I realize that this entry for the Made in 1938 Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Robin of Pop Culture Reverie, is incredibly late. Still, I’d like to mention that this week has been terribly hectic for me personally, and as they say, better late than never! I chose to really dedicate myself to completing my participation post for this blogathon despite it already being over because I too agree that 1938 was among the finest years in classic film history. Not only that, but I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to incorporate this post into my newest series, Discovering Tyrone Power! 1938 was one of the prime years in the dashing leading man’s career in cinema, so I had four of his incredible pictures to choose from: In Old Chiago (1938), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), and Suez (1938). It became a fascinating decision for because Marie Antoinette (1938) was the first film of Ty’s that I had ever seen and adored, which ultimately eliminated it as I’m focusing on watching new-to-me Tyrone Power films, yet the other three features on the list all fit in this category and were pictures that I was dying to see. I knew that eventually I would watch all of the above during this challenge, so the only thing I could really do was make a random pick, and I settled on none other than today’s feature, Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938).
Aside from being known for displaying the talents of three of Hollywood’s most luminescent stars all in one picture — Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche, Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) is primarily known for containing essentially every popular Irving Berlin tune ever written at the time. The film was originally meant to be a biopic of the legendary songwriter, but Berlin loathed the idea of his personal life being put on display. Instead we have the fictional story of Roger Grant (Tyrone Power), a violinist in 1915 San Francisco whose aunt and music professor (played by Helen Westley and Jean Hersholt, respectively) wish that he would become a highbrow virtuoso in his craft. Instead, Roger can’t help but be drawn in by emerging genres in popular music, and every waking moment when he isn’t practicing his instrument he’s attempting to get his band into different seaside nightclubs. Finally their chance arrives and they snag an audition, but when the time comes for their big break, songwriter Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) realizes that he’s forgotten their sheet music.
By pure coincidence, sultry lounge singer Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) has already approached the club’s owner for a job, offering up her voice as well as the brand-new, sensational song that she just acquired. The band is unaware of this, and in their time of need all they see is the sheet music on the bar, which they instantly grab and attempt to play. Of course this attempt to steal her song infuriates Stella, so in hopes that she’ll still be hired, she sings the lyrics to the song as they play the music. The combination of Stella’s voice and the accompaniment provided by Roger and his band is an instant success, and the owner and guests clamor for their act — together. Stella and Roger, now stuck with the name of Alexander after the popularity of the tune, are already at each other’s throats, but the pair are forced to put their differences aside for the sake of their own success. Charlie, on the other hand, is smitten with Stella from the start, and the songs that he writes for her attribute to how quickly Alexander’s band climbs up the ladder of prosperity. In the years to come, the band becomes known as the primary source of ragtime music across the globe, but no triumph comes without complications and Berlin’s timeless songs set the stage for a torrid love triangle, the first world war, and the meteoric rise and fall of the band’s lead singer.
Despite being more well-known for his work in other films like White Christmas (1954), Top Hat (1935), and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), I think this could easily be considered Irving Berlin’s masterpiece. The film is essentially an homage to the composer, featuring an astounding thirty of his most famous songs such as “Heat Wave”, “Easter Parade”, and “Now It Can Be Told”, which was nomiated for Best Original Song at the 1939 Academy Awards. The innundation of compositions in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) is both its blessing and its downfall. Each number is excellently performed by the likes of both Alice Faye, who Berlin personally chose for the part of Stella Kirby, and Ethel Merman in her first film role. However, the picture sacrifices more and more of its plot to the multitude of compositions as it goes on, with the second half being more or less one song after another sung by Ethel Merman with nothing in between. Tyrone Power, in both a good and a bad way, is more of a piece of eye candy than ever as he takes a complete backseat after the band is established. Despite the title implying that the movie is about him, he spends a good half of his screen time smiling and waving his baton up and down while the singers and instrumentalists do the rest. Where normally I might dismiss this as more of a concert than a film worth watching, the heartwrenching ending truly made up for everything that it lacked and more. While I might not devote my entire attention to Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) in future viewings, I still consider it a new personal favorite, and I know for certain that it’ll play on my television on repeat in the years to come.