John Philip Sousa: The Movie

Mike Lawson • Uncategorized • March 1, 2019

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The Stars and Stripes Forever is the name of a movie released in 1952 by Twentieth Century Fox about the life of the man known as “The March King,” John Philip Sousa.

The movie was released thirty years after Sousa died, and his band played their last concert. By this time, there were many people who had never attended one of his over 15,000 live band concerts and had only heard his music played by others. This movie was going to be their way to connect the man to his music.

Sousa was played by Broadway and movie actor, Clifton Webb, then in his sixties. Ruth Hussey, who was twenty years his junior, played the roll of Mrs. Sousa. Debra Paget played the fictional, Lilly Becker, a dancer and love interest of fictional Sousa Band Sousaphone player, Willie Little, played by Robert Wagner.

Unfortunately, the movie leaves the viewer with an inaccurate image of the March King. This opinion is not new, and originated in 1951, the year before the Sousa movie was first exhibited, and was espoused by those who should know best: Sousa’s family and band members.

According to Sousa’s daughter, Helen Sousa Abert, the producer and writer of the screen play for the movie, Lamar Trotti had lunch with her and her sister, Jane Priscilla Sousa in Port Washington, New York, in November of 1951. Trotti seemed to have his plans for the movie already in place and Helen felt he, “. . . didn’t want them disturbed by any information that had to do with the real John Philip Sousa.” The family was not satisfied with what Trotti had written. Abert was adamant and reminded him that, “. . . fiction did not matter as long as it was in character.”

She reminded Trotti to be true to both Sousa AND his music and, “. . . to write a story out of character was to have two strikes against them from the start.” The road to making a Hollywood movie about Sousa was long, full of compromises, and involved Helen and the rest of the family on the Sousa corporation board. At a special meeting of the Board of Directors of John Philip Sousa, Inc., that took place at 6 Hicks Lane, Sands Point, Long Island, New York, on January 29, 1942, the subject was officially presented by vice president Helen Sousa Abert. She told the two other directors, president Jane Van M. Sousa (Sousa’s widow), and secretary Jane Priscilla Sousa, “. . . that an opportunity had presented itself to the corporation and to the members of the Sousa family for the possible production of a moving picture dealing with Commander Sousa’s musical compositions and life.”

Director Abert further stated, “Considerable negotiations with interested producers regarding this might be necessary . . . requiring authorization from the Corporation to her to negotiate in its behalf in connection with its interest in the musical compositions and autobiography of Commander Sousa, in book form, entitled Marching Along.”

After due consideration and discussion, on motion duly made and seconded, it was unanimously carried that Abert be authorized to negotiate with, “moving picture producers and companies,” to make such a film. Concerning the content, she was supposed to address the, “. . . name, pictorial representation, musical compositions and personality of the late Commander Sousa. . . .” She had the power to, “. . . enter into such agreements or commitments as she shall deem necessary or desirable . . . .”

In a document, dated March 18, 1942, addressed to Mr. Albert De Courville, New York City, the board offered him an option, which would expire on April 25, 1942, on the rights to make one movie about Sousa, “. . . in any matter connected with his life or career and of any of the material contained in his autobiography.” Helen Abert was to be engaged as the technical advisor prior to and during the making of the movie. She was not to be compensated beyond her portion of the profit as a shareholder, but it was stipulated she was to receive first-class railroad accommodations and expenses from New York to Los Angeles and return, and reasonable living expenses at a first-class hotel while in Los Angeles. Her services were not to exceed ten weeks.

This option included the use of Sousa’s compositions in synchronization with the motion picture and agreements were extended to publishers Carl Fischer, Inc., and the Theodore Presser Co. (which included John Church Co., which had been affiliated with them since 1930, and Oliver Ditson Co., which affiliated in 1931), for their consent upon consideration outlined in the option agreement.

The Sousa family had a stringent contract prepared which confined De Courville. He had shopped his option to United Artists but allowed his rights to lapse because of the high amount of money he had to pay the publishers to use the Sousa music. These option rights included agreements with the publishers which proved prohibitive.

By the end of November 1942, Twentieth Century Fox had announced they entered into an agreement for the rights to make the Sousa movie. Ernest Vajda prepared the scenario for a movie they entitled, Stars and Stripes Forever. New York theatrical producer, Harry Goetz, negotiated the deal for Fox to acquire the rights to Sousa’s autobiography and his music. Kenneth Macgowan (1888-1963) would be the producer. Don Ameche (1908-1993) was to play the role of Sousa.

