A musical remake of Ball of Fire must have been one of the easiest pitches of all time. After all, the original 1941 comedy–penned by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett–was about a bunch of academics writing an encyclopedia about music. Ball of Fire starred Gary Cooper as a naïve musicologist and Barbara Stanwyck as a brash nightclub singer who shakes up his world. The remake, A Song Is Born substitutes Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. It retains the plot, adds songs, and features many of the finest musicians working in the U.S. in 1948. How could it go wrong?
It gets off to a promising start with Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) realizing that music has changed in the seven years that he and his colleagues have sequestered themselves to write their encyclopedia. To gain an appreciation for this “new” music, Frisbee embarks on a tour of New York City nightclubs. This serves as a great excuse for a musical montage featuring Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartette, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, and others.
Frisbee also encounters Honey Swanson (Mayo), a pretty singer who needs to find a place to lay low when the police close in on her gangster boyfriend. Honey decides that Frisbee’s Totten Music Foundation would be the ideal temporary hideout–never mind that she’d be living with seven intellectual bachelors.
Given the source material, music, and Danny Kaye, I expected A Song Is Born to be much better than a middling musical that smolders without catching fire. Except for the opening jungle chant number, Kaye neither sings nor dances. In his Kaye biography, Nobody’s Fool, author Martin Gottfried notes that the comedian had temporarily split from his wife Sylvia Fine following his affair with Eve Arden. Fine wrote many of her husband’s songs and she refused to be involved with A Song Is Born. As a result, Danny Kaye “did not–he would not–find anyone else to write material for him.”
Without the fabulous music and a fully functional Kaye, the second half of A Song Is Born lumbers along toward its obvious climax. To her credit, Virginia Mayo tries her best to keep the film afloat and occasionally succeeds (as in the “yum-yum” scene).
It was Mayo’s fourth film with Danny Kaye, having teamed with him previously in Wonder Man, The Kid From Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. She even had a bit part in Kaye’s Up in Arms. By the way, Steve Cochran, who played the villain in A Song Is Born, appeared with Mayo six times (including The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat).
In addition to its plot, A Song Is Born shares other connections with Ball of Fire. Howard Hawks directed both films and Gregg Tolan served as his cinematographer. Mary Field also plays Miss Totten, the benefactor of the music foundation, in both films. Hawks expressed little enthusiasm for A Song Is Born, claiming that he made it only because Sam Goldwyn “pestered” and “annoyed” him into it.
Fortunately for Danny Kaye, his best films — White Christmas and The Court Jester — were still to come. And if A Song Is Born is nothing but a footnote in his long career, it’s an still an interesting one that documents some of the great jazz and popular music instrumentalists of its era.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!