Saturday, January 23, 2016

Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon: Bing Crosby, David Butler and Their Movies


Bing Crosby, David Butler, Bob Hope, visitor Joel McCrea
on set of Road to Morocco from Getty Images

Theresa Brown aka CineMaven has challenged us with a blogathon dedicated to those director/actor pairings that bring magic to the movies.  The Classic Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon runs on January 23/24.  Click HERE for the contributions.

"I made friends, like buddies, with my crew, with my cutters, with my actors and actresses.  I didn't want to have any feeling that I was the big boss and they were nothing.  I think that by doing that I was able to last as long as I did."

- David Butler, Honorary Life Member, Directors Guild of America

David Butler (1894-1979) was born into show business, and with the support of his stage manager father and actress mother, considered no other career.  Small stage roles combined with film work when available in his San Francisco hometown and this led to Hollywood and extra work in western films for Thomas Ince and gradually bigger things with D.W. Griffith and Maurice Tourneur.  One of the leading characters (Gobin) in the 1927 Fox film 7th Heaven would be the apex of his acting career as, like fellow Fox extra/stunt rider John Ford, David Butler ran with the opportunity to become a director.

We might call David Butler our "happy ending" man.  Coming from the theatrical background where you aim to send the audience out with a smile on their face, humming a cheerful tune, his films have that same appeal.  At Fox he directed the top studio stars such as Will Rogers in five popular films including A Connecticut Yankee and Doubting Thomas.  Five of Shirley Temple's best are Butler pictures such as Bright Eyes with the scene-stealing Jane Withers, Captain January and The Little Colonel.  In a career that never waned, by the 1950s David Butler was at Warners and directing Doris Day in six of her well-remembered movies such as Calamity Jane, By the Light of the Silvery Moon and Lullaby of Broadway.  Toward the end of that decade he moved on to television with Wagon Train, The Deputy and, most memorably, Leave It to Beaver.

Bing Crosby (1903-1977), popular as a vocalist pioneering a new and intimate style, made his initial screen appearances as a distinct personality in a series of shorts for Mack Sennett in the early 1930s.  The audience took to him and he was signed by Paramount Studios after 1932s The Big Broadcast. To get the singing star Paramount had to put up with the "Crosby clause".  Bing refused to be top-billed or singly billed above the title in any of his pictures.  His thinking was that if the movie flopped audiences would remember the big name, yet if the audience enjoyed themselves there would be plenty of good will to go around.  This was not happy news for studio publicity workers, but it certainly did well by Bing and it rather reflects David Butler's attitude toward the co-operation required to make a motion picture.

It appears that a shared work philosophy was not the only thing David Butler and Bing Crosby had in common.  They both put as much effort into their play as their work.  David Butler was an executive on the Board of the Del Mar Race Track of which Bing was the chief founding member.  They also shared a fondness for the old-time entertainments both had grown up with, such as the older Vaudeville acts.  As members of the Marching and Chowder Club, they were part of entertainment professionals who staged performances to show off and show up each other.  A printed program lists "Crackerjack, large peanuts and exceptional popcorn between the acts by David Butler, concessionaire.  Very good prizes too."

Another clause in Bing's contract gave him the opportunity to produce his own pictures and the first of these was 1936s Pennies from Heaven wat Columbia which was financially successful, Oscar-nominated for the title song and gave Bing and Louis Armstrong a chance to work together.  The things you can do when you are the boss!

David Butler approached Bing with a story idea for his next "outside picture" and East Side of Heaven was developed and the idea sold to Universal Studios.



Bing plays Denny Martin, a hyphenated singer.  First he is a singing telegrapher who loses his job after he annoys a rich man (C. Aubrey Smith).  Next he is a singing cabbie who finds an abandoned baby in the back seat of his car.  The baby actually has been left on purpose by his mother (Irene Hervey), an old friend of Denny's.  Her wealthy father-in-law (guess who?) is trying to take the baby since its father is off on a bender.  The young wife and mother intends to keep the baby out of grandpa's clutches while trying to get hubby back on the straight and narrow.

