A while ago in a small nook at a Broadway Theater, I picked up a first edition of Bing Crosby’s 1953 autobiography, Call Me Lucky (Simon and Schuster). The book is full of old movie anecdotes and shoots that were slapdash, but full of a DIY attitude that made these pioneers of cinema stand out. Crosby’s first role in film was singing as part of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but he soon graduated to starring roles.
Crosby’s slapstick shorts were 20 minute films that were conceived on the fly with Mack Sennett, the slapstick comedy producer and director. Says Crosby, "The way we made those Sennett shorts reads like a quaint piece of Americana. For two days, we’d have a story conference. I was in on it. In fact, everybody was in on it — actors, cameramen, gag men and Sennett. We sat upstairs in Sennett’s office, a large room equipped with plenty of cuspidors because Sennett was a muncher of the weed.
"For our plot, we’d start with a very social mother and daughter.
I’d be a band crooner with a bad reputation, and mother didn’t think me
quite right for her daughter. Instead, she wanted her apple dumpling to
marry some respectable pup; some fuddy duddy; some very disagreeable
character; a young businessman or a rising young lawyer."
But how were the movies written and shot? Sennett "put nothing down
on paper. His story was really a series of gags. We always would end up
with someone falling in a fish pond, or some other device with ‘punch’
possibilities." The shoots lasted for two days and Sennett always
wanted to finish a short with a chase scene through the Hollywood
Hills. Interestingly, Crosby almost didn’t get to make any films at
all. He’d been late to his singing gigs and the manager of the Coconut
Grove put a "union ban" on Bing. Sennett and Crosby got around the
boycott by having the crooner sing acapella or by using recorded music.