Sometimes the memory plays funny tricks on us as individuals. When it comes to collective memory that is even trickier. Within the entertainment industry the hottest commodities (Backstreet Boys, Molly Ringwald, etc.) soon become yesterday’s news as we move on to the next hottest thing. We tend to forget the effect or imprint these performers have on the entertainment landscape.
Part of the American Masters series of films on PBS by director Robert Trachtenberg we look back at the life and career of one of the biggest entertainers of the 20th century, Bing Crosby. Crosby was one of the first multi-media entertainers in that he was big in films, radio and records. He had more No. 1 records than anyone including Elvis and The Beatles. At his height he was singing to 50 million people per week. He laid the groundwork for the likes of Frank Sinatra or any singer that came after. Nobody dreamed his star would fade from our memories, but in many ways it has. This film attempts to correct that for a younger generation of film and music fans.
His early life was certainly not one of privilege. His father was named Harry and he was not good with business, but he liked a good party and had a great record collection. Born on May 3, 1903, the 4th of seven children he was Harry on his birth certificate, but always was called Bing after a comic strip. The Crosbys were a poor working class Irish Catholic family. Even at a young age Bing was obsessed by vaudeville and theatre. He attempted to lead a traditional life and attended Gonzaga University for three years, but left before he obtained his bachelor’s.
In 1925 he left for Los Angeles to make an attempt at a career in the entertainment industry. Bing started off as a drummer in a band. Then formed a trio called The Rhythm Boys and they were a hit. They were doing pop music with jazz sensibilities.
Bing came to prominence in the 1930s. He made what he did look effortless. In changing the melody and phrasing of the songs he did Bing made them sound better. He used jazz phrasing making the songs sound hip and modern. Definitely was ahead of his time. Was one of the first to use his voice as an instrument and explored almost every genre of music over his over 50 year career. Artie Shaw once said that Bing Crosby was the first hip white person born in the United States. He also was one of the first to learn how to sing in a microphone instead of oversinging in the typical vaudevillian style.
Once he began to dominate the radio Hollywood and movies came calling. He signed a contract with Paramount and remained with them for 25 years making a great number of films. Became known for his zany Road To comedies with Bob Hope. Before the Bond films the Road To films was the most successful film franchise. Partnering up with his friend Irving Berlin for the music in the 1942 film Holiday Inn came Bing’s biggest hit song, “White Christmas”. “White Christmas” was in the Top 40 every year except one between the years 1942 and 1962. In 1944 he won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Father Chuck O’Malley in the film Going My Way.
His personal life was always a lot more difficult than his career. In 1930 he married nightclub singer Dixie Lee and they proceeded to have four sons between 1933 and 1938. While Bing drank he was able to work. When Dixie drank she could not control herself and began to withdraw completely from society. In 1952 she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and in November of that year she died. He remarried in 1957 to Kathryn Grant and they stayed together until 1977 when Crosby died of a massive heart attack.
A year after his death his son Gary, himself an alcoholic, wrote a scathing book about his father called Going My Way. In it he detailed some physical and psychological abuse he underwent at the hands of his father. Some of his other siblings disputed the facts in the book, but the damage was done. Bing Crosby was now remembered as the man who abused his kids rather than the most successful entertainer of the 20th century.
Narrated by Stanley Tucci the documentary uses film clips, radio recordings, music and interviews with people like entertainer Michael Feinstein, singer Tony Bennett, wife Kathryn Crosby, and daughter Mary. While the clips are not exactly told in chronological order they do make sense. Interesting facts like that he moved his second family away from Hollywood because he did not like the environment and that television frightened him in that he thought it stole a little bit of the soul of the performers. We also learn he was ahead of his time with his insistence of recording radio shows instead of always doing them live and invested in recording studios.
A fuller story of the man’s life than the book written by his son Gary is attempted here by Robert Trachtenberg. You can tell plenty of research went into the making of the biopic. Care is paid to the musical legacy of the man attempting to show his many sides. The fact that he did hit is kids and did drink a little too much are not hidden rather they are put into context. He lived in a different time than we did. What comes of it is a picture of a man who is very relatable.