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Of the singing Beebe brothers, young Mike just wants to be a kid; responsible Dave wants to work in his garage and marry Martha; but feckless Joe thinks his only road to success is through swapping and gambling. It seems the only thing all three can join in is their singing act, which Mike and Dave hate. Finally, all Joe's hopes are pinned on a race horse he's acquired, but it's a bigger gamble than his family knows. Hilarious sequence involving a lecturer on seals. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
SING YOU SINNERS (Paramount, 1938), directed by Wesley Ruggles, is, regardless of its misleading title, is not one about an evangelist and congregation gone astray, but a semo-comedy about an aged mother and her three sons, headed by Bing Crosby taking a new outlook in his career. Up to this point, Crosby was featured in many routinely made musicals, mostly for Paramount. In this case, SING YOU SINNERS, what might have worked a straight dramatic story, is completely different from anything he's done thus far.
Set in a small town, the story starts on a Sunday morning with the Beebe family walking to church as the bells ring in the background. (An original premise introducing its characters using their portrayal names superimposed on screen beneath the actors one at a time). The Beebes consists of Daisy (Elizabeth Patterson), the mother; Joseph (Bing Crosby), age 35, single and unemployed, shiftless, homespun and down-to-earth individual believing the secret of success lies in taking gambles; David (Fred MacMurray), completely opposite, engaged to Martha Randall (Ellen Drew), works long hours as a garage mechanic, saving his hard-earned money to someday have a repair shop of his own; and Mike (Donald O'Connor), the youngest, looks up to Joseph, much to the dismay of their "Maw." The one thing the brothers have in common is their devotion to music, earning extra money singing together in local night spots. Because he feels himself to be a bad influence on the family, Joe strikes out on his own, moving to Los Angeles. After about a month, Mother Beebe receives word that Joe has acquired a successful business in the second-hand trade. Believing he's finally made a success of himself, she sells her home, bringing the family to Los Angeles, only to find Joe had sold his business and traded it in for a race horse called "Uncle Gus." Unable to pay the rent, the Beebe brothers unite by performing as a singing trio in a night club before Joe trains the thoroughbred for an upcoming race, with Mike, acting as jockey. Before Derby day, trouble arises when gambling gangsters step forcing Mike to throw the race.
With the music and lyrics by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Monaco, the song interludes include: "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams" (sung by Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray and Donald O'Connor); "Don't Let the Moon Get Away" (sung by Crosby); "Laugh and Call It Love," "Small Fry" (specialty written by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael); and "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams" (reprise/ all sung by Crosby, MacMurray and O'Connor).
Of the tunes, "Pocketful of Dreams" (that might have served better as the movie title) is one that symbolizes Crosby's on-screen character, with lyrics pertaining to him, "I'm no millionaire, but I have no time to spare," or "Lucky lucky lucky me, I could live in luxury." The night club act featuring "Small Fry" is a worthy offering, having MacMurray, dressed in women's attire, playing an over-sized "wife," puffing his corncob pipe while sitting on a rocking chair, knitting, repeatedly reciting, "Of yes, Oh Yes, Oh Yes," while Crosby plays a bespectacled father with white beard. O'Connor, acting the title song of the troublesome son in overalls, reciting such lyrics as "You ain't the biggest catfish in the sea." One credited song not used in this production, "Where Is Central Park?" is never used, only instrumentally during its opening credits.
Ellen Drew, formerly Paramount starlet, Terry Ray, since 1936, assumes her first major role here as MacMurray's love interest. MacMurray, the middle, more logical and stronger member of the brothers, who, other than given a rare opportunity singing on screen, shares a climatic scene where he and his weaker brother Joe (Crosby) battle it out fist fighting in the stables with the crooked gamblers after threatening their kid brother. Donald O'Connor, in motion picture debut, performs his task well, ranging from singing to playing jockey while either sitting on a stairway banister or on the racehorse. Surprise casting goes to Elizabeth Patterson in a rare opportunity where she virtually carries the story as the ever loving but patient mother trying to keep her sons together while steering her eldest to the right direction the best way she knows how.
Aside from Crosby's occasional crooning to good but nearly unmemorable songs, he does offer some funny bits in the midway point where, after coming to Los Angeles, starts winning bets on his first day at the race track by merely exchanging tickets with a racing addict (Tom Dugan) using what he calls the "Australian system," which means to bet on a horse with the most i's and a's in his name. Coming across as something from a Bob Hope comedy, Crosby puts it off well.
SING YOU SINNERS, which had frequent television revivals on commercial television back in the 1960s and '70s, was last seen broadcast in the early to mid 1980s on WOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York City as part of its "9-All Night" movie viewing. Unseen in many years, SING YOU SINNERS was finally distributed onto DVD in 2011. In closing, what really makes SING YOU SINNERS stand apart from the Crosby films of the day was his offbeat characterization, one that occasionally has the young O'Connor frequently refrain in despair with these words, "My own brother!" Oh, yes, oh yes, oh, yes. (***1/2)
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