Today marks a sad anniversary in entertainment history, for it was 30 years ago -- Oct. 14, 1977 -- that Bing Crosby passed away, appropriately after finishing a round of golf in Spain. If you only know of Bing Crosby from the holiday perennial "White Christmas" or his "Road" films with buddy Bob Hope, you likely aren't aware of the impact he had on music, or what a revolutionary figure he was.
Bing Crosby -- the soothing, pipe-smoking, golf-playing Bing Crosby -- a revolutionary? Indeed. Not so much in his movies, where he was a box-office king for many years, but in his music, particularly his records in the late 1920s and early '30s. Crosby brought a new, intimate, jazz-flavored approach to pop vocalizing. And whereas we think of Crosby's style as relaxed, and certainly in his later years his style became more mannered, his early records had a surprising amount of conviction and feeling. His stirring version of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" perhaps captures the frustration of ordinary Americans during the Depression more than any other record of the era.
Crosby learned a lot from a contemporary, Louis Armstrong -- so much so that in the '30s, Bing was massively popular in the black community. (He had many imitators, both black and white; by the forties, Frank Sinatra, who became a singer after seeing Crosby in concert in Jersey City in the early thirties, instinctively chose to sing in a different manner.) Crosby and Armstrong were longtime friends, as this photo makes clear, and it's hard to envision pop music without either of them:
Crosby was the dominant entertainment figure of his day. He sold hundreds of millions of records, starred in films and was a longtime force on radio. He even popularized the use of audio tape after World War II.
It's possible Carole Lombard saw Bing Crosby sing with Gus Arnheim or Paul Whiteman's orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove in the late 1920s. And like Lombard, Crosby gained film experience from Mack Sennett. making some short films for him in 1930. Feature films followed, and his breakthrough came in "The Big Broadcast" (1932) -- a movie in which Carole could have appeared in a non-singing role, but her gripes about a lack of screen time (and being passed over for the Ernst Lubitsch film she really wanted) led Paramount to loan her out to Columbia.
Two years later, Lombard and Crosby -- by now firmly established as a box-office attraction -- finally made a film together, "We're Not Dressing," an adaptation of the chestnut play "The Admirable Crichton." (A silent version, "Male And Female," was made by Cecil B. De Mille more than a decade earlier; legend has it that exhibitors had Paramount change the title because they didn't want any more navy pictures, and who was this Admiral Crichton, anyway?) Lombard plays a spoiled heiress, Crosby a seaman on her boat. When it wrecks and the party lands on a deserted island, their positions of power are essentially reversed, and romance develops.
The film is a bit silly at times (a bear on roller skates?), but the supporting cast is splendid (Leon Errol. Ethel Merman, Ray Milland, George Burns and Gracie Allen) and Bing sings several good songs, notably "Love Thy Neighbor" and "May I."
Part of the film was shot at Catalina Island, and one morning Lombard surprised the staid guests in the hotel dining room -- but cracked up the film crew -- by shouting across to Crosby, "Hey, Bing, did I leave my nightgown in your bedroom? I can't find it anywhere!"
The film was shot in early 1934, when Carole was romantically linked with Russ Columbo, Crosby's ostensible crooning rival (they were actually on good terms), and Russ occasionally came by the set.
Crosby liked Lombard's freewheeling style, her penchant for jokes and occasional blue language. He later wrote in an autobiography that to think of Carole as a "good guy rather than a sexy mamma is one of those unbelievable manifestations impossible to explain. She was the least prudish person I've ever known."
"We're Not Dressing" is part of "Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection." A trailer for the film is included, the only extra in the six-film, 2-DVD set.