Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Stars and Stripes Forever

After watching a spectacular fireworks display at the local park, and still experiencing a patriotic high, it seemed appropriate to pull out my VHS copy of “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952), Twentieth Century Fox’s Technicolor tribute to march composer John Philip Sousa. There’s only the modicum of a plot, but the performances are so likeable and the music is so great, that I forgave the lack of story and dramatic incident.

Admittedly, I don’t know too much about the real life of Sousa, but if there’s no real drama regarding his life, then I’m fine with not making up conflict and letting us instead enjoy the music and period trappings.

Clifton Webb stars as John Philip Sousa and he’s great as always. I can watch him in anything. We usually think of Webb as the caustic, snobbish type, but he can also be remarkably subtle and moving.

A few weeks ago I watched, and thoroughly enjoyed, “Titanic” (1953) where he and Barbara Stanwyck most believably play a long-time married couple watching their marriage unraveling and his betrayal that their son is not Webb’s. The scenes with Webb and son on the sinking deck (hardly giving anything away here, folks) are very moving. Webb accomplishes so much with so little.

In “Stars and Stripes Forever” Webb enjoys wedded bliss with his wife (Ruth Hussey) and three children. Perhaps there’s not enough Sousa and too much footage given over to a romance between sousaphone inventor Willie Little (Robert Wagner) and dancer Lilly Becker (Debra Paget), but they are both so beguiling and charming in this that I didn’t care. In fact, it may be the most likable performance from Wagner I’ve ever seen. He’s almost like a stalker in his attempts to play under Sousa, but he’s so upfront about it and so eager to be in the presence of the great man that I rooted for him the entire time.

(I do know enough about Sousa’s life that he himself invented the sousaphone and not some guy named Willie Little. But then how else is Willie going to ingratiate himself with Sousa than by telling him about his invention of the sousaphone? It’s a great scene and Webb’s befuddlement is a joy to behold.)

There’s also a very amusing scene where Sousa is leading the United States Marine Band at a White House function hosted by the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.

The receiving line is taking too long and a presidential aide asks Sousa to play something livelier to move the line along. Sousa plays his famous march “Semper Fidelis” and President Harrison is pleased that the music’s quick tempo makes those in the receiving line move much faster. (They should play that march at the receiving lines at some wedding receptions I’ve been to.)

I’ve always had an interest in U.S. presidents and can’t recall another film where Harrison was portrayed. If anyone knows of any other films featuring Benjamin Harrison, I’d love to hear about it.

Arguably the best studio orchestra in the 1950s was the Twentieth Century Fox one and with Music Director Alfred Newman leading the orchestra you know that the famous Sousa marches are going to be given a first-rate treatment. Many of Sousa’s most famous marches are performed and they can get the blood flowing in a corpse.

For the Olympics buffs out there, the film’s orchestrations are provided by Leo Arnaud, whose own Olympic fanfare is as well-known as any Sousa march.

The Sousa band not only played his marches, but other compositions as well. We get robust performances of “Turkey in the Straw”, the “Light Cavalry Overture”, “Dixie” and a stupendous choral performance of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Fox choral director Ken Darby is responsible for the latter, and when Newman and Darby teamed up you knew one’s ears would be burning with pleasure for the length of the movie.

There’s a lot of musical talent here and if one of the film music labels ever released the tracks it would make a wonderful album of American music.

Speaking of musical talent, Debra Paget as showgirl Lily Becker has a terrific number called “When It’s Springtime in New York” and also dances to Sousa’s “Washington Post” march. She’s a wonderful dancer and it’s too bad she didn’t have the opportunity to do more musicals. I always wondered about that.

Fox was known for their musicals starring blondes like Alice Faye, Betty Grable, June Haver and Marilyn Monroe. Did Zanuck not want to top line a brunette in one of the studio’s musicals? I know musicals were slowly easing their way out in popularity in the 1950s, but I still would have loved to have seen Debra Paget in more musicals.

In addition to the music, the film benefits from the glorious Technicolor that Fox lavished on their musicals. Even in my slightly faded VHS copy of the film, the colors burst through.

Director of “Stars and Stripes Forever” is Henry Koster, a great favorite of mine. He directed many a movie I’m very fond and many of them are what some people might pejoratively call “nice movies.”

Not from me, though. There’s a lot of heart and humanity in Koster’s films but with the treacle held back. I think he’s incredibly underrated and anyone who schedules a Henry Koster Film Festival would earn the happy gratitude of the attending audience.

I wrote about Koster before in my look at “The Robe” (1953) – I know, shoot me, but I love it. One can’t go wrong with any of these titles: two Deanna Durbin films “First Love” (1939) and “Spring Parade” (1940); “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947); “Come to the Stable” (1949); “Harvey” (1950); and “A Man Called Peter” (1955). There’s many others in his neglected filmography.

If memory serves, “Stars and Stripes Forever” was due to be released on DVD about five years ago, but it never happened. Since “The Egyptian” (1954) was announced for release at about the same time, and it’s finally coming out this month on DVD on the specialty Twilight Time label, I’m hoping that we will soon see “Stars and Stripes Forever” on DVD. It’s a movie to be enjoyed over and over again, not just on the Fourth of July, but all year long.


Kevin Deany said...

