Thursday, July 5, 2012

Stars and Stripes Forever (20th Century-Fox, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 1952 movie Stars and Stripes Forever on Turner Classic Movies; they were doing a program of musical biopics of famous American composers or bandleaders, including Yankee Doodle Dandy (George M. Cohan), The Glenn Miller Story, Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin) and Bound for Glory (Woody Guthrie). Stars and Stripes Forever was, as if you couldn’t guess from the title, a biopic of John Philip Sousa, who was actually the son of a Portuguese immigrant, John Antonio Sousa, though his mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, was German. He started studying music at age six, was found to have perfect pitch, and when he was 13 his father, a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, signed him up to the U.S. Marine Corps to keep him from joining a circus band. Sousa worked in a theatrical pit band, where he learned to conduct, and in 1880 he returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its principal conductor and wrote some of his first legendary marches for them. In 1890 he quit the Marine Band and formed his own civilian orchestra, which he led continuously from 1892 until 1931, a year before his death. He was known as a rock-ribbed Republican, both politically and personally conservative — when Benjamin Harrison was elected President over Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888 Sousa commemorated the occasion with a march called “The Thunderer,” and the liner-note writer for one Sousa album said Sousa was probably the only person in the country who would associate the terminally dull Benjamin Harrison with thunder — and he also had a bizarre love-hate relationship with the recording industry.

In 1890 Columbia recorded the U.S. Marine Band in Sousa’s “Washington Post March” (probably his second best-known tune, after “Stars and Stripes Forever”), and though Sousa almost certainly did not conduct the record, that cylinder and a later (and much better-sounding, though that’s probably just an accident of preservation) one of “The Thunderer” from 1896 no doubt preserve the playing of musicians who worked under Sousa. Sousa’s civilian band was signed by Victor Records but though they made over 70 recordings for Victor, only six (“Nobles of the Mystic Shrine,” “Dauntless Battalion,” “Sabre and Spurs,” “Solid Men to the Front!,” “Liberty Loan” and “The U.S. Field Artillery March,” also known as “The Caisson Song” and the official U.S. Army theme song) were actually conducted by him. When he wasn’t having his band make records and gladly taking Victor’s money, he was issuing jeremiads about how the recording industry was ruining American music, mainly by discouraging ordinary people from making music themselves and instead encouraging them just to listen to professionals on record. (He had a point there.) “The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, [but] I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embyrotic [sic] Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art,” Sousa wrote in Appleton’s Magazine in 1906. “Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant. Singing will no longer be a fine accomplishment; vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?” (New York Evening Post music critic Henry T. Finck responded, equally vehemently, “It is a little difficult to see what there is to blunt in the musical sense of a nation which makes a hero of Sousa, paying him $50,000 for a mediocre march not worth $50. … [I] would rather hear Sousa’s band in one of these superior phonographs than in the concert hall, because the record makes it less noisy while at the same time preserving the peculiar quality or tone color of every instrument and soloist as well as every detail of expression.”)

Stars and Stripes Forever was made by 20th Century-Fox in 1952 and starred urbane, Queer Clifton Webb as the rock-ribbed reactionary hetero Sousa … though Webb did quite well. His rather prissy voice doesn’t match the one extant recording of the real Sousa (giving an introduction to a transcription of “Stars and Stripes Forever” for an international radio broadcast sponsored by Bond Bread in 1929) but it projects a surprising level of authority and power. The film was ostensibly based on the real Sousa’s autobiography, Marching Along, but by the time it got filtered through screenwriters Ernest Vajda (“story”) and Lamar Trotti (script; he also got a producer credit) it was pretty much a camp-fest in which, unable to do very much with Sousa’s story to plug it into the usual Hollywood formulae — Sousa married young, stayed that way, had three children and otherwise his life was his music and his principal avocation, trap shooting (oddly unmentioned in the script even though Sousa wrote in his autobiography, on which this film is ostensibly based, “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’” — it seems odd that Vajda, Trotti and director Henry Koster would have neglected a genuine aspect of their subject’s life that was considerably more cinematic than bandleading) — they added a couple of juvenile leads, Marine private Willie Little (22-year-old Robert Wagner in his eighth movie) and burlesque entertainer turned Sousa band vocalist Lily Becker (Debra Paget). In the opening scene, Sousa is the U.S. Marine Band leader and he finds that Little sneaked off the base to get a beer, then tried to sneak back in and got into a fight with a fellow Marine; Little also presents him with a rolled-around tuba he calls a sousaphone (the original sousaphone was designed by Sousa himself in 1893 and made for him by a Philadelphia instrument maker named J. W. Pepper: the idea behind it was that it would sound like a tuba but it would have a hole in the middle so the performer could essentially wear it, thereby making it more convenient to carry in a marching band; it also projected its sound up rather than out, so it could be heard more clearly in a brass section), and when Sousa quits the Marines Little ends up with him in his new band.

