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ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND – Irving Berlin and Alfred Newman

January 23, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1937 composer Irving Berlin was solicited by 20th Century Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck to write a biopic about his life to be called “Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which would showcase some of his greatest songs. Berlin balked, believing such a story would be too intrusive. Zanuck pivoted and asked him if he could instead write a story, which could feature his greatest songs. He agreed, collaborated with screen writer Richard Sherman, and their story was accepted. Zanuck took personal charge of production, hired Kathryn Scola and Lamar Trotti to write the screenplay, and tasked Henry King with directing. The cast would be anchored by singers Ethel Merman as Jerry Allen, and Alice Faye as Stella Kirby. Joining them would be Tyrone Power as Alexander, Don Ameche as Charlie Dwyer and Jack Haley as Davey Lane.

The story is set in New York City in the pre-WWI era. Roger Grant, who has trained as a concert violinist, disappoint his parents, and his teacher when he abandons a career as a concert performer, and instead creates a jazz band. He achieves success, and by chance falls in love with his lead singer Stella. Yet he is controlling and stifles her career as a soloist fearing he would lose her. He and Stella are separated by WWI and after the war he meets her at a concert where he discovers she has married his best friend Roger. The film was a huge commercial success, the studio’s highest grossing film of the 1930s, earning a profit of $3.6 million. Lauded by critics, the film secured six Academy Award nominations, including; Best Picture, Best Story, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, and Best Song, winning one for Best scoring.

Alfred Newman was director of music at 20th Century Fox, and customarily handled all of Zanuck’s passion projects. Irving Berlin composed and selected the songs, while Newman and his team of orchestrators were responsible for weaving the many songs into a seamless, unified musical narrative. Most impressive is how they masterfully updated and orchestrated the various song styles, which included dixieland, fox trot, café orchestra, swing band and jazz.

In terms of themes, Newman used two of Berlin’s song melodies to unify the film’s musical narrative. The march-like titular song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) serves as the Main Theme. There is an irrepressible confidence and optimism in the piece, which embodies Alex personally, and by extension, his band. The romantic ballad “Now It Can Be Told” (1938), a new song written by Berlin for the film, serves as the Love Theme for Alex and Stella. Berlin also included some of his finest, and now iconic songs for the film, including “Ragtime Violin” (1911), “That International Rag” (1913), “This Is The Life” (1914), “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’” (1912), “For Your Country and My Country” (1917), “I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the Y.M.C.A.” (1918), “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (1918), “We’re On Our Way to France” (1918), “Say It with Music” (1921), “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1919), “Lazy” (1924), “Blue Skies” (1927), “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil” (1922), “What’ll I Do” (1924), “My Walking Sticka” (1938), “Remember (1925), “Everybody Step” (1921), “All Alone” (1924), “Marie” (1928), “Cheek to Cheek” (1935), “Easter Parade” (1933), “Heat Wave” (1933), “Marching Along with Time” (1938), “Some Sunny Day” (1922), and “In My Harem” (1913).

“Main Title” opens with Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare, which launches the opening credits as we see a silhouette of Tyrone Power conduction a festive orchestral rendering of the song melody to “Marching Along With Time”. At 0:58 we segue into “Nob Hill Concert” which reveals Roger Grant, an aspiring violinist performing Haydn’s String Quartet No. 17 ay the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. “Dirty Eddie’s” reveals the saloon with a mechanical piano playing the animated and playful “In My Harem” (1913) as we see the owner tossing out a band, which failed their audition. We are introduced to the Sassy Stella, as well as Charlie, Davey and Roger who all arrive for an audition. Disaster looms as Charlie discovers that he left their music on the streetcar, but they improvise when they find Stella’s audition music on the bar. They setup, and begin playing the iconic piece “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with a plodding, uninspired lethargy, until 0:40 when they ramp up the energy and tempo to capture the song’s essence. Stella is displeased that they stole her music and adds her vocals at 1:09, which greatly enhances their performance.

