by Everett Crosby
I DON’T know that Bing’s ever said which of the pictures he’s made is his favorite. But I can tell you. There are two. One is “Going My Way.” The other is “Bells Of St. Mary’s.”
Why they’re his favorites is interesting. In the role of Father O’Malley, Bing doesn’t have to make love. He doesn’t like to make love. It embarrasses him. He gets all embarrassed when, in front of a set full of people, he has to go into a clinch. When he does have to, his face looks like a piece of boiled scrod. Actually blushes. He’s always been that way. It’s an old family trait. None of us ever gets demonstrative in front of people.
In his latest picture, “Welcome Stranger,” Bing plays the part of an unmarried doctor who hides his genuine professional skill behind a carefree personality, a pipe and a happy habit of singing and as such is permitted romantic overtures which are obviously tabu in the role of a man of the cloth. Most of these overtures he makes by caressing, not the hands, or the hair, but the ears of Joan Caulfield with ‘As Long As I’m Dreaming,’ a wooing ballad certain to make the heart beat faster.
Seems corny to say of a fellow who’s as much in the public eye as Bing has been for more than fifteen years, that he’s shy; is bashful. But that’s a fact—except around close, very old friends.
He HATES to have people come up and pat him on the back. On compliments, he chokes. Even if I should give him a pat on the back, tell him I think he’s great—which, very confidentially, I do—he’d think I’d gone crazy.
Why Bing doesn’t like to be told he’s great is because he doesn’t think that much of himself. To him, it’s all luck.
When we were in New York last Spring we went, one night, to hear Maurice Chevalier sing. After the performance, we went backstage to congratulate Chevalier on the amazing job he did. Bing and Maurice hadn’t met since Chevalier left Hollywood, and the Paramount lot, seven, eight, or maybe it was nine years ago. After Bing got through telling Chevalier what a terrific performance he gave, Chevalier started telling Bing how great he thinks it is that, in the years since he has been away, Bing has become so famous. Some one in the group remarked that every house in America now has one, or more, of Bing’s records. Chevalier said. “Every house in America? Non, non, every house in the world!” Bing said, inching towards the door, “Awww, nothin’ but a lotta luck!”
Bing doesn’t know how to sing. Has never known how to sing. He knows how to tell a song. What he does, is recite a poem to incidental music, in a way the mike likes.
But it isn’t all luck. Bing, however, believes that it is and because that’s what he believes, he’ll never act big.
People ask me—reporters, magazine writers and the like— why Bing won’t give interviews anymore; hasn’t for some years. Why he won’t, it’s the same tiling—it’s talking about himself, he just won’t do it. Same with photographs—portrait sittings, I mean. He hates sitting for pictures, won’t do it and drives Paramount crazy since, with no new ones in the files, they have to use the old ones; have to. Same with making public appearances, unless it’s for a good cause, like benefit and camp appearances, he just won’t make them. In New York, the few times he goes to New York, he won’t stay in New York, he stays out on Long Island where he can be, relatively speaking, alone.
For years, although asked a number of times, Bing wouldn’t sing in the Hollywood Bowl. ‘That’s for the big singers,’ he’d say. And kept on saying until Paul Whiteman asked him. Then he did. But that was different. That was Whiteman asking. Whiteman, his friend of more than twenty years. Anything for an old friend . . .
Bing’s very loyal, very loyal, indeed, to all his old friends. Every time he starts a picture, he gives the studio a list of some fifteen or twenty old trouper pals, with instructions that they be given work in the picture. Some he knew as far back as the days when he and Al Rinker, in a band known as The Musicaladers, played a vaudeville house in Spokane. Others he worked with when, later, as “Crosby & Rinker, Two Boys And A Piano, Singing Songs In Their Own Way,” the “two boys” were doing just that. He and Al, with Harry Barris became a trio, known as Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, then toured with Whiteman for three years until, in 1930, the band appeared in Universal’s “The King Of Jazz,” which marked brother Bing’s unspectacular film debut.
When he first submitted this list of his cronies to the studio (probably as far back as 1932, when he made “The Big Broadcast”) the studio balked. The Casting Department made like turning thumbs down. Bing just shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “Get yourself a new boy . . .”
Now, and for some time past, when Bing is starting a picture, the studio, hep to the routine, which is a fixture, simply hands Bing a list of the old pals they’ve called to take “The Road To Zanzibar” or “The Road To Utopia,” or whatever the film may be, for his okay. Harry Barris has worked with Bing, in some capacity, if only a bit part, in almost every picture Bing’s ever made and he uses the fifteen or twenty others as much as possible . . .
With people he knows very well Bing can be, and usually is, at ease. His idea of fun—in addition to golf, of course—is getting out with a bunch of guys he knows. No doubt about it but that the tag, “A Man’s Man,” fits the Groaner like the gloves he doesn’t wear. The small talk, the pretty talk, the soft talk, stock-in-trade of the successful “Ladies’ Man” is not for brother Bingle. But this doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy a party when it is a party where every face, whether worn by male or female, is a familiar face . . .
Like the party Charley and Millie Burns recently gave for Anita Colby at 21 in New York. Bing sang that night. Bing sang all night. Morton Downey was there. Bing and Morton sang. Separately and together. In a group of these people, these friends, Bing LOVES to sing. “Remember this song?” he’ll ask, going into it. Then, chain-singing, “And this one . . . ?” But if asked to stand up and sing, perform like, at some one’s house, he couldn’t do it for all the tea in China.
Gags, he loves. Ribs. Practical jokes. Out of the seven kids in our family, Bing is probably the closest of us to his mother. He goes to see her more often than any of us. And, to our mother, Bing is, hands down, the Great Thing. Nothing else but him. You’d think, almost, he was the only son and, because it’s reciprocal, everything’s okay. It’s always been that way, always this very, very close bond between them. When we were growing up, I could fight, I remember, with Larry, or Ted, or Bob, muss ’em up, but if I laid a hand on Bing I was in trouble! The way it was, Bing could do something wrong and, with mother, it was right!
Bing is, essentially, and very much, a family man. The most important thing in his life is his family. He takes his kids seriously, very seriously. He watches closely over their education. He watches even more closely over their recreation. He never fails, unless he’s out of town, to attend Sunday Mass with them. He talks to them a lot about sports. Football, baseball, tennis, boxing. He goes with them, whenever he can, and he can, to sports events. He has talked to them a lot about music and singing and has now got them singing four-part harmony. All four boys have good voices and Lindsay, the nine-year-old youngest, can sit down and play popular songs by the yard, and by ear …
Every Christmas Eve, Bing and the kids go from house to house, singing carols. They go, first, to the folks’ house, to the houses of Bing’s friends, to my house . . .
I’ve never, in my life, seen kids that mind any quicker than Bing’s kids mind him. He says something to them, says it once, and that’s that.
At our house, last Christmas Eve, as an example, the kids were at the bar having ginger ale, cracking nuts, having themselves a time when Bing said, “All right, boys, let’s have the songs” . . . and before the last word was out of his mouth, the four boys had dropped everything and were on their feet. As a parent myself, I’m sure I do not need to tell other parents that most kids would pull a “Just a minute, Dad” or “Just one more nut,” but not Gary, Phillip, Michael and Lindsay. When Bing tells them to do something—boom, they do it!
When Bing was in the East last Spring, he kept one eye on, so to speak, the calendar. He’d set his date of departure for May 15th or May 20th and not a day later because his kids were getting out of school in early June and he was taking them with him to his ranch in Nevada where he planned to spend, and is spending, the Summer with them. And nothing was allowed to interfere, and nothing did interfere, with Bing’s Summer with his kids. At Paramount, they’re preparing “Connecticut Yankee” which, in September and in Technicolor, he and Judy Garland will make. But nothing, neither picture nor radio nor any other thing, until then. The Summer belongs to the boys . . .
At the ranch, Bing sees to it that the kids roll up their jeans and do things. He’s always said that a kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth is a kid born with a handicap. When we were kids, the seven of us, Larry, Ted, Bing, Catherine, Mary Rose, Bob and I, at home in Spokane, Washington, we doggone well had to help with the dishes, mow the lawn, do the chores or they didn’t get done and we knew it. When we boys wanted to go to the movies Saturday night, we had to hustle and earn that quarter or there wasn’t any movie. We knew that, too. “Wnen I tell my kids to help with the dishes or mow the lawn,” Bing once said, “they know they don’t have to do it; know that if they don’t do it, the servants will and that it’s only the old man trying to build character. And that’s bad. At the ranch, the manshortage being what it still is, there are things that have to be done, things that, if they are to get done, they have to do. And that’s good.”
