First things first: I appropriated the above image from a review of the Blu-ray of the 1960 motion picture High Time from a review of that disc from the site DVD Talk. Sorry fellas. I'm still having issues with getting Blu-ray captures for my blog posts. And truth to tell, had I my druthers, I probably wouldn't have, myself, used the above image, an arresting process shot of Bing Crosby, "three-foot Chippendale" under his arm, climbing to the top of a large pile of wood, the better to boost the Freshman Bonfire past regulation height. I likely would have gone for one of the many innovative overhead (and occasionally in-camera) wipes that punctuate the film—a bed of golden and orrange leaves sweeping across the screen, skaters scattering loose snow to reveal an ice-rink scene underneath, and so on. But still. The above image is hardly un-apropos, as it depicts one of the dramatic highlights of the film. Yes, you read it right. Bing Crosby getting a freshman bonfire woodpile up to code is one of the dramatic highlights of the movie.
It would be pretty pretentious, and worse, inaccurate, to say that High Time is some sort of structuralist film avant le la lettre. But to me one of its main attractions is that nothing actually happens in it. Here is the storyline: a chain restaurant tycoon named Harvey Howard, now in his early fifties (Crosby himself was about 57 at the time of shooting), above the objections of his snooty adult kids (the fellow's a widower) decides he wants to get a proper education, and to do it the proper way: by actually going to college. Living in a dorm. Participating in activities. Joining a frat. Some eyebrows are raised at this. Then he graduates. That's pretty much it.
Oh, other things "happen," sure. Harvey brings the bonfire up to code. He expresses bemusement at the flirty ways of Tuesday Weld, who cuts an amorous swath through Harvey's dorm mates term by term. He falls for a French teacher (Nicole Maurey), there's a minor scandal, it's nipped in the bud. He dresses in drag as part of a fraternity hazing. And so on. A sufficient amount of incident to keep an hour-and-forty-five-minute-or-so narrative feature bouncing. And bounce it does. But there's absolutely nothing fraught about it, nothing to catch at the viewer and request a level of involvement above an ostensibly simple matrix of enjoyment. The self-made man Crosby plays is a ultra-relaxed version of a particular kind of can-do American pragmatist. In one scene he stages the opening-of-the-semester ritual toast he shares with his dormmates (a light-division Jeffrey-Hunter-esque Richard Beymer, amusingly pompadoured Fabian, non-sterotypical South Asian Patrick Adiarte, and lovely Weld) at one of his own eponymous "Smoke Houses," and not only is the know-nothing head waiter a snoot, but the burgers are inedible. Harvey just throws an apron on, gets behind the grill, and cooks up a batch just right, and he doesn't even fire the head waiter, merely instructs him, "You just cook 'em the way I did and they'll turn out that way every time." Every other conflict or potential conflict is dispatched with a similar lack of fuss. At the end of the film, after Crosby's character delivers the valedectorian's speech at commencement, we aren't even certain that things have "turned out" for Harvey and the aforementioned French teacher. We might as well assume they did, or that the movie is indifferent to the matter.
Writing in the liner notes of the Mosaic Records collection The Complete Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56, Crosby biographer Gary Giddins (whose long-awaited second volume of the Crosby biography—the first is the superb A Pocketful Of Dreams—is supposed to be due this fall, and will cover the period in which High Time was shot and released) runs down Crosby's accomplishments in the period prior to the making of this picture: "[Crosby] was [...] a prominent television star and producer (Ben Casey and Hogan's Heroes were the most successful of several shows launched by his company), whose annual one-hour specials were highlights of broadcasting seasons in the late 1950s and early 1960s, succeeded by his record-breaking stint as the most frequent host of the Hollywood Palace and his annual Christmas shows, carried over from radio and a tradition in millions of American homes. In addition, there were his 'extracurricular' activities, including his tireless work in supporting the troops during the Second World War, for which returning servicemen voted him the individual who had done the most to boost G.I. morale; as well as his role in creating the first and longest running celebrity pro-am golf championship, playing host for 35 years and raising millions in charity; his leadershipin developing the Del Mar racetrack; and his co-ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For a man whose carefully nurtured persona was that of a lazy scamp, he was just about the busiest man in Hollywood."
There's nothing of the scamp in Bing in High Time. Sure, he goes along with a frat prank, but it's only bacause it's what the frat requires of him; he's actually pursuing the normative in doing so. When he objects to the rules, it's because the rules are unfair, as when French instructor Mme. Gauthier's position is threatened on account of their involvement, which at this point in the picture is entirely on the up-and-up anyway. And it is perhaps no accident that one of the picture's most lyrical scenes is, yep, a Christmas one, with Bing leading a chorus of "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear." In terms of pop iconography, the movie represents a shift in the Crosby persona; the whole scenario of the film is tailor-made for the older fella who's young at heart. It is once again probably ridiculously overstating the case to say that Crosby was here positioning himself as the can-do uncle for the young pioneers of the New Frontier, but the actively anti-fraught optimism of the picture is a real thing.
And it isn't as if Blake Edwards couldn't do fraught. His next film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, has a light frosting that only slightly camouflages the emotional push-pull that resolves in the galvanizing rainstorm of its final scene. Soon to come were Experiment In Terror and The Days Of Wine And Roses. In High Time we find him indulging his love of comedians—for Crosby was a comedian, and a great one—and perhaps an envy for a free-floating state of being in which a take-it-as-it-comes attitude was ninety percent of success. That's what Crosby's embodying here, and as such, High Time falls on the performer-as-auteur side of the theory. The Blu-ray from Screen Archives Entertainment/Twilight Time is not rated enormously highly be the DVD Talk experts I stole the image from, but I found it exceptionally pleasing, clean and bright, like the song says, and a good representation of its lively color palette.