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Almost three decades after his screen debut as an affable crooner, Bing Crosby took a chance with his first non-singing role in Man on Fire, a 1957 drama about a family torn apart by divorce and a vicious custody battle. Adding to the risk factor was his agreement to maintain the character's rough edges, making his role in Man on Fire one of his least sympathetic. Although the film failed to ignite the box office, it brought him some of the best reviews of his long career and an off-screen love affair he would come to regret.
Drama was not a new thing for Crosby. He had previously scored as an international correspondent searching for the son believed killed during World War II in Little Boy Lost (1953) and a recovering alcoholic stage star in The Country Girl (1954). But in both those films he had performed a few songs on-screen to please the fans who had made him one of the top-selling recording artists of all time. With Man on Fire, however, he only recorded the theme song. Even that had not been planned originally. The Ames Brothers had recorded the title song for both opening and closing credits, but when Crosby recorded his own version of the song, the producers insisted on using it over his objections.
The film's story came from a 1955 episode of The Alcoa Hour, one of the many dramatic anthology series popular during television's early years. The TV version had also marked a change-of-pace for its leading man, Tom Ewell, who was best-known for comedy roles like the frazzled husband in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Ranald MacDougall, the acclaimed writer of such popular dramas as Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Hasty Heart (1949) adapted the teleplay and took on directing chores for only the second time in his career.
As co-stars, MGM decided to go with two talented newcomers from the worlds of Broadway and live television rather any of the starlets working their way up the ranks in Hollywood. As a result, Man on Fire provided Mary Fickett and Inger Stevens with their screen debuts. Fickett had already won a Theatre World Award for her performance as a cast replacement in Tea and Sympathy. Despite good reviews for her performance as Crosby's divorced wife, she would remain in New York, where she would create the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello before helping launch the ABC daytime drama All My Children as crusading nurse Ruth Martin. Her performance would be the first honored with a Daytime Emmy.
Stevens, who played Crosby's sympathetic attorney, also scored strong reviews. She was already a veteran of 50 television dramas when she made Man on Fire. Director MacDougall thought so much of her work that he cast her two years later as the last woman on Earth in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). She was even considered for the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), which eventually went to Audrey Hepburn. Stevens would make her biggest splash, however, as the Swedish accented housekeeper (she was actually born in Sweden) in the television series based on The Farmer's Daughter.
But the actress also suffered through a series of heartbreaks. Like her character in Man on Fire, Stevens yearned to become the second Mrs. Crosby. The two began an affair shortly after she was felled on the set by an attack of appendicitis. Crosby's visits to her in the hospital led to a growing closeness between the two that turned into romance. When she entered the affair, she didn't realize that Crosby had been seriously involved with another young actress, Kathryn Grant. And in those pre-tabloid days, she may not have known that one attraction she may have held for Crosby was her resemblance to Grace Kelly, his co-star in The Country Girl with whom he'd also been involved. Shortly after Man on Fire's release, Crosby asked her to supervise the redecoration of his Palm Springs home, and she readily agreed, assuming that it would be their home when they married. While she was working on the house, she learned that he and Grant had been married. After years of stormy relationships with other co-stars, Stevens died mysteriously from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1970.
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Screenplay: Randal MacDougall
Based on a story and television play by Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Hans Peters
Score: David Raksin
Cast: Bing Crosby (Earl Carleton), Inger Stevens (Nina Wylie), Mary Fickett (Gwen Seward), E.G. Marshall (Sam Dunstock), Malcolm Brodrick (Ted Carleton), Anne Seymour (Judge Randolph).
by Frank Miller