Friday, September 28, 2018

BING ON FILM: RHYTHM ON THE RANGE - PART ONE

Some of Bing Crosby’s movies from the 1930s are pretty forgettable. The plots are light and even the movie run times are short – some do not even surpass the 90 minute mark. We all know that the main draw of the films was Bing Crosby and his singing. It was singing that was new to popular music and new to movie musicals as a whole. Bing’s 1936 film Rhythm On The Range may not be an epic cinematic adventure, but it was enjoyable, fun, and it featured some great Bing moments! I had not watched the film in years, but I was home sick with a cold and figured it would be a great chance to revisit the movie.

Based on a story by Mervin J. Houser, the film is about a cowboy who meets a beautiful young woman while returning from a rodeo in the east, and invites her to stay at his California ranch to experience his simple, honest way of life. Rhythm on the Range was Crosby's only western film (apart from the 1966 remake of Stagecoach. Bing starred as Jeff Larabee, a simple man who would rather sleep under the stares than be burdened by city living. It was not really a stretch for Bing, because Bing loved the outdoors and western life that he even had a ranch built in Elko, Nevada in the 1940s. So basically, Bing played himself or at least one facet of whom he was.


In addition to Bing Crosby, troubled actress Frances Farmer was cast as Bing’s leading lady. Farmer played Doris Halliday. She was the daughter of a big New York millionaire who left her fiancĂ© at the altar, so she could try to live her life the way she wanted to. Things like that just did not happen in 1936! Frances Farmer was brought to Hollywood after having a successful Broadway career in the early 1930s. Frances soon found herself co-starring with Hollywood’s biggest star Bing Crosby and then loaned out for the Howard Hawks film Come And Get It (also from 1936), where she was given the challenging dual roles of mother and daughter. Hawks called her “the greatest actress I have ever worked with”. However, depression and alcoholism caused Farmer’s star power to fade, and she spent most of her later years in and out of mental hospitals. You would not think that Bing and Frances Farmer would be compatible as star and co-star, but they were very good together. They made the romance seem believable, even though I found Farmer’s acting to be somewhat wooden.

Rounding out the cast was comedian Bob Burns, who I have to say I never got. I did not think he was that funny or even interesting. Was he trying to replace Will Rogers as a “down home” comedian? I never was too sure. Bob Burns plays Bing’s best friend and fellow rodeo employee. Making her debut in the film was the great Martha Raye. Raye plays a woman that Bob Burns’ character meets on the train, and she instantly falls for him. Raye’s character is pretty forgettable, but she is really bubbly and enjoyable in this debut role. Bing worked well with Martha Raye’s comedy, and they would make a few movies together. (Martha Raye would also appear on Bing’s 50th Anniversary Special on television in 1977.) There are also great cameos in the film like musician Louis Prima, future singing cowboy Roy Rogers, and the singing group The Sons Of The Pioneers...

TO BE CONTINUED...


Friday, September 21, 2018

BING GOES TO PRISON

It was the night before the ‘Song of the Dawn’ was to be filmed that things went ‘a little awry’. Bing had developed a reputation within the Whiteman clan as a fun-loving boozer and womanizer – and this night he was arrested for drunken driving. Bing was jailed for 30 days and singer-actor John Boles – a Warner Brothers leading man – was brought-in to sing the part. However – for several of the other numbers in King of Jazz featuring the Rhythm Boys Whiteman arranged to have Crosby brought to the studio under police guard and returned to jail after each day’s shooting ended! When the film was completed Whiteman left Hollywood and went on a national tour.

The police experience had a sobering effect on the young Crosby and he began to take his career more seriously – particularly with regard to the potential of musical movies. The group went to work in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub with Gus Arnheim’s orchestra. There was also another reason for Bing to stay where they were – Miss Wilma Wyatt, a singer known as Dixie Lee! In September 1930 they married and their unity initiated some ‘interesting’ responses! News stories had comments such as ‘Rising young Fox star weds obscure crooner’ or, as Bing put it ‘Miss Big marries Mr Little’.