By January 1944, Ameche found himself busy playing flight commander Bingo Harper in the World War Two movie, Wing and a Prayer, and Edgar Montilion “Monty” Woolley (1888-1963) now had the part of Sousa. The producer was changed to William Bacher. Further complicating the process of making the movie, the March King’s wife, Jane, who served as president of the Sousa Corporation, died on March 11, 1944, requiring a reorganization of the board of directors. She had served in that capacity since Sousa died in 1932. Daughter Jane Priscilla Sousa would now become president.

At a special board meeting held on May 26, 1944, the resolution adopted January 29, 1942 was revisited and re-affirmed that Helen Abert be authorized to negotiate with, “moving picture producers and companies,” to make a film about the March King.

For almost the next ten years the Sousa family and the publishers of Sousa’s marches would be in negotiations over contractual rights and compensation for using Sousa’s biography and music in the motion picture. This ended when Darryl F. Zanuck shelled out more than two-hundred thousand dollars (by some accounts) for the film rights and the long lists of Sousa’s marches.

By December 1951, Fox announced they were ready to officially move forward on the project. Zanuck had held off casting the movie until then and asked retired actress Norma Shearer (1902-1983) to play the role of Mrs. Sousa as co-star of the film. Shearer turned down the opportunity and Ruth Hussey (1911-2005) took the part. Rory Calhoun was to play the part of Willie Little, but Fox pulled him from the cast to star in another movie. Robert Wagner replaced him.

Also, in 1951, at the recommendation of Sousa daughters, Lamar Trotti, contacted former Sousa Band assistant conductor and solo cornetist, Dr. Frank Simon, for advice and information concerning Sousa’s conducting mannerisms. Sousa’s daughters were not musicians and felt Simon would be the best choice to accurately reflect their father’s conducting. When Simon saw the script, he thought it was a travesty and refused to have his name associated with it. The Sousa represented in the film was not the one he knew.

It was a gross misrepresentation of a great man, who he was, and what he achieved, and was about to be committed to film for all eternity. Filming for Stars and Stripes Forever began March 31, 1952 under Henry Koster as director. It would be filmed in Technicolor, which was the name of a special trademarked process for making a movie in color.

By early June 1952, Henry Koster had finished directing Stars and Stripes Forever and moved on to direct My Cousin Rachael. Trotti had finished producing it and announced he would take a leave of absence until the end of the year, but the 52-yearold Trotti died of a heart attack on August 28, without ever having experienced the picture’s release.

After the premier, reviews of the movie tend to fall into one of two categories. The general public who did not know Sousa were pleased. Many others who knew him well, like Simon, were less enthusiastic. Just before he died, the talented and experienced Trotti admitted he staged at least six known box-office “ingredients” for this film which were sure to be popular with the general public. Trotti knew how to manipulate a film to satisfy an audience. The public liked the picture because of the times the band played Sousa’s music.

They were not concerned with the accuracy of the other details. The Fox publicity department worked hard to sell the public on the amount of research they supposedly put into the accuracy of the film. They told of the search for the Sousaphone and original copies of Sousa’s music. They mentioned the Marine Band and Sousa’s band member, “Fred U. Brown” as an advisor. They omitted their contact with Simon and “real” authorities who were disappointed in the film.

After the movie was presented, in her own words, in December 1952, Helen Sousa Abert offered her review. She stated, “In my opinion, the studio has not done justice to a very valuable property. . . .” What John Philip Sousa, himself, would have thought about this movie can be speculated, but the idea for a movie can not. During his lifetime, when he formed the corporation, Sousa and His Band, Inc., in June 1927, he left the door wide open for a film.

Article II of the Certificate of Incorporation, which he signed as a director and subscriber (shareholder) stated among the purposes of the organization was to, “. . . license the use of and otherwise deal in and dispose of moving picture and other films .. . in the production, exhibition, use or disposition of films, pictures, whether moving or otherwise, . . . .”

This movie is not the only film about Sousa. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) made an American Experience episode entitled, “If You Knew Sousa.” This ninety-minute television biography was published in 1993, with the assistance of Loras J. Schissel, musicologist at the Library of Congress. It was hosted by author and historian, David McCullough and narrated by CBS reporter Charles Kuralt. Concerning the movie Twentieth Century Fox made about her father, Helen Sousa Abert spoke for many when she declared, “In the Stars and Stripes Forever, it is as if they had been handed a blueprint of a jet plane, and had come up with a mousetrap, and not even a better mousetrap.”

Major Patrick W. Dugan is a Sousa scholar and researcher who studied with Dr. Paul Edmund Bierley. Dugan researches primary source documents to expand and continue the work of his mentor and further contribute to the body of knowledge in music.



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