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In early 1952, director Vincente Minnelli offered Clifton Webb the role of Jeffrey Cordova in The Band Wagon (1953). It would have been quite something to see Webb in that plum, showy part, revisiting on screen the singing and dancing with which he had started his showbiz career in the 1910s and '20s. But Webb turned Minnelli down -- possibly because the role wasn't the lead, possibly because he didn't wish to dance onscreen with Fred Astaire after not having danced in so long, and largely because he preferred to play composer John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever (1952), which would become one of Webb's favorite roles and movies. (Webb did, however, still make an important contribution to The Band Wagon by suggesting British actor Jack Buchanan for the Cordova role, a brilliant idea that paid off beautifully for Minnelli.)
Webb had in recent years become a major box-office draw thanks to the comedy Sitting Pretty (1948), in which he played babysitter Lynn Belvedere. That picture was not only a huge hit but garnered Webb his third Oscar® nomination (and first for Best Actor) and led to two sequels. By 1952, Webb had already appeared in six more films, most of them hits, although his recent Dreamboat (1952) was not. But Stars and Stripes Forever would get him back on track. The musical biography of John Philip Sousa, the "March King," was a commercial success thanks in great part to the eternally rousing Sousa music that fills the soundtrack. And Webb even does sing and dance on screen here a little bit.
Various studios had been attempting to mount a Sousa movie for over a decade. Finally, Twentieth Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck -- after five years of his own negotiations -- succeeded in obtaining the screen rights to the composer's life and autobiography (Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women and Music, 1928). Zanuck assigned the project to Lamar Trotti to adapt into a screenplay. Trotti was one of the finest writers at Fox (and all of Hollywood), with films like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Immortal Sergeant (1943), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Wilson (1944), Mother Wore Tights (1947), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (1951) to his credit. He had at this point been nominated for two Academy Awards and won one. Trotti's particular gift for capturing Americana was what Zanuck was after here, and while the finished film is better remembered for its musical interludes than for its actual storyline, Trotti delivered the goods. Sadly he did not live to see the final product, dying of a heart attack in August, 1952, four months before the film came out. (Two years later, Fox released There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), with an original story by Trotti, and he was posthumously nominated for a third Oscar®.)
Directing Clifton Webb here for the third time in recent years was Henry Koster, who later said of him, "He had a very strong personality which was almost impossible to penetrate, or to force him to do anything else. I didn't do that. I just tried to impress the sense of the scene to him."
Koster also said that Fox composer Alfred Newman coached Webb on how to conduct, which Webb did colorfully and with large gestures. There was some criticism of this, for the real Sousa had a much more minimal conducting style. "He hardly moved his hands," Koster acknowledged. "People sometimes didn't even see what he was doing when he conducted. But of course that wouldn't have been very spectacular to do in a picture. So I had Clifton Webb conduct with large gestures, and he himself did it. I think he did very well. Only a man who knows music can do that."
A driving theme of the story that is very much true is Sousa's desire to write ballads and waltzes instead of marches. In one memorable scene, Sousa introduces his immortal "Semper Fidelis" as a sentimental ballad, only to have his wife (Ruth Hussey) point out its potential as a march. Otherwise, the story spans Sousa's career starting in 1890, when he has already been leader of the United States Marine Band for twelve years but is increasingly frustrated by the limits of the position. He leaves the Marines, forms his own band and tours the world. Meanwhile, a romance blossoms between a young musician (Robert Wagner) and a singer (Debra Paget) in Sousa's band, and eventually the Spanish-American war throws everything into turmoil and makes Sousa reconsider the Marine Corps.
Stars and Stripes Forever wrapped in the summer of 1952 and was released just before Christmas that year. It not only sold a lot of tickets, it scored with critics: "As spirited as any march John Philip Sousa ever led," said Variety. "Top-notch entertainment. It is alive with Sousa's martial airs, competent performances and an appealing nostalgia... It possibly might not be an accurate Sousa, but it is good Webb as deftly woven by the actor. Ruth Hussey is splendid as Mrs. Sousa." The New York Times declared, "This film is going to thrill those who like band music, even though it may irritate them with its plot... The music is rich and inspiring, thoroughly worthy of the author it extols."
Henry Koster later said that "Zanuck liked it very much. He made a speech once that he didn't want to take any credit for that picture. It was so thrilling, he said, he had to give me the credit. For Zanuck that was unusual."
According to the AFI's notes on this film, the gala premiere for Stars and Stripes Forever featured the actual U.S. Marine Band supplying the music. The event was broadcast in several cities by the ABC television network, apparently a first for any movie premiere.
Henry Koster's own nine-year-old son, Nicolas, plays Sousa's son on screen.
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda (story); John Philip Sousa (book); Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright
Musical Director: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Clifton Webb (John Philip Sousa), Debra Paget (Lily Becker), Robert Wagner (Willie Little), Ruth Hussey (Jennie Sousa), Finlay Currie (Col. Randolph), Roy Roberts (Maj. George Porter Houston), Tom Browne Henry (David Blakely).
by Jeremy Arnold
Irene Kahn Atkins, Henry Koster: A Directors Guild of America Oral History
Clifton Webb with David L. Smith, Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb