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Film / A Song Is Born

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Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton playing "Stealin' Apples". Drummer Louie Bellson (left of Virginia Mayo, center), bassist Harry Babasin and pianist Mel Powell (to Virginia's right), and Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey (behind Danny Kaye to his left and right, respectively) can be seen in the background.
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A Song Is Born was a 1948 musical remake of the 1941 Screwball Comedy film Ball of Fire, which was also made by Howard Hawks. Besides having Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo cast in the lead roles, it features an All-Star Cast of Jazz and Big Band music legends including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

A Femme Fatale and nightclub torch singer on the run from the law (and eventually, her gangster boyfriend) hides out in a music institute run by seven "longhair" (1940's slang for lovers of classical music) professors. Hilarity (and a lot of great music) ensues.

Not to be confused with any of the four versions of A Star Is Born.


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Tropes found in A Song is Born include:

  • African Chant: Called in the movie a "Polynesian love chant" but it's basically the same trope, a bunch of nonsense words sung to the beat of tribal drums with a silly dance.
  • Apron Matron: Miss Bragg, the housekeeper.
  • Badass Bookworm: Frisbee finds it in himself to beat up gangster Tony Crow at the end of the film.
  • Blind Mistake: Frisbee walks into Honey's bungalow at the motel they stay at by mistake, believing it to be Prof. Oddley's, since when Honey walked in the door number flipped from a 9 to a 6, Oddley's room number. As the lights are out and it is dark, he fails to realize his mistake and pours out the depths of his ardor to Honey, causing her to realize just how much he really loves her - and how much she really loves him.
  • Brick Joke: When Frisbee first gets "yum-yum" (a hot, steamy kiss), he has to run and put cold water on the back of his neck. Later, Honey kisses him again... and this time Honey is the one that has to put cold water on the back of her neck.
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  • Catchphrase: Comedian Hugh Herbert (Professor Twingle) gets his catch phrase "Woohoo!" in at the end, as Honey and Frisbee kiss.
  • Chekhov's Drum: The tribal drum over the conservatory door that reacts to resonant frequencies.
  • Clueless Chick Magnet: Not only is Miss Totten interested in Frisbee at the start of the film, but later on Honey falls for him as well.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: At the end of the film, Frisbee jumps Crow and delivers a fury of lefts and rights to his head, as the musicians help him keep tempo with The Anvil Chorus.
  • Daddy's Girl: Miss Totten. Her father died prior to movie events and left the endowment behind the encyclopedia project. Miss Totten wants to see it completed but is convinced by her lawyer that the money is being wasted, but is persuaded by Frisbee to let the work continue after he gets her to re-enact a "Polynesian love chant" with him.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Frisbee smokes one, especially when he's thinking.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The professors have this problem, especially Frisbee. The housekeeper, Miss Bragg, does not like it one bit.
  • Double Take: Satchmo, Tommy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet do one when they hear how good a clarinet player Prof. Magenbruch (actually Benny Goodman) is.
  • Eccentric Mentor: The aptly named Prof. Oddley attempts to give Frisbee advice on love, as he's the only one of the professors to have had any previous romantic experience with women.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Blonde bombshell Honey Swanson moves into the conservatory to hide out and becomes a major distraction to the professors.
  • Femme Fatale: Honey starts off as this, but as she warms to the professor-and realizes the trap she's in - she stops being manipulative and seductive and switches sides.
  • Future Society, Present Values: An inverted in-universe example. The professors have been so cloistered in their conservatory (for nine years!) making their history of music that they've completely missed the modern music that has been evolving around them.
  • Game Show: Buck and Bubbles introduce the professors to jazz music by asking them to help answer questions from a radio quiz show they had been listening to.
  • Gangster Land: Tony Crow, Honey Swanson and Tony's mooks all come from the crime underworld.
  • Gibberish of Love: Frisbee has a severe stutter around Honey, and it gets worse when she kisses him.
  • Grief Song: One of the professors remembers his departed wife with the song "Sweet Genevieve". The other professors join in and it becomes a bonding song.
  • Hard-Work Montage: After the professors are made aware of the popular music out in the world that they've missed out on, Professor Frisbee is show in a montage going to several jazz venues, interviewing various popular musicians and inviting them to come and participate in a symposium at the institute.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Of sorts. Gangster Moll Honey Swanson slowly falls out of love with gangster Tony Crow and in love with nerdy professor Hobart Frisbee, and as such softens from a scheming Gold Digger to a girl with Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold.
  • Hostage Situation: Crow's gang hold the professors and the musicians hostage so they won't interfere with Crow marrying Honey.
  • I Can't Hear You: Crow's goons hire a nearsighted, stone deaf justice of the peace to marry them, who actually invokes this trope by name. With the band playing in the next room and Honey continually making snarky remarks, the deaf justice keeps getting confused and losing his place, stalling the ceremony.
