This is music to Judge Tamika Adair's ears.
Our review of Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years, published December 29th, 2013, is also available.
A Song is Born is a musical feast!
The popular consensus is that the original is better when it comes to remakes. That may be obviously correct in some instances, however the musical smorgasbord presented in A Song is Born should not be discounted simply because the film is a remake of the earlier Ball of Fire. While A Song is Born falters a bit under its weak plot and slow pacing, it is still very entertaining and features incredible performances by numerous prominent jazz acts from the period that more than make up for its flaws. For jazzophiles and swing heads, there is no better place to find the likes of Benny Goodman (nearly unrecognizable as one of the professors until he picks up a clarinet), Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Mel Powell and others as they come together in several amazing jam sessions.
Facts of the Case
A gifted and charismatic comedian well-known for his fast-patter singing and manic energy, Danny Kaye (Hans Christian Anderson) stars as the docile and amiable Professor Hobart Frisbee in the most subdued performance of his career. As the head of the Totten Musical Foundation, Frisbee supervises a secluded group of elderly professors that are compiling a musical encyclopedia. After discovering jazz through a couple of window washers, Frisbee decides to set out to the local nightclubs and lounges to gather a few of the musicians to add to his research. In his travels, he encounters Honey Samson, (Virginia Mayo, The Best Years of Our Lives) a beautiful and sassy lounge singer. After her gangster boyfriend attracts the attention of the authorities, Honey is forced into hiding. Over Frisbee's objections, she invites herself into the Foundation's quiet existence. Although Frisbee becomes entangled in Honey's problems as she leads the Mob to Frisbee and his colleagues, he falls for her as she teaches them the thrills of jazz.
It's a shame that most critics, past and present, who reviewed this film couldn't separate this charming musical from its predecessor. Although both films are directed by legend Howard Hawks, history tells us that Hawks wasn't too keen on remaking this story. The Turner Classic Movies website did a brief, but enlightening, write-up concerning the troubled production that sheds some light on Hawks' obvious disdain for the project and its actors. In one excerpt, Hawks implies that Kaye's subdued performance is not intentional or for the character's sake at all. Apparently, Kaye and his wife/writer/composer/manager Sylvia Fine had separated shortly before production and she wanted nothing to do with the project. Fine was the brains behind Kaye's talents and most of his success as a prominent comedian and performer was due to her musical and comedic genius. Fine not only refused to write Kaye's material for the film, but she also stipulated that no one else could either. Hawks said in his biography that Kaye was a wreck when faced with this dilemma in his career and lost his comedic charm. The separation proved to be a temporary lull in Kaye's life and career as they later reconciled and remained married until Kaye's death in 1987.
Based on a short story by prolific writer/director Billy Wilder, (Some Like It Hot) this tale is adapted in part from the fairy tale of Snow White. Honey Swanson is the less-than-pure Snow White, while the professors themselves are all based on the seven dwarfs. An interesting and rare tidbit about the script is that there is no writing credit. Hired by Samuel Goldwyn to adapt Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's Ball of Fire Oscar-nominated screenplay, Harry Tugend wrote a couple of drafts. Unsatisfied with the progress of the story, Goldwyn contracted many writers to make several revisions and create additional scenes. By the end, Tugend's handiwork was completely unrecognizable and he asked to relinquish his credit as writer.
Despite suffering from a motley collection of writers, the story remains compelling enough to hold your attention and keep you entertained. Some of my favorite moments are when Honey punches Miss Bragg, the Foundation's meddlesome and annoying housekeeper, the scene where musicians try to disarm the mobsters, and Kaye's fist fight at the film's finale.
In their fourth and final film together, Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo gave solid performances and their chemistry is believable. But their presences seemed interchangeable to me. In essence, the film was good enough that any decent actor and actress could have pulled it off, but their performances still lacked the magic that only an extraordinary actor and actress could bring. Because of that, it is safe to say that without the music, this film would be nothing special. Since the music is an integral part of the story, however, it remains a solid film. All the jazz greats appear as themselves, except the King of Swing Benny Goodman who stars in his first feature acting role as Professor Magenbruch.
Visually, the film is rich and lush in its Technicolor presentation. The video transfer is one of the best I've seen with very few artifacts or scratches if at all. Unfortunately, there are no special features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you loved the original Ball of Fire or are not a fan of jazz, A Song is Born is not for you. The slow pacing of the second half, the several jam sessions interspersed within the film, and the weak adaptation of the original film's premise may annoy you too much to bother. Plus, Mayo's performance is in no way near the Oscar-nominated performance that Stanwyck gives as Sugarpuss O'Shea in the original. Therefore, instead of drawing comparisons between the two films, why don't you save your sanity and skip it? A Song is Born doesn't hold up under such scrutiny. Remember: one man's garbage is another's treasure, and this film is not going to be enjoyed by everyone.
A Song is Born must be considered objectively, and independent of its predecessor. Regardless of their differences, A Song is Born is still an enjoyable story with lovely performances and an awe-inspiring soundtrack.
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