Saturday, July 03, 2004

Crosby > Sinatra

High Society is one of those movies that has every reason to be good, and isn't. It's got a Cole Porter score. It's got three big stars: Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. It's got a supporting cast that includes Celeste Holm and, as himself, Louis Armstrong. It's got a script by the fine Broadway playwright John Patrick (The Hasty Heart, The Teahouse of the August Moon) and direction by dependable MGM musical veteran Chuck Walters. And yet the whole movie is just as flat as can be: no one seems to be at his or her best, the musical numbers are mostly unmemorably staged. Probably most of the blame goes to the producer, Sol Siegel, a Fox veteran producing his first movie for MGM; in this and his follow-up movie with Porter, Les Girls, he seemed to be almost embarrassed about producing a musical, choosing instead to make a couple of longish comedies with music thrown in here and there, instead of the big attention-getting production numbers we'd expect from an MGM musical. (Odd, since Siegel had produced his share of musicals at Fox, including Call Me Madam, but maybe he just felt, as many did in 1956, that the exuberance of old-style musicals was no longer "sophisticated" enough.) But I prefer to place the blame on Grace Kelly, who is just dull from begining to end and gives no indication of why we should care about this pretty but boring, enervated person.

But the one interesting thing about watching High Society is this: as the movie goes on, you start to notice that Bing Crosby is cooler than Frank Sinatra. Much cooler. Much, much cooler. This is not Crosby at his best; he sleepwalks through a lot of the picture, throws away a lot of lines that Cary Grant nailed in the original. And this is not Crosby in his prime; in 1956 he was past his peak both as a singer and a star, while Sinatra was a superstar. And yet Sinatra just looks and sounds like kind of an amateur next to Crosby. As a singer, Crosby still has much the better voice and knows much more about what to do with it. Sinatra can do his "swooner" act, which he does with two not-that-great Porter ballads in this film ("You're Sensational" and "Mind If I Make Love To You"). And of course he can do his "swinger" act, though this movie doesn't give him much of a chance. Crosby can do real swinging, and as he reveals in his duet with Louis Armstrong -- the best part of the movie -- he "has jazz." And he can take a not-that-great Porter ballad, sing it with a non-singer (Kelly) and make it into a huge hit single: "True Love." As an actor and a singer, he can actually be likable, whereas Sinatra is at his best when he asks us not to like him but admire him for his hipness or his moodiness.

So why else do I think Bing Crosby is cooler than Frank Sinatra? Top ten reasons:

10. Crosby's favorite lyricist was Johnny Burke, a wonderful craftsman who wrote deceptively simple lyrics that linger in the memory ("Moonlight Becomes You," "Swingin' On a Star"). Sinatra's favorite lyricist was Sammy Cahn, an efficient but bland lyricist whose lyrics are often most notable for not making a lot of sense (even Cahn admitted that an ant would never try to move a rubber tree plant).

9. Crosby took little liberties with the melodic line, but did it in such a way that it enhanced the effectiveness of the song. Sinatra took little and often not-so-little liberties with the lyrics, for no good reason at all (You're supposed to sing "Night and Day," Frankie, not "Day and Night").

8. Crosby could work with other talented people. He duetted with the aforementioned Armstrong and Kelly; he recorded with the Andrews Sisters; he had that whole partnership going with Bob Hope. Sinatra was no good at partnering; his "Rat Pack" collaborations were a bust, his "Duets" are a joke, and his most notable duet record was "Mama Will Bark" with Dagmar the Dog.

7. Crosby could make a freewheeling, silly movie with Bob Hope, and it was fun. Sinatra tried to make freewheeling, silly movies with Dino, and it was something like Four for Texas.

6. In Warner Brothers' cartoon "The Swooner Crooner," directed by Frank Tashlin (who later directed a movie starring Crosby), Porky's hens are distracted by a chicken who sounds like Frank Sinatra, but a Bing Crosby chicken comes along and the hens like him even better. Therefore, even Looney Tunes admit that Bing beats Frankie.

5. Singers who imitated Bing Crosby included Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. Singers who imitated Frank Sinatra included Vic Damone and Matt Monro.

4. Crosby introduced more great songs than Sinatra. A lot of Sinatra's big hits are old standards, and a lot of the ones that aren't are essentially novelty songs tailored to his personality by Sammy Cahn, rather than songs with any particular universal appeal ("Come Fly With Me" is a good song, but you can't sing it without sounding like a Sinatra wannabe). Sinatra didn't have a "White Christmas," and I'd take "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" over "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning."

3. Sinatra was married to Ava Gardner. Crosby... okay, Sinatra wins this one.

2. After rock n' roll took over everything in the '60s, Sinatra desperately tried to keep being cool, even when he clearly was not. Crosby just accepted that he was now uncool and continued to play to the happily uncool segment of the audience. There's nothing less cool than a performer who continually tries to be cool.

1. Crosby just plain had a better voice. I know that doesn't guarantee coolness. But it doesn't hurt.


Anonymous said...

Nice post!


Anonymous said...

yea, thats silly crosby might have own'd x-mas songs and some gay romps with bob hope to rio and back,

frank was haveing orgies with swim suit models and eating microwaved sushi with jesus in the back of a limousine