I Never Even Learned Short Division: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)

I would appear, at least according to IMDB, that any film that has won a an Oscar tends to get incredibly high ratings, all the more so when that film was released prior to say 1988.  While it is likely that the amount of people rating these films, are low and directly tied to those impassioned enough to go through thirties era films and make ratings erroneously high.  This is the case for the early version of Cimarron as well as films like Wings.  I go on this aside because while I am aware of quite a few films from this era that I actually adore, there seems to be something about the combination of Oscar winner plus thirties era that just do no mesh well.  Wings is not an outright terrible film, but it is not a piece of cinematic magic that having an Oscar should attain and that is certainly not the case for the musical Alexader's Ragtime Band as well.  Working from the music of Irving Berlin, it is indeed only the musical numbers that carry any weight and those elements could easily be gleaned from simply listening to the recordings detached from any moving images.  Suffice it to say, I was not impressed with Alexander's Ragtime Band and simply found much of what it had to offer a bit predictable and decidedly safe, even shooting itself in the foot further by including necessary images of performers in blackface.  I accept that this was a reality in most early musicals, but here they simply exist as background figures, not even relevant to the music at hand.  I would assume that much of the failing of Alexander's Ragtime Band comes from the director,  Henry King, attempting to use the same methodology as Busby Berkeley, wherein, lavish musical numbers were intercut with simple stories, the problem here however, is that there is no discernible rhythm for the various musical scenes and, indeed, the moments in between are often quite bland, consisting of half realized dialogue and a variety of less than fully realized acting moments.  Trust me, I wanted nothing more than to wholly embrace this film, but it simply proved to be a back drop for the swinging tunes of Berlin and the one or two moments of actually well-executed musical cinema were lost in the milieu of middle-of-the-road thirties studio mediocrity.

Alexander's Ragtime Band focuses primarily on the musical endeavors of violinist Roger (Tyrone Power) who sick of his bourgeois lifestyle seeks out solace by playing with a ragtime band at a local shipyard saloon. Along with the aid of his pianist and friend Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) Roger seems set to achieve moderate success playing popular tunes.  However, when the group plays one song by Irving Berlin titled "Alexander's Ragtime Band' it stirs up the frustrations of Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) a singer who had used the same song in her own repertoire.  Intervening in the performance by simply hopping on stage and sing, the combination of Roger's musicality and Stella's singing cause the audience to get ecstatic, being invited to perform an encore immediately after the show by the saloon's owner, much the the chagrin of Roger, who becomes in the moment known as Alexander and Stella who has no desire to work with the group.  Yet, the success cannot be denied and the two make amends, eventually coming to find each other very attractive, creating a burgeoning romance in the process. However, Stella is offered a lucrative solo career, which she jumps on immediately, leaving the band although promising to return for them once she accrues enough success, wherein the heartbroken Roger joins the military and works as a band leader and morale booster, although most just as a point of pride for the Army over the Marines.  Whilst away, Roger also gets married, leading to the now equally heartbroken Stella marrying Charlie in turn.  Thus the two create diverging musical lives, both with considerable success, although it is Roger and his turn as Alexander that proves slightly more productive, even attaining sold out shows at large musical halls.  Hoping to meet him one last time, not aware that he and his wife had attained a mutual divorce, she arrives at his sold out performance, only to hear him cue up "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Jumping at her chance to rekindle the flame Stella enters the music hall and is invited by Roger to join in singing.  The two share a tender embrace in the closing moments of the film.

In a variety of senses, Alexander's Ragtime Band is a film about appropriation.  In so much that it is borrowing, sometimes knowingly, other times, without awareness from other cultural institutions and points of popular reference to create a narrative anew.  This is not to be confused with say the post-modern use of reappropriation, wherein the same elements are used but to make a divergent, if not purposefully oppositional statement with the material.  Here, the most obvious appropriation comes in the way of the literal appropriation of the Irving Berlin songbook, the music in use almost arbitrary as long as it proves appropriately up temp or slowed down in regards to the point of reference in the film, it is only the title song and one other song within the film that seem to have definite relation to the larger narrative.  Indeed, even the entire sidewinding plot involving Roger's time in the military seems appropriated, as though the success of other war based musical numbers justified an entire bit about the beauty of the YMCA and waking up to walk of to war.  Sure the war element is present, but only in so much as it is meant to be a point of separation for the narrative to be resolved with unity.  The military appropriation is indeed so arbitrary to the plot as to almost feel exploitative.  I am not doubting that the intentions of the filmmaker and producers were not well-intended, but would also posit that such a wild redirection could only work as a result of it occurring right before the onset of World War II wherein all military imagery would have fell within quite strict use and regulation.  Of course, the most offensive of all appropriations comes in the unnecessary and outright exploitative use of blackface in this context.  I want to assure that I will not defend it as an institution within the classical entertainment industry, but I can accept that it was a popular medium of performance in vaudeville, here blackness as appropriated with absolutely no context, not even a racist one, although its inclusion merely for aesthetic completion and without any acknowledgement beyond this might be all the more racist.  Alexander's Ragtime Band is all about borrowing things, but none of it is done with a shred of skill.

Key Scene:  I really enjoyed the "Walking Stick" number but that is only a result of me doing a queer reading of the moment, although a completely obvious one if I do say so.

There are better thirties eras to watch than this, might I direct you towards Astaire and Rogers films.

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