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A young songwriter leaves his Kentucky home to try to make it in New Orleans. Eventually he winds up in New York, where he sells his songs to a music publisher, but refuses to sell his most treasured composition: "Dixie." The film is based on the life of Daniel Decatur Emmett, who wrote the classic song "Dixie." Written by
DIXIE (Paramount, 1943), directed by A. Edward Sutherland, capitalizes on the then current trend of musical biographies of popular songwriters of the twentieth century, a cycle that appeared to have begun with the life of George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (WB, 1942). Unlike this and others made during this period, DIXIE goes back a century, prior to the Civil War in fact, depicting the life of a composer named Daniel Decatur Emmett. His life-story is as unknown as his name itself. The fictional screenplay does toy with the facts before leading to the purpose of its film title, the composition that's to become Emmett's most recognizable American song of all, "Dixie." Bing Crosby, one of Hollywood's top box office attractions, is properly cast as Dan Emmett. It reunites him with HOLIDAY INN (1942) co-star, Marjorie Reynolds, and re-teams him opposite Dorothy Lamour, in her only film opposite Crosby outside from the seven "Road to" comedies all featuring Bob Hope as part of the funny trio.
Dan Emmett's life is portrayed more to the personification of Çrosby himself, that of a good-natured singer/composer whose only weakness is his forgetfulness, especially when it comes to leaving his lit up smoking pipe around that causes a fire. He is engaged to Jean Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a beautiful blonde Southern belle whose father (Grant Mitchell) disapproves of their courtship because he feels Dan to be irresponsible and won't amount to anything. Mason's more convinced now after Dan's lit-up pipe has caused the burning and destruction of Mason's old Kentucky home. However, Mason consents to Jean's marriage only if Dan can prove himself capable by doubling his $500 life savings to $1,000 within six months. (A similar opening lifted from the more familiar Fred Astaire musical, SWING TIME, in 1936). Leaving his clerical job, Dan seeks his fortune in New Orleans. While riverboat bound, he loses all of his $500 to Mr. Bones (Billy De Wolfe), a suave actor and cardsharp. After discovering that he had been cheated, he sets out to find Mr. Bones. Instead of beating him for the return of his money, composer and actor form a partnership leading to the origins of what was to be known as a Minstrel Show. Dan, who has already encountered Millie Cook (Dorothy Lamour) at the boarding house to whom Bones and other out-of work actors (Lynne Overman and Eddie Foy Jr.) owe back rent for their lodgings to her trusting father (Raymond Walburn), finds himself in love with her, in spite that she's the aggressor who made the first move. Dan decides to return to Kentucky and break his engagement to Jean. Upon his return, Dan finds the girl he once loved to be a victim of a crippling disease, polio, that puts him in a difficult situation as to which girl he should marry, and which should get his swan song.
Oddly enough for a life-story about a composer, one would expect a handful of selections by Emmett himself, however, with the exception of "Old Dan Tucker," and "Dixie," many were by others, new ones by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. The motion picture soundtrack includes "Sunday, Monday or Always," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," (both sing by Bing Crosby); "Kinda Peculiar Brown" (sung/performed by Eddie Foy Jr. and Lynne Overman); "Old Dan Tucker," "The Last Rose of Summer," "She's From Missouri," "Let the Minstrel Show You How," "Kinda Peculiar Brown" (dance number); "The Horse That Knew the Way Back Home," "If You Please," "Sunday, Monday or Always," and "Dixie." While "Dixie" is the song in question, "Sunday, Monday or Always" is the film's most romantic ballad, and one of many most associated with Crosby. The Lynne Overman and Eddie Foy Jr. number early in the story is another highlight.
So is it true, as depicted on screen, that the birth of the minstrel show was due to white actors acquiring black eyes in a fight to cover up their bruises by darkening themselves up with cork? Hard to tell since minstrel shows have become part of American culture that remains to be a controversial issue. How much is true about the Mr. Bones character as portrayed by Billy DeWolfe (in his screen debut) is another issue. His amusing scenes, however, come off quite well, at best when cheating at cards, and, in a sense, tasteless, when obtaining a free meal in a restaurant by placing a cockroach in his food before being nearly finished, then complaining the "incident" to a waiter. The result to this colorful production finds Crosby satisfying, as always; Reynolds quite sympathetic; DeWolfe, Overman and Foy comical delights; with Lamour leaving a lasting impression long after the finish of the film as she joins in with other proud southerners singing to Emmett's immortal song of the south, "I wish I was in Dixie, hooray, hooray!!!" in full camera closeup.
Less dramatic than composer Stephen Foster's interpretation in SWANEE RIVER (1939), each film has benefited from its lavish Technicolor. During the sequence depicting Emmett's Virginia Minstrels as the troupe performs in an opera house to a sophisticated audience, where the song, "Dixie," is to be introduced, a patron (Norma Varden) observing the show quips about the show to be of "such poor taste." Due to extensive use of minstrel show numbers recapturing that bygone era from which this film is based, is the sole reason why DIXIE hasn't aired on television since the 1980s. A video copy, however, was obtained by a private collector from which this review is based. How DIXIE succeeds or fails if seen today depends on the individual viewer. (***)
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