by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Yesterday TCM showed two consecutive films that had in common the same production company (20th Century-Fox), songwriter (Irving Berlin) and performer (Ethel Merman), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) and Call Me Madam (1953). Merman was actually billed fourth in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which was a marvelous assemblage of Irving Berlin songs tied to a sturdy old set of plot clichés, including the Jazz Singer one of the young man who defies his family and its traditions to pursue a career as a pop musician and entertainer. In this case the young man is Roger Grant (Tyrone Power), whose Aunt Sophie (Helen Westley) and music teacher, Professor Heinrich (Jean Hersholt), are grooming him for a career as a concert violinist — only in his spare time he’s leading a pop orchestra with Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) as his piano player and Davey Lane (Jack Haley) as his drummer. One day his band is auditioning at “Dirty Dan’s” nightclub in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district (San Francisco seems to have been chosen as a locale because that’s where Paul Whiteman started his career path from aspiring concert violist to pop bandleader) at the same time as singer Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) comes in, also looking for a job.
One of Roger’s musicians loses the band’s music in a taxi, so they grab a piece of sheet music for Irving Berlin’s song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (well, the title tune had to enter into it somewhere!) which Stella had brought thinking it was her sure ticket to a job, since the song was a hit in New York but hadn’t been heard in San Francisco yet. There’s a clever scene in which the members of Roger’s band try to play the piece in strict time, then realize that in order to get it to work they have to syncopate it (and I wondered if Tyrone Power had ever studied the violin, since although the sounds were undoubtedly those of a 20th Century-Fox studio musician his arms at least looked right fretting and bowing the fiddle) — and just then Alice Faye, who’s made up and costumed in the early reels to look like Jean Harlow (her earlier film with Power, In Old Chicago, had been planned for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who were going to do it on loanout to Fox in exchange for Shirley Temple starring in The Wizard of Oz — only Harlow’s death ended that deal), swoops in full of righteous indignation that this upstart band has stolen her song. She gets even more indignant — as does Roger — when they’re told by the club owner that he’s interested in hiring them but only together. What’s more, in honor of their trademark song the owner insists on billing Power’s character as “Alexander” — and so they start on a steady climb upwards to bigger and better nightclubs in San Francisco, with Power’s hatred for Faye turning into love — ironically to the strains of “Now It Can Be Told,” a song supposedly written by Don Ameche’s character in furtherance of his attempt to seduce the pretty blonde singer (and actually the only new song Berlin wrote for this film — all the others were from his catalog).
The act gets split up when impresario Charles Dillingham (Joe King) hires Stella Kirby to star in his Broadway show, but isn’t interested in Alexander’s band — whose members soon find themselves drafted into World War I, where they mostly play medleys of Berlin’s patriotic songs (not very good ones; it doesn’t help that the best-known of the World War I songs, “Over There,” was written by George M. Cohan, not Berlin). After the war they find the U.S. uninterested in their sort of music, but they find that hot music is all the rage in Paris, so their band becomes a success there with a new singer, Jerry Allen (an appropriately gender-ambiguous name for an Ethel Merman character), and on the strength of that they return to the U.S. and become major stars on radio. By this time Alexander has swollen his band to virtually symphonic dimensions — though the sound we hear is actually pretty credible big-band swing — and Stella has dropped out of sight after her career on Broadway has run its course. She’s also married Charlie and divorced him after he realized she was still pining for “Alexander” — in the meantime Power’s character has proposed to Merman’s but she’s realized she was just a rebound relationship for him and turned him down.
The story plods on to the all too predictable climax — a big swing-music concert Alexander is giving at Carnegie Hall during which Stella Kirby, now down-and-out and virtually forgotten, flees a bar run by Alexander’s friend Bill Mulligan (Paul Hurst) and gets into a cab driven by, of all people, John Carradine — who’s so miscast his presence in this movie achieves camp (“Don’t let him park you under a bridge!” Charles called out) — who drives her around the city while he has Alexander’s concert on the radio. They end up at Carnegie Hall, where she gets out, finds that the concert is sold out but manages to get let in just in time to sing the encore, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (what else?), and from the combination of the movie conventions and Tyrone Power’s smoldering looks at her we get the impression they’re going to pair up at last and live happily ever after.
