“Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952) strikes a resonant chord with the spirited marches of composer and conductor John Philip Sousa. Clifton Webb plays The March King, and he’s great as always. The movie, like most Hollywood biopics, strays from fact here and there, but captures spot-on the era when Sousa was -- to use a modern term -- a rock star.
We celebrate Flag Day in the US today, those “stars and stripes” with a movie not about flags, or even flag waving, but of patriotism expressed by that once-upon-a-time staple of American popular entertainment -- the marching band.
It’s the 1890s when John Philip Sousa is a Sergeant Major in the Marines and the leader of the Marine Corps Band. In real life, he was a renaissance man -- composer of scores of songs, operettas, even wrote novels and articles. In the movie, he is bummed because he wants to showcase his romantic ballads, but the public likes his marches.
“Dreamboat” discussed in this previous post. We last saw him in one of his very best performances in “Titanic” (1953), discussed here.
This movie effortlessly evokes the 1890s, but this scene is more about what we wish was, and not what was. However, it works even in its illusionary manner.
In the courting scene at the park between Mr. Wagner and Miss Paget, we hear the old movie background music favorite, “Sweet Marie” and I always think of the William Powell and Irene Dunne duet in “Life with Father” (1947), discussed here.
What this event in the movie leads to is a touching finale. Robert Wagner, the once and future Marine, happy-go-lucky scamp or not, enlists to fight in Cuba, is wounded in a round of “friendly fire” (more irony) and suffers a leg amputation. Clifton Webb brings his band to the rehabilitation hospital to entertain the wounded troops. His appearance is a surprise to Robert Wagner, and an even bigger surprise when Webb calls him up on stage to play his old Sousaphone. Wagner hobbles on crutches to the place in the band that has been saved for him. A nice gesture when he pats the Sousaphone draped over his shoulder as if it was his trusty steed.
Listen below at the US Marine Corps Band playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Happy Flag Day.