Saturday, July 31, 2010


"Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster is perhaps my all-time favorite "old-time" song so I was pleased to run across this biopic of Foster, possibly the most famous American songwriter until Irving Berlin came along. Unfortunately, this is a Poverty-Row studio affair (from Mascot), so its entertainment value today is rather slight, but for film buffs it's interesting as a low-budget version of the kind of glossy musical biographies that MGM and Fox would produce in the 40's. Foster (Douglass Montgomery) grows up in Kentucky, seemingly more comfortable with the house slaves than with his own family. He's dragged away from an all-black church service to be given the bad news that his father wants to send him to Cincinnati to go into business with his brother. He's not happy about this--he wants to write songs--but when he tells his girlfriend Susan not to cry for him, he comes up with a little ditty that becomes "Oh, Susannah." In a three-minute montage, we see that song sweep the world and soon Foster gets chummy with minstrel king Edwin Christy (William Frawley) who pays him to write songs for his group. Foster sells Christy all the rights to "Swanee River" for $500, including the right to claim authorship, and this becomes a trend in Foster's life: he writes popular songs but doesn't have the business sense to become financially independent through music. He marries a girl named Jane who then suddenly decides she's not crazy about living with his family, hence the sale of "Swanee River" so they can move out on their own. Their marriage foundering, Foster begins seeing Susan again until Jane announces she's pregnant. And so it goes: Foster writes songs but can't make enough money to keep his wife happy, keeps pining for Susan, and starts drinking, leading to a sad, untimely death.

Montgomery isn't bad but his range in the film goes from addled-looking to sad to drunk, and back again. The character is not exactly unsympathetic, but we don't see anything beneath the surface to admire or identify with. Evelyn Venable is good as Susan, Joseph Cawthorn is amusing as a mentor of Foster's, but the best performance comes from William Frawley--I like him as Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy" but I'd never thought much of his movie roles until this one. He steals every scene he's in, which given that he's usually with Montgomery, may not have been hard to do. (BTW, his character's group was the inspiration for the name of the 60's folk group, The New Christy Minstrels, who are still performing today.) What this movie is really lacking, oddly enough, is musical numbers. The tiny budget wouldn't allow for big production numbers, but considering Foster's output, it's rather sad that all we get are abbreviated and lackluster versions of a handful of songs (including "My Old Kentucky Home" and a decent "Beautiful Dreamer"). Fox did a Foster movie with Don Ameche a few years later (SWANEE RIVER), but it seems to have become a rarity. [DVD]

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