Many movie goers these days consider the movie musical to be nothing more than fluff and fantasy. Most people in real life do not break out in song. That is true, but for moviegoers of the 1930s and 1940s the movie musical was an escape. It was an escape from the pain of poverty during the Great Depression, and it was an escape from the horrors of World War II. Of all the stars during that era, it was Bing Crosby that introduced the most standards. He was the voice of the times.
Bing started out as a singer with the Rhythm Boys in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and then he moved on to making a series of film shorts for Mack Sennett. Those shorts were corny and really were only used to spotlight Bing’s singing, but it got him more popular exposure. Not only did he become a star on radio, but he was also signed to a long term contract with Paramount Studios. He would remain at the studio for almost 25 years.
The first movie Bing made for the studio was The Big Broadcast in 1932. The film was basically a spotlight of the popular radio stars of the day with a light plotline in between the songs. Crosby got to introduce some great songs like “Dinah”, “Please”, and the underrated torch song “Here Lies Love”. Bing basically played himself, and he did not really stretch his acting chops in this film. My favorite role in the movie was Bing’s friend, played by comedian Stuart Erwin. The movie catapulted Bing to movie stardom, and he followed it up with a more forgettable movie – 1933’s College Humor. The film was not bad, but even a young 30 year old Bing could not pass for a college student. He did get to sing the great song “Learn To Croon”, which became Bing’s unofficial anthem in those early years. More flimsy films followed in the 1930s, but he introduced a great standard in each of them. In She Loves Me Not (1934), Bing introduced “Love In Bloom”, in Here In My Heart (1935), Bing sang “June In January”, and in Two For Tonight (1935) Bing introduced “Without A Word Of Warning”.
Going back to Bing’s third movie in 1933, he was loaned to MGM Studios for the splashy musical Going Hollywood. It would be one of the best of the earlier Bing films. He was reunited with Stuart Erwin, his love interest was the older Marion Davies, and he got to sing some wonderful Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed tunes like: “Temptation”, “Our Big Love Scene”, and “Beautiful Girl”. Bing would not return to the studio until 1956, and it was the first of only four movies Bing made for the studio. With Bing Crosby being such a big and rising star, I am really surprised Paramount Studios loaned him out in the 1930s as much as they did.
The movie roles remained forgettable until Bing was loaned out again to Columbia Studios in 1936. For the movie Pennies From Heaven, Bing had his most dramatic role yet as an ex-convict who “adopted” a young child of another convict. It was still not Citizen Kane, but Bing had a lot more to do in this movie than just sing and play a crooner. He also introduced the title song, and a few other great songs like “So Do I”, and “Let’s Call A Heart A Heart”. When Bing went back to Paramount though, he went back to the flimsy musicals, which were quite popular with movie audiences.
Fast forwarding to 1939, Bing made a favorite movie of mine to end the decade. He played real life songwriter and kid show producer Gus Edwards in the movie “biography” The Star Maker. Bing sang some vintage songs, even vintage for 1939, like “School Days” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”, while he got to sing the new song “Still The Bluebirds Sing”. The film was another example that Bing was feeling more sure of himself as an actor and could play roles other than a carefree crooner. By making movies like Pennies From Heaven and The Star Maker, Bing was paving the way for meatier roles in the 1940s and even roles that would recognized by the Academy Awards. Bing never could have imagined that back when he was making movies playing a 30 year old college co-ed…