Sunday, October 05, 2014

Tonight's Movie: A Song is Born (1948) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Over the past month I've enjoyed reviewing three of the films from the wonderful Warner Archive set titled Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years. I started with UP IN ARMS (1944) and then moved on chronologically to WONDER MAN (1945) and THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (1946).

The Kaye films have all held up as very enjoyable entertainment, and the Warner Archive prints have been outstanding; as I commented in my review of UP IN ARMS, I'm not sure the print quality could be improved on Blu-ray discs, the DVDs look that good.

It's now time to take a look at the final film in the Kaye set, A SONG IS BORN (1948). A SONG IS BORN is a remake of the Gary Cooper-Barbara Stanwyck comedy classic BALL OF FIRE (1941), which I reviewed in 2011. It's especially interesting to note that Howard Hawks, who directed the original film, also directed this Danny Kaye remake just a few years later.

I felt a sense of deja vu when Mary Field walked into the room at the start of the movie; she played the very same role, Miss Totten, in the original film!

The original story about a group of sheltered professors translates well to this musical remake, with the professors -- who include Benny Goodman! -- living together in an old mansion while working on a music encyclopedia.

Into the midst of this group of bachelors comes Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo), a nightclub singer hiding out from the district attorney until her boyfriend, mobster Tony Crow (Steve Cochran), can marry her. Tony has finally popped the question because Honey has evidence regarding an incriminating situation in which he's involved, but wives can't testify against their husbands. Hence, wedding bells at last for Honey and Tony.

There's only one problem -- while hiding out in the professors' home, Honey has fallen in love with Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye), and he's proposed.

A SONG IS BORN is a delight, especially for those who love '40s jazz, as the film is packed with some of the greatest musicians of all time. It's not just entertaining, it's a valuable historical record -- Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Louie Bellson all jamming together onscreen, and that's just for starters.

Kaye is quite restrained as the reserved professor, without any of his usual long patter songs, and I really liked this less manic version of Kaye. It may be the closest of his '40s films to my favorite Kaye performance in WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954).

Mayo, who was also Kaye's leading lady in the set's WONDER MAN and THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, not to mention THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947), is terrific as Honey, a tough girl who falls for the professor despite herself. She makes a terrific entrance performing the song "Daddy-O," effectively dubbed by Jeri Sullavan. Mayo's peaches and cream complexion always looks stunning in Technicolor, and when she stands in the sunlight, it's completely understandable why the professor falls for her.

It's fun to have Steve Cochran, who like Mayo was in WONDER MAN and THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, playing Kaye's rival. Cochran and Mayo were cast in numerous films together, most notably WHITE HEAT (1949). In her autobiography Mayo wrote movingly about how much she liked Cochran and what good friends they were; although Cochran was quite the ladies' man, they were just pals. She joked he wouldn't have had time to fit her into his busy romantic schedule anyway!

She also wrote that "...even though Danny and I had an excellent chemistry on screen, he really didn't like me much and was always asking for another actress." Despite Kaye's protestations over casting, the movies they made were successes and she was proud of them: "I hope I never seem ungrateful for the opportunity I had to play in those marvelous movies...I know I've been given a lot more magic in my life than many people have, and I am never ungrateful...It's been a perfectly wonderful gift to me."

In addition to Benny Goodman, the professors are played by Felix Bressart, Ludwig Stossel, O.Z. Whitehead, J. Edward Bromberg, and Hugh Herbert. This is probably the only time I've liked a performance by Herbert; the usual mannerisms which led my friend Ivan to describe Herbert as "a cinematic toothache" are completely absent in this film, until the very last scene. He's quite likeable when he's playing a calm, quiet character. Who knew?!

Additional musicians in the film include Charlie Barnet, the Page Cavanaugh Trio, the Golden Gate Quartette (who are just wonderful!), and Mel Powell. My dad passed on to me the great trivia that Powell, a pianist who was also a Pulitzer-winning composer, was long married to actress Martha Scott.

A SONG IS BORN runs 113 minutes. It was filmed in Technicolor by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose credits included WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), for which he received his Academy Award, and CITIZEN KANE (1941).

Mayo's wonderful costumes are by Irene Sharaff.

The disc for A SONG IS BORN includes the trailer. The Warner Archive DVD is recommended, along with the entire collection Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website. Please note that the initial sets of this series sold at the Warner Archive site are traditionally replicated (pressed) rather than burned on demand.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that number Daddy O. Virginia performs it so well even though dubbed.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I think I'm the only person who enjoys Hugh Herbert. I think he's hilarious. Going on and on about his snuff box collection in GOLD DIGGERS of 1935 and his desire for Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir in DAMES. I always enjoy Hugh Herbert though I realize he is not to everyone's taste.

But then I also enjoy the Ritz Brothers, another bane of most people.

I found A SONG IS BORN on VHS at a thrift store for 50 cents. Looking forward to watching it now after reading your review.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks said he turned this down, til Goldwyn came back with a huge offer. Didn't seem to much regard for it. Ironically, Hawks wasn't that adverse to remaking his own films: Rio Bravo/El Dorado.

4:01 AM  

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