Eddie is sold, hires them, and Roger’s band, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is born. Despite this Stella and Roger quarrel and get off on the wrong foot. “My Ragtime Violin” reveals that “Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Stella” have become a sensation. We open with a reprise of the titular song melody and at 0:25 we segue into the band supporting a trio singing the classic “My Ragtime Violin”. Following the pleasant song, we conclude with a festive coda by the band. “In My Harem” features a Jack Hayley vocal, which was cut from the film. “He’s A Rag Picker” was an instrumental piece that was also edited out of the film. “The International Rag” offers yet another Berlin song with a happy and playful sensibility. It reveals Alex again arguing with Stella’s over her gaudy costume. She threatens to quit, Alex says fine, and storms off, but Charlie saves the day by convincing her to sing. On stage we have a song and dance number with vocals by Stella, Davey and Louie singing the song’s chorus.

“Everybody’s Doin’ It Now” offers another score highlight, with a classic dance-like Berlin hit, which abounds with joie de vie. It reveals the band has moved up to the Sunset Inn. We open with their signature quote of “Alexander’s Ragtime band before launching at 0:08 into this song and dance number performed by Dixie and Wally. The song rendered as an instrumental supports Dixie and Wally’s virtuoso dancing. At 1:15 Stella joins in to complete the song.

“Cliff House Announcement” reveals script announcing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Stella Kirby” performing at the Rococo Room of the Cliff House in San Francisco supported by the band’s titular melody. At 0:06 a harp arpeggio carries Stella into the venue where Charlie is practicing his new song on piano. The melody is for Berlin’s “Now It Can Be Told”, a love ballad he wrote for the film. At 0:36 we segue into a score romantic highlight with “Charlie’s New Song”, vocal by Charlie. Stella is clearly moved by the song, and we see that Charlie clearly wrote it with her in his heart. Later she interrupts Roger’s band practice to bring him Charlie’s new song and “The Band Picks It Up” offers an instrumental rendering of “Now it Can be Told” by Charlie on piano, joined by trombone and saxophone. The scene was edited, and so the cue after 0:37 is not in the film. We flow into “The Cliff House” with an embellished small orchestra introduction of the “Now It Can Be Told” song melody. At 0:21 in “Stella’s Performance”, Stella comes on stage and sings the love song, adding an opening stanza. During the performance we bear witness to a sad irony as Stella’s feelings for love are directed at Alex, who suddenly realizes her feelings. Charlie, who loves her, is saddened as he witnesses her infatuation with Alex. After the performance she is overcome and flees to an outdoor balcony, followed by Alex who leaves Charlie in charge. We flow into “Love Scene” a romantic score highlight. Alex and Stella have a kissing embrace, all pretenses dropped, as they surrender to love. Newman supports tenderly with a molto romantico instrumental rendering of the “Now it Can Be told” song melody.

In “When I Lost You”, Charlie, and Roger successfully scheme to lure renown producer Charles Dillingham to the Cliff House. Newman supports with wistful, slow dance instrumental rendering of the classic 1912 Berlin Ballad. The ballad is truncated as we see a scene change to the Cliff House as they await the Dillingham’s arrival. Roger sends Wally out for an opening act in “This Is The Life”, a comic, happy go lucky piece where Wally dances and sings the song’s refrain. At 0:45 an instrumental interlude supports his tap dancing, and we conclude with a reprise of the song’s final line: “This is the life, this is the life, this is the life for mine”.

“When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam” reveals Dillingham arriving and taking his table. Roger quickly puts Stella on stage singing one of Berlin’s finest songs, hoping to wow him, and gain his patronage. Like so many of Berlin’s songs, it exudes optimism, happiness, with this one speaking of a girl’s joy returning home to her man. Stella is flirtatious, Dillingham takes the bait, and asks her to join him, which she does. Later she departs and goes to the dressing room, joined by Alex and Charlie in “Dressing Room Showdown”. She is ecstatic as Dillingham has offered her a top billing job in New York, with the promise that he will eventually find a place for Alex’s band too. Alex feels betrayed and erupts with anger. He tells her off, and later Charlie too, which results in he quitting the band. Newman uses juxtaposition, supporting the bitter arguments with the band playing a confident rendering of their Love Theme “Now it Can Be Told”.