I had first seen this movie in the 1960’s on the old NBC Saturday Night at the Movies show but I hadn’t seen it since (for some reason I recalled its title as The March King), and I’d never seen it in color — and the color (all-out three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer Charles G. Clarke) is one of the most delicious things about it, rich, vibrant, bright: a far cry from the dirty greens and browns that dominate movies today and richly flattering both to the ornate uniforms Sousa favored as both a Marine and a civilian and the glorious 1890’s dresses worn by the women. One of the running gags of the film is that Sousa tried to write other kinds of music besides marches, but whenever he tried to write a love ballad (there’s one which he croaks out while his on-screen wife Jennie, played by Ruth Hussey — though the name of Sousa’s real wife was Jean — accompanies on piano) it ended up getting turned into a march: during that sequence, while he’s out of the room, Jennie starts playing his “ballad” in a sped-up tempo and a 4/4 march rhythm. (A while ago I got two Musical Heritage cassettes of modern recordings of Sousa’s music, including some non-march excerpts from his operetta El Capitan; Sousa’s non-marches were actually quite appealing bits of light music and the rest of his output deserves to be better known.)

 Stars and Stripes Forever is a modern-day (well, 1952, anyway) gloss on the Sousa story but it’s still a lot of fun even though much of the fun has nothing to do either with Sousa himself or with Clifton Webb’s performance as him; instead, it’s about the secret marriage of Willie Little and Lily Becker and how they have to sneak around and pretend they’re not married because when he started his civilian band Sousa made a hard and fast rule that the musicians’ wives were not allowed to accompany them on tour. (The payoff to this gag is a scene in which Willie sneaks into Lily’s room on a cross-country train and Sousa catches them and assumes they’re up to illicit hanky-panky instead of licit marital relations acceptable to God, the state and the Production Code.) The story remains in the 1890’s, beginning with Sousa’s last years heading the Marine Band (there’s a nice twist in which they’re playing at a White House reception and President Harrison, tired of getting a speech from everyone in his receiving line, tells Sousa to stop playing waltzes and salon music and strike up a march so no one will be able to hear him and the line will speed up) and ending with Sousa composing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as a memorial to the Spanish-American War dead — and though there isn’t anything as blatant as the final sequence of the biopic John Paul Jones, in which the image of his dying dissolves into a series of modern-day Navy ships and an unctuous narrator explains that the values John Paul Jones tried to inculcate in the Navy officer corps of his day still hold for the Annapolis grads of 1959, when the film was made, Stars and Stripes Forever ends with a ghostly image of Sousa conducting “The Stars and Stripes Forever” over the various ranks of the U.S. Army marching off to fight whatever enemy awaited in 1952 (the Korean War was still going on and a lot of people thought the U.S. would someday have to fight another land war in Europe, this time against the Soviet Union).

