Bing Crosby Bio, ‘The First Silent Night’ Among Titles Streaming on PBS Living Channel in November

Bing Crosby: Rediscovered from “American Masters,” and The First Silent Night, a documentary on the Christmas carol, are coming to the PBS Living streaming channel in November.

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American Masters — Bing Crosby: Rediscovered, which starts streaming Nov. 26, explores one of the most popular and influential multi-media stars of the first half of the 2oth century. For over three decades, through radio, film, television and records he reigned supreme. A brilliant entrepreneur, Crosby played an important role in the development of the postwar recording industry. Crosby recorded nearly 400 hit singles, an achievement only Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles have matched. Almost 40 years after his death, he remains the most recorded performer in history. Narrated by Stanley Tucci and directed by Robert Trachtenberg, the film explores the life and legend of the iconic performer, revealing a personality far more complex than the image the public had known.

Actor Simon Callow discovers the hidden meaning of one of the most popular Christmas carols in The First Silent Night, which begins streaming Nov. 30. Callow journeys to the Austrian village of Oberndorf as well as the city of Salzburg, where the story of the world’s favorite carol originated. The First Silent Night introduces us to two impoverished children — Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber — who grew up in Austria’s cobbled streets and wooded villages. The hard years that shaped them also destined them to meet one day in a poor country church, where they united Gruber’s music and Mohr’s text into this classic carol about the birth of a third poor boy on a quiet night in ancient Palestine.

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Also coming to the channel Nov. 30 is Ken Burns: Seeing, Searching, Being, which explores the life William Segal, the great philosopher, publisher, writer and painter. Segal searched relentlessly and compassionately for meaning in the 2oth century. He helped bring Eastern and Western spiritual traditions together, always stressing what connected humanity rather than what differentiated it. In the last decade of his life, Segal befriended the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and the two collaborated on this film, which focuses on Segal as he paints and discusses the creative process and the intimate personal and spiritual relationship between the artist and the work of art. This documentary also visits the painter in his studio and in a gallery as he prepares an exhibition of his lithographs. In his on-camera interviews, Segal talks about his life and the practices he uses to live in the moment, embracing all that is around him.

Also coming to the PBS Living channel in November are The Oratorio: A Documentary With Martin Scorsese, Da Ponte’s Oratorio: A Concert for New York, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, Independent Lens: Storm Lake and Road Food.

The Bells of St. Mary’s

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Olive;
Drama;
$27.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers.

Christmas has arrived early for Old Mikey this year, what with Olive Films’ much appreciated “Signature” upgrade of The Bells of St. Mary’s, a lovely visual rendering that features exactly the right person for its voiceover commentary: Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins.

Of course, laying that handle on Giddins and then letting it go at that is a little like suggesting that “White Christmas” was Crosby’s only hit single. But the credit is especially germane here, given that Vol. 2 of Little, Brown and Company’s Giddins-Crosby chronicle (Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1941-46) concludes just a little after Bells became not just its year’s biggest box office hit but the biggest live-action box office hit that RKO ever released. I’m qualifying this achievement just a little because there’s a claim from either Giddins or another bonus commentator here that the studio’s distribution deal with Disney up until 1954 allowed Bambi to take RKO’s all-time No. 1 spot, which is something I didn’t know. But you get the idea: This was more than the studio revenues taken in even by King Kong, or at least it was until the foiled Kong-Fay Wray courtship saga got re-issued to death before RKO went under.

Another hat worn by Giddins is his status as something of the go-to guy for any pointers on director Leo McCarey, something that Criterion was savvy enough to realize when they interviewed the critic/historian for their releases of The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, both films released in 1937 and at the apogee of Hollywood in the ’30s. For Bells, McCarey and Crosby re-created the latter’s once-thought-to-be dicey casting as the hip young priest from Paramount’s Going My Way, which had recently swept a slew of 1944 Oscars after becoming the single most popular Hollywood movie of the war years.

