When composer Irving Berlin found the idea of a biopic on his own life a bit too intrusive, the solution was a fictional take on a bandleader, with robust songs and lyrics composed by Berlin. Shaped into a more straightforward musical drama without the familiar broad, comedic subplots of the musical genre, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" proved a huge success at the box office, and marked another career high for the studio's queen of musicals, Alice Faye.
Faye's name is less-known today, perhaps because MGM's more prolific musical output tended to dominate TV airings and the current spate of archival DVD releases. With 20th Century Fox digging into their own musical library, film fans can rediscover some of that studio's own singing and dancing headliners who effectively competed against MGM's 'Heavenly stars.'
Soundtrack producer and historian Ray Fiola, who restored the film's original score and musical numbers for a commercial CD release, is an excellent choice for commenting on the film's production history, giving generous attention to the careers of Berlin, composer Alfred Newman, and star Alice Faye. A film buff at heart, Faiola (wrongly billed as Ray Fiola on the DVD sleeve) does a good job with career sketches for the film's large cast of major and supporting players, and makes good use of archival memos by iconic studio bigwig, Darryl F. Zanuck.
Fans of Berlin's work will also delight in three archived deleted musical numbers, which audio-wise, remain silent until the performers start their set. Faiola's feature film commentary cites editorial changes, and the deleted scene archive functions as an effective addendum to the finished film.
An A&E Biography installment on Alice Faye does an excellent job in chronicling her early career as Fox's peroxide rival against MGM's Jean Harlow, and her later transformation into a more natural beauty, after the formation of 20th Century-Fox. The doc gathers interviews from Faye's daughter and close friends, including composer Walter Scharf, who provides some candid observations on her off-screen personality.
The archived newsreel from British Movietone News is more of a mini-featurette, extolling the virtues of Darryl Zanuck's "Latest and Greatest" achievement, and intercuts sound-bites with Irving Berlin, upcoming star George Sanders, and a very rambunctious guest who's already consumed a few too many pints.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan