In 1938 Irving Berlin was already fifty years old but he still had not reached the mid-point of his life (he died in 1989). Nor had he written many of the musicals and songs for which he is best remembered today, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun’. His back catalogue, however, was already both large and famous enough to persuade Twentieth Century Fox to mount a spectacular musical tribute devoted entirely to his work and based upon a storyline suggested by the composer himself.
Given that Berlin’s career had started soon after the start of the new century the movie would be nothing less than the progress of America itself, from the pre-jazz sounds of ragtime, through the First World War and into the roaring twenties. The central characters are a fictionalised band led by Tyrone Power, who is embroiled in a love triangle with his singer, Alice Faye, and songwriter, Don Ameche.
Apart from the title song itself, which is heard in a variety of increasingly lavish arrangements during the course of the picture, I was pleased to find that ‘International Rag’ has a couple of outings on the disc. Some measure of the extraordinary chronological span and impact of Berlin’s career can be seen in the fact that, according to some historians, the Russian aristocrats who murdered Rasputin lured him to his doom by telling him they had just got hold of a copy of ‘International Rag’. The legendary ‘mad monk’ was, apparently, a big Berlin fan and was over in a flash.
Thanks to the skills of the Screen Archives team, the CD works remarkably well as a stand-alone musical experience. The musical elements are remarkably clear for their age. The arranging skills of Alfred Newman are also much in evidence. Even though he was not yet installed as Fox’s permanent music boss, Newman had already secured the assistance of two men who were to become an essential part of his team. Vocal arranger Ken Darby took responsibility for the ‘barbershop’ numbers, whilst ace-orchestrator Edward Powell is also much in evidence, especially in the short but powerful ‘Great War Montage’.
There is some new material that Berlin wrote specially for the film, notably the poignant love song ‘Now It Can Be Told’, which Ameche delivers in an unsuccessful attempt to get the girl. But the highpoint of both the film and CD has to be the amazing Ethel Merman, who belts out the big production numbers on the fictional band’s post-war European tour. Particular stand-outs are ‘Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil’, ‘My Walking Stick’ (a tribute to Fred Astaire) and the unused ‘Marching Along With Time’, whose lyrics about always staying in step with changing public tastes are the closest Berlin ever came to a personal credo.
I defy anyone not to be in a better mood after listening to this disc than they were beforehand.