Monday, April 6, 2009

The Benny Goodman Story (1955)

Continuing our Hollywood bio. series, we revisit the Benny Goodman Story. With the success of the Glenn Miller Story, Universal decided to give the bio. treatment to Benny, his rag to riches story made a natural for the screen. The BG story boasted a superb soundtrack played by Benny himself and an all star jazz cast. It also had the usual historical gaffes and unintentionally hilarious plotlines. (even more so than the Miller story).

Starring as Benny was Steve Allen, the popular talkshow host, composer and pianist. Steve obviously had a great love for jazz and Benny's music- he even looked a bit like him. However his acting abilities were pretty wooden. Donna Reed co-starred as Alice Hammond, sister of John Hammond, who befriended Benny and helped him on his road to success. (John was played by Herbert Anderson-better known as Mr. Mitchell on Dennis the Menace). Alice met Benny thru John, fell in love with him and married Benny, although not in the corny hollywood scenario cooked up by the writers. (Benny and Alice met briefly in 1934 and started dating, around 1939 ,after this movie ends ).

Many great jazz stars associated with Benny appear, including Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Kid Ory and Ben Pollack ( more on him later). BG and a great studio band made of many Goodman alumni recorded the soundtrack. There were some notable ommisions including Vido Musso and Jess Stacy. (Jess did some soundtrack work but had words with Benny and walked out - Benny was noted for his boorish behavior towards his musicians).

Writer Valentine Davies of the Miller Story was back, this time also directing.( assisted by Phillip Bowles and Terry Nelson). Music Director Joseph Gershensen was also back assisted by Henry Mancini. Benny's early days as a poor Jewish kid living in Chicago were nicely played. (the young Benny was played by David Kasday and Barry Truex). His immigrant parents (Berta Gersten and Robert F. Simon) of 12 children scrape up enough money to give some of the kids music lessons. Benny studies clarinet at the jewish settlement facility, Hull House under Franz Schoepp(a noted Chicago symphony player). He excells on the instrument and is soon on hits way to a career in music. (the famed jazz clarinetist Buster Bailey also studied with Schoepp and sometimes played duets with Benny).

One of Benny's first jobs at 16 is playing on a riverboat. Benny is still wearing short pants and when he approaches the bandstand, saxophonist Gil Rodin tries to chase him away. (a similar incident happened with Bix Beiderbecke, himself only 20 or so, the chasticer). Gil Rodin (played by Dick Winslow) worked with Benny in the Ben Pollack band, but in typical Hollywood fashion he sticks with Benny throughout the film. On the boat Benny meets Kid Ory and his band (playing themselves). Benny is intigued by their music and asks to sit in. We hear the mature BG of 1955 playing with Ory! (Benny was a quick study, but I'm sure he wasn't this quick!). Benny also loses a prospective girlfriend, due to his short pants! Benny's bass-playing brother Harry appears at this point (played by Shep Menken) and worked in the Pollack band and with Benny's first band. Ben Pollack, who played an important part in the Miller story also played a similar role with Benny. (Ben once again plays himself). Pollack fostered the careers of many jazz greats including BG, Miller, Jack Teagarden, Harry James, Matty Matlock and Eddie Miller, to name just a few. Benny also did a lot of work with Red Nichols during this time.(with future colleagues Krupa,Teagarden, Babe Russin, Glenn Miller and more).A humorous vignette has teenage Benny needing a tuxedo and his tailor dad getting one for him( A bit long in the sleeves!). Benny's dad was hit by a truck before he got to see his son become a major star.

Benny gets the Pollack band out of a Chicago gig, when the gangster boss regonizes him from the old neighborhood. This scene is a bit silly, but most of the Chicago jazzspots were run by the underworld. John Hammond, knowing Benny's great musicianship invites him to play Mozart at a family musicale. Benny's mom, Harry and musicians Krupa, Wilson and Rodin attend. Alice is horrified!-she thinks Benny is going to embarress himself. When Benny plays the concerto beautifully, Alice is impressed and begins falling for Benny. Teddy Wilson gets a great line when he tells Benny-"You were in the groove tonight". One of the society matrons retorts-"I thought he played brilliantly!". Benny was actually very comfortable in the world of classical music and performed and recorded with some of the leading orchestras and ensembles. At one of Benny's jam sessions Alice shows up with John and Mrs. Goodman starts to worry that her poor jewish boy is falling for the society girl as she says to Harry-"You don't mix caviar with bagels." We hear Benny play Memories of You-which would be he and Alice's song.About this time Benny decides to start his own band. (His free-lance and radio work is skimmed over). John and booker Willard Alexander(Hy Averback) offer their help. We also start hearing a lot of the runing gag-"Don't that Way,Benny!"-More on that later. At a rehearsal of the early band we hear Slipped Disc, although that came much later.

