Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stars and Stripes Forever - 1952

“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.

Ruth Hussey is his warmly supportive wife with the wry sense of humor. One of their most charming scenes together is when Mr. Webb, with Miss Hussey accompanying him on piano, sings his latest syrupy love ballad. His bass voice languidly belches the plodding love song, while she giggles at the effect and urges him to pick up the tempo and turn the melody into a march. He will -- later on in the movie -- during another cute scene at a White House reception for President Benjamin Harrison. We recognize his love ballad has become “Semper Fidelis”, the march dedicated to the United States Marine Corps.

We may forget that Clifton Webb had a long career on stage in musical comedy, and as a professional ballroom dancer. The movies gave him a second career as an acerbic fussbudget, and the early 1950s was a busy time for him. In the same year as “Stars and Stripes Forever”, he also did the wonderful parody “Dreamboat” discussed in this previous post. We last saw him in one of his very best performances in “Titanic” (1953), discussed here.

Robert Wagner and Debra Paget are the second leads, and their characters are fictional. Wagner is another member of the Marine Corps Band who follows Mr. Webb into private life after Webb retires from the Marines to form his own celebrated band. Wagner invents the “Sousaphone”, a kind of tuba for a marching unit. Actually, it was a couple of other fellows who came up with Sousaphone, following ideas contributed by Mr. Sousa.

Debra Paget is a feisty music hall singer and dancer who marries the smart aleck Wagner and becomes the girl singer and specialty dancer for Sousa’s band.

We first see her in a scene at a run-down vaudeville house where she is one of the “Living Picture” tableau act. I like this scene for accurately showing what was a kind of risqué exhibition of bodies positioned in dramatic configurations that, for the stage censors’ benefit pretended to be culture -- but for the audience was a most benign source of titillation.

Another scene I like, not because it evokes the era so knowingly, but because it shows an early 1950s consciousness overlapping it in a natural and benevolent way. This is the scene where Webb takes his band on tour in the South. Ever the showman, he cannily marches his band down a street to the United Confederate Veterans reunion which has dubiously hired him to perform -- and he chooses the rousing “Dixie” to make his entrance. He finds a receptive audience to this favorite tune of the South, and then he recounts the story of when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Whether it is meant to placate the (fictional) United Confederate Veterans or to placate the 1952 Southern moviegoers, but Webb delicately refers to the surrender as Lee’s “visit” to Grant. At the time of the surrender, the Marine Corps Band serenaded President Abraham Lincoln, who in the spirit of “with malice toward none, with charity to all” requested they play “Dixie”.

Webb declares that in return for this magnanimous gesture a generation ago, his band, with the help of the choir of the Stone Mountain Church of Atlanta (who play themselves), will perform the song most associated with Lincoln -- “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It is an African-American choir, who step forward among this all-white Confederate picnic and sings the battle cry of their former enemy. They are a mixed choir of men and women, children and elderly, and most strikingly -- lovely young women and handsome young men, serious singers with dignity and grace. They are dressed not in cartoonish slave garb, but in stylish modern (1890s) dress. Their voices are powerful, their diction is precise. They are impressive.

I doubt they would have been welcome at such a wingding in the 1890s (catch the enigmatic expression of the white gentleman in the white linen suit and string tie -- is he moved or merely uncomfortable), but the 1950s was just starting to wake up to certain things and get a little gutsy.

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.

Another scene that endeavors to revel in the era, but is recalled with a modern twist, is when Clifton Webb receives a note in the middle of conducting in the pit during an operetta. Debra Paget is the lead. He stops the show and faces the audience. He reads the dispatch that the battleship USS Maine has exploded in San Juan Harbor, Cuba. It is the start of the Spanish-American War. The scene cleverly makes use of the audience’s memories of when they first heard the news of the start of World War II, but our brief war with Spain, with its politically murky beginning, has slipped away from modern consciousness though it cost many lives.

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.

We don’t remember the Spanish-American War, but we know about wounded veterans who need to be welcomed and given a place in the band.

The movie jubilantly reminds us how important music is to define an era. The music performed in this movie is given center stage. We end with Sousa’s march, now the National March of the United States of America -- “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. We are treated to long and leisurely close-ups on the musicians and their instruments.

It is played against a montage of military bands striding across the Mall in Washington, D.C., marching into future bands in future wars.

Listen below at the US Marine Corps Band playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Happy Flag Day.


Kevin Deany said...

I love this movie, and your write-up about it. I know it's not perfect, and some may rue that there's too much footage to Wagner and Paget, and not enough to Clifton Webb, but they are both so appealing in it that it doesn't bother me. And Webb is great, as he always is.

Not only a perfect Flag Day movie, but one of my favorite Fourth of July movies as well. The ace musicians at 20th Century Fox, with Alfred Newman leading the orchestra and Ken Darby handling the choral duties, really do justice to this music.

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune last week about a new picture book on Sousa's career called "John Philip Sousa's America", written by John Philip Sousa, IV, and it sounds marvelous. Sousa's band really did have an enormous impact around the world, and did much to introduce American music to the world, and vice versa.

The article mentioned that Sousa's band was playing Wagner overtures and preludes in places like Iowa and Nebraska before the operas had their American premieres at the Met.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Kevin. It's nice to hear from someone who really appreciates this movie. I agree the film does justice to his music. That Tribune article sounds interesting. Sousa really was "a rock star" in his day, and known the world over. I love your last paragraph about bringing Wagner's music to the Middle West before the operas premiered at the Met. I didn't know that.

grandoldmovies said...

You make a great point about Clifton Webb's talent - he was much more versatile than the waspish Waldo Lydecker character most film buffs associate him with. He could bring many moods and colors to his acting.

I once read this story about Sousa: he was so famous in his day that when a European fan wrote him a letter, he addressed the envelope "March King, USA" -- and the letter reached Sousa. I don't know if it's true, but I hope it is! Thanks for such a great post.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, GOM. I think Clifton Webb was tops in just about every film he appeared. The story about the Sousa fan letter -- I can believe it. In his day, he was huge.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm not American and I've never tried marching, but I love this movie and I love the martial tunes of John Philip Sousa.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

CW, I find his music does not incite marching as much as it makes you want to wave around a baton. All during watching this movie, I had to supress the urge to direct the TV with a 12-inch ruler.

Caftan Woman said...

Did you really suppress the urge to conduct? Did you really? I find that hard to believe. I just know you gave into those rhythmic impulses.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I couldn't find my ruler. You can't do justice to Sousa with a ballpoint pen. I always say.

Yvette said...

I saw this in the theater when it first came out. With my mom, maybe. I still remember being stirred by the music. Afterwards, I marched down the street. :)

To this day I love marching music and marching bands.

I also love Clifton Webb.

Thanks for a wonderful post, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. I can imagine you marching down the street. Clifton Webb is tops.

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