The Fabulous Dorseys (1947, Alfred E. Green)

The best scene in The Fabulous Dorseys is the jam session with Art Tatum. It’s the only time in the movie about jazz there are Black people, and it’s the only time the movie really lets The Fabulous Dorseys be fabulous. The film’s a biopic about band leaders brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who play themselves, and their professional disagreements and rivalries. The Tatum scene stands out because it’s them playing, but it’s also them artistically engaged with their craft. And director Green gets to actually film musicians playing their instruments. There are some big band performances (including one where one of the orchestra members can’t remember to stop looking straight into the camera), which are fine and good, but there’s no energy to them.

Everyone’s got energy for that Tatum scene. It’s the realist Dorseys ever seems to get, even though the film’s constantly bumping up against reality thanks to its stars playing themselves, albeit decades older than they ought to be. Plus, neither of them are good actors. Tommy’s better than Jimmy, but Jimmy looks low-key terrified the entire time like he wants nothing more than the scene to be over. Considering the central drama is about Tommy showboating, it kind of works.

But the Dorseys aren’t really the protagonists of The Fabulous Dorseys. Most of the time, the movie’s about Janet Blair, their childhood friend (albeit fifteen years their junior when they’re playing adults) who acts as surrogate sister and parent. Blair’s eventually got to pick between the brothers and her love interest, William Lundigan. Only then, when the movie breaks up Blair and Lundigan over her loyalty to the Dorseys, it brings back the parents and pushes Blair into the background until the third act.

Sara Allgood and Arthur Shields play the parents in the opening flashback and the present. The present taking place over twenty-ish years, though the timeline’s very loose. There’s no Great Depression in The Fabulous Dorseys timeline, which must’ve been nice.

Allgood narrates the movie, with all her narration accompanying cursive text on the screen. It’s an unsuccessful device, but I guess you don’t need establishing shots as much when you can just use the text. The film starts in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, where Shields is a miner who also teaches music. He’s got his two sons learning trombone and saxophone because they’re the rarest instruments, and it’ll be easier for them to get jobs. Uncredited Bobby Warde and Buz Buckley play Jimmy and Tommy, respectively, with Ann Carter playing the young version of Blair. Also uncredited. That lack of credit is rather unfair since the kids run the ninety-minute movie for at least ten minutes.

The flashback establishes Tommy is a jackass who showboats, the brothers fight, the women (Allgood and Carter) have to monitor them, and Shields smacks them around. Initially, the film’s anti-hitting kids, but later on, when they’re adults, and Tommy’s still a showboating jackass, everyone wishes Shields could just beat some sense into them.

For the flashback sequence, Allgood holds the whole thing together. She’s got a nothing part and plays support to lesser actors (not just the kids, but also Shields, who’s only sympathetic thanks to Allgood), but she’s a trooper. And the production values are fine, and Green’s direction is decent.

Once they’re adults, Blair’s going to get that “holding it together” position. In fact, her keeping the brothers together is most of the second act. For a biopic starring the subjects, The Fabulous Dorseys does everything it can to avoid being about Tommy and Jimmy, instead focusing on Blair and her love life.

When Blair first meets Lundigan, the band needs a new piano player. Lundigan’s the local silent movie accompanist, and his skill at composing on the spot impresses everyone. It’s a good scene, especially since Lundigan’s not really playing the piano, but Blair’s got to be thrilled with his playing. Green does a good job directing around it; the silent movie sequence is one of the film’s standouts.

The movie will lose track of Lundigan’s musical abilities, and ambitions as he and Blair get lovey-dovey. Only she can’t give up on the Dorseys and Lundigan’s not having it. Lundigan’s not good, but he’s likable at the start. So when he becomes a dick about whether Blair should consider herself part of the Dorseys, it’s hard to miss him.

The film will employ a couple contrivances and a couple deus ex machinas to resolve the story—again, the busywork seems to be covering for Jimmy and Tommy not being able to act—and it’s occasionally a little mawkish but never craven. Dorseys feels sincere enough, which is crucial because it’s more about sick parents than creative independence. And even if Tommy was comfortable with the film making him out to be a jackass every single time, he wasn’t willing to do a reconciliation scene with Jimmy where he admits it.

Blair’s reasonably good. She’s usually better than the scenes, and her singing numbers work out. Even if she’s way too young to be mothering the brothers.

There are some funny supporting performances, too—Dave Willock and James Flavin being the standouts.

The Fabulous Dorseys isn’t exactly fabulous, but it’s an entirely acceptable outing; it’s not an advertisement for the brothers outside their musical abilities. And while it’s not an innovative movie musical, Green does a good job showcasing the numbers.

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