Screen Musicals vs. History

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)

Hollywood lived in constant fear of lawsuits, so in the name of "dramatic license," almost all screen biographies were more fiction than fact. The tuneful exercises in fantasy covered here all originated as films -- movies based on stage musicals are not included.

(All photos below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

It's De-Lovely

(Cole Porter)
Although it gets points for dealing with Porter's homosexuality and casting the wonderful Kevin Kline, this film desecrates Cole's wonderful songs by putting them in the mouths of pop singers who ruin almost every number. The screenplay is at times incoherent, leaving some very fine actors to flounder helplessly. What a senseless waste.

Funny Girl

We've had so many questions on this film that the answers rate a separate page.

Funny Lady (Fanny Brice)

Like Funny Girl, this sequel film bears limited resemblance to reality. While Fanny Brice had a genuine affection for ex-husband Nick Arnstein, she did not spend her later years endlessly pining for a reunion. In fact, she tried to keep that crook as removed from her affairs as possible. The real Billy Rose was short and unattractive, nothing like the hunky James Caan. That said, Funny Lady is very entertaining, one of the few first-rate musical sequels. It allows Streisand to sing several fine period songs associated with Brice, as well as some new gems by no less than Kander and Ebb -- and gives a reasonable outline of Brice's late career on stage, screen and radio. It ends on a hopeful note -- just before Brice's all too early death due to heart failure at age 59.

The Great Waltz

There have been various stage and screen versions of the life of Johann Strauss Jr. entitled The Great Waltz -- and none of them bears more than a passing resemblance to historical fact. He worked primarily in Vienna, had a scandalous affair that ended his first marriage and led into another, and was a prodigious composer. Although his father tried to squelch his early career, Johann Jr. completely eclipsed him. Beyond that, the MGM screen versions are fictitious confections -- the difference being that the 1938 film offers tons of mindless fun, while the 1972 attempt is a moronic bore.

The Jolson Story (Al Jolson)

The egotistical Jolson had final approval over the script for The Jolson Story, so only a few shreds of harmless truth made it into the film. Among other things, his real "mammy" died when he was a small boy, and he had a series of incredibly unhappy marriages – each ruined by his self-centered obsessions. When ex-wife Ruby Keeler threatened to sue Columbia Studios for depicting her without permission, the character based on her was renamed and re-written to bear limited resemblance to her. But the public knew exactly who was based on who. The sequel, Jolson Sings Again, plays just as creatively with the facts.

Lillian Russell

Russell's soprano voice was nothing like Alice Faye's smoky baritone, and Faye is far more petite than the woman who's hefty hourglass figure became one of the cultural icons of the 1890s. Weber and Fields appear as offstage versions of their burlesque personas, not as the sophisticated businessmen they actually were. Tony Pastor did not have a thick Italian accent, and there is no evidence that "Diamond" Jim Brady was ever more than a friend to Russell. The lovesick reporter portrayed by Henry Fonda is vaguely based on Alexander Moore, Russell's third husband. Don Ameche's mostly fictional character is loosely based on John Stromberg, an American songwriter who committed suicide after writing the hit "Come Down Ma' Evenin' Star" for Russell. Gilbert and Sullivan did not write an operetta for Russell, and they never allowed anyone to interpolate songs by other composers in their operettas. Because of rights issues, the songs in the film are mostly inferior substitutes for Russell's actual hits.

Look For the Silver Lining (Marilyn Miller)

Marilyn Miller as SallyMarilyn Miller's family did wear baroque court costumes in their vaudeville act. Other than that harmless fact, this film is a load of rather bland hogwash. The meager June Haver cannot even begin to suggest the charms that made Miller the toast of the 1920s. The real Marilyn was no backstage innocent – in fact, she was tough as nails with a mouth to match. She had to be to survive battles with Flo Ziegfeld and the other challenges of stardom. The depiction of a distraught Miller collapsing when her husband dies is an outright lie. According to all sources, she learned of his tragic death shortly before a performance, then went on with the show. She did not revive Sally in her final years – by then, her career had been ended by a series of crippling infections. The wonderful Ray Bolger dances off with this film, despite the fact that his character is fictional. Where the rest of this film meanders, his dance routines soar, especially his delightful rendition of "Who."