“It’s Your Country” reveals America entering WWI. As a platform truck drives down Main Steet, the scene is supported by its band and spirited vocal by Donald Douglas singing Berlin’s patriotic recruitment song. “Assembly” reveals Alex appealing to his commander’s pride and convincing him that the army has the talent to match the navy’s show. A bugle reveille supports the commander’s communique announcement. At 0:10 we segue into the sentimental “At The YMCA”, vocals by the Kings Men quartet singing the song’s refrain. In “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” the men perform the Army’s stage act at a Broadway theater as Alex conducts his band from the orchestra pit. We open with bugle reveille, which again heralds the start of a new day. A gruff, whistle blowing sergeant rouses the men out of their bunks, save the sleepy Davey who sings classic army song, which has passed unto legend.

As intermission is announced, we see Stella in the audience, and she attempts to go back stage to see Alex, but a soldier tells her to wait. When advised that Stella is waiting to see him, Alex brightens and walks happily to meet her, only to stop, and change his mind, telling the soldier to tell her he is busy. Alex is then ordered to cut all of Act 2 except the finale as the company has been ordered to ship out ASAP. Drums militare open the finale as the men on stage launch with patriotic fervor into “We’re On Our Way To France”, vocals by men’s chorus. After parading on stage, they march en masse down the center aisle and board trucks outside. Stella cries out to Alex, yet he coldly ignores her. The “Great War Montage” reveals a graphic montage of the brutal battlefield scenes, which is supported by a parade of classic patriotic songs, including; “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning”, We’re On Our Way to France”, La Marseillaise”, the “Star Spangled Banner” and “For Your Country and My Country”.

A marquee billboard displays “Come One, Come All” with Stella Kirby. A sheepish Alex, full of regrets enters to see Stella in the theater after a press release. He offers contrition, apologizes for being a stupid ass, and asks her to forgive him. She agrees, and confesses his love for her, only to be stunned when she reveals that she married Charlie. When Charlie joins them, Alex congratulates them and then departs, turning down their offer to join them for lunch. Back at his hotel room, Davey introduces him to Jerry who dazzles him with her voice. He is depressed and they all go out for dinner and drinks at the Palais Royale in “Say It With Music”. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra support with Berlin’s 1921 song. At 0:22 Jerry adds her vocal singing an abridged version of the second stanza as she tries to cheer up Alex. He continues to stew saying he dislikes the post war musical style in “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”. Newman supports with a slow dance rendering of the Berlin classic, joined by Jerry at 0:28 singing an abridged second stanza as she again tries to cheer him up.

Later, in two unscored scenes a marquee billboard displays “Come One, Come All” with Stella Kirby – 53rd week. Stella and Charlie meet Billy Mulligan and agree to join him tonight at his speakeasy Scarbi’s. In their hotel room Charlie realizes that Stella is still in love with Alex, and following her admission of this, offers to end their marriage amicably. They embrace, she thanks him for his kindness and decides to go to Billy’s club. Inside the festive Scarbi’s there is a sendoff party for Alex’s band as they are departing on a European tour. A tipsy Ruby, Davey’s wife, blurts out to Stella how Jerry has come into Alex’s life and ended his depression. Newman supports with a swing style instrumental rendering of Berlin’s famous 1924 “Lazy” song melody. “Some Sunny Day” continues the ambiance at Scarbi’s with an instrumental jazz and dance felice rendering of Berlin’s 1924 song. Bill then makes an announcement that Jerry was going to favor us with a beautiful ballad. We flow into “Blue Skies” where Ethel Merman belts out one of Berlin’s greatest songs, which speaks of a sunny optimism.

