Thursday, July 18, 2013

Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)

Director: Henry King


In the height of popularity for swing music comes a picture depicting a fictionalized history of popular music in the early 20th century featuring a overabundance of composition by one of the most well known contemporary composers of the era, Irving Berlin. With a story and soundtrack supplied by the talents of Berlin Alexander’s Ragtime Band tells the tale of America’s change in musical taste over a 20+ year span seen through the eyes of band leader that in a way parallels Berlin himself, mixed with a little Benny Goodman, the famous Jazz band leader that had played many of the largest venues in America. For audiences it was a chance to not only enjoy a musical drama, but an opportunity to listen to some of the era’s more recognizable musical hits in the glory of this motion picture.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a musical drama of a straight-laced society gentleman that becomes the becomes a ragtime band leader, his relationship with his original band’s female lead singer, their monumental rise to fame, and the struggles of romance and career. On a chance meeting a band leader (Tyrone Power) and a striving hall singer, Stella (Alice Faye), come together and form a hot act as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, named after their first hit song (clearly marked as penned by Irving Berlin). Taking on the name of Alexander for the sake of the act, the bandleader shares a similar falling out as seen in The Jazz Singer with his family, as he was once a highly sophisticated musician that sought success in this new fast paced music for young people. A rift comes between Alexander and Stella as both seek fame for their talents, but Stella is discovered first and made into her own star separate from the band. The only thing that seems to keep Alexander together is his good friend, song writer, and band member Charlie (Don Ameche), as he helps find a successful replacement for Stella in the vocally gifted Jerry (Ethel Merman). Alexander’s Ragtime Band becomes a massive success, while Stella quits the business at the height of her fame, feeling there was something missing since she went solo. It is at Alexander’s largest show at the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York that Stella and Alexander are reunited and the band made whole again for one night.

It would be a different kind of musical from what audiences knew before. Here Alexander’s Ragtime Band was a serious drama with a true plot pulling audiences into the struggles of work and romance set the background of the jazz age. Without the fluffiness that was seen in the usual Astaire/Rogers picture, the lavishness of a Busby Berkley film, or the silliness of a Marx Bros. or Laurel and Hardy feature, this film revitalized the musical, reinventing what it could be while the genre was quickly fading in the eyes of audiences across the country.

With a story conceived by the composer Irving Berlin, 20th Century-Fox found itself with an idea for a prestige picture that brought audiences into theaters for the stars, the nostalgia, and the music of the recent past. Originally envisioned as a loose biographical story of Berlin, the composer found the idea a bit intruding and instead opted for the idea of the picture being a loose retelling of how ragtime/jazz/swing music evolved from music outside of proper society to being well enjoyed and how it gained respectability. Fox’s studio head would hand the film to his favorite director Henry King, fresh off the special effect filled prestige picture In Old Chicago. King with a returning cast from In Old Chicago keeps the energy high and loose while playing up the moments of drama in this film utilizing well the music and the actors in a way where the plot and the soundtrack do not get in the way of each other, but rather mix very well into one cohesive cocktail of a motion picture.

Starring as the title character is Tyrone Power, the hugely rising romantic star of the recent year. He mixes well the flare of being a band leader, with that of passion for his craft and the romance for his new found love in Stella. Here you find a man that torn between his conviction to make something of himself and loving the woman that rises fast than he to stardom. It is a complicated character to play and Power plays him well as you yearn for him to not be angry at Stella when she leaves the band after being discovered as Alexander’s pride as a musician wishes that he worked his way up to the top along with her. His performance would not be Academy Award worthy, but his execution in the role of Alexander truly makes this picture as drama filled as it could be as a man struggles with pride and love.

The female lead was Power’s co-star from In Old Chicago, Alice Faye. Herself evolving through the course of the film from a blond vamp to a deeply thoughtful entertainer, Faye too was in a way changing her look and style at the same time. Original introduced to audiences as a platinum blond  and, as seen in this picture, changes her hair color to a more natural tone as society and self-image changes. Faye bring sensuality and attitude to the role of Stella as a fiery woman willing herself to stardom, but quits at the peak of her fame after discovering the hole in her heart as she misses the one she once loved. Faye sings her heart out in this picture, showcasing her wonderful vocal skill that made her famous. Her career would somewhat parallel the story of her character as she too would one day retire on the top of her fame.  She would be in the near future Fox’s main star in musicals in the coming years, but can it a career before her star had faded.

With Power and Faye as the main pieces of the picture it is Don Amecha and Ethel Merman that are the glue that hold the story together. Don Ameche plays Alexander’s best friend Charlie who helps hold Alexander together when things get overwhelming. Despite Ameche having a somewhat untrusting look about him, almost as if a devilish schemer, his Charlie is a good-to-the-bone character. In the story Charlie has a romance with Stella at the same time as Alexander, even marrying her, but out of respect divorces her amicably, because he recognizes that the Alexander and Stella are very much in love with each other. Surprisingly he has no hard feeling towards Stella as it was his idea to separate. In a way he is the unbelievable angel of the film, conveniently leading to all solutions in the picture, making his role and performance seem more forced, a result from a writing more than Ameche’s acting abilities.

Ethel Merman belts out the tunes with the best of them in her role Stella’s replacement, Jerry Allen. She is presented as yet another one of Charlie’s convenient finds to solve Stella’s leaving of the band, providing a minor friction with Stella when she discovers Alexander had replaced her. Merman was an accomplished singer by the time she made this picture at the age of 30. Irving Berlin would be so impressed with Merman and enjoyed her talents so much that he would write two future Broadway musicals with her particularly in mind as she became one the most well known female singers of the 20th century on stage, screen, and radio.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band would be quite a popular picture for its day and a major critical success, gaining the second most number of Academy Award nominations on the year with six, including best editing, best art direction, best song, best story, and best picture, while taking home the award for best score. Ironically the award for score would not be for Irving Berlin, who was nominated for both best story and best song. Rather the statue went to Alfred Newman who did the adapting of Berlin’s works to the final picture, a skill he would be known to do better than anyone else in the business as he adapted many musical scores from for the screen.

The picture lives on as a fun fictional look back at a time in American pop culture when jazz would come to be mainstream. The drama of the picture is commendable, although the writing is convenient at times. You can tell with the likes of films similar to Alexander’s Ragtime Band that the movies felt like they were on the cusp of breaking through to another level. It is difficult to describe, but in observing this picture it is rather well contained, but felt much gander, leaving a sense that the movies were working on bigger and better spectacles just around the corner. This picture now sits as a minor footnote in the overall history of cinema, but makes for a fine film to look back on, both for story and for its actors. Irving Berlin would be a treasure of music history in the 20th century and this is just one of those productions that can be enjoyed as a annex to his works that were usually just listened to, now adding visuals and drama to the mix.

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