It's famous, it's entertaining and it's been out of style for at least fifty years, but Alexander's Ragtime Band makes for an entertaining and zippy musical. It mints what would become the core of just about every backstage story afterwards, the formulaic series of events that got grafted onto authentic famous musicians when it came time to embalm them with Hollywood biopics: 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 pal graciously bowing out; and a dramatic romantic/professional reunion, preferably on-stage, mid-performance and in as public a manner as possible.
This fluffy musical is also a great chance to see Darryl Zanuck's powerhouse talent package at work - Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and the criminally underrated Alice Faye. Pigeonholed into stock roles, they shine nonetheless. Now noted mostly as a glossy showcase for the songbook of Irving Berlin, Alexander's Ragtime Band throws in an unbeatable extra: Ethel Merman at the top of her lung-busting vocal powers.
It's just what it sounds like, folks, the kind of plot that serves as an excuse to string together an endless series of Irving Berlin hits. They're memorable enough, but the pattern does get a little wearying, as hardly a scene isn't organized around a performance of one kind or another. With few exceptions, the songs don't really have a relation to the story being told, so it's up to Henry King's acceptable direction to hold things together.
The four stars have enough personality to prop up the worst of scripts. Tyrone is handsome and strong and we never resent his pigheadedness. Alice Faye is adorable whether trying to act like a floozy or putting on the high style. Don Ameche was saddled with classy "the other guy" parts, and here quite amiably floats one of the silliest scenes ever written: He: "Gee, honey, I've noticed our marriage is boring, and you're obviously still in love with Roger. Let's get divorced." She: "Gee Charlie, you're the swellest." (or words to that effect)
Soon thereafter, Tyrone answers our curiosity about his undeveloped relationship with Ethel Merman. Two tough dialog lines later ("Ah, there's nothing between us, we're just troopers") he's free again to pursue Alice, at least in his dreams.
The big finale, the one finally lampooned in Singin' In the Rain, has Stella circling in a taxicab around Roger's big concert hall in Manhattan, knowing he's inside conducting his big broadcast but not knowing he's dying to see her again. That's a cue for a wise matchmaker cabdriver played by John Carradine to arrange to deliver her backstage. She arrives just in time to walk in and belt out a song in her street clothes, without a hint of warm-up.
Anyone worrying about how silly that is should think about the fact that Tyrone, Alice and Don don't age a week over twenty five years or so. It's a fantasy, especially when all of the arrangements for Irving Berlin's songs between 1912 and 1938 seem to have swing arrangements.
The production values are tops for 1938. Incidentally, the "Cliff House" where the band gets its start, represented by a matte painting, is the West San Francisco entertainment palace that was big for decades but is now a ruin. It's the site of the roller rink (and the beginning of the famous car chase) in Don Siegel's 1958 thriller The Lineup.
Lon Chaney Jr., Grady Sutton, James Flavin and Rondo Hatton are really hidden amid the extras and bit players. John Ford favorite Jack Pennick is much more visible as a tough sergeant, and he even marches in a dance number.
Fox's DVD of Alexander's Ragtime Band does a good job of supporting a title that is going to have limited appeal for all but musical diehards. The image looks fine and the music is nicely remastered. There's an appealing Biography episode on Alice Faye, who seems to have been a real sweetheart of a lady. Various newsreels and a trailer round out the package.
The commentary is by Film Score restorationist Ray Fiola, the man responsible for many a recovered and revitalized classic soundtrack. Since the historical significance of Alexander's Ragtime Band is going to be Irving Berlin's music interpreted by Faye and Merman, he concentrates on all the details behind the songs and the performers. That's a big help for those of us with limited knowledge on the subject.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alexander's Ragtime Band rates: