Alexander's Ragtime Band
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A classical musician goes ragtime and rivals a composer for a singer from 1915 to 1938. Features 28 Irving Berlin songs.
The jaunty rhythms of Irving Berlin drive Alexander's Ragtime Band, an epic musical from 1938 that follows the up-and-down romance of a young bandleader (Tyrone Power, Witness for the Prosecution) and the singer he loves (Alice Faye, Tin Pan Alley) over decades. Their journey from a San Francisco honky-tonk to mass popularity is marked by classic songs like "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "Blue Skies," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Easter Parade," and the title track. Power and Faye are a little bland, but the supporting cast--including Don Ameche (Midnight), Jack Haley (the Tin Woodsman from The Wizard of Oz), and a very young Ethel Merman--give the movie some real personality, as do a few wild dance numbers. At the end, the movie becomes surprisingly suspenseful and even a little touching. --Bret Fetzer
- Deleted scenes: Some Sunny Day, In My Harem, Marching Along with Me
- A&E Biography: Alice Faye: The Star Next Door
- Fox Movietone News: Sensational London premiere
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The action begins in the early 1900s in San Francisco. A young man from a wealthy society family named Roger Grant (Tyrone Power) just can't stand playing classical music even though he's very good at it. Instead, to the dismay of his family, he forms a ragtime early swing era band and calls it Alexander's Ragtime Band. He even changes his name to Alexander! That's when Alexander and his buddies Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) and drummer Davey Lane (Jack Haley) meet up with tough talking Stella Kirby (Alice Faye); but soon Stella is singing with the band.
Romance inevitably blossoms. Eventually, after a few misunderstandings, Stella and Alexander are in love. However, when Stella gets her big break to leave the band and go to New York to star in big Broadway shows, Alexander is furious that she would leave the band behind. Only Charlie sticks up for Stella; and in a fit of rage Alexander tells Charlie that he should also go to New York with Stella.
World War One sets in and Alexander tries to forget about Stella. After the war Alexander returns--only to find that Stella, who he still loves, married Charlie back home during the war. Alexander is depressed but Davey introduces him to Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman). Jerry replaces Stella in their band act and Alexander tries to see if he can find romance with Jerry instead of Stella.
The plot can go in many different directions from here. What happens to Stella after she becomes a huge star and marries Charlie? Is she happy with that life or does she want something else? Will Jerry Allen take Alexander's mind off Stella--at one point Alexander actually asks Jerry to marry him--how will that turn out? No plot spoilers here, folks--you'll just have to watch the movie to find out!
The DVD has some rather good extras. There is the "biography channel" episode of the life and career of Alice Faye; this is very well done. We also get deleted scenes and footage of the movie's premiere in London, England. There's even an audio commentary--terrific!
My only complaint--and it's somewhat minor--is that there IS a vertical, white line "scratch" on the screen starting about 35 minutes into the picture and it never really goes away although it is less noticeable in many subsequent scenes. I will take off one star for this flaw; this will be a four star review.
Alexander's Ragtime Band is an excellent motion picture musical from the golden age of Hollywood. I highly recommend this for fans of classic musicals.
The film is something of a revelation if you're mostly familiar with Berlin from his later and more square songs from his later family-friendly musicals; this film shows the fresher and sassier side of Berlin from the early part of the century, first with the ragtime numbers that made his name (the title song, "The International Rag," "Ev'rybody's Doing It") and then with his fun jazz-inflected numbers from the 20s. Faye is undeniably the star of the whole thing, and she has great fun swinging the early ragtime numbers, but of course she was most famous for her slow heartbreaking ballads that allowed her to use the full expressiveness of her great mellow voice, so the filmmakers had the terrific idea of allowing her character to start a career singing romantic ballads and be replaced in Power's band by the young Ethel Merman, who is nothing here like the later campy gorgon she became. Slender, zesty and fun, Merman pulls off big numbers like "My Walking Stick" (which she sings in male drag) with great joy, and the director has a lovely sequence where he keeps cutting between Faye's mellow ballads and Merman's snazzy showpieces. Of course the two women were perhaps the most famous of Berlin's interpreters (and two of his favorites), and there's a great moment when Merman sings the first verses of "Blue Skies," which she sings with jazzy optimism, and then turns it over to Faye, who finishes it slowly, beautifully, expressively. The women don't get in each other's way, and they beautifully complement one another. (At one point, the film even allows Merman to sing a few sweet bars of Berlin's "Say It With Music" to Power, and you see that just as Faye could swing the ragtime songs Merman also had the ability--so rarely shown in her later years!--of singing tender numbers with sensitivity and grace.) Also with John Carradine, in a bizarre bit near the end as a cabdriver who brings Faye to her destiny at Carnegie Hall; his sinister looks make you think for a moment he's going to drive her instead to her doom. There are a number of intriguing extras, including a biographical documentary about Alice Faye narrated by Peter Graves.
A word about the DVD transfer quality - I have noticed that some of the other reviewers on Amazon.com have carped about the picture quality, saying that it is supposedly "terrible". Trust me, this is not true! The only defect is a faint vertical line that runs through the picture that looks like a scratch on the original negative. However, the viewer becomes so engrossed in the film that he forgets all about that faint line, and it does not distract at all. Some of these other critics who are complaining about the picture quality of this DVD - well, they just need to get a life! I can certainly live with that faint line. We're lucky this film even exists at all, as the film stock on which movies were made before the 1950s was nitrate based, which dissolved after a few decades. Because of this, many old movies have disintegrated and are totally unavailable today for viewing. So take your pick - a faint vertical line in the picture, or nothing. If you have any doubts about the picture quality, rent it first through Netflix (like I did), then buy it on Amazon.com. This DVD is a must for a serious film buff!