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The Biopic Blogathon: The Benny Goodman Story

I fell in love with swing music early in life. I remember having a passing knowledge of Glenn Miller (he’s one of my home town boys) and Benny Goodman at a young age, the musical art-form truly came to prominence for me in middle school when I fell into all things Frank Sinatra. Then there was a brief Artie Shaw phase, but I digress…

Regular Ticklish Business readers will also know I’m the classic TV girl… so when I stumbled onto this Biopic Blogathon I realized one thing: I finally had a chance to write about Steve Allen in one of his biggest film roles. Cue up your favorite version of “Sing Sing Sing” everybody, we’re talking about The Benny Goodman Story.

The Benny Goodman Story is exactly what it sounds like. The movie tells the life story of bandleader Benny Goodman (Steve Allen) beginning in his childhood when he receives his first clarinet and ending with his orchestra’s famous concert in Carnegie Hall. Donna Reed, Herbert Anderson, Hy Averback and Sammy Davis Senior co-star in the movie. Valentine Davis directs the movie from his own script.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a shameless Steve Allen fan… so that is going to color this piece. Honestly? It will be hard not to “fan girl” about this movie. I also have to mention, Benny Goodman is my favorite of the bandleaders. So, you can probably guess what I think of this movie.

Interestingly, when examining The Benny Goodman Story through a lens focused on the casting, it seems tailor made as a Steve Allen vehicle. Sure, it’s a bit of a “glow-up” as the kids say, but aren’t most bio-pics at some level?

Steve Allen is a name which hasn’t necessarily traveled through time for many outside the most hardened television historians. Allen hit the industry hard as a relative youngster on radio in the 1940s and by the earliest days of television, he was coming into his own. Allen is probably best known as the first host of the (now legacy) talk show, The Tonight Show beginning as early as 1954.

Allen brought a bit of a ‘wunderkind’ persona to much of his early work. Born in 1921, he was just in his early thirties with the debut of The Tonight Show (at the time it was known as Tonight Starring Steve Allen). Many might also recognize him from his recurring stint as a panelist on the What’s My Line throughout the 1950s. Allen had no problem dipping his toe into anything: acting, comedy, presenting, musician, songwriting and author… to name a few. He remained a mainstay on television throughout the next three decades, typically with his work on talk shows and game shows. Allen passed away in 2000.

The Benny Goodman Story is a goldmine for classic TV fans out there. Aside from Steve Allen, the film presents Donna Reed as Goodman’s wife Alice, two years before The Donna Reed Show premiered on ABC. Dare I also mention another perennial Kim favorite, Herbert Anderson in the cast as record producer (and Goodman’s future brother-in-law) John Hammond Jr. This came three years before Anderson’s best remembered work on Dennis the Menace.

I hear what you’re saying, I’m straying from the point. The Benny Goodman Story hit theaters in 1956, two years after Allen’s true breakout on The Tonight Show. Allen didn’t do much film acting. In fact, his most remembered big screen roles are playing himself. However, The Benny Goodman Story is the perfect role for Allen as an actor. This starts from the most superficial level in Allen’s resemblance to Benny Goodman.

Sure, Allen isn’t really tested as an actor in this one. The Benny Goodman Story doesn’t pack in a lot of drama, especially when compared against The Glenn Miller Story (starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson), which hit theaters two years before. Benny doesn’t experience too much adversity in the story. He’s shown as a poor-ish kid who works really hard, but is stymied by the older generation’s lack of respect for ‘hot music’. Allen and Reed are both quite restrained here… even the requisite third act break-up doesn’t come with many fireworks, but it doesn’t have too.

Probably the biggest problem many voice with the film is a lack of accuracy in its narrative; however, this shouldn’t be a surprise to many. This is a classic Hollywood biopic after all! Writing on this film makes a definite discussion of the narrative’s erasure of Goodman’s Jewish upbringing. Though, actress Berta Gersten (playing Goodman’s mother) gives a pitch perfect imitation of Gertrude Berg in The Goldbergs, which makes me question if I fully agree with this objection… at least from a cultural perspective. Is it ideal? No. We know representation in Hollywood is never as good as it could be. At the same time, there’s much written about a certain cleaning up of Goodman’s character as it relates to his likability and charisma. However, I do not present myself as an expert on Goodman, so that’s purely based on outside sources.

Where this film packs its biggest punch is in the casting and depiction of the musical sequences. As I keep mentioning, the film hit theaters in 1956… rock and roll was still a few years off and the Big Band era wasn’t far removed from its peak. The film makes the (savvy) decision to utilize real figures from the era as themselves, most notably the legendary drummer Gene Krupa (who has a fairly large role) and trumpet player Harry James (in a cameo). In using these two men, the movie captures an important cultural era. These are the legends of the era and in The Benny Goodman Story, audiences are able to see them at their peak. With each passing year it becomes harder and harder to find clips of their work… unless you’re a YouTube lurker like me. It is in this we find the true value of The Benny Goodman Story: it’s a visual record of a musical era which is all to quickly fading into history.

At the same time though, Allen also connects with the material as a musician (even if he couldn’t play the clarinet). He feels natural in the many extended musical sequences… at least to this writer who (granted!) hasn’t picked up a musical instrument since sixth grade orchestra. By 1956, Allen would have been recognized as a musician by the industry. His best known composition “This Could Be the Start of Something” became the theme song for his incarnation of The Tonight Show the same year. He also wasn’t afraid to experiment with music throughout his talk show runs.

Ultimately, The Benny Goodman Story is a bit like the Alan Freed concert movies of the early rock and roll years. The film might not pack a whole lot on the narrative front (and very little as a bio pic). However, where the value of a movie like this lies is in its cultural depiction. The musical sequences are so well constructed they serve as historical documents. How many movies capture Gene Krupa drumming on “Sing Sing Sing”? As a musical biopic, this might leave a lot to be desired, but as a love letter to the Big Band era, it works really well.

The Benny Goodman Story is available here!

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