Here’s a movie I love even though it’s somewhat boring, with its visuals far outweighing the story. This is MGM’s lavish star powered biopic of composer Jerome Kern (Robert Walker), who penned some of the most famous musicals of all time – Show Boat being the most well known. If you consider yourself a fan of Jerome Kern, you’d do much better reading a biography of his life. This movie’s non musical segments just aren’t compelling. I’m not sure if it’s because Kern didn’t lead a colorful life or if the multiple directors couldn’t make something cohesive. It’s just so rote. Here’s a young man who wants to make music, here’s a young man finding success after false steps, here he is falling in love, now he’s an old man. The musical numbers are the reason to watch. And they are worth it for production value and the cameos by MGM’s fabulous contract stars.
One of my favorite actors and also someone I feel protective over, Bobby had a natural gift that some believe was squandered in this film. I might be contradicting myself, but while Kern’s life was lackluster, Bobby’s performance was not. There wasn’t much he could do about the script after all. Obviously this is not a film I’d recommend to witness Bobby’s vitality and sheer command of the screen.
Kern’s best friend, James Hessler. I haven’t yet disliked a Van Heflin performance, and the same is true here. I appreciated he and Bobby sharing the screen together, even if the non musical scenes were tedious. The duo easily could’ve starred in another movie (provided their contracts and home studios lined up). Kern and Hessler’s friendship is sincere and the two have definite chemistry, which is why I would have liked to see them in a better film.
Kern’s wife Eva who really doesn’t do much besides sing and give Kern heart eyes.
James’ daughter Sally. First we meet her as a little girl, and then as a young woman who wants to be a star. It’s revealed that Sally is always bouncing from school to school before she calls it quits so she can pursue her dream full time. Kern tries to discourage her, and if I’m remembering correctly, he does succeed.
The film opens with a condensed stage version of Show Boat, with Kern and Hessler in the audience. An ensemble begins the lively song about the Cotton Blossom, the titular show boat.
Four musical numbers are performed, the first being “Make Believe” with Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia (she would later reprise the role in the 1951 film) and Tony Martin as Gaylord. Miss Grayson was such a dream and of course, she sang beautifully.
Delightful “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” is performed solely by the underrated Virginia O’Brien.
Next up is Lena Horne with “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” She coveted the role of Julie Laverne and thought she would get the role in the 1951 film, but it went to Ava Gardner instead. Hers will always be my favorite rendition.
Angela Lansbury also makes a small appearance singing “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?” It reminds me of her role as the saloon girl in The Harvey Girls from the same year.
The film charts Kern’s successes by substituting plot for musical interludes. We don’t get to know the man, just his work. His name is up in lights but it’s just not enough to make us care.
One of my favorite numbers in the film is performed by June Allyson. “Leave It to Jane/Cleopatterer” is the right song for Junebug’s distinctive, raspy voice. She was nearly 30 during the film but she looks and sounds like a teenager. And I’m so obsessed with her outfit.
The title song is performed by Ray McDonald and it’s another earworm. June is featured but she doesn’t sing.
And yet another forever favorite is Van Johnson as a bandleader who performs “I Won’t Dance” with Sally at a nightclub. Van was nicknamed the “Voiceless Sinatra” but I refuse to tolerate that! He could sing well. And his footwork is also impressive considering his height and build. Maybe not the best but certainly not bad.
There’s one other real life person in this story, and that’s Broadway star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland). I wrote about Judy’s performance and Vincent Minnelli’s staging/direction of her number here.
Dinah Shore as the fairytale princess. (That’s not the name of the song, she just looks like one).
Cyd Charisse and Gower Champion in the Roberta number. These shots are dreamy perfection.
The finale concludes with snippets of Kern’s work sung by the various stars in the film. What’s odd is that Frank Sinatra sings “Ol’ Man River.” It’s only meant to mimic the style of a Negro spiritual, but he’s just out of place singing it.
Kathryn Grayson, “Long Ago and Far Away”
If this post has piqued your curiosity at all, the film is available to watch on streaming platforms as well as YouTube. The film fell into the public domain after MGM failed to renew its copyright. Much of the quality is terrible, so you’d have better luck waiting for it to air on TCM.
Even with its weaknesses, it’s still a musical that I enjoy, because each segment transports me to lovely places with equally lovely music.
Oh, the rain comes a pitter, patter
And I’d like to be safe in bed
Skies are weeping, while the world is sleeping
Trouble heaping on our head
It is vain to remain and chatter
And to wait for a clearer sky
Helter skelter, I must fly for shelter
Till the clouds roll by