Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
The first of MGM’s quartet of musical biopics, Till the Clouds Roll By set the template for those that followed. Trace the life of a popular composer from humble beginnings to Broadway success, throw in a load of specialty musical numbers performed by MGM’s line-up of stars, and ensure that any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental. As a history lesson, it's certainly entertaining.
Opening with a lavish 15 minute representation of 'Show Boat', the story unfolds via Kern recounting his life to a taxi driver while parked outside the former home of his mentor, and life-long friend, James Hessler. The two met at a time when Broadway was enamoured with the British stage musical. Believing his only chance of success was to adopt an English accent, both literally and figuratively, Kern joins Hessler in England where he writes his first hit. His return home to even greater success is soured only by the estrangement of his friend’s daughter. Pity the Hessler’s never existed, and are but a mere concoction of the screenwriters’ imagination.
Putting aside such trivialities, Till the Clouds Roll By is an enjoyable film with likable performances by leads Robert Walker and Van Heflin. Undoubtedly the major attractions are musical numbers, performed by such MGM stars and as Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Kathyrn Grayson. Frank Sinatra even gets into the act for a grand finale that is so ridiculous in its opulence, the filmmakers could almost be criticised for showboating.
"If it tells the truth, it’ll be the dullest picture in the world”
Though Jerome Kern supported the making of this biopic, his estate was not as keen after he died during the film's production. MGM proceeded anyway, but greatly fictionalised his life to avoid a lawsuit. The greatest of these fabrications was the creation of his good friend and mentor James Hessler who, together with his fictional daughter, occupies much of the film’s running time.
Till the Clouds Roll By contains no scene recreations from Kern’s time in Hollywood. It does however finish with composer watching a lavish production number, presumably planned for the upcoming biopic he didn’t live to see.