John Philip Sousa's life and legacy were arguably immortalized in Henry Koster's Stars and Stripes Forever (1952): one of the last movies released by 20th Century-Fox in the traditional Academy aspect ratio and in 3-strip Technicolor. The results, alas, are less than colorful. Based on Sousa's autobiography, 'Marching Along' the screenplay by Ernest Vajda adheres very closely to the historical record, perhaps too closely for the big glossy musical that Fox was used to producing at this time. To liberate the narrative from its rather uneventful proceedings Vajda creates an entirely fictional character, Willie Little (Robert Wagner) who serves as the story's young love interest along with Debra Paget.
Although Clifton Webb delivers an indelible performance as the band leader with a penchant for pomp and circumstance the resultant exercise proves curiously lifeless and rather charm free. Part of the problem with Stars and Stripes Forever is that its subject matter is both middle aged (a kiss of death in Hollywood films) and stoically inanimate. Sousa's music, however rousing (and it is most certainly that) does not lend itself to any sort of visual interpretation or choreography other than a stiff march. Since Sousa did very little marching himself, this leaves cinematographer Charles G. Clarke with nothing to do but photograph static shots of Webb passionately conducting. It's a tough sell because we're so used to seeing movie musicals that...well...move.
Our story opens in 1890 as Marine Sergeant Major John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb) is about to resign his commission from the Marine Corp Band. Sousa is despondent that only his marches - not his ballads - have been embraced by the public. His ever loving wife, Jane 'Jennie' Middleworth (Ruth Hussey) is supportive of her husband's decision even if Major George Porter Houston (Roy Roberts) has his misgivings.
Sousa is greatly impressed by the cheek of a young Marine private, Willie Little (Robert Wagner) who attempts to reason away a drunken midnight brawl that has left him bloody, black-eyed and bandaged. Little further ingratiates himself to Sousa by modifying a conventional tuba and rechristening it the Sousa-phone in his honor. In reality Sousa created and patented the instrument himself. Willie coaxes Sousa to attend a bawdy Vaudeville performance given by his sweetheart, Lily Becker (Debra Paget). But the theatre is raided by the police because of a report of public indecency (the dancer's costumes are too skimpy) forcing Sousa, Willie and Lily to flee. Back at Sousa's home, Willie finagles an audition of sorts for Lily. Her garish musical styling is more a diversion of the limbs than a celebration of song. Sousa encourages Lily to take singing lessons to improve her prospects. She agrees, but frequently clashes with her tutor (Romo Vincent).
In the meantime, Sousa debuts his new march Semper Fidelis at a White House reception hosted by President Benjamin Harrison (Roy Gordon) and the First Lady (Helen Van Tuyl). Sousa is awarded a special medal for the song - the only Sousa composition to receive official recognition from the U.S. government. Sousa informs Houston that he will not be re-enlisting in the Marines as he intends to form his own civilian band. He also takes Willie Little with him to New York to hold open auditions. Still intent on finding a spot for Lily in Sousa's troop, Willie lies that the band leader has shown a marked interest in having her come with them on tour. Instead, Sousa - who knows nothing of Willie's deceptions - hires trained opera singer Mme. Estelle Liebling (Aileen Carlyle); a move that infuriates Lily to no end.
Sousa's civilian band is a colossal hit. They tour with increasing regularity, culminating in a world class showing at the Chicago World's Fair where Sousa is nicknamed 'the march king'. Meanwhile Lily's prospects, both professional and personal, culminate in her secret marriage to Willie and Sousa offering her to tour with the band. Unfortunately, Sousa does not approve of band members being married to one another. Nevertheless, Jennie encourages the marriage, informing both Willie and Lily to keep it a secret.
When Sousa is informed that their performance at the Cotton States Exposition is to be cancelled, presumably because marching bands don't fill the stands, Sousa willfully ushers his band onto the exposition fair grounds for an impromptu engagement where they are an immediate hit. Sousa accidentally discovers that Willie and Lily are married but agrees to keep his knowledge of their marriage a secret. He furthers Lily's career by promoting her in several lavish stage numbers with the band. The overall mood of the nation sours after the Maine is sunk. Willie re-enlists in the Marines and is wounded. Sousa, Jennie and Lily are later informed that Willie may lose his leg as a result. In the midst of this looming tragedy Sousa composes his great masterpiece, 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' - a patriotic flag-waving march that captivates the nation.
After Willie's amputation and hospitalization, Lily escorts him to a recreation hall where he is delighted to see Sousa's band performing. The reunion is hardly accidental. Sousa calls Willie from the audience to a waiting sousaphone and together they strike up a rousing rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever. We dissolve into a generational montage of many bands playing the piece with the final image being the ghost of Sousa proudly marching ahead of a band in Washington circa 1952; onward into his own infinite immortality.
The film has its merits, chiefly in Clifton Webb's supremely engaging central performance. If only the screenplay didn't waste so much time pulling away from Sousa to chase after the lethargic love story the film might have succeeded. True enough, Sousa's home life was largely uneventful, but the story might have zeroed in on his personal struggles, the challenges faced with composing and his minor familial tribulations. Instead, Stars and Stripes Forever becomes a curiously unbalanced affair. It's a story about Sousa, but with Sousa the protagonist increasingly pushed into the background. Still, I’m not going to complain about this release. It’s a deep catalogue title and that’s good to see – especially from Fox; a studio with a bizarre aversion to digging into their catalogue - even if there are far more worthy contenders within the studio’s vaults.
Curious that Fox Home Video would choose Christmas to release a patriotic flag waver that seems better suited for the 4th of July. Then again, who am I to argue with their logic - or lack thereof. Darryl F. Zanuck released Miracle on 34th Street (a Christmas classic) theatrically in the blistering summer heat of 1947 where it caught on like a three alarm fire. And Fox has truly outdone themselves on this remastering effort. A fresh 1080p scan reveals color fidelity and fine details long buried in other incarnations of Stars and Stripes Forever. Mis-registrations in the original Technicolor negative (seen on the DVD) have been corrected. The image is smooth and sharp. In some instances we can actually see clothing fibers. The image positively glows. The audio is DTS mono and is very crisp. Extra features are all imports from the aforementioned DVD and include two brief but informative featurettes on the making of the film and the real Sousa's life and career.
Fox also gives us a DVD copy of the film and a rather lavishly appointed booklet that provides very informative facts about the making of the film, the real Sousa and the film's cast members. Bravo! While I'm only a moderate fan of this film I certainly applaud Fox Home Video for its efforts. They've put together a very nice package. Now, if Fox would just give us full 1080p Blu-ray's of Anastasia (1956), The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Two For The Road, The King & I, Oklahoma!, Star!, Roadhouse, The House on Telegraph Hill, Carousel, Yentl, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Agony and The Ecstasy...
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)