4 February 2009 | bkoganbing
So Many Songs Left Unsung
Of all our famous Tin Pan Alley composers George Gershwin alone managed to bridge that gap between the old masters of Europe and our own American musical traditions. I've always had a particular affinity for his music, maybe because he and I share the same birthday, 49 years apart though. He did so much in his life of 38 years and left so much unwritten and unsung it's impossible to comprehend all this beauty could have come from the mind of one man.
Rhapsody In Blue is no better or worse than some of the other Hollywood biographies of our composers. The idea was to make a musical picture and story is always sacrificed, especially in the accuracy department. Joan Leslie and Alexis Smith play a compilation of characters of many women involved in George Gershwin's life. It is true however that Gershwin sacrificed all for his art. He wanted to attain heights that no American composer ever did and he succeeded.
There is also the problem of contracts and copyrights in making these kind of films. Certain Gershwin standards you won't hear because either Warner Brothers didn't have the rights or Jack Warner was spending way too much money for the Gershwin songs to begin with.
Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, and Oscar Levant all appear as themselves in this, the story of Gershwin could not be told without them. Jolson introduced Gershwin's first hit song of Swanee, he interpolated it in one of his shows which he always did. Paul Whiteman, the King of Jazz, took that crown with his concert at Aeolian Hall of Rhapsody In Blue from whence this film gets its title. It maybe the most well known instrumental piece of music by an American composer ever.
And certainly no life of Gershwin could have even been filmed without Oscar Levant whose friendship and abiding affection for George Gershwin was well known. Levant's wit was devastating, even upon himself and his friend George. But he worshiped at the altar of that music.
But a real treat for me was Anne Brown, the original Bess from Porgy and Bess singing Summertime. That alone is worth seeing this film.
Hazel Scott, singer, jazz pianist, and outspoken civil rights advocate plays a Josephine Baker type role and does several Gershwin numbers while he's in Paris. The film sadly makes no mention of Fred Astaire or Gertrude Lawrence both of whom are very important in George Gershwin's career. And it would have been nice to see Victor Moore playing Throttlebottom from Of Thee I Sing which got a one line mention about it winning a Pulitzer Prize and that was it.
Robert Alda plays the title role and he did get good reviews and to the limited extent the script gave the character, he does capture the essence of the driven Gershwin. Stardom in Hollywood would elude Alda however, he'd have to wait for Broadway and Guys And Dolls.
I was sorry to see the role of Ira Gershwin by Herbert Rudley given such a short shrift. Ira was an interesting man in his own right. He wrote lyrics with several other name composers both before and after his brother's demise. In fact he wrote with others specifically to establish his own credentials so no one would think he was just riding on brother George's coattails.
Gershwin's one man who could use a new biographical film. Maybe we can get a better idea of his life, have his songs done in proper chronological order and see him from another century's perspective.
Until then Rhapsody In Blue will give you a general idea.