Goodman's Bad Movie

At summer camp in 1960, when it rained too hard for outdoor activities, the campers were herded into a rec building to watch 16 mm movie rentals. One night we were subjected to The Benny Goodman Story, released five years earlier. Even at that tender age, we knew we were seeing something we shouldn't: proof that grownups were hopelessly addled. In later years, I heard many people who had caught it on TV parrot the line, "Fletch, would you hold this for me, please," which Steve Allen's Benny says to Sammy Davis Sr.'s Fletcher Henderson as he hands him his clarinet so he can race off to talk Donna Reed's Alice Hammond and filmgoers everywhere into a coma.

Still, when Universal recently released it on DVD at a bargain price, I bought it in a flash, thinking, ah, at least the three-strip Technicolor will be restored and there's all that good music and screwy jive-Gene Krupa actually suspends his gum-chewing to say of BG, "Yeah, he's a mean man on that licorice stick." Well, forget it. I realize now with a renewed empathy why, on the occasion when I asked him about it, Goodman scowled, turned red and changed the subject. Even the cropped transfer is lousy. During one number all you see of Krupa is his right shoulder.

As is often the case with bad old movies, however, this one has value as an anthropological relic, a Dead Sea Scroll of the era when jazz was entombed in a supercilious nostalgia fed by poor memory and self-importance. The latter emanated chiefly from screenwriter Valentine Davies, who began his film career by selling a story for the 1942 Syncopation, which told how jazz came up the river via white orchestras (Goodman, Krupa, Harry James), while the black Hall Johnson Choir sang "Slave Market." He scripted a dozen or so films, among them The Glenn Miller Story, in which June Allyson pouts, "Oooh, Glenn Miller, you are the strangest boy!" But he directed only the movie at hand, displaying the eye of Ed Wood Jr. One band number is shot entirely from behind the musicians. At least you get to hear Stan Getz on the soundtrack.

The Benny Goodman Story is dedicated to exposing highbrow snobs who look down on hot music (the word jazz, by my count, is heard only once), but it ends up doing the snobs' work for them by pickling the swing era in a cocoon of weary condescension. It gives the game away during the credits: The score begins with Goodman's band swinging 16 bars of "Let's Dance," only to drown in a symphonic mood-enhancement-crashing cymbal, massed brasses, weepy strings. It's an arrangement that all but shouts: "Swing was fun, but for serious, substantive, soothing music, ain't nothing like good old Hollywood hackwork." God must have agreed to rock 'n' roll after seeing this picture.

As the work of Hollywood liberals, the movie never mentions Goodman's valor in racially integrating his trio; in this version of American history, his band was mixed from the start, by Buck Clayton of all people. Yet Benny is a visionary: "I have a few ideas. I don't know if they're crazy." You want to tell the poor sap, "They're not so crazy, Benny. They worked for Henderson, Webb and Ellington-they can work for you too!" But oy, de vay dey treat Jews is verse even den de colored, alla dem bed ector people doing shtick from The Goldbergs. "From love I know," Mama Goodman advises Steve Allen, who exudes the charisma of a clarinet reed with glasses. She don vant her bagel-Benny to marry a caviar shicksa until suddenly she does. So go figure.

The wildest scene occurs when Benny discovers jazz on a riverboat, standing about two inches from Kid Ory's slide. Kid tells him that half his boys can't read: "You just swing on out and play the way you feel." Benny asks to sit in, and damn!-first time out, at 15, he plays exactly like Benny Goodman. Every time Benny says anything in favor of hot music, someone declaims, "Don't be that way!" Rehearsing for the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, which his brother tells him to cancel although the place is sold out, Benny decides to use the phrase as a song title, apparently unaware that Chick Webb recorded tune and title (by Edgar Sampson) four years earlier. Meanwhile, suspense builds: Donna Reed, as the jazz-hating scold, Alice (the real Alice was a fan, not to mention married), is on a plane: Will she get to the concert in time?

The Benny Goodman Story is a postcard from an era when jazz could engender a middlebrow entertainment as long as it was sentimentalized into banality. Just as all modern jazz films have the same plot-a black genius fights drugs, liquor, racism and bad weather, and dies-all the swing-inspired movies concerned wrong-side-of-the-tracks white guys who fought old-world prejudices against pop music and emerged as national idols who will live forever even if, like Glenn Miller, they are blown to kingdom come. It's a tedious way to learn a useful lesson: Denatured reverie is no better than patronizing disdain.

Originally published in July/August 2003

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