Friday, March 12, 2010
A Song Is Born
Howard Hawks amassed such a consistent, and consistently fascinating, oeuvre by always making, with very few exceptions, only the films he really wanted to make. In an era when directors had very little power or prestige in Hollywood, Hawks was notable for working largely independently, outside of the usual studio system; he moved from studio to studio, breaking contracts and going elsewhere when he couldn't get his way. Hawks thus earned a reputation as a director who seldom bowed to the pressure of producers, who always stuck to his own vision. One of the few exceptions to this independence was A Song Is Born, which Hawks made at the insistence of Samuel Goldwyn, who got Hawks to say yes to the project by, quite simply, offering him an exorbitant amount of money. The resulting film feels like the work of a man who's just earning a paycheck, too. It's not so much a remake of Hawks' Ball of Fire as it is a shameless pilfering of the earlier film, barely bothering to alter the example set by its predecessor; the film basically counts on fresh audiences who hadn't seen Ball of Fire. Hawks of course was famous for such pilfering and recycling. If a bit worked in one film, he wasn't afraid to translate it into a new context, and late in his career he kept remaking the basic scenario of Rio Bravo, riffing on its relationships and structure in interesting ways. This is nothing like that: A Song Is Born simply repeats, by rote, the best lines and moments from the earlier film, barely bothering to offer anything new. It's stale, and dull, and comes off as the one thing Hawks otherwise never made: a formulaic flop.
The basic set-up is taken right from Ball of Fire. Seven professors, six old bachelors and a younger man named Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye), are researching an ambitious musical encyclopedia that would chronicle the entire history of music, with accompanying recordings of various musical forms. In the earlier film the professors needed to learn about slang, but in any event the film's plot is triggered by Frisbee's realization that he's out of touch, that he needs to go out into the world and get refreshed on current events in his field, folk music. In other words, he needs to learn about jazz. The film's enduring appeal — indeed, virtually its only appeal — comes from the inclusion of musical appearances by some of the great jazz musicians of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton and many more. At its best, the film is merely an excuse to throw all these musicians together into massive jam sessions. It's fun stuff, and Hawks thankfully put his foot down by refusing to segregate the black and the white jazz musicians, one of the few stands he took on a picture he otherwise didn't seem to care about at all.
The jam sessions and the scenes at jazz nightclubs thus incorporate both white and black musicians, refusing to ghettoize the black players or maintain a racist separation. The notoriously conservative Hawks was at least enlightened enough to recognize that such attitudes would have been as out of place in the free-wheeling jazz milieu as they were in the lily-white Song of the Thin Man, which was shot the year before and similarly tried to chronicle the jazz scene, but with no black musicians at all. Hawks' film is thus notable for acknowledging the music's black roots — one number explicitly chronicles the nascent origins of jazz in slave spirituals — and the importance and talent of black musicians. The whole crew reportedly wasted a lot of time simply jamming and listening, both on camera and off, but not much of this no doubt lively atmosphere really makes it into the film. A lot of the music is infectious and enjoyable, but there's not enough of it to distract from the rote dullness surrounding it.
Part of the problem is Danny Kaye, who Hawks was saddled with since the film was conceived by Goldwyn mainly as a vehicle for the MGM comedic star. There's also the problem of Virginia Mayo, taking on the Barbara Stanwyck role from the earlier film, as singer and gangster's moll Honey Swanson. Mayo doesn't have Stanwyck's side-of-the-mouth toughness, or her edgy sex appeal, just as Kaye doesn't have the earnest goofiness that Gary Cooper brought to the role of the stiff professor in Ball of Fire. Instead, Kaye's Frisbee just seems stiff and boring, which is fitting for a stuffy, starched professor but doesn't leave much wiggle room for his eventual realization that he loves Honey and wants to be looser and freer. Hawks can't coax the comedic performance he got out of Cooper from Kaye, nor can he get Mayo to give Honey quite the edge she requires. Mayo's actually fine here, radiating a cheery girl next door quality, and she infuses the best patter from Ball of Fire — like her veiled naughty allusions when trying to convince Frisbee to let her stay overnight — with just enough zing to get them across. But she lacks the slight dangerous quality, the realistic vibe of a been-there-done-that kind of gal, that Stanwyck naturally brought to the role. If there wasn't that precedent to compare her against, Mayo would probably seem perfectly okay.
So in one sense, the only real problem with A Song Is Born is coming second. If it weren't for the familiarity of it all — and a majority of the film is outright stolen, line for line and sometimes shot for shot, from the earlier film — A Song Is Born might be a slight but enjoyable musical comedy. Unfortunately, as it is it's impossible to avoid the comparison, and A Song Is Born can't help but seem especially wispy in relation to its source. There's just no imagination here, none of the playfulness that Hawks so often brought to his best works. Kaye is allowed to simply be a dreary killjoy, rather than being lovably shy and naïve. And unlike in Ball of Fire, Hawks never manages to do much with the gangster subplot that takes over the film for its finale, as the gangster Tony Crow (Steve Cochran) arrives to claim Honey as his girl. The whole thing just seems rote, so much so that Hawks even skips over the great gag where Frisbee, confronted with fighting Crow, quickly teaches himself boxing from a book before pummeling the thug. Hawks skips the joke and just has Frisbee pounce on the gangster and beat him up.
That's the film's dominant aesthetic: cutting corners, recycling earlier bits but without the edge, without the humor, without the unpredictable chemistry of fine actors bouncing off one another. The basic elements are all there, the framework of the fine film that Hawks had, in fact, already made just seven years earlier. This time around, the framework is all there is; it's never filled in with any of the warmth and excitement that would've been needed to make this one of Hawks' more creditable attempts at a remake, like the way in which El Dorado riffs on the central conceit of Rio Bravo. Instead, Hawks took his money and turned out a generic film that's only enlivened by its sporadic bursts of music and its status as a Hollywood record of the era's jazz scene.