Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Phil Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
He was the personification of the laidback, the unflappable, Mr. Cool.
For twenty years Bing Crosby was the world’s most popular actor, even during World War II, when he was affectionately known as Der Bingle by the Germans, a name that caught on in the States once the war ended.
But long before he received his Cecil B deMille award in 1960 Crosby had proved himself as both a crooner and an actor without peer.
He started out as part of a singing trio but eventually went solo with big bands: Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Dorsey. For decades he was the biggest name in music and in one year commanded 60% of all record sales. In fact, his “White Christmas” remains the biggest selling single of all time.
He soon became a fixture in radio and had the top-rated shows on the airways for decades. He even conquered television in later years.
But it was his film career that earned him cultural immortality. His first feature-film role, after having done a number of short subjects, was The Big Broadcast for which he was given top billing. He continued to get top billing at Paramount for 30 years. (The one exception was playing opposite William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies in his second feature Going Hollywood.)
Among actresses acquiescing to second billing in those early movies were Joan Bennett, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Ethel Merman, and Frances Farmer. During his first decade between 1933 to 1939, he starred in twenty movies, all box office successes. The ’40s, however, were his greatest years. In 1940 he made the first of his now-classic road movies, The Road to Morocco, with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. It was so successful the second, Road to Zanzibar, followed the next year. Even today these road movies are considered worthy successors to the Marx Brothers classics.
By 1943 he was the world’s most popular actor and in fact held that title for five years as Hollywood’s top box office draw. During that period he experienced his first blockbuster and first collaboration with Irving Berlin: Holiday Inn. This time his second-billed costar was Fred Astaire.
But it was Going My Way, in 1944, which established him as a Hollywood icon, winning him a Best Actor Academy Award. After that, his reputation was sealed.
The following year, in a rare loan out to RKO. he reprised his role of Father O’Malley in The Bells of St Mary’s opposite Ingrid Bergman. The two became the world’s most popular actors, and the film the year’s biggest box office hit. Unfortunately Paramount didn’t know what to do with him. He was assigned top directors (Billy Wilder, Frank Capra) but nothing really clicked, although Capra’s Riding High is a fun ride. His last commercial success for Paramount was Irving Berlin’s White Christmas which was 1954’s biggest moneymaker.
But then he was given the dramatic role of his career playing the alcoholic husband in The Country Girl. Grace Kelly, playing his long-suffering wife, got all the plaudits but it was Crosby who gives the film’s great performance. She won the Best Actress in a Motion Picture Golden Globe, Crosby wasn’t nominated.
Six years later he received his first Hollywood Foreign Press honor, the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement. He was 57 at the time.
Country Girl was Crosby’s swansong at Paramount and from then on he freelanced. The highlight of this period was Cole Porter’s High Society for MGM, teaming him for the first time with fellow crooner Frank Sinatra. Grace Kelly was again his costar. During the filming, he pursued her ardently, but she ran off and married Prince Rainier ending her Hollywood career.
Which segues into the only blot on his hallowed career, his conduct as a husband and father. He was married to singer Dixie Lee for over 20 years before her death. She was an alcoholic and the mother of his four sons. For much of that time, they were estranged but as a good Catholic, he stayed by her side. Their eldest son Gary wrote an autobiography detailing the cruel punishments inflicted upon him by his father. Despite his high expectations, none of his kids amounted to much, although Gary had a short career as a juvenile in teenage movies. Ironically, all four sons died before their 65th birthday, and before they could inherit a trust fund sinisterly set up by their dad to be inherited after their 65th birthdays.
After Dixie died Crosby married actress Kathryn Grant, 30 years his junior. They had three children.
Sadly, Crosby died suddenly on a golf course in Spain at age 74.
As a Hollywood icon, he has few equals.