Alexander’s Ragtime Band is all about the music; specifically Irving Berlin’s music. 20th Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to make a biopic of Irving Berlin, but Berlin wasn’t interested, so instead they made a film about the fictional Alexander (Tyrone Power) as he goes from violin student who conducts a small band in bars to up-and-coming bandleader to respectable bandleader who gives a concert at Carnegie Hall. The music Alexander plays is all written by Berlin.
The plot is pretty thin: Tyrone Power pines for Alice Faye, Alice Faye sings and pines for Power, Don Ameche sings and pines for Faye, while Ethel Merman sings and pines for Power. Poor Merman and Ameche. No one seems to pine for them. But at least they can sing. Tyrone Power primarily spends the movie waving his arms about, pretending he’s conducting a band.
Actually, it’s not as bad as I make it sound. The actors are all engaging (with the possible exception of Tyrone Power, who I usually like, but not as much here) and excellent singers (except Power). The music is sensational and worth anything: infectious, buoyant, joyous; I could not get some of those songs out of my head. There’s the title song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which Irving Berlin wrote in 1911 and was his first hit. Another knockout song is “Heat Wave,” sung by Ethel Merman.
Tyrone Power is bit of a callow stick-in-the-mud (though a handsome one) as Alex, a man who’s first priority is the music he loves. His band consists of Charlie (Don Ameche), a good friend who plays the piano and composes songs. Davey (Jack Haley) plays the drums. The band also picks up Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), a brassy, vulgar loudmouth who quickly morphs into an elegant and classy lady. She and Alex clash frequently, initially in relation to what she’s wearing (she likes feather boas, he doesn’t). Charlie falls in love with her as she is, but after she becomes a lady, Alex suddenly discovers that he loves her, too. Stella even sings the love song Charlie wrote for her to Alex, but Charlie is very gracious about it (he’s practically a sucker for martyrdom in this film).
But Stella and Alex have another row, she leaves the band and Alex goes to war (WWI – an opportunity to sing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which Berlin wrote in 1918 after he was drafted). The story begins to drag a little as Stella, Charlie and Alex all feel sorry for themselves (though Charlie’s still very brave about it), but fortunately Ethel Merman arrives like a breath of fresh air and sings a few knockout songs, though she too joins the pining club, but she remains practical about it. She and Charlie both know that there really will be no one for Alex and Stella but Alex and Stella.
I must confess that the romances did become a bit tedious. I thought Ameche and Faye actually have better chemistry (they made five movies together) than Power and Faye. In The Rose of Washington Square, Power and Faye work as a couple because she seems more mature than him and mothers him a bit, which is not exactly what Alexander’s Ragtime Band calls for. Also, I thought Ethel Merman was a better fit for Power; she’s a nice contrast of personality and loosens him up. I guess I’m just a sucker for rooting for the wrong romantic couples. I have this problem a lot.
Other problems with the script abound. At the beginning of the film, a plot thread involving Alex’s disproving aunt (Helen Westley) and music teacher (Jean Hersholt) is introduced only to have it disappear until the end, where they suddenly reappear and are very proud of him.
I’ve kind of trashed the plot, but I really do like the movie. It’s a frustrated kind of like, but I still like it. It’s the music and the performers. There is no skimping on the songs, which seems to come at a pace of every five minutes. It’s almost a music video. The music is supposed to range from 1911 to the late 1930s, but it’s all played like ’30’s swing, but that’s not a complaint. It’s wonderful. And it’s fun to hear the contrast between Faye and Merman, one with a warm, intimate voice (Faye got her start on radio) and the other knocking it out of the ballpark (Merman is Broadway all the way).
I also like the general aura of the film. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s fun and I love films about bandleaders and musicians from that era. And as I said, the music is worth anything.
This scene is from the beginning, when both Stella Kirby and Alexander’s band are seeking a job at a saloon. Alexander’s forgotten his music, so they use a score sitting on the bar, which turns out to be Stella’s. Indignant, she joins the music and the manager likes how they work together so well that he hires them both, as long as they perform together.
Here’s Ethel Merman singing “Heat Wave,” which was written in 1933 for the revue “As Thousands Cheer.” It was introduced by Ethel Waters.
Here is both Ethel Merman and Alice Faye singing “Blue Skies” in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. “Blue Skies” was actually written in 1926 for a Rodgers and Hart musical called “Betsy.” The musical wasn’t a success, but the song certainly was.
“Now It Can Be Told” was one of the few new songs Berlin wrote for the movie and was nominated for Best Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memories.”