Posted by Susan Doll on June 17, 2013
Late tomorrow night, the Rat Pack musical Robin and the 7 Hoods will air on TCM at 2:15 am. Set during the Depression, this loose interpretation of the Robin Hood story features Frank Sinatra as Robbo, a gangster caught in a gang war with rival mobster Guy Gisborne. Rumor has it that Rat Pack veterans Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were no longer part of the inner circle by the time this film was made, so Bing Crosby and Peter Falk filled out the supporting characters.
The last musical comedy for both Sinatra and Crosby, Robin and the 7 Hoods features a couple of classic tunes (“My Kind of Town”; “Style”), the cool camaraderie of Frank, Dean, and Sammy, and the occasional funny one-liner—but little else. The musical is loose and lumbering, and the dance numbers so void of actual choreography, they don’t seem like dance numbers at all. Medium long shots in long takes dominate the film, which contributes to its lack of energy. Sinatra had never liked to do more than one take per scene, and by this time, few could convince him to repeat his dialogue more than once, not even for close-ups or coverage. The fewer shots, the less editing, which drags down the pace.
Despite the film’s weaknesses, who doesn’t love the Rat Pack? I especially enjoy Bing Crosby as Allen A. Dale, who runs the orphanage where Robbo has donated a considerable sum. Though as smooth and relaxed as any Crosby character, Allen A. Dale is mostly defined by his sesquipedalian phraseology. In other words, he is long-winded and effusive, using arcane phrasing with multi-syllable words. For example, in the character’s introductory scene, when Sinatra and crew think he is soliciting for money, he launches into a prolonged denial ending with “I beseech do not so misconstrue.” Throughout the film, his verbose dialogue is followed by someone remarking in gangster-ese, “I think there is somethin’ wrong wit’ his troat.”
The verbal virtuosity of the character Allen A. Dale was an aspect of the persona Crosby had constructed during his years in radio and fine-tuned over the decades. If you have seen any of the Road movies, his light-hearted musicals, or his appearances on TV variety shows in the 1960s, you have seen him in action. But, like me, you probably took this talent for granted. It is apparent in the quipping between Hope and Crosby, in the lilting remarks between verses of songs, and in the well-placed adlibs with guests on his radio program.
Crosby attributed his vocal abilities and exquisite musical phrasing to the elocution classes he received from the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga College in Spokane, Washington. Strict and formal, the classes taught him not only how to enunciate lines and lyrics but how to analyze their meaning. Throughout his career, Crosby took care to ponder the meaning of lyrics, even when some of the material selected for him was not very good. As a young student, he had intended to study pre-law in college, but courses in elocution, recitation, drama, and debate dominated his education. In a 1923 review of his performance in a play called It Pays to Advertise, the local paper noted his ability to deliver the jokes effectively, “Mr. Crosby bursts over with spontaneity in getting his amusing lines across the footlights.”
With one year of college left, Crosby ditched pre-law to pursue a musical career. He began by following and singing 1920s-style jazz, with Louis Armstrong his strongest musical influence. It was not Armstrong’s unique voice that Crosby emulated but his ability to create an illusion of ease and spontaneity in his singing style. People who know far more about music than I ever will are quick to praise Crosby’s phrasing and note his understanding of time, including knowing where the downbeat was. His articulation, phrasing, and timing in song gave him an advantage in speaking lines—an advantage honed into a skill with wordplay that became part of his star image.
Crosby was the architect of his own career and image, particularly on radio during the early 1930s. He performed on radio from 1931 to 1961, longer than any other singer-entertainer of his generation. His most successful stint was as host of the Kraft Music Hall from 1935 to 1946. There he practiced at playing the genial bon viveur who was calm, collected, and cool. On air, Crosby was never in a hurry for any reason, but he was always quick to crack a one-liner. The ease and timing of his delivery made his dialogue seem adlibbed, though it was often scripted by a writer with the unlikely name of Carroll Carroll. Carroll understood Crosby’s informal persona and studied his vocal stylings in order to create the lilting, well-timed lines delivered so breezily by Bing. “I just thought I’d sit here and watch the effect of yon moon on the waves” was a typical line.
