The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘Mississippi’

And now we finally get to the jewel of the collection, Mississippi. From 1935, the film pairs Bing Crosby with comedy icon W.C. Fields. It was directed by some guy named A. Edward Sutherland and is based on a Booth Tarkington story, but you wouldn’t tell. The story – Bing needs to earn his honor (a.k.a.: grow a pair) so he can sweep the girl he loves off her feet – is really secondary here. For the most part, we care about how many hilarious Fields bits can be squeezed into 73 minutes.

mississippi

While in the earlier films in this set, Bing often was shoved to the side, here he gets much more time and doesn’t have to sing the same three songs repeatedly. There’s some great Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songs. He also gets to sing “Swanee” throughout. Amazingly, Bing gets to be an action hero. Mississippi is probably the only Bing movie with a brawl in the middle of a song. Right after killing a guy, he gets right back on stage to finish and sing with blood dripping from the corner of his mouth.

Mississippi does feature some classic Fields bits. Personally, I find it hilarious that he wears a hat that reads “CAPTAIN” in the entire movie. (Although, he does get to wear his familiar top hat in some scenes.) There’s also this amazing running gag where he has to have a drink in his hand in every scene.

Joan Bennett also gives a good performance as Bing’s love interest, but she is out of the film a lot. That’s for the best though, since we get a lot of scenes between Bing and Fields.

This is one of the films in the collection with its trailer. The movie is only available in this set, but it’s still worth it. Mississippi is not some hidden gem, but it’s a blast to see two greats you would never expect to be paired together in the same film.

Warner Archive Collection: ‘Min and Bill’

I got a few more Warner Archive titles this week, thanks to their latest sale. One of the movies I picked up was Min and Bill, the 1930 film that won Marie Dressler the 1930/31 Best Actress Oscar.

min and bill

While I do agree that the Academy Awards are silly, they are still important to help the average movie fan figure out what was popular in the past. Had Dressler not won an Oscar for this over eight decades ago, I would never have had interest in this little film. It isn’t directed by a big name and doesn’t star any glamorous actors and actors. In fact, beyond the top-billed stars, there are no other familiar faces. Despite all that, it is still an enjoyable, fun movie that I’m happy I picked up. Since it only takes 65 minutes to sit through, I will definitely have an opportunity to watch it again.

Min and Bill, directed and produced by George Hill, pairs Dressler with Wallace Beery, coupling the two most unlikely stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Their chemistry is infectious and they even get in a classic brawl when Bill (Beery) plays around with Min’s old friend. That old friend is the irresponsible mother to the orphan Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) who Min took in as a baby.

There are moments throughout the film where you just see how Dressler connected with audiences. She wore emotions on her face and could be both sympathetic and powerful. I do wish Greta Garbo had won for Anna Christie, but even in 1931, the Oscars were a popularity contest. So since Min and Bill was a huge hit, it’s not surprising that Dressler won. At least she’s really good in it.

Warner Archive released the film back in 2009 and it looks about as good as you can expect. I was actually surprised that some scenes looked as good as they did. The theatrical trailer is also included, advertising the film as “All-Talking!”

This is one surprisingly fun film, even if it is hampered by early talkie technology. It is a short film, but it’s worth checking out.

The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘Here Is My Heart’

Frank Tuttle’s Here Is My Heart is the third film in Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection and finds Paramount in full swing, fully understanding the magic it had with Bing.

here is my heart

Unlike the previous films in the set from 1933, Here Is My Heart shows a better understanding of Bing’s talents. He gets to sing a few songs that fit in well with the story, including “June in January.” Of course, the story is still overly simple, since it only runs 76 minutes.

That story, which also begins on a boat (what is it with the 1930s obsession with boats?), finds Bing as J. Paul Jones, an American millionaire thanks to his “crooning.” He hopes to get a second pistol once owned by the real John Paul Jones so he can present it to the U.S. Naval Academy. When he’s told that a Russian princess (Kitty Carlisle) has it, he rushes back to Monte Carlo to get it and that requires him to pretend to be a waiter. He falls in love, apparently forgetting about the girl (Marian Mansfield) he sang to on the boat.

