ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND was the #1 boxoffice attraction of 1938, with fan throngs pulled in by its trio of stars and two dozen Irving Berlin tunes. Popularity continued into the Oscar roster, with six nominations, including Best Picture. Though it hardly warrants that prize, it’s entertaining in a corny old-school way, thanks to the cast and some durable songs, slices of recognizable Americana once taken for granted, now almost hieroglyphic to anyone under sixty. “Oh, just relax and put your mind on your drinking.”
In the works for a couple of years, it’s a fictionalized semi-bio of Berlin, starting before WW1 and singing its way through a quarter century via the musical and personal relationships put over by Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, with Ethel Merman tossed in for good measure. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Henry King had been so impressed by the three leads lighting up In Old Chicago that even before that epic was released they cast them in this lively $2,000,000 crowd-pleaser. *
Along with boosting careers and 20th’s bottom line, the basic schemata of the picture, written by Kathryn Scola and Lamar Trotti, set a template for musical bio flicks that became popular over the next decade, working that generations nostalgia for the music they grew up on into light-dramatic pastiches with room for comedy and romance glued together by the songs. Facts schmacts: for an hour or two just take our minds off Hitler. **
Along with Picture, it drew nominations for Story, Art Direction, Film Editing and Song (“Now It Can Be Told”). It won for Alfred Newman’s scoring, his first of nine career Oscars. Two dozen Berlin tunes include “Blue Skies”, “Easter Parade”,”Heat Wave”, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, “Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” and of course the impossible-to-resist title number.
Note that the stars don’t age a jot over the course of 25 years and speculate, when looking at Faye’s eyelashes, whether they were sufficient to be able to levitate from. Cogerson has a gross of $12,000,000; other sources don’t go that high. With Jack Haley, Jean Hersholt, Wally Vernon. In bits buffs will spot Paul Hurst, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Jack Pennick, Stanley Andrews, Grady Sutton, Rondo Hatton, James Flavin and Lon Chaney Jr. 106 minutes.
* About Alice Faye, whose career got a big boost with the double whammy of this film and In Old Chicago, director King observed: “Like most sensitive, talented people, she needed to feel she was doing it herself, not just aping a director’s instructions. She always took direction beautifully without any show of temperament, and when you were done the character she played came across with a vibrant warmth of personality so many actresses did not possess.”
1938 was a big year for 24-year-old Power: In Old Chicago came in 3rd place, Suez at 8th and Marie Antoinette was 15th. Alice Faye was a year younger, Ameche and Ethel were both 30.
** Cine Savant’s Glenn Erickson nails the formula Alexander’s Ragtime Band laid down: “A rough start, preferably with disapproving relatives and music teachers; lifelong relationships started with co-performers who initially don’t get along; heartbreaking misunderstandings and separations; a love triangle solved by the third-wheel graciously bowing out; and a dramatic romantic/professional reunion, preferably on-stage, mid-performance and in as public a manner as possible.”
Examples—Night And Day, For Me And My Gal, Lillian Russell, Tin Pan Alley, Rose Of Washington Square, The Jolson Story, Rhapsody In Blue, Till The Crowds Roll By.….
By the time the 50s arrived, music figure bios got harder around the edges with the likes of Young Man With A Horn, Love Me Or Leave Me, I’ll Cry Tomorrow and The Eddy Duchin Story.