Howard Hawks’ A Song is Born, and the Frustrating History of the Hollywood Remake

If you’re like me, your skin tends to crawl at the very word ‘remake.’ All those rumors that have been flying around Hollywood about a remake of The Thin Man? You know as well as I do that any integrity to the original property is destined to be napalmed. Smoke. Flames. Crying babies. Sometimes the idea of a remake is even too ludicrous for Hollywood itself (the ill-fated remake of It’s A Wonderful Life was mercifully decapitated). But more often than not, remakes get the green-light and surreptitiously flounder, making the cinephiles among us resign to the fact that Hollywood is incapable of stringing two truly original thoughts together.

(The Women? Seriously? I mean … what the… who the…WHY the…)

One of the best films of the 1930s--and its remake, one of the worst...OF ALL TIME
George Cukor’s THE WOMEN was one of the best films of the 1930s. Its remake? One of the worst…EVER.

In a 2009 Hollywood Reporter article, a studio exec said, resignedly, ‘I now sit down and scroll through IMDB looking for movies, and I spend time searching rights to old TV shows. That’s where I spend most of my development time.”

A terrifying thought to say the least.

But to be fair, the remake has been a Hollywood inevitability since the days of flickers and flivvers. Classics like Alice Adams, His Girl Friday, Beau Geste, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Waterloo Bridge and The Maltese Falcon were all remakes. Sometimes the same director—Howard Hawks, Cecil B DeMille to name the few—were known to recycle their own films, even within just a few years of the original’s release. And, let’s all be honest with ourselves no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise: sometimes remakes can actually get it right, especially if they bring something fresh and new to the table.

For every facepalm misfire like who-the-hell-thought-it-was-OK-to-cast-Keanu-Reeves-as-Klaatu (2008’s disastrous The Day The Earth Stood), or why-did-you-remake-Psycho-shot-for-shot-when-you-can-just-watch-the-original (Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), there are films like John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

And then there are the films that land somewhere in the middle.

Which brings me to A Song is Born: a little known film from 1948 directed by Howard Hawks, and the Abby Singer selection in our look at the films of Danny Kaye recently released from the Warner Archive.

So lets just get it out of the way right up front: Howard Hawks’ remake of his beloved 1941 screwball Stanwyck-Cooper starrer Ball of Fire is not the finely crafted sophisticated romp the original was. It is in fact impossible not to compare the two, especially when both films are often shot-for-shot complete mirrors of the other. But A Song is Born’s reputation a complete dud, in this writer’s opinion, is unduly harsh. It is popularly panned by critics, due to its inferiority of Hawks’ original  (indeed, Hawks himself made it clear that he felt the film to be a waste of time–his attentions were more finely tuned into his classic of the same year Red River), but at the same time it is a film that merits a second look.

SongIsBorn_BallofFire
Virginia Mayo and Danny Kaye and their doppelgangers Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper

Just as in the original, A Song is Born is a sassy twist on the Snow White fairytale in which gangster’s moll Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo) goes on the lam by hiding out with a septet of professors under the guise of working with them on their . In this incarnation, Professor Frisbee (Kaye) is out of touch with 20th century modernity, leading an insular life with of seven old “white-hairs” whose entire lives are consumed by their work at the Totten Music Foundation. The problem is that while the wise old professors have been slaving away on their encyclopedia of music they have become unaware that music has changed drastically. Frisby at once throws himself into the thick of modern musical culture, determined to bring the Foundation’s work up to date. It is here where A Song is Born actually works better than Ball of Fire. (There. I said it.)

The film contains segments of celluloid that is living music history in its most impressively organic form. Here we have the unprecedented (and arguably unmatched) interracial jazz troupe of Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnett and Pops himself, Louis Armstrong, having a ball in a series of jam sessions. (Goodman in fact is one of the supporting characters, playing a professor without the slightest bit of rhythm– only to find his surprising gift as, what else,  a hot jazz clarinetist.) It is a Hall of Fame ensemble, and watching them bring their A game is a marvel that every music lover owes it to themselves to see.

SongIsBorn1

But then again, that’s also part of the fundamental problem: No one watches Ball of Fire to be entertained by the research on slang that Gary Cooper and company are conducting. We watch to see sparks fly off the screen between Cooper and Stanwyck. In A Song is Born, most of the time we’re just there for the music. While Kaye is his usual, bumbling self, it is with noted professorial reserve that teeters on lackluster. (In fairness, this was a troubled period for Kaye, whose performance might well have been affected by his near-daily therapy sessions.)  Mayo tends to get critical flack for not “comparing” to Barbara Stanwyck. But in fairness: who can?  Mayo, who is so wonderfully easy on the eyes, really is a sex kitten here in her own way and it is easy to see how she would go on to play such tough-jawed dames as White Heat’s Verna Jarret. (She’d already proven her range as Dana Andrew’s philandering wife in The Best Years Of Our Lives.) A Song is Born is the last Kaye/Mayo pairing, and is a somewhat disappointing end to their onscreen partnership as they don’t seem quite able to come up with that delightful chemistry that made them a top box office draw during the ’40s. But even in spite of these shortcomings, they still are a delight.

It may not be a ball of fire per se, but there’s still plenty of sizzle there to make A Song is Born an fun, light comedy that will certainly entertain–just not the way you expect it to.

Come for the comedy, but  stay for the jazz.

Enjoy:

Professor Frisbee explores nightlife, and is introduced to Mel Powell, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Tommy Dorsey to name the few:

The Totten Foundation records their “History of Jazz”– ending up in a toe-tapping jam session that’s among the best you’ll ever see on film:

Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton duke it out in “Stealing Apples.”

1 Comment

  1. I loved this review. I agree, the music is much more interesting than the slang plot of Ball of Fire. I think Dana Andrews was a better Joe Lilac than Steve Cochran’s Tony Grow, and I only wish Allen Jenkins could play Boogie Woogie piano like Buck and Bubbles. I think as far as the two films go, Ball of Fire is better, but A Song is Born is ‘nearly’ as good. I stumbled on this review by googling why Howard Hawks loved to remake his own stuff. Glad I did. Happy New Year.

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