Judge Clark Douglas frequently employs the music of John Philip Sousa when he wants to set a romantic mood.
"If they want Turkey in the Straw, we'll play Turkey in the Straw."
The marches of composer John Philip Sousa are so immediately memorable and have been so thoroughly integrated into American culture that one starts humming along after hearing only a few bars. Regardless of whether you find his work enjoyably stirring or gratingly bombastic, there's no question that Sousa earned his title of "The March King." It's perhaps inevitable that someone would want to turn the esteemed composer's life story into a movie, but there's just one problem: there's nothing terribly dramatic about Sousa's life. By all accounts, Sousa was an ordinary, decent American guy with a perfectly ordinary life. He established himself as the leader of the U.S. Marine Band, then went on to tour around the country with his own band for the next forty years. He was happily married and had several children. Not exactly biopic dynamite, right?
Perhaps it's no surprise then that Stars and Stripes Forever has a scant running time of 89 minutes (remarkably short considering this is both a biopic and a big budget musical, two genres which have a tendency to produce lengthy films). A sizable portion of the movie (particularly the second half) is devoted to staging musical numbers (many of the famed marches, but also a handful of more traditional numbers) while the actual plot occupies a rather minimal amount of screen time. The end result is a film which feels more like a musical revue with a handful of dramatic scenes than a proper movie, but that's okay. It's a pleasant way to pass 89 minutes.
Our film begins with breathless narration from Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter, Sixteen Candles), who excitedly tells us of the many different Sousas: Sousa the composer! Sousa the family man! Sousa of the 1890s! Sousa of the 1920s! Sousa the father! So many Sousas! All of these Sousas are played in amiable, straightforward fashion by the wonderful Clifton Webb (Laura), who commands the screen even in a rather thin role like this. We watch as Sousa makes his journey from well-liked composer to really well-liked composer, and hear a whole lot of jovial music along the way.
To juice things up, the filmmakers decided to give the straight-laced Sousa a fictional sidekick: the handsome, smirking, flirty musician Willie Little (Robert Wagner, It Takes a Thief). Over the course of the film, Willie is handed all sorts of subplots which provide Stars and Stripes Forever with more conventional moments of drama. He falls in love with an energetic singer (Debra Paget, The Ten Commandments), invents the famous Sousaphone (something actually done by C.G. Conn at Sousa's request), goes overseas to fight in WWI, and eventually returns with a missing leg. The inclusion of this character seems more than a little silly (and Willie often makes Sousa seem like a supporting player in his own movie), but I suppose he's harmless enough.
The primary reason to check out the film is to enjoy the music, if you haven't gotten enough of that at Fourth of July parades over the course of your life. Still, it's kind of a kick to witness these grand tunes being married to the visual spectacle served up by director Henry Koster. The film's final performance of the title song is fairly spectacular, and the more traditional musical numbers aren't half-bad either. It's just about the most lightweight biopic I've ever seen, but I'll take this fluffy croissant of a movie over the conventional angst of many other films about musicians.
Stars and Stripes Forever (Blu-ray) offers a very attractive 1.37:1/1080p high definition transfer. It's clear that Fox has put a good deal of work into restoring this flick, as the image is bright, vibrant, detailed, and almost entirely free of scratches and flecks. Colors have a great deal of pop, blacks are deep, and flesh tones are natural. While a strong-looking film, it's a shame it was shot before the arrival of widescreen cinema. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track is quite strong; the sound is crisp, robust, and clean throughout. While I sort of wish we had gotten a new surround mix, it's hard to complain when the track is this vibrant.
Bonus features include a pair of featurettes ("John Philip Sousa's Contribution to American Music" and "From Our National March to the Silver Screen"), a handful of photo galleries, a theatrical trailer, and a DVD copy. Additional, the standard Blu-ray case is housed inside a thick cardboard slipcover which looks quite attractive.
Stars and Stripes Forever hardly qualifies as a cinematic classic (as old films about bandleaders go, you're better off sticking with The Glenn Miller Story), but it's a charming (if slightly silly) overview of Sousa's career and a generally pleasant watch. And on Blu-ray, it looks great and sounds excellent.
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