Do it Again, From the Top

The Oscar-winning German director takes on a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, in any case a pleasant diversion

Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton | Photo: Paramount

Word on the street is that Hollywood is in the thrall of franchise-building and sequel-itis. The argument goes that the market is flooded with thinly disguised retreads, twice and thrice-told tales, and endless re-imaginings, from Tron, to Harry Potter.

Get used to it: Modern movie-making is an art demanding commercial smarts. Cautious (aren’t we all?) investors take comfort in familiar characters, predictable plot lines, and happy-endings, all trotting the boards in well-worn raiment. Catering to audience expectations, even an ambitious artist may re-make a previously released film, building on a past success, even his own. The artistic challenge, the mark of a showman, is to not only top ones self, but to walk away while the audience begs for more.

Howard Hawks was one of these, what you might call a “repeat offender,” a director who shamelessly stole from himself, repeatedly adapting the same underlying material. In Hawks’ view, “there are about 30 plots in the entire history of drama,” so why re-invent the wheel? It’s not just a Quentin Tarantino parlor game, take a look at his late westerns – Rio Bravo into El Dorado (1966) into Rio Lobo (1970) – and spot the recurring ideas, characters, even lines of dialogue. As producer and the (often uncredited) co-writer of his films, Hawks, worked as an almost independent filmmaker, an early and successful  “auteur” in an industry devoted to consumer goods. With a career that began in the silent era, Hawks had been around long enough by the mid-1930s to understand what the audience wanted, and how to give to ‘em…and give it to ‘em again.

In the recent  Austrian Film Museum retrospective “Howard Hawks: The Complete Works,” we see him in nearly every Hollywood genre, more often than not making money for the respective studios and the likes of Sam Goldwyn. Hawks, the artist, delivered standout examples of everything: gangster movies (Scarface, 1932), film noir (The Big Sleep, 1946), adventure films (Hatari!, 1962), films about flying (Only Angels Have Wings, 1939), war movies (Sergeant York, 1941), musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953), Westerns such as Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) and of course, screwball comedies Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940).

A wonderful case in point, showcased in the Museum’s series, came as their gift to film fans, an evening featuring back-to-back adaptations of a Billy Wilder story. Ball of Fire (1941) which Sam Goldwyn produced and Howard Hawks directed, was followed by its remake,  A Song Is Born (1948). Ball of Fire is a comedy classic, featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a gangster’s moll who finds cover with a team of seven scholars, laboring away in obscurity on an encyclopedia. With worked stalled on the “S” volume, Stanwyck pitches in to assist (Prof.) Gary Cooper with the entry on modern “Slang”.

Ironically, Ball of Fire, with its deft, hilarious strokes of wit, seems more a joke on, rather than by, Goldwyn, notorious for his mangling of even the most common idioms of everyday speech. A shrewd businessman, Goldwyn for example famously was quoted that “(a) verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” but one wonders if the writers hope to get one past him. Stanwyck asks if the assembled lexicographers know the meaning of “I’ll catch you on the Ameche.” Her response, ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it,” suggesting that history was made by Darryl F. Zanuck, Goldwyn’s rival at Fox and producer of “The Alexander Graham Bell Story.”

A Song is Born, the musical remake, told its story with six professors writing a music encyclopedia, harboring the fugitive moll (Virginia Mayo) who awakens these sleepy souls to modern jazz, providing a welcome excuse for the film’s musical numbers that provided jobs for jazz greats Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Mel Powell during one of the industry’s recording bans.  Sadly, it all falls a little flat, though as an exercise in “jazz on film,” A Song is Born is a “see-worthy” vessel. (Almost a foretaste of the remake, possibly its inspiration, Barbara Stanwyck was ably supported in the first film by another jazz legend, Gene Krupa, and his orchestra, including Roy Eldridge among others).

To his credit, Goldwyn assembled much the same winning team, along with Hawks such below-the-line talents as  cinematographer Gregg Toland and production designer Richard Day, this time working in Technicolor, and delivering the goods in spectacular form up on the big screen.  Where both Hawks and Goldwyn seem to have failed was in the crucial matter of text: with an extended wrangle involving Wilder and a raft of wordsmiths, the shooting script was a hash of re-writes and unfunny compromises. Ultimately A Song Is Born became that rare narrative feature without a screenplay credit. It shows.

Contrasting Ball of Fire with A Song is Born the distance between art and craft all too clear. Here, given the popularity of post-war film musicals, art surely served commerce. But without much of a script, it lacked the crackling energy that ignited Ball of Fire. Then again, hearing Louis Armstrong jam with Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman improvising to Grieg, is indeed a Zeitreise, all in carefully coordinated Technicolor photography, making the most of the soft, pastel tones characteristic of the three-strip process.

Hawks is said to have expressed disappointment with this remake. Still, for those of us who love film – or jazz – A Song is Born is a beautiful failure. It may be scorned as the decadent fraternal twin, shunned for the crass effort to recycle Hollywood gold for profit. But intoxicating pleasures take hold in their own way.


For details and the full film program for this month the see the following link to the Austrian Film Museum website:

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