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