June 2, 2016

Hollywood Takes on Benny Goodman


 A recent DVD purchase at a garage sale brought back a pleasant memory. While “The Glenn Miller Story” was the movie that fascinated me decades ago, “The Benny Goodman Story” follows a similar path and provides 90 minutes of pleasurable viewing, and a mix of fact and fiction. Watch the trailer here.
“The Benny Goodman Story” was produced in 1956, 21 years after The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s unexpected success at Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. This event, often cited as the birth of the Swing Era, was played to good effect in the film. Benny’s band had bombed across the country, their brand of “hot” music (as Benny called it) falling on deaf ears and mystifying the dancers. The band was unaware that their previous East Coast radio broadcasts had attracted a following on the West Coast, and enthusiastic fans saved the band.
Like most Hollywood biographies, it is highly fictionalized and, as the website “Rotten Tomatoes” says, is more of a series of musical highlights than a biography. Indeed it is. We get to see and hear real musicians (not actors) doing their thing, including drummer Gene Krupa; trumpeters Harry James, Buck Clayton, and Ziggy Elman; pianist Teddy Wilson; saxophonist Stan Getz; and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Steve Allen was the right man to portray Benny. It helped immensely that Steve was an accomplished pianist and songwriter, and he grasped the clarinet “finger syncing” more than adequately. He spoke about the process of obtaining the leading role in the film in our 1999 interview in Los Angeles:
Steve Allen, in 1999
SA: By the time the thing was brought to my attention it was a firm offer, “we’d like you to do the picture.” I later heard partly how that came about. We will never — at least I never knew — how long the casting list was. I’ll explain briefly to people who might not know about the movie business, that whenever you have a script ready to go you don’t just call up somebody and say, “Get me Tom Cruise,” or whoever. You make out a list. Because although you might like to have Tom Cruise in your movie, maybe you’re ten million dollars short and he’s not available or there’s a lot of reasons he’s not going to do it. Whatever. So you make out a list. Well if I can’t get Tom Cruise, how about John Travolta? If he’s not available, whoever. So we’ll never know whether my name was ninth on a list or was number one on the list, I don’t know. The only other name that I ever heard was in contention was Tony Curtis, and Tony and I are obviously not the same individual. He’s a very handsome fellow, and he had the advantage that at that time he was under contract to Universal, so he was sort of one of their stock leading men, and I’ve been told that some people at the studio wanted him to play the lead. But that was vetoed by Benny himself, who I’ve been told said, I’m just paraphrasing of course, I wasn’t there when he said it, said I want Steve Allen for this because first of all Tony doesn’t know anything about music and he won’t seem real, he won’t seem legitimate as a musician speaking, also what can he do with the clarinet, you might as well hand him a tractor. I’m punching up Benny’s dialogue, but that was the thrust of his message, the other thing was a little less flattering. He said also, Tony Curtis is a pretty boy. He said I’m not a pretty boy and Steve Allen’s not a pretty boy. And it turned out that I did look more like Benny than — Tony looked nothing like him, so that had a lot to do with it.
Steve also spoke about learning the clarinet for the role, and about Benny’s real-life absentmindedness
SA: Yeah. As soon as I agreed to do the movie then of course the question was even though I was a musician I knew nothing about the clarinet, so we had to hire somebody to teach me, and somebody knew about Sol. Our mutual friend Bobby Rosengarden once said something hysterically funny, he described Sol Yaged as quote the Jewish Benny Goodman. For you young people, Benny himself is Jewish. But anyway Sol was the perfect choice, and a very easy guy to work with, so he gave me several weeks of just basic lessons: how to hold it, how to blow and all that stuff. And the reason I did have to go through all that, some people have said well why did you bother? Why didn’t you just go like that and pretend to play? The answer is my fingers had to be on the right holes. Now if you’re taking a shot from the back of a ballroom, it doesn’t matter, you can hardly see my hands. But on a close up I can’t be playing this if the real notes are over here. So I did have to have my fingers, and I did have to learn the instrument, and I learned it well enough to do a little playing in public. I once played a duet with Benny himself on a little tune I’d written. Benny himself that night was in a fog as usual. Benny Goodman lived in a fog. He was Mr. Absent Minded and often didn’t know what he was doing. He’d walk on stage with his fly open and stuff. He was just a careless man and didn’t think much about the world. He was just the greatest clarinet player of them all. So just after the movie, NBC and Universal Studios got together to do a little promotion going in both directions, so that meant booking Benny on our