Easy-going laughs times two, with Der Bingle and Jane Wyman. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Just For You & Here Comes the Groom, a two-movie, single disc collection of two of Bing's early 1950s musical efforts from Paramount. Here Comes the Groom, a screwball romance/musical from 1951, has Frank Capra at the helm and stars Bing, Wyman, Alexis Smith, Franchot Tone, James Barton, Robert Keith, and Anna Maria Alberghetti (for about 2 minutes), while 1952's musical drama Just For You, helmed by Elliott Nugent, stars Bing, Wyman, Ethel Barrymore, Bob Arthur, and a young Natalie Wood. No difference in this Archive pressing from the 2004 Paramount single disc release of Just For You & Here Comes the Groom (the Paramount DVD bumpers are still on the transfers), so no need to double dip if you already own that one (particularly since we still don't get any extras this second time around). Nice black and white/color transfers, though, for these two minor-but-fun Crosby pics. Let's look briefly at each movie.
HERE COMES THE GROOM
European war orphans are old news. That's what Paris-stationed Boston Morning Express reporter Peter Garvey (Bing Crosby) is told by his exasperated editor, George Degnan (Robert Keith). No matter how many stories Pet has written that have placed kids with prospective parents, such as blind opera singer Theresa (Anna Maria Alberghetti), Degnan isn't going to continue to finance Garvey's one-man adoption agency. Offering the carrot of sending Garvey to the newest news hotspot, the Far East, Garvey bites...but then changes his mind when he receives a mocking phonograph record from his ex, Emmadel Jones (Jane Wyman). Left at the altar three years ago by breezy Garvey, she's finally given up hope that he'll settle down and have a family with her, so she's dumping him. That spurs Garvey to send her a wire, telling her he's ready to marry, and that he'll be bringing a "surprise" home in a week: little pal Bobby (Jacky Gencel) and eventually Suzi (Beverly Washburn). However, it takes months for Garvey to get the necessary paperwork in order to temporarily adopt the kids, and once in America, he's told by the government he has only five days to marry before the kids will be taken from him. And that's a problem, because he finds out that fed up with being stiffed again, Emma has decided to marry her multimillionaire blue-blood boss, Wilbur Stanley (Franchot Tone)--and on the very day that Garvey must marry...or else. Naturally, Garvey schemes to get a disinterested/interested Emma back, but far from being an obstacle to his plan, Stanley turns out to be an okay joe for a swell: he's even going to allow Garvey to stay in his gatehouse and let him actively pursue Emma, just so's everyone is straight on who she loves. What Stanley doesn't know is that Garvey is going to use Wilbur's prim 4th cousin, Winifred (Alexis Smith), who's always been in love with Wilbur, as a secret weapon.
Even though I had seen Here Comes the Groom many years ago, I somehow never connected it up in my head with director Frank Capra. At this point in his career only two more movies away from retirement off the big screen, Here Comes the Groom's box office success--surely due to Bing Crosby's popularity rather than Capra's name on it--did nothing for Frank Capra's stock in Hollywood. After the relative financial failure of 1948's State of the Union for his own Liberty Films production company, Capra had folded that enterprise and signed on with Paramount for a three picture deal, which began with the slight Bing Crosby hit, Riding High, in 1950. Dismayed that Paramount wanted him to be just another contract director pumping out innocuous vehicles like that forgettable fluff (rather than letting him do the kind of socially-conscious, "big themed" works he delivered before the war), Capra agreed to one more Bing vehicle, Here Comes the Groom, in exchange for being let out of his final directing assignment. When the screwball romance/musical proved popular with 1951 audiences who cared less about war orphans and more about Bing clowning and crooning, Capra, with few options within the studio system that frankly wasn't interested in financing his kinds of personal films, turned to television, of all places, to make four Bell Laboratory science films (if you're from my age group, the delightful Hemo the Magnificent--a 16mm staple of elementary school classrooms in the 1960s and 70s--is just as well known as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life).
Watching Here Comes the Groom, it's difficult to pinpoint many moments that could be legitimately called "Capraesque." It certainly doesn't feel like one of his pre-war comedies, at least in terms of cohesive storytelling with an underlying imperative to the main plot (such as "the individual against the state"). With a story written by ex-collaborator Robert Riskin, and a script from pros Virginia Van Upp (Cover Girl, Gilda), Liam O'Brien (Chain Lightning, Diplomatic Courier), and Myles Connolly (Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Till the Clouds Roll By), Here Comes the Groom's potential "Capra bait"--the war orphan angle, and specifically, Bing's struggles to keep two of them--is hardly the movie's main focus. It's merely a plot point to set in motion the movie's screwball farce elements. Indeed, as Bing's editor Gleason dismissively asserts, few in 1951 American did care about the old war orphan stories that had long left the newspaper "human interest" sections. Capra bogs down the first reel of the movie with Bing's Paris interactions with the children, but with little feeling (or outrage) for their plight. Bing, never the most paternalistic of actors on screen, shows no true warmth for the two child actors here, an off-putting tone that's reinforced, oddly, by the script. After all: Bing supposedly loves the little boy Bobby...but he's ready in a heartbeat to leave him for a job in Asia. The script does a poor job of believably explaining why Bing changes his mind and decides to go back to America (is is to spite the soon-to-marry Wyman? To stop her?), only to further alienate us from Bing when he initially tells Bobby he's only taking the boy to the U.S., and not Bobby's inseparable "sister," Suzi. All of this opening orphan glop is clunky and unnecessary, culminating in the strictly-padding scene of orphan Anna Maria Alberghetti singing for her supper in the hopes that an American couple will adopt her (the movie tips over into the grotesque when Capra has her trip, to reveal to the audience that she's blind--it wasn't enough that she's just a hungry, unloved orphan?). Bing can't even get to the U.S. without further filling-out by the scripters: on the plane ride there's a raucous, impromptu performance of Misto Cristofo Columbo by USO stars Phil Harris, Dorothy Lamour, Louis Armstrong, Cass Daily, and Frankie "Crazy Guggenheim" Fontaine. It's the liveliest moment of the movie (Capra supposedly shot it live with multiple cameras), but its arbitrariness only further puts the brakes on the story.