  • Identical Stranger: Unlike most of the other musical stars playing themselves, Benny Goodman plays one of the cloistered professors, Prof. Magenbruch. At one point in the film, the musicians lament the lack of a clarinet player among them and wish that Benny Goodman could be there with them. Frisbee notes that they have a very good clarinet player among his fellow academicians that might be able to stand in... and brings in Magenbruch. (Nobody in the movie notices the resemblance - even though they mentioned they'd played with Goodman - but the audience of the day got the joke.)
    Benny Goodman (as Prof. Magenbruch): You can't play without music!
    Lionel Hampton: Well, Benny Goodman used to!
    Goodman: Benny Goodman? I've never h[eard of him]...
  • In Love with the Gangster's Girl: Frisbee.
  • Jungle Drums: The "Polynesian love chant" Hobart Frisbee gets his foundation's benefactor, Miss Totten, to dance to with him; the main instrument used is a conga drum, with the other professors accompanying with various other tribal drums.
  • Jive Turkey: Buck and Bubbles (and later, Honey and the other musicians) introduce the professors to a whole new way of talking, as well as new kinds of music. This later becomes instrumental in the final act (see Spy Speak, below).
  • Magical Negro: Buck and Bubbles play this role, introducing the professors to the various forms of jazz (jump, jive, boogie woogie, bebop, etc.) that have sprung up since they cloistered themselves.
  • Mating Dance: Frisbee teaches one to Miss Totten to show her what they had been working on. She really gets into it.
  • Mistaken Identity: Frisbee mistakenly believes Tony Crow is Honey's father, because of her calling him by the slang term "daddy".
  • Moll: Honey Swanson is a gangster moll on the lam.
  • Mooks: Tony Crow's goons are of the dumb muscle variety.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Honey's sequined stage costume has one shoulder strap, shows a daring amount of midriff (although no navel!) and a "skirt" which is basically just fringe and shows off her legs.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Despite being a tough gangster moll; Honey can't help falling for the nerdy Hobart.
  • Not Big Enough for the Two of Us: Invoked when the housekeeper lays down an ultimatum regarding Honey: "Either she goes or I go."
    Miss Bragg: The taxi is here.
    Frisbee: Taxi? What taxi?
    Miss Bragg: Hers or mine.
    Frisbee (having just received a large dose of "yum-yum"): It's all yours, Crabapple Annie.
  • One Head Taller: The height difference between Honey and Frisbee is lampshaded by the fact that she always has him get a stack of books for her to stand on before she can kiss him.
  • Orchestral Bombing: Literally. A rousing rendition of Flying Home manages to cause a drum to fall on one of the villains, knocking him out (after The Anvil Chorus failed to work as it had earlier in the film).
  • Patter Song: Remarkably averted, for a Danny Kaye film. (Danny's songwriter wife refused to write any songs for the film as they were estranged at the time, and Danny wouldn't sing any song not written by her.)
  • The Pen Is Mightier: The final conflict is resolved not by guns, but by music. (And a little fisticuffs at the end...)
  • The Professor: A house full of them, some of them absent-minded.
  • Reluctant Hero: Frisbee becomes one to save Honey.
  • Screwed by the Lawyers: Almost an in-universe example. Miss Totten's lawyer tries to convince her to cancel the encyclopedia of music the institute is working on.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Honey is forced to marry gangster Tony Crow at gunpoint.
  • Shout-Out:
  • 6 Is 9: Frisbee mistakes Honey's bungalow at the motel for Prof. Oddley's, since when Honey walked in the door number flipped from a 9 to a 6, Oddley's room number.
  • Supergroup: And how! Some of the biggest names in Jazz and the Big Band era are in the film.
  • Spousal Privilege: Gangster Tony Crow's motivation for trying to force Honey to marry him is so she won't be able to testify against him about a murder he committed.
  • Spy Speak: Frisbee uses his new-found grasp of hep cat language to communicate his escape plan to the musicians near the end, in the form of Stealth Puns.
    Frisbee: "Would you boys be prepared to 'cut a rug' for this gentleman?" (nodding toward the throw rug on the floor that leads under a gangster's precariously leaning chair)
    Musicians: "We dig ya, professor!"
  • Talk to the Fist: After the professors and musicians get the drop on the gangsters, Frisbee says he'll settle his differences with Crow "man to man." Crow responds by sucker punching him. Hobart responds by giving him one of his own though, and then gives him a curb stomping for good measure.
  • The Tease: Honey, towards Frisbee.
    • To convince him to allow her to live in the mansion, she takes off her heels and stretches out her leg to him to feel how cold and wet her feet are from the rain.
    • Then much later, after Frisbee admits that he becomes aroused whenever the sunlight sits on her hair, she walks across the room and stands in front of a sunny window, causing Frisbee to begin to stammer.
  • A Title Is Dropped:
    • Dropped in the opening credits song of the same name.
    • Virginia Mayo sings the title (in the past tense, "was" rather than "is") in a reprise of the title song in the middle of the film.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Frisbee, at the end of the film.
  • Triumphant Reprise:
    • After singing Sweet Genevieve at the motel they stop at (see Grief Song, above), the professors begin singing Gaudeamus Igitur, a traditional Ivy League graduation hymn. After defeating Crow's goons later in the film, they hum this loudly, letting Honey know they're all free and on their way to rescue her.
    • The Anvil Chorus also gets this treatment. Near the beginning of the film, the professors note that a large drum over the entrance to the music hall vibrates and falls down when they play the tune, and later they attempt to use the song to get the drum to fall again to knock out one of the goons, but switch to Flying Home when that fails. Near the end of the film, however, they use it to keep time as Frisbee beats up Tony Crow.
  • Twice-Told Tale: Arguably, the story is a somewhat fractured retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: a beautiful damsel hiding out in the home of seven odd little men.

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