Julie Lobalzo Wright has written a fascinating book on the concept of crossover stardom and what it tells us about popular male music stars in American Cinema. The book is now on paperback and thus accessible. Julie is also involved in various events around the musicals season at the BFI this Autumn, the highlights of which are: A study day on musicals at NFT3 on October 26th; and a talk on her book on November 4th at the BFI Reubens Library. This matrix of events is the context for the wide-ranging and enthusiastic conversation which you can listen to above, one that touches on, amongst other things, stardom, the musical, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Kris Kristofferson, Justin Timberlake, Barbara Streisand, various versions of A Star is Born, stardom over time, and changes in the musical genre right up to the live network screenings of shows such as Hairspray and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Gary Giddins’ new book on Crosby is great. But even so, I didn’t think it was quite as good as his first, extraordinary volume, that went up to 1940. After reading the second I re-read the first to make sure. And I was right: it’s almost as good but not quite. Yet, who’s quibbling? I don’t think anything could be. Cumulatively, the books are one of *the* great accounts of twentieth century American popular culture ever written. Reading them you get not only a sense of Crosby and his significance but a thorough account of the recording industry of those years, what was innovative when during the period, an account of radio at its peak and an excellent account of Hollywood at its height. All meticulously recorded, annotated, thought through.
One of the wonderful things about living now is that you can read Giddins, go to the song he’s talking about on youtube (they’re almost all there), and then read him as to why the singing, the song, or the arrangement is interesting or innovative, and one in fact does end up understanding. Giddins claims Crosby as the most significant figure in American popular music next to Louis Armstrong (and he well explains why it’s not Sinatra, Presley or any of the other contenders). And whatever your views are before reading, you’ll be absolutely convinced after.
Those of you into fan studies might also be interested in the newest volume for other reasons: much of the account of Bing in New York during the war years is taken from diaries of two sisters, dedicated fans, one of them in her late twenties, who stalked him so thoroughly it would put the FBI to shame. It is a meticulous researched and ethically woven through the narrative.
If you’re at all interested in American popular culture, in music, cinema, radio or the performing arts in America in the twentieth century, these two volumes are essential reading. I sincerely hope there are plans for a third.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way (1944); both by Leo McCarey and both the most successful box-office his of their respective years. It is according to Richard Corliss ‘officially loved’; Pauline Kael thought it a recruiting poster for the Catholic Church matched only by The Exorcist (William Friedkin); writing in 1973, Joseph McBride wrote that ‘If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis, I never want to meet you and that’s that’. Much as I admire his work, perhaps it’s lucky we’ve never met.
How is The Bells of St. Mary’s in any way acceptable? It’s false through and through and offensively so: hip priests and cute nuns, pretending to be all self-sacrificing and cheerful, solving all the world’s problems, manipulating everyone with prayer, conning an old man out of his building. There’s a big Leo McCarey retrospective here at the Cinema Ritrovatto. Yes, he is the director of beloved films such as Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937); and, yes, they are greatly to be cherished. But he is also the director of My Son John (1952). Why isn’t the falsity in his work also part of the discussion of McCarey? How can critics let such lies go through? Yes, there’s Ingrid Bergman, gloriously radiant, enraptured in a halo of faith that is beautiful to see; Bing sings skilfully in that marvellous baritone of his; McCarey is great at staging the comedy in a low key, famously improvised manner; the actors are excellent; but excellent in the service of what? It’s an insult to one’s intelligence; a testament to the power of lies, the American equivalent of a Stalinist film about the redeeming values of cement and the glory of sacrificing individual life and happiness to the five year plan. A film that turns from pleasant to hateful as soon as the thought it fights so hard to displace is applied to it. Yet, also one of the most popular films of all time and thus perhaps all the more reason to think about it seriously.