Irving Berlin's ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (20th Century Fox, 1939) Fox Home Video
Dean of American music, Irving Berlin was one of the most shameless promoters of his own virtuosity on celluloid. Movie history is riddled in countless regurgitation of his glorious accomplishments; the repertoire of ‘standards’ augmented by one or two new ditties Berlin would deign to write expressly for the movies, while re-purposing from a catalog that dated all the way back to the turn of the century. So, perhaps, it was no great surprise to find 2oth Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck eagerness to build an entire movie around Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a song, first published in 1911 (and later to serve as the centerpiece of another splashy Fox musical, 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business) and, in fact, was Irving Berlin’s first runaway smash hit. Legend has it, Berlin’s originated the tune as an homage to band leader, Alexander Joseph Watzke who dominated the circuit between 1904 and 1911 as one of the foremost proponents of an all-white ragtime and jazz bands in New Orleans. Zanuck’s 1938 musical spectacular, titled Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, is not particularly interested in retelling the life and times of Watzke or his family; rather, superficially entreated as be one of the most lavishly appointed cavalcades of Berlin’s buoyant masterpieces yet to be brought to the big screen. In the period of a few short years, 2oth Century-Fox, a fledgling by industry standards, newly amalgamated mid-way through the decade, had risen through the ranks on Zanuck’s fortitude alone; his driving force to make some of the finest movies ever, fueling a never-ending cavalcade of prestige pictures and literary adaptations, destined to evolve Fox into a Hollywood player and, in tandem, give even MGM – the biggest and brightest of all the majors – a real run for its money. Also, by 1938, two of Fox’s ‘discoveries’ had ascended on high as bona fide box office stars in their own right; singer, Alice Faye, whom Zanuck was, as yet, hell-bent on transforming into his version of Metro’s platinum Venus, Jean Harlow, and, Tyrone Power – whose reputation as the studio’s sexy stud du jour briefly rivaled even MGM’s undisputed ‘king’; Clark Gable. Gable really had nothing to fear from Power. For although each man had his share of ardent female admirers, Gable’s filmic output – at least, in the long run – would prove the more enduring in stature and legacy.
Power, who derived his lineage from acting royalty and even accompanied his then more famous father, Tyrone Sr. on a tour in 1931, to ultimately prove bittersweet (Power Sr. died from a heart attack in his son’s arms), had come to the industry’s attention in the 1932 movie, Tom Brown of Culver. A forgettable programmer, it did nothing for Power’s movie career except earn him a spot as an extra in Flirtation Walk, and then, a dozen other disposable parts in local community theater. Discouraged, Power made his mark on Broadway in Flowers of the Forest, Saint Joan, and Romeo and Juliet. By the mid-thirties, he was hired by director, Henry King who was sincerely impressed with the young man’s fine-boned manly good looks, but also his poise. Cast opposite Don Ameche in Fox’s Lloyd's of London (1936), Zanuck’s initial reaction to Power was indifferent; that is, until editor, Barbara McLean suggested Power, fourth billed, possessed infinitely more charisma than his co-star. Indeed, the ladies loved Ty and Lloyd’s of London was a huge hit for Fox. Impressed, Zanuck loaned Power to MGM for a supporting role in their lavishly appointed, Marie Antoinette (1938). Again, Power proved a box office draw, a trend that would continue right up until 1943, the year he was drafted into the army.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band falls right in the middle of Power’s meteoric first wave of success, thrust into virtually every genre being made at the studio; frothy musicals, historical melodramas, romantic period pieces and colorful western sagas. In 1938 alone, Power appeared in 3 of the studio’s biggest blockbusters, In Old Chicago, Suez, and Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a veritable cornucopia of Berlin songs in which, even more miraculously, the actor managed to hold his own without singing a single note; the musical program given over to co-stars, Alice Faye and Ethel Merman. As for Faye, we really ought to give the actress props for slogging through Zanuck’s obsession to re-craft her intractable freshness as the Harlow knock-off and sexpot, completed with powdered visage, arched brows and dyed blonde tresses; also, for the way Faye chose to depart the studio in 1945, after having been unceremoniously deposed by Zanuck in Fallen Angel, a picture heavily rewritten in the eleventh hour to favor up-and-comer, Linda Darnell. Faye, who had risen like a phoenix into the upper echelons of her profession, with megawatt stardom to prove it, simply drove up to the front gate after her last day’s shooting was completed, tossing the keys to her dressing room to the guardsman and informing him, “Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these!” Gutsily in breach of her studio contract, Zanuck held no dominion over Faye’s right to appear on the radio thereafter, which she did in the wildly popular Phil Harris program, not so coincidentally to have costarred her husband. With the exception of accepting an invitation to co-star in the remake of State Fair (1962), made long after Zanuck’s own departure from the studio, Faye never again worked in Hollywood.