Helpful sort that he is, Denny (Bing) rises to the challenge with the help of his wacky Russian roomate Nicky (Mischa Auer) and his attractive and far too understanding fiance Mary (Joan Blondell).  The Snidely Whiplash in the piece is a radio star/columnist named Claudius De Wolfe (Jerome Cowan).  This De Wolfe character does not like Denny one bit, but he does like Denny's girl and he wants to impress the rich guy.  Comic complications ensure.



Bing Crosby, Mischa Auer, Baby Sandy
Well, where would you hide a baby from a landlord?

Three new songs by James Monaco and Johnny Burke are featured in the film.  Monaco even figures in an inside joke near the opening of the film.  The title song is lovely, lilting ballad.  Sing a Song of Sunbeams is a bouncy ditty that gets Denny his job with the Sunbeam Cab Company.  The big production number is Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb which is sung to the errant father of the baby in a cafe.  Singer Jane Jones, who knew Bing back in the speakeasy days, is the proprietor of the cafe and the Music Maids, about to appear weekly on Kraft Music Hall with Bing are singing waitresses.  Everybody gets into the act!
 

Joan Blondell may not be as sassy as in a Warners pre-code of earlier in the decade, but she never lacks for spark and spunk, and is a perfect comedic leading lady.  Mischa Auer is his usual dynamo.  The heart tugging of the cutest baby ever never overwhelms the laughs, creating a fun film to watch and a lasting fond memory.  The film was a pleasure to make, a hit with audiences and a financial success.



David Butler put together another package for Bing at Universal featuring the studio's young (14 year old) soprano, Gloria Jean.  If I Had My Way comes across as sort of an amalgam of all the things that made Crosby's movies in the 1930s so popular.  He is an independent sort, but a natural leader who draws to himself a make-shift family.  Bing as "Buzz" Blackwell works construction, in this case the Golden Gate Bridge, with his pals Fred Johnson (Donald Woods) and Axel Swenson (El Brendel).  Fred's daughter Pat (Gloria Jean) is the little mother of the group and when an accident leaves her orphaned, Buzz and Axel follow Fred's wishes and take Pat to her relatives in New York City.

The Snidely Whiplash in this piece is Pat's rich Uncle Jarvis (Allyn Joslyn).  Jarvis and his wife Brenda (Claire Dodd) have no intention of letting some little upstart intrude on their financial security and deny her as a relative.  Fortunately, the family tree has a friendlier branch in Great Uncle Joe (Charles Winninger) an old-time vaudevillian and his wife Marian (Nana Bryant).



Bing Crosby, Gloria Jean
Finale

Through blink and you miss 'em plot twists, our heroes end up owning a bankrupt restaurant which they intend to revive by cashing in on nostalgia.  Entertainers from an earlier age are booked to perform and prove to be a hit.  Jarvis is hoodwinked and learns to like it.  The finale of the film features performances by acrobatic cyclist Pat Gordon, ballad singer Blanche Ring and minstrel man Eddie Leonard.  The songs "I've Got Rings on My Fingers and Bells on My Toes" and "Ida" are backed by the contemporary swing vocalists Six Hits and a Miss.  Butler and Crosby seem to be fulfilling some longing to be old-fashioned impressarios as well as offering a kindness to the entertainers of their youth.

Gloria Jean found Bing to be a protective and easy-going co-star, who gave her a birthday party.  David Butler even helped her with her homework.  Sometimes she observed the star and director fighting about little things Bing wanted to do with a scene.  Bing would always win these arguments, but for the most part Gloria says the two got along famously.

The movie is chock full of songs from the established ones such as the title track and Gloria's solo of "Little Grey Home in the West" to new numbers by Monaco and Burke including "The Pessimistic Character" and "I Haven't Time to be a Millionaire".



If I Had My Way was more of a hit with audiences than with critics who bemoaned its old-fashioned story.  Nonetheless, Universal had success with the movie and it was part of a package sent to troops in North Africa in 1943 as a film that "exemplified typical American homelife".  Well, anything is better than Nazi propaganda!  Today, if you come across the movie on television it is a pleasant diversion and a chance to enjoy the under-seen Gloria Jean.  Also, the scene where Bing learns of his friend's death and has to tell little Pat is quite moving and gives us a glimpse of the mature dramatic actor to come.



