I was a bit of an odd duck, as a child. Although no one in my family could read music, play an instrument or even carry a tune, I was crazy about all of those highly-fictionalized biopics about songwriters and composers that Hollywood produced for a couple of decades, roughly 1938 to 1958.
I vividly remember the final scene of that totally bogus biography of Cole Porter, “Night and Day,” when Alexis Smith – shoulders padded half a mile wide – tearfully returned to the arms of Cary Grant as he plunked away the title tune in his lonely room. I could hardly keep my own composure as the music swelled and my mother, sitting beside me in the darkened Tiger Theater in Carthage, Missouri, broke into audible sobs. She loved ‘em too.
I was 12 years old. And although there is very little historical accuracy in the following list of tear-jerkers, they served a very real purpose: introducing wee nibbins such as I, at least the ones from culture-challenged families, to the enjoyment of music both popular and classical.
To attempt to list these mostly-splashy, mostly-technicolor old war horses in any manner except by pure personal preference is folly. And I only make the attempt because, well, it’s simply great fun to make lists – especially of movies – and in my wanderings through cyberspace I haven’t come across such a list before.
Note: There have been a few notable composer biopics released beyond the Ungilded Age of Musical Cinematic Schmaltz – most notably the classy “Amadaeus” in 1984 and “Topsy-Turvy” in 1999 along with the awful “De-Lovely” in 2004 – but they are few in number and sorely lacking in good old fashioned scenery-chewing melodrama.
1. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) Now, George Gershwin’s music, I could understand. Alan Alda reached his peak playing G.G., and I was so impressed I actually went out and bought my first record – a vinyl version of George playing his own Rhapsody. Alexis Smith, again with the padded shoulders, appears along with Joan Leslie (with whom I fell madly and boyishly in love). Making personal appearances are Oscar Levant, George White, and Al Jolson. Gershwin’s mother is played by Rosemary DeCamp. (Little was I to know that 8 years later I’d win the Rosemary DeCamp Playwriting Award.) So for all those logical and illogical reasons, I’ve got to rate R.I.B. as my very favorite musical biography.
2. Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Clifton Webb is perfectly cast as John Philip Sousa in this big, bright cheerful musical that refrains from over-dramatizing his life. Just as stirring and watchable, with Ruth Hussey playing his wife, as it was 50 years ago.
3. Night and Day (1946) Except for his great, great music, this film has almost nothing to do with Cole Porter’s real life. But Cary Grant miraculously carries it off, with Monty Woolley aboard right from the first Boola-Boola. Michael Curtiz, who seems to have directed about half the movies on this list, directed. Who cares about all the tawdry little realities that clutter up a good story? I can watch this film again and again, knowing it’s purity bolognus, and enjoy it to the hilt. That’s what great music’ll do for ya.
4. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Jimmy Cagney sings and dances so fantastically in this movie that you almost forget that George M. Cohan was a great and patriotic American composer. This iconic film is #100 on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Who can argue?
5. Words and Music (1948) Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake play Rodgers and Hart. Great music, great cast including Judy Garland (yes, of course she sings a duet with Mickey) Sinatra, Horne, Kelly, Torme, and on and on. Completely ignores Hart’s bisexuality – such things were verboten in movies back then – so Mick is portrayed to be mostly just manic. Some fiction, some fact, but some movie!
6. The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953) Robert Morley and Maurice Evans are equally fantastic as the kings of operetta. Excerpts from a number of their classics fill the screen, so it’s enjoyable on every level.
7. St. Louis Blues (1958) Nat “King” Cole plays W.C. Handy in this elegantly restrained biography that includes performances by most of the popular African-American stars of the era. Seen are Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Mahilia Jackson and Pearl Bailey. Surprising performance by Cole who had always seemed, when he wasn’t singing, kind of stiff. Nice job here.
8. Three Little Words (1950) An unlikely pairing of Fred Astaire and Red Skelton playing the Tin Pan Alley duet of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. These guys wrote a bundle of pop hits in the 20’s and 30’s, and the story is lots of fun. Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl are the wives, with appearances by Keenan Wynn, Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds, among others.
9. Deep in My Heart (1954) Ahh, the operettas of Sigmund Romberg – Student Price, Desert Song, all that good stuff! And with Jose Ferrer playing Siggy, everything stays on track.
10 Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) Admittedly an awful adaptation of Jerome Kern’s life, but he’s one of my favorite composers. Robert Walker does what he can with it; on the other hand it’s got a boffo cast and great songs from his Broadway shows. Cameos by a dozen MGM stars is enough to help one ignore the hammy acting.