Once Bing is back in the States, Here Comes the Groom picks up steam and moves satisfactorily into conventional but well-played screwball romantic farce. Any potential thoughts on war orphans are completely abandoned as Bing pursues Jane Wyman with laid-back cunning. And yet, even this section of the movie lacks a driving dramatic tension. After all...Franchot Tone's character is, by everyone's admission, including Bing's, a heckava nice guy. We don't feel any overriding wish to see Wyman paired with Bing over Tone. This even-steven treatment of the two combatants for Wyman's hand may at first seem unusual and charming, but ultimately it robs the farce of any urgency. We simply don't care all that much if Bing wins Wyman over Tone (and we don't care at all if he keeps those annoying kids). That's why Capra has to fill in a lot of screen time--at Wyman's expense, unfortunately--with Bing's efforts to turn stiff Alexis Smith into a "game girl." Those scenes are quite funny, but they're beside the movie's main point. And worse, they deny the viewer of Here Comes the Groom's most enjoyable element: Bing's chemistry with the lovely, tart Wyman (if you think back on Bing's movie career, it's tough to remember a female costar that "matched" him as well as Wyman). By the fade-out, everything has been resolved satisfactorily...right before we forget Here Comes the Groom entirely.
JUST FOR YOU
Broadway producer/songwriter Jordan Blake (Bing Crosby), about to open his newest play for his favorite star--and future fiance--Carolina Hill (Jane Wyman), has little regard for "tact" as he callously blows off the freshman songwriting efforts of his neglected teen son, Jerry (Bob Arthur). Troubled by Jerry's angry, frustrated demeanor, as well as the lack of an older female influence on his young daughter, Barbara (Natalie Wood), widower Jordan puts his engagement to Carolina on hold, while he takes his children up to a mountain resort, hoping to reconnect with them while putting them back on the right track. Jordan is encouraged when Jerry tells his father that he has a girlfriend; what Jordan doesn't know is that Jerry is in love with Carolina...and Jerry is equally in the dark about his father's feelings for her, too. Meanwhile, Jordan cultivates a friendship with Allida de Bronkhart (Ethel Barrymore), the headmaster of an exclusive all-girls finishing school across the lake--a school that Barbara, embarrassed by her father's entertainment background, would love to join...if only they the snooty school accepted such showbiz riffraff. What happens, then, when Jerry finds out about his father's love affair with Carolina?
A light, entirely familiar--but no less entertaining--backstage musical drama, Just For You is completely devoid of any weighty subtexts, such as are (barely) hinted at in Here Comes the Groom. Scripted by Robert Carson (A Star is Born, Beau Geste, from a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, and directed by Elliot Nugent (The Cat and the Canary, The Male Animal), Just For You's smooth disregard for its overly familiar storyline is carried off in a pleasingly bland manner (in this case not at all a back-handed compliment). The musical numbers are for the most part low-key and presentational (only the Mexican ballet sequence seems overstated, and thus, out-of-synch with the rest of the movie), and staged as naturally as possible (Bing's and Wyman's fun, charming duet on Zing a Zong is blocked to resemble two performers getting up impromptu at a swank party and simply winging it). The drama is a hokey combination of backstage musical (will Bing marry his star Wyman?) and family crisis (will neglectful Bing mend fences with his alienated son, while giving his daughter the kind of snooty education she desires?), tempered by an above-the-waist romantic triangle (father/son/fiance). None of it is in the least bit surprising, and all of it is entirely predictable, but the skill and consummate ease of the leads puts it all over with an assured aplomb that's admirable...even if the material is slight. Ethel Barrymore has the most thankless role here as the school mistress who is somehow, inexplicably, eager to shed her school's exclusivity (you can read a lot in her frequently bemused countenance). Young Natalie Wood is appropriately eager, while Robert Arthur plays wounded, youthful pride quite well. If Bing plays his careless old smoothie just a little too facilely, well...that's how he played a lot of his roles (and that's what core group of fans wanted: vaguely disinterested professionalism). He's a lot more animated when confronted by Wyman, whose knowing gameness again proves an ideal counterpoint to Bing's breezy insouciance (and who knew what an absolute doll she was in those revealing outfits?). It's a shame the movie's plotline of estranged son being chased down by chastened father necessarily glums up the works in the final reel, but it doesn't overly distract from Just For You's overall pleasing impact.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.