The "Road" pictures put a new spin on the careers of their stars in the 1940s and supplied Bing Crosby and Bob Hope a special niche in film comedy history.  1940s Road to Singapore had first been planned for the team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and was later slated for for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie.  Fate had other plans and Bing and Bob were teamed and the rest is history.  Both performers had developed an off-the-cuff style that meshed well as they knew from an unplanned New York stage performance almost a decade previously.  Audiences took to the combination and a series was born.

In Gary Giddens biography of Crosby he quotes a school pal as saying that the Bing in the "Road" movies is the real Bing - the easy banter, the primed reactions, the fast wit and easy superiority.  That is Bing's character in all of the pictures, with Bob as the put upon pal who doesn't stand a chance as they run from over-the-top villains and pursue Dotty Lamour.  Of course, there is the occasional break for a ballad and this movie features the lovely Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen standard "Moonlight Becomes You".



Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope
Hope is such an optimist!

Road to Morroco is the third of the six "Road" movies (I don't count the seventh without Dorothy Lamour as leading lady, and it's my blog), and most fans consider it the best of the lot.  There was a script, but it was augmented by Bob and Bing's radio writers and their own quick wits.  David Butler admired what he called Bing's "feeling for language" and was willing to let him have free reign.  Butler knew when to keep the camera rolling to catch gold and when to pull back.  When a camel spit at Bob, Butler didn't cut and run to take care of the star.  He watched to see what would happen and Bing didn't disappoint by patting the camel's rump and calling her a "good girl".  Of all the movies in the series, Road to Morocco capitalizes best the feeling of improvisation that makes the comedy timeless.



David Butler would go on to direct Bob Hope in three more films, 1941s Caught in the Draft, 1943s They Got Me Covered and 1944s The Princess and the Pirate, the last two featuring amusing cameos by Bing Crosby.

Bing Crosby and David Butler's careers would go in different directions from this point with Bing winning an Oscar and Butler finding a home at Warner Brothers and in television.  Their work together was successful and gave them opportunities to showcase their talents and their passion leaving a legacy of music, good-natured humour and those happy endings we all need once in a while.


Sources:
Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins
Directors Guild of American Oral History Interview with David Butler by Irene Kahn Atkins
Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven by Scott MacGillivray and Jan MacGillivray

36 comments:

  1. Now, I would never have considered putting the word symbiotic in a blog title!

    This was a very interesting post to me; you certainly put some thought into the subject. It's been a spell since I've taken the time to make the rounds, and I must say I'm glad I stopped in; always one of my fave blogs. :)

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

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    1. Well, hello there! It has been a while. I'm pleased you found some merit with this article on a couple of born entertainers. We'll be in touch.

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  2. I haven't watched enough of Crosby's films, and began to realize I'd underestimated him. I'm glad to get some great recs here, and I loved learning about his contract. That makes me admire him as a person as well as a performer--

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    1. The "Crosby Clause" is really insightful and was a real head scratcher to the studios so used to dealing with over-sized egos.

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  3. Thank you so much for your time and contribution to my blogathon Paddy. I see I've got a lot to learn. Thanks again. :)

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    1. The variety of articles for your blogathon are making for a very interesting day of reading. You must be very pleased. It's my pleasure to contribute.

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    2. I am pleased, and overwhelmed by the positive response. Thanks again!

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  4. "I don't count the seventh without Dorothy Lamour as leading lady, and it's my blog." Good for you! I would't either!

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  5. I liked your description of David Butler as a "happy ending man". That makes him tops in my books because I'm an unabashed sucker for a happy ending.

    I've never really concentrated on the films of David Butler and Bing Crosby, except for Morocco. (I had no idea Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie were being considered!) Thanks for expanding my film horizons once again! :)

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    1. Butler had quite the career and has probably entertained those of us who caught all these great old movies on TV more often than we realized.

      Thanks for the encouraging words!

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  6. Good job. I kind of grew up on animated Bing Crosby. When I was a kid they used show old cartoons from the 30s/40s (probably because most of them were public domain and they could show them on the local TV after school cartoon show for free). Any excuse to watch Joan Blondell is fine by me.

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    1. Thanks. We absorbed an awful lot of 30s/40s entertainment from local TV stations growing up.

