Magazine | February 11, 2019, Issue

Character in Character

Bing Crosby in 1942 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum)
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star — The War Years, 1940–1946, by Gary Giddins (Little, Brown, 736 pp., $16.99)

Perhaps no defense of the institution of monarchy was ever more measured than that of C. S. Lewis. “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars in­stead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters,” Lewis wrote in his great essay “Equality,” first published in The Spectator in 1943. “For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

Yet, to adopt Lewis’s metaphor, some varieties of poison are less lethal than others. At the time of his essay, for example, there were certainly many public figures unworthy of adulation, but there were also those whose individual virtues were crystal clear — even in the category of, as Lewis put it, “film-stars.” Take the leading players in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s a Wonder­ful Life, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. During World War II, Stewart loosed himself from the bonds of studio soundstages to turn himself into a distinguished pilot in the Army Air Corps. For her part, Reed — who, as a pinup, was a kind of idée fixe for servicemen overseas — never parted with the hundreds of adoring letters she received from men in uniform, as revealed in a 2009 article in the New York Times. In their personal lives, then, Stewart and Reed were capable of comporting themselves at least as honorably as any sovereign.

So, too, was actor-singer Bing Crosby (1903–1977), whose own record as an entertainer during World War II is examined in exhaustive, but never exhausting, detail in this second installment of Gary Giddins’s ongoing, multivolume biography. In documenting Crosby’s life from 1940 to 1946, the book ranges over many of his finest films, including the most memorable of his comedies with Bob Hope — such as Road to Zanzibar (1941) and Road to Morocco (1942) — and a pair of career-topping collaborations with master filmmaker Leo McCarey, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), the former of which netted him an Academy Award. Naturally, Giddins, a longtime jazz critic at the Village Voice, is equally attuned to the silk-voiced Crosby’s stature as one of his era’s most pleasing popular singers, evidenced in his appearances on the Kraft Music Hall radio show — not to mention all of those hit records, including “Swinging on a Star” (first heard in Going My Way). Giddins has produced a book with the heft and scale of an epic, befitting his subject; it’s likely the only showbiz biography to open with quotations from, among others, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and the politician Henry Wallace.

Charles Walters’s 1956 Philadelphia Story–derived musical comedy High Society — in which Crosby has one of his best parts as easygoing jazzman C. K. Dexter Haven — falls outside the scope of Giddins’s book, but one early scene in the film can stand as a précis of the singer’s appeal. In a mansion in Newport, R.I., Crosby — his eyelids heavy, his smile small and wry — sits slumped in a chair, contentedly listening to Louis Armstrong’s band while smoking a pipe and awaiting the arrival of his onetime wife, Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly). Would that we all could be so serenely slothful.

Among the Crosby films covered in Giddins’s book, the musical comedy Holiday Inn (1942) — the first of two in which he shared top billing with Fred Astaire — arguably best encapsulates the star’s special brand of magic. Crosby was cast as a performer whose venue welcomes the public only on holidays. Elegantly directed by the gifted Mark Sandrich, and bursting to the seams with classic songs by Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn contains many iconic Crosby moments, but his companionable, unperturbed persona comes across most clearly in his performance of Berlin’s “Happy Holiday.” In a beautifully staged scene, Crosby — joined by his sweet, bright co-star, Marjorie Reynolds — croons the tune while moving among the guests in the main lobby. As he meanders from table to table, Crosby is not so much performer as conductor — an amiable, self-possessed orchestrator of happiness.

Typical of this biography, Giddins’s account of Holiday Inn is laced with insight and detail. Astaire voiced nothing but admiration for Crosby, praising the effort he expended on a dance number in which they both appeared. “He rehearsed, he really rehearsed, and I don’t think he rehearsed so much for almost anything that he did, just to get that darn dance number right,” Astaire said. Other co-stars remembered a steelier side to Crosby, one of this book’s ongoing themes. Walter Abel commented that “no matter how jolly or friendly he might seem, you knew there was that invisible line that you did not cross,” while Reynolds — such an affectionate on-screen partner — was even more blunt: “To me, he was very much a man’s man and later when we did Dixie he still wasn’t friendly,” she said. Maybe Nanette Fabray put it best: “He could kill with those steel-blue eyes.”

At the same time, Crosby’s coolness, both on- and off-screen, did not preclude him from serving as a repository of great warmth, as Giddins acknowledges in his superb analysis of the scene in Holiday Inn during which Crosby debuts what became one of his best-loved standards: Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Giddins pinpoints the scene as “a transitional moment for the Crosby persona” be­cause of its newfound tone of self-assured maturity. “In this film and especially in this scene,” Giddins writes, “he personifies a hearth to which anyone might long to return.”

