Alexander's Ragtime Band
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"It is by no means a musical in the accepted film sense," The Hollywood Reporter declared in its review of Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938). "Rather is it the aggrandizement of the evolution of American popular music and a monument to Irving Berlin, who made that music so distinctive that his songs alone are a record of three colorful decades of American life. So perfectly are this film story and the music interwoven that it seems that, in its construction, the songs themselves wrote the script."
Music is indeed ever-present in Alexander's Ragtime Band. With 29 Irving Berlin songs dating from the 1911 title tune up to three brand-new songs written for this picture, Alexander's marked the first time a feature film showcased a songwriter's repertoire to such a deep degree.
Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck wanted the film to be an actual biography of Irving Berlin, but Berlin wouldn't allow it. Instead he consented to a loose, fictionalized biography in which the songs would track the time span of the story being told, with a love-triangle surface plot holding it all together. While Berlin's name is not mentioned in any dialogue, his name does appear above the title of the film -- an unusual perk he negotiated with Zanuck, and one which underscores the notion that non-directors, in this case a songwriter, can sometimes dominate a movie's flavor to such an extent that they are arguably the real "auteur" of that film.
Be that as it may, Berlin's music is brought to the screen here with the help of a powerhouse cast -- Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche -- plus a top studio director, Henry King, whose other credits include Jesse James (1939), The Black Swan (1942) and The Gunfighter (1950). This was a genuine A-level production for 20th Century Fox.
The three stars and director King had all just worked together on In Old Chicago (1937) and were happy to team up again. King called the actors his "happy trio" and kept photos of them in his office for years afterward. He and Faye both later named Alexander's Ragtime Band as their favorite picture of their careers.
Berlin, too, was delighted to have Faye singing several of his songs. She was such a favorite of his that in 1940 he said, "I'd rather have Alice Faye introduce my songs than any other singer" -- high praise indeed, and few would have disagreed. While Faye is sadly not too well remembered today by the general public, she was a huge star at the time, and the warmth and likability she radiated off the screen has seldom been matched.
One of her songs here is among the three that Berlin composed just for the film: "Now It Can Be Told." When he finished writing it, a few months before production began, he predicted, "If there ever was a chance for a song being a big hit, this is it." He was right -- it reached #2 on the pop charts and was nominated for an Oscar®.
Berlin and Faye reinforced each other's star power. They contributed greatly to each other's success, with Berlin part of the process even through Faye's rehearsals. Faye later recalled Berlin's regular presence on the set: "Sometimes he'd just sit and watch. Sometimes he'd play and sing his songs to help me get their feeling."
Also in the cast is stage and screen star Ethel Merman, who performs "My Walking Stick" (another of the new songs) in men's top hat and tails, a la Fred Astaire. In fact, Berlin had written the song for the Astaire-Rogers film Carefree (1938), but Astaire nixed it because it was too similar to the number he had done in Top Hat (1935). Merman had previously worked with three of her Alexander's co-stars: with Ameche on the film Happy Landing (1938), with Jack Haley on the Broadway hit Take a Chance, and with Faye on the stage version of George White's Scandals, at which time Faye had been a chorus girl and once borrowed ten dollars from Merman. Now Faye was the bigger star -- at least in the movies.
While making Alexander's Ragtime Band, Faye planted her footprints in the cement of Grauman's Chinese Theater, a symbol of her star power. Her success, however, was straining her young marriage to Tony Martin. They had only been married a few months, and he was still struggling to get a foothold in his career. They took a delayed honeymoon when production on the movie wrapped, but cut it short. Within two years, they'd be divorced.
While Alexander's Ragtime Band was shot over three months in early 1938 and released that summer, it had been in preparation for two years and wound up costing Fox about $2 million, an extravagant sum. Nonetheless, it was a giant hit with audiences and critics alike, racking up six Oscar® nominations including Best Picture, winning the award for Best Score, and becoming one of the studio's most successful films of the era. (A 1947 rerelease proved even more lucrative, perhaps helped by the fact that Faye had recently retired from the screen.)
As a result of all this success, 23-year-old Faye received an outpouring of critical accolades, a salary raise to $2500 per week, and became the second-highest fan mail recipient on the Fox lot. Later she recalled: "Every girl in the world envied me. The truth is, I envied myself. I wished I could have shaken myself up and made myself more of an extrovert. I wished I could have been more of a party girl. But like the leopard with those damned spots, I couldn't change what I was -- or what I wasn't."
Henry King, who would go on to direct Faye a third time in Little Old New York (1940), had this to say about working with her: "Like most sensitive, talented people, she needed to feel she was doing it herself, not just aping a director's instructions. She always took direction beautifully without any show of temperament, and when you were done the character she played came across with a vibrant warmth of personality so many actresses did not possess."
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Kathryn Scola, Lamar Trotti; Richard Sherman (adaptation); Irving Berlin (story); Sheridan Gibney, Darryl F. Zanuck (both uncredited)
Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Boris Leven
Music: Irving Berlin; Alfred Newman (uncredited)
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Tyrone Power (Roger Grant aka Alexander), Alice Faye (Stella Kirby), Don Ameche (Charlie Dwyer), Ethel Merman (Jerry Allen), Jack Haley (Davey Lane), Jean Hersholt (Professor Heinrich), Helen Westley (Aunt Sophie), John Carradine (Speakeasy Doorman/Taxi Driver), Paul Hurst (Bill Mulligan), Wally Vernon (Wally Vernon), Ruth Terry (Ruby), Douglas Fowley (Snapper), Chick Chandler (Louie), Eddie Collins (Corporal Collins), Joseph Crehan (Stage Manager), Robert Gleckler (Eddie), Dixie Dunbar (Specialty), Joe King (Charles Dillingham).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jane Lenz Elder, Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen
Caryl Flynn, Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman
David Leopold, Irving Berlin's Show Business