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The Fabulous Dorseys
Remind Me
,The Fabulous Dorseys

The Fabulous Dorseys

When he heard that United Artists was planning a movie about the Dorsey brothers, their fellow bandleader Eddie Condon dryly remarked, "Of course they'll have Tommy play the part of Jimmy and Jimmy play the part of Tommy." It's an amusing wisecrack, but it makes a serious point about the so-called poetic license – also known as fact twisting, incident inventing, and history distorting – that Hollywood habitually indulges in when developing a musical biopic. The Fabulous Dorseys (1947) has poetic license to spare, but Condon's skepticism to the contrary, the gifted brothers did get to play themselves. This gives the 1947 movie a measure of authenticity that many jazz-band biographies lack, even when the protagonists are played by major stars. First-rate actors that they are, James Stewart and Tyrone Power are fine as the eponymous jazzmen of The Glenn Miller Story (1953) and The Eddie Duchin Story (1956), respectively, and TV personality Steve Allen does passably well in The Benny Goodman Story (1955), thanks partly to their mutual resemblance. But in pictures like these we always know it's one artist mimicking another, so it's refreshing to watch the real Dorseys impersonate themselves in a story with at least a few connections to their actual lives. Jimmy even shows signs of talent as a character actor, while Tommy's total lack of acting ability makes his charisma on the bandstand seem more fascinating than ever.

The picture's poetic license runs especially rampant in the first portion, which shows Jimmy and Tommy as lively, scrappy boys who love wrestling in the yard and hanging out with Janie, the neighborhood tomboy who's their best friend. What they don't love are the four-hour practice sessions inflicted on them by their father, a coal miner who sees musical careers as tickets to success for his offspring. Some of the guidance he gives them is very sensible – he steers Jimmy toward the saxophone and Tommy toward the trombone, for instance, since these aren't popular instruments in the area and they'll have fewer players to compete with. But his musical tastes are as old-fashioned as his Irish-immigrant roots can make them, and his insistence on conventional, ultra-square playing almost scuttles the fledgling careers he's trying to build. Fortunately, the boys cultivate more forward-looking styles when he's not around, and when they finally get in front of an audience, they let loose with syncopated swing that even Pop can't resist for long.

Jimmy and Tommy are young men the next time we see them, eking out a living with their own jazz band, the Dorsey Brothers' Wild Canaries, and wondering if they'll ever hit the big time. Janie, now an attractive singer, is also in the group. One day their piano player walks out on them and they replace him with an amiable guy named Bob Burton, who accompanies silent pictures in a movie house to support himself while he composes a concerto. Neither of the Dorseys has shown any romantic interest in Janie, but Bob falls for her the moment they meet, supplying the story's romantic angle. More drama develops when we realize the Dorseys' scrappiness has only increased with age; they're constantly quarreling with each other, and their first radio job ends in disaster when they start brawling on the air. Their relationship crumbles completely when they clash over the right tempo for a snappy number during a performance. Jimmy refuses to continue, Tommy storms out, and when Janie tries to intercede, Bob says he's leaving her because she's always caught between the feuding brothers. Angry and embittered, Jimmy and Tommy separate for good, and not even the best efforts of Mom and Pop can reunite them. But all is far from lost – a stylish montage shows each Dorsey rising to the top with his own sensational big band. All remaining problems are solved when Janie gets a bright idea. Digging out the sheet music of Bob's concerto, which has never been performed, she persuades swing-band leader Paul Whiteman to use it in a benefit concert, and to sign up the Dorseys as the soloists. Jimmy and Tommy leave the stage the minute they see each other, but then their father dies (with perfect Hollywood timing) and the brothers, reconciled at last, go on with the show. The future also looks bright for Bob, who's surprised and delighted that his concerto is being played at last, and for Janie, who drops an extremely broad hint that she'll marry him any time he likes.

For all the liberties the movie takes with Dorsey history, the long-lasting quarrel between the brothers is based on fact – they broke up in 1935 after an explosive argument during a gig at a New York nightclub, just as in the film, and didn't end their hostilities until a decade later; then they kept performing with their own bands for another decade, finally teaming up as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Jimmy Dorsey in 1953. They both died a few years later. To counterbalance the melodrama of their feud, The Fabulous Dorseys pulses with swing-era standards like "I'll Never Say Never Again," and "I'll Never Smile Again," plus the tuneful "To Me," written to order for the film. The concert that ends the picture features a bit of the "Dorsey Concerto," composed by Leo Shuken and played by the brothers in real life, with Tommy on trombone and Jimmy on sax and clarinet. Two singers who performed extensively with Jimmy's band, Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell, do vocal numbers in the movie, although neither Frank Sinatra nor Jo Stafford, who were stars of Tommy's band, are heard or seen.

Tommy and Jimmy aside, The Fabulous Dorseys has a solid cast. Janet Blair is perky and fetching as Janie, the almost-too-handsome William Lundigan is suave and smooth as Bob, the legendary Whiteman plays himself with ease, and Arthur Shields and Sara Allgood play Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey like seasoned musicians sailing through a score they've been practicing for years. Jazz buffs will also spot appearances by giants like Charlie Barnet and Ziggy Elman, and the astonishing Art Tatum takes the spotlight for a brief but brilliant number. The picture was directed by Alfred E. Green, who did the job strictly by the numbers. Fortunately, they're marvelous numbers.

Producer: Charles R. Rogers
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Richard English, Art Arthur, Curtis Kenyon
Cinematographer: James Van Trees
Film Editing: Walter Hannemann
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Musical Director: Louis Forbes
With: Tommy Dorsey (himself), Jimmy Dorsey (himself), Janet Blair (Jane Howard), Paul Whiteman (himself), William Lundigan (Bob Burton), Sara Allgood (Mrs. Dorsey), Arthur Shields (Mr. Thomas Dorsey), Dave Willock (Foggy), William Bakewell (Eddie), James Flavin (Gorman), and as themselves: Charlie Barnet, Bob Eberly, Henry Busse, Helen O'Connell, Mike Pingatore, Art Tatum, Ziggy Elman, Stuart Foster, Ray Bauduc, Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra, Jimmy Dorsey's Orchestra.

by David Sterritt