      That Joanie Blondell! She still has a hold on the males in my family.

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  7. The only Butler / Crosby I've seen is East of Heaven so you've given me plenty to explore (thank you!). I love that Butler trusted Crosby enough to let him make up the rules - it must've made filmmaking much more fun!

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    1. "Fun" does seem like the key word in this partnership. Certainly not to the exclusion of doing a businesslike job, but in attitude which came across in the finished product.

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  8. What a fantastic choice! I'm watching Bing in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT on TCM as I write this. :) Bing is a favorite of mine since I was a kid and I think he's underrated in all of his talents. I loved reading the story of both of these entertainers.

    Aurora

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    1. Darn. I did the grocery shopping and forgot about "The Boss". Is there anything more adorably unexpected than Cedric Hardwicke and William Bendix singing?!

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  9. Great piece! I love Bing but haven't seen enough of his movies. Thanks so much for the clips you included. I love Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb and definitely need to see the whole film now - though the current blogathons are lengthening my to be watched lists to frightening levels.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the clips. I would love to visit a place like The Frying Pan Cafe and walk right into a jazzy production number. Life really should be more like the movies.

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  10. I love the clips, too! I saw David Butler on a late night talk show, probably in the 1970s. He talked about working with Bing and told some great stories about Hope & Crosby.

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    1. Gosh, I wish had seen that. My memory is pretty good for things I saw on television back then. Don't ask me what I watched yesterday.

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  11. Thanks for this informative piece—I wasn't aware of Butler at all, and I may only know him from the road movies...will have to look him up. Great, just what I need, someone else to look up...

    Lesley
    Second Sight Cinema

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    1. Ah, you have been captured in the blogathon trap. Happens to me all the time. I find a new guy/gal to check out and my "must watch" list grows.

      PS: TCM has "Calamity Jane" on February 1st directed by David Butler.

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  12. This was delightful. I agree with your phrase "the under- seen Gloria Jean" (Sounds like a studio publicity tagline.) You a bring a new appreciation for Bing, Butler, and the director-star relationship.

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    1. Thanks so much. "Delightful" was my aim as that is the feeling I get from these classic entertainments.

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  13. I wouldn't associate Bing with any director in particular, but I wasn't aware of his work with David Butler. Butler himself is not such a well-known director, but I have seen some of the films you mentioned. It's so good when people who have lots of love for the good old entertainment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. I hope you had fun reading the article.

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  14. When I think of David Butler, I think of Doris Day and all the warm fuzzies I get from their films together. I've never paid much attention to his work with Crosby, and to be honest, I sometimes forget Bing even had a movie career before 1940. Thanks for the interesting recommendations, as always!

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    1. I feel the same way about the Day/Butler movies, particularly "By the Light of the Silvery Moon". I think it is on her TCM blurp that Doris says she thought of the Winfields as her real family. I wouldn't have minded a dozen more sequels.

      You have decided Bing's birthday movie for me (an annual May post). I'll go back to the 30s.

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    2. Yay! I could certainly use more guidance in that area of his career.
      P.S. I agree about those sequels. Doris and Gordon MacRae were just too adorable.

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  15. Thanks for the awesome post. Bing is so under-appreciated these days. Aside from being a great star he had quite a few great collaborations. It's always nice to read about artists who play nice with others. Great job.

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    1. Proof, if we needed it, that a creative environment doesn't have to be filled with ego and angst.

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  16. I've always liked Bing. His movies are fun, and he's always charming. I honestly wish he'd played a priest more, as I dug those the most.

    I think I'm going to dig out some Bing for my Sunday morning film this week...thanks, CW!

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

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    1. Bing's performances are so natural that they always stand the test of time. I am pleased to take credit for your Sunday morning viewing.

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  17. Great to learn about David Butler. The "Princess and the Pirate" and "Road to Morocco" are two of my favorite 40s comedies. But i disagree that "Road to Morocco" is the best Road picture, that honor belongs to "Road to Utopia". And I am unanimous in that.

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    1. A man after my own heart. I'm more of "Utopia" fan (Robert Barrat, "Personality"), but the hubby is a "Morocco" guy through and through. It's a wonder this marriage survives! Over the years I've agreed to place them neck and neck in the entertainment value column.

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