in their '30s) as college students.
We're Not Dressing is something of an oddity, playing like some sort of '30s predecessor to Gilligan's Island. Crosby plays a sailor named Steve Jones, a crew member on a fancy yacht carrying numerous esteemed passengers. Onboard are Prince Alexander (Jay Henry), Prince Michael (Ray Milland, Dial M for Murder), yacht owner Doris Worthington (Carol Lombard, To Be or Not to Be), Doris' pet bear Droopy, her uncle Herbert (Leon Errol, Higher and Higher) and his fiancée Edith (Ethel Merman, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). When a heavily intoxicated Herbert takes control of the yacht, he promptly crashes it. Fortunately, the passengers are able to make it to a deserted island, where additional wacky hijinks ensue. It's not technically any better than College Humor, but the sheer weirdness of the thing makes it a strangely compelling watch. Sporting roughly a dozen musical numbers, a bear on roller skates and a remarkably eclectic cast, We're Not Dressing is oddball fun. Another appearance by George Burns and Gracie Allen adds more enjoyment to the proceedings. It's worth noting that Crosby seems considerably more confident this time around, even if he still has less screen time than one would expect.
Things settle down a bit with Here is My Heart, a standard-issue romance in which Bing players a wealthy singer (what a stretch, huh?) attempting to track down an antique dueling pistol. It just so happens that the pistol is in the possession of Alexandra (Kitty Carlisle), a Russian Princess. He'll do whatever it takes to get his hands on the weapon, even going so far as to pose as a waiter at the hotel where Alexandra is staying. Naturally, as the film progresses he becomes less interested in the pistol and more interested in wooing the beautiful Princess. Here is My Heart is a breezy charmer offering fewer songs than the previous outings but a plot with considerably more focus and coherence. Carlisle has a good deal of difficulty playing the ice-cold Princess, and then has trouble finding a way to make the character likable during the later scenes, but it's not a horrible performance. Crosby is in sturdy form, and William Frawley (I Love Lucy) offers in an effectively grimy supporting turn.
In Mississippi, Crosby plays a northern gentleman named Tom Grayson who's paying a visit to the Old South. He's engaged to be married to the lovely Elvira (Gail Patrick, My Man Godfrey), but is challenged to a duel for her hand by the stuffy Major Patterson (John Miljian, The Ten Commandments). Elvira loses all respect for Tom after he refuses to engage in violence on her behalf, forcing Tom to walk away from the relationship in disgrace. He takes a job as a singer on a steamboat, where Commodore Jackson (W.C. Fields, The Bank Dick) attempts to teach the lily-livered Yankee coward a thing or two about honor and courage. On the surface, Mississippi seems to have a lot going for it. Crosby seems to have fully come to terms with his identity as a movie star, and the presence of co-star W.C. Fields brings some splendid comedy to the proceedings. Alas, a generous dose of sexism ("Women are like elephants to me. I like to look at 'em, but I wouldn't want to own one.") and racial stereotyping (lots of typical-of-the-era "Yessah, massah!" performances, plus a scene where Fields rubs a black child's curls for good luck) makes the whole affair a frown-inducing one far too often (not to mention that the anti-pacifism message the film offers comes across as terribly dated and kind of stupid). That's too bad, because otherwise this is one of the wittiest and most well-crafted films in this collection.
In Sing You Sinners, brothers Joe (Bing Crosby), David (Fred MacMurray, The Apartment) and Mike (Donald O'Connor, Toys) perform together in local clubs as a singing trio, but Joe's the only one who gets any pleasure from the work. David and Mike are sick of music, and their mother (Elizabeth Patterson) feels that the shiftless Joe is a bad influence on his younger siblings. For one reason or another, Joe picks up and moves to Los Angeles, where he starts a business and then proceeds to sell it for a racehorse. Soon enough, the brothers have teamed up once again and are attempting to use their musical talents to pay off Joe's considerable debts. Alas, as time passes the brothers find themselves tangled in an increasingly expensive and dangerous gambling drama. The film turns a tad predictable and melodramatic after a while, but Sing You Sinners ultimately proves a stellar dramatic outing for Crosby. His chemistry with O'Connor and MacMurray is strong, though the songs they perform are disappointingly forgettable.
Finally, we jump ahead nearly a decade to 1947's Welcome Stranger, which successfully demonstrates just how little Crosby's low-key acting style evolved over the years. The film stars Barry Fitzgerald (The Quiet Man) as the crusty Dr. Joseph McRory, who needs a doctor to replace him while he goes on vacation. McRory hires the young Dr. Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby), whose slightly unconventional medical philosophy causes the two men to clash. Meanwhile, Pearson pursues a romance with local school teacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield, The Rains of Ranchipur). The film hoped to re-capture the success of the Oscar-winning Going My Way by re-teaming that film's two male stars, but the whole "conflict that dissolves into mutual begrudging respect" plot feels a bit more recycled this time around. McRory and Crosby seem to enjoy playing off each other, but the attempt at recapturing that old magic feels just a tad forced. Like most of the films in this collection, it's pleasant and harmless, but the slightly bloated running time makes it more of a chore than the others.
These films hardly represent Bing at his best, but fans of the crooner will undoubtedly be pleased to own them on DVD. They look respectable enough considering their age, with the video quality steadily improving over the course of the set. College Humor has a lot of rough spots, scratches, flecks and softness, while things look nearly pristine by the time we get to Welcome Stranger. Likewise, the sound mixes get better as we move along, though the differences are less noticeable in this department. While none of the films sound terrific, the songs are sturdy and the dialogue is clear. Aside from theatrical trailers for four of the films, there are no extras on the set.
Mississippi is guilty; the others are released on parole.
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Scales of Justice, College Humor
Perp Profile, College Humor
Distinguishing Marks, College Humor
Scales of Justice, Here Is My Heart
Perp Profile, Here Is My Heart
Distinguishing Marks, Here Is My Heart
Scales of Justice, Mississippi
Perp Profile, Mississippi
Distinguishing Marks, Mississippi
Scales of Justice, We'Re Not Dressing
Perp Profile, We'Re Not Dressing
Distinguishing Marks, We'Re Not Dressing
Scales of Justice, Sing You Sinners
Perp Profile, Sing You Sinners
Distinguishing Marks, Sing You Sinners
Scales of Justice, Welcome Stranger
Perp Profile, Welcome Stranger
Distinguishing Marks, Welcome Stranger
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