Collecting Legends (GARY GIDDINS, November 14, 2006, NY Sun)

For the past 50-plus years, you had about as much chance of seeing a complete print of a 1940 Bing Crosby vehicle called “If I Had My Way” as you did of, say, the initial seven-hour version of “Greed” — which is to say no chance at all. Admittedly, there wasn’t much demand for it. Still, while “Greed,” the lost grail of cinematic obsession as practiced by Erich von Stroheim, was permanently sacrificed to greed, Universal held onto what a company archivist assured me was a “pristine” interpositive of “If I Had My Way.” The studio just didn’t want anyone to see it. But more about that in a moment. […]

The Crosby set wins by a tonsil: Even when all around him turns to shtick, der Bingle remains a great singer in peak voice. The low point in the set is the naval recruitment orgy, “Here Come the Waves” (1944), an incessant Mark Sandwich musical with Betty Hutton as twins, though only one is as annoying as Betty Hutton. The joke is that Crosby plays a Frank Sinatra-style crooner, clutching a microphone stand as a swooning woman is carried off on a gurney. Unhappily, Crosby’s weakness for blackface is exercised in a duet of “Accentuate the Positive” with dim-bulb Sonny Tufts — especially galling given the segregation that divided the armed forces.

Frank Tuttle’s “Waikiki Wedding” (1937), a megahit in its day, spurred interest in all things Hawaiian with its score (“Blue Hawaii,” “Sweet Leilani”) and scenic shots by master cinematographer Karl Struss. Dated by low humor involving a pig, it is polished by Tuttle’s imaginative staging and a neat plot device designed to fool viewers along with leading lady Shirley Ross. “Double or Nothing” (1937), sluggishly directed by Theodore Reed, leavens another millionaire-with-a-munificent-plan story with intermittent rewards, like Martha Raye’s azure-tinted fuax striptease, “It’s On, It’s Off.”

Of greater interest are the two films Crosby made at Universal as an independent agent and co-producer with director David Butler: “East Side of Heaven” (1939) and “If I Had My Way.” The former is a minor but swift-moving screwball musical festooned with inside show-biz jokes and a splendid cast led by Crosby and the curvaceously brighteyed Joan Blondel. Bing plays a purveyor of singing telegrams who gets stuck with an infant (surely the oddest box-office attraction of the era, Baby Sandy, who retired at four).

The mystery of the butchered “If I Had My Way” gets to the nub of why it was made. Crosby and Butler shared a love of old show business, especially vaudeville and minstrelsy. Crosby’s films are littered with references to that era (“Double on Nothing” has an interpolated vaudeville show). For this film, they contrived a story that allowed them to preserve on film a few figures who had faded from view many years earlier, especially the legendary minstrel Eddie Leonard, whose three-minute “Ida” is his only filmed legacy.

When the film was sold to television in the late 1940s, it was cut to 80 minutes from 94 to accommodate ads — not because of Leonard’s blackface number, as was widely assumed. All the vaudeville numbers were cut along with a solo by Bing’s 14-year-old co-star Gloria Jean. The missing minutes were thought lost: Even the personal copies of Crosby and Gloria Jean lacked sequences.

So now we have a pristine print. Great film? Hardly, but it is a highly entertaining mixture of lend-lease politics, show-biz lore, and social wish fulfillment.

Stick to Mr. Giddins bio and Bing’s tunes instead.

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