Thursday, November 21, 2002


MGM's oversized self-important musical biographies aren't usually my cup of tea--they're basically revues with a few big names here and there, and lots of starlets and up-and-comers, surrounded by an almost totally fictionalized account of a songwriter's life. This one, however, works better than most. Robert Walker plays Jerome Kern, who apparently was still alive when this movie was being shot but died before its release. We see Kern as a young man frustrated by his inability to break into the Broadway "follies" shows; producer Harry Hayden is only looking for British talent. Walker meets up with "serious" composer Van Heflin, a completely fictional character who winds up becoming mentor and best friend to Walker. Once Walker breaks through, he is happy to toil away writing popular tunes, even as Heflin remains mostly unfulfilled. The narrative line begins with the triumph of Kern's Show Boat, flashes back through his career, and ends with him watching the filming of the MGM tribute.

This is not the kind of movie usually noted for its acting, but both Walker and Heflin are good, with Walker giving a nice low-key performance. But as with all of these films, the narrative winds up being a series of articifial tableaux to take up time between songs. Some of the better production numbers: Lena Horne starts things off with a bang singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine," looking stunning in purple and white, and getting to play, for a few minutes, the role she should have had in MGM's 1951 SHOW BOAT remake; the always funny and deadpan Virginia O'Brien does "Life Upon the Wicked Stage"; Angela Lansbury sings in a swing; June Allyson does the comic patter number "Cleopatterer"; Van Johnson and Lucile Bremer sing and dance to "I Won't Dance"; the climax is Frank Sinatra doing a fine job with "Ol' Man River." Also appearing: Dinah Shore, Cyd Charisse, Ray McDonald, and in a small non-singing role, Mary Nash, who plays Mrs. Lord in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Better than the average musical bio, even if it's almost certainly a total work of fiction.

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