30 September 2014

Why The Benny Goodman Story isn't on my "perfect" list

I do love this movie, even though on the face of it much of the plot is ridiculous when viewed objectively. It takes a uniquely 50's view of race, class, and religion -- just pretend there was nothing wrong in the first place. In the film, you see a fully integrated band right from the beginning, with Teddy Wilson and Buck Clayton sitting right with the other musicians on the bandstand. Whereas, of course, in reality, black and white jazz players could only play together after hours, or using pseudonyms {or noms du disques) on records, until key bandleaders, including Goodman and Artie Shaw, just couldn't stand it anymore and, courageously but cautiously, added exceptional black artists to their performances. The whole impetus behind the Benny Goodman Trio, Quartet, Sextet, etc., was to put black and white artists together without taking the radical and possibly ruinous step of integrating the orchestra.

 It was daring. Benny Goodman did not know in 1938, at the age of 29, that he was one of the founding fathers of jazz, and that his music would be known and loved long after he himself had gone, and he came from an painfully poor background. When his first integrated quartet took the stage, his career might have been ruined and the precious success he had won destroyed. So this is what I would change about the film; I don't mind its display of Benny's heavily accented parents without anyone once mentioning the words Jew or gentile. I don't mind Donna Reed's high-fifties style (actually quite handsome for the 50s but ludicrous for a story that takes place in the 30s). I don't even mind that both she and Steve Allan are trying so hard to be dignified that the sparks between them are few and far between. (Allen is best on those rare occasions when Benny loses his temper, and you get a glimpse of the famous "hundred yard stare.") I think Donna Reed is quite good in this part, with not much help from the script, giving the impression that she has really thought about Alice Hammond's situation. But the most dramatic part of the story just isn't there!

The fact is, Goodman was revered for more than his music, wonderful as it was; he was also the first one to stick his neck out and put black and white musicians together onstage in front of everyone. When he did, everyone could see for themselves that black players were in no way inferior. It made it perfectly plain that the idea was ludicrous. Dedicated racists thought it was the thin end of the wedge that  would eventually shatter the whole system, and they were right.