Musical Monday: The Benny Goodman Story

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Benny Goodman Story (1956) – Musical #331

Universal Studios

Valentine Davies

Steve Allen, Donna Reed, Herbert Anderson, Sammy Davis Sr., Dick Winslow, Berta Gersten, Barry Truex, Robert F. Simon
Themselves: Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Ben Pollack, Kid Ory, Martha Tilton, Harry James, Babe Russin, Allan Reuss

This is a biographical film on clarinet player Benny Goodman (Allen). The film follows Goodman as a child when he learns the clarinet and becomes interested in jazz and swing music. Goodman struggles with gaining interest in “hot” music, especially in New York City. Many prefer classical music, including Alice Hammond (Reed), who is interested in Benny Goodman but isn’t sure about his music. Alice and Benny have a romance, but with his busy music schedule and his skeptical mother, it’s hard for the two to be together.

• Directorial debut and only film directed by Valentine Davies.
• Universal Studios bought the film rights to Goodman’s life in March 1954.
• John Hammond, who was portrayed by Herbert Anderson, didn’t like how his character was portrayed on screen, as he did more for Goodman’s success than what is in the film. With rewrites, the writers wanted to replace his character with Willard Alexander, which Alexander didn’t care for. Hammond was eventually written back into the film, but the film incident created ill-feeling with Goodman and his brother-in-law, Goodman, according to “Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman” by Ross Firestone.
• Tony Curtis was considered for the role of Benny Goodman, according to Firestone’s book.
• Benny Goodman wanted to add a prologue or epilogue with himself, but Universal declined and didn’t want to ruin the illusion of Steve Allen, according to Firestone.
• To capitalize on popularity, feature stories were done on Benny Goodman, and his music was re-released ahead of the film, according to Firestone.
• Benny Goodman played all of the clarinet solos.

Steve Allen and Lionel Hampton in “The Benny Goodman Story”

• The re-created 1938 Carnegie Hall concert

Notable Songs:
• “One O’Clock Jump”
• “Stompin’ At the Savoy”
• “And the Angels Sing” performed by Martha Tilton
• “Don’t Be That Way”
• “Shine”
• “Moonglow”

My review:
With the great success of “The Glenn Miller Story,” Universal Studios was eager to cash in on the success with another musical biography on another popular bandleader.

This time, they looked to The King of Swing, jazz clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman.

Unlike Glenn Miller, Goodman was still alive when the film concept was discussed. In fact, Goodman had been interested in seeing his life on film since 1942, according to his biographer Ross Firestone.

In 1954, Universal bought the film rights to his story with Valentine Davies as the screenwriter and director, who co-wrote “The Glenn Miller Story.” This shares other similarities with “Glenn Miller,” like Henry Mancini composing the score and appearances from Gene Krupa and Ben Pollack.

The film follows Benny Goodman as a child when he learns how to play the clarinet. As a teen, he becomes interested in playing jazz and wants to play “hot” music. Along the way, he meets wealthy John (Herbert Anderson) and Alice Hammond (Donna Reed). John is interested in helping Benny Goodman, but Alice is snobbish towards jazz music and feels only a real musician would play at Carnegie Hall. Eventually, Alice comes around and follows Goodman around the country. They love each other, but Goodman’s mother is not a fan of her son, who came from a poor family, marrying someone who came from wealth. Goodman’s band becomes more and more successful and eventually plays in Carnegie Hall.

Of course, much of this film is fictional, and Benny Goodman wasn’t a fan of the film. John Hammond also was unhappy throughout the filming, feeling his character wasn’t well represented in his role in Goodman’s success. Other fabricated parts include:
– Alice Hammond was married and had three children while she and Goodman were courting in real life.
– In the film, Lionel Hampton is discovered working in a diner. Hampton was already an established character.

Goodman’s biographer Ross Firestone calls the film “dreadful,” which I disagree with. Sure, it isn’t 100 percent accurate (from the sounds of it, it’s barely accurate), but neither was “The Glenn Miller Story” or most musical biographies.

Firestone also notes that the film doesn’t depict Goodman’s drive that alienates those around him, though I would argue the film attempts to use that at least with his romance with Alice. In one scene, Alice notes that they have never been together. And even when they make a date, it’s broken, and they don’t see each other for several months.

While the film doesn’t discuss that Goodman broke racial boundaries, the cast speaks for itself. Even if you know little about Goodman, seeing black and white musicians playing together on stage in a 1950s film set in the 1930s, you know this is rare.

Black musicians like Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson stand alongside Gene Krupa and Steve Allen (as Benny Goodman). You know this is something rare in the United States before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In December 1936, Lionel Hampton played with Benny Goodman’s quartet at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York.

“The first time that black and white ever played [on a major commercial booking],” Hampton said. “That was a big deal at the time because no blacks were integrated with whites in anything – not in sports, basketball, football, nothing.”

The cast also includes Sammy Davis Sr., who plays Fletcher Henderson, music arranger and composer.

I can’t say that I agree that this film is “dreadful.”

As far as storytelling goes, it’s a good film – though not particularly accurate. Though Steve Allen wasn’t experienced in dramatic acting at this time and mainly focused on comedy (at this time, he was hosting The Tonight Show), I think he does a good job in this role. Allen has the added bonus of looking like Benny Goodman – something you can’t really say about James Stewart as Glenn Miller.

I don’t think the downfall of this film of Steve Allen. To me, it’s Donna Reed who is miscast. I love Donna Reed, but for some reason, she doesn’t work here. I think Reed and Allen lack chemistry. And (of no fault of Reed), the extremely 1950s wardrobe in a 1930s setting bugged me.

Bosley Crowther, who spoke warmly of “The Glenn Miller Story,” said if it wasn’t for the great music in “The Benny Goodman Story,” this would be a film to avoid.

“It’s this music, delivered in abundance and in the genuine Goodman style, that makes the movie, “The Benny Goodman Story,” at all worth going to see … And, believe us, if it weren’t for this music, planted all the way through the film, ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ would be something we devoutly would advise you to avoid,” Crowther wrote in his Feb. 1956 review.

And while the music is a major selling point of this film, don’t let Crowther’s assessment steer you away from this film. The story is entertaining, it’s chockful of wonderful music, and it’s filmed in vibrant Technicolor.

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