I apologize to my readers for the white space in this blog. For the last several weeks I've been having a terrible problem with spacing. If anyone has any suggestions on how to alleviate this, I would be very grateful. It just started recently.

Caftan Woman said...

Thanks for turning the spotlight on "Stars and Stripes Forever". I think of those Fox musicals as a sort of comfort food of movies - most welcome on a Sunday afternoon, like dear old friends.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great post. I haven't seen this one in ages, but your review makes me want to see it again soon. I also like Clifton Webb, and do find him very subtle in many scenes. "Titanic" showed some of his best work.

Classicfilmboy said...

Sounds like a movie I'd really like. Thank you for your patriotic tribute. Love Clifton Webb, so I need to check it out. However, since it's not on DVD, I may need to borrow it from you.

ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I don't know what causes those white spaces, but I do know Blogger can drive you to tear out your hair sometimes! But I didn't care. I'm so glad to know that someone else adores this movie. I do, and it may be openly and shamelessly patriotic, highly fictionalized (since when was that ever a problem for Hollywood anyway!), and some people think it's corny, but I love it.

Webb is just his usual wonderful self, and you are so right about Wagner and Paget -- they were funny, sweet and brought some tears as well. My favorite scene is the one where the southern town, still painfully aware of their defeat by the North, is not sure it wants Sousa's band. He marches his band in playing Dixie, and all are charmed and even have tears in their eyes. Then he is brave enough to have the black Stone Mountain Choir sing Lincoln's song. It was spine-tingling.

Wonderful article, Kevin, about an under-rated movie that should be better known. My poor old tape is getting old now, and I really hope they bring it out on DVD!

Java Bean Rush said...

We just about wore out our VHS copy of this film. It was one of my favorite after-school movies.

According to IMDB, STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER is the only film in which President Harrison is portrayed (though he gets one other appearance, but that's on TV).

The narrator of that film (whose name does not seem to be listed on IMDB) has such an authoritative voice I felt that I was watching a documentary, or a least some kind of full-color newsreel.

It was at that time in my life that I started trying to guess when the film was made before looking at the back cover for that information. I'd also make myself give a reason for my guess.

The first or second time that I watched this one I guessed 1950s because Robert Wagner has a pompadour like the young Elvis in LOVE ME TENDER (1956) and Debra Paget looks about the same age in both films.

It's been awhile. Thanks for taking me back, Kevin.

- Java

Kevin Deany said...

Caftan Woman: I agree about the Fox musicals. Love 'em. Just love 'em. It will be a happy day when "Coney Island" comes out on DVD.

Jacqueline: Agree about Clifton Webb. I was really impressed with his performance in "Titanic." At the local Half Price Books, I found a copy of "The Dark Corner" for only $3. I've never seen it and am looking forward to it.

Classicfilmboy, I would be happy to loan it you. I hope you like it.

Becky, totally agree about that scene in the South. One of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Java Bean, it never occurred to me to check out character names on the IMDB. I'll have to remember that for future references. Thanks for looking up Benjamin Harrison for me.

Allen Hefner said...

Java Bean, the narrator in Stars and Strips was Max Showalter (1917 - 2000) famous as Jean Peter's husband in Niagara (starring Marilyn Monroe) made the next year. He does have a great voice.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Allen. Great to know. Thanks for reading.

Page said...

I'm late to the celebration as usual. This is the perfect film to celebrate Independence Day and one that sadly, not too many would think of as a first choice. I adore Ruth Hussey all while not being the biggest fan of musicals but I enjoyed it for it's historical references.
A great review on a must see film.

I hope you had a wonderful July 4th.

Kevin Deany said...

Page: I like Ruth Hussey too in this. She is calm and collected amidst all hubbub surrounding her husband and the romance between Wagner and Paget, especially in the scene when she tells her husband they have been married. A beautifully played scene and typical of Koster's work in not overplaying a scene.

Fourth was very nice, but a lot of running around this weekend. I was glad to kick back with this movie when it was all over.

Grand Old Movies said...

Haven't seen this movie, but it sounds great, and Fox musicals are always a lot of fun. Webb was a more versatile actor than his "Laura" or "Dark Corner" performances will let you know. He's excellent in "Titanic" and he's also very funny in the 1950s version of "Cheaper by the Dozen" - I know, Webb is the last person you'd think of as the father of 12 children, but he makes it work, and he & Myrna Loy do a great job together (though in no way does lovely, slim Myrna look like the mother of 12 kids!). Thanks for your review; it makes me want to see this film.

Kevin Deany said...

I like "Cheaper by the Dozen" too though its been awhile since I've seen it.

Very glad to see that TCM is running "Sitting Pretty" this month, on the evening of July 27. That's another one I haven't seen in the longest time and am really looking forward to it. If memory serves, there's more to it than the famous oatmeal and the baby scene. Great support from Richard Haydn too.

I do hope you get to see "Stars and Stripes Forever" one day.

Nathanael Hood said...

You know...I kinda miss the days when films could display such simplistic and cheery optimism and patriotism...

Anyhow...hello! My name is Nathanael Hood from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear!

I just want to invite you to my blog's blogathon. It will be taking place in about three weeks. The topic is MONSTER MOVIES FROM THE 50S!!!

I would love it if you would participate! Send me an email at

Here are a couple of links to more information: