Before recordings and sound film changed the world, music didn’t travel well. Myth says that you could hear Buddy Bolden’s horn miles away, but trumpet players know that is unlikely. You certainly couldn’t have the complete Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings on a little box in your shirt pocket.
Recordings, then sound film, made it possible for music to be portable, reproduced, and represented far away in time and space from its origins. Preservation is an extraordinary gift, letting us visit the dead and cherish them whenever we want. When the Ellington band played RING DEM BELLS on a Victor record or in a 1930 film, thousands who would never see that band live could experience it.
But “representation” is never flawless, because all individual perspectives are necessarily subjective. A recording engineer or cameraman captures one version of what listeners experience. Most recordings and films seem, at best, to compress the exuberance of the artists. Jazz anecdotal history is full of the names of great performers who, we are told, never “came though whole” in the recording studio. And films — even contemporary performance films — have their own, sometimes intrusive, conventions that must be obeyed.
Our texts for today are two representations of Bing Crosby singing PLEASE. The music is by the sadly short-lived Ralph Rainger, the lyrics by Leo Robin, and Bing first performed in the 1932 film THE BIG BROADCAST, one of Paramount’s efforts to get all the musical stars it could assemble into one film, to lure people away from their radios and back into the movie theatres. The plot of this film is exceedingly foolish, but it’s only an excuse for a now irreplaceable variety show.
And here’s the performance itself — all too brief:
I love the flimsy fictions that this clip requires a viewer to accept. I think, just before it begins, Bing says to his pal, guitarist Eddie Lang, “Well, let’s run it through again,” suggesting that they are rehearsing a new number. He holds the sheet music, but casually. And Lang is not paying much attention to the music on top of the piano. (He was a wonderfully subtle player, never equalled.) Do you hear a piano? Who’s playing it? The invisible but entirely sympathetic pianist is Lennie Hayton, which suggests that Bing and Eddie were adeptly (and not in close-up) miming to an already-recorded track, which was common practice.
Because it is a rehearsal in someone’s home (is it Eddie’s?), Bing has his vest, suit jacket, and hat off. Our eyes are drawn to his natty two-tone shoes as he keeps the beat. Then, after the first sixteen bars, a delightfully fictive moment occurs when Bing grins like a boy who has gotten away with three cookies instead of two and tells Eddie, “Well, I think I know it.” (The record of PLEASE was released to coincide with the movie’s premiere, so Bing’s fans in the audience might have already had the Brunswick record while onscreen their hero was pretending he was learning the song. But in the darkness of the movie theatre, such facts might be brushed aside.)
Confident now, Bing launches into his own version of romantic scat singing, flicking his eyes to the ceiling, and begins getting dressed.
Frank Tuttle, the director of THE BIG BROADCAST, wrote in an unpublished memoir (which I found in Gary Giddins’s wonderful Crosby biography), “Bing didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. . . . [he] was extremely cooperative and his sense of comedy was first-rate from the opening shot. His approach was casual and he liked to move around. We worked out interesting pieces of business so that he wouldn’t have to just stand there and deliver a number.”
Thus, the striptease in reverse — bolstering the illusion that Bing was only a regular fellow who just happens to burst into song with such art. We know this isn’t true, but watching Bing sing while getting dressed is rather like watching him sing while changing a flat tire — a splendid feat. I don’t know if it was intentional, for comedy, or not, but Bing has some small difficulty getting his other arm into his vest, and he goes through a good deal of straightening and smoothing — while singing — before beginning to button it. Once the vest is on, he is clearly loosening up the rhythm, and gently swinging PLEASE, confidently and cheerfully, wooing the imaginary girl right out of her reluctance, and perhaps out of her vest. What man ever buttoned his vest with such swing, using each button as a visual accent? Bing emphasizes the beat, bobbing his head. It’s comic but understated. It’s jazz made visual.
Next comes the jacket — and Bing has more trouble finding the armhole while he makes the dramatic musical transition from “a gloomy Romeo” to “Oh, please . . . ” most endearing. In fact, his fumbling with his right arm behind his back seems to go on and on, although he is whistling prettily, unfazed by the burden of getting dressed. Then, there’s no need to pretend that this has been a “rehearsal,” as Bing and Eddie perform the closing phrase together, and Bing, hat cocked jauntily, tells Eddie, “Well, I’ll see you tonight,” and Eddie answers, “OK.” Hardly Lubitsch, but entrancing in its pretend-casualness.
And he sings so beautifully to Lang’s fetching accompaniment, their work mixing romanticism and swing, the effect both earnest and funny. I found myself listening to the clip for the music — both casual and deliciously light, then watching the two men act (Lang, serious, plays the musical sidekick, never taking the spotlight away from Bing).
