Bing Crosby collapsed and died of a heart attack on the 17th hole of a golf course in Spain on October 14th,1977. He was still professionally active and his voice was as good as ever. His career spanned over half a century. This realistic panegyric explores the Crosby ambivalence in hindsight.
BING CROSBY - "THE FIRST SCREEN ANTI-HERO"
Written by DEREK STRAHAN
There was Bogart - cynical, world-weary, the embodiment of Me First pragmatism, who, in the final reel, betrayed his sociopath pose by siding with democracy and the American way of shooting the bad guy first. He began his career playing bad guys, which gave him an ambivalence when he edged over to playing good guys. In Bogart's life, fantasy and reality overlapped. He chain-smoked on screen. In life he OD'd on cancer sticks. His screen persona was resurrected as Woody Alien's alter ego. You can't get better credentials than that. "Bogie" became a posthumous cult hero.
There was Cagney - vicious, passionately anti-social, of Napoleonic stature and ego to match, grossly macho in his treatment of women. Glorified as Public Enemy Numero Uno. The inimitable Cagney, ironically, achieved immortality within his own lifetime by becoming the movie star most imitated by that ubiquitous brand of showbiz parasite, the impersonator. We still see and hear a lot of Cagney, one way or the other. His skills were honed as a song & dance man, which gave him an edge in timing and movement in his dramatic roles.
There was Gable - super star anti-hero, who began his movie career playing racketeers, and never lost that touch of hoodlum, even in his most romantic roles. In Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind", as the gun-running anarchic Rhett Butler, Gable was, typically, a maverick individualist. His fatal weakness, his love for Scarlett O'Hara, was not seen as a weakness. She constantly put him down, by rejecting him, but he was never put down. He was as irrepressible, incorrigible, and as stubborn as she. Gable's portrayal of that kind of loving gave his public persona an epic quality. Rhett Butler endured her convenience marriages to two wimps. He finally won her, by buying her. He wanted her, and he got her. He made her terms his terms, and that is the ultimate insult a macho man can offer to a woman. She knows neither has won! Gable, also, became a legend after his time.
And then there was Bing Crosby. In terms of posthumous immortality, the Old-Groaner's misfortune was that he lived too long and too well. He died happy, on his beloved golf course. His professional career spanned half a century. He outlasted his own image. The real Crosby eclipsed the legend
This despicable character reached its apotheosis in the Crosby of the "Road" movies, an unrepentant louse who was always prepared to sell out his best buddy, played by Bob Hope, to African slave traders if necessary, for the sake of a fast buck.
Yes, the strange fact is that the real Crosby was always up there on the screen, for all the world to see. You looked at the screen and you knew you were looking at a heel. And yet, because you were looking into the trick mirror created by the Crosby charm, you thought you were looking at some sort of a hero. It was an anti-hero, the first anti-hero, because this character first appeared on screen, fully developed way back in 1931, in those early Mack Sennett shorts, where the no-good radio singer, pursued by outraged fathers and indignant rivals, won the girl. Thereafter, anyone who nursed an impossible dream identified with this fallible, flawed, stubborn American. For stubborn, see the marriage-breaking scene in "Blue Skies" (1946) between Crosby and Joan Caulfield.
And then there was the singing. As voices go, it was an average baritone. What gave a Crosby performance its touch of greatness, was the intelligence behind the voice. So much technique lavished on such inconsequential material. It was a classic case of overkill. So many singers have got by with so much less, and those who had more voice made so much less of it. He accepted the singers who followed and who rightly achieved renown with professional grace, outwardly at any rate, saying, of Frank Sinatra: "A voice like his comes along only once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be in my lifetime?"
The musical intelligence comes out especially in Crosby's jazz numbers, and in the numerous duos he sang. His partners in song are a who's who of show business, and in these performances Crosby always took a supportive role. He never needed to upstage, because his grasp of the music was total: the quickness of mind, the deftness of phrasing, the unerring accuracy of pitch, and the inventive harmony singing. Crosby generally took the harmony part, and let his guest sing the tune. The exception was Connie Boswell, as she was his musical equal. So they mixed and matched in their wonderful duos of the 30s.
Crosby grew up with jazz greats, singing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the 20s. Like them, without being able to read a note of music, he learned to use his voice like a musical instrument, improvising by ear, with total musical accuracy in respect of tempo and harmonic progression. Hear his fast scat run on a diminished chord in "Some of These Days" in 1933 with the Isham Jones Orchestra. (click on title to here this passage)
The range of song styles he covered was unprecedented. He never specialised. Jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, razzamatazz show stoppers, romantic ballads, Latin American, Carabin, vaudeville patter songs, country, hillbilly, Hawaiian, Irish, traditional folk and Americana, glee club classics, hymns and carols, He recorded in an era before tape editing, when you got the whole take right or you started again. He stood in front of the band and sang without the aid of sound booth or echo chamber. His vocal delivery could stand alone with a mere piano accompaniment. Or he could belt it out with a bigband.
It's worth noting that the career of another American singing legend, Elvis Presley, has an uncanny parallel with Crosby's - up to a point. Both singers began as musical mavericks, singing black music - jazz for Crosby, rhythm and blues on a black label for Presley; both had a rebel image; both made formula film musicals for the same studio, Paramount; and, at a similar point in their careers, that studio attempted to convert each into a father figure. Presley's equivalent role to Crosbys Father O'Malley was the social worker doctor of "Change of Habit"(1969) who falls in love with a nun, played by Mary Tyler Moore. Paramount even gave Presley a father-figure song to sing in this movie - to a little girl on a carousel. It was a trick that was repeated many times in Crosby films of all decades. Presley, however, did not survive the transition to middle age, so the only films we have of Presley are the formula ones from the 50s and 60s which, in plot and character detail, are very close equivalents to the early Crosby formula product.
Presley's premature death ensured him a cult following which Crosby's longevity denied him. As a result of this the proof of Crosby's versatility is increasingly hard to sample, unless you're a collector. Here in Australia, you don't see many of his movies on the little screen or the big screen, and the same seems to go for international cable, which we get here now. Some Crosby movies are becoming available on video from Amazon.com. including formerly rare 30s product.
But, to return to my opening theme, Crosby is not fashionable with movie presenters, or with art houses, and hasn't been for some years. I used to write TV soap opera scripts in the 70s, which got me to various show business parties, and I remember asking a well-known movie presenter about the chance of seeing some early Crosby on the small screen. He replied indignantly: "Who, that old shit?!". The reason for the disapproval was a moral objection to the Crosby character, and to his shortcomings as a family man. And yet this same presenter openly admired Joan Crawford. No censorship of Momma Dearest's movies!
The irony is that to many people growing up during the period of his greatest popularity, Crosby was a much better father than he was to his own children! He was fun, easy-going, non-judgemental, and he was always there!
It amazes me that film academics have not taken Crosby into their pedagogic turf, because the paradoxes are a gift to those who make it their business to derive employment from analysing how talent in the arts is manifested.
However, to rehabilitate Bing Crosby and prompt a reconsideration, it will be necessary, first, to get over our simplistic moral shock at discovering that the pop world's most enduring father-figure of last century was a human being as well as a genius. It may not take genius to be able to sing: "l'm no millionaire, but I'm not the type to care, 'cause I've got a pocketful dreams". But it does take a kind of genius to be able to sing those words to the world at large when you are a millionaire. And to be loved for lying about it.
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