Thursday, April 07, 2016


In mid-1800s Pittsburgh, the Foster family's fortunes take a nosedive and Stephen, the dreaming layabout son, is pressured to take a clerical job in Cincinnati when what he really wants to do is write songs based on the folk songs that he hears black dockworkers sing while they work—"music from the heart of a simple people," he says. He's sweet on Jane but gets easily distracted by his musical daydreaming. Stephen manages to sell a song, "Oh! Susanna," to Ed Christy, head of a famous minstrel group, and the song becomes a hit, but Christy takes all the credit so a discouraged Stephen takes the Cincinnati job. Later, after the two men engage in a brawl, Christy offers Stephen a regular job (with full credit) writing for his group. Soon, the hits are coming ("Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home") and Stephen's future is bright enough that he can marry Jane. Unfortunately, Stephen develops a drinking problem that eventually leads to the breakup of his marriage. At the outbreak of the Civil War, his songs fall out of favor in the North because they're seen as glorifying the South, and he winds up living as a Bowery bum. Jane visits him just as Christy is about to debut his new song "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)"; the audience is uneasy about hearing yet another song of the South, but news comes during the concert that Stephen has died from an accidental fall, and the song is a hit.

I found the older Foster biopic (HARMONY LANE) to be fairly drab and depressing, and lacking in music. This film is in color, has a more charismatic lead actor (Don Ameche), and several musical performances, mostly by Al Jolson (in blackface) as Christy. But it's still on the drab side. Both films are highly fictionalized, which is to be expected with Hollywood biographies, but this one contains a deliberate falsehood that works against the sentiment the film works up for Foster. His last song wasn't "Swanee River"—that was published almost fifteen years before his death—it was "Beautiful Dreamer," a lovely song which the movie uses frequently as background score but which is never actually sung. The climax would have been much more effective had it been "Dreamer" performed for the first time moments after Foster died. Ameche and Andrea Leeds are OK as Foster and his wife, but both characters are underwritten to the point that she has no detectable personality and he is presented only as a lackadaisical dreamer or an aimless drunkard. The genesis of Foster's songs is usually presented in the awkward Hollywood way: Jane's reminiscence of being "down on the river…long ago" triggers "Swanee River"; the death of a black servant inspires Foster to write "Old Black Joe"; and of course "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" is written about Jane. Jolson's performances are energetic, though his blackface will be a distraction to modern audiences. I enjoyed Felix Bressart playing a music teacher and lifelong friend of the Fosters. The DVD print is colorful if a little on the dark side. [DVD]

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