Night and Day (Cole Porter)

Cole Porter wrote songs, had a wife named Linda, and was great friends with Monty Wooley – on most other points, this film borders on science fiction. The diminutive Cole was more than flattered to be depicted by the ravishing Cary Grant – how ironic to have one closeted gay celebrity portray another! Mary Martin re-created her legendary "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," but Ethel Merman (who appeared in many Porter shows) was replaced by a fictional belter.

Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin)

The Gershwins were a close-knit family, and it is true that publisher Max Dreyfus played a key role in George's career. It is also true that Al Jolson interpolated "Swanee" into one of his shows, making the tune a tremendous hit. Otherwise, this screenplay offers a maze of cornball fantasies. "Swanee" had already been used in a flop show, and it was far from Gershwin's first published song. Having Jolson, Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman and other celebrities on hand to play themselves adds the appearance of veracity, but Robert Alda's almost saintly characterization of George was designed to appease the Gershwin family. The gifted composer was an infamous womanizer and relentless self-promoter. The two girlfriends played by Joan Leslie and Alexis Smith are fictional, clumsy attempts to introduce personal conflict into a life that had almost none. His death occurred after emergency brain surgery – a risky business today, let alone in the 1930s.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

In their one non-fictional film, Astaire and Rogers paid loving tribute to the first great American dance team. The genial story is based loosely on the facts. The real Irene Castle was on hand to make sure some of the period dance steps were authentic, but some of the routines are pure Fred and Ginger – which is certainly NOT a bad thing! Vernon was killed in a WWI plane crash while training a new pilot, much as is depicted in this film. As Hollywood musical bios go, this one is a major winner, and a fitting conclusion to the wonderful series Astaire & Rogers starred in for RKO.

Three Little Words (Kalmar & Ruby)

It is true that Kalmar was a devoted amateur magician, and that his career as a vaudeville hoofer was cut short by an injury. The real Ruby was a lifelong baseball devotee, and appears briefly in this film as a professional ball player. However, in making this film, MGM had a slight problem -- during their long and hit-filled collaboration, songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby had enjoyed a cordial and remarkably drama-free relationship. So the conflicts that fuel the minimal plot of Three Little Words are all fictional -- these boys were on the most cordial terms until Kalmar's death in 1947.

Till the Clouds Roll By (Jerome Kern)

Kern lived something of a charmed life, so MGM had to invent all kinds of fictional material to fill out this musical film bio. The mentor-arranger played by Van Heflin is totally fictional, as is that character's talented daughter, played on screen by Lucille Bremer. It is true that Kern met his beloved wife at an English county inn, where he asked to use her piano as a means of introducing himself. He also barely missed sailing on the Lusitania's tragic final voyage with producer Charles Frohman -- but otherwise, the events depicted in this film have nothing to do with Kern's actual life.

Words and Music (Rodgers & Hart)

This was a tough one to film in the 1940s. Not only was Richard Rodgers still around to make sure no one besmirched his name, but Larry Hart's key problem -- namely, his homosexuality -- could not be discussed or even inferred on screen. So Words and Music was forced to perpetuate the nonsensical view that the diminutive Hart was driven to self-destruction because no woman would have him. (As if there weren't legions of ambitious chorines who slept with powerful but unattractive men to get a break in show business?) It is true that Hart would scratch out lyrics on any available scrap of paper. However, as far as we know, he never sang a duet with Judy Garland -- that delightful but gratuitous bit was invented to reunite Garland with former screen partner Mickey Rooney.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (George M. Cohan)

CohanGeorge's devotion to his parents and sister was quite real, and some of the numbers in this film accurately recreate period performance styles. They even brought in one of Cohan's dance assistants to help James Cagney capture some of Cohan's unique stage deportment. Cohan was contending with terminal cancer while this film was being made, but he took such an active interest that the studio (fearing he might withdraw the rights to his songs) made several changes to mollify him – and to avoid lawsuits from other persons depicted in the script. Some noteworthy points –

You can learn more in our Cohan 101 section.

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