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In the screen credits, the film is introduced as "Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band." The Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library contains a deposition given in 1944 by Darryl Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, regarding a plagiarism suit pertaining to this film. In the deposition, Zanuck states, "the idea of doing a picture called Alexander's Ragtime Band was my own idea," and then relates the following information about the origination of the film: During the production of the studio's 1936 film On the Avenue (see below), on which Irving Berlin wrote the score and collaborated on the story, Zanuck proposed making a film version of Berlin's life story, but Berlin rejected the idea for personal reasons. Zanuck writes that he then "schemed with a way of getting a portion of Irving Berlin's life on the screen, particularly his musical life" and approached Berlin with the idea of inventing a story that would have as its basis Berlin's most popular song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and could include certain incidents from his life "without violating his private life," because the main character would be fictitious. Berlin, according to Zanuck, was enthusiastic, and said, "We can make this man a combination of Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, anything that we want." (Bandleader Whiteman abandoned a career as a classical musician after he was seduced by the performance of a jazz band in a San Francisco club. On February 12, 1924, his orchestra gave a concert in New York's Aeolian Hall, a turning point for the acceptance of popular music, as the hall had previously been used only for classical music. For that concert, Whiteman commissioned Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue.") Berlin suggested that the proposed film open at the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, rather than on the Bowery, where he began his own career, and suggested that they use an episode from his life when he was a sergeant in the Army and put on a Broadway show entitled Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Berlin also proposed having the climax at Carnegie Hall. Berlin and Richard Sherman, a leading short story writer (who had written the story "To Mary-With Love," which Zanuck used as the basis for the 1936 Twentieth Century-Fox film of the same name) wrote the first draft summary at the end of 1936. Zanuck stated that although the basic story had been developed by this point, he and Berlin were not satisfied with the leading characterizations. In April or May 1937, Zanuck hired Sheridan Gibney, who had written for him at Warner Bros. Gibney worked for two or three months, but Zanuck and Berlin were still not happy with the characters, and the script was much too long and not "dramatically compact." Finally, Zanuck assigned Lamar Trotti and Kathryn Scola in the middle of 1937, and they were responsible for having the male lead come from an upper-class background and the female lead from the lower-class. Both Trotti and Scola, in testimony pertaining to the plagiarism case, stated that Scola came up with the idea to inject, in Trotti's words, "the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, the molding of a girl or a hunk of marble into a creation that he would fall in love with." The plagiarism claim, which was filed on behalf of St. Louis writer Marie Cooper Dieckhaus, who claimed that her unpublished novel Love Girl was plagiarized, was denied in 1946, according to Los Angeles Times.
According to Variety, Berlin supervised the "musical angles." New York Times noted that Berlin used his famous piano with a shifting keyboard (which now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution) at the Twentieth Century-Fox studio. A total of twenty-nine Berlin songs were included in the film, including three written expressly for the film, "Now It Can Be Told," "My Walking Stick" and "Marching Along with Time." Zanuck, in the 1944 deposition, stated that Berlin had to buy up some of the foreign rights to a number of his older songs. The title song, published in 1911, was Berlin's first big hit and is among sixteen songs on the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) list of all-time popular hits. It was first performed publicly without lyrics at the opening night of the Folies Bergre's International Revue. Next, Berlin himself performed it with its lyric at the Friars Club Friars Frolic, but it did not become a hit until vaudeville singer Emma Carus included it in her act in Chicago. By the end of 1911 it had sold over two million copies of sheet music and had swept not only the United States but Europe also. Although music historians do not consider the song to be strictly a ragtime piece, they credit it with making ragtime a national craze.
This was Harry Joe Brown's first film as associate producer for Twentieth Century-Fox, according to Hollywood Reporter. Alfred Newman was borrowed from Samuel Goldwyn, according to Hollywood Reporter and the film's pressbook, which also states that eighty-five separate sets were used. Trotti, in the legal records, states that director Henry King went to San Francisco and shot plates for process shots at the Cliff House. The pressbook states that glass cut in Czechoslovakia were used for the chandeliers in the Cliff House set, which was duplicated in Culver City. The film reportedly cost between $1,200,000 and $2,275,000, and it had already grossed $3,000,000 by November 1938, according to New York Times. Zanuck, in the 1944 deposition, called the film one of his most successful pictures. The success of the film, according to a August 1938 Hollywood Reporter news item, prompted Zanuck to shelve the previously successful "formula" for the studio's musicals and plan to produce future musicals that would be backed by dramatic stories. In a 1949 interview, Alice Faye said this was her favorite role. According to modern sources, Henry King called this film his most enjoyable. In her autobiography, Ethel Merman complained that the original lyric to "Heat Wave," "She started a heat wave by letting her seat wave," was changed for the film to "She started a heat wave by letting her feet wave."
The film had a preview on May 24, 1938 in Los Angeles, which New York Times noted was given "with all the folderol of a premiere; it was very, very formal, with lots of klieg lights and a grandstand full of fans." The film was not officially released until August 19, 1938. It was greatly praised by the trade press. Hollywood Reporter called it "a turning point of the industry and a new trend in the utilization of music in story telling." Motion Picture Herald, on the film's exploitation aspects, noted, "It announces itself in terms that every showman understands as the top musical comedy of all time, the easiest picture to exploit that has come out of Hollywood since Snow White and probably the most thoroughgoing and compelling demonstration of how to put showmanship into motion pictures that the trade has ever been treated to." A number of reviewers commented on the fact that although the film's story takes place over a period of twenty-seven years (from 1911 to 1938), the principal actors, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, show no signs of aging throughout the film. Alexander's Ragtime Band was voted third place in the Film Daily Seventeenth Annual Poll of the Critics of America, and received the Academy Award for Best Score (Alfred Newman). It was also nominated for five other Academy Awards: Best Picture, Original Story (Irving Berlin), Interior Decoration (Bernard Herzbrun and Boris Leven), Film Editing (Barbara McLean) and Best Song ("Now It Can Be Told" by Irving Berlin). According to Variety, when the film was re-issued in 1947, it did better at the box office than the first release. Lux Radio Theatre produced radio versions of Alexander's Ragtime Band with Alice Faye, Ray Milland and Robert Preston, which was broadcast on June 3, 1940, and with Tyrone Power, Dinah Shore, Al Jolson, Dick Haymes and Margaret Whiting, which was broadcast on April 7, 1947.