Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sweeping Symphonies of Till the Clouds Roll By

The first time I watched Till the Clouds Roll By, I was sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen with them, just enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon/evening. I can vividly recall the smells, sights, and sounds of that day, so this movie is a bit sentimental to me as a result. When I saw that it was available on Hulu, I knew I’d have to watch again. And what better time to sit down with a feel-good, nostalgic movie than when everyone else is out there going crazy for a good deal on Black Friday? I can’t think of any.


Till the Clouds Roll By is a 1946 biopic tribute to composer Jerome Kern, who had passed away the year before this movie was released in theaters. While the movie is purportedly telling the story of Kern’s life, it also serves as a vehicle for large musical numbers, showcasing the hit songs from throughout Kern’s career. The end result is a film light on details of Kern’s life and strong on staging, costumes, swelling orchestral numbers, and so forth. I knew basically nothing about Kern before viewing this movie the first time, so I certainly did learn something from the movie about him – but then also had to verify a lot afterwards and saw how much was left out. For instance, Kern was apparently well-known for his horn-rimmed glasses yet Robert Walker as Jerome Kern is never once seen wearing a pair of any kind of spectacles; presumably the Hollywood of the 1940s would never think a leading man in glasses would be dashing enough for the audience. Some details are simply out of chronological order or slightly altered to fit the story being told in this movie, such as Hammerstein contacting Kerns about making a musical based on the book Showboat rather than the other way around as it actually happened. In real life, Kern had a daughter, but in the movie, he and his wife Eva dote only on his “niece” Sally, the child of his friend and musical arranger, Jim Hessler. The Hesslers play a huge role in this movie -- despite the fact that they never existed, although the character of Jim Hessler is supposedly based on a real-life associate of Kern’s.

The facts that Hollywood eschewed are replaced with a compelling story though and one that pulls on the viewer's heartstrings. I loved the story of how Kern becomes like family to the Hesslers and the easy repartee between him and Jim, especially in their early days as bachelor workaholics. The love story between Kern and Eva was also sweet, albeit rushed. Furthermore, the actors play the story of Kern's life well and do a convincing job of growing old and subtly changing as a result. Walker is always compelling to watch, whether he’s being charming, funny, torn, heartbroken, or feeling old and resigned, as the situation calls. The other actors in the domestic drama – Van Heflin as Jim, Dorothy Patrick as Eva, Lucille Bremer as the adult Sally, and Joan Wells as the young Sally – all play their parts perfectly as well.

But the real star power of this movie was in the music and dance, with acts that could almost be described as over the top unless you’ve happened to watch a lot of musicals from this era. The cast of Till the Clouds Roll By reads like a who’s who of Golden Age Hollywood elite, including Judy Garland, Van Johnson, June Allyson, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra, just to name a few. With so many heavy hitters, the producers didn’t even bother with first billing and just listed all the stars’ names alphabetically in the opening credits. While a few of the numbers in this movie were forgettable in my opinion, most of them were lavish spectacles worth viewing more than once.

For starters, Judy Garland as Marilyn Miller was one of the highlights in my book. Special guest director Vincent Minnelli (then married to Garland) was brought in to direct her musical scenes. The story goes that Garland was pregnant with her daughter Liza Minnelli at the time so when it came to staging her rendition of “Look for the Silver Lining,” Minnelli chose to put Garland behind a stage kitchen sink the whole time. Garland’s stunning voice carries the scene, even if it isn’t as action-filled as the other numbers. But despite her pregnancy, Garland is seen more active in her later musical numbers – dancing about to “Who?” and jumping onto a bareback horse in “Sunny,” with a sequence that I really, really hope is done by a stunt double. The choreography throughout the movie is excellent, but a particular favorite scene of mine is when Lucille Bremer and Van Johnson dance to “I Won’t Dance” in the Club Elite. Another one worth noting is the titular “Till the Clouds Roll By,” performed by June Allyson and Ray McDonald.

The movie both opens and ends with extended sequences acting as a review of some of Kern’s more famous songs, particularly with an emphasis on Showboat. The final song – and scene - of the movie is a young Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Old Man River.” This choice rankles some contemporary viewers who feel that the song should be sung by an African-American man, embodying the working black man the song is meant to portray, rather than by a Caucasian-American man in spotless white tuxedo on a white pedestal. While I understand their frustration, I’d like to point out that:

1) This movie was made in 1946.

and

2) This movie was made in 1946!

The 1940s were hardly a time of racial equality in any sense of the word. Nor was Hollywood at the time a bastion of cultural sensitivity – this was the same entertainment machine that just 10 years earlier gave us Fred Astaire in black face as a “tribute” to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And that’s hardly an anomaly during that era. Furthermore, this movie was already filmed in such a way that Lena Horne’s solo performance could be removed when the movie was shipped out to Southern states who would refuse to air a sympathetic portrayal of an African-American woman singing on screen. It’s not pretty, but you can see why the film’s director and producers wouldn’t risk having their big finale stripped from the movie in a large number of states.

A few other points to make on this topic: 1) In the opening of the movie, “Old Man River” is also featured with African-American singer/actor Caleb Peterson singing the song, so the movie did give a small nod to the song’s origins there; 2) Italian-Americans like Sinatra were not exactly beloved at the time (another not pretty but true fact); and 3) Sinatra was a big enough name already to be a selling point, and at the end of the day, Hollywood is about making money. And, on the note about the ridiculousness of the dazzling white tuxedo and setting for this number, it's worth pointing out that this song comes at the end of a review of songs all featuring singers dressed in pure white settings. I don’t know why this is, perhaps to make some kind of point about the pure/innocent/ethereal/eternal/transcendent/pick-your-adjective quality of Kern’s works, but I do know that it would be odd if after all those numbers increasingly ascending in an “into-the-clouds” feel, the final song was done in a realistic style. One commentator makes the analysis that this whole grand finale was meant to be an ironic look at how Kern’s songs were going to be overblown and taken out of context by Hollywood and while this is an interesting theory, I just don’t think 1940s Hollywood was that was self-aware and tongue-in-cheek about itself. That’s my two cents.

All in all, my point is that you have to take a movie – or any other artistic work for that matter – as part and parcel of its time period and cultural milieu. If this movie came out today, I could understand that outrage more and would be right there with these commentators. Not just on the whitewashing of “Old Man River,” but also on the highly offensive “Cleopatterer” and some of the portrayals of women, such as Eva’s rules for what a lady can and cannot do or the fact that not a single woman in this movie ever wears pants (only skirts and dresses). These things are all a product of the times, and it is what it is. If you can take it with a grain of salt, this is a great movie from the Hollywood golden era of musicals. Fabulous performances in music, choreography, and acting will steal the show.

4 comments:

  1. Great review. Just saw the movie and was struck by how on the edge it was in regards to race. Show Boat was ahead of it's time . The chance they took was like walking across a high wire, but may have opened some hearts to an ugly reality.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. It's always interesting to watch old movies and see how far off base they are by including things that are so clearly racist, sexist, etc. .... and then even more interesting to find the ones that defy expectations and are way ahead of their time.

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  3. Watching the movie now on TCM and decided to search Kerns' bio and happened across this blog. As I'm reading your comment that Robert Walker never wore Kern's glasses, I look up and there's Walker wearing glasses....and then a few scenes later he is seated in front of a piano wearing them again. Would not have bothered to post this, but the coincidence of the timing forced my hand. Lol.

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  4. Oh, cool. Thanks for the comment. I guess I missed that detail. I just recalled that for the majority of the movie he was glasses-free. I'm glad you stumbled upon my blog and hope you enjoyed the post - and the movie as well!

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