The other costars worth mentioning here are Ethel Merman and Don Ameche; first to la Merman who, during a 2-week engagement in Manhattan, knocked Warner Bros. film director, Archie Mayo on his ass with her booming and boisterous vocals. And although nothing much came of the alliance finagled by Mayo and agent, Lou Irwin into a studio contract at WB and agent, the deal did afford Merman the opportunity to continue to build upon her reputation as a torch singer in such noted nightclubs as Les Ambassadeurs. Signed by Paramount to replace Ruth Etting in Follow the Leader (1930), Merman was also to be found rocking the Palace for a cool $500 per week, where she caught the attention of producer, Vinton Freedley, who cast her in the legendary Broadway run of Girl Crazy. For the next decade, Merman appeared almost exclusively on the stage, bouncing from one hit show to the next, including George White's Scandals and Anything Goes. Somewhere between these, she briefly flopped out in Humpty Dumpty – a show that barely saw its debut, was aggressively re-orchestrated, and then became the runaway smash, Take a Chance, running for 243 performances. Hollywood beckoned once more. But the return was not to Merman’s liking, especially after one of her songs was cut from 1934’s We’re Not Dressing. Another ‘take it or leave it’ offer to appear in Kid Millions effectively soured Merman on Hollywood and she returned to Broadway in Anything Goes; a legendary musical to enjoy an even more momentous run. Alas, for the 1936 movie version, Merman was initially passed over at star, Bing Crosby’s insistence that his wife, Dixie Lee play the part. When Lee unexpectedly left the project, Merman stepped into the role that ought to have been tailor-made for her. Instead, the focus of the picture shifted to Crosby, with much of Cole Porter’s ribald humor emasculated by the Hollywood censors. Just prior to Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Merman did appear to good effect over at Fox in Happy Landing, a Sonja Henie vehicle, also to co-star, Don Ameche. The experience was pleasant enough to encourage Merman’s return in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, in which she received some of the best notices and was afforded several chances to belt out Berlin’s standards, including ‘Heat Wave’ – the tap-happy rendition that closes out the show.
The most slender of the performances featured in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, though hardly the least talented, belonged to Don Ameche; a much-beloved of Zanuck’s, alas, fast to become the studio’s grunt and workhorse – always the bridesmaid, though rarely the bride, relegated in support of other actors in the studio’s ever-expanding roster of talent. Ameche made his debut in 1935, distinguishing himself in Dante’s Inferno. This led to a long-term studio contract, but precious few opportunities to distinguish himself. It really is a genuine shame too, as Ameche, apart from possessing an amiable charm, undeniable charisma and fair singing voice, proved he could hold his own in both comedies and dramas. Versatile, erudite and talented to a fault, Ameche’s greatest success at the studio, having been unceremoniously fed through its gristmill, was the pair of movies he made, costarring opposite Faye and Power – predictably, as their ‘third wheel’ - In Old Chicago and Alexander's Ragtime Band (both in 1938). And although renown of a kind was just around the corner for the actor, who took the lead in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), a movie for which his name became synonymous slang for Bell’s famous invention (as in “you’re wanted on the Ameche!”) the actor would never again enjoy such luxury or leading man status.
Alexander's Ragtime Band attempts to tell the threadbare rags-to-riches story of a society boy, the eponymous title character, who scandalizes his well-to-do family in pursuing a career in popular music instead of the classics. The Catherine Scola/Lamar Trotti screenplay basically charts the influence of jazz and popularization of ragtime in the early 20th century, and the final acceptance by the critics of swing as an art form. Spanning 20-years in the lives of three aspiring greats; band leader, Alexander, song-writer, Charlie Dwyer (Ameche), and husky-voiced torch singer, Stella Kirby (Faye), Alexander’s Ragtime Band remains little more than a cornucopia of Berlin standards, loosely strung together with the most threadbare of romantic entanglements to get from one song to the next. In barely 105 minutes, director, Henry King shoe-horns 26 Berlin pop standards, effectively plugged by Faye and Merman – running roughshod over the hastily dispatched romantic triangle involving Alexander and Charlie, vying for Stella’s affections. Charlie gives up first. But this rocky start to grand amour leads to bitterness and heartache that gradually causes Al and his beloved to drift apart. Feathering in Merman’s Jerry Allen (a replacement for the now defunct Stella), leads Alexander and his band on an international tour, culminating in their whirlwind radio broadcast from New York’s orchestra hall – caught in a taxi cab by the teary-eyed Stella, who realizes what a fool she has been by venturing out on her own.
