Thursday, July 10, 2008

“A Song Is Born”: Kaye and Jazz Make It Interesting

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had a good time when I got home, doing another one of my crazy tapes (combining the Page Cavanaugh Trio album I’d got from the Footnote with bits and pieces of the soundtrack from A Song Is Born, in which the Page Cavanaugh Trio appeared backing Virginia Mayo — or, more likely, her voice double — in the sing, “Daddy-O” — the group was a good one, but rather schlocky at times; those vocal arrangements made them sound an awful lot like the Four Aces with the Nat “King” Cole Trio backing them, since Cavanaugh’s own piano was a lot like Cole’s). It’s a movie I’ve always had an affection for; true, it’s nowhere near as good as the original, Ball of Fire (Danny Kaye actually seems more credible as the milquetoast professor than Gary Cooper did — though his talents as a character comedian are largely wasted in what is basically a situation comedy — but the comparison between Virginia Mayo and Barbara Stanwyck is much like the comparison between Kenny G and John Coltrane), but it does have a lot of great music in the first half, and it’s worth watching for that alone (to see the real Benny Goodman, in character as “Professor Magenbruch,” pretending never to have heard of Benny Goodman is a delight). — 2/26/93


I kept the TV on and watched the TCM showing of the 1948 film A Song Is Born as I was recording it to DVD. This was a Sam Goldwyn production and is described by biographer Carol Easton as his last attempt to make a star out of Virginia Mayo, whom he’d apparently signed because she reminded him of what his wife Frances had looked like young. It was also a remake of Ball of Fire, a marvelous 1941 screwball comedy Goldwyn and director Howard Hawks had concocted out of a story by future director Billy Wilder called “From A to Z,” an offtake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in which the dwarfs became seven ancient (well, six ancient and one not-so-ancient) professors who’d already spent nearly a decade working on the ultimate encyclopedia of human knowledge, and Snow White was a stripper on the lam from an assistant D.A. determined to make her testify against her gangster boyfriend who ends up hiding out in the professors’ abode after they realize that she speaks slang that they have no knowledge of but need to include in their book.

In 1941 the cast was Gary Cooper as the one not-so-ancient professor who, of course, becomes the love interest of the stripper (Barbara Stanwyck) and ultimately wins her from her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews), and that film already included some high-powered swing music talent: Stanwyck, using her own voice (as she always did), sings “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa’s band in an early scene. In 1948 Goldwyn decided to make it into a musical and emphasize the swing component; this time the professors are writing a history of music when all of a sudden, thanks to two window-washers (played by the great Black vaudeville dance team of Buck Washington and John “Bubbles” Sublett, though in a move symptomatic of this often misguided movie “Bubbles” doesn’t get to dance), they’re apprised of the existence of jazz.

The not-so-ancient professor in this version is Hobart Frisbie (Danny Kaye, making his last film as a Sam Goldwyn contractee; he’d return to Goldwyn in 1952 to make Hans Christian Andersen, but as a free-lancer making ten times what Goldwyn had been paying him before) and the stripper is song stylist “Honey” Swanson (Virginia Mayo, voice-doubled quite convincingly by Jeri Sullavan), while the gangster boyfriend is Tony Crow (Steve Cochran, a surprisingly edgy actor to turn up in a Goldwyn film). Howard Hawks repeated his direction from the 1941 version and Wilder and Thomas Monroe are still listed as the screenwriters, though Harry Tugend did some uncredited tweaking on the script. Easton said this film was Kaye’s first flop and blamed it on a dispute between Goldwyn and Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote all his special material; in this case, she turned down his offer for a new song for him and so he didn’t do any singing in the film — though exactly where a Kaye comic vocal could have been fitted into this story is unclear, to say the least.

The best part of A Song Is Born is the opening, filled with marvelous swing music: a couple of short boogie numbers by Buck Washington based on the “B-A-C-H” motive and Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” (the latter also featuring Benny Goodman!), a long medley of various swing performers Frisbie visits on a nightclub crawl to get a feel for this music he’s never heard before (Mel Powell — who, ironically, would later describe a professional trajectory opposite to Kaye’s character in the film, giving up jazz for avant-garde classical music — leading a Dixieland band in “Muskrat Ramble,” Tommy Dorsey playing his theme “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” the Golden Gate Quartet in a bit of their barbershop-gospel on “Old Blind Barnabas,” Charlie Barnet roaring his way through “Cherokee,” a brief jam between Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton and Jeri Sullavan with the Page Cavanaugh Trio singing a quite appealingly sultry new song called “Daddy-O”), a jam on Fats Waller’s “Stealin’ Apples” reuniting Goodman and Hampton and a six-minute workout on the title song that is supposed to represent a musical montage illustrating the history of jazz, including a samba band and the Golden Gate Quartet as well as Armstrong and Sullavan on vocals.

My memory of the two versions was that Danny Kaye was actually better cast as the milquetoast professor than Gary Cooper, but Virginia Mayo didn’t come close to Barbara Stanwyck in the female lead (but then who did? To my mind, Stanwyck was the best actress in Hollywood during the classic era, bar none; not only did she put her heart and soul into every performance but she was incredibly versatile, able to play both comedy and drama and in just about every film genre, from musicals to Westerns to screwball comedies to tear-jerkers to films noir) and the movie, dangerously imbalanced because almost all the music occurs in its first half, tended to sag towards the end as the plot demanded resolution. I liked it a lot better this time around; though the music (and the musicians!) remain the principal attraction, Danny Kaye seizes every opportunity the script presents him for acting. His performance as the lovesick swain making his desperate proposal to Virginia Mayo’s character is astonishing, an utterly sincere reading that transcends the fish-out-of-water cliché even a great writer and filmmaker like Wilder couldn’t escape in the scene.

Cochran also snarls more convincingly as the gangster than Dana Andrews (miscast) did in the original, and if the first version still seems better it’s probably because this time around Howard Hawks seemed bored with the whole project, going through the motions but not really getting as excited over it (or making as exciting a movie) as he did the first time. The list of directors who remade their own movies and didn’t make them as well the second time includes Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much), Frank Capra (Broadway Bill/Ridin’ High, Lady for a Day/A Pocketful of Miracles), William Wyler (These Three/The Children’s Hour) and even Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments). A Song Is Born has the oddity of having Benny Goodman not merely appear as himself (as all the other swing and jazz musicians in the film did) but actually play a character, one of the professors; his hair dyed and stuck on his scalp with what looks like shoe polish and his upper lip adorned with a silly moustache, he still turns in a perfectly acceptable comic performance even though it could hardly compete with some of the other character actors in the film — including Hugh Herbert, surprisingly restrained (and unsurprisingly quite a bit older!) than in his woo-woo days at Warners.

A Song Is Born also has the interesting distinction of having had an album released of its principal songs played (mostly) by the artists from the film, even though the records (a four-78 album on Capitol) were re-recorded in a studio rather than taken off the soundtrack. The reason this is odd was that in 1948 the American Federation of Musicians had called its second strike against the record companies, but Goldwyn got a special dispensation from AFM president James Caesar Petrillo (one bully to another?) to get the music on record by getting Capitol to agree to donate the proceeds from the album to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund (an interesting precursor of the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid). By the time the records were made, however, Benny Goodman had formed a new group, hired two bebop musicians (tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and trumpeter Theodore “Fats” Navarro) and changed his sound so extensively that the version of “Stealin’ Apples” on the album sounds almost nothing like the one in the film. — 7/10/08