Bing probably has less use (less personal use, I mean) for money than any man I know. He spends a lot of money —this may surprise you—on his clothes but he buys—this won’t surprise you— the lousiest clothes in the world. He goes to a good tailor, the best. He buys good materials but the colors, to use a rude but, in this connection, completely descriptive word, stink. Even his tailor laughs at his selections. He doesn’t care. The fact that he is color-blind provides him with a partial alibi, but only partial, since he could take the advice of his well-wishers. He could take heed of his tailor’s unseemly but, and with good reason, uncontrollable mirth. He doesn’t. By now, however, Bing’s wardrobe, dizzy as it is, has become a stock-in-trade.
After his house in Toluca Lake burned down, he bought a house, a very fine house, in Holmby Hills. He has his ranch. Both places are beautifully furnished. But, except in the matter of signing the checks (which I do for him), no thanks to him. For to Bing, a chair is something to sit on. A bed is something to sleep in. A table is something to eat on. What “period” the chair is, or the bed, or the table, he wouldn’t know. If you asked him what color-scheme his own bedroom is done (green and brown—although I’m slightly color-blind, too—it looks to me) he wouldn’t know what a color-scheme is!
He has the worst looking dressing room on the Paramount lot. All the others are fixed up fine and fancy, but for fifteen years, Bing’s has remained as is. They can clean it for him, but that’s about all. Let the matter of redecorating it be mentioned and “Leave it alone,” Bing says. “It’s good enough for me!”
He has taken a little interest, lately, in buying pictures—Russells and Remingtons, mainly, one or two by Munnings, the English painter of horses. He first started getting picture-conscious when for Christmas a couple of years ago, I gave him a Russell. A while later, “Buy me some pictures,” he asked me. “You come with me,” I said. “Show me what you want and I’ll buy them for you.” “What do I care what they are,” he said. “YOU buy them!”
Bing can get pretty stubborn. Anything he doesn’t want to do, he just won’t do and the more people ask him to do it, the further away he gets.
I’ve been asked whether Bing is lazy. The answer is, he isn’t lazy, he just acts lazy. Slow-motion. How it is with Bing, he isn’t either lazy or energetic. He never presses, but he gets more work done than any fellow you ever saw.
He’s on the set, the first one, at nine o’clock every morning, with rarely a miss in fifteen years. He either gets there on time, to the tick, or—not at all. Punctuality is a must with him. Make an appointment with Bing for such and such a time and you better be there— HE is!
When, awhile ago, he was to be on the Vox Pop program, the director was scared, doubtful that Bing’d get there on time. He not only was there, he was the FIRST one there. He let the others in.
But everything Bing does, he does quickly, nonchalantly, without apparent effort. Never, as I’ve said, presses. He’s always been this way. As a kid, Bing was always a pretty smart kid. A long way from being a long-hair, with “A” grades, he got along fine without much work. A very retentive reader, he remembers what he reads, gets it by heart. And he’s always been a great reader—especially of Somerset Maugham and Christopher Morley, who are his favorites.
Even when he quits things, he quits quietly. Makes up his mind to quit something—boom, he quits it! Goes on the wagon—just quits, boom! Makes up his mind to quit smoking as, almost a year ago he did, never says anything about it, how hard it is, or how easy, just lets it go. Even I didn’t know he’d quit smoking until last Christmas when I gave him a couple of swell pipes only to find out, then, that he’d quit.
He has, however, talked some, in the past—been talking for years, in fact—about quitting pictures. But he doesn’t talk about it now as much as he used to. Now that they’ve taken him for the American Character, now that he has become, as a couple of writers put it, “A symbol of free America. A legend,” he feels, I know, a sense of responsibility.
He lives up to his responsibilities, does Brother Bing. He never, I say this for him, lets a fellow down, whether father, mother, wife, kids, sister, brothers, friends or fans, whose long and loyal affection he returns.
“It’s got to be a sort of habit with me now,” he says. “This routine in pictures and on the air. If I quit either one, I guess it’ll have to be by public demand.”