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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Film festival highlights Bing Crosby’s friendship with Louis Armstrong, WWII service

A still from “White Christmas.”

After 12 years of curating the Bing Crosby Holiday Film Festival, the Bing Crosby Advocates have come to learn what Crosby fans like to see.

“Every year when we show it, we have to show ‘White Christmas,’ not just once but twice,” Bill Stimson, BCA president, said.

The year’s festival rings in the holiday season Saturday at – where else? – the Bing Crosby Theater.

The day begins and ends, as per tradition, with “White Christmas,” the 1954 classic that also stars Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, with showings at 11:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Crosby’s version of the title song won writer Irving Berlin the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” in which the song first appeared.

Crosby fans are in for a special treat this year, as the festival will screen the 1936 film “Pennies from Heaven,” for the first time.

In “Pennies,” Crosby plays a singer in prison named Larry Poole. A fellow inmate (John Gallaudet) on his way to the electric chair asks Poole to give a letter to the family of the man he killed.

Poole eventually finds the family and tries his best to help “Gramps” (Donald Meek) with his granddaughter Patsy (Edith Fellows) so she is not taken to an orphanage by Susan Sprague (Madge Evans).

A few hijinks ensue, and sparks fly between Poole and Sprague.

“Pennies From Heaven” was the first film the performer produced himself. It is also significant because Crosby used his influence to cast trumpeter Louis Armstrong in the film.

“Bing made a big demonstration of the fact that he would not even make the movie if they didn’t give Louis Armstrong credit,” Stimson said. “In the 1930s, it was unusual to give credit to black people. They explained that to Bing at the studio and he said ‘OK, well then you can take my name off the poster too.’ ”

Throughout their friendship, Crosby and Armstrong influenced one another musically, with Crosby incorporating scatting into his singing and Armstrong wanting to sing like Crosby.

“They had a musical love affair,” Stimson said. “They totally respected each other. Bing said later in life American jazz began and will never improve from Louis Armstrong’s music. It was genuine … I’ve read Louis Armstrong’s biography too and he says the same thing. Some reporter asked him ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’ He says “Bing Crosby, of course.’ They were very close, which was different in those days.”

“Pennies From Heaven” will be screened at 2 p.m., followed by “Road to Zanzibar” at 4 p.m.

“Road to Zanzibar,” the second film in the “Road to…” series, finds Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour satirizing the safari genre.

Howard Crosby, Crosby’s nephew, and the Hot Club of Spokane will take the stage at 6 p.m., performing music from the Crosby era.

In between films, audience members can take in a gallery of photos and clips of Crosby entertaining the troops in World War II.

The Bing Crosby Advocates will also have copies of Gary Giddins’ second Crosby biography, “Bing Crosby: Swinging On a Star - The War Years 1940-1946,” for sale.

The book details Crosby’s experience during World War II, inspired by letters Crosby received from soldiers and the parents, siblings and friends of soldiers who died in the war, as well as the journal Crosby kept during those years.

“Bing wasn’t just willing to do his bit; he went all out,” Stimson said. “He was all over this country and all over Europe. He decided that was something that he ought to be doing. After all, he was the most famous name in the country.”

In “Swinging On a Star,” Giddins writes about how soldiers named Crosby as the person who had done the most to boost morale during the war, beating out people like then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gens. Eisenhower and MacArthur and “Road to…” co-star Hope, in a poll by Yank, the Army Weekly.

“He unified the country with his art …,” Giddins told The Spokesman-Review in October. “High school kids loved him and their parents loved him and their grandparents loved him. There was no gender distinction. … There was no bias in terms of ethnicity … I can’t think of anybody in my lifetime of whom you could say that everybody was into him.”