Here Is My Heart is actually pretty funny thanks to the supporting cast of regular character actors. There’s Akim Tamiroff hilariously playing the hotel manager, while the always funny Roland Young plays Prince Nicki.

Now that I’m halfway through this set, I have to say these films are a bit more enjoyable than expected, partly because they use songs as part of the story. Bing isn’t asked to dance, so the musical numbers don’t stop the story. Instead – even though songs are repeated multiple times, they actually advance the plot.

I’m incredibly excited for the next film in the set, Mississippi, which pairs Bing with W.C. Fields!

The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘College Humor’

The oldest film in Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection is 1933’s College Humor, which I would hardly call a real Bing Crosby movie.

college humor

College Humor, as one might expect by the title, is a college comedy with Hollywood stars who are far too old to believe that they are college kids. Thirty-year-old Jack Oakie is the real star of the film, as an eager, privileged student. He is paired with Richard Arlen, 44, who plays the star football player who gets drunk when Jack’s sister (played by Mary Carlisle – who is probably the only one who legitimately looks like a student) runs off with professor Bing.

Sadly, Bing doesn’t have much to do other than drag Richard out of prison in the climax. He only gets to sing a few songs in the film, specifically “Learn To Croon,” which he sings… a lot. We also get two short Gracie Allen & George Burns segments, but they are way too short.

College Humor was directed by Wesley Ruggles, who goes down in cinematic history as the director of Cimarron. There’s a couple of funny bits, but this is a really creaky movie. It’s really surprising that this came out on DVD at all.

Check out my review of the second film in the set, We’re Not Dressing.

Western Wednesday: ‘Colt .45′ starring Randolph Scott & Zachary Scott

If you couldn’t get John Wayne, the best alternative was Randolph Scott. He just looked like a guy who walked right out of pictures of the Old West. Scott could have fought alongside Wyatt Earp and chased after Jesse James or Billy The Kid. He was tall, handsome and could ride horses without a problem.

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Scott really came into his own in the 1950s in Westerns and that string of success may be attributed to 1950’s Colt .45. Directed by Edwin L. Martin, Colt .45 isn’t exactly a top-shelf Western – especially since they use Colt .44‘s in the movie – but it is far more unique than you would expect.

Scott plays Steve Farrell (could writer Thomas Blackburn have come up with a more boring name?), a Colt salesman who has the bad fortune of trying to sell a sheriff on the new Colt .45s while outlaw Jason Brett (Zachary Scott) is in the jail cell. Brett manages to break out, steals Steve’s pistols and goes on a four-month criminal rampage through the West. Steve gets mistaken for a Brett gangmember and is thrown in jail, where he sits for all four months. (Hey, he’s a good guy and good guys don’t break out of jail.)

Since this is a 74-minute movie, it doesn’t take Steve long to catch up with Brett’s “Colt .45s Gang.” (apparently, they didn’t get very far in four months.) He finds the gang wreaking havoc on Bonanza Creek (wait… so Blackburn can come up with a cool name for the town, but not his hero? What?), where the sheriff is in Brett’s pocket and cowardly mine owner Paul Donovan (Lloyd Bridges) is hiding them out. Now it’s time for Steve to gather up the local Native Americans and Paul’s suffering wife Beth (Ruth Roman) to get Brett and his gang out of town.

Randolph actually gives his standard performance here, so let’s get to the juicy stuff. Zachary Scott (no relation) is incredible as the villain. There are parts where his performance borders on parody (he has a particularly funny way of lighting up his cigarette at one point), but for the most part, he is chilling and disturbing. There is a particularly shocking moment during the final fight where he sticks his finger in the bullet hole in Randolph’s shoulder. It’s particularly gruesome for a film in this era.

Kudos also go to the vastly underrated Ruth Roman, who seems to impress me in every movie of her’s I see. Maybe I’m tricked by her beauty, but she’s very good here.

Colt .45 is definitely worth checking out, but is sadly only available in two DVD collections of Randolph Scott films. Warner Bros. released it in a Triple Feature with Forth Worth and Tall Man Riding and in a 4-Film Favorites set that adds the incredible classic Ride The High Country. It all depends on whether you have Ride alone or not, but it’s worth it. (Well, it’s worth the $5 I spent for the 4-pack.)

Stats:

Warner Bros. Pictures Presents

Randolph Scott and Ruth Roman in Colt .45 with Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges

Written by Thomas Blackburn

Directed by Edwin L. Martin

74 minutes, 1.33:1

The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘We’re Not Dressing’

Last week, I picked up Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection, which features six movies Crosby made for Paramount Pictures. The first four are form 1933 through 1935, so very early in his film career. That last two are from 1938 and 1947.

we're not dressing

Although it’s the second film in the set, I rushed to see 1934’s We’re Not Dressing, since it co-stars Carole Lombard, one of my favorites. The film, directed by Norman Taurog, also has a great selection of supporting players, including Ethel Merman and the comedy duo George Burns & Gracie Allen. There’s also an incredibly young Ray Milland – credited as Raymond Milland.

The plot is pretty simple, since Paramount has to squeeze in as much Bing songs as possible. Bing is sailor Stephen on a ship owned by heiress Doris (Lombard) and they get shipwrecked. They wash up on a deserted Pacific island, where scientists George and Gracie (well, Gracie is just there to annoy George) are studying. George and Gracie let them know that that someone’s coming to rescue them and, while they wait, Stephen convinces the lazy Doris that they love each other.

Unless I missed something, I don’t quite see what the title has to do with all this. Several times, the film veers off in bizarre directions, since there’s a bear on the ship (whose presence is never quite explained). There’s also a curiously dark moment towards the end where it looks like Bing is about to have his way with Carole after tying her up. Of course, he doesn’t because he’s too good a man to do that, but it made me raise an eyebrow.

The film is in amazingly good shape and the only extra feature is a trailer (which makes sure you know the names of all the songs). I have never even seen any of the other films in this set, so this will be an interesting journey through an ignored part of Bing’s career.

Western Wednesday: King Vidor’s ‘The Texas Rangers’ starring Fred MacMurray & Jack Oakie

There is this stigma outside the film community that there were no good Westerns made in Hollywood during the 1930s before John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach. However, that is clearly incorrect. Yes, Ford did bring the genre out of B-movie hell, just like he did for John Wayne, but A-list directors still made Westerns in the ’30s. One of these was the great King Vidor, who made The Texas Rangers for Paramount in 1936. 

The film is very episodic in nature, despite its short running time. A young Fred MacMurray is paired with Jack Oakie, who play two criminals who decide the best way to make some fast money is to join the Texas Rangers, with the eventual goal of leaving. But when one of their former cohorts returns to crime,  Jim (MacMurray) and Wahoo (Oakie) stay on to free Texas from criminals. Of course, there’s also a lady involved, Amanda, played by the beautiful Jean Parker. 

Vidor directs the film with vigor, putting together a string of fantastic action sequences. A climactic battle with Native Americans should be remembered as one of his best sequences. 

Clearly, The Texas Rangers isn’t a movie made with lofty ambition – far unlike Vidor’s best films – but it is more enjoyable than you might expect. Oakie (best known today for his role as Chaplin’s Mussolini stand-in in The Great Dictator) gives a particularly poignant performance as Wahoo. MacMurray is also pretty good, before he would really meet stardom. However, it’s clear that he lacks a certain punch that Western stars like Wayne, Henry Fonda or even Randolph Scott had. 

The Texas Rangers is currently available on DVD in a Universal four-pack, thrown together with three sub-par Westerns. (The pack includes Raoul Walsh’s sadly awful The Lawless Breed with Rock Hudson, although Jacques Tourner’s Canyon Passage is decent.) It alone was worth the $5 I paid for the set. 

Stats:

Adolph Zukor presents “The Texas Rangers”

Starring Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker

Written by Louis Stevens, Based on the book by William Prescott Webb 

Produced and Directed by King Vidor

98 minutes, 1.33:1