show, which was on the air Sunday nights at NBC at the time. So Benny himself played for a few minutes, and naturally was thrilling as always, and then our production group decided that Benny and I would do my little song with the two of us playing clarinets. It was sort of a riff thing, an easy thing to play. So in the script I walked in after Benny had played his marvelous numbers, and I said, “Benny that was terrific.” And his line was, “Well thank you, Steve, say, I see you brought your clarinet, why don’t you and I do something together?” A pretty simple line, and he’d had a whole week to work on it, he had one line with a week to work on it, and he forgot my name. Now it was my show, I was playing him in the movie, you might figure if there was any name he wouldn’t forget it’s mine. He might have forgotten his own. But anyway he did, on the air, and he did what he always did, because he was always forgetting people’s names. He had the world’s worst memory for names.
Benny solved his memory issues by calling everyone “Pops.”
Sol Yaged, who was chosen to teach Steve Allen for the film, was also interviewed in 2000 for the Fillius Jazz Archive. He related his experiences with the film and spoke of his extreme admiration for Benny:
MR:   Tell me about getting hooked up with Steve Allen.
Sol Yaged, in 2000
SY:   I was working at a place called The Somerset Hotel on 47th Street off Seventh Avenue. I was there with a trio. And he used to come in every night to sit in with me, Steve Allen. This was before he had a show. He had just come to New York from Chicago, and we used to let him sit in with us all the time. And we became very good friends. And I’m indebted to him quite a lot because he’s done a lot for me. I’ve been on his show many a time. I was on a show with Benny Goodman, Urbie Green, there’s pictures of Stan Getz in the band, Buck Clayton. And he’s been very kind to me, Steve Allen. And whenever he’s in New York and he has to do a musical thing he always calls me. Great guy. And we got a lot of mileage out of the “Benny Goodman Story.”
MR:   Right. Was he a good student?
SY:   Excellent. The best. It was unbelievable. After a couple of lessons he was able to pick up the clarinet and play a blues. He was very astute. That’s a good question you asked.
MR:   Did Benny like the movie?
SY:   Benny Goodman did not like the movie.
MR:   It was Hollywoodized quite a bit.
SY:   Believe it or not, Monk, the picture did very well in Japan. I found out some time later after we made the movie that it stayed at one theater for over a year, that’s how popular it was. It was very, very big in Tokyo. Universal International Pictures selected Steve Allen, and Benny Goodman gave his okay, but then I think he regretted it. And then Steve Allen selected me to be his coach, and Benny Goodman had to give his okay also.
MR:   What was Benny’s personality like for you?
SY:   What can I say? He was the king. I don’t care what he said or didn’t say. I was happy to be in the same room with him. I used to go to all of his rehearsals, every one of his recording dates, Monk. And one day I came in late. He started at a certain time and I came in about 15, 20 minutes later because I was living in Brooklyn. He says “Sol, you’re late,” like that he would say that to me. I felt very elated that he even said that to me. He was very nice, very gracious and warm to me. His wife Alice was a very fine woman. His brother-in-law, John Hammond, was very nice and warm to me.
Goodman himself provided the clarinet solos, and his real bandmates provided added excitement. The film’s musical moments more than compensated for the rather slow-moving romantic sub-plot, although it was true that Benny married promoter John Hammond’s sister, Alice.
Goodman’s next triumph after Palomar was his 1938 appearance at Carnegie Hall. His band and the special guests rearranged the acoustics of this formidable classical music institution. Serious jazz fans and sociologists who know the role of jazz in society will be displeased over the film’s lack of attention paid to the historic racial integration in the joining of Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, comprising the Benny Goodman Quartet. This was the first integrated jazz group to gain attention on a national scale, and predated by seven years Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the world of professional baseball.
In real life, Benny Goodman was irascible, self-centered, and occasionally downright nasty. The film’s only acknowledgement of his now-legendary personality was a focus on his stubbornness. The producers cleverly worked one of Goodman biggest hits, “Don’t Be That Way” throughout the movie. The script was peppered with fellow actors beseeching the world’s greatest clarinetist, “Oh Benny, don’t be that way.”
Flaws aside, the music, the dancing and the portrayal of an exciting musical period carries the film. I have written other blogs on Benny, A Social Hero from February 6, 2009, and 100 Years of Benny, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth on June 3, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Benny Goodman would have said, "Come on, Glenn! There is greater adventure beyond." This is not the end, but the beginning.

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