September 08, 2010

Alexander's Ragtime Band

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Henry King - 1938
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

In the first scenes of Alexander's Ragtime Band, Alice Faye has platinum blonde hair, a thick smear of lipstick, and the kind of appearance might best be described as vulgar. Alice Faye didn't quite look like Alice Faye. There was something familiar about the brassy blonde with the attitude. After a few minutes, I concluded that Alice Faye was virtually impersonating Jean Harlow. This might not be too off the mark considering that Harlow was originally considered to star with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche in In Old Chicago, and might have been cast had Henry King not been aware of Harlow's fading health. What little bit of a story exists in Alexander's Ragtime Band begins as a Pygmalion narrative with Alice Faye developing some fashion sense to go along with her singing voice, only to leave Power and Ameche in the dust for Broadway stardom.

I'm admittedly not a fan of Irving Berlin's song. I have no problem with his getting an Oscar nomination for his love song, "Now It Can Be Told", performed by Don Ameche in his best attempt at basso profundo. The Oscar nomination for Best Story for Berlin is egregious. There is no story. The film is really a collection of Irving Berlin's songs strung together with a wisp of a narrative involving Faye, Power and Ameche drifting in and out of each other's lives. Story can be summed up as a catalogue of ways Alice Faye and Tyrone Power can be kept apart before finally coming together in the final reel.

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The film actually originated as a biography of Irving Berlin. In retrospect, it is perhaps a good thing that such a film had not been made considering that Berlin lived to be 101 years old, and in 1938, the best had yet to come. I am also not sure if Daryl Zanuck and Henry King would have been the best people for such a film. Elements of Berlin's early life suggest to me that he would have been better served at Warner Brothers with Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz at the helm. In an early scene, the camera hones in on Berlin's name as the composer on some sheet music of the title song. Faye, Power and Ameche find their first professional success performing "Alexander's Ragtime Band", but no mention is made of the guy who wrote the song. Powers plays the fictional Roger Grant, who after the title song is refered to as Alexander or Alec for the rest of the film. There's also the suggestion of artistic conflict in Power's character, a classically trained violinist who finds fulfillment with popular music, much to the chagrin of his mentor, played by Jean Hersholt. A collection of songs on film can be filmed with some kind of dramatic heft, perhaps best most recently realized when Julie Taymor created Across the Universe from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. In Alexander's Ragtime Band there is no drama in wondering when Tyrone Power will realize that Alice Faye, and not Ethel Merman, is his one true love.

The film is something of a showcase for Merman. This is a more slender, even sexy Ethel Merman. She has the pipes that she was always famous for, but she's not the woman who verged on self-parody or punchline known for her brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine. Merman might not have been conventionally attractive, but her first shots suggests that there was potential if she was photographed in just the right way. For myself, its enough to want to take any opportunities to see her other films from the Thirties. Most of the time, the camera simply records Merman singing "Blue Skies" and "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody". Of more visual interest is seeing Merman in a flesh revealing outfit as a devil, with a chorus of female devils, performing "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil". An unintended and ironic reading could be given to the song "Marching Along with Time", a deleted number included as a DVD extra, as the formerly innovative Irving Berlin would find himself considered old fashioned when rock became the dominant form of popular music.

As popular as the film was, and to some extent remains loved by some, this is visually a less interesting film from Henry King than his versions of Way Down East, or Seventh Heaven with its exquisitely lit shots of Simone Simon. There is one faintly clever scene that initially appears to be filmed at the army base where Power and Jack Haley are stationed in 1917, with the camera pulling back to reveal the set of the Broadway show, with Haley singing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning". There is also an interesting scene on a train. Alice Faye's character has walked away from her career, and taken to traveling throughout the country. She is on a train where someone has a portable record player. The camera pans along the faces of the other passengers listening to the song "Remember" at what seems to be a late hour of night. The camera stops on Faye. The song is used to express her inner feelings. For a few bars though, Faye sings along with the record. Or perhaps, in more conventional movie musical terms, Faye is singing to the audience. What ever the case, Faye stops singing, and the record again serves as a narrative device. It may be fitting that the most interesting moment in a film devoted to a song writer closely associated with Broadway takes place far away from the stage.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 8, 2010 12:47 AM