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Bells wasn’t a sequel but a then very rare prequel that teamed him with the most prominent screen artist who hadn’t won her own ’44 Oscar for GMY. This would be Ingrid Bergman for her performance as the badgered wife who more than anyone put her movie’s title into the now common lexicon as a verb: Gaslight, as directed by George Cukor in a vastly superior screen remake of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play. Having spent almost all of her Hollywood career steeped in acting angst, Bergman fought David O. Selznick (who contractually held the keys to her profession destiny) to play the film’s Sister Superior and sparring partner — both with Crosby and an initially inept playground student pugilist in one of the picture’s most memorable scenes. Selznick had a way of compromising his contract players starting around of the time of Bells’ production — less out of mean-spiritedness than from a case of artistic myopia probably exacerbated by Bennies he used as chasers.

There’s one bit in GMY where Crosby sports a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt, which despite ’44 having been the Browns’ real-life one-hit-wonder World Series year (they still didn’t win it), suggests that O’Malley empathizes more than most with human failing. Meanwhile, Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict takes a more traditionally rigid approach between the beams of light her very being exudes — hence the conflict dramatized with velvet gloves in Dudley Nichols’ script. This tension predominantly manifests itself over a) a young female student who’s a product of what was once viewed as suspect parentage; and b) conflicting attitudes over whether dilapidated St. Mary’s is worth saving — a moot point, perhaps, due to a developer (Henry Travers) who has constructed a modern office building right next door and is on his way to locking up a deal to use the school’s real estate as a parking lot.

McCarey couldn’t have known at the time how film history would play out, but the developer is portrayed with his typical disarming whimsy by Henry Travers, who was still a year way from playing Clarence the Angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But anyone who’s been breathing in the years since (and can make casting associations) will likely sense that he or she won’t have to worry too much. Fortunately, to riff on the Sherman Brothers, the movie avoids employing a warehouse of sugar to make the tough stuff go down. Nichols and McCarey are sly enough to have Travers note, after a rare act of altruism, that it’s “tax-deductible.”

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Still, the picture could have gone off the rails were it not for the almost incalculable charm and chemistry between the two leads (this is my favorite Bergman performance) and the equally incalculable auteurist flair McCarey always brought to movies both great and not so good (as with, alas, the ones that found themselves on the upswing later in his career). The famous and certainly oft-quoted line about McCarey came from Jean Renoir when he said that the former understood people better than any other Hollywood director. To this, one might include cats as well because Bells boasts the greatest screen direction of one (and possibly the best in any setting, given that cats really can’t be directed) that I’ve ever seen. As for his direction of the very young children in a Nativity scene that equals the killer one in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, McCarey had the touch there as well — though it’s been said that after giving the kids some basic instruction, he left the room as they did their thing with the camera rolling.

Bells’ setting is drab — this school is really rundown — but cinematographer George Barnes goes to town when it comes to lighting the actors and making Bergman look absolutely luminous (Barnes got an Oscar for black-and-white Rebecca and shot some of the era’s most gorgeous Technicolor pictures: later De Mille epics The Spanish Main, The Emperor Waltz, Frenchman’s Creek, the last visual spectaculars when I got to see them in nitrate 35mm prints). This Signature release is much, much improved over the previous Olive release, which looked kind of like a patch job to me. Arrow Films has its own handsome Region B release that’s newly available as well, and I assume it’s from the same source.

Aside from Giddins the Great, who sounds as if he might be battling a cold here, the extras include an array of goodies — all of which I liked — about the film at hand in relation to McCarey (by Steve Massa); an on-screen essay that I had a little trouble navigating on my screen (Abbey Bender); and a discussion of Bells’ prequel/sequel status from effervescent Prof. Emily Carman. She gets more out of the subject than I expected, due to the paucity of single big-screen follow-ups (as opposed to Tarzan, Nancy Drew and other series) in the era. There’s also a Faith and Film interview with Sr. Rose Pacette — I have a sweet spot for movie-loving nuns — who discusses what she likes about Bells and what she thinks is an offensive stretch (most prominently the control O’Malley has over Sister Benedict’s fortunes). It all dates from when she first saw the film decades ago as a much younger person, and it’s clear this is a movie that she, on balance, likes a lot.

I first saw Bells at a neighborhood theater’s 1958 Saturday afternoon triple bill — bookended by Stanley Donen’s Fearless Fagan and Bob Hope’s arguable career stretch in The 7 Little Foys. I came out of it with warm feelings toward Bergman’s characterization (Sister Rose comes off the same way) and Catholicism in general, which lasted until the following Tuesday. It was then, up at “my” shopping center, where I witnessed a kid my age from the nearby Catholic school mouthing off a little to a nun — cheeky waggery on his part but nothing more than what I was prone to say every day throughout 12 years in my own school system. It was then that the nun laid a huge slap across his face — not exactly Emile Griffith/Benny “Kid” Paget stuff but enough to make him see stars.

After this, I decided to remain a lapsed Presbyterian, but my love for McCarey’s last great movie (An Affair To Remember pretty close to an exception) has never waned. It’s my favorite Hollywood film of 1945 next to John Ford’s They Are Expendable, another instantly identifiable auteurist work.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’

Road to Utopia

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Douglass Dumbrille.

The “Road” pictures were famous for breaking the fourth wall in what at the time were radically innovative ways, but No. 4 Utopia — filmed during mid-war but not released until 1945 (and ’46 in the U.S.) — was something else. It didn’t just break the wall but blew the hell out of it — a little like that bridge in The Wild Bunch that explodes and drops the horses going across it (their riders, too) into the big drink. It’s a Yukon farce where talking animals rate one-liner quips and an actor/extra shortcuts his way through a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope boiler room scene on his way to another soundstage. Even Santa Claus rates a cameo. (With a couple of babes in his Christmas bag.)

As is true of many fans, Utopia has always been my favorite of a seven-comedy series that spanned 22 years — though the great Gary Giddins gives this honor, in the recent second volume of his dream Bing Crosby bio (Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940-1946), to No. 3 Morocco. (It’s close, either way.) Kino Classics has just released both of them — as well as the preceding Singapore and Zanzibar entries — on Blu-ray, which now means that all seven titles (Rio, Bali and Hong Kong preceeded) are available in hi-def versions. Of this new quartet of the first four made, no one likely had to be institutionalized for exhaustion from all the work done in the remastering — and yet, my younger son happened to drop in while I watching Utopia and expressed surprise that “something like this” (judging by content and age) could “look this good.” So there you go.

Utopia is unique in the series because its title has nothing to do with the setting (snowbound Alaska); is the only period piece; and is the only Road pic where Hope ended up with Dorothy Lamour (this is no spoiler because the story is told in flashback). The story dynamics, however, adhere to the formula than started to take hold with No. 2 Zanzibar following the fairly straightforward Singapore launcher (which nonetheless cleaned up at the box office). Both stars play semi-vaudevillians with heavy chiseler streaks and libidos, though Hope’s yen for the opposite sex is a little more “out there” while Crosby plays it cooler. The plot hinges on a stolen map to an Alaskan gold mine that by rights belongs to Lamour, who has taken a chanteuse gig at a local nightspot owned by so-called family friend Douglass Dumbrille. Of course, once you see Dumbrille for the first time — even if you don’t know the kind of roles he nearly always played — it’s obvious that he’s not to be trusted.

This is the hook, but the dialogue exchanges are sharp; Hope’s one-liner at Crosby’s entrance is one of the greatest screen put-downs I’ve ever heard, and people are still amazed that the final classic gag got by the Production Code. In retrospect, the Oscar-nominated script here is the high point of the lengthy Norman Panama-Melvin Frank association — aside, that is, from Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester from 1956, which is one of the most beloved cult comedies of all time (and would make a fabulous VistaVision/Technicolor Blu-ray if there’d ever been a single person at Paramount Home Entertainment who’d ever heard of any movie made before 1980). We also get humorist Robert Benchley, who didn’t live to see the film released, popping in for sardonic asides that apparently have always gotten a pro/con response (I had no idea they were controversial because I’ve always found them funny). And even the sometimes undervalued Dorothy Lamour gets some licks in with a spot-on senior citizen turn in the non-flashback frame.

In addition to recycling a long-ago featurette on the series, there’s a new joint commentary by producer/historian Greg Ford (who has one of those vocal deliveries that makes normal conversation come out funny) and the second-to-few music historian Will Friedwald. Even the score here is on the high side of the series, with “Put ‘Er There, Pal” a team classic and “Personality” the best song that the any of the Road pictures ever gave Lamour (it was also a huge Capitol hit for Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers during the first Christmas/New Year’s after the war).