Stella is saddened by the song lyrics as she realizes she has lost Alex to Jerry. In “Blue Skies” Encore” Jerry is very gracious, acknowledges that a great singer is among us, and invites Stella to join her on stage and lets Stella sing a reprise. Yet we do not feel the joyous optimism of the song in her voice, but instead masked regret. The next day a tearful Stella watches from the dock a waving Alex depart on a ship bound for Europe.

“Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil” reveals their first stop in Paris at Zelli’s Café de Paris. Jerry performs with a female troupe of dancers dressed as devils, one of Berlin’s most fun, irreverent and entertaining songs with her stunning vocals. “What’ll I Do?” shifts back to New York where a despondent Stella informs Dillingham’s stage manager that she is leaving the show. Newman supports with one of Berlin’s saddest songs so full of heartache, “What’ll I Do” (1924) borne by piano triste, joined by chorus at 0:53 singing. “My Walking Stick” offers one of the most exciting and entertaining scenes of the film, a song highlight where Merman dazzles us with her brilliant vocals. The horn empowered interlude from 1:34-1:53 was cut from the film.

“Remember” reveals Stella, suffering from melancholia, on a train heading back to San Francisco. A phonograph plays a recording of her singing one of Berlin’s saddest songs, so full of heartache. “Everybody Step” reveals Alexander’s Ragtime Band continuing their popular tour with Jerry belting out yet another energetic, high octane Berlin classic. At 1:05 we segue into “All Alone”, which reveals a sad Stella performing at a low-end cabaret, singing a Berlin song, which speaks to loss and loneliness. “Marching Along With Time” offers one of the score’s greatest song highlights. However, its scene was edited out of the film, which is a shame as Merman’s vocals created an astounding synergy with Berlin’s vibrant, upbeat song. In “Charlie And Alex Reunited” Charlie reunites with Alex in New York and informs him that he’s divorced, and that Stella still loves him. A very short, uncredited piano piece played by Charlie supports, but is uncredited.

At Scarbi’s Stella visits Bill, who asks her to wait as he runs to the concert hall to advise Alex that she has returned. We shift to a newspaper headline that says “Alexander and His Ragtime Band to give Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. “Orchestra Tunes Up” offers the standard pre-concert orchestra tune-up. In “Overture” Alex takes the podium and launches into dramatic quotes of his band’s titular song. At 0:13 a brushed drum bridge takes us into a swing rendering of Berlin’s song “Marie”, for one of the score’s most vibrant and kinetic pieces, bursting with exuberance. This song is just infectious, and makes you want to get out of your chair and start dancing! Back stage Billy asks Ruby to inform Alex that he is holding Stella at Scarbi’s and to please come. “Slumming On Park was Avenue” dialed out of the film, which is unfortunate as Merman delivers a wonderful performance! In “Cheek To Cheek” Stella gets tired of waiting and departs, catching a cab, which plays a vibrant, swing version of Berlin’s classic song on the cab radio. “Some Sunny Day” offers a swing song with a wonderful vocal by Don Ameche, which was regretfully dialed out of the film.

For the second piece, Alex brings up Charlie to sing “Easter Parade”, the classic Berlin romantic ballad and a troupe of elegantly gowned women join onstage with choir support. “Now It Can Be Told” reveals Stella was unable to secure tickets to the sold-out concert, and so returned to the cab listen to the concert over its radio. Newman supports with an animated Swing rendering of the Love Theme. We Then flow into another classic, “Heat Wave”, which offers a score song highlight featuring Merman’s sassy vocals and a performance that brings the house down! Newman sets the tempo with an instrumental rendering of the song’s melody, which ushers in Merman’s performance at 0:44.

