‘Til the Clouds Roll By: How NOT to Learn about Kern

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Today is the birthday of the great Broadway composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945). Kern contributed songs to over 100 musicals between 1904 and his death. His most well known shows include Show Boat (1927), Roberta (1933), and the Marilyn Miller vehicles Sally (1923) and Sunny (1926). I think of him as a crucial transitional figure between the European operetta style works of Victor Herbert and the more jazz oriented modern musical comedy period that came after (an era he helped usher in). A crucial period of his work included a number of critically acclaimed shows for the Princess Theatre between 1915-1920. Since CR’s forebears were part owners or builders of the Princess according to her family lore, we are especially interested in investigating these.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about REALLY. A side benefit of having researched No Applause is having become an expert on a largely defunct genre, the Hollywood musical show biz bio-pic. Allow me to qualify that. Hollywood still makes musical show biz bio pics, of course, but nowadays they tend to be at least marginally closer to real facts. It must be admitted that biographical drama might be the hardest of all formats to write in, going all the way back to Shakespeare. On the one hand there are the needs of storytelling; on the other hand there are the historical facts to tell. And these are more often than not almost impossible to reconcile. And no matter which direction you take, fictionalizing, sticking with the facts, or trying to walk the line between both, it’s going to be somehow dissatisfying to a significant portion of the audience.

Anyway, like I say, there was a huge vogue for this type of picture in the 40s and 50s, the most famous of which is probably The Jolson Story. Many of these films are plenty entertaining though forgettable, and nearly all of them err on the side of storytelling at the expense of facts. (Nowadays, the more common error seems to be trying to squeeze in all the facts at the expense of storytelling). At any rate, to someone who KNOWS the facts of the real story, these old show biz bio-pics are a hilarious hoot. The liberties the film-makers take sometimes are brazen, the films tell lies as great as any ever spun by Pravda. Sometimes it seems the only real facts seem to be the name of the character being depicted and the names of some of the shows or songs he or she was associated with. (The largest calumny in The Jolson Story is the replacement of his wife, the equally famous Ruby Keeler, with a fictionalized straw woman with the unlikely name of “Julie Benson”). And sometimes (very often, in fact), the screenwriters will go down crazy tangents with their completely fictional characters, until they seem to have left the main character —  who happens to be the only real one and the one we’re theoretically supposed to be “learning” about — in the dust. ‘Til the Clouds Roll By is one of these.

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In case you haven’t guessed, ‘Til the Clouds Roll By is the Jerome Kern story. It came out in 1946, right after the composer died.  Kern himself is portrayed by creepy psychopath Robert Walker (best known from Strangers on a Train).

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It starts with him leaving another triumphant Broadway opening night, but in a melancholy, reflective mood. He gets into a cab, and the driver (from central casting)  asks, “Where to, Mr. Koin?” And Kern says, “Why don’t you take me by the old house, [Pete, or Zeke, or whatever the cab driver's name is].” And then Kern proceeds to sit in front of the old house and reminisce for the next 90 minutes about a bunch of things that never happened to him. (He must be a rich man; presumably, the meter is still running).

The main trunk of the story is a vaguely homoerotic relationship between Kern and a completely fictional mentor named Jim Hessler (played with equally creepy intensity by Van Heflin). Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the story comes to be about Jim’s fictional daughter “Sally” (Lucille Bremer), who grows up and and gets into a spot of trouble. Kern sure wishes he could help her out, and then, by jiminy, he does. I reiterate: she’s completely fictional!

And then, the big fantasy segment where most of the big musical stars in Hollywood (Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, etc etc) sing songs from Kern’s shows. At any rate, I recommend this film heartily, if only NOT to learn anything about Jerome Kern in the most entertaining way possible.

Here’s the whole damn thing if you feel like watching it:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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