Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

The other day, scrolling through previous posts, I realised I hadn’t reviewed any Hollywood films for a while (to be honest, I’ve not even watched many Hollywood films over the past couple of months). I also realised that it’s been ages since I watched any films starring Tyrone Power, one of my favourite Hollywood actors. Time to amend that, I decided. So I got out a Power film I hadn’t watched before. An Irving Berlin production, replete with good songs and plenty of Ty candy.

Tyrone Power and Alice Faye in Alexander's Ragtime BandAlexander’s Ragtime Band begins by introducing us to Roger Grant (Power), an earnest young violinist, performing at a concert. In the audience are Roger’s aunt Sophie (Helen Westley) and her friend, Professor Heinrich (Jean Hersholt), both of whom are obviously very fond of the young man, and proud of his talent.

Roger with his aunt and her friend
Soon, we switch to another side of the world of music. Not the symphony orchestra style that Sophie and Professor Heinrich appreciate; this is Dirty Eddie’s, frequented by sailors. The crowd is rough and loud-mouthedand the band that’s been playing at the place has just tooted its last horn and banged its last drum: Eddie, in a fit of rage, has thrown them all out on the pavement.

Eddie’s dusting off his hands when, into his establishment walks Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), brash and brassy and looking for a job as a singer. She tries to wheedle Eddie into giving her a chance (she even brandishes the music for a new song—Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’—which she’s managed to get). Eddie is firm: no, he doesn’t want a singer, he wants a band.

Stella asks for a job
Just then, Stella spots a friend at a table, and rushes off to say hello, leaving the sheet music behind on the bar counter.

And, as it happens, just then, another lot turns up at Eddie’s doorstep, looking for a job. These are Roger and his friends. Eddie is inclined to boot them out too, but they’re all so earnest and eager, he consents to give them a chance. Right now, right here. Just one chance. One piece of music is all they’ve got to prove themselves.

...and Roger and his band ask for a job
Roger and his friends scurry about, and at this critical moment Charlie (Don Ameche), Roger’s friend and fellow musician, discovers he’s misplaced their sheet music. Meanwhile, Eddie is getting impatient: are they going to be playing, or not?
The bartender, who’s been looking on sympathetically, comes to their aid. He snatches up Stella’s abandoned sheets of music and passes them to Roger & Co. They can play that, surely?

So (with some hesitation) Roger and his friends start playing Alexander’s Ragtime Band—they soon hit their stride, and begin enjoying what they’re playing.
Almost simultaneously, Stella realises what’s happened behind her back, and comes racing up onto the stage. Not to accuse them of theft (that comes later), but to add vocals to the music.

A performance at Dirty Eddie's
She’s very good, and Roger and his band are very good, so they get a huge round of applause at the end of the song. And Eddie hires them, straight off, even though Stella and Roger get into an argument about who should be hired—Stella insists that it was her music, and without it they’d not have been able to play, while Roger insists that it was the band’s playing that got Stella her break. Eddie breaks this fight up by saying that he’ll hire all or none.

Stella and Roger therefore have to set their quarrel aside and agree to be partners, but they’re resentful. Eddie doesn’t care. As far as he’s concerned, Alexander (as Eddie’s dubbed Roger, though Roger tries to explain that that isn’t his name) and Stella are all part of one band. They have to lump it.

So they do, but that doesn’t make them think any the better of each other. Roger thinks Stella’s too loud and showy in a vulgar sort of way (there’s a scene where he rips off various accessories—a feather boa, some ruffles, some fake flowers, and so on—from an outfit Stella is wearing, in an attempt to show her that she’ll be better off without these)…

Roger and Stella
…and Stella thinks Roger’s too stuck up and hoity-toity.

Over the course of a few months, though, Stella gradually begins to get rather more elegant, and—in the course of one evening (actually, just one song), she and Roger realise they’re in love. Stella has been singing a love song that Charlie’s written and composed, and is unaware that Charlie had meant the song as a confession of his love for her.

Charlie sings a song for Stella
Now Stella has gone and sung that song, more or less to Roger (even though she was onstage), and we have the love triangle, with two men both in love with one woman.

Roger and Stella fall in love
Fortunately, Charlie is a light-hearted and friendly soul, who is so fond of both Roger and Stella, that he forgives them quickly and is very glad for both of them.

While Roger’s love life has blossomed, so has his musical career. The band—now calling itself Alexander’s Ragtime Band—is going places.
But, ever since Roger stepped foot onto the stage at Dirty Eddie’s, his relationship with his Aunt Sophie has gone down the drain. Aunt Sophie looks down on this very plebeian music, and refuses to even speak to Roger.

Shortly after ‘Alex’ and Stella have admitted their love for each other, they—along with Charlie—come across a news article about a theatre production magnate, Mr Dillingham, in town from New York. If only they could get him to come and see them perform! Alex, Stella and Charlie try to get in touch with the man, but are stalled by his secretary. Charlie, however, comes up with a brilliant idea. These wealthy men like good food, he asserts, and phones, pretending to be a French chef who once worked at the Astor… the long and the short of it is that Mr Dillingham falls for the bait and agrees to come savour the baby lobsters he’s being offered for dinner.

