#35 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Howard Hawks repeated himself a lot, especially through the 30s, but this is his first outright remake of an earlier film he made. Based on the same Billy Wilder story that led to the script for Ball of Fire, A Song is Born recasts the literary main character played by Gary Cooper into a musical historian played by Danny Kaye. For a while, this remolding of the material from literary to musical feels like a strong step in the right direction with a livelier field of study to dramatize in cinematic form, but then everything just ends up feeling tired by the end. The injection of life in the early parts fall apart, helped none at all by Danny Kaye, noted singer, not singing at all because he was going through a divorce with his songwriter wife, Sylvia Fine, who refused to write him anything for the film. It hurt as well that Hawks showed up purely because of the paycheck, later calling the experience an awful one.
Seven (not eight) professors have locked themselves in a mansion in the middle of New York for nine years to write the definitive encyclopedia of music. When some window washers come in asking for help on a radio quiz about music, Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye), who specializes in folk, realizes that in the nine years he’s been hermetically sealed off from the world music has changed dramatically and left him behind. This allows for him to wander the streets of New York, going into different music clubs to hear snippets from famous musicians of the day up to and including Louis Armstrong. He invites them all to the institute for study, ending with Virginia Mayo’s Honey Swanson. Apparently Mayo was told to study Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as Sugarpuss in Ball of Fire, and here she comes across as another version of Stanwyck rather than anything else. She’s fine, but she doesn’t have the kind of presence that helped Stanwyck steal the show to a certain extent in the earlier film.
The first hour or so is really dominated by the music. The professors play classically together in order to record albums that will accompany the encyclopedia. The music clubs are all hoppin’. However, it’s when Frisbee gets everyone into the institute and they demonstrate the evolution of music from African tribal music to contemporary jazz where the movie works best. It’s obvious that this is where Hawks had the most fun because the sequence may be overlong, but it’s really energetic and fun as we watch and listen to the music evolve. This is freewheeling musical madness, and it’s infectious.
The problem is that all of that comes to and end at about the hour point. The music stops, and the movie works to catch up with the actual plot. An interesting difference between this and the earlier film is that Honey’s boyfriend, the gangster Tony Crow, doesn’t appear until over an hour into the movie. He’s represented solely by his two goons who tells Honey what to do, moving her from the club to the institute and finally giving her the large diamond ring Tony uses to propose to her to keep her from having to testify against him in court. None of this gangster stuff seems to matter through the first half, occasionally getting mentioned here and there but definitely falling to the wayside for extended periods in favor of the music. However, once the plot actually asserts itself, the plot moves without any real conviction.
The casting of Danny Kaye was, I think, a good idea. I think he was better cast as the befuddled introvert in a comedy than Gary Cooper was, but little gets done with Kaye that justifies it. He’s surprisingly morose and unfunny through it, unlike other key performances from his career like in The Court Jester. This supposedly had everything to do with his real life divorce, but whatever the reason it negatively affects the film, especially when it suddenly demands an emotionally attachment between Frisbee and Honey. His infatuation with her doesn’t feel terribly convincing. So, I think Kaye was better cast than Cooper, but Cooper gave a better performance.
Anyway, the problems in the final forty minutes or so extend beyond the lack of real chemistry between Kaye and Mayo. None of the small details seem to matter anymore. The elimination of one of the eight professors to get the total number down to seven does no favors in trying to actually individualize them. They feel even less distinct than in Ball of Fire. Frisbee buys Honey an engagement ring, the best he can afford, which is a small nothing compared to the large rock that Tony got her, and it just gets forgotten where, in the original, the two rings became an important driver for Cooper’s motivations going into the climax. Here, it’s nothing. A lot gets condensed in order to fit everything into a smaller timeframe, but there is one moment that works better here than in Ball of Fire and, of course, it deals with music.
In Ball of Fire the professors had to escape a pair of gangster goons holding them up while Sugarpuss was forced to marry her boyfriend. They used their wits and academic code to organize and effect the cutting of a cord with sunlight. It was amusing and one of the best uses of the professors. In A Song is Born, something similar happens. They have to play music in a certain way to get a circular drum on display above a gangster’s head to fall down onto his head and knock him out. The drum’s propensity to fall during the academic jam sessions had been established early, so it’s a nice payoff to see it come into play in the climax as Kaye works hard to communicate with everyone in the room to play different ways trying to get the drum to go one way instead of the other.
However, it’s a small part of the movie’s ending that works despite everything else around it feeling rather flat. I was really ready to actually think more of this than Ball of Fire after about forty-five minutes, but then the half-hearted love story took center stage and I grew progressively disengaged from the film until it finally ended. That’s a sad way to end a film that felt like it was a well-approached remake.