We also get the 1945 short subject Hollywood Victory Caravan, a bond-drive effort that in some ways anticipates 1947’s Variety Girl (which includes an uproarious Crosby-Hope golf routine) in the way it advances the thesis that a sweet young innocent can easily find a way to get her run of the Paramount lot, whereupon she learns that Alan Ladd, Barbara Stanwyck, Crosby, Hope and more are regular folks just like us. (I wish she’d run into Lawrence Tierney, but he was at RKO or playing Dillinger for the King Brothers.)

She also manages to get Crosby and Hope to sleep together on a train, but we won’t go there. There’s also Ladd sucker-punching (or sucker-tripping) William Demarest; an elaborate production number where Betty Hutton does more tap-dancing than I’ve ever seen her do; a throwaway walking shot that suggests that Diana Lynn had a really proportioned figure; and a ringer show-up by non-Paramount star Humphrey Bogart, who pushes audiences to purchase post-war Bonds while looking to me as if he might have really tied one on the previous night.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Road to Utopia’

King of Jazz

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Criterion;
Musical;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante, The Rhythm Boys (with Bing Crosby). 

Even if all of them currently existed, at all or in ideal form, you likely wouldn’t have to sit through many of the early-talkie screen musical revues to realize that King of Jazz is the standout specimen from a discredited litter. And such faint praise, gotta say, prodigiously underrates the most bug-eyed time with a movie I’ve had in a while, thanks to what Criterion has done with this color/design landmark’s costly, long-gestating and almost full-length 4K restoration, which had already dazzled friends of mine in public showings. There was already enough interest in the film’s unearthing to inspire a 2016 coffee table book by James Layton and David Pierce (King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue), who also offer a history of this tangled Universal production in another of Criterion’s ultra-classy bonus sections (did someone also say Garry Giddins and Michael Feinstein just for starters? — Lordy).

I remember Whiteman well from my days as an inveterate boomer-kid TV watcher, but the truth is that he was semi-forgotten even then and his status as a jazz figure (much less jazz royalty) was very much in decline to anyone who was embracing all things Miles or Thelonious. He was still, however, a formidable physical presence, what with an offbeat mustache that would have disfigured even Clark Gable and physical heft directly out of the Oliver Hardy laboratory that had at one time (per Giddins) engendered major news stories whenever he attempted a diet. This made him as unlikely a bet for movie stardom as Kate Smith and Liberace later turned to be, and all the frittering around to find a format that could adequately present him on screen (there was a kind of revolving door of directorial possibilities for the movie as well) forced delays on production that indirectly resulted in the picture’s severe underperformance at the box office.

So rather than make him a romantic lead or a Cupid to younger lovers, this peer-respected orchestra leader — who had helped spur the first performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and included the young Bing Crosby with the Rhythm Boys as part of his lineup — ring-mastered a performance revue whose delights genuine and demented included a “Rhapsody” reprise; Bing’s very first screen appearance; the Russell Markett Dancers (who soon evolved into the Rockettes); and the first cartoon in Technicolor (by Walter Lantz) in a manner that might later have reminded people of a far more elaborate “Ed Sullivan Show” had the picture remained in circulation. To this was added the much celebrated stage director John Murray Anderson to film it (this should not have been his only movie); art/costume direction by Herman Rosse, who soon figured in some of Universal’s biggest horror staples of the early ’30s; and even a huge crane that had been previously purchased by the studio and must have made Busby Berkeley’s mouth water.

None of this is to suggest that every number here is a winner, but even Jazz’s not infrequent wincers (or would-be wincers were it not for the harmonious components that combine for the presentation) are more riveting than not to watch because I’ve never seen any two-color Technicolor movie look this great. Even an otherwise leaden bridal number early on washes pleasantly over the viewer thanks to its cornucopia of visual cosmetics. And then, for a capper, we see this veil — which looks long enough to cover half the width of a small U.S. state and expensive enough by itself to have covered the cost of Lash La Rue’s total screen oeuvre.