Benny's early fling at bandleading, including the Let's Dance radio show and his cross-country tour of 1935 are realistically played. The tour was pretty much a disaster, most of the audiences couldn't dance or idenitfy with Benny's style of jazz orchestra. We see the trio (Benny, Teddy and Gene) playing a hot version of China Boy. The ballroom manager is not pleased to see the rest of the band watching. Another owner excpects comedy routines and funny hats! When Benny hits the Palomar in Los Angeles he finally achieves success. Benny decides to go for broke and trot out all the hot numbers. During an exciting One O' Clock Jump we see the audience stop dancing and gather around the band. Benny and the band get a rousing reception!-Apparently the west coast audiences had been hearing the radio show and buying the band's Victor records. Alice, John and Willard are present to cheer Benny and the band on in a moment that has been hailed as the start of the Swng Era! We have also been introduced to Fletcher Henderson (Sammy Davis Sr.) who offers his help with his great arrangements. Kid Ory also reappears to wish Benny his congratulations on the band's success.

Another landmark engagement was the Goodman band's appearance at the Paramount Theatre in New York. The Swing Craze had taken the country and the Band's 10am show was mobbed with young fans and jittterbuggers who danced in the aisles. The band plays a scorching Bugle Call Rag during this segment. Alice comes to see Benny at the show and is dragged into the frenzy with the jitterbuggers. She returns home with ripped clothes and admiration for Benny's success.
One of the silliest scenes in the film involves Benny's meeting with Lionel Hampton. In reality Benny heard Hamp leading his own band in Los Angeles in 1936. In the film he, Alice, John, Willard, Teddy and Gene wander into a little bistro where Hamp is serving as bartender, cook,host and entertainer. When he brings out his vibes, Benny, Gene and Teddy join in and the BG Quartet is born!-Typical Hollywood!

The climax of the film is Benny's famous Carnegie Hall Concert of January 16, 1938. This concert along with John Hammond's Spirituals to Swing did a lot to make the concert hall a new venue for jazz. In the film Benny remembers Alice's remark of a real musician is one who plays at Carnegie Hall. Although the guest performers(Hackett, Basie, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Buck Clayton etc.) are omitted, we get a lot of the concerts highlights including 20 years of Jazz, Down South Camp Meeting and Moonglow (quartet). Harry James was part of the Carnegie Band , but appears here as a special guest. He recreates his torrid Louis Armstrong take-off on Shine and rips off some thrilling choruses on Sing, Sing, Sing. (I think Harry actually tops the original!). Martha Tilton is aboard to sing And the Angels Sing and Ziggy Elman appears onscreen. (He was ill at the time and his trumpet is dubbed by the great Mannie Klein). Benny, Gene and Harry bring things to a thriling finish with the classic Sing, Sing,Sing.

Alice, having patched things up with Mom Goodman flies across country to get to the concert in time for the finale. When Benny spots her in the audience, he goes into Memories of You. Mom tells Alice"-Don't worry, he'll ask you" (to marry him)-Alice's response is "He's asking me now!"
A classic Hollywood ending. Despite the corny cliches and historical gaffes, the Goodman Story like the Miller Story is great entertainment. The DVD is available from Universal.

Before we close, a word about the music. Benny is in top form all thru the soundtrack and the contributuions of Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa and Harry James are immense.
The studio band that recorded the soundtrack consists of Goodman veterans Chris Griffin and Irving Goodman (trumpets), Hymie Schertzer and Babe Russin (saxophone), Murray McEachern (trombone) and Allan Reuss (guitar). Also aboard are studio pros Conrad Gozzo (trumpet), Jim Priddy (trombone), George Duvivier (bass0 and Blake Reynolds (saxophone). Buck Clayton (trumpet) ,Urbie Green (trombone) and Stan Getz (saxophone) are also seen onscreen as band members . The band gets a lot of the feel of the original Goodman band with a few modern touches from Getz and Green.

Decca, like with the Miller Story issued a soundtrack album featuring many of the film's highlights. Later an MCA 2-lp set came out with additional material. I believe this album is still on CD .
Until next time-"Don't Be that Way!"

Special Note- My Technical Advisor Jay Keyser is away, so we'll have to wait on photos till his return.
Best Wishes,Pete.

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