Dixie had played half-a-dozen movies for Fox but soon gave up that career and supported Bing in his. As a result he worked on improving his breath control and started singing fewer rhythmic numbers and more romantic ballads. Things now moved on at speed. He left the Rhythm Boys after he missed a show and the group were briefly put on the blacklist by the musicians union and CBS Radio heard him and offered Bing a network contract. Wife, brother and Bing moved to New York and, in September 1931 began a nightly 15 minute broadcast over the CBS Radio Network. As singer-pianist, author and record producer Larry Carr once so aptly put it:

“After six long years of learning and honing his craft, he was an overnight success!”

Friday, September 7, 2018

PHOTOS OF THE DAY: BING AND HIS TELEVISION FRIENDS

Bing Crosby started out in radio and movies, but when television became the most popular entertainment medium in the 1950s, Bing dabbled on it quite often. He had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people on television, and here he is with some of his television friends...

Carol Burnett


Julie Andrews

Engelbert Humperdinck


Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin

Perry Como

Flip Wilson

Monday, September 3, 2018

REST IN PEACE: GLORIA JEAN

Child actress Gloria Jean passed away on September 1, 2018.She was an American actress and singer who starred or co-starred in 26 feature films between 1939 and 1959, as well as making numerous radio, television, stage, and nightclub appearances.

After moving to Scranton, Pennsylvania, Gloria Jean sang on radio with Paul Whiteman's band. When she was 12, "she was engaged by a smallish New York opera company and became the youngest member of an opera troupe in the United States." Gloria Jean was being trained as a coloratura soprano, when her voice teacher, Leah Russel, took her to an audition held by Universal Pictures movie producer Joe Pasternak in 1938. Pasternak had guided Deanna Durbin to stardom, and with Durbin now advancing to ingénue roles, Pasternak wanted a younger singer to make the same kind of musicals. Up against hundreds of others, Gloria Jean won the audition.

Under contract to Universal, she was given the leading role in the feature The Under-Pup (1939) and became instantly popular with moviegoers. Universal's publicity department initially claimed the singer was 11 years old instead of 13; her actual age was not well known for many decades. For her next two vehicles, she co-starred with Bing Crosby in If I Had My Way (1940) and starred in the well-received A Little Bit of Heaven (also 1940), which reunited her with many from the Under-Pup cast. Her best-known picture is her fourth, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), in which she co-starred with W. C. Fields.


Gloria Jean made a successful transition to young adult roles. Her dramatic tour de force, as a blind girl being menaced by an escaped killer, was filmed as one of four vignettes for Julien Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy(1943). Her performance won raves at the film's advance preview, and her segment was the best-received of the four. However, Universal removed the half-hour sequence and shelved it until 1944, when it was expanded into a feature-length melodrama, Destiny. She co-starred with Olsen and Johnson in the big-budget Ghost Catchers (1944), and in her last two Universal features, released in 1945, she was teamed with singer-actor Kirby Grant.

She resumed her movie career as a freelance performer appearing in United Artists, Columbia Pictures, and Allied Artists productions, the best-known being Copacabana (1947) with Groucho Marx. Some stage and television work followed in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as four feature films. Wonder Valley (1953), produced on location in Arkansas, was Gloria Jean's first color movie and is now a lost film. Her next feature was Air Strike (1955), a minor military drama.


After Air Strike Gloria Jean was hired by the owner of the Tahitian restaurant in Studio City, California, as a hostess, greeting and seating dinner guests. She enjoyed the experience and occasionally ran the restaurant in her employer's absence. Show-business patrons were surprised that a film star was now involved in restaurant work, resulting in sympathetic feature stories in the national press. Veteran Hollywood producer Edward Finney, himself a Gloria Jean fan, saw one of these reports and hired her to star in the lightweight comedy Laffing Time (filmed in 1959, re-released as The Madcaps in 1964). Jerry Lewis also read that Gloria Jean was working in a restaurant, and signed her for a singing role in his latest production, The Ladies Man (1961).Lewis removed almost all of her footage from the finished film; she appears only as an extra and has no dialogue. It was her last theatrical motion picture.

After her retirement from Redken, Gloria Jean lived in California with her sister, Bonnie. After Bonnie died in 2007, she moved to Hawaii, where lived with her son and his family. Very late in life she suffered health problems, including two serious falls that slowed her mobility, and an impaired heart condition. She died of heart failure and pneumonia in 2018.

Her authorized biography, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, was published in 2005. A tribute website, GloriaJeanSings.com, followed, again with Gloria Jean's cooperation. Her Internet presence includes a series of videos showing the actress as she appeared in recent years...