He was a great singer for sure. But was Bing Crosby gifted as an actor?
We say — YES.
In at least two films Crosby showed his genuine dramatic chops as an actor, Little Boy Lost and The Country Girl. These titles tend to get lost when considering the glittering Crosby legacy.
In general, Crosby is underappreciated today by younger movie fans. Perhaps they really fall for his nonchalant public pose, that he really wasn’t much as an actor and perhaps just okay as a singer.
But this forgets readily available statistics. Crosby was Hollywood’s number one box personality from 1944 through 1948, and ranked among the top 10 most popular screen figures for a full two decades, from 1934 to 1954.
On radio, he was the top rated star in 1931, and remained so for 17 years thereafter. As for his vocalizing, forget about it. He had 38 No. 1 singles, even surpassing Elvis and the Beatles. Crosby records are still selling.
And, he logged than a 100 movie credits, and won a best actor Oscar. Question: Was Crosby the biggest all-media personality ever to come out of Hollywood?
Unquestionably three movies in the mid 1940s established Crosby as a genuine Superstar. Oh, he had had hit films for over a decade, on his own and with pals Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in those Road pictures, but with these films he really hit his stride.
— 1944’s Going My Way: Crosby costarred memorably as Father O’Malley opposite Barry Fitzgerald in director Leo McCarey’s gentle comedy, which won Bing his Oscar. He shines as laid-back priest who has run ins with his cantankerous superior (Fitzgerald). The picture was hugely successful at the box office with about 40% of the entire U.S. population buying tickets.
— 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s: This followup to Going My Way was an even bigger box office hit than its predecessor. Bing is back as Father O’Malley, this time engaging in entertaining run-ins with a non-nonsense nun played by Ingrid Bergman. Audience turnout? A full 45% of the U.S. population.
— 1947’s Welcome Stranger: A reteaming of Crosby and Fitzgerald as doctors not clerics. Barry is a cantankerous Maine sawbones who nervously takes a break while laid-back Bing (from California, of course) temporarily fills in. The movie drew a full quarter of the U.S. population. Another huge hit.
Since most of his films were comedies and musicals, and because most of his fame rested on his singing, people tend to overlook his dramatic roles. The two films that stand out:
— 1954’s The Country Girl, based on a Clifford Odets stage play about an alcoholic ex-star and his resilient, long-suffering wife (Crosby and Grace Kelly, pictured immediately above). William Holden (pictured with Crosby at the top of today’s blog) plays a director struggling to re-ignite the star’s shattered career, and along the way, falls in love with his wife. Crosby was nominated for a best actor Oscar as a result of his Country Girl performance (he lost out to winner Marlon Brando for On The Waterfront.)
— And then there is this, a small gem, 1953’s Little Boy Lost.
Here, Bing is cast as an American war correspondent in Europe whose French wife (Nicole Maurey) is killed during the German occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944. The couple’s young son (Christian Fourcade) is lost in the fog of a wartime bombing raid, and is believed to living in a French orphanage.
Barred entry to wartime Paris, Bing returns postwar to the City of Light — where the movie was actually filmed, somewhat unusual for the time — to find his son.
No Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour nor Danny Kaye. No coquettish priestly performances as the “with it” cleric. No Barry Fitzgerald. And few chances for Bing to let loose and warble. And, absolutely, no White Christmas.
Directed by the underrated George Seaton, Little Boy Lost allows Bing to sing some pretty children’s songs but no chart-busting ballads. According to one source, a ballad sung by Maurey (Mon Cour Est Un Violon or “My Heart Is A Violin”) in the movie was later recorded in French by Crosby. It’s considered a rare specimen of Crosby-anna today.
But let’s appreciate Little Boy Lost for the excellence of Crosby’s acting. The complexity of his performance may have had something to do with Bing’s personal life. His first, wife, Dixie, was dying of cancer when the movie was made (it was released theatrically 11 months after her death.)
In any case, this is one forgotten Crosby film that shouldn’t be.