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In 1943 Samuel Goldwyn signed Danny Kaye to a contract, and the result was four Technicolor musical and comedy hits in four years. For the fifth film, Goldwyn decided to produce a musical remake of Ball of Fire, which he had produced and Howard Hawks had directed in 1941. That comedy classic starred Barbara Stanwyck as a gangster's moll who hides out with a bunch of professors writing an encyclopedia, and whom she teaches about modern slang. For the remake, entitled A Song Is Born (1948), the story remained the same except now the professors are writing a music encyclopedia and the moll (Virginia Mayo) teaches them about jazz, thereby setting up the film's musical numbers.
A high-powered group of real jazz greats are featured in this movie, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Mel Powell. All appear as themselves except for the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, who has his only feature film acting role (in which he doesn't play himself). As Prof. Magenbruch, in fact, he delivers one of the movie's best zingers.
Goldwyn brought Howard Hawks back on board to direct his own remake, and cinematographer Gregg Toland also returned from the original film, this time working in Technicolor. Getting a script, however, wasn't so simple, and ultimately A Song Is Born became the rare narrative feature without a screenplay credit. It does have a story credit, to Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder no less, and ironically the script was the result of many writers' work - too many, in fact. This was a Hollywood case of writer overload.
Originally, Goldwyn hired Harry Tugend to adapt Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's Ball of Fire screenplay, which itself had been based on a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe. After Tugend wrote a couple of drafts, Goldwyn brought in writer after writer for revisions and additional scenes: Phil Rapp, Daniel Fuchs, Melville Shavelson, Robert Pirosh, Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and Roland Kibbee are those known to have contributed (according to Todd McCarthy's book Howard Hawks). Wilder and Brackett felt no connection to the final script and asked not to be credited. Tugend felt that his version, too, had been obliterated by all the rewrites, and he demanded that his name not be used. But Monroe, one of the original story writers, did want a credit, and so his partner Wilder had to have his name included after all.
To top it off, Danny Kaye's personal writer/composer, who had devised most of his songs and comic routines in all his earlier pictures, was having no part of this film. That's because this writer, Sylvia Fine, was also Kaye's wife, and Kaye had recently left her for Eve Arden. With Kaye and Fine separated, Fine refused to take part in any more of his projects. Kaye didn't want anyone else writing songs for him so he simply didn't have any in A Song Is Born. (Eventually Kaye and Fine reconciled, and they remained married for the rest of Kaye's life with Fine managing his career and continuing to write his songs.)
Howard Hawks always said he hated A Song Is Born, but as he never watched the rushes or even saw the final product, the truth must be that he hated the experience of making it. He and Goldwyn had worked together a few times before and had had creative clashes; nonetheless, he came back for A Song Is Born purely because of the $250,000 paycheck it delivered. Hawks, who had just finished shooting one of his best movies, Red River (1948), had almost no interest in the script or the actors and was quite harsh when discussing them in later years. "Danny Kaye," Hawks said, "had separated from his wife, and he was a basket case, stopping work to see a psychiatrist [every] day. He was about as funny as a crutch. I never thought anything in that picture was funny. It was an altogether horrible experience."
Hawks described Virginia Mayo's performance as "pathetic." She had co-starred with Kaye in his last three movies, and Goldwyn promised Hawks that she wouldn't be working on this film. But, Hawks said, "We not only had to take Virginia Mayo, but [Goldwyn] had her run Ball of Fire about twenty times and rehearse with somebody else to play Stanwyck's scenes. She's not Stanwyck, I'll tell you that. So he just loaded the thing up so that there was no chance of making a good scene."
Mayo, for her part, wasn't too fond of Hawks either. She later recalled how Hawks seemed to care much more about her looks than about directing her performance: "He liked every woman to sort of resemble his wife. I had to wear clothes that were patterned after his wife Slim. Even my hairdo was patterned after [hers]." Mayo's singing voice, by the way, was dubbed by Jeri Sullivan.
Red River opened on Sept. 29, 1948. A Song Is Born followed three weeks later. Each had been made for roughly $3 million. In early November, A Song Is Born was the number one movie in the country, and Red River was number two. Still, Red River was a big hit and grossed $4.1 million, while A Song Is Born never broke even. Hawks, however, personally earned much more money directing it.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Thomas Monroe, Harry Tugend, Billy Wilder
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson, George Jenkins
Music: Hugo Friedhofer, Emil Newman, Don Raye, Gene de Paul
Cast: Danny Kaye (Professor Hobart Frisbee), Virginia Mayo (Honey Swanson), Benny Goodman (Professor Magenbruch), Tommy Dorsey (himself), Louis Armstrong (himself), Hugh Herbert (Professor Twingle).
by Jeremy Arnold