Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Review: A Song is Born * Danny Kaye * Benny Goodman * 1948

When I saw that TCM was airing a Danny Kaye movie featuring Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, and when I read that the plot was based on the premise of a musicologist falling in love with a mobster's fiancee, I thought to myself "This might be the most brilliant and artistically satisfying movie ever made." As readers will soon discover, the operative word was "might."

By the end, I was wondering a) how I'd watched the whole thing, b) why I'd watched the whole thing, and c) how this unfortunate piece of theatre, with such a humiliatingly bad script, was accomplished without muppets.

The plot of 1948's A Song is Born is tantalizingly zany. Danny Kaye is a musicologist at a privately funded institute, consisting of six other scholars, one of whom is played by a mustachioed Benny Goodman. Some window washers, portrayed by black actors who dance across the line between eye-rolling and offensive stereotype of the era, introduce the cloistered bunch of 'long hairs' to jazz. Kaye decides to investigate his own culture that evening, running into red headed chanteuse Honey Swanson, played by Virginia Mayo, who, despite her obvious talent and brave effort, cannot rescue this film.

Because of her involvement with the notorious mobster, Tony Crow, Swanson needs to temporarily seduce Kaye and his musicological cronies, who end up seeming like a bizarre parody of the Seven Dwarfs (we'll call them Danny, Chubby, Benny, Boring, Schnelly, Verdi and Germany) to her slinky Snow White.  Trouble ensues when she actually falls in love with her dupe. Of course, someone should have warned her that this happens to every red head in every Danny Kaye movie. But then again, Mayo also played most of them, so she should have known anyway.

The final scene is either one of the worst ever concocted, or an ingenious, if sinister template for every Muppet Movie ever made. Parents who have suffered through these 'extravaganzas' (and I use the term loosely) will know what I mean.

Now, in the annals of swing-era movies, there are many zany plotlines that obviously serve as mere excuses to feature great musicians. Some of these are so well done that the over-the-top musical scenes come as true spectacle--moments so improbable yet enjoyable that they make us smile and think "wouldn't it be nice if life was a little more like that?" Fred Astaire suddenly breaking out into a dance routine with Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus, Gene Kelly teaching Parisian kids to shim-sham in An American in Paris, and even the Harry James band straying through a parlour to serenade a soldier and his girl with "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" in the supremely low-production-value war film, Private Buckaroo-- these moments have a bit of magic about them. While they aren't real, they charm us. There are no such moments in A Song is Born.  

Musically speaking, we hear Benny playing rather thin, insipid bits of the Brahms Quintet and Beethoven's opus 11, only to join the "hep cats" for a "jam session." His tone remains weak, his playing 'stiff' in an unfortunate bow to his character in the movie. Chief among the hep cats is Lionel Hampton, who seems to have been just about the only musician in the film to actually attempt real music. The other notable is Mayo, whose opening song, while not the calibre of a true crooner of the era, nevertheless impresses as being actually musical. Dorsey gives us a sweet, predictable snippet of "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You", Satchmo sings and plays a bit--solidly professional, as usual--but not inspired, and Charlie Barnet honks his way through 'Cherokee' without ever seeming synchronized with the film. Benny's "jam session" scene likewise seems almost entirely out of sync.    

Some of the humor seemed to have great potential--there is a need for a substantial parody of musical academia and ethnomusicology, for example, which this movie nearly falls into. But as with everything in this film, whenever its falls into anything, the script and acting do a collective face-plant, and the humor becomes fatally injured.   

I'm giving this movie a rating of  Four Broken Reeds. It was spared a fifth broken reed on account of Virginia Mayo's valiant attempt at acting, and Danny Kaye's moment near the end when he seals his legendary status with the template for Ralphie's fight scene in A Christmas Story. In short, any movie whose most convincing supporting actor is Benny Goodman is in deep trouble.

If you're looking for a night to watch "Mystery Jazz Theatre 3000" with your friends, this might be your flick. If not, to spend the evening alone while solemnly contemplating the demise of our culture would be both more constructive and more artistically satisfying.

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