This is musical entertainment at its Golden Age finest! In “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” Alex makes a heartfelt speech about the show’s final song, a song that is special because of the one person he associates it with. Newman launches into a festive Swing rendering of the “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Stella is drawn from the cab to back stage where Billy takes her by the hand. Charlie sees this and motions to Alex who turns to see her. Alex brings her onstage, and at 1:33 she again takes up the song vocals, supported by a woman’s chorus. It is a joyous reunion and we conclude the performance with a flourish. We flow into “End Title” with a coda of the “Now It Can Be Told” melody. At 0:08 we segue into “End Cast” with a rousing reprise of the “Marching Along With Time” song melody. The “Coda” and “Exit Music” cues are not found in the film, but are well worth your exploration.

I would like to thank Ray Faiola, the late Nick Redman, and Craig Spaulding for restoring this magnificent Golden Age musical, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The technical efforts to restore the music from the sixty-four-year-old sources was on balance successful. While some audio distortion remains, the end result is remarkable, and offers an enjoyable listening experience. Irving Berlin is an American icon, one of the 20th century’s greatest song writers, whose songs till this day remain indelibly embedded in our collective consciousness. The parade of immortal songs woven into the film’s musical narrative offer an enduring testament to his genius; “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Now It Can Be Told”, “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now”, “When I Lost You”, “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning”, “Blue Skies”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Marching Along With Time”, and “Cheek To Cheek”. I believe that as good as these songs are, it was the vocals of Alice Faye and Ethel Merman, joined with the orchestrations of Alfred Newman and his team that elevated them to the sublime, achieving an extraordinary cinematic confluence. In my judgement Newman merited his Academy Award win, imbuing Berlin’s music with his masterful orchestral renderings, orchestrations and conducting. I believe this Hollywood Golden Age musical to be one of the finest ever made, offering songs, vocals and dance acts, which elevate the artform to the sublime. I highly recommend this legendary musical as an essential album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the titular song; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXejAU69FNw

Buy the “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” album from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Nob Hill Concert 01:26
  • Dirty Eddie’s (1:58)
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1:50)
  • My Ragtime Violin (1:04)
  • In My Harem (1:34)
  • He’s A Rag Picker (1:20)
  • The International Rag (0:50)
  • Everybody’s Doin’ It Now (1:53)
  • Cliff House Announcement/Charlie’s New Song 01:55
  • The Band Picks It Up (1:12)
  • The Cliff House/Stella’s Performance (2:12)
  • Love Scene (2:08)
  • When I Lost You 00:33
  • This Is The Life (1:32)
  • When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam (0:54)
  • Dressing Room Showdown (2:29)
  • It’s Your Country 00:32
  • Assembly/At The Ymca (1:06)
  • Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning (1:47)
  • We’re On Our Way To France (1:20)
  • Great War Montage (0:56)
  • Say It With Music 00:48
  • A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody (1:03)
  • Lazy (0:45)
  • Some Sunny Day (1:33)
  • Blue Skies (1:01)
  • Blue Skies Encore (1:14)
  • Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil 01:31
  • What’ll I Do? (1:13)
  • My Walking Stick (2:33)
  • Remember (1:10)
  • Everybody Step/All Alone (1:49)
  • Marching Along With Time (2:23)
  • Charlie And Alex Reunited (0:13)
  • Orchestra Tunes Up 00:27
  • Overture/Marie (1:41)
  • Slumming On Park Avenue (0:44)
  • Cheek To Cheek (0:36)
  • Some Sunny Day (1:39)
  • Easter Parade (1:21)
  • Now It Can Be Told (2:01)
  • Heat Wave (2:47)
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band (2:31)
  • End Title/End Cast (0:42)
  • Coda (0:21)
  • Remember 02:37
  • Let Yourself Go (2:43)
  • Top Hat, White Tie And Tails (2:46)

Running Time: 60 minutes 54 seconds

Screen Archives Entertainment CRS 0007 (1938/2002)

Music composed Irving Berlin. Conducted by Alfred Newman. Orchestrations by Alfred Newman, Fletcher Henderson, Edward B. Powell, Walter Scharf, Herbert W. Spencer and Paul Van Loan. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Alfred Newman. Album produced by Ray Faiola, Nick Redman and Craig Spaulding.

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