11 July 2007 | standardmetal
Another composer's fictional biopic!
In light of my having recently perused the 1978 Kern biography by the British author Michael Freedland, I have decided to revise my review (Sunday December 30, 1007).
In this case, Jerome Kern's real life story was not very interesting so Guy Bolton and Company simply made another one up. And the real Jerry was nothing to look at so they got Robert Walker to play him. (Next year Walker played the much-better-looking young Brahms to whom he bore a strong resemblance, believe it or not!) The character "James I. Hessler" played by Van Heflin, it must be said at the outset, is completely fictional. But it gives the fictionalized Jerry someone to play off of and gives us the equally fictional daughter "Sally Hessler", played as an adult by Lucille Bremer, an excuse to provide much of the drama missing in the composer's life. I felt, though, that this added drama was a bit of a cheat.
The section where Kern searches for "Sally" has some basis in fact. Kern actually did search for someone connected with a British friend and was successful in locating the person.
The courtship by Kern of his English wife Eva Leale is, however, even closer to the truth and the marriage was at least a durable if not entirely a happy one. All the more reason for the invention of "Sally".
Apparently though, it's true that the second time he met the producer Charles Frohman, the latter mistook Kern for British and Jerry didn't want to disabuse him as Frohman didn't think much of American songwriters. But when they disembarked in New York,an old acquaintance of Kern's gave the game away and Frohman was furious for a time. He said that he hoped Jerry could find his way around the city on his own.
The odd story that Kern was supposed to sail with Frohman on the Lusitania in 1915 but missed the sailing is also true, except that this was due to his having overslept (He had stayed up all hours and had given the long-standing order that no one disturb his sleep.) and not the fictional reason that it was his too-late last minute decision to sail with Frohman. Considering what happened to the Lusitania, it was sunk by a German submarine and Mr. Frohman died along with many others, the missed sailing was a good career move for Kern!
Another thing that needs to be said was that the real Kern, in common with Irving Berlin and other songwriters, was rather of an egomaniac and martinet. And he gave his wife a good deal of grief as an habitual practical joker.
Kern passed away before the film was finished and the production shut down at first. But it started up again and the film ends with a concert of excerpts from his music as a tribute. "Ol' Man River" is presented early on in the selections from "Show Boat". There it was sung by Caleb Peterson, presumably playing the original Joe, Jules Bledsoe. (Yes, the part was written for Paul Robeson but a conflict prevented him from originating it on Broadway.) However, in a breathtakingly ill-advised decision (because of his voice type rather than his ethnic background), the film ends with a young Frank Sinatra reprising it. This may have been done to show how universal Kern's music is and it must be admitted that Frank gives an impressive accounting of it with his fabled breath control and firmly-held long note. (In the long run, the song belonged to Robeson even if he later mangled the words to fit his political beliefs. Yes, I heard Robeson sing it at New York's City College and I can attest to that!)*
Though I didn't think much of the biographical sections of the film, I must admit the music was well-served especially by Angela Lansbury, Lena Horne, Tony Martin, Dinah Shore, Judy Garland (as Marilyn Miller.), and others. It is not likely this cast will ever be equaled.
*I was wrong about this, apparently. Hammerstein (A "lefty" himself!) revised the words thus giving credence to the old expression "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"!