Bing’s performance of the song in the film and on the hit record spurred Paramount to make a short film (rather like the Mack Sennett shorts Bing had starred in). I found a copy of the poster on eBay, and a wonderful piece of Art Deco foolishness it is, with a pretty blonde’s disembodied head grinning from the C in CROSBY; Bing playing the guitar (which he couldn’t) wearing something like a bathrobe, the lower half of his body swallowed up by the background.
PLEASE stars Bing, Mary Kornman (who was “Mary” in OUR GANG silents and worked with Bing in other movies), with Vernon Dent (who worked with Sennett, Harry Langdon, and in numberless two-reel films with The Three Stooges) as her huffy, pudgy suitor. Giddins writes that it was presumed lost until the 1990s and unearthed by film preservationist Bob DeFlores.
The plot is paper-thin: my summary comes from the Mary Kornman website (www.marykornman.com) which proves that everything is indeed online:
This movie, filmed on location at Yosemite National Park, was not discovered until 1960. In it, Mary plays a voice teacher, Beth Sawyer, on whom Bing has set his affections. Playing himself, Bing hides his identity as to finagle lessons out of Beth in order to get close to her. Mary then enters him in a singing contest only to find out Bing’s true identity. Humiliated by this, Mary rejects Bing but is soon won over as he croons a chorus of “Please” through her parlor window.
Fictions abound here as well. As the sequence begins, a beautifully dressed “Beth,” with matching hat, turns on her radio — and out comes the sound of a dance orchestra playing the song for which the movie is named. Coincidentally, Bing, wearing a pristine straw boater and neat dark suit, lurks outside her house, dramatizing his exasperation by some gesturing with a small object he discards. The camera cuts to a momentary shot of a huge man in soiled white painter’s overalls, momentarily transfixed by the music, who takes off his hat and puts it back on again. Director Gillstrom had trained in silent films, for you can see the idea balloon form above Bing’s head, “Hey! That’s my song! I could sing it to her! Through this open window! Wow! What an idea! Gee!”
“Beth” at first doesn’t even register that a man is nearly climbing through her open window, singing along with the radio (something that would make many women call 911). It’s as if Mary Kornman has forgotten her cue, although she does remember to sulk while Bing sings. He sings beautifully, but without Tuttle to remind him how to understate, his gestures are at war with the song’s wooing intimacy. Using a clenched fist to signify “I could hold you tight in my arms” is unromantic, even though it is perhaps the only gesture possible for a man still holding his hat). And Mary Kornman may have been a delectable little girl in silent comedies, but her acting is petulantly limited. Bing emotes and “Beth” pouts, until his repetition of “Please!” win her over. The lovers kiss, after a fashion; her dog turns its head away, and we are left hoping that they are going to be happy forevermore, even if she has to climb out of the window to be with Bing.
But all this overacting doesn’t obscure the beauty of Bing’s voice, his phrasing, although I prefer the sound of the more casual version with Eddie Lang.
Back to the song itself, one I’ve loved since adolescence. When Bing was most popular as a romantic crooner, jazzmen, inspired by his recordings, took his repertoire for their own. Think of I SURRENDER, DEAR and WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS! Louis, Billie, and Hawkins (who memorably recorded I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE, and JUST ONE MORE CHANCE). Later on, Ruby Braff continued the tradition, including PLEASE and a whole album devoted to Bing. But no one except John Gill has taken up the song, a pity. I asked my Expert, Jon-Erik Kellso, about it, and he told me the melody line wasn’t easy for musicians who didn’t know the song to pick up on the spot. If any musicians are reading this blog, would you please consider playing this song? I’ll put more money in the tip jar when I hear it, I promise.
However, while researching this post, I also found a bouncy version of the song by Ambrose and his Orchestra. This performance, however, deflates my theory about the song’s qualities. Did it need Bing, John Gill, and Ruby to let its light shine through? What you’ll hear is a fine 1932 dance record, but the yearning quality so essential to PLEASE is obliterated at this tempo.
These clips remind me of truths that should be self-evident. The young Crosby wasn’t an infallible actor; he needed a fine director to make sure that naturalness or “naturalness” prevailed. But how he could sing! And how splendidly Eddie Lang could play! And they live in these filmed moments.
So if someone asks you, reprovingly, “WHAT’S the magic word?” (if anyone uses that phrase today), you must respond, “It’s Bing Crosby singing PLEASE, of course.” (Thanks to Peter Karl for that witticism, again.)