The Big Broadcast (1932). 80 minutes. Directed by Frank Tuttle. Starring Bing Crosby (as Bing Hornsby), Stuart Erwin (as Leslie McWhinney), Leila Hyams (as Anita Rogers), Sharon Lynn (as Mona Lowe), George Burns (as Mr. Burns), and Gracie Allen (as reception clerk). Featuring musical performances by Cab Calloway, The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, Eddie Lang, Donald Novis, Kate Smith, and Arthur Tracy.
For a modern audience, watching The Big Broadcast—the first installment of the Big Broadcast film series that Paramount produced in the 1930s—is like watching two different movies at once. On the one hand, it can be enjoyed as a nostalgic, even escapist trip through the past: the movie features a plethora of wonderful period musical acts (including Cab Calloway, The Boswell Sisters, and The Mills Brothers) and boasts some delightful vintage comedy in the form of radio stars George Burns and Gracie Allen. But at least as interesting is what makes the movie challenging and sometimes wonderfully unpalatable, including the somewhat surreal meta-comic plot where Bing Crosby essentially plays himself, which involves all of the weirdness that stems from a celebrity participating in a feature-length cameo on screen. The depiction is both celebratory (which we might expect) and oddly unflattering (which comes as more of a surprise): Bing is portrayed both as a magnetic crooner who is mobbed in public by crowds of desirous women and as a chronically late and suicidal loser. As a pre-Code film, The Big Broadcast presents us accordingly with taboo topics such as his attempted suicide and even domestic violence, using a light and humorous touch in treating these subjects that would have found repudiation under the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code approximately two years later and is in questionable taste even today. Overall, the radio-friendly atmosphere combines with this edginess to form an at times bizarre film that manages to be both above-board and devious at the same time.
In the film, the habitually late Bing Hornsby misses a broadcast at radio station WADX, where he is employed as a regular performer, and is subsequently fired. He takes his termination in stride because he is getting married the next day to his girlfriend Mona, but he then learns that Mona has run off with another man. In a speakeasy, Bing commiserates with new acquaintance Leslie McWhinney, who has also been jilted, and the two end up at Bing’s apartment, where Bing persuades Leslie to commit suicide with him. Leslie’s ex-girlfriend Anita (who also works at Bing’s former station) checks up on Bing, whom she is enamored with, and prevents the two from being successful in their attempt. Bing begins to date Anita.
Meanwhile, the station manager Mr. Burns learns that WADX is bankrupt, and its assets are seized by the bank. Leslie surprises everyone by buying the station (it turns out that he is secretly a Texas oil tycoon) and by planning a big broadcast that will feature Bing and a cavalcade of stars, including The Boswell Sisters singing “Crazy People,” Cab Calloway performing “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” Kate Smith warbling “It Was So Beautiful,” Donald Novis presenting a musical arrangement of the poem “Trees,” The Mills Brothers singing their hit “Tiger Rag,” and Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra performing a fun percussion-based piece (“Drummer Man”). However, Bing feigns drunkenness on the night of the broadcast and tells Leslie that he is unable to perform; he has also left Anita to reunite with Mona. Leslie frantically scrambles to track down a record of Bing singing that he can use in place of the performer on the air, but his efforts to replace Bing are disastrous. In the nick of time, Bing shows up, bringing about Leslie and Anita’s reconciliation (he has deliberately acted to repel her and bring them back together) and saving the show.
It is true that the film at times has the feel of a retro compilation of early 1930s’ American radio stars performing their hit material. But far from being a mere relic of earlier times, The Big Broadcast pushes boundaries even in the twenty-first century. For example, the depiction of its protagonist is at times decidedly unpleasant for a mainstream Hollywood film, then or now. Because Bing plays a character referred to throughout by his own unusual first name, the film opens up the possibility for the audience to conflate the Bing we see on screen with the real Bing Crosby, and what we see on screen is not all good. From the very beginning, Bing is shown to be deficient in professionalism: he is chronically late to shows (he completely misses the broadcast in the first scene) and is fired just before the station is shut down. Leslie purchases the station for Anita but wants Bing to run it because the responsibility of doing so, Leslie says, may be just the thing Bing needs to whip him into shape—a contrivance that acknowledges everyone’s favorite crooner lacks maturity and respectability.
The Big Broadcast is eager to show us Bing’s deficiencies as they apply to romance as well, where he is a cad at best. Bing steals Leslie’s girlfriend Anita, then runs off with Mona without telling her. He also apparently physically assaults Mona before the big broadcast, giving her a black eye, and rather than repent for what he has done, creepily sings “Please” to her in the last scene while making a fist and appearing to threaten her through the glass window of the studio. Moreover, the movie suggests (albeit in a playful fashion) that Bing, whose sexual magnetism on screen is tied to his musical prowess, is not even a skillful singer: Leslie, in his first scene with the crooner, does not recognize Bing and observes that his singing is flat and unaccomplished (“My voice slips like that, too, sometimes,” he remarks). The Big Broadcast is the kind of movie that allows a character to say that to its hallowed star.
