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Musical Lifetimes – the golden age of musical biographies

James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy

Screen biographies of musicians might be expected to consist of strong story lines with musical interludes. Yet generally their plots are so frail and foolish that they provide no more than excuses for songs and dances. And it is perhaps flattering these films to suggest that they run to stories’ in the plural: some-how. Whatever the differences of temperament, background and talent among the musicians concerned, when it comes to the cinematic point they all seem to have led very similar lives.

Male musicians are portrayed as having humble origins: their early struggles are compensated for by a sober, loving, home-life; they become swollen-headed by success and then entangled with a glamorous star or rich socialite. but are rescued from the brink of disaster by the love of a good, mousy wife who helps them make a fresh start.

Success always comes early for female musicians: they are unable to cope with it and turn rapidly to drink or drugs: they have a disastrous romantic involvement and are then crippled by an accident or afflicted with illness: eventually, however, they find the will to go on and come up smiling.

Studio Whitewash

The advantage of these simple plots is that the tried-and-true hit songs may easily be fitted in. These numbers would frequently be performed by an all-star cast, which could be assembled quite cheaply since each star would only be employed for a very brief period in the film. It is hard to say which studio first hit on this formula, but probably the best claim belongs to Warner Brothers with Yankee Doodle Dandy – the life of George M. Cohan – in 1942.

Since Cohan was alive at the time, the film could hardly hint that he had any personality defects whatever, except a touch of Irish temper from time to time. James Cagney, the star, aroused audience sympathy and the film made a very successful addition to the studio’s long series of rather literary biographical films of the Thirties, such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emille Zola (1937). They were thus encouraged to try again and in 1945 brought out Rhapsody in Blue, an anodyne life of George Gershwin, and in the following year Night and Day, a life of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant.

Night and Day

Cole Porter as played by Cary Grant in Night and Day

After Night and Day, Warners made only one more composer biography, I’ll See You In My Dreams (1952), in which Danny Thomas as Gus Kahn and Doris Day as his sweetly sensible wife ran through every cliché in the book. MGM made tributes to Kern (1946, Til the Clouds Roll By), Rodgers and Hart (1948, Words and Music) and Kalmar and Ruby (1950, Three Little Words) – all of them all-star revues with a bit of plot, which consisted of variations on the usual theme, to ‘hold the numbers apart’.

20th Century Fox took virtually the only remaining team – De Sylva, Brown and Henderson – as the subjeets of The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), by then studios had begun to concentrate on performers. Following The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), came The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Benny Goodman Story (1955) and The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Lillian Roth was shown hitting the bottle in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) as was Helen Morgan in The Helen Morgan Story (1957), Ruth Etting loved a gangster in Love Me or Leave Me (1955): Jane Froman was crippled in With a Song in My Heart (1952) as was opera star Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody (1955), but somehow, they all sang on . .

Doris Day Love Me Or Leave Me

Doris Day played Ruth Etting in Love Me Or Leave Me.

The singer not the song

These famous suffering ladies. of course, provided great vehicles, mostly for leading ladies who specialized in playing suffering women – like Eleanor Parker and Susan Hayward. Ann Blyth did not help her career by playing Helen Morgan, but the role of Ruth Etting initialed a new stage in Doris Day’s career.

It was easier to make a performer the centre of a musical biography than a composer; apart from Cary Grant as Cole Porter, composers in films tended lo sit on the sidelines of the drama while their songs were performed by others; consequently, composers were usually played by stars of the second rank.

An exception was Glenn Miller, played with laconic charm by James Stewart: Miller’s rags-to-riches story was more interesting than most and he also had the advantage, from the dramatic point of view, of dying in an air crash during World War II.

If the studio felt that the subjeci of a screen biography lacked the requisite box-office pull, it drafted in star names to boost the film’s appeal.

Audiences were encouraged to see Lillian Russell (1940) because she was played by Alice Faye and Incendiary Blonde (1945). a biography of Texas Guinan, because it starred Betty Hutton. The same, applied to The Dolly Sisters (1945), reincarnated by Betty Grable and June Haver, and The I Don’t Care Girl (1952), which cast Mitzi Gaynor as Eva Tanguay. All these films were firmly modelled around the lineaments of their respective stars.

Funny Girl

Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl.

This formula worked well while stars like these commanded big followings. But after the Fifties, there were fewer and fewer names that ensured box-oflice success simply by virtue of their presence in a film. People wanted to see their favourite star in the right kind of role in the right kind of movie. Most of the (few) female superstars of recent years have tried at least one biography: Julie Andrews took the part of Gertrude Lawrence in Star! (1968), Diana Ross became Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Barbra Streisand played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 1968 and in Funny Lady (1975), and Bette Midler was a renamed but recognisable Janis Joplin in The Rose (1979).

Of these, one was a spectacular and significant failure. Funny Girl, Lady Sings the Blues and The Rose all have strong dramatic stories which do not seriously depend on audiences’ knowing anything about the characters on which they were based. Star! had no story at all – no drama, no noticeable romance, nothing which would answer the question audiences were bound to ask as to why they should be expected to spend three and a quarter hours in the company of its somewhat chilly main attraction.





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