It is that happy time of year again when we celebrate the birthdate of one of Mommy and Gavin's favourite singers, Bing Crosby. This year we reach back to the 1938 Paramount release, Sing, You Sinners. The National Board of Review placed this comedy/drama/musical among its Top Ten Films of the Year along with such titles as Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Michael Powell's The Edge of the World and Frank Borzage's Three Comrades. Sing, You Sinners was directed by Wesley Ruggles, the Oscar nominated (Cimarron) younger brother of actor Charles. Ruggles directed two earlier Crosby vehicles, College Humor in 1933 and Mississippi in 1935.
The story and screenplay for the movie is by Claude Binyon, the former Variety reporter whose work in movies includes classic screwball comedies like True Confession with Carole Lombard, The Gilded Lily with Claudette Colbert, Mississippi starring W.C. Fields and Bing, and Dreamboat with Clifton Webb. The cinematography by Karl "Sunrise" Struss is almost as sumptuous as his work on Waikiki Wedding, which has the effect of almost hypnotizing me.
Donald O'Connor, Fred MacMurray, Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Patterson
Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust) plays the widowed Daisy Beebe raising her three sons in the straitened circumstances of the Depression. Her son David played by Fred MacMurray (The Absent-Minded Professor) is a sensible, hardworking fellow who is delaying his marriage to girlfriend Martha Randall played by Ellen Drew (Christmas in July, Stars in My Crown) until his mother and youngest brother are secure. The kid brother is played by 12-year-old show biz veteran Donald O'Connor (Singin' in the Rain). What is holding David back from his dreams of matrimony is a combination of the times and layabout brother Joe played by Bing Crosby (Rhythm on the River). It isn't that Joe won't look for a job, it is that he can't keep a job. There is always something Joe would rather be doing and...he does it.
SONGS BY JAMES V. MONACO AND JOHNNY BURKE
Unlike musicals or operettas where the characters express their emotions in song (Why don't we do that more often?), the songs in Sing, You Sinners are performance pieces and presented as such. The opening apprises us of the fact the Beebe boys have been encouraged in musical endeavours by their mother as we see them singing Shall We Gather at the River at a Sunday morning church service. At first their performance is somewhat lackadaisical, but a stern look from Mother Beebe puts some life into the number.
The more popular crowd pleasing tunes are by composer James Monaco and lyricist Johnny Burke, both members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipients of multiple Oscar nominations. First up is the peppy I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams sung by the Beebe trio at a road house. David (Fred) on clarinet, Joe (Bing) with a guitar and Mike (Donald) with an accordion. David is against the whole thing. He's philosophically opposed to singing about violets while a bunch of geeks jump up and down. Doggone it, he's a man! Mike also fears for his carefully built-up reputation helping to train race horses during the summer. Joe claims to be in line with his brother's way of thinking, but "the man offered them ten dollars".
Sometime later hard working David can't get away from his mechanic's job to take his girl Martha to a lecture on seals. He gives the tickets to Joe because if you can't trust your brother with your gal, then who can you trust? The dry lecturer is played to perfection by Irving Bacon and fans will rejoice in his comic turn. Joe makes Martha cut out early and they head to a night spot where the bandleader Harry Barris (Bing's Rhythm Boys pal) prevails upon the popular Joe to sing for the crowd. Bing's number is Don't Let That Moon Get Away and it is a hit with folks. In fact, it is so much of a hit that strangers keep sending free drinks his way. Joe is feeling no pain when he drives home, tries to move in on Martha and gets a sock on the jaw from David.
The writing is on the wall and Joe decides to head to Los Angeles in search of his fortune. He actually finds said fortune at the race track and his run-in with a fellow bettor played by Tom Dugan is hilarious. Joe sends back home for Mom and Mike, giving David and go-ahead to marry Martha. The family was misled into thinking Joe had bought a swap shop business, but they soon discover that Joe is the proud owner of a race horse named Uncle Gus, played by six year old Ligaroti, purchased by Bing and Lin Howard from Argentina. Joe even has to borrow a dollar from his mother to pay the stable boy Filter played by Paul White. Mrs. Beebe is upset, but they all keep the secret from David until he and Martha show up and the truth is out. Race horse aside, there is only one dependable way for the Beebe boys to make money and we next see them at a nightclub crooning a little ballad called Laugh and Call It Love.
SONG BY HOAGY CARMICHAEL AND FRANK LOESSER
Small Fry, a perennially popular tune written by Hoagy "Stardust" Carmichael and Frank "Guys and Dolls" Loesser for Sing, You Sinners is what passes as a production number for Paramount's Crosby pictures. You can understand their mindset. After all, when you have one of the most popular singers working for you, why dress things up with fancy sets and dancing girls. Fred MacMurray in drag and Bing Crosby bewhiskered and top-hatted in front of an old shack bring the song to life and try not to get upstaged by the insanely talented Donald O'Connor. Bing and Johnny Mercer would have a hit record with a duet in 1941, and you can enjoy the Fleischer cartoon from 1939 based on the song:
A night club turns out not be the healthiest environment for the youngest Beebe boy. A gambler who frequents the place threatens young Mike into throwing the big race in which Uncle Gus is expected to improve the family's fortunes. John Gallaudet plays the gangster and he's a nasty one. The finale of the movie features an exciting horse race, and a very disturbing scene when the gambler goes after Mike. Rest assured, the Beebe's stick together and Mother Beebe gets her way.
Donald O'Connor, Bing Crosby
Originally Mickey Rooney had been cast as the youngest Beebe, but MGM stopped the loan at the last minute. Assistant director Arthur Jacobson attended a Motion Picture Relief Fund benefit which involved vaudeville acts including the O'Connor Family. Young Donald impressed Jacobson, Wesley Ruggles and the brass at Paramount. Donald O'Connor relates (from Gary Giddens biography of Bing Crosby):
"I would see him (Bing) on the screen in between shows and, like everybody else, I always thought he was a friend of mine. So when I met Bing, he was extremely nice. Had a wonderful smile. And he never said too much to me on the movie. He was very, very patient with me. I was a very small child at twelve and I was riding this big goddamned racehorse and I was scared to death of this horse. There was one scene down at the track, an exposition scene, where I tell him I've been bribed, I've got the money and I feel awful, I'm letting the family down. It's a long scene and Bing is in front leading me on the horse and he's pumping me and at the same time reassuring me not to be worried. We get right down to the end and I blow my lines. So we turn the horse around, all the way back, and it was a cold day at Santa Anita, and we have to start again with all the crying and everything. I blow the line again. We must have done that forty times. And Bing never complained, not once. I told him, "I'm so sorry, my mind just can't get his." He said, "Don't worry about it, kid, you'll get it, we have no place to go." We had a lot of fun on that movie. He treated me like a pal."
Bing was pleased with the picture and the role of Joe Beebe. Critics noted that Crosby was indeed an actor and the star himself even commented that perhaps he could do more than sing. The movie was a popular success and ideas were floated around that the Beebe's would make a profitable series of pictures, much like the Hardys over at MGM, but nothing came of it. Nonetheless, we have Sing, You Sinners with its appealing cast, funny and frightening situations, and songs to entertain us.