Do you ever have the urge to grab a character’s shoulders, shake them thoroughly and shout, “Grab a brain, you moron!”
We had that overwhelming desire when we screened the 1938 musical Alexander’s Ragtime Band. This film pretends to look at the rise of ragtime during the early twentieth century, but it’s really a thinly-woven love story. It’s a romance, frankly, that doesn’t quite work for us.
1930s heartthrob Tyrone Powers plays an inflexible, unlikeable violinist who becomes the leader of a ragtime band. (Alexander’s Ragtime Band – surprise!) He reluctantly hires singer Alice Faye, a woman with gorgeous vintage handbags and lots of feathery clothes.
Faye and Powers fight. A lot. We presume this fighting signals romantic tension between the two; it’s hard to tell otherwise. After an argument about her wardrobe, Faye agrees to shed the feathers so that Powers will fall in love with her…
…proving that Faye’s character is kind of a moron.
We fail to glimpse what, exactly, she sees in Powers. He orders everyone around and is Never Wrong About Anything. We (as in, yours truly) cannot imagine living with such a controlling person. However, we suppose there’s a reason why they make ties of different colours.
But get this. The band’s pianist (Don Ameche, see above) is a handsome, witty and good-natured soul. He is the Anti-Powers. One scene clearly illustrates the difference between these two men: Ameche defends Faye and Powers abruptly fires him for it.
When Faye becomes a big star on Broadway, Powers goes to World War I to sulk because, you know, she’ll be more famous than he. While he is away, Faye marries Ameche but the relationship doesn’t stand a chance. As long as Powers is alive and making everyone miserable, Faye won’t be happy with anyone else. And Ameche knows it.
In one surprisingly touching scene, Ameche suggests to Faye that they end their marriage. It is late at night and they are in the bedroom; Faye is in bed propped up with pillows while Ameche hands her a glass of warm milk. He himself holds a much stronger drink.
“What you do say we call this marriage off?” he asks her, a little too casually. He sits on the bed, leaning towards her, but he stares into his drink as though he can’t bear to see her reaction.
Faye The Moron admits she is still in love with Powers, so dear Ameche comes to the rescue. Immediately he’s alleviating her guilt. He tells her a bunch of nonsense about how they shouldn’t pretend things they don’t feel.
See? Even in divorce, he’s a wonderful husband. When he sees she’s miserable, he hands her a proposal of divorce along with a glass of warm milk.
But here’s the thing. We know darn well that as soon as Faye marries Powers, she’s going to try to turn him into Don Ameche.
Oh well. Even though is a bit flat, this film is still worth watching for several reasons, including songs by the great Irving Berlin, musical numbers by a young Ethel Merman, and a staggering number feathery costumes.
It’s too bad, though, that in the end, Alice Faye’s character choses an autocratic band leader over a witty, kind-hearted pianist.
Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band: starring Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche. Directed by Henry King. Written by Kathryn Scola & Lamar Trotti. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1938, B&W, 105 mins.