Alexander's Ragtime Band (film)

Alexander's Ragtime Band is a 1938 musical film released by 20th Century Fox that takes its name from the 1911 Irving Berlin song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to tell a story of a society boy who scandalizes his family by pursuing a career in ragtime instead of in "serious" music. The film generally traces the history of jazz music from the popularization of Ragtime in the early years of the 20th century to the acceptance of swing as an art form in the late 1930s using music composed by Berlin. The story spans more than two decades from the 1911 release of its name-sake song to some point in time after the 1933 release of "Heat Wave", presumably 1938. It stars Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman, Jack Haley and Jean Hersholt. Several actual events in the history of jazz are fictionalized and adapted to the story including the tour of Europe by Original Dixieland Jass Band, the global spread of jazz by U.S. soldiers during World War I, and the 1938 Carnegie Hall performance by The Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Alexander's Ragtime Band
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHenry King
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Written byIrving Berlin
Richard Sherman
Screenplay byKathryn Scola
Lamar Trotti
StarringTyrone Power
Alice Faye
Don Ameche
Jack Haley
Ethel Merman
Music byIrving Berlin
Alfred Newman
CinematographyJ. Peverell Marley
Edited byBarbara McLean
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
May 24, 1938 (1938-05-24)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,630,000 (domestic rentals)[2]

The story was written by Berlin himself, with Kathryn Scola, Richard Sherman (1905–1962) and Lamar Trotti. However, in 1944, a federal judge ruled that most of the story by Berlin and collaborating writers had been plagiarized from a 1937 manuscript by author Marie Dieckhaus.[3]

Alexander's Ragtime Band was 20th Century Fox's highest-grossing film of the 1930s and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning the award for Best Music, Scoring.



Alexander's Ragtime Band features several hit songs by Irving Berlin including "Heat Wave", "Some Sunny Day", "Blue Skies", "Easter Parade", "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Previously released songs were re-arranged and used in conjunction with new songs written by Berlin for the film.


The film had its New York premiere at the Roxy Theatre on August 5, 1938, with Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz heading the stage show.[4]

Contemporary reviews from critics were positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote, "With those twenty-six Berlin tunes at its disposal and with such assured song-pluggers as Alice Faye and Ethel Merman to put them over, the picture simply runs roughshod over minor critical objection and demands recognition as the best musical show of the year."[5] Variety wrote, "Superlative in conception, execution and showmanship, it provides a rare theatrical and emotional experience."[6] Film Daily declared it "solid entertainment that should play to big returns."[7] Harrison's Reports called it "Excellent entertainment, capably directed and acted."[8] Russell Maloney of The New Yorker called the music "reason enough to see the film," though he criticized the "small, persistent, mosquitolike irritation of the plot" and instances of anachronistic dialogue.[9]

Plagiarism lawsuitEdit

In 1937, composer Irving Berlin had been approached by 20th Century Fox to write a story treatment for an upcoming film entitled "Alexander's Ragtime Band."[5][10] Berlin agreed to write a story outline for the film which would feature many of Berlin's signature tunes.[5][10] Released on August 5, 1938, Alexander's Ragtime Band was a smash hit with audiences and grossed in excess of five million dollars.[5][3] However, soon after, a plagiarism lawsuit was filed by author Marie Cooper Dieckhaus against Berlin and 20th Century Fox.[3] In 1944, a federal judge ruled in Dieckhaus' favor that Berlin and collaborating writers had plagiarized a 1937 manuscript by Dieckhaus and used many of its elements.[3] In 1937, Dieckhaus had submitted her manuscript to various Hollywood studio heads, literary agents, and other individuals for their perusal.[3] Despite rejecting her work, much of her manuscript's plot was nonetheless appropriated for the film's screenplay.[3] In 1946, the ruling was reversed on appeal.[10]

Awards and honorsEdit

Irving Berlin with actors Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche on the set of the 1938 film.

Alfred Newman won an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring.[11] The film was also nominated for:

Radio adaptationEdit

Alexander's Ragtime Band was presented on Lux Radio Theatre June 3, 1940. The adaptation starred Faye and Robert Preston.[12]


  1. ^ "Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) – Notes". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 2012-01-13. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  2. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs". Variety. October 15, 1990.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Plagiarism Suit Upheld: Federal Court Rules on the Film 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'". The New York Times. March 5, 1944. p. 37. Retrieved April 8, 2020.
  4. ^ Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present (paperback). New York: MacMillan. pp. 141–2. ISBN 0-02-860429-6.
  5. ^ a b c d Nugent, Frank S. (August 6, 1938). "The Roxy Plays Host to 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' a Twentieth Century Tribute to Irving Berlin". The New York Times. New York. p. 7. Retrieved April 8, 2020.
  6. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. June 1, 1938. p. 12.
  7. ^ "Reviews of New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 3 May 28, 1938.
  8. ^ "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 123 July 30, 1938.
  9. ^ Maloney, Russell (August 13, 1938). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 47.
  10. ^ a b c "Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. v. Dieckhaus". United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. March 25, 1946. Retrieved April 8, 2020 – via
  11. ^ "Alexander's Ragtime Band". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-10.
  12. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 39 (1): 32–41. Winter 2013.
  • Green, Stanley (1999) Hollywood Musicals Year by Year (2nd ed.), pub. Hal Leonard Corporation ISBN 0-634-00765-3 pages 82–83

External linksEdit