Charlie manages to entice Mr Dillingham
What he gets (besides the baby lobsters) is the chance to see and hear Stella and the band perform. Mr Dillingham is so floored—not by the band, but by Stella—that he invites her over to his table. Within a few minutes, he’s made her an offer: come to New York, and be a star on Broadway.

Mr Dillingham offers Stella a career on Broadway
Stella accepts, and is excited to bits. She races off to give Alex and Charlie the good news.
And Alex is thunderstruck, and then angry. This is Stella’s loyalty? That she, instead of pushing Dillingham to hire the band, grabbed his offer for herself? She’s so selfish?
Stella hits back. Does Alex think that because he helped her become refined and elegant, he has bound her to the band?
Charlie tries to intervene, but in vain.

Charlie tries to break up the fight between Roger and Stella
Within moments, they’ve split up. Not just Alex and Stella, but the band itself. Alexander’s Ragtime Band ceases to exist. Charlie goes off on his own, and Alex/Roger, now looking for an alternate career, ends up (I think I know where Waaris, Hum Dono, Usne Kaha Tha, and other Hindi films drew inspiration from) joining the army (the Great War has begun). Here, in between drills and training and whatnot, he hears news of the Navy putting up a show on Broadway—and is inspired to plead with his commanding officer to allow the Army too to do a show. There’s initial reluctance, but this is soon swept away and the military talent, under Alex’s baton, begins planning and rehearsing.

Roger organises a military concert
The performance at Broadway is a hit, the hall packed. Stella, seated and looking on with adoring eyes, comes backstage during the interval, asking to meet Alex. Alex’s initial reaction, on hearing her name, is of excitement; then pride kicks in, and he refuses to see her, saying he’s far too busy.

That, sadly, is exactly how he turns out to be—because, moments later, news arrives that the men have to cut their performance short and go out to the trucks that’ll be arriving to take them overseas into battle.

In front of Stella’s eyes—and with Stella unable to push her way to the crowd, even to say goodbye to him—Alex marches out at the head of his band, and off to the battlefields.

The men go off to war...
We don’t waste too much time on battle, even though we are given a glimpse of the world at war. Once the war’s over and the troops return home, so too does Alex. Stella has, by now, become a huge name in show business. And Alex, having long forgotten his anger at her betrayal, goes scurrying off to meet her. She’s delighted to see him, delighted enough for Alex to pluck up the courage to ask her if they can take up where they left off.

At which point, Stella drops a bombshell. But doesn’t he know? She’s married. She married Charlie.

Stella drops a bombshell on Roger
Alex’s world falls apart. His old pal Davey (Jack Haley), who’d been with him in the band and later in the army too, manages to find a bubbly and talented singer, Jerry (Ethel Merman), in the hope that Jerry’s enthusiasm will rub off on Alex enough to have him revive the band. But Jerry’s cheeriness doesn’t seem to have the slightest effect on Alex, who’d much rather drown his sorrows in drink…

Roger is introduced to Jerry
…while Stella, suddenly faced with an Alex returned from the front, is so unmistakably down in the dumps that Charlie realises that she’s still very much in love with Alex. He comforts her: the two of them, Charlie and Stella, have never had any illusions about this marriage, have they? So it’s time for a divorce, and Stella can go and marry Alex and live happily ever after.

Charlie has a chat with Stella
Huh?

Really, I’d started off thinking this film was going to be a rollicking, song-filled, dance-filled, romantic one. Then it turned a wee bit grim, what with the war and the quarrel that broke up the lovers. And at this point, it suddenly turned ludicrous and never looked back.

What I liked about this film:

The songs, by Irving Berlin. There are lots of them, studded all through the film, most of them no more than a few lines each. For me, the stand-out song is the title song—Alexander’s Ragtime Band—though other favourites included most of the songs picturised on Ethel Merman, who was pep personified.

And Tyrone Power, of course, one of my favourite actors when it comes to sheer eye candy (though, as I’ve mentioned previously, he does seem to be underrated as an actor—his acting ability was by no means mediocre). Mr Power isn’t called upon to do much acting in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, but he looks delectable enough. Alice Faye, though I started off thinking of her as miscast opposite Power (she looked too old for him), grew on me.

What I didn’t like:

Oh, dear. So much.

The main problem is with the storyline, which is far too thin to be of much use. Since the film’s chockfull of songs, it leaves little space for much else, especially in the first half of the film. As a result, while there are lots of songs, and we do see how Roger/Alex progresses from being a concert violinist to becoming the leader of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, to joining the army, etc, there’s zilch in the way of character development. This causes more problems, leaving a lot of questions unanswered, especially when taken in conjunction with what happens in the second half of the film.

For instance, why did Aunt Sophie—after being so anti Alex playing ragtime, suddenly do an about turn and become such a staunch supporter of his?

