Fighting and Fabulous Dorsey Brothers Make Beautiful Music Together in 1947 Biopic
By Jennifer Churchill, author of Movies Are Magic
Isn’t it just so Hollywood? The source material for the happily titled 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys was something a bit less upbeat. Based on an article in the Feb. 2, 1946, edition of The Saturday Evening Post titled “The Battling Brothers Dorsey,” the alliteration might flow better, but that title certainly doesn’t give the impression of a happy family. The film was actually released in some versions as The Fighting Dorseys. However, the final title, the one that stuck – The Fabulous Dorseys – wraps up years of brotherly disagreement into a nice musical package with a predictably pleasant ending.
This biopic film stars the actual superstar-musician brothers – Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey – playing themselves. The “boys” play brash brothers of Irish-born parents who happen to be talented, ambitious – and argumentative – musicians during the height of the Big Band era. Besides the happy-ending title, the Hollywood treatment of their story also includes an invented romantic storyline between a piano player and a singer that has very little to do with the Dorsey Brothers but likely kept 1940s audiences more engaged with the storyline.
What is most wonderful and timeless about this film – and the reason these two were worthy of a biopic in the first place – is the fantastic music you’ll hear.
The author of “The Battling Brothers Dorsey” article – Richard English – also received a screenwriting credit on the film, along with screenwriters Art Arthur and Curtis Kenyon. In researching Mr. English for the audio commentary of The Film Detective’s Blu-Ray release of The Fabulous Dorseys (release date: November 9, 2021), I found very little about him except for his brief and enigmatic obituary in the Oct. 4, 1957, New York Times, in which he’s described as a writer and a “campaigner against communism” who died at age 47 from a “sporadic illness.”
Along with Tommy and Jimmy, beautiful actress Janet Blair is given top billing – as she should, if her role in their relationship is accurately portrayed in this somewhat fictionalized biopic. Her dedication to their friendship goes above and beyond. Her singing in this film is lovely, and she’s charming onscreen.
As a classic-movie children’s book author who likes to share films that are appropriate and engaging for the younger set, The Fabulous Dorseys is perfect kid fare. Minus the “fighting Irish” caricatures, there’s not much to be offended by, and the story beginning with Tommy and Jimmy as kids, and the music jam-packed throughout all should keep little ones’ attention.
Besides the brothers, the cast includes largely character actors, with some fun and notable cameos from fellow musicians of the time – including Art Tatum (who performs “Turquoise” and “Art’s Blues” in the film) and Paul Whiteman (who performs “At Sundown” with his orchestra). The film’s musical director was Louis Forbes, a student of composer and conductor Max Steiner. Fabulous Dorseys producer Charles R. Rogers was a silent film and sound film producer for decades, and served briefly as vice president of production at Universal Pictures, where he produced one of my favorite films of all time My Man Godfrey (1936).
Director Alfred E. Green started with silent two-reelers and had a successful career through the 1950s. He was married to silent film starlet Vivien Reed. Side note: Alfred’s and Vivien’s son, Hilton Green, grew up to be the assistant director on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 groundbreaking Psycho; the younger Green also produced Home Alone 3 and Sixteen Candles. Back to the elder Green – he also directed Dangerous in 1935, for which Bette Davis won Best Actress. He also directed another biopic, The Jolson Story, in 1946.
The actress who plays Tommy’s and Jimmy’s mother in this film – Sara Allgood – tells us as the film’s narrator that the Dorseys grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in what’s portrayed as an idyllic small town at the turn of the century. Allgood gets the best line in the movie when she tells off some local gossips. Born in Ireland, she was an actress in her home country before moving to the U.S. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Beth Morgan in How Green Was My Valley. She was in several films after The Fabulous Dorseys, but sadly died of a heart attack just a couple of years later, in 1950. Ooh yeah, and she played Mrs. Higgins in the 1941 Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the one with Spencer Tracy; so you might recognize her from that.
The brothers’ father, Thomas Dorsey, is played by the somewhat menacing looking Arthur Shields. (I think it’s the glasses!) Shields was also from Ireland. It’s nice that both Ma and Pa aren’t faking their Irish accents here, which adds to the authenticity a bit. Shields was the younger brother of the much more famous Barry Fitzgerald. He also – Arthur, not Barry – fought in the famous Easter Rising (aka Easter Rebellion) in Dublin in 1916. Discovered and brought to the U.S. by director John Ford, he also played Rev. Playfair in The Quiet Man.
As a young Tommy and a young Jimmy are Bobby Warde (as Tommy) and Buz Buckley (as Jimmy), the latter of whom was also one of the kids in It’s A Wonderful Life. One of the more satisfying moments in the movie is when the two boys break out much to their father’s chagrin and play their own lively modern music – Tommy on trombone and Jimmy on saxophone. It’s fun to see them displaying the spunk and passion that likely had something to do with their future fame.