But perhaps none of that is as bewildering as the sustained episode where Bing attempts suicide with Leslie in his apartment during a power outage. To be fair, Leslie is the one who inadvertently introduces the idea of suicide to Bing, but Bing, who is deep in mourning for his lost love Mona, embraces the notion fully and quickly hatches a plan, bringing two funereal candles and pillows into the dark kitchen where they are to do the deed. With a smirk on his face and a near wink in his eye, Bing turns on the stove gas and the two lie back. As if all of this were not sufficiently bizarre, the kitchen radio, which is built into the wall, lights up and metamorphoses into an animated skull. It then changes into Arthur Tracy’s singing head and his disembodied hands, which perform Bing’s hit “Here Lies Love” on the accordion as animated mists from the gas swirl around playfully like spirits from a cartoon. The kitchen scene is reminiscent of the sort of Betty Boop short you might see during the Halloween season; we even hear a slide whistle and the sounds of tinkling bones, which come straight out of the early animation world.
When Leslie begins to object to what they are doing and asks to open a window, Bing commands him to lie down—at which point the independent nature of Leslie’s participation seems to diminish and Bing inches closer to being culpable for Leslie’s demise. Without a moment to spare, Anita and a porter that she has summoned appear at the door to check on Bing; they light a match to see better, and a loud explosion follows. No one is hurt, but the scene, up to and including its ending, is exceedingly macabre, presenting a suicide attempt that quickly metamorphoses into a potential act of manslaughter and reckless endangerment yet remains infused with romance, fantasy, and humor. Unbelievably Bing’s own popular music and therefore his personal brand are linked to everything that we see; in the uninhibited times of pre-Code Hollywood, perhaps the risk to Bing’s career posed by the suicide scene seemed less concerning. In any case, the attempt is treated so lightly and Bing’s portrayal is so unsavory that it is hard to imagine the scene would be acceptable in any form under the Hollywood Production Code as it came to be enforced just a few years later, or even today.
The Big Broadcast remains provocative today due to its bizarre use of radio superstar Bing in these scenes, but one of its most flagrant displays of subversive behavior occurs in Cab Calloway’s performance on the air, where the movie’s pre-Code nature spills into the music studio. Calloway sings “Kickin’ the Gong Around” (a sequel to his well-known “Minnie the Moocher”), and as he narrates a scene full of “cokies” who are “high” and “low” and have run out of “junk” in Chinatown, he appears to actually mime snorting cocaine out of his hand three separate times (pretending to arrange lines of the drug on his palm at one point); he then shudders with his upper torso and wipes his nose. Calloway’s lyrics offer no condemnation of any of the drug users involved in the story that he tells, including his subject Minnie, who herself “kick[s] the gong around” (a euphemism for smoking opium):
All the cokies laid around—
Some were high and some were mighty low.
There were millions on the floor
When a knock came on the door,
And there stood old Smoky Joe.
He was sweatin’, cold and pale,
He was lookin’ for his frail,
He was broke and all his junk ran out.
As he stood and looked around,
And then you hear old cokie shout:
Saying, “Tell me where is Minnie?
I want Minnie!
Has she been here,
Kickin’ the gong around?”
There is something about watching him pretending to participate in the squalid drug use of the scene he narrates in his immaculate white tuxedo with tails that sends the movie right over the edge at that point. His appearance and demeanor while performing, including his signature and slightly surreal dancing, are magnetic and cool, making his behavior—all of it—not only entertaining but invigorating. “Kickin’ the Gong Around” is an unapologetic and brazen contribution to the film, and Calloway’s performance ties with Bing’s suicide scene for the honor of being the weirdest sequence we see.
The Big Broadcast contains a whole world of pre-Code oddities such as its ethically compromised main character, the bizarre suicide attempt, and Calloway’s simulated snorting, but it also bears the playful sexual hallmarks of wilder cinematic times. For example, although Bing lives alone, nevertheless random women appear in his bathrobe and bedroom; in one scene, Leslie calls Bing’s building manager to complain that Mona has been hiding there, reporting “I just found a girl in our boudoir—is that customary?” In another scene, Anita appears nude in Bing’s shower (discreetly but barely covered up by some well-placed hands and camera work). Bing, who thinks she is really Leslie, reaches over to the shower curtain for a bit of rough play with his friend and through the curtain smacks Anita on the bottom. He then accidentally drops his soap into the shower (while she is still nude behind the curtain) and gropes for it around her legs. In the same scene, Leslie absentmindedly dresses in Anita’s discarded and lacy negligee.