And why, for example, if she was so much in love with Alex, did Stella marry Charlie? I can understand she might have married him on the rebound, or might have given up Alex as dead after he went to war—but in that case, it might have helped to show what Stella went through to end up marrying Charlie. We, however, are never given a single glimpse of what Stella went through while Alex was at the front. Did she get lonely? Did she get erroneous news of Alex’s death? Did she think—even if mistakenly—that she liked Charlie enough to marry him? Did Charlie push her into marrying him?

Alice Faye as Stella Kirby
Similarly, when Charlie realises his wife still loves Alex, the alacrity with which he suggests they divorce so that Stella can marry Alex is too hard to swallow. Even given that Charlie is too fond of Stella and Alex to stand in the way of these two ‘true lovers’, this was too sudden, too quick. Some contemplation on Charlie’s part, some sense of dilemma, would have been in order. And some hesitation, some guilt on Stella’s part, would have made her more easy to like. The way she jumps at the offer left a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all, this isn’t a film I’d recommend for those who like good storylines and credible character development. Some of that does happen in the second half of the film, but the damage done in the first half really spoiled it all for me.

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11 thoughts on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

  1. When I started reading the review I thought here is a good film but as I proceeded and came to the end —- I agree with you the storyline appears to be thin. Hindi cinema like you rightly pointed out does draw a lot of its inspiration from the west, for instance apart from going to war, I had sense of deja vu while reading the review. The love triangle is a bit similar to Sangam, only in the Hindi film, Raj Kapoor almost pesters her into marrying him and then Rajendra Kumar returns and all the usual things happen. But all the same I will still say old films had a story, thin or otherwise, don’t you agree?

    • Shilpi, compared to this one, Sangam was a masterpiece of storytelling! Seriously, Alexander’s Ragtime Band fell really flat in that department – and what does happen after Alex/Roger returns from war and Charlie offers to divorce Stella is just one single plot element that’s stretched out (with almost no twists and turns to make it interesting).

      But. I know what you mean. Old films invariably had at least something you could enjoy. If not great stories and good acting and good direction (and a lot of them had all of those!), at least a sense of being there to entertain, to please. A few weeks back, watching some of this year’s Oscar nominees and winners – 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street – while I thought the acting was good, I found little else to really rave about. Most of them were films I wished I hadn’t seen, because they disgusted me. :-(

  2. Oh its a musical and the story line was rarely the strength for many of them of that time People flocked to the cinema to listen to Irving Berlin’s compositions and the songs, much like in the hindi films of old Also, it was the 40s and wartime, so escapist fare was just the right thing The tune ‘Alexander’s Ragtime band ‘ is still popular and played even today Good narrative review which one can read all the way easily

    • Agreed. Musicals rarely did have good stories (though I can point to some – like Fiddler on the Roof or even The Sound of Music, which is a favourite of mine – as exceptions). And some of the most escapist films in Hollywood date from the war years. Alexander’s Ragtime Band, of course, would have been probably shot before the war.

      Glad you liked the review!

      • Indeed there have been outstanding ones like those you mentioned and those with good stories as well as music stand the test of time Scores of Hollywood musicals of the 40s with Cyd Charisse Ginger Rogers Fred Astiare and Gene Kelly are only remembered for the tunes by the composers like Cole Porter Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin Even the names of the films are forgotten Coming to hindi films of yore only the compositions of SJ OP and such stand out Who remembers the stories of those films

        • “only the compositions of SJ OP and such stand out Who remembers the stories of those films

          I do! Let’s agree to disagree on this one. Not all films, of course, but a lot of the films with scores by OPN or SJ, had at least entertaining storylines. Possibly not excellent stories, but good paisa-vasool, most of the time. Mr & Mrs 55, CID, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Naya Daur, Howrah Bridge, Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon, Kashmir ki Kali, Mere Sanam… and that’s only some of OP Nayyar’s filmography, I’m not even starting on SJ’s corpus.

          Personally, I feel Hindi (and Indian, on the whole) film makers generally did a far better job of making musicals than did Hollywood. Yes, one had to agree to a willing suspension of disbelief – people in real life not usually breaking into song at the drop of a hat – but (perhaps because they had far more experience at this) MDs, lyricists, writers and directors here were more adept at weaving songs into a story than their counterparts in the West.

          • I am sure we agree that the music was super from both why debate the merits of the story lines that debate won’t reach anywhere : )

            Sent from my iPhone

            >

  3. Madhu, oops! Here I was thinking ‘Oh, no, she’s added another film to my ever-growing list of ‘films to watch’,’ when you tell me that it is stricken by the curse of the second half. :( Your review is more than this film deserves, though I shouldn’t complain. I get all the good parts without having to sit through the bad ones. *grin* Sometimes even eyecandy doesn’t help, does it?

    • Yes, sometimes eye candy just isn’t enough. :-( And Tyrone Power did act in some films that I’ve seen only for the eye candy, and have not been able to summon up the courage to watch again (A Yank in the RAF is another). Any time I feel like I need a dose of Power power, I go watch The Mark of Zorro all over again. That is perfect.

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