Shirley Ross: Co-Star to Hope & Crosby, But Not Together

Shirley Ross (1913-1975) almost got there. By “there”, I of course refer to that coveted state where saying her name would require no explanation.

Born Berenice Gaunt, Ross studied classical piano as a kid, and began playing and singing professionally on radio when still a teenager. When she was 20 she made several recordings with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra (one of the singles was “I’m No Angel”, associated with Mae West). Rodgers and Hart hired her as a song plugger to the movie studios, which landed her work in front of the cameras. Her early stints, as was common, was to be the singer in a party or nightclub scene, in features like Bombshell (1933), Manhattan Melodrama (1934) or Hollywood Party (1934). She enjoyed more prominent turns in shorts like Jailbirds of Paradise (1933, with Moe Howard of The Three Stooges), Morocco Nights (1934, with Fuzzy Knight), and What Price Jazz? (1934.)

By 1935 Ross was getting named parts in features. Her earliest well-remembered film is San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald. An early career hiccup occured on This Way Please (1937), directed by Robert Florey, with Buddy Rogers, Ned Sparks, and Fibber McGee and Molly. Ross had a run-in with Mary Livingstone, walked off the set, and was replaced by Betty Grable. But she was prominently featured in two of Paramount’s Big Broadcast films, the 1937 and 1938 editions. The first one thrust her among Jack Benny, Bob Burns, Martha Raye, Burns and Allen, and, as her love interest, Ray MIlland. The second one (The Big Broadcast of 1938) is famous for pairing her with Bob Hope, with whom she sang “Thanks for the Memory”, which thereafter became his theme song. The chemistry with Hope was considered significant enough that the two were paired twice more, in Thanks for the Memory (1938) and Some Like it Hot (1939). Meanwhile, she was also cast opposite Bing Crosby, in the films Waikiki Wedding (1937) and Paris Honeymoon (1939).

Improvidently, Ross chose this moment to go off and do her first and only Broadway show, Rodgers and Hart’s Higher and Higher (1940). The show was not a hit. Meanwhile, something momentous happened back at Paramount that year. Hope and Crosby were paired for their first “Road” picture, The Road to Singapore (1940). Who would have been the natural female foil for the two comic leads? Given her track record with both of them, Shirley Ross, it seems to me. Instead that role fell to Dorothy Lamour, who had also been in The Big Broadcast of 1938. Ross returned to Hollywood and co-starred in the Warner Brothers comedy Kisses for Breakfast (1941), her last picture for a major studio. She then went on to star in two musicals for Republic, Sailors on Leave (1941) and A Song for Miss Julie (1945). She also had a regular role on The Bob Burns Show on radio from 1943 through 1947.

At this stage Ross devoted herself to caring full time for her terminally ill husband. By the time he passed away in 1951, she had been out of the game too long to restart her career. She remarried in 1955. Though there was at least one consolation for the loss of her career: both Hope and Crosby were to remain lifelong friends.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.