Sunday 14 June 2009

A Song is Born (1948)

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck

It always seems a little strange when a director remakes one of his own films, but it seems even more surprising when he does it only seven years later. Most surprising of all, in this instance the original was Ball of Fire, a peach of a comedy from 1941 with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, not to mention a whole host of great character actors. Something that good didn't need remaking, but then Howard Hawks gave it a twist and turned it into a musical with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.

Normally that would mean the kiss of death for me but this story fits the musical form perfectly, the real musical form where the music is integral to the actual story: think Singin' in the Rain rather than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And I get those. I don't have to suspend my disbelief every ten minutes for a dance number that has precisely no point beyond being a dance number. I can enjoy them as stories and I can enjoy the music that props them up.

What all these means is that Ball of Fire doesn't need to be changed that much to be a decent musical. In Ball of Fire, a bunch of professors were writing an encyclopaedia only for a garbageman to demonstrate to Gary Cooper in no uncertain terms that his knowledge of slang was awesomely out of date. He ventured out to find modern usage and found it in Barbara Stanwyck, a wild nightclub singer on the lam from the DA, eager for somewhere to stay out of the sight of the law.

Here, it's an encyclopaedia on music, of course, and the professors are led by Danny Kaye as Prof Hobart Frisbee and include other characterful actors like Hugh Herbert. They're still totally out of date, even though it's all a little less believably so, given that they know all about Stravinsky and American folk music. But a couple of black window washers played by Buck & Bubbles introduce them to boogie woogie piano and a whole slew of other forms of jazz and blues, none of which any of them have heard of. So out goes Prof Frisbee into the world to experience the jazz clubs and invite the musicians back to their Totten Foundation to help them all learn about these new forms.

And while the story is certainly weakened by the transition from slang to music, the music itself is amazing. Howard Hawks didn't just hire actors to play musicians or pick up a couple of minor names to sling some songs together, he pulled in the best. There's pianist Mel Powell, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, saxophonist Charlie Barnet, percussionist Lionel Hampton, even Louis Armstrong himself along with other varied groups. These jam sessions are great fun and I'm sure that everyone involved had a great time. Here's a film where the outtakes would have been as much fun as the film itself.

Best and most surprising of all there's clarinettist Benny Goodman, who doesn't just join in on these awesome jam sessions, he plays one of the fuddy duddy academics, Prof Magenbruch. Yes, he even gets to have not heard of himself, which is a cool joke, but he plays the comedy card joyously. Had he ever lost the use of his hands he would have had a surefire career as a comedic actor. The only downside is that there just isn't that much of him here.

Luckily there's plenty of Virginia Mayo, who has a ball as Honey Swanson, a club singer who a prominent gangster is trying to marry so that she can't testify against him. He's Tony Crow, played by Steve Cochran, a second rate Clark Gable. She's being hunted by the DA to build their case and she hides out at the Totten Foundation where she succeeds a little too well in seducing Prof Frisbee. This was her fifth of five films playing opposite Danny Kaye, the most prominent being the one before this, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously they got on pretty well.

As a remake this is notably lesser than its original, definitely fluff compared to Ball of Fire. Danny Kaye is an acquired taste, even when he's performing his most skilful skits, and there are far too many holes in the admittedly flimsy plot to completely ignore. Yet there are moments of genius, the chemistry is good and the music is a joy. How often can you get to see musicians of this calibre all jamming together? Certainly not often in the movies and probably not much elsewhere either.

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