A Song is Born (1948)
As soon as I saw the description for A Song is Born (1948) I knew it sounded very familiar, so familiar that I saw the original only a few months ago – Ball of Fire (1941). Both directed by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. I saw the original more for the smart writing than the direction. However I needed to see A Song is Born purely for comparison, what else I get is a massive bonus from a winning formula. I know that Hawks later remade Red River (1948) a few times as Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) of course after the first two the returns on entertainment were diminishing, but that’s a different conversation to be had. I considered talking about Ball of Fire back in June however, the writing, the comedy and the chance to see two of the golden ages finest on-screen together Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper; both versatile actors having fun.
My feeling on remakes or reboots is very mixed, first its not original to go back to the same plot and simply re-produce it with different actors. However it was just not long after the war and audience taste had changed, new actors were entertaining them. Could an old favorite be dusted off for a new audience to enjoy? That’s a risk that Hawks was willing to make. Ball of Fire one of the latter Screwball comedies, everything thrown at you, high-concept ideas and fast gags. Ball of Fire sure fits the bill, with out-of-touch professors who have lived together for too long now. Writing an encyclopedia, the professors each taking a few specialist subjects – Prof. Bertram Potts (Cooper) the linguist specialists and the youngest of the men, who were all born in the 19th century. It’s only when he hears slang that is fresh to his ears is is mind opened to a new world that he had ignored up until now. Going into the outside world for research, handing out his card to those he ear-wigs on, new words and phrases that he wants to understand more about – inviting them for group research. Its really quaint when you look at it now. All this before he ends his day at the nightclub where he discovered club singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) who delivers line after line of slang that makes little sense, but livens up the whole film from just being a ‘got to save the day’ film to something far more exciting. I’ll leave the synopsis there for now.
Now turning to the remake A Song is Born in more detail, you have a tried and tested duo in Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo much like Cooper and Stanwyck, both couples having chemistry. The similarities between the two films are quite striking from the beginning. I could list them all but that would be tiresome. Instead I’ll focus on a few. The first being the setting of the research institution is the same in terms of the set-design a quick recycle and change of plaque on the front before the daughter Miss Toten (Mary Field) who played the same role in both films. Now does this show clever thinking or laziness in not recasting and refreshing the role. The re-use of the set is easily explained as cost-cutting, unless we are seeing into Hawks thinking, is he trying to perfect a film the film that is in his head, based on “From A to Z”. The threat of funding being withdrawn is exactly the same too, leading to Toten being charmed by Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) who she’s secretly attracted to, but exploited here so much. I’m starting to see the differences, the book they are working on, has a greater focus on music, an encyclopedia of all knowledge which only as out of touch as those writing it. Both groups of men are so wrapped up in the past they have forgotten the world outside.
Music is a stronger focus for the characters than just EVERYTHING, still very niche and rich, it allows the Kaye return to a world he is very much associated with, the musical. All courtesy of musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Of all of the musicians I’ve only heard of Armstrong, all of who though assume the roles of working club musicians, playing Jazz, swing, doo-wop etc, all exciting Frisbee, inviting them back to the institution, not for a Q & A but a performative exploration of music. Taking away the old blackboard and chalk and replacing them with a recording system.
All this before I’ve reached Virginia Mayo’s role of the club singer and gangsters girlfriend. On reflection I feel she was mis-cast in the role that is too dark for her. She does her best by playing up the comedy and musical numbers to compensate. More there as part of a package deal, you want Kaye, you get Mayo, it’s a partnership that’s proven, so why change it? What really lets her and Kaye down though is the recycling of script that is hardly altered really. On the surface it may sound different yet it leads to the same conclusions and jokes. There is a wonderful breakfast scene when Kaye comes down stairs to completely mess up his meal, unaware of what he’s doing, wrapped up in his new experience of love.
The film has it’s positives but I feel it’s weighed down by deja-vu to really be an original and fresh film. I feel that Hawks was either trying to work out a bad part of a film, ironing out the faults to deliver something better. Is that just for his ego though, or was he told by those higher up, your making a film with these two, think of something fast. And here’s the result. A film that has a good formula, with plenty of jokes, I did actually laugh and in the right places. However I was constantly comparing it with whats ultimately a far superior film which sparkles and crackles. An interesting early Wilder picture, who had to wait until 1942 to direct. His original script is merely re-used and reworked, which shows how fast the remake was put into production.
Like I wrote earlier I could go into detail on every scene but that would serve little purpose and I wouldn’t enjoy doing it, finding fault in a minor film that forms a body of work in a director – Hawks who could produce some classic films that stand the test of time, lets call this a mis-fire and move on.