Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Song is Born

I've had A Song is Born (1948) in my tivo queue for more than a year. I don't know why I've overlooked watching it till now. I recorded it because it was a young Danny Kaye movie and I've always loved young Danny Kaye. I started watching it, with my usual twenty minute rule--if a movie doesn't hook me in that time, I turn it off. In the first twenty seconds I was intrigued because it looked like it was filmed on the Ball of Fire (1941) set. It took me another ten minutes or so to realize that A Song is Born is a technicolor musical remake of Ball of Fire, my favorite Gary Cooper movie. It was directed by Howard Hawks who made the original as well.

The script sticks very close to the original except that instead of creating a general encyclopedia, the professors are working on a complete history of music with a set of reference recordings. One of the professors is played by Benny Goodman and the group of musicians who drop by to help with the project are a who's who of Big Band Jazz. In one scene Goodman sits in on a jam session, pretending to know nothing about jazz. Lionel Hampton tells him that they all play without sheet music, just like Benny Goodman, to which the professor replies, "Never heard of him."

Danny Kaye and Virgina Mayo play the parts made immortal by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Mayo has that breezy, sexy way of singing and relating to the older professors that makes the movie crackle and kaye is adorable as usual. Kaye gets an added scene of typical nonsense. After he realizes he's in love with Miss Honey he eats breakfast, stirring jam in his coffee with a dill pickle, putting mustard on cake, etc. Happily its a short scene. As brilliantly funny as he is, he never seems to know when to end a gag.

Though the script sticks close to the original, some of the dialog is mangled in a Song is Born. Some scenes have been updated or cut down to make room for the musical numbers while later references are in tact from the original script. This would be a bit confusing if you hadn't practically had the original memorized as I do. You can see why they decided to remake this a musical. It makes sense since the fugitive from justice is a nightclub singer and the original has a very memorable musical sequence "Drum Boogie" which feature Gene Krupa on the matchbox.

Even though I think the story flows a bit better in the musical version, I still prefer Ball of Fire. Cooper and Stanwyck have amazing chemistry and the love scenes in A Song is Born are a bit flat in comparison. I found myself anxiously waiting for the next musical set piece rather than enjoying the romantic interaction between Honey and the Professor. Perhaps the problem is that in original, Cooper was playing against type and in the remake Danny Kaye is more or less playing Danny Kaye. Which is more romantic, finding Gary Cooper buried away under layers of dust in old mansion or finding Danny Kaye in the same circumstance?


kda0121 said...

I know I said this about Friendly Persuasion, but Ball of Fire is also one of my favorite Gary Cooper movies. I think it is far superior to the musical remake, A Song Is Born; although I like early Danny Kaye and who wouldn't want to look at Virginia Mayo in that gorgeous technicolor they used back then.

Jennythenipper said...

I agree completely. It's ok to have a Gary Cooper top ten! He certainly made enough movies.

Ball of Fire is the movie that made a Gary Cooper fan. It will probably always be at the top of my list.

I really liked the remake. I probably we keep it as a companion to Ball of Fire. I don't feel that way about "High Society." There is something pretty special about the group of musicians they put together for A Song is Born.

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