Fox // 1938 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // November 2nd, 2004
An extravaganza of music, story, and romance.
If there's one primary thing about Alexander's Ragtime Band, it's that it is corny to the extreme. The story is pleasant but thin soup when held up to close scrutiny. The love triangle between the three lead characters must have felt clichéd even in 1938, and time hasn't been kind. Its sunny optimism even during darker moments will have half the potential audience running from the room. So why is Alexander's Ragtime Band worth seeing despite all this? Simply put, it is a terrific musical with such energy and life that to ignore it would be a crime.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the story revolves around Roger Grant (Tyrone Power, The Razor's Edge), a serious music scholar who longs to become a professional musician. Along with band mates Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell) and Davey Lane (Jack Haley, The Wizard of Oz), he settles down to play a gig at a local bar. Short on new music to play, the owner hands them the sheet music for "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Little does Grant know that the music belongs to songstress Stella Kirby (Alice Faye, In Old Chicago). Furious that her music is being played by another band, she begins to belt out the lyrics to the tune. With the roaring crowd approving of the result, the owner eagerly signs the band to a regular gig. On one condition: that Stella is the lead singer.
Grant changes his name to Alexander, and the band becomes a sensation. Although they tangle at first, Alexander and Stella soon fall in love, and the band seems headed for even greater heights. Then war breaks out, and Alexander is drafted to head up the Army's band.
With the modern movie musical having arrived with a resounding bang in 1952, it is hard to understand the impact Alexander's Ragtime Band had in 1938. Color had yet to make the maximum impact in cinema then, so black-and-white was perfectly acceptable. Most movie musicals of the time were static, dull affairs with the music poorly integrated in a creaky story. Alexander's Ragtime Band was a breath of fresh air in 1938. The trademark creakiness was gone, replaced by an infectious energy and vitality sorely lacking in most musicals of the time. Elaborately choreographed sequences were junked in favor of fully drawn characterizations. Best of all was the almost nonstop music; 33 Irving Berlin compositions were used in the filming, with 30 making an appearance in the film. The end result earned an Oscar nomination in 1938 for best picture and also garnered five other nominations, with Alfred Newman winning the Oscar for Best Score.
Fox presents Alexander's Ragtime Band in a full-frame transfer that preserves the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Sadly, the transfer is not up to the usually high standards Fox has established with the Studio Classics series. The transfer is very soft, with grain being a major culprit. I can forgive a little grain in a transfer, but there are scenes in which it becomes overwhelming. There is a distressingly high number of scratches and specks marring the image. The most disturbing imperfection is the vertical white line that stays in place for a good chunk of the film. It is possible that the original source elements were flawed, but it doesn't appear as if the studio even tried to spruce it up. It's no better than the prints used for cable television and VHS.
Audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and the original mono mix. The stereo mix should be avoided at all costs. The reprocessing results in a hollow, tinny-sounding mess that lacks vibrancy and oomph. The original mono mix is far superior, containing all the ingredients that the stereo mix lacks.
Since Alexander's Ragtime Band is a Studio Classics release, Fox has put together a decent package of extra content. We start with a feature commentary track by Ray Fiola, a film score restoration expert. Surprisingly, this is not the commentary one would expect from an expert in this area. Fiola covers all the important bases, including acting and historical perspectives. His delivery is enthusiastic but a bit on the dry side. There are also quite a few gaps of silence throughout. It's worth a listen, but I doubt it has much replay value.
The 45-minute documentary "Alice Faye: The Star Next Door" is merely an episode of A&E's popular Biography series. It is interesting and chock full of useful information, but it suffers from two major problems. First, it crams an entire career in a short running time. Major events are bound to be left out, and one gets that feeling as the program unfolds. Second, the program lacks a proper update. One gets the impression that Faye is still alive, whereas Fiola's commentary track states that she has passed away. Since the majority of people will watch the documentary rather than listening to the commentary track, a small update wouldn't have hurt.
Three deleted musical numbers are offered. It was exciting to see these numbers here, since they were assumed to be lost forever. (Let's face it, surviving deleted scenes and outtakes are rare for a film this old.) The first, titled "Some Sunny Day," is a showcase for Don Ameche and should have been left in the final cut. The second is a Jack Haley comedic tune, "In My Harem," which is charming, but one can see why it was dropped. The third is a blowout showcase for Ethel Merman titled "March Along with Me." This number has such energy and vigor that one wonders why it was cut.
"Movietone News Footage" is merely raw footage culled from British newsreels relating to that country's theatrical release of Alexander's Ragtime Band. It is in extremely rough visual and aural shape, but I was happy to have this rare footage all the same.
Theatrical trailers for Alexander's Ragtime Band and two future Studio Classics releases, How to Steal a Million and Three Coins in the Fountain, are offered as the final course to cleanse the cinematic palate. The trailer for Alexander's is presented in full frame. It is nothing more than a teaser trailer, but it is extremely effective. The trailers for Fountain and Million are presented in 2.55:1 and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, respectively.
Alexander's Ragtime Band is pure corn but rather tasty all the same. It remains fresh and enjoyable after all this time, and the performances save the picture from imploding on its thin story. Irving Berlin's music as performed by these actors will keep the toes tapping long after the final frame has passed. Fox has made a specialty out of affordable Studio Classics releases, so you can add this disc to your collection without guilt. The video elements could use some serious cleanup, though. Still, just to be able to own Alexander's Ragtime Band on disc is cause for celebration.
Since Fox usually does exceptional work with their Studio Classics releases, I'm inclined to let them go with a warning this time. I'm still shocked by the disappointing video transfer and hope that they do better next time.
The film itself is fun despite being corny, so I'll declare the studio not guilty. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Feature Commentary by Film Score Restorationist Ray Fiola
* A&E Biography episode: "Alice Faye: The Star Next Door"
* Three Deleted Musical Numbers
* Movietone News Raw Footage
* Theatrical Trailers