Some of our most iconic songwriters have been given the Hollywood Treatment, which is to say ersatz biographies, none the less entertaining for recreated musical numbers and star chemistry despite sketched history. To stream:
George M. Cohan: Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942 Directed by Michael Curtiz. A biography of “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” Nominated for eight Academy Awards, won three, including Best Actor. Thoroughly engaging and the most fun James Cagney (an avowed song and dance man) ever had making a film. Persuaded out of retirement for the Rogers and Hart show I’d Rather Be Right, in which he played President Roosevelt, Cohan looks back at his life from being raised in a vaudeville family to writing and performing in his own musicals. A good look at the era in show business, particularly Cohan’s devotion to the country. Sets, costumes, and dance steps match the original stage presentations. Cagney’s terrific.
With Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, Rosemary DeCamp, Eddie Foy Jr., Jeanne Cagney, Frances Langford. Cohan consulted on the film. At first Cagney wanted no part of it as the artist had sided with producers during the Actor’s Equity Strike of 1919. Cagney like Cohan, was an Irish American who had been a song-and-dance man early in his career. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Jerome Kern: Till the Clouds Roll By 1946 Directed by Richard Whorf. Robert Walker is Jerome Kern, Van Heflin plays James I. Hessler, the composer’s mentor/arranger. The bio is extremely simplified in order to spend most of the film on musical numbers predominantly recreated by those who performed original iterations. Featuring, in part, June Allyson, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Tony Martin, Gower Champion … Kern was involved with the production, but died before it was completed. Bosley Crowther called the film hackneyed and sentimental, but for those who want to see the musical performances… Rent on Amazon Prime.
Cole Porter: Night and Day 1946 Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Cole Porter: De-lovely 2004 Directed by Irwin Winkler with Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, and Jonathan Pryce as an Archangel. Neither of these films has much to do with reality except in rough outline, but at least you have Cary Grant, Alexis Smith and Monte Woolley-playing himself, in the first. Depictions of homosexuality were prohibited and without the rags to riches storyline, both scripts meander. The songs, of course, are great.On Amazon Prime.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart: Words and Music 1948 Directed by Norman Taurog. Mickey Rooney plays cigar chomping, height-conscious, depressive alcoholic Larry Hart with Tom Drake secondarily Richard Rodgers. The men partner up young, struggle to reach success, separate, and come together again to write 28 stage musicals and more than 500 songs from 1919 until Hart’s death. With Janet Leigh and Betty Garret as romantic interests. Ann Southern, Perry Como, Cyd Charisse and some of the stars who performed in the original shows do musical turns. Best remembered for featuring the final screen pairing between Rooney and Judy Garland and for the over budget showcasing of the Rodgers and Hart catalogue. No mention of Hart’s homosexuality, minimization of self destructive behavior. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby: Three Little Words Directed by Richard Thorpe. An engaging film taking vaudevillians Burt Kalmar (Fred Astaire) who aspired to be a magician, not a song-and-dance man, and dogsbody Harry Ruby (Red Skelton) past a thorny meeting into a partnership that produced dozens of Tin Pan Alley hits including “So Long Oolong, How Long You Gonna Be Gone?” “Who’s Sorry Now?” “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and “Three Little Words.” Wives, played by Vera Ellen and Arlene Dahl connive to get the pair back together after a breach. Entertaining. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Gus Kahn I’ll See You in My Dreams 1951 Directed by Michael Curtiz. Danny Thomas plays lyricist Gus Kahn, a persistent poor boy from the Lower East Side who’s encouraged, supported and steered by his smart, devoted wife Grace (Doris Day). Kahn had enormous hits, such as “Pretty Baby,” “My Buddy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “It Had to Be You,” “Makin Whoopee,” “San Francisco,” and “Liza.” He worked with everyone who was anyone then. This paints him as insecure and modest as he is talented. Lots of genial music. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Top photo: Richard Rodgers at Piano, with Lorenz Hart. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. No Known copyright restrictions.