The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Is this the 1938 equivalence of Pink Floyd The Wall?

with 9 comments

I watched a black and white movie from 1938 this weekend. It was called Alexander’s Ragtime Band and in one way it reminded me of Pink Floyd The Wall.

What they have in common is that they both consist more or less only of music numbers, one song after another.

But apart from that, it was quite a different creature to be honest.

Irving Berlin songs
Take the music for instance. While the pounding and the guitar riffs in the opening of the Wall still sends shivers along my spine, you can’t say that Irving Berlin’s classical musical numbers have the same effect on me.

I’m sure there are some fans of this kind of musical songs out there and I’m sorry if you take offence, but honestly I can only enjoy so many swinging orchestra numbers before they start to melt together. Up to ten I guess stomach easily, but 20? 30? Even more? In this movie, there’s absolutely no end to the singing and swinging.

So many songs! So little story! No surprise that it was Irving Berlin who wrote the story. According to IMDb he has written 453 soundtracks (crazy, I know, but the guy became over a hundred years old) but only 8 stories. That shows.

Basically this film is just one two hour long concert, interrupted with a few conversations and exchanges of kisses and unhappy glances here and there.

I guess there was some kind of plot, but even a few days after watching it I struggle to remember what it was about. I think there was this couple with the chemistry that had them quarrel first time they met, so we knew right away they were made for each other.

And then there were those mandatory figures when life puts up obstacles to keep them apart but in the end [SPOILER ALERT!] love will prevail. As always (unless you’re watching a very new and dark and edgy indie movie, where anything apart from an unhappy or ambiguous ending is considered cheesy).

I recall there is a hint about a war that has impact on people’s lives, like with Pink Floyd, but that’s where the similarities stop. With this type of movies you can see that people are unhappy for various reasons, but it’s purely an intellectual exercise. I don’t feel it in every cell of my body as I do listening to or watching The Wall.

I guess the comparison is a bit unfair, and it’s mostly there to highlight how vastly different movies can be, something that never ceases to amaze me. The intention of a 1938 romantic musical was hardly to rock the world of the audience and toss them into melancholy or  rage or introspection. The aim was simple: to entertain and give a couple of hours of escape and I’m pretty certain this movie succeeded with this well for a contemporary audience.

Alice Faye
But what about me then? Is there any way that a Pink Floyd fan who doesn’t care for Irving Berlin still can find some reason to recommend Alexander’s Ragtime Band to a film fan in 2012?

As a matter of fact: there is. The reason is a she and her name is Alice Faye and she plays the leading role.

Apparently she was one of the brightest shining stars in the 1930s. I don’t know if I should feel embarrassed about it or if I can hide behind the fact that I’m not an American and can’t be expected to know all about the history of Hollywood, but I had never heard of her before watching this.

Everything I know about her, I’ve learned through the documentary “Alice Faye: The Star Next Door“, which I found in the extra material. Not particularly impressed by the movie, I started to watch it without expecting very much at all. But I soon found myself pretty much absorbed by the story about this girl who came from poor conditions and then worked her way up to become a huge star, until she all of a sudden snapped out of it and left it all behind her.

It’s intriguing not only as biography, but also because you learn so much about the conditions for the people who worked in the studio system and what happened when it all changed. I guess it’s trivial if you know a lot about film history, but for me it was very much enlightening.

I was so charmed by the story about Alice Faye that I actually started to re-evaluate the entire movie, and my final rating bumped up from a 2 to a 3/5.

A part of film history
Pink Floyd’s music is more to my taste than Irving Berlin’s, but you can’t put them against each other; it’s not one thing or the other. They’re both part of music and film history.

I’m tempted to call them bricks in the wall, knitting to the Pink Floyd theme, but since walls are prone to be torn down, I’ll call them puzzle pieces instead.

Filmmakers from all over the world have been working since the birth of cinema on making a picture of mankind. The big picture includes all genres – comedies, thrillers, musicals, dramas, even porn. It’s all a part of what it means to be human. There are all sorts of different songs that need to be sung and some of them by Alice Faye. I’m glad I finally got to learn about her. And there’s a good reason why she has her own star on the walk of fame. May it keep shining.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Henry King, 1938)

My rating: The movie: 3/5. The extras (which also includes a commentary track by a film restoration expert): 4/5

Written by Jessica

May 11, 2012 at 12:39 am

9 Responses

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  1. I love swing! But admittedly it works better in the ears than in the eyes. I think I have only heard the Andrews Sister’s version of the song, but the movie should predate them.

    Sofia

    May 11, 2012 at 6:11 am

    • Never heard of Andrews Sister tbh, you’re the expert in this. The music is swingy, but still not. It starts out with a small orchestra that… swings. But then as time goes by it grows and towards the end it’s big as a symphony orchestra. I’m actually not sure what the proper genre word is for it. It’s not something I’m particularly much into though. So 30+ songs in that style, that’s a few too many.

      Jessica

      May 11, 2012 at 7:12 am

      • Big Band is probably the closest. Big Band really got to be the thing in the ’40s with Glenn Miller, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, etc, but Alexander’s Ragtime Band would be a prototype of the genre, which featured swing and light jazz performed by large orchestras, heavy on the brass.

        Jandy

        May 14, 2012 at 11:53 pm

        • “Big Band” Yes! I recognize that. That’s the proper label for this.

          Jessica

          May 15, 2012 at 7:32 am

  2. Great post. I understand what you mean. I love musicals, but I can’t stand them when they’re all song and dance and no story. The last one I watched in that vein was Ziegfeld Follies (http://fernandorafael.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/ziegfeld-follies-1946/). And don’t worry, I’d never heard of Alice Faye before, either.

    fernandorafael

    May 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    • I think I prefer the older musicals when they’re paired with dancing. Fred Astair and Gene Kelly are pretty unresistable. Puts a big smile on my face when I watch it.

      Jessica

      May 14, 2012 at 7:45 am

  3. I quite like musicals like this, even if I know they’re corny and way out of date. But I grew up with them, so that probably plays a big part. You’re on the right track, actually, comparing it to The Wall, at least in the sense that Irving Berlin songs were incredibly popular at the time, and in most cases (including this one, as far as I know), he didn’t really write new songs for movies as much as movies were built around songs he’d already written and were popular. So part of the draw for people at the time was to go see and hear all these songs performed that they’d enjoyed on the radio or playing themselves at home.

    Incidentally, that also explains the massive number of soundtracks listed for Irving Berlin – it’s not like he sat down and wrote 453 different soundtracks, but that one or more of his songs have been used in 453 different movies, so he gets a soundtrack credit for them. I’d wager a good portion of those are just the gazillion different uses of “White Christmas.”

    Jandy

    May 14, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    • Thanks for pointing that out about Irving Berlin’s huge production. I should have realized that. And yes, White Christmas probably counts for a great deal of them. I wonder how many. I bet out there is some enthusiast out there who has the figures…

      Jessica

      May 15, 2012 at 7:34 am

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