Giddins never neglects Crosby’s gift for wringing laughs from audiences — most abundantly on view in the Road comedies with Bob Hope — but he is at his best when tracking Crosby’s cinematic maturation, which might have commenced with Holiday Inn but was certainly complete by McCarey’s Going My Way, in which he played the kindly-yet-tough, devout-yet-urbane priest Father O’Malley. Best known for such thoroughly humane films as The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow (both 1937), McCarey prized spontaneity in his work to such an extent that he ran his sets more like a bar manager than a field general. “Actors might react with dread or anger when he told them to make up a line or an action as the cameras rolled, the lights blazed, and the crew looked on, fingers crossed,” Giddins writes. Yet it turns out that McCarey’s studied looseness was like mother’s milk to Crosby, who, in a eulogy after McCarey’s death in 1969, credited the filmmaker as the person most responsible for shaping his career. Elsewhere, Crosby recounted McCarey’s meandering working methods. “We’d come in about nine just as we were at home — nobody’d bother to make up — and have coffee and doughnuts, and Leo would be playing the piano,” Crosby recalled, adding that the company might break for lunch before a scene — more often than not completely reimagined from the morning — was shot quickly in the afternoon.

The process may have been scattershot, but in Crosby’s case, the methods paid dividends: In Going My Way and its finely wrought sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Crosby’s characterizations were richer and more complex than they had been previously. “In earlier roles he cherished the fantasy of a quiet isolation; now he is pledged to the human condition,” Giddins writes of Crosby’s Father O’Malley. “He is a benevolent übermensch, an infinitely resourceful Saint Fixit. You want miracles? O’Malley converts street toughs into choirboys, a cynical runaway into a loving wife, a shylock into a philanthropist, a petulant old cleric into Mother’s baby boy.”

Although he never overlooks his subject’s sins, Giddins spends much of this staggeringly good book singing from the pro-Crosby hymnal. Early on, we learn that, despite his weakness for thoroughbred racing, Crosby was not another Hollywood star addled with addictions and that, despite his position as a beloved entertainer, he never developed an outsized ego, either. “He owned a vast wardrobe, a hundred or so suits, but no one could tell that from his willful informality,” Giddins writes, describing Crosby as a “rich man with working-class manners” who would rather don Hawaiian shirts and khaki slacks. “Impatient with introspection, he communicated in a language of joking camaraderie: stoic, manly, rarely nostalgic, never sentimental, and often flippant,” Giddins writes. “He was a devout Catholic, confident, independent, obstinate, and unaffectedly modest.” That Oscar he took home for Going My Way? “He took the damn thing and used it as a doorstop, the door to the library,” said his eldest son, Gary.

For his part, Giddins is under no obligation to be modest on Crosby’s behalf. Much space is rightly devoted to Crosby’s work as a kind of all-purpose cheerleader for Allied forces during World War II, a seemingly tireless effort that included countless performances for the troops. Wrote one soldier who saw him perform overseas in 1944: “What a guy, a regular guy, a real pal, he was almost like a ray of sunshine and everyone talked late into the night last night about Bing, his humor, his singing and his reality.” There were many individual acts of grace, including, for example, Crosby’s eagerness, out of the sheer kindness of his heart, to make a demo recording of a song that a seaman had composed and submitted to him. “Bing sought no publicity, uniform, or rank, but he made clear his willingness to serve in any capacity deemed useful for the war effort,” Giddins concludes.

Crosby — then married less than happily to his first wife, Dixie, an alcoholic who died in 1952 — was later criticized for the apparently callous approach to parenting that he took with his offspring, including his quartet of sons with Dixie: besides Gary, there were Dennis, Phillip, and Lindsay. From each, Crosby demanded both discipline and humility, but the outcomes were grim; Dennis and Lindsay committed suicide after their father’s death. Giddins goes on at some length about Crosby’s faith in corporal punishment — which Crosby expounded on in interviews, saying at one point, “All I had to do was just start for the belt and they were full of penitence” — but situates his views within the context of his moral code, including his desire to break with the weak parenting style of his own father. (“He did not fear him and consequently did not fully respect him,” Giddins writes.)

In spite of it all, many readers will retain some sympathy for Crosby, even when he goads his son Gary for being overweight — calling him “Bucket Butt” and “Larda**” in front of crowds “who laughed at Father Crosby’s wit.” Giddins implies that Crosby the father’s mistreatment of his offspring was in­compatible with Crosby the performer’s unquestioning devotion to nameless hordes of soldiers, but he doubts that Crosby recognized the incongruity. (“Unconditional love, or its expression, had no part to play in the moral science that was parenting,” he writes, referring to Crosby’s perspective on the matter.) Yet while Crosby’s retrograde approach to child-rearing, including his apparent fondness for belittling his kids, is inexcusable, the context Giddins provides at least allows readers to understand it.

In the end, Crosby commands respect not for being a perfect husband or father but for the relatively short distance between the qualities he projected as a performer and the characteristics he possessed in real life — the same im­pression grief-stricken relatives and friends of fallen soldiers had when they penned letters to him. Devotees of the man who sang of happy holidays, trekked to Zanzibar, and made the priesthood a thoroughly lovable profession can feel safe in their fandom. Crosby was no more flawed than many people, but possessed strengths more marked than most. This extraordinarily sympathetic and thorough book offers nothing but pleasure. Indeed, fans of Crosby will surely feel that their cup runneth over.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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