Alexander's Ragtime Band / The Gang's All Here April 14, 2017
Despite her immense popularity in her heyday, Alice Faye, 20th Century Fox’s biggest musical star for most of the 1930s and the earlier half of the ‘40s, famously walked away from her career at the height of her notoriety. Blonde, comely, intelligent, and the possessor of the voice of an angel, she starred in hit after hit for more than a decade, named a top box-office draw for almost the entirety of her short career.
But while her name and face remained synonymous with the movie musical during the latter half of The Great Depression and the earlier years of World War II, she suddenly quit the movie business in 1945 – at the tender age of 30 – after her role in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel was drastically edited down and she realized that focusing on her blossoming family life was more deserving of her time than enhancing her brand.
"When I stopped making pictures, it didn't bother me because there were so many things I hadn't done,” she told an interviewer in 1987. “I had never learned to run a house. I didn't know how to cook. I didn't know how to shop. So all these things filled all those gaps."
Faye would be succeeded by Betty Grable as Fox’s top musical talent, only returning to cinema in 1962 through an appearance in the commercially unsuccessful State Fair. But as a result of her decision to leave audiences high and dry before they could truly appreciate her, today she’s become something of a forgotten icon, waiting to be rediscovered by modern viewers.
As evidenced by two of her finest vehicles, 1938’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band and 1943’s The Gang’s All Here, Faye is a national treasure, a star as capable of carrying a tune with affecting poignancy (or sprightly personality, whichever the song in question calls for) as she is able to turn in an effective performance.
In the 1938 film, she plays Stella Kirby, a standards singer pivotal in the formation of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a musical group born in the film’s fictional 1911. But the movie, spanning two decades and mostly revolving around a love triangle involving Kirby, bandleader Roger (Tyrone Power), and bandmate Charlie (Don Ameche), is less about story and more about the showcasing of its long list of memorable Irving Berlin originals.
The writing is good enough for a film of its stature, and director Henry King promotes a sentimental tonality that sees the beauty in struggling for your art and waiting endlessly for your dreams to come true, whether those dreams be personal or professional.
But Alexander’s Ragtime Band is at its most appealing when Faye, along with co-star Ethel Merman, give Berlin’s pieces three-dimensionality. This is a film made to advertise its affable array of songs, and King and his horde of stars do them justice. Faye especially stands out, the music suitable for her honeyed voice and the story just sound enough to give her opportunity to demonstrate her acting chops.
But while Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a blue collared, down-to-earth feature which knows a thing or two about fighting to make it to the top, ‘43’s The Gang’s All Here is a bejeweled glamourpuss, characterized by dreamy Technicolor, extravagant musical sequences, and ornate set and costume design. It’s a typical WWII musical: its sole purpose is to act as patriotic, cinematic ray of light to warm the hearts of despairing audiences. 70-plus years later, it still manages to overwhelm in its euphoria. But the difference between it and a run-of-the-mill musical moneymaker is that it pulls out all the stops, formulaic story wise but so inventive artistically that it stands as one of the more memorable musicals of the era.
The Gang’s All Here follows Eadie Allen (Faye), a showgirl who becomes the object of the affections of soldier Andy Mason (James Ellison) after he sees her dancing at a nightclub. Romance comes quickly and perhaps hastily. It’s only a matter of weeks before dramatic goodbyes suggesting marriage make their way onto the scene. But all is interrupted when it’s discovered that Mason is unofficially engaged to Vivian Potter (Sheila Potter), an affluent society girl.
Much of the movie’s action resides in the sprawling mansion of Mason’s father (Eugene Pallette), who, midway through the film, decides to host a massive war bonds event, inviting Benny Goodman and other performers to use his home both as sleeping quarters and a practice space. Of course, Allen and Potter will both be there, as will Mason, who’s due to return back from fighting.
Comedic misunderstandings are sure to flame up. And one of The Gang’s All Here's greatest attributes is the way it allows for screwball characteristics to leak into its core, much of the laughs stemming from Fox favorites Charlotte Greenwood (chucklesomely cuckoo), Edward Everett Horton (operatically nervous), and, best of all, Carmen Miranda, who milks the silliness of her persona with astonishing dedication.
Like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Gang’s All Here is generally stale in its writing. It’s the arrangement of songs and dance numbers that keep us interested. While the former rather unimaginatively homes its bevy of tunes, The Gang’s All Here is the definition of artistic maximalism. As it goes with all of Busby Berkeley’s musicals, musical spectacle, when not using female dancers as pieces to make incredibly kaleidoscopic creations, is dependably gaudy.
The film’s most famed arrangement, the Miranda-centric "The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat," is particularly startling. Miranda, always having been a fruit-loving, broadly comedic personality, is transformed from flavor of the month to screen goddess in the movie.
The musical sequence in question especially complements her individualistic talents, drawing on the campier aspects of her screen presence and amplifying them to alarming heights. In the aforementioned scene, hundreds of scantily clad dancers run around with giant, plastic bananas, using them to create various shapes, while Miranda sings around them, a gleeful smile plastered on her face as the phallic iconography runs wild.
Today, the sequence as a whole all but summarizes Berkeley’s legacy: he was a superlatively innovative choreographer as unafraid of inventing as he was unafraid of pushing the envelope.
The movie is composed of an uneven mix of plodding dramatics and surrealistic, breathtaking musical sequences. But it’s nonetheless a gorgeous mélange of musical formula and stylistic wonder, as able to provoke jubilation as it is sensorial bewilderment.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band and The Gang’s All Here, for all their imperfections, are exceptional films, charismatic cultural relics which exemplify the reverie that often comes with inspired studio fare and the greatness of Faye and the movies that spotlighted her. To miss them would be a misfortune: these features are lovely illustrations of why classic Hollywood remains to be so idealized in the hearts of many. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
Alexander's Ragtime Band: B+
The Gang's All Here: A-