Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)

106 mins | Musical | 16 August 1938

Director:

Henry King

Cinematographer:

Peverell Marley

Editor:

Barbara McLean

Production Designers:

Bernard Herzbrun, Boris Leven

Production Company:

Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
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HISTORY

In the screen credits, the film is introduced as "Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band ." The Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library contains a deposition given in 1944 by Darryl Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, regarding a plagiarism suit pertaining to this film. In the deposition, Zanuck states, "the idea of doing a picture called Alexander's Ragtime Band was my own idea," and then relates the following information about the origination of the film: During the production of the studio's 1936 film On the Avenue (see below), on which Irving Berlin wrote the score and collaborated on the story, Zanuck proposed making a film version of Berlin's life story, but Berlin rejected the idea for personal reasons. Zanuck writes that he then "schemed with a way of getting a portion of Irving Berlin's life on the screen, particularly his musical life" and approached Berlin with the idea of inventing a story that would have as its basis Berlin's most popular song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and could include certain incidents from his life "without violating his private life," because the main character would be fictitious. Berlin, according to Zanuck, was enthusiastic, and said, "We can make this man a combination of Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, anything that we want." (Bandleader Whiteman abandoned a career as a classical musician after he was seduced by the performance of a jazz band in a San Francisco club. On 12 Feb 1924, his orchestra gave a concert in New York's Aeolian Hall, a turning point for the acceptance of popular music, as the hall had previously ... More Less