Seeing Crosby with semi-rouged cheeks is an unusual sight, though when he and the “Boys” break into snippets of “Mississippi Mud” and “Happy Beat,” it’s so enthralling that these pink-ish cheeks recede to another part of the brain. Jazz was Crosby’s only color movie until Paramount’s Dixie in 1943 and one of the very few Bings from his home studio that controlling Universal hasn’t released in this country (there is an official Region 2 DVD). This is almost surely due to that biopic’s minstrel-show angle — and even despite its inclusion of “Sunday, Monday and Always,” one of his biggest hits the era. So seeing Jazz with Crosby in color here is a real gift that whets my appetite (not that any whetting could ever be needed) for the long awaited Vol. 2 of Giddins’ definitive Crosby biography, due in November.

When one of Bing’s many 20s benders (he later brought personal experience to The Country Girl) led to a car crash and a dress-down the judge in court, the singer probably dodged a career bullet when his intended big “gaucho” number went to John Boles — whose appearances for me are always complicated by Anita O’Day’s assertion in her autobiography that Boles raped her in her dressing room (she later backtracks or softens this a little, but still …). This splashy set piece is inevitably risible but is (again) put over by the color schemes, lighting and, well, total design. So the payoff is that when we really do have something to write home about content-wise — as with otherwise non-existent footage of violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang playing up a storm together, or the finale that sends everyone home with a bang — this is a not inapt movie to be seeing just as 2001 celebrates its 50th anniversary because these scenes, at least, have a comparably hypnotic effect.

Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly enough patrons to go home with a bang or otherwise, because the delayed production landed Jazz at the end of an early-talkie-musical cycle that had already snapped viewer tolerance. This is a tragedy because, for all of its sporadic creakiness, this one’s incomparably better than MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 (which is nowhere near as entertaining as its oft-excerpted two-color “Singin’ in the Rain” number might suggest) or Warner’s Show of Shows, which is instructional only as a primer in understanding just what it was that Show emcee and Bob Hope influence Frank Fay “had” (apparently, not much, said his onetime abused wife Barbara Stanwyck).

Jazz started to exist for modern-day audiences as something more than a rumor a few decades back, and Universal even released an official VHS in 1992 — a pre-restoration eyesore with inferior sound (I should have mentioned that the new Blu-ray is also easy on the ear) and a slightly shorter running time than the restoration print, which itself is missing relatively minor footage. And now for a story: A chuckling colleague of mine roaming the files during our AFI Theater days stumbled into a solid gold letter from MCA chief exec/CEO Lew Wasserman himself, whose chew-outs were legendary. Our then AFIT boss, possessed of certain genius but one for whom “right clearances” was not a middle name, had apparently run Jazz (this was before our time) when MCA-owned Universal had told him he couldn’t (God knows where he got the print). So here’s the Lew Wasserman letterhead across the top of a letter from possibly the most powerful person in Hollywood that begins: “Dear Mr. XXXX, I fail to understand … .” That’s an opening scarier than anything in a Universal horror movie from a guy that the late twinkle-eyed producer David Brown once speculated (in the 2005 documentary The Last Mogul) had had only one orgasm of his life reading the grosses on Jaws.

As for bonus goodies, we have Feinstein interviewed for a musical backgrounder; a couple germane Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons; a Whiteman performance short subject; deleted scenes; a jam-packed essay by the knowledgeable and verbally magnetic Farran Smith Nehme, who’s one of my favorite film writers of the impressive many who are 125 years younger than I; and a voiceover commentary by Giddins, critic Gene Seymour and (hold on) musician/bandleader Vince Giordano — each of whom can fill in the others’ infrequent blanks. This trio is full of all kinds of nuggets, including anecdotes about how blisteringly hot the Technicolor lights were when the entire Whiteman band had to play inside a way oversized piano — one out of the last reel of two from The Incredible Shrinking Man — in tuxes. And how big were the piano keys? About a foot long.

King of Jazz isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it is perfectly amazing, and so, again, is one of those discs that justify the invention of Blu-rays (don’t even think of talking to me of streaming, OK?). Along the way, Whiteman gets a little renewed overdue due. He didn’t really play jazz as we know it, but it wasn’t like what had come before amid a period of real pop-cultural flux. Next to the bridal number here, he really was out of a new century.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’