As far as their acting ability, Tommy is very stiff but presentable; he sounds like he’s trying to mimic John Wayne a bit in his stilted line delivery. Jimmy could’ve been an actor, actually. I see him playing a thug or a heavy, or a henchman in a Prohibition-era mobster pic.
Handsome William Lundigan definitely got his role in this film as the piano player and aspiring composer for his dimples and above-average good looks. Lundigan appeared in a lot of war/adventure type movies, working for MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and on TV, as well as some low-budget films. He was also a WWII veteran who was wounded in Okinawa. You might recognize him from 1939’s Dodge City – or Dishonored Lady with Hedy Lamarr. The spark between Lundigan’s character and Blair’s character gives the film a romantic hook, which it desperately needs – I’m often left wondering why neither brother is interested in pursuing the beautiful, talented, and super-loyal Ms. Blair.
The song “To Me” Blair sings is one of the catchiest in the film. Blair was a featured singer in the Hal Kemp Orchestra and worked for Columbia Pictures. You might recognize her as Rita Hayworth’s best friend in 1945’s Tonight and Every Night and Rosalind Russell’s sister in My Sister Eileen. Blair lived a long life, passing away in her 80s in 2007.
Without the conflict in this little side romance and the tunes, this film would only be about 15 minutes in length. The sum of the Dorseys’ fighting as it’s portrayed makes me wonder why the friction was so high it led to an actual breakup.
Vocalists Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly – who sang with Jimmy’s orchestra in reality – play themselves in this film, also. They sing a nice little rendition of “Green Eyes.” Another famous vocalist who performed with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra for years – Frank Sinatra – is not in this film. He’s not even mentioned. I once read that there was some sort of contract dispute related to Sinatra wanting “out of his contract” after he started becoming famous on his own. The story goes Tommy wouldn’t let him out of the contract without ridiculous financial repercussions until, apparently, some “friends with guns” settled the matter in Tommy’s office one day and Sinatra was allowed to go off on his own. One of Tommy's most famous vocalists, Jo Stafford, does not appear – nor is she mentioned – in this film. Not sure if she had similar gun-toting-negotiator dealings with Mr. Dorsey.
It’s fairly rare for people to play themselves in their own biopics. The only ones that come to mind are musician Eminem in 8-Mile, radio shock jock Howard Stern in Private Parts, baseball legend Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story, which was also directed by Alfred E. Green. Another biopic in which the subject plays himself is To Hell And Back, the story of soldier and actor Audie Murphy.
A here’s a fun Elvis fact (yes, Elvis!) … Later on, once the brothers had reunited, they had a variety show. In 1956, the Dorsey Brothers’ CBS-TV Studio 50 program called “Stage Show” featured Mr. Elvis Presley’s very first television appearance. The website for Elvis’ guitarist, Scotty Moore (scottymoore.net) features a cool photo of the Dorseys with Elvis, taken on the show capturing the historic moment of Elvis’s first TV appearance. I saw a YouTube video of what was noted as the first song he sang on the show, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and it looks like Tommy is the one who introduces him.
Of course, if you didn’t know by now, Tommy and Jimmy were two of the top Big Band leaders of the 1930s and 1940s. According to the American Film Institute, and although much of this film is fictional, the Dorsey Brothers did, in fact, break up at the Glen Island Casino in New York on Memorial Day in 1935, following a violent argument (referred to in English’s Saturday Evening Post as “Separation Day”). It’s portrayed as more of a verbal spat in this film.
Both brothers were featured as musicians in several films of the 1940s and 1950s, but Tommy popped up more often, including the films Ship Ahoy and A Song is Born.
The Fabulous Dorseys didn’t make a lot of money nor was it considered a huge success upon its release, but it did capitalize on some great music history mythology, a real moment in pop-culture history, and is a great time-stamp capturing a musical moment and a musical story in time.
Sadly, both of the Dorsey brothers died not long after “making up.” Tommy died on Nov. 26 1956, and Jimmy died on June 12, 1957. Allgood, the actress who played their mother, it’s interesting to note, outlived all three of the men in her life, dying at age 93.
Despite the lack of serious acting chops by the both brothers, it’s rewarding to see both Tommy and Jimmy playing themselves, and seeing them performing. And, of course, making up at the end. Thanks to the efforts and trickery of Janet Blair’s character. And, as Hollywood movies must, it ends with the promise of a wedding.
Despite its flaws, I genuinely enjoy this film, and I look forward to watching and dancing in my living room to it again and again.
As Richard English, the author of that original Saturday Evening Post article, wrote, one of the philosophies of both Dorsey boys was to “Always leave them on the upbeat.” This movie certainly does just that.