In the screen credits, the film is introduced as "Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band ." The Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library contains a deposition given in 1944 by Darryl Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, regarding a plagiarism suit pertaining to this film. In the deposition, Zanuck states, "the idea of doing a picture called Alexander's Ragtime Band was my own idea," and then relates the following information about the origination of the film: During the production of the studio's 1936 film On the Avenue (see below), on which Irving Berlin wrote the score and collaborated on the story, Zanuck proposed making a film version of Berlin's life story, but Berlin rejected the idea for personal reasons. Zanuck writes that he then "schemed with a way of getting a portion of Irving Berlin's life on the screen, particularly his musical life" and approached Berlin with the idea of inventing a story that would have as its basis Berlin's most popular song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and could include certain incidents from his life "without violating his private life," because the main character would be fictitious. Berlin, according to Zanuck, was enthusiastic, and said, "We can make this man a combination of Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, anything that we want." (Bandleader Whiteman abandoned a career as a classical musician after he was seduced by the performance of a jazz band in a San Francisco club. On 12 Feb 1924, his orchestra gave a concert in New York's Aeolian Hall, a turning point for the acceptance of popular music, as the hall had previously been used only for classical music. For that concert, Whiteman commissioned Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue.") Berlin suggested that the proposed film open at the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, rather than on the Bowery, where he began his own career, and suggested that they use an episode from his life when he was a sergeant in the Army and put on a Broadway show entitled Yip, Yip, Yaphank . Berlin also proposed having the climax at Carnegie Hall. Berlin and Richard Sherman, a leading short story writer (who had written the story "To Mary--With Love," which Zanuck used as the basis for the 1936 Twentieth Century-Fox film of the same name) wrote the first draft summary at the end of 1936. Zanuck stated that although the basic story had been developed by this point, he and Berlin were not satisfied with the leading characterizations. In Apr or May 1937, Zanuck hired Sheridan Gibney, who had written for him at Warner Bros. Gibney worked for two or three months, but Zanuck and Berlin were still not happy with the characters, and the script was much too long and not "dramatically compact." Finally, Zanuck assigned Lamar Trotti and Kathryn Scola in the middle of 1937, and they were responsible for having the male lead come from an upper-class background and the female lead from the lower-class. Both Trotti and Scola, in testimony pertaining to the plagiarism case, stated that Scola came up with the idea to inject, in Trotti's words, "the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, the molding of a girl or a hunk of marble into a creation that he would fall in love with." The plagiarism claim, which was filed on behalf of St. Louis writer Marie Cooper Dieckhaus, who claimed that her unpublished novel Love Girl was plagiarized, was denied in 1946, according to LAT .
       According to Var , Berlin supervised the "musical angles." NYT noted that Berlin used his famous piano with a shifting keyboard (which now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution) at the Twentieth Century-Fox studio. A total of twenty-nine Berlin songs were included in the film, including three written expressly for the film, "Now It Can Be Told," "My Walking Stick" and "Marching Along with Time." Zanuck, in the 1944 deposition, stated that Berlin had to buy up some of the foreign rights to a number of his older songs. The title song, published in 1911, was Berlin's first big hit and is among sixteen songs on the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) list of all-time popular hits. It was first performed publicly without lyrics at the opening night of the Folies Bergère's International Revue . Next, Berlin himself performed it with its lyric at the Friars Club Friars Frolic , but it did not become a hit until vaudeville singer Emma Carus included it in her act in Chicago. By the end of 1911 it had sold over two million copies of sheet music and had swept not only the United States but Europe also. Although music historians do not consider the song to be strictly a ragtime piece, they credit it with making ragtime a national craze.
       This was Harry Joe Brown's first film as associate producer for Twentieth Century-Fox, according to HR . Alfred Newman was borrowed from Samuel Goldwyn, according to HR and the film's pressbook, which also states that eighty-five separate sets were used. Trotti, in the legal records, states that director Henry King went to San Francisco and shot plates for process shots at the Cliff House. The pressbook states that glass cut in Czechoslovakia were used for the chandeliers in the Cliff House set, which was duplicated in Culver City. The film reportedly cost between $1,200,000 and $2,275,000, and it had already grossed $3,000,000 by Nov 1938, according to NYT . Zanuck, in the 1944 deposition, called the film one of his most successful pictures. The success of the film, according to a Aug 1938 HR news item, prompted Zanuck to shelve the previously successful "formula" for the studio's musicals and plan to produce future musicals that would be backed by dramatic stories. In a 1949 interview, Alice Faye said this was her favorite role. According to modern sources, Henry King called this film his most enjoyable. In her autobiography, Ethel Merman complained that the original lyric to "Heat Wave," "She started a heat wave by letting her seat wave," was changed for the film to "She started a heat wave by letting her feet wave."
       The film had a preview on 24 May 1938 in Los Angeles, which NYT noted was given "with all the folderol of a premiere; it was very, very formal, with lots of klieg lights and a grandstand full of fans." The film was not officially released until 19 Aug 1938. It was greatly praised by the trade press. HR called it "a turning point of the industry and a new trend in the utilization of music in story telling." MPH , on the film's exploitation aspects, noted, "It announces itself in terms that every showman understands as the top musical comedy of all time, the easiest picture to exploit that has come out of Hollywood since Snow White and probably the most thoroughgoing and compelling demonstration of how to put showmanship into motion pictures that the trade has ever been treated to." A number of reviewers commented on the fact that although the film's story takes place over a period of twenty-seven years (from 1911 to 1938), the principal actors, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, show no signs of aging throughout the film. Alexander's Ragtime Band was voted third place in the FD Seventeenth Annual Poll of the Critics of America, and received the Academy Award for Best Score (Alfred Newman). It was also nominated for five other Academy Awards: Best Picture, Original Story (Irving Berlin), Interior Decoration (Bernard Herzbrun and Boris Leven), Film Editing (Barbara McLean) and Best Song ("Now It Can Be Told" by Irving Berlin). According to Var , when the film was re-issued in 1947, it did better at the box office than the first release. Lux Radio Theatre produced radio versions of Alexander's Ragtime Band with Alice Faye, Ray Milland and Robert Preston, which was broadcast on 3 Jun 1940, and with Tyrone Power, Dinah Shore, Al Jolson, Dick Haymes and Margaret Whiting, which was broadcast on 7 Apr 1947. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
4 Jun 1938.
---
Daily Variety
25 May 38
p. 3.
Film Daily
28 May 38
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Dec 36
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jan 38
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Jan 38
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Jan 38
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Apr 38
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
25 May 38
p. 1, 3
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jul 38
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Aug 38
p. 3.
Los Angeles Times
26 Feb 1946.
---
Motion Picture Daily
26 May 38
pp. 1-2.
Motion Picture Herald
30 Apr 38
p. 25.
Motion Picture Herald
28 May 38
p. 51.
New York Times
3 Jan 1937.
---
New York Times
24 Oct 1937.
---
New York Times
23 Jan 1938.
---
New York Times
6 Aug 38
p. 7.
New York Times
28 Aug 1938.
---
New York Times
20 Nov 1938.
---
The Saturday Evening Post
20 Aug 1949.
---
Variety
1 Jun 38
p. 12.
Variety
8 Apr 1947.
---
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Donald Douglas
Fredric Santley
Richard French
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
Darryl F. Zanuck, in charge of production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCER
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Developed from an unpublished story by
Contr wrt
PHOTOGRAPHY
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Mus dir
DANCE
Dances staged by
PRODUCTION MISC
Grip
Head of research library
SOURCES
SONGS
"Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Ragtime Violin," "That International Rag," "Everybody's Doin' It Now," "Now It Can Be Told," "This Is the Life," "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'," "For Your Country and My Country," "I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the Y.M.C.A.," "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "We're On Our Way to France," "In My Harem," "When I Lost You," "Say It with Music," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Some Sunny Day," "Blue Skies," "Everybody Step," "What'll I Do," "Remember," "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil," "My Walking Stick," "All Alone," "Heat Wave," "Easter Parade," "Cheek to Cheek," "Lazy," "Marie" and "Marching Along with Time," music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band
Release Date:
16 August 1938
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles preview: 24 May 1938
Boston, Pittsburgh and San Francisco openings: 11 August 1938
Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas openings: 12 August 1938
Cleveland opening: 13 August 1938
Production Date:
31 January--mid April 1938
Copyright Claimant:
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Copyright Date:
11 August 1938
Copyright Number:
LP8322
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA High Fidelity Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
106
Length(in feet):
9,569
Length(in reels):
12
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
4098
SYNOPSIS

