The year was 1938, and Harry Lillis (“Bing”) Crosby found himself at an unexpected career crossroads. He had just made his 16th feature film, “Sing You Sinners,” but already Hollywood’s most popular singing star was reportedly considering retirement from the big screen.
And yet, Sing You Sinners proved to be a “Bingo!” moment and surprising career game-changer for Bing, displaying for the first time his hidden acting chops. The film’s popularity ushered in a fresh round of screen successes for Crosby over the next several years that included “Holiday Inn” (in which he introduced his all-time biggest hit, “White Christmas”), several wildly popular “Road” comedies with his longtime partner Bob Hope, and his Oscar-winning turn as Father O’Malley in “Going My Way.”
The story behind Crosby’s forgotten gem, which has seldom been aired on TV in the past 30 years, is as enlightening and entertaining as the film itself. Spokane audiences will be treated to a rare screening of this screen classic when the Bing Crosby Advocates debuts “Sing You Sinners” at its annual Bing Crosby Holiday Film Festival on Dec. 11 at the Bing Crosby Theater.
Within 10 years of departing his hometown of Spokane in 1925 with singing partner Al Rinker to seek their fame and fortune in Los Angeles, Crosby was already the most famous entertainer in the world. He was America’s top recording artist, radio’s biggest draw, and one of Hollywood’s most bankable movie stars during the Great Depression. And yet news reports indicated he might already be thinking of retiring from movies at the ripe old age of 35.
In truth, by 1938 the former Gonzaga pre-law student had found himself in a cinematic doldrum. Crosby’s studio was having a hard time coming up with a role of deeper substance for the light comedy star to tackle as there were several issues to overcome.
Aside from his patently gifted singing voice, Crosby was short (5-foot-7), stocky, bald, and saddled with those trademark loping ears that one Fox studio exec said made him look like a taxicab with its doors open. He wasn’t a matinee idol, and although he was an experienced equestrian, cowboy roles were out of the question as well. Still, Crosby easily overcame his physical deficiencies to delight audiences as a charming troubadour in a string of lightweight but highly successful musical comedies for Paramount Pictures. So it was surprising when an Oct. 7, 1938 article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle hinted that Crosby was suddenly thinking of hanging up his movie career to focus more on his recordings and race horses. At the same time, however, the Chronicle also praised his latest performance in “Sing You Sinners” as “the first time Paramount has allowed Harry L. to act perfectly natural.”
When the film offering this new-and-improved version of Crosby’s screen persona opened at Spokane’s Fox Theater on Oct. 13, 1938, audiences were to discover that their town’s most famous son was also a gifted actor of considerable depth and range. As film historian Robert Bookbinder later noted of Crosby’s portrayal, “It is a skillful characterization, revealing for the first time the more serious side of Bing’s talent.”
Much of the credit for his big screen rebirth was owed to director Wesley Ruggles and screenwriter Claude Binyon, neighbors of Crosby’s in Toluca Lake, California, who were intent on coming up with a story and role that would fit him like a soft glove. After spending personal time with the star at his home and at the racetrack, Binyon crafted a seriocomic script that had Crosby portraying a ne’er-do-well but likable small town singer who gambles away steady work to pursue the potential fortunes of horse racing and betting.
Crosby plays Joe Beebe, a member of an entertaining sibling singing trio that includes older brother David (played by rising Paramount star Fred MacMurray – who was actually five years younger than Crosby) and younger brother Mike (entertainingly portrayed by 12-year-old wunderkind Donald O’Connor, who years later would co-star in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly).
In its early scenes, “Sing You Sinners” creates a small town atmosphere reminiscent of the Spokane of Crosby’s youth where even the Beebe homestead has echoes of his boyhood home at 508 E. Sharp Ave. (now the Bing Crosby House Museum).
The tailormade plot revolves around Joe’s ownership of a racehorse, Uncle Gus, that is involved in a betting scheme perpetrated by villains who threaten the Beebe brothers if they try to double-cross them. The story features a strict-but-loving mother, not unlike Crosby’s intimidating real-life mom Catherine, played by veteran character actress Elizabeth Patterson. And in keeping with Crosby’s latest hobby, two dozen thoroughbreds from his Del Mar stables were also used in the picture.
Despite his oft-expressed belief that he was not a very good actor, Crosby possessed a natural ability and depth that were on full display in “Sing You Sinners.” It finally provided him a serious dramatic role and for the first time the songs were logical plot devices rather than merely “dropped in” as in his previous musical comedies. The movie offered three memorable tunes (two of which – “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” and “Small Fry” – would become top 10 hits for Bing). And ironically for a Bing Crosby feature, he has only one solo – a captivating live rendition of “Don’t Let That Moon Get Away” that is one of his most smoothly entertaining performances on film. (This scene also features Crosby’s former Rhythm Boys partner, Harry Barris, as the energetic nightclub bandleader.)
And there was a bonus for the crooner: Crosby was always uncomfortable doing love scenes, so he was particularly happy to finally be handed a role that didn’t require him to be the romantic lead. In a press release for the film, he exalted in the departure: “The only break I get in the picture is that I don’t get the girl – Fred gets her. And believe me that’s a relief … What a break!”
After the release of “Sing You Sinners” no one would come close to Crosby’s popularity in Hollywood. By the mid-1940s, Crosby was the top box office star for five straight years – a record only matched by Shirley Temple in the 1930s.
By the time he finally retired from movies in 1966, Variety magazine placed Bing Crosby eighth among the highest-grossing Hollywood stars of all time, besting Clark Gable, William Holden, Cary Grant and Marlon Brando.
Not bad for a kid from Spokane with floppy ears and a funny name.
Brad Rovanpera is a docent at the Bing Crosby House Museum, a member of the board of the Bing Crosby Advocates, and an avid film fan.
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