February 9, 2019

HIS WAY:

Character in Character (PETER TONGUETTE, January 24, 2019, National Review)

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."

Posted by at February 9, 2019 6:58 PM

  

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