Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners has released a five-disc DVD set called Musicals from the Dream Factory, a roundup of titles that come in just under the "A" level mark. Among them is Till the Clouds Roll By, one of the studio's revue productions masquerading as a biography of a famous songwriter. It's all an excuse to present a flashy "greatest hits" series of unconnected musical numbers starring MGM's contract stars.
Hollywood musical bios are notorious for oversimplifying complicated talents like George Gershwin and Lorenz Hart. This show celebrates the formidable Jerome Kern, the man behind the great Broadway works Roberta and Showboat. By all accounts Kern was a pleasant and well adjusted tunesmith who lacked a convenient story handle -- no troubled childhood, no vices, no terrible personal problems. MGM's writers George Wells, Guy Bolton, Myles Connolly and Jean Holloway came up with practically nothing so the biographical material in Till the Clouds Roll By is almost completely unmemorable. Kern did narrowly avoid becoming a victim of the Lusitania disaster, which makes the most dramatic action in the film a scene where a man misses a boat.
Till the Clouds Roll By first treats us to the triumphant opening night of Showboat, represented by an eighteen-minute montage of songs performed with theatrical blocking and a full audience present: "Cotton Blossom", "Make Believe", Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River." It's probably the best part of the movie, as it evokes what the original show might have been like. Kathryn Grayson warbles the role of Magnolia opposite Tony Martin as Gaylord Ravenal, but Lena Horne makes the strongest impression as the mulatto Julie La Verne. Horne was perfectly cast, but when MGM decided to make a full feature version of Showboat five years later, Julie was played by Ava Gardner with a dubbed singing voice.
When the curtain falls we meet the middle-aged Jerome Kern, played by Robert Walker. Kern gets a wistful look in his eye that cues a flashback to his early days. Young Jerome is an aspiring songwriter unable to connect with producers until he meets mentor and arranger James Hessler (Van Heflin). In reality Kern needed no help to sell his superior tunes, and the Hessler character is a complete fabrication. In one early scene the young Kern is given a sterling endorsement by composer Victor Herbert, played by portly actor Paul Maxey (The Narrow Margin). It's as if Kern is being groomed for a top slot in the musical pantheon; as far as MGM is concerned, Broadway composers are the equal of greats like Beethoven and Brahms.
Kern finds his sweetheart Eva (Dorothy Patrick) in England and their romance is blissfully uneventful. The only serious dramatic thread involves Hessler's daughter Sally (Lucille Bremer), who grows up on-screen. She becomes a singer using her family connections but rebels when her song ("Who?") is given to big star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) at the last minute. Kern spends an anxious reel or so trying to trace the runaway Sally, only to find her in a Memphis club singing "One More Dance" and performing with Van Johnson ("I Won't Dance"). Content that Sally's doing okay, Kern is moved by the sight of the Mississippi River, which brings us back to the genesis of Showboat.
That leaves a solid hour-plus for musical numbers directed and staged, with the exception of Judy Garland's songs, by Robert Alton. Hers were supervised by Vincente Minnelli, taking pains in one number to hide his pregnant wife behind stacks of dirty dishes. Although not all of the numbers are works of art, the Kern songs are consistently inspiring, especially as orchestrated by Conrad Salinger. Angela Lansbury does the English music-hall tune "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?" at the London Gaieties. Dinah Shore gets the honor of playing Julia Sanderson singing "They Didn't Believe Me" from The Girl from Utah, which the film tells us was inspired by Kern's meeting his wife-to-be.
The title tune shows up in Oh Boy, one of Kern's first solo shows, sung in raincoats by Ray McDonald and June Allyson. The pair return for "Leave It to Jane" which contains Allyson's cute but somewhat mind-numbing "Cleopatterer" song. Judy Garland's famous dishwashing piece is "Look for the Silver Lining"; it begins with a complicated 30 second trucking shot moving Judy from her dressing room to the stage. "Sally" coordinates a large number of circus performers, and manages a clever switch that makes it appear that Garland is trick riding on a show horse.
Kern's further career is represented by an accelerating selection of songs heard only for a few bars each, followed by "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta, danced by Gower Champion and Cyd Charisse and "The Last Time I Saw Paris" sung by Dinah Shore again. For a windup, an elaborate medley plays out on a giant stage construction reminiscent of the garish "Kitsch in Motion" finale of the previous year's Ziegfeld Follies. The songs are great, although some are reduced to snippets: "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" (Lucille Bremer, voiced by Trudy Erwin), "Long Ago and Far Away" (Kathryn Grayson). "A Fine Romance" (Virginia O'Brien), "All the Things You Are" (Tony Martin) and "Why Was I Born?" (Lena Horne). Frank Sinatra finishes up with "Ol' Man River."
Warners' DVD of Till the Clouds Roll By is a stunningly good transfer that accurately reproduces the film's Technicolor look. This particular musical spent the early days of video in gray-area public domain status, with many inferior copies in circulation. The only good-looking clip excerpts were in the That's Entertainment! compilation films. The improved color allows us to appreciate the re-creations of Broadway productions of the 'teens and twenties. The level of art direction improves sharply for the Minnelli-directed "Who?" number.
An unattributed interview docu explains the problem of adapting Jerome Kern's relatively calm life to the screen, and lets us know that even his death was marked by restraint -- the composer simply collapsed while out walking on the street in 1945. Warners' extras include a trailer, two outtake songs (one appears to be an alternate for Garland's circus number), a travelogue about California that spends half its time at the Forest Lawn cemetery park and a Tex Avery Cartoon, Henpecked Hoboes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Till the Clouds Roll By rates:
Supplements: Trailer, outtake musical numbers, traveologue, cartoon Henpecked Hoboes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 11, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson