ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (20th Century-Fox, 1938), directed by Henry King, reunites the lead performers of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche from the blockbuster success of IN OLD CHICAGO (1937) in a musical cavalcade of Irving Berlin songs spanning two decades. One of the first in a long cycle of 20th/Fox musicals focusing on the "as time goes by" theme, keeping the story together through the mixture of old and new song standards. Fox would recycle such stories similar to this over the years, with imitations done by other studios as well, with ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, the one that started it all, musically ranks one the best of its kind.
The story begins in San Francisco's Barbary Coast, circa 1911, where young aristocratic Roger Grant (Tyrone Power) disappoints his strong-willed Aunt Sophie (Helen Westley) and Professor Heinrich (Jean Hersholt) by abandoning classical music for something on a more popular level. Forming a band consisting of Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche), composer and pianist, and Davey Lane (Jack Haley), a drummer, they go to audition at a bar called Dirty Eddie's. Charlie misplaces their song sheet and at the last minute acquire one belonging to another. They play the new composition of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," but when Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), mixing with some friends, hears her borrowed music being played, she immediately heads towards the platform singing the lyrics. They become an immediate hit and Roger becomes Alexander and his Ragtime Band. In spite of Alexander and Stella constantly bickering and misunderstanding each other, it is Charlie who acts as their referee. As time passes on, Charlie, who now loves Stella, learns, while she sings one of his original compositions, that she really loves Alex. After Stella gets a job offer from Broadway producer Charles Dillingham (Joseph King), she accepts, forgetting about the band. In doing this, Alex and Stella part company, as does Charlie during a heated argument. Charlie marries Stella,and realizing she's still in love with Alex, decides to grant her a divorce for her sake. As for Alex, he prospers with Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman), as his new vocalist, while Stella leaves Dillingham and fades away to obscurity, causing Alex, now world renowned and performing at Carnegie Hall, to wonder whatever became of her.
The motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (sung by Alice Faye); "Ragtime Violin" (sung by Jane Jones, Otto Fries and Mel Kalish); "International Rag" (Alice Faye, Jack Haley and Chick Chandler); "Everybody's Doing It" (Alice Faye, Wally Vernon and Dixie Dunbar); "Now It Can Be Told" (Don Ameche); "Now It Can Be Told" (reprize/Alice Faye); "This is the Life" (Wally Vernon); "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'" (Alice Faye); "For Your Country and My Country" (Don Douglas); "In the Y.M.C.A." (The Kings Men); "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" (Jack Haley/chorus); "We're on Our Way to France" (sung by soldiers); "Say It With Music" and "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and "Blue Skies" (all sung by Ethel Merman); "Blue Skies" (reprize, Alice Faye and Merman); "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" (Ethel Merman); "What'll I Do?" (The Kings Men); "My Walking Stick" (Ethel Merman); "Remember?" (Alice Faye); "Everybody Step" (Ethel Merman); "I'm All Alone" (Alice Faye); "Marie" (instrumental); "Easter Parade" (sung by Don Ameche); "Heat Wave" (Ethel Merman, chorus); "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (reprize, Alice Faye).
With such an impressive cast headed by the up-and-coming Tyrone Power, who spends more time waving his stick, and in true Hollywood storytelling, arguing and making love with his female vocalist(s), it's easy to see its initial popularity, earning several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, with the music keeping much the scenario together. A personal favorite of Alice Faye's, it not only allows her to sing one hit song after another, but to challenge herself as both vocalist and actress, whose character starts off as a tough gal sporting flashy clothes and plenty of facial make-up before changing through the passage of time to a more softer persona moderately dressed. While much of the principal players remaining physically the same throughout its 106 minutes of screen time, with the exception of costumes reflecting the changing of times, Don Ameche's only major change is sporting a mustache during the film's second half.
At one point in television history, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND did enjoy frequent revivals until the mid 1970s when some legal entanglement kept it off the TV markets for quite some time. Then in 1991, it was brought back to the airwaves, on commercial television, and notably on cable television's American Movie Classics in 1991-92 before distribution on video cassette in 1992, and later onto DVD, Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies where it premiered February 11, 2010. In 1997, AMC presented a the well documented special titled "Hidden Hollywood: From the Vaults of 20th Century-Fox" narrated by Joan Collins, presenting musical outtakes, several from ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, including Ameche's singing "Some Sunny Day," and Merman in fine voice as always singing "Marching Along With Time," the tune that underscores the opening and closing credits. These outtakes are used as added attractions on DVD. Other victims of the editors ax might be those of Jean Hersholt and Helen Westley, whose characters are seen to the limit. Of the supporting players, many are too numerous to pen their individual attention, are Paul Hurst, best known for playing villains or gangster stooges, ideally cast in a sympathetic role as Bill Mulligan, and John Carradine, appearing briefly as a taxi driver and avid fan of Stella Kirby.
With Power and Faye constantly settling the score with one another, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND swings into action hitting many high notes, with much of its melody lingering on. (****)