During the ‘50s, Hollywood filmmakers assembled and subsequently paraded a special bandwagon all over the country that specifically catered to composers. There were several jazz greats from the earlier part of the century that all received their own biographical movies — such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa. There were also more “mainstream” music writers landing a spot in the Tinseltown limelight, such as Deep in My Heart — a biopic about Sigmund Romberg with José Ferrer — and an ode to some march-happy feller named John Phillip Souza, Stars and Stripes Forever, starring the original Mr. Belvedere himself, Clifton Webb.
John Phillip Souza’s Stars and Stripes Forever (as the actual onscreen title reads) is a film based loosely off of Señor Souza’s memoirs, Marching Along, and tells of the famous King of the Marches rise to progressive popularity. Starting out as a US Marine Corps bandleader with a wife and three children in the 1890s, Souza (Webb) changes his routine when he makes the acquaintance of a young wily lad bearing the outrageous name Willie Little (young Robert Wagner). Leaving the military to pursue an active career in baton waving, Souza (along with Little and band) embark on a worldwide tour, showcasing his talents near and far, before eventually joining the war effort in the Spanish-American War later that decade by composing his famous patriotic anthem, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
No, it didn’t happen that way. While the film is supposed to be a biography about Souza, the writers behind this moving picture took a great deal of liberties in telling their partially-historical performance. There are far too many portions of the film devoted to a romantic subplot between the entirely fictional characters of Robert Wagner and co-star Debra Paget. The reason for this is more than likely the fault of studio executives more than anything: they probably didn’t see audiences enjoying a movie — especially one with a middle-aged married father of three as the protagonist — without its fair share of young love.
When the war breaks out, Little enlists, only to be crippled by friendly fire, and Souza and his wife Jennie (Ruth Hussey) are there to comfort her. Afterward, the one-legged veteran returns, only to find a seat waiting for him in the orchestra. It’s simply one of those Hollywood things, kids: a good deal of archetypal drama fused with moments of lighthearted humor. And, as you can probably guess, Stars and Stripes Forever is littered with marches galore (as arranged and performed by Alfred Newman) — something that almost drove me bonkers, to be honest. Now, for those of you who enjoy more traditional musical moments, there are plenty of stage numbers performed by Paget and company to amuse you with. There’s even sporadic narration by Casey Adams (Max Showalter).