Crosby did adlib with guests on his radio programs, but this tendency has been exaggerated and misunderstood. It did not involve sputtering whatever popped into his head at the moment, nor did he or his guests walk all over each other’s lines—a style of adlibbing found in contemporary gross-out comedies in which the actors spew badly timed lines for their own amusement. In Crosby’s shows, all lines served the skits or material. Crosby was an early advocate for the commercial development of magnetic tape. His technical director had seen a demonstration of magnetic tape recorders, and he arranged for a private demonstration for his boss. The singer was looking for a way to prerecord his radio series instead of doing the shows live, but prerecording on discs had resulted in poor quality sound. Tape produced a higher quality sound, and it allowed Crosby and his guests to prerecord musical numbers, then select the best takes. Comic bits could be extended during recording, with the best adlibs retained while any weak one-liners were edited out later. When Crosby began his 1947 season on October 1, the show represented the first magnetic tape broadcast in America, according to J.M. Fenster in Invention & Technology magazine.
In the Road movies, Hope and Crosby played extensions of their radio personalities, with the former a hapless chump to the latter’s laid-back con man. The two experienced entertainers speckled their scripts with additional jokes, but they were rarely adlibbed on the spot as many claim. Most were supplied by their regular radio writers and then inserted in the script at suitable points by Hope and Crosby. It’s the pair’s offhand delivery of the lines as comic asides—giving the illusion of spontaneity—that makes them seem unrehearsed. In The Road to Zanzibar, Crosby defends buying a diamond mine from a wealthy man, saying, “He’s a philanthropist!” Hope quips, “I don’t care who he votes for.”
Breezy line delivery was only part of Crosby’s verbal shtick, which also included offbeat phrasing combined with hip slang delivered in an almost musical cadence. The musical High Society provides the best example of Crosby’s verbal stylings, specifically the duet “Well, Did You Evah” with Frank Sinatra. The entire song has been composed around Crosby’s quip-like delivery. Sinatra sings the verse, “And have you heard the story of a boy, a girl, unrequited love?” Crosby cracks, “Sounds like pure soap opera,” to which Sinatra remarks, “I may cry.” But, Crosby has the last word, “Tune in tomorrow,” before the next verse of the song begins. Later, between verses, Sinatra announces, “I’m going to dance,” and Crosby replies, “Don’t get hurt.” It has been said that Sinatra idolized Crosby, which accounts for their chemistry together in this number. Likewise, Crosby idolized Louis Armstrong, which comes through in my favorite number in the film, “Now You Has Jazz.” Satchmo sings, “Frenchmen all prefer what they call la jazz hot,” to which Bing effortlessly quips, “Formidable!”
I love when Crosby uses slang, because he is just too hip for the room. For example, his names for Bob Hope’s famous ski-shaped nose are legendary: hook horn, shoe face, bent beak, scow-prow, ski snoot, and funnel flue. Instead of using the standard show-biz phrase “wow the audience,” he might say, “Let’s crumple the folks.” If his knees hurt, he complained about his “prayer bones.” Performing a duet with another entertainer would prompt him to proclaim, “We will now cross cadenzas.” To express his confusion, he declared, “I seem to be playing in the infield.” Oddly, when he was worried, he would say he was “fretting cuticle.” Crosby spoke in his unique slang in real life, and Carroll listened carefully, often incorporating certain words and phrases into his radio and film dialogue.
Sadly, Bing Crosby has not been remembered in the same way as Sinatra or the Rat Pack. Somehow his easy-going persona lacks the edge so prized by the mythmakers, and his hit songs are too mainstream (“White Christmas”) to be solely associated with him. Also, revelations about his personal life by his sons after his death have cast a shadow over his popularity as an entertainer, though they represent only one side to his story. However, I find myself amused by his ease and skill at wordplay, perhaps because I am a writer, and I recommend re-viewing his movies—even the lesser ones—for that reason.
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