Leslie is not the only one linked to women’s underwear (or cross-dressing) in this film, and what women (and men) are wearing close to their skin comes up in more than one conversation. At the station, when Anita is reading back a note she is writing for Mr. Burns about Bing’s negligent behavior, she stumbles on the line, “During the entire current week, you have been in a neg…,” to which Bing pops in and responds “In a negligee?” It is not surprising that women’s intimates are on his mind as the sponsor of WADX happens to be an underwear brand (the Good Tide Girdle Company). But our attention is drawn to the female anatomy when it is fully clothed as well. When Leslie is describing to Bing how Anita can dance, he implores Bing to “feel how solid she is” (“Where?” Bing asks, bewildered). Leslie then traces his hands over the space above her backside to emphasize how well it moves when she rhumbas. The Big Broadcast does not focus exclusively on sexual gags, either visual or verbal—for movies that are more in that vein, I recommend other pre-Code films such as Murder at the Vanities (1934) or Baby Face (1933)—but they do make for a film that has a free-and-easy way with sexual mores.
The sexual comedy can come off as risqué, perhaps even vulgar, but elsewhere in the film the humor is less sex-centric and still very funny. For example, the exchanges between Burns and Allen around the radio station have a beautiful comic rhythm. The first time we see Bing is also amusing: he is identified in the streets on his way to the studio by a horde of adoring female fans that attacks him and grasps for his dropped glove as if it were the relic of someone holy. The soundtrack switches to the Yale fight song for the occasion as Bing is smothered with heavy lipstick kisses and mistakenly grabs a lady’s hat to wear back to the studio instead of his own.
There is also the long sequence where Leslie learns that Bing is drunk and unable to perform (he is only pretending to be drunk), and seeks out a record of Bing singing “Please” to play on the big broadcast in the singer’s absence. As Leslie passes from an apartment building to a record store to the studio lobby, the multiple copies of the record he obtains are obliterated in fantastic ways. (Watching the many, many records destroyed over the course of this sequence, especially the hundreds that drop and shatter in the record shop, may bring some pain to audiophiles.) Interestingly, while Leslie’s journey to the studio has an instrumental soundtrack and notable sound effects, it is filmed as a silent montage, without dialogue, and relies heavily on the use of gesture to convey meaning. The silent-era comedy of the sequence is amusing but also lends a neat structural counterpoint to the sounds of the big broadcast that is taking place simultaneously at the radio station.
In addition to the clever use (and avoidance of) sound in the final sequence, The Big Broadcast harkens back to the visual ingenuity of artier silent fare as it establishes a playful and energetic atmosphere. For example, when the Good Tide Girdle Company owner complains that Crosby is late to an on-air performance, we see a shot of his hand banging repeatedly on Mr. Burns’s desk. The film cuts from this shot to a shot of what we will learn is Bing’s hand banging on a taxi’s steering wheel horn in a quick transition that keeps us on our feet. The stylish editing is supported by stylish camera work: in the first performance by Cab Calloway’s band, the camera follows the trombone player up and down the length of his instrument, and the string bass is traced from low to high as well. When the camera is focused on Calloway’s conducting, it cranes down and towards him in a moving shot. Later when The Boswell Sisters are seated at a telephone switchboard, we see them in a shot from above, swaying and humming. There is also the angled shot of the record shop owner yelling at Leslie from his apartment over the store, and a long tracking shot of Leslie running along the station hallway on the night of the big broadcast. Many of these shots and transitions are reminiscent of some of the better silent-era European movies from only a few years earlier, and together they combine to make The Big Broadcast a pleasure to watch.
We might reflect that in spite of the successful comic content, much of the film remains offbeat, even potentially unsettling, but there is at least one way in which Bing’s plotline overcomes its peculiar nature and becomes, in a way, chic—namely, because Bing loses by reuniting with the loathsome Mona in a relationship that is, to say the least, unadmirable. In other films, Bing is typically portrayed as a cool cat crooner who glides through his career with a hip but understated sense of humor, and while he is undoubtedly associated with what would become his characteristic laissez-faire attitude and easygoing demeanor in films such as Holiday Inn (1942) and later White Christmas (1954), The Big Broadcast is willing to commit to the idea of Bing as loser all the way to the end. The result is that Bing appears both radically undesirable and undeniably smooth as he allows the film to poke holes in his celebrity veneer. It is admittedly not a mainstream Hollywood ending, but it is a refreshingly twisted way of appreciating a mega-star at the start of his career.