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The "King of Swing" came to the screen as never before in the 1955 musical biography, The Benny Goodman Story. It's not that Benny Goodman had never appeared in a movie before. He had made ten at that point, nine as himself and one as a college professor in A Song Is Born (1948). But The Benny Goodman Story marked the first time he had been played by another actor, TV talk show host and comic Steve Allen. Even if the film is considered a dramatic failure, thanks largely to a watered-down screenplay that fictionalizes aspects of the bandleader's life, at least it provides a showcase for some great musical performances.
The film was born out of Hollywood's desire to make lightning strike twice. Universal-International and producer Aaron Rosenberg had scored a huge hit with The Glenn Miller Story (1953), so it was only natural that they make another film biography built around the music of the big band era. Goodman seemed a logical choice, with his rags-to-riches story and his pioneering work in helping integrate the music industry. With the bandleader and many of his associates still alive, Rosenberg saw the potential for another musical extravaganza. Goodman agreed to sell them the rights to his life for $25,000 and took another $10,000 to serve as a consultant. Most importantly, he recorded the clarinet tracks for the film, greatly adding to the picture's musical value.
Rosenberg's first choice to write the screenplay was Valentine Davies, with whom he had worked on the earlier hit. When Davies asked for the chance to direct, the producer said yes, which may have been his biggest mistake. Critics would deride the film's static direction, and Davies would never direct again. His script also failed to capture the real Benny Goodman. The King of Swing would later say that he and his wife laughed at the fictionalized scenes.
An early press release on The Benny Goodman Story stated the studio was considering Marlon Brando as leading man. Although he would have been a horrible mismatch for Goodman physically, his name, at the time, would have sold a lot of tickets. Instead, however, Rosenberg cast Allen, who bore a stronger resemblance to the bandleader. In addition, Allen was an accomplished musician and songwriter, though he had to take lessons with Sol Yaged to learn how to mime playing the clarinet convincingly. In later years, Allen would also prove to be an accomplished actor in stage appearances and television guest shots. In the film, he had little chance to score dramatically. Instead, most of the meatier material went to leading lady Donna Reed and character actress Berta Gersten, the latter cast as Goodman's mother. Reed had only recently won an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in From Here to Eternity (1953) but was having trouble building on her success as a dramatic actress. She would find her greatest fame when she moved into television with The Donna Reed Show in 1958. The Polish-born Gersten was a mainstay of the Yiddish theatre movement in New York and had starred in the pioneering Yiddish-language film Mirele Efros (1939).
Whatever the dramatic failings of The Benny Goodman Story, the selling point was its great music. On the soundtrack, Goodman played everything from swing and jazz to a Mozart clarinet concerto. In addition, the film featured an array of guest stars, including trumpeter Harry James and drummer Gene Krupa jamming on "Swing, Swing, Swing," vocalist Martha Tilton doing "And the Angels Sing," and such Goodman associates as Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Ziggy Elman. Sadly, Elman was no longer in condition to render his famous trumpet solo on "And the Angels Sing," so another Goodman band member, Mannie Klein, dubbed it for him. Other Goodman hits on the soundtrack include "Let's Dance," "Goodie Goodie" and "Memories of You," the latter serving as the romantic theme for Allen and Reed.
Though critics were unmoved by the film, praising only the music, it drew heavy praise from humanitarian groups like the B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League for its positive depiction of the Jewish contribution to American culture and the sensitive treatment of Goodman's integration of his band. Sammy Davis, Sr., father of Sammy Davis, Jr., was prominently featured in the film as pianist-arranger Fletcher Henderson, who became a prominent member of Goodman's band in 1939, joining such other music greats as Teddie Winslow and Lionel Hampton.
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director-Screenplay: Valentine Davies
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Joseph Gershenson, Henry Mancini, Harold Brown, Alan Harding, Fletcher Henderson, Sol Yaged
Cast: Steve Allen (Benny Goodman), Donna Reed (Alice Hammond), Berta Gersten (Mom Goodman), Herbert Anderson (John Hammond), Robert F. Simon (Pop Goodman), Hy Averback (Willard Alexander), Sammy Davis, Sr. (Fletcher Henderson), Jack Kruschen (Charles 'Murph" Podolsky), Harry James, Gene Krupa, Martha Tilton, Lionel Hampton, Ziggy Elman, Stan Getz (Themselves).
by Frank Miller