As dull and hackneyed as the plot is (though at least the romantic rivalry between Power and Ameche for Faye’s affections isn’t laced with the nastiness of the similar intrigues between Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn), Alexander’s Ragtime Band is saved not only by the great Irving Berlin songs but by the respect and authenticity with which the period is treated. The arrangements by Alfred Newman are correct for the period — at least in the early part of the film, where the ensembles that we hear have the same instrumentation and voicings that we hear in pop records from the nineteen-teens — and the visuals also seem authentic given the fragmentary evidence we have of what vaudeville and music-hall performances actually looked like. When a trio of singularly unattractive vocalists (Jane Jones, Otto Fries, and Mel Kalish) comes out and performs Berlin’s “Ragtime Violin” we realize that the 1910’s were an era that put much less of a premium on physical glamour than later periods in entertainment.
As the plot goes along, though, the entire jazz era of the 1920’s gets skipped over — Alexander’s music leaps from 1910’s dance to 1930’s swing (his Carnegie Hall concert is significantly billed as “swing music,” not as jazz or as the “Experiment in Modern Music” Paul Whiteman presented at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, and at Carnegie three weeks later (one of the clear inspirations, along with Benny Goodman’s swing concert at Carnegie on January 16, 1938, for this sequence) — and what we hear is pretty typical high-powered late-1930’s white swing (quite credibly reproduced by the 20th Century-Fox studio orchestra). The arrangements are better than the singers; Don Ameche proves surprisingly credible as a vocalist on “Now It Can Be Told,” though no one would have ever considered him one of the golden throats of the 20th century; the producers wisely decided against having Tyrone Power attempt to sing; and the women are good but also a bit problematic. Alice Faye acts her part superbly — her character’s emotional turmoil, professional jealousy and final world-weariness are all beautifully delineated in her performance — but her voice, with its foghorn-like quality and limited phrasing, was always more serviceable than genuinely great.
As for Ethel Merman, this was still early enough in her career that her voice wasn’t as musclebound as it became later; she could still sing a ballad with some degree of credibility, though predictably she’s stronger on the fast numbers — especially “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” her featured number in the Paris cabaret and one which I wish the “suits” at Fox had allowed to be filmed in color — the skin-tight suits her choristers are wearing to impersonate devils and her own electrifying costume cry out for color — and she also looks considerably better than she did later, before her face hardened to the point where she was barely recognizable as the same person who had made this film, the Eddie Cantor vehicles Kid Millions and Strike Me Pink, the 1936 Anything Goes (a rare chance for Merman to repeat one of her stage roles on film) and the Ritz Brothers comedy Straight, Place and Show (a Damon Runyon horse-racing story she made right after Alexander’s Ragtime Band which featured an unusually restrained Merman singing two songs, including a quite good ballad called “With You on My Mind”).
I slighted Faye’s vocal contributions a bit during the film, but afterwards I tried to think of who could have sung Berlin’s songs in 1938 better than her and came up only with people who’d never have been given the part: Billie Holiday (too Black), Mildred Bailey (too fat), Connee Boswell (too disabled) and Judy Garland (too young). All in all, Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a fun musical — there isn’t a song in it that wasn’t done better by someone else but all the performances are better than serviceable and show off Berlin’s melodies at their best — and even the clichéd plot (based on a story by Berlin himself, adapted by Richard Sherman and scripted by Kathryn Scola, Zanuck favorite Lamar Trotti and an uncredited Sheridan Gibney and Zanuck himself) gives the film a sense of comfortable familiarity — as does the typically quiet, understated direction by Henry King, who gives the actors (Power and Faye especially) a chance to shine and plays down the melodramatic and soap-opera elements of the plot just about anyone else in Hollywood at the time would have played up.