The Benny Goodman Story (1956)
Benny Goodman’s inability to express himself without his clarinet is sort of a running gag in this movie, which suits Steve Allen’s performance just fine. In his first lead role in a feature film, the famed TV host barely registers any emotion as the ‘King of Swing’. Even when informed that his father has died, Allen greets the news as if he has misplaced his spectacles. It may not be an accomplished performance, but Allen manages to persevere with the help of the lovely Donna Reed, some legendary jazz musicians, and a soundtrack that will have you stomping at the Savoy.
In his sole directorial effort, screenwriter Valentine Davies delivers a flavoursome film rich in period detail. Keen to have his children avoid the criminal element of Chicago’s tenement community circa 1919, Dave Goodman arranges for three of his sons to receive music lessons. Benny, the youngest, is allocated the clarinet and over the next few years becomes somewhat of a prodigy with the instrument. Though he is not old enough to hold a union card, Benny is soon playing professionally, preferring the ‘hot music’ of ragtime and Dixieland to the classical music he has trained for.
Initially differing in her musical tastes, high society’s Alice Hammond (Donna Reed) eventually falls to the Goodman’s music and undetectable charms. For while it may be true that you have to be smart to play a dumb blonde, Allen gets away with his stuporous performance because it aligns with his character so well. Having run the whole gamut of emotions from A to B, Allen plaintively asks Reed if she knows how he feels to which she responds with the punchline “I haven’t the vaguest idea!”
Yet it is in its presentation of Goodman’s live performances that this biopic truly excels. Among the many delightful sequences are a crowded dance floor stopping to listen to the band’s rendition of One O’clock Jump, a theatre erupting as if attending a rock concert to the tune of Bugle Call Rag, and the climactic concert at Carnegie Hall, crowned by a rousing version of Sing, Sing, Sing. Joining Allen’s capable miming of Goodman’s playing are some of the bandleader’s actual contemporaries, including Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Harry James. Trumpeter Ziggy Elman also appears as himself, but it is another trumpeter who can be heard on the soundtrack.
Benny Goodman had been receiving clarinet lessons at the Kehelah Jacob synagogue for a year prior to joining the band at Hull House. Also, it was the institution’s director James Sylvester who taught him there. Chicago Symphony clarinettist Franz Schoepp gave him private lessons.
Benny Goodman did not discover Lionel Hampton in a diner. At the suggestion of John Hammond, Goodman went to see Hampton perform at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles. The following night he took Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa along. Later that evening the three joined Hampton on stage, and the Benny Goodman Quartet was formed.
Benny Goodman and Alice Hampton did not start dating until 1939, after his appearance at Carnegie Hall.
Though biopic refers to Goodman’s movie career, and features a scene of him preparing for a film, it contains no scene recreations.