Wednesday, January 17, 2007

ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (20th Century Fox, 1939) Fox Home Video

Irving Berlin's Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1939) is a red herring in musicals – a stagy, stilted lament of the hardships of a fictional composer without Berlin’s name ever surfacing from the deluge – except in the title sequence. The film stars resident 20th Century Fox heartthrob Tyrone Power as Berlin’s alter ego, a suave band leader predictably named ‘Alexander.’ 

Smitten with Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), the rather racy girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Al makes a few wrong turns and winds up lovelorn and bitter. Stella wants Al badly, but not enough to give up her career. 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. However, true to the tripe of this musical's plotting, Al also gets over his angst rather quickly and in style. Alexander's ragtime band plays all the hot spots in America, then makes a whirlwind tour of Europe where the band hires Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman – fresh from Broadway) who makes the most out of a series of ear-pounding hit singles, the best probably being her swing rendition of Heat Wave that closes the show. 

In America Stella quietly observes as the band reaches even greater heights of popularity without her. She is not bitter about their success. But she remains heart sore for having given up Al' so easily. Eventually, band member Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) find a way of reuniting Al and Stella, whom he's always loved but always knew he could never have. 

Alexander's Ragtime Band is glossy, tune-filled froth. Tyrone Power, whose strength was not singing, gets the only role in a musical that would suit him - as a non-singing conductor and it is saying much of the Irving Berlin/Richard Sherman screenplay, that Power's limitations, nor his absence from the musical program are never missed. Don Ameche is in very good voice, however as are Alice Faye and the delightful Jack Haley Sr. (best known to audiences as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz). But without a doubt the latter half of this song and dance spectacle belongs to Ethel Merman; a gal who in her prime (as she is herein) can really call notes down from the rafters.  

Alexander's Ragtime Band was something of a breakout picture for Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck's way of challenging MGM's undisputed supremacy in the musical genre. Zanuck overloads the film with a visual sumptuousness. Every last dollar shows up on the screen. Even the set of the seedy waterfront bar that opens the story looks like Toot Shores for the rough trade. Berlin markets this bumper crop of his own hits, slickly packaged to set the toes a tapping.  

Fox Home Video's DVD transfer is remarkably clean and solid with one note of distraction. The image jerks 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). 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. 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)



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