DirectorAlfred E. Green
Release Date(s)1947 (December 14, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists (The Film Detective)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey were big band orchestra artists in the early twentieth century, performing with and leading various jazz groups both together and apart. The list of artists whom they worked with includes Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Jack Leonard. Gifted musicians from the start, they seemed destined for success. After appearing on radio, television, and film, a biopic was assembled in which they would star as themselves. Based upon a Saturday Evening Post article by Richard English, the result was The Fabulous Dorseys (later airing on TV as The Fighting Dorseys), a very loosely-based look at their humble beginnings and their eventual success. The film takes many liberties by simplifying details, stretching others, and adding traditional movie cliches and plot points. What it manages to capture, perhaps a bit more in retrospect than at the time, is talented men with talented individuals surrounding them, even if the facts are a little blurred.
In the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Jimmy and Tommy are music students of their loving but strict father (Arthur Shields), a coal miner who wishes to instill in his sons the possibility of success, despite their mother (Sara Allgood) and her softer approach. They grow up to be struggling musicians, constantly arguing with each other about the direction of their bands, with their childhood friend Jane (Janet Blair) intervening to get them back on track. Along the way they meet a gifted piano player, Bob (William Lundigan), whom Jane feels an attraction for. Eventually, despite the protests from everyone who cares about them, Jimmy and Tommy split up to lead their own bands, vowing never to work together again. As Jane and Bob go off together, nobody knows what it will take to bring them back together again.
The Fabulous Dorseys was shot by director of photography James Van Trees on black-and-white film and framed at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The Film Detective brings the film to Blu-ray for the first time “transferred in 4K from archival film elements.” As the original negatives likely no longer exist, this has likely been sourced from multiple dupe elements, perhaps even prints (judging by the British censor board card at the beginning). Grain levels are often high, but it also ranges from chunky to even, and everything in between. Delineation and contrast are mostly steady, though the quality dips in places, even appearing a bit soft. Gradations are healthy for the most part and the image is stable, but there’s plenty of leftover scratches and speckling to be seen. It’s not a perfect presentation, but it’s a healthy one.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The DTS-HD track is not out to dazzle aurally, but the reproduction of musical numbers is impressive at times. The track can’t handle moments of frequent sound effect activity, such as the fist fight at the radio station where a bit of crackle creeps in, but dialogue exchanges are rendered nicely. A second audio track is provided in English 2.0 mono Dolby Digital, which is not mentioned on the packaging or on the main menu. It’s a louder track, but it also emphasizes the music in the film much more, with surprising low frequency for the bass. Though lossy, it improves upon the original soundtrack by making it sound a tad fuller. Also not mentioned on the packaging is the fact that the audio commentary included in this release comes with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Jennifer Churchill
- The Fabulous 40’s: Big Bands on Screen (HD – 18:24)
Children’s author Jennifer Churchill comments on the film as she watches it. She discusses the film’s appeal to children, backgrounds on members of the cast and crew, the fact that the presentation at hand had to be sourced from multiple prints since elements were difficult to track down, the source of the screenplay, minor information about author Richard English, other biopic films in which the subjects play themselves, facts about the real Dorseys, information about the British Board of Film Censors, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey’s acting performances, facts about songs featured in the film, Paul Whiteman, the fictionalized romance angle in the film, and facts about the Dorseys’ separate bands. She goes quiet for long stretches, but supplies plenty of information about the film’s key players. Ballyhoo Motion Pictures provides the featurette The Fabulous 40's, in which author and film historian C. Courtney Joyner talks about the genesis of the project, including its relation to the film King of Jazz starring Paul Whiteman (which clearly needs a restoration, as well), other types of films that attempted to work musicians into their storylines, the popularity of big band music at the time, the film Las Vegas Nights providing a template for other musician-centered films, the variety show format and supporting the war effort, and other minor details about The Fabulous Dorseys.
The disc sits inside a black amaray case with artwork that recreates imagery from the film’s theatrical poster. Tucked inside is a 10-page booklet with the essay The Dorsey Brothers: On Screen and Off by Don Stradley. There are also a couple of stills from the film, as well as a single behind-the-scenes photo of the Dorseys kissing Sara Allgood’s cheeks in front of her birthday cake. It's a lovely photo, and it's too bad that there aren't more to be seen from the production.
The Fabulous Dorseys is a very quaint film in a lot of ways, but for fans of big band jazz, it’s a treat for the eardrums. And The Film Detective offers a nice presentation with decent extras to go along with it.
- Tim Salmons