We first see Roger (Tyrone Power) having just finished conducting a classical concert. The ladies try to get near him and his proud old professor tries to give the young man some advice, but he brushes them aside. He and his band pals Charlie (Don Ameche) and Davey (Jack Haley) have an audition to get to.
At Dirty’s Eddie’s a band has just been kicked out by the owner when Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) arrives hoping for a job singing in the joint. She tells the bartender she’s got some new music straight from New York. While she’s catching up with an old friend, Roger and his band show up missing their music. The bartender hands them Stella’s music entitled Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Now, these boys are used to playing classical, more serious music. As they begin to play, they ask, “What time is this?” The music is stiff for a few seconds before Roger tells them, “Swing into it.” It isn’t long before Stella realizes they’re playing the new music she brought and fumes. She gets up and starts singing with the band, not wanting to lose her own audition. Before the boys can tell Stella to get lost, the owner hires all of them. In that moment, they have become Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Roger replacing his name to the lead Alexander.
Though they’ve got the job, it’s not smooth sailing. Alex and Stella are at each other’s throats at first. She thinks he’s a snob and he thinks she is too crass. There’s a great power struggle scene where Alex is trying to make Stella’s costume look classier, but she won’t budge and knows what keeps the audience entertained. Throughout their fights, Charlie keeps the peace and plays referee.
Soon, a love triangle forms. Charlie falls for Stella and writes a beautiful song for her, but as she sings it during a performance, she and Alex realize their love for each other. Their romance is sweet, especially when they incorporate their feuds. Nothing like embracing and telling your love, “And that’s for all the times I wanted to break your neck.”
With Charlie approving of Alex and Stella’s relationship and the band about to grab the ear of Broadway producer Charles Dillingham (Joseph King), everything seems smooth sailing. Unfortunately, Dillingham only wants to put Stella on Broadway and soon after the rest of the band gets recruited into the army for WWI. The rest of the film follows changes through the roaring twenties and days of prohibition where Alex tries to become a post war success and Stella tries to make up for lost time.
I believe I’m finally starting to warm up to these 1930’s musicals. Either that or Alexander’s Ragtime Band is simply a film that cannot work without all the ragtime numbers spread throughout. One of the great things about this film is that the plot doesn’t come to a dead stop for each musical number. Many times they’re part of the action, like when Alex and Stella realize their affections and Stella runs off the stage mid-song and Alex simply hands his baton to Charlie to go after her. Later, the army’s shows finale doubles as the troops deployment. Talk about improvising.
In the end, Alexander’s Ragtime Band is an engaging story through the 1910s and 20’s. Our emotions are pulled and pushed between the love story, Stella’s stage career and Alex’s rise from ruin. Just like in the audition at Dirty Eddie’s, the band would not have worked without Stella’s voice, and the film cannot go on without the Oscar winning music.
“Just because you can stand here and shout you know everything about music.”