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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Swinging Cinema, Part 2 (originally published 12/98)

I was commenting last week on the recent revival of the swing sound in popular music. As a long-time fan of the big band sound, I have been both gratified and amazed by the reappearance after some forty years of such names as Louis Prima on the popular culture's radar screen. Naturally, I am also heartened by the thought that this renewed interest in thirties and forties music might lead to a comparable groundswell of interest in older movies. Certainly there is plenty of swing to be found on the "classics" shelf of the corner video store. We looked at a few such titles last week. Here are some additional big band movies to look for.

"Second Chorus" (1940). Over the years, this inoffensive little movie has been endlessly maligned. Fred Astaire, who stars in the picture, once described it as his worst film, and critics seem to have agreed. Admittedly, it isn't a typical Astaire film in that the dancing is minimal. Also, Astaire is partnered with Paulette Goddard rather than the reliable Ginger Rogers. Still, for fans of swing music this is a gem that should not be overlooked. Astaire and Burgess Meredith play a couple of trumpet players who have managed to avoid adult responsibilities through the simple expedient of being perpetual college students. When their college band, under the shrewd guidance of their manager (Goddard), begins to take play dates away from Artie Shaw's band, Shaw himself comes to campus to check out the competition. In addition to seeing Shaw as himself, you'll be treated to some terrific swing numbers, including Shaw's own "Concerto For Clarinet," written especially for this film.

"Orchestra Wives" (1942). This one is an absolute must for the swing connoisseur. It features the last screen appearance of Glenn Miller before his untimely death. The gang's all here: Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke, The Modernaires, and the whole Miller Orchestra. There's a plot in there somewhere, something about a trumpet player's wife touring with the band and becoming jealous of the band's singer, but the real attraction is the great Miller music. "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" received an Academy Award nomination as Best Song.

"The Fabulous Dorseys" (1947). Sibling bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey belong to a very exclusive club - those who have starred in movies about their own lives. It's a pretty standard show business biography chronicling their rise to prominence in the musical world from humble beginnings. The main storyline revolves around their bitter sibling rivalry and how their father's death finally brings them together. Along the way, there's plenty of good music and an incredible roster of big band star talent, including Charlie Barnet, Art Tatum, Paul Whiteman, Bob Eberly, and Helen O'Connell.

"Young Man With a Horn" (1950). Kirk Douglas stars as Rick Martin, a talented young trumpet player whose brilliance on the bandstand is offset by the shambles of his personal life. The character was based loosely on the life of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Douglas's trumpet playing was provided by jazz trumpet virtuoso Harry James, who also served as a technical advisor on the production.

"The Benny Goodman Story" (1955). Having immortalized Glenn Miller with a movie biography in 1954, it was only natural for Hollywood to drop the other shoe by making a film of bandleader Benny Goodman's life. Steve Allen portrays Goodman as a soft-spoken fellow who lets his music do the talking. The film's premise seems to be that it was Goodman who invented the swing sound. To say that this is a bit of an oversimplification would be a bit of an understatement, but it does make for a good story. The music, on the other hand, is absolutely authentic, featuring Goodman's own musicians, from Gene Krupa to Lionel Hampton to Teddy Wilson. Goodman himself dubbed Allen's clarinet playing.

The swing era had run its course by the time "The Benny Goodman Story" was made, but there have been occasional films since that time that have looked back with fondness at the music that kept America dancing through the war years. Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" (1977) and "Swing Kids" (1993) are two noteworthy examples. Now, however, with swing back on the current charts, I can't help wondering if we'll see new swing movies that aren't just exercises in nostalgia. One can only imagine what "The Squirrel Nut Zippers Story" will be like.

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