|Ol' Blue-eyes sings "Ol' Man River"|
Till the Clouds Roll By purports to be a biopic of composer Jerome Kern (Robert Walker). It opens with a twenty minute recreation of the opening night of Kern's masterpiece, Show Boat, and then goes downhill -- at least in the dramatic sense -- from there. It would have been better for all concerned to forget the fictionalized "plot" and simply present one number after another. Some of the basic facts of Kern's life are accurate: oversleeping kept him off of the ill-fated Lusitania upon which he was to sail with impresario Charles Frohman; and he did meet his wife, Eva (Dorothy Patrick of House by the River), in England, although under somewhat different circumstances. But the movie invents a completely fictional character, James Hessler (Van Heflin), a widower-arranger, who works with Kern and helps him to become a major success. Equally fictional is Hessler's daughter, Sally, who is played by Joan Wells as a child and Lucille Bremer as an adult (both are very good), and a lot of dumb drama is worked up over show biz aspirant Sally losing her big number to star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) and running off to unknown parts because of it. None of it has anything to do with Kern. But while this aspect of the film is dull, there are still some memorable moments in the movie, such as: Lena Horne singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" from Show Boat and "Why Was I Born?"; Angela Lansbury and chorus cuties on swings for "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?"; the dancing for the title tune, which features June Allyson and Ray McDonald; Garland as Maxwell interpreting "Look for the Silver Lining;" "I Won't Dance" with Van Johnson and the aforementioned Bremer [Ruthless]; and Tony Martin doing "Make Believe" and "All the Things You Are." You wouldn't think that Frank Sinatra, however wonderful he was, could do much with "Ol' Man River" but he delivers in his own inimitable style. Other performers include Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia in Show Boat; Virginia O'Brien doing her frozen face shtick; and Dinah Shore doing a couple of numbers nicely without quite being on everyone else's level. The absolute low-light of the film is June Allyson croaking out a song about "Cleopatterer." Walker is okay as Kern, but looks nothing like him, while Heflin does more than his best with his character, and Paul Langton [Murder is My Beat] is fine as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Ironically, five years later the same studio, MGM, did a full-length version of Show Boat but instead of Lena Horne hired the completely Caucasian Ava Gardner to play the mulatto character of Julie; Kathryn Grayson, of course, remained as Magnolia. All of the musical numbers in this were expertly staged by Robert Alton except for Garland's numbers, which were handled for her by Vincente Minelli.
Verdict: There's still much to admire in this half-baked supposed biography. **1/2.