I am not the world’s first and foremost Bing Crosby fan. Or even second and secondmost. This may come from the majority of films I’ve seen of his where he invariably plays a newcomer to a stuffy town/military unit/church/pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire that simply can’t abide his hip lingo and smooth talking ways. Each is grating in its formula and presumption, desperately painting Bing as the with-it rebel out to teach everyone a couple of easy lessons about loosening up and living a hip life.
Luckily, Crosby hadn’t quite hit upon that formula in 1934, as very much evidenced in We’re Not Dressing, probably the only film that features threatened rape as part of its romantic comedy climax and an extended sequence with a bear on roller skates wreaking havoc. Bing still teaches everyone a lesson and sings a few songs (five, actually, five long songs), but, save for one person, his lessons don’t stick. More on that in a bit.
He plays a sailor named Stephen who is a crew member on the oversized yacht Doris. The ship Doris is owned by the millionairess Doris (Carole Lombard), a fickle character that is heavily reminiscent of those shrews who always must be tamed. She has a pet bear named Droopy, and Stephen is assigned the humiliating task of calming the bear by crooning “Good Night, Lovely Little Lady”. Stephen is rebellious in that quiet Bing Crosby way, leading Doris to slap Stephen and Stephen giving her a kiss in response.
To kick the plot into high gear, Doris’ bumbling/sloshed Uncle Hubert (Leon Errol) manages to single-handedly sink the ship. Doris and Stephen end up on an island with Hubert, his golddigging girlfriend Edith (Ethel Merman), and two gold-digging princes, all dressed in evening wear…save for Stephen in his sailor outfit and Doris in a robe, since she hadn’t had time to dress before the boat went down. Now Stephen is the only one with any survival skills, and the spoiled rich must learn to kowtow to him if they want to survive.
Also, not that it helps much, but George Burns and Gracie Allen are lurking on the island as well. As I noted in my review of Six of a Kind, Gracie’s “idiot savant” routine is far more fun when she portrays an agent of chaos than someone the audience is supposed to have a lick of sympathy for. Here she’s especially malevolent, with her tropical island Moose Trap one of those gags that oscillates between dumb and hilarious once every few seconds.
Ethel Merman has kind of a weird “chubby Lilian Roth/sexy Fanny Brice” thing going on, which are not words I’d ever expected to write in my life. Merman’s quite energetic and matched well with Leon Errol, who plays a boozed, spoiled baby in much the Edward Everett Horton vein. Almost the entirety of the rest of the cast is wallpaper, including Ray Milland as one of the faux princes out to schmooze his way into wealth.
The exception is Carole Lombard. Her big break in Twentieth Century was hardly two weeks away from this film’s release and you can already see much of her comedic persona formed. Though not as elastic as she is in Twentieth, Lombard manages to wring a great deal of humor and emotion out of her rotten-to-the-core character.
Lombard’s Doris is obviously smitten with Stephen from the beginning but must overcome her own prejudices and assumptions to admit it. This isn’t easy, as Doris’ upper crust nobility has given her carte blanche to be as wicked as she wants to be, an opportunity that she seizes upon when she’s the only castaway to realize that George and Gracie’s well-equipped nature study provides the party an easy avenue to be rescued. Doris opts to keep quiet and use the opportunity to give Stephen a month’s time to be the caveman alpha-male. It appeals both to her desire to undercut him and her desire to see him without a shirt on.
Naturally, such a ruse doesn’t please Stephen when it’s uncovered by Gracie. She ruins a romantic interlude to inform them that a number of ships have arrived on the other side of the island. Stephen, as I described above, feels his masculinity deflated by Doris’ manipulations, and chooses to insult her femininity in response– she’s not even worth ravaging for her deception.
It’s a decidedly pre-Code moment, something that speaks to the extreme sexual frustration they both feel for one another. Their tête-à-tête must overcome the class and temperament differences, though the movie gives us a ringer to help leap the chasm: Stephen is actually an architect who just booked his way as a crew member to get to his new job in New York.
So when he demands in the final reel that she ditch her fortune, family and friends to live with him as the major breadwinner, you know that she’ll still be okay. She’s marrying down, but still into a comfortable lifestyle– not exactly feminist, but acceptable to Depression-era audiences. The man is in charge and the shrew is tamed.
We’re Not Dressing is an oddity, one of those kitchen sink comedies that Paramount indulged in mixed with a lot of promotion for Bing’s newest album and the George and Gracie comedy team. Somehow, in spite of its messiness, the combination of Lombard’s fiery performance, the roller skating bear, and, yes, Crosby’s low key comedy, the movie is still a fun, jaunty, and insane (if dated) piece of work.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- No one in the film actually declares whether or not they’re dressing (I imagine whoever pitched the title got a cigar from the bosses at least), but Lombard does lose her undergarments on a windy deserted island. Her panties make it clear across, where Gracie Allen tries to wear them, thinking they’re hers.
- There is a scene where Bing threatens to rape Carole, but then declares she’s such a sh-tty person that she’s not even worth raping. It’s not exactly White Christmas, to say the least.
Trivia & Links
- Being a Paramount film, there are a number of random references to pop culture sprinkled about. One sailor explains that B.C. is, “Before Come Up and See Me Sometime!” referring to Mae West’s catchphrase. There are also references to Amos and Andy and Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932).
- Side note: I had no idea the phrase “Papa spank!” was this old. Learn something new every day!
- This movie is loosely based on J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, which was also the basis for 1919’s Male and Female and 1957’s Paradise Lagoon. The scenario where a rich woman and a subservient man end up on a deserted island and find their roles reversed would also be the subject of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away (1974) and its deeply regrettable 2002 remake with Madonna.
- For more on Bing Crosby, check out The Bing Crosby News Archive. For more Carole Lombard, give Carole & Co. a view.
Danny Reid lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934.