In San Francisco, classical violinist Roger Grant performs at a society Nob Hill string quartet recital. Roger's Aunt Sophie and his teacher, Professor Heinrich, predict he will be a great musician. Following the recital, Roger goes with three other musicians, pianist Charlie Dwyer, drummer Davey Lane and Louis, a clarinetist, to audition at "Dirty Eddie's," a Barbary Coast saloon, which is looking for a band. Upon discovering that their music is missing, the bartender, Bill Mulligan, gives them sheet music that was left on the bar by prospective singer Stella Kirby, which she received from a friend in New York. Stella has raved that nothing like the piece, which has an unusual time and rhythm, has been heard on the Barbary Coast before. When she hears the song, Stella, thinking that the band stole it, joins them and sings. The song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written by Irving Berlin, greatly pleases the patrons and owner, who hires the band and Stella, and dubs Roger "Alexander." Although Stella is still miffed, Charlie convinces her to remain with the band. Roger, adopting his new name, fulfills his desire to have his own band, which grows in size, but Aunt Sophie and Professor Heinrich are disappointed in him. As the band plays in increasingly classy places, Roger, who says he wants to set the world on fire, constantly quarrels with Stella, who only wants a job, and Charlie acts as conciliator. Before the opening of the exclusive Cliff House, Charlie plays a romantic song for Stella, which he wrote for her, and as she sings it during the performance, she and Roger, in a glance, ... +


In San Francisco, classical violinist Roger Grant performs at a society Nob Hill string quartet recital. Roger's Aunt Sophie and his teacher, Professor Heinrich, predict he will be a great musician. Following the recital, Roger goes with three other musicians, pianist Charlie Dwyer, drummer Davey Lane and Louis, a clarinetist, to audition at "Dirty Eddie's," a Barbary Coast saloon, which is looking for a band. Upon discovering that their music is missing, the bartender, Bill Mulligan, gives them sheet music that was left on the bar by prospective singer Stella Kirby, which she received from a friend in New York. Stella has raved that nothing like the piece, which has an unusual time and rhythm, has been heard on the Barbary Coast before. When she hears the song, Stella, thinking that the band stole it, joins them and sings. The song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written by Irving Berlin, greatly pleases the patrons and owner, who hires the band and Stella, and dubs Roger "Alexander." Although Stella is still miffed, Charlie convinces her to remain with the band. Roger, adopting his new name, fulfills his desire to have his own band, which grows in size, but Aunt Sophie and Professor Heinrich are disappointed in him. As the band plays in increasingly classy places, Roger, who says he wants to set the world on fire, constantly quarrels with Stella, who only wants a job, and Charlie acts as conciliator. Before the opening of the exclusive Cliff House, Charlie plays a romantic song for Stella, which he wrote for her, and as she sings it during the performance, she and Roger, in a glance, realize that they love one another, which Charlie painfully sees. When Charles Dillingham, a top New York producer, asks Stella to come to New York, where, he says, he can make her a star, Roger, rather than joining Stella's and Charlie's delight, argues against the move. After Roger orders Stella to leave, Charlie, who philosophically accepted his friends' romance, quits also. During World War I, Roger and Davey convince a colonel to allow them to put together a show to run on Broadway to rival a Navy revue. Stella tries to visit Roger backstage, but he refuses to see her, and when a transport order interrupts the show and he marches with the others to the docks, she cries. After the war, Roger visits Stella, now a star, during a rehearsal and, after asking her forgiveness and confessing that he has never stopped loving her, learns that she and Charlie have been married for more than a year. Depressed, Roger joins Davey and singer Jerry Allen in a new band. One year later, Charlie and Stella run into Bill Mulligan, now a bootlegger, and learn that Roger is playing in Greenwich Village. Realizing that Stella still loves Roger, Charlie proposes an amicable divorce. Stella goes to the club, and although she and Roger exchange loving glances, when she learns that Jerry was responsible for getting him out of his depression and that the band is sailing for Europe the next day, she refrains from approaching him. While in Chicago on tour, Stella quits and disappears. In London, Roger proposes to Jerry, but knowing that he does not love her, she turns him down. When Roger returns to New York and auditions songwriters for his new radio program, Charlie comes and reveals the divorce and tells Roger that Stella still loves him. Stella, who has been performing in cabarets under an assumed name, arrives in New York just as Roger's Carnegie Hall swing concert, which Aunt Sophie and Professor Heinrich proudly attend, is about to begin. Stella finds Bill, now in his own restaurant, but refuses to accompany him to the hall. While Bill secretly arranges for Roger to meet Stella after the show, she leaves the restaurant and takes a taxi through the park listening to the concert on the radio. When the driver pulls up outside Carnegie Hall, Stella attempts to purchase a ticket, but learns that the show is sold-out. The taxi driver invites her back to hear the rest of the concert, but as Roger is about to introduce "Alexander's Ragtime Band" as his encore, she cries and requests the driver to turn the radio off. He refuses and after she hears Roger say that he is playing the song for the one person with whom he associates it, the driver reveals that he knew her identity all along. Emotionally overcome, Stella goes backstage. Bill finds her and brings her to the wings, where Charlie notices her and attracts Roger's attention. He embraces her and brings her on stage, where she joins the band in the song. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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