BOOTLEG FILES 326: “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946 all-star MGM musical).

LAST SEEN: Available online at several video web sites.

Primarily on cheapo public domain labels, although a real honest-to-goodness commercial release happened.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It happened, but the crummy dupes keep coming!

Anyone who ever spent time rummaging in the dollar DVD bin at bargain retailers will recognize the title “Till the Clouds Roll By.”  The film is, arguably, the most prestigious production in the public domain realm. It is a lavish Technicolor musical based on the life of composer Jerome Kern, it was produced by MGM’s legendary Arthur Freed unit and starred the major luminaries of the studio’s song-and-dance roster.

“Till the Clouds Roll By” wound up in the public domain back in 1973, when the studio neglected to renew its copyright.  Warner Bros., which later acquired the rights to the MGM classics, issued a commercial DVD of the title in 2006 with a beautifully restored version, but the cut-rate public domain dupes are still being released – last month, Mill Creek Entertainment included the film as part of a 20-flick DVD set of old-time public domain musicals.

In many ways, “Till the Clouds Roll By” always operated under its own dark cloud. Kern was paid $161,500 for the rights to his life story, but it took MGM two years to clear all of the music rights for the Kern songs and another two years to create a viable screenplay. As luck would have it, Kern suffered a stroke shortly after filming began on September 17, 1945, and he died nearly two months later.  The screenplay needed to be rewritten again – the original framing mechanism of a contemporary Kern celebrating his birthday was recast to a 1927 flashback where Kern attends the premiere of his masterwork “Show Boat.”

Before his death, Kern wondered aloud why the studio would want to make a biopic, since he felt his life wasn’t particularly worthy of a big screen retelling. It appears that the studio agreed – the truth was ignored and an utterly bizarre story was invented that finds Kern (Robert Walker) sharing his life with the musical arranger “James Hassler” (Van Heflin), a widower with a small daughter. On screen, Kern and Hassler live together, spend their leisure time alone and work in a very close creative partnership. While Hassler shows no signs of remarrying or entertaining a rendezvous with the opposite sex, Kern nixes any hint of latent homosexuality by becoming smitten with an Englishwoman (played by Canadian starlet Dorothy Patrick with no trace whatsoever of a British accent).

There is a belated subplot when Hassler’s daughter grows up to become a would-be entertainer (played by Lucille Bremer, another starlet who never clicked with audiences).  She lands a role in a Broadway revue written by “Uncle Jerry,” but her one song is given to another performer and she runs away from home.  An extremely low-energy search finds her performing in a Memphis nightclub – singing (what else?) Jerome Kern tunes.

Even by Hollywood standards, the liberties taken with Kern’s life are astonishing.  And matters are not helped by the weird make-up inflicted on Walker – especially the latex wrinkles and wavy white mane that suggest a matured adult. By the time of the “Show Boat” premiere, the real Kern was 42 but the MGM version of Kern looked like he was pushing 80 for the recreation of the event.

However, it would be easy to ignore such stupidity if one could just focus on the MGM musical numbers.  And the film goes overboard in a song quantity – 28 songs total, with several more cut from the final print. Unfortunately, the song presentations in “Till the Clouds Roll By” runs the gamut of cinematic styles from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The film’s first 20 minutes present an abbreviated version of the first act of “Show Boat.” Six songs are crammed in, and while the presentations are mostly fine – Virginia O’Brien’s wry “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and Lena Horne’s sultry “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” stand out – the sequence ends with a weird staging of “Ol’ Man River” in which an African American chorus lurches across the stage like the “Night of the Living Dead” zombies.

For the rest of the film, the storyline abruptly halts every now and then so Kern can wander into a theater where his music is being performed.  Judy Garland has three wonderful numbers – “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Who?” and “Sunny,” all staged by her then-husband Vincente Minnelli in a flashy manner that deftly hides Garland’s pregnancy. June Allyson also has three numbers, but she woefully lacks the sex appeal and vocal brilliance of Garland. Her clumsy take on the Kern-P.G. Wodehouse romp “Cleopatterer” is among the most embarrassing spectacles ever put on camera.  Angela Lansbury has more luck with a Cockney-style music hall spin on “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?” while Dinah Shore scores a rare memorable screen turn with charming renditions of “They Didn’t Believe Me” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”

The film wraps up with Kern visiting MGM, thus allowing the studio’s singers to return for another run through the Kern songbook.  This sequence includes one of the finest song stylings ever recorded on film – Lena Horne’s startling emotional interpretation of “Why Was I Born?” – and one of the very worst concepts of all time – a scrawny and stoic Frank Sinatra in a white tuxedo singing “Ol’ Man River.”

The various delays and numerous production numbers bloated the film’s budget to $2.8 million, making it among the most expensive films of its time.  But MGM’s heavy promotion of the film, coupled with the then-revolutionary notion of issuing a soundtrack album to coincide with the release, helped bring in an astonishing $6.7 million box office gross. Hey, even back in the day, audiences paid good money to see bad movies!

So, is it worth dipping into the dollar bin to pick up a dupe of “Till the Clouds Roll By”?  Honestly, no. The quality of these duped prints range from acceptable to weak, plus one can easily locate the full screen at a number of online video sites. Even better, happy bootleggers have isolated the film’s better moments for standalone viewing on YouTube. That act of charity is definitely something to sing about.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

Posted on June 4, 2010 in Bootleg Files, Features by

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  1. Daniel on Fri, 28th Feb 2014 9:30 am 

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Vincente Minnelli Friday at

    Keep up the good work!

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