There really is not all that much more to the plot. With 26 Berlin beauties in the hopper, there damn near is not enough time for it. Miraculously, what could so have easily devolved into a sort of Ziegfeld-follies-styled program of disposable delights, instead, steadily ingratiates itself to the audience as joyful, occasionally bittersweet romance, with a healthy branding of showmanship and style, triumphant over substance. The picture remains, not only one of the most highly enjoyable entertainments from its vintage, but one humdinger of a good show in the canon of homegrown Hollywood musicals – period. Berlin’s marquee-pull is more than enough to sustain the program, and his tunes, instantly recognizable, are polished off with such spell-binding finesse as to make the whole adventure sing and soar as few movie musicals from the last 100 years continue to do so. As the picture cannot help but fictionalize the history of jazz, virtually ignoring the primary contributions made by blacks, Alexander’s Ragtime Band emerges as a red herring – stagy in spots, though hardly stilted in its execution. While the contributions of the cast evens out with fair consistency, the outstanding musical performance in the picture is owed Ethel Merman, whose lush and leggy grandstanding in ‘Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil’ tricked out in black sequins and a pitchfork, surrounded by kittenish cat girls and billowing puffs of smoke rising up from the floor, has never been topped. Merman again, appears in a men’s tuxedo, twirling a baton and belting out ‘My Walking Stick’ and later, ‘Everybody Step’ – two, highly hummable tunes, leant her formidable pipes, and finally, ‘Heat Wave’ – for which Merman, again, towers over the plush orchestral padding and manages to dominate a proscenium of Fox’s 60-piece orchestra, conducted by Tyrone Power’s Alexander.
Arguably, Faye’s best moments in the movie have nothing to do with the score, although she acquits herself wonderfully of the Berlin ballads, ‘Now It Can Be Told,’ ‘All Alone’ and ‘Remember’. In the meantime, Faye emotes beautiful glycerin tears and flashes fiery resolve in tandem as the smitten Stella, a rather racy girl from the wrong side of the tracks. It does not take much to incur Stella’s ire. As the band's popularity moves them out of the seedy waterfront pubs and into A-list nightclubs like Hill House, Stella and Al clash over just about everything. Frequently at cross purposes, the lovers part company. Faye’s acting chops shine through in these scenes that, ironically, also illustrate how shortsighted Powers’ own acting ability, at this juncture in his career, remained. I confess, I have always been at a loss to find the virtues others perceive in Ty Power’s acting. While he appeared in a good many movies I admire from this vintage in the picture-making biz, I would suggest virtually all of them benefited from a strong supporting cast and superior script, to go a long way to bolster the actor’s presence that, almost exclusively, relies on his dashing looks to sell the performance. Personally, apart from his staggering moment of triumph in Nightmare Alley (1947) – a movie Zanuck implored him not to make, as it represented the pre-sold Power in his most startling departure from that carefully crafted studio image as their bronzed Apollo and Teflon-coated hunk du jour - and, was a colossal flop at the box office, besides - I never found much depth to Power. He is superficial eye candy in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Even though the picture is billed around him, he increasingly has little to do in it, except smile winningly while waving his baton, or taking a backseat to the two gals who shore up the heavy-lifting in the singing department.
Alexander's Ragtime Band is glossy, tune-filled froth. Don Ameche is in very fine voice, if only given two marginal opportunities to show it off herein. In hindsight, the picture definitely put Zanuck’s personal stamp of approval on the musical genre – until 1938, generally not Fox’s métier and dominated by the spell-binding Astaire/Rogers’ spectaculars over at RKO, Shirley Temple ticker-tape kiddie fluff, made on a lesser scale at Fox, kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley-ana at Warner Bros. and MGM’s gargantuan displays of ultra-lavishness beyond all sense, and occasionally, good taste. Alexander’s Ragtime Band is plush and pretty. For its visual sumptuousness, every last dollar undeniably shows up on the screen. Even the sets depicting the seedy waterfront wharf and bars, where our triumvirate of aspiring hopefuls gets their start, appear as slick and stylish as a night out at Toot Shores…albeit for the rough trade. Berlin markets this bumper crop of hits, already iconic and well-worn, slickly packaged to become instantly memorable all over again. The result is a movie musical with a lot of bounce and sparkle – oodles of charm, and a romantic chemistry that leaves one as joyously heart-sore as satisfied before the final curtain call.
Fox Home Video's DVD transfer is remarkably clean and solid with one note of distraction. The image suffers from interminable gate weave, jerking from left to right. I am unable to determine whether this is due to damaged sprockets or some video mastering anomaly (like a tracking problem). On bigger displays this oversight is duly noted. Otherwise, the gray scale has been impeccably rendered with deep, velvety blacks and very pristine whites. Grain is naturally reproduced. Age-related artifacts are present but rarely distract. The audio is mono (with an alternate re-channeled stereo track that sounds tinny). The mono is preferred. Extras are limited to several deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer and audio commentary. Odd, that some of the movies released under Fox’s long-defunct ‘Studio Classics’ banner have yet to make the transition to Blu-ray. I would have hoped for at least Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Wilson, Call Me Madam, Star! and, The Rains Came to make their hi-def debut by now. Will they ever? With each passing year, the prospects continue to dim. Bottom line; come on along and hear - and see - Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It’s a treat!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)