For me, the scene that struck me most was one line from Sousa when he’s leading the first rehearsal of his civilian band and he announces that if he encounters an audience that would rather hear “Turkey in the Straw” than Parsifal, they will play “Turkey in the Straw.” It’s an indication that Sousa appeared in American music at the time when classical and popular music were definitively splitting from each other — through much of the 19th century operas like Verdi’s Rigoletto had generated hit tunes like “La donna è mobile” and there was a healthy interchange between the music of the concert hall and the music of the people (literally, since in the 19th century if you wanted to experience a pop song you usually had to buy the sheet music and play it yourself — which meant you had to be able to play it yourself), but as Sousa began to become popular the two forms of music were starting to separate — and Sousa’s rambunctious marches helped speed the separation and laid the groundwork for the eventual acceptance by white American audiences of ragtime and, ultimately, jazz. At the same time the movie shows that there still were connections between classical and pop music in Sousa’s time; one poster for Sousa’s band shows it appearing with opera singer Emmy Destinn (who really existed) as a guest star, and another sequence shows Estelle Liebling (another genuine opera singer of the period, and one who never recorded herself but who later became Beverly Sills’ voice teacher) singing with the Sousa band in rehearsal (she’s played by Aileen Carlyle).

After Stars and Stripes Forever I waited for Charles’ late homecoming and watched a couple of Fourth of July specials on major networks, one from New York sponsored by Macy’s on NBC and one from Boston with the Boston “Pops,” conductor Keith Lockhart (who’s put on the pounds much the way Elton John did) and the new-look Jennifer Hudson doing “Feelin’ Good” (the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse song from The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd, incomparably recorded in the 1960’s by Carmen McRae and instrumentally by John Coltrane; Nina Simone also cut it, and her version is probably more famous than Carmen’s, but that chiseled diction and bell-like intonation of Carmen McRae is absolutely perfect for this song, though Hudson gave it a quite good rendition marred only by the dance-music sameness of her backing and the way she, like the late Donna Summer, is strait-jacketed by it) and “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” her big ballad from Dreamgirls, which remains powerful even though it loses something out of context. As just about anyone who’s seen one of her commercials for Jenny Craig knows by now, Jennifer Hudson is quite a bit slimmer than she was when she made Dreamgirls, and she was showcased in a black-and-white zebra-striped dress with a low cleavage that was practically a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen; it probably lets her out as a possible star for a Bessie Smith biopic (I wrote in these pages not long ago that a Bessie Smith biopic with Hattie McDaniel was one of the greatest movies never made in the 1940’s, but if I were casting the role now the person at the top of my list would be Queen Latifah, not only because she’s proven she can sing old songs but in Chicago she showed she could look stunning in 1920’s costumes) but it undoubtedly helps in her current trajectory as a dance diva even though what she does best is old-school soul. The Macy’s show featured Kenny Chesney and Katy Perry — whom I quite liked, though he’s getting too old for the sing-and-rub-my-crotch bit — and both included elaborate fireworks displays. The Macy’s one was set to recordings by artists both living (including a nice recording by Taylor Swift, another pop diva of today I actually like even though I’m not exactly breaking down the doors of Sam Goody’s to collect her CD’s) and dead (Ray Charles’ incomparable recording of “America, the Beautiful” and Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”), while the Boston “Pops” mostly played for itself though there were a few cut-ins of records there, too. Watching fireworks on TV really isn’t the same as being there, but it was still fun and an appropriate way to ring out the Fourth of July.

What was interesting about these shows after watching the movie Stars and Stripes Forever was that the “Stars and Stripes Forever” march appeared in both of them, and it was fun to compare the arrangements. The one in the 1952 movie was done by Fox’s musical director, Alfred Newman (whose typical Fox fanfare was superseded by Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march over the opening studio logo) and pretty much followed Sousa’s own except for a few bits of added percussion. The one on the Macy’s show (pre-recorded, but the chyron didn’t vouchsafe us by whom) added xylophones and annoying little tinkles, and the one from the Boston “Pops” showed that when a symphony orchestra plays Sousa they have the same problem as they do when they play big-band jazz: what the hell do you do with the strings? After that it was a relief to dig out Sousa’s own recording from the 1929 international broadcast (a stunningly complicated endeavor — Bond’s Bread had to underwrite sending recording crews out literally worldwide — of which surprisingly little survives; it’s an indication of how transitory radio entertainment was considered that even a broadcast like this made up entirely of transcription recordings wasn’t preserved) and hear “Stars and Stripes Forever” the way its composer wrote it, and though there are so few recordings of Sousa conducting himself the ones that do exist are exemplary, bringing this music the rhythmic snap it needs without making it sound overbearing.