Reviews of Alexander's Ragtime Band
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In its head, the beginning, Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a snappy happy fest on the birth of jazz music. It looses its pulse from the neck down and resuscitates with a lively heart. In the center there is a tale of heart-break down with more grit and emotive power than the standard love triangle. Unfortunately, Alexander’s Ragtime Band looses its legs in the latter half, rising to vitality only on occasion. But its moments of glory are indication that a great musical (in the vein of The Band Wagon) could have been in the works with a bit more attention to structure.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band, inspired by Irving Berlin’s song of the same name, celebrates musical liberation and a tribute to the youth that change the perception of what good music could be. Alexander (Tyrone Power) and his band are snubbed by high society when they forsake classical music in favor of ragtime, just as rock ‘n’ roll would spook stubborn musicologists some twenty years later. Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a forward-thinking film, but too much so at times. The opening, set in 1911, looks all too much like a product of the 30s, with few Edwardian accessories.
But Alexander’s music isn’t quite ragtime. Rather, it’s a water-downed version of ragtime that sounds quite similar to the classic music Alexander had been playing before. A more apt comparison, then, would be the bubblegum pop of the 50s and early 60s that tried to pass as real rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of people in the early 20th century thought that ragtime was dangerous because it derived from Black American music and we know all too well how history repeated itself in the 50s. But there’s no sense of danger or allure in this film. This is likely because the music isn’t quite ragtime. The movie seems afraid to acknowledge the shock that its source music created, and modifies its appreciation. Even Alexander’s band takes to the music slowly, almost accidentally. After losing the sheets to their classical pieces, they find a libretto with music that would pull Scott Joplin’s heartstrings (although he would have probably resented the failure to credit Black singers in the creation of ragtime).
When the music shifts, so does the locale. Alexander’s Ragtime Band opens with a classical performance in a theater of fusty critics. Accordingly, the discovery of ragtime occurs in a gritty saloon. The bringer of this music is Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), a pre-liberation free-thinking woman and a self-made Broadway success. She’s a sassy tease and isn’t shy about taking credit for the band’s success with the music and demands leeway into Alexander’s band. Unfortunately, her spunk soon dies and we see her change into conformity. Once in the band she becomes classier and subordinate, losing everything that made her interesting in the process.
Of course, her entry into the band is recipe for a backstage romance with Alexander and there will be the usual conflicts, this time in the form of Charlie, the band’s pianist played by Don Ameche, who forms the third corner of the triangle. If the story is traditional, Alexander’s Ragtime Band has a fanciful spirit that keeps it watchable even in its low spots. Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche are an attractive and likeable group and the film’s ambition to liberate music in way that would not be seen for at least fifteen years remains of absorbing interest. Especially noteworthy is the film’s depiction of the backlash following musical innovation. Soon after Alexander takes to ragtime his aunt and former critical admirers turn against him. It’s a do your own thing (with music) movie before such films came in vogue.
If Alice Faye becomes less interesting when Stella joins the band, Tyrone Power develops Alexander into a well-rounded artist, a tragic figure crippled by his ambition. He becomes confused and delivers mixed messages. On one side he stands up for hip music against old folks, but he is not above compromise and orders Stella to change her stage dress as he wants a band with “class”. But Stella stands by her vision and they reach a surprisingly mature resolution.
As Alexander evolves into an unsavory control-freak our sympathies began to lean more toward Ameche’s Charlie. He’s smart, creative, and stands behind what he says. He even stands up for Stella when she chooses to leave the band for Broadway.
What Alexander’s Ragtime Band lacks in between the numbers of the great Irving Berlin is a consistent narrative strength. Strip away the melodies and there isn’t much of a foundation. There is an idea of a story but it’s never molded. As cover, WWI is introduced in the film but it feels out of place here. Since the tone of WWI is one of disillusion and futility, it feels off in a musical. It is possible to make a comedy about WWI (Chaplin did) but it has to be dark or satirical. The boys’ experience in the army doesn’t feel like that of true combat but rather that of Boy Scouts on a camping trip. The closest the movie comes to matching real WWI sentiment is the scene in which the pretext of a musical is used to ship the soldiers out for real. It’s an allegory for the country’s loss of innocence.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band really picks up, however, after the hunk of WWI stock footage. Alexander returns from battle to find Stella married to Charlie. It’s a poignant look at lost love in the classical American sense. The most unforgettable shot in the scene is Alexander’s attempt to limp (his leg was wounded on the battlefield) away from Stella with dignity. But it’s clear that he is a warrior who’s been scarred both physically and emotionally. Maybe WWI, as off as its representation was here, was ultimately treated as the catalyst for change that it was. As did America, the movie changes from fluff to solid, even Prohibition is referenced. The songs too take on a darker shade. “Blue Skies”, sung by Ethel Merman (who plays the vocalist replacing Stella after the war), is the best song in the film and the one used to the best effect.
This newfound greatness perks up the picture before it makes the mistake of reverting back to how it began, as a string of songs without a backbone. Charlie suddenly calls off his marriage to Stella. This out-of-character move is clearly a plot device so that Stella can return to Alexander and the divorce is accomplished too easily.
The plot becomes secondary to the music in importance and that’s why Alexander’s Ragtime Band is never as strong as it should be despite some memorable tunes, including the breezy “Easter Parade”. Alexander’s Ragtime Band is uneven both musically and narratively, but it does have an equal supply of strong moments in both departments that are promising signs for the musical that could have been.