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Advice & More June 2016

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Clifton Webb in Stars and Stripes Forever

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

In real life, he was a renaissance man composer of scores of songs, operettas, even wrote novels and articles. In the movie, he wants to play his romantic ballads, but the public prefers his marches.

Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) strikes a resonant chord with the spirited marches of composer and conductor John Philip Sousa. Clifton Webb plays The March King, and he's great as always. The movie, like most Hollywood biopics, strays from fact here and there, but captures spot-on the era when Sousa was to use a modern term – a rock star.

It's the 1890s and John Philip Sousa is a Sergeant Major in the Marines, the leader of the Marine Corps Band. In real life, he was a renaissance man composer of scores of songs, operettas, even wrote novels and articles. In the movie, he wants to play his romantic ballads, but the public prefers his marches.

Ruth Hussey is his warmly supportive wife with a wry sense of humor. One of their most charming scenes together is when Mr. Webb, with Miss Hussey accompanying him on piano, sings his latest syrupy love ballad. His bass voice languidly belches the plodding love song, while she giggles at the effect and urges him to pick up the tempo and turn the melody into a march. He will, later on in the movie, at a White House reception for President Benjamin Harrison. His love ballad has become “Semper Fidelis,” the march dedicated to the United States Marine Corps.

Robert Wagner and Debra Paget are the second leads, and their characters are fictional. Wagner is another member of the Marine Corps Band who invents the "sousaphone," a kind of tuba for a marching unit. Actually, it was a couple of other fellows who came up with the sousaphone, following ideas contributed by Mr. Sousa.

One interesting scene shows an early 1950s consciousness where Webb takes his band on tour in the South. Ever the showman, he cannily marches his band down a street to the United Confederate Veterans reunion which has dubiously hired him to perform, and he chooses the rousing "Dixie” to make his entrance. He finds a receptive audience to this favorite tune of the South, and then he recounts the story of when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. He tells the story of when the Marine Corps Band serenaded President Abraham Lincoln, who in the spirit of "with malice toward none, with charity to all" requested they play "Dixie."

Webb declares that in return for this magnanimous gesture a generation ago, his band, with the help of the choir of the Stone Mountain Church of Atlanta (who play themselves), will perform the song most associated with Lincoln – "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

It is an African-American choir, who step forward among this all-white Confederate picnic and sings the battle song of the Union. They are a mixed choir of men and women, children and elderly, and most strikingly, lovely young women and handsome young men, serious singers with dignity and grace. They are dressed not in cartoonish movie slave garb, but in stylish modern (1890s) dress. Their voices are powerful, their diction is precise. They are impressive.

Another scene that endeavors to revel in the era, but is recalled with a modern twist, is when Clifton Webb receives a note in the middle of conducting in the pit during an operetta. He stops the show and faces the audience. He reads the dispatch that the battleship USS Maine has exploded in San Juan Harbor, Cuba. It is the start of the Spanish-American War. The scene cleverly makes use of the audience's memories of when they first heard the news of the start of World War II, but our brief war with Spain, with its politically murky beginning, has slipped away from modern memory.

What this event in the movie leads to is a touching finale. Robert Wagner enlists to fight in Cuba, is wounded in a round of "friendly fire" and suffers a leg amputation. Clifton Webb brings his band to the rehabilitation hospital to entertain the wounded troops. Webb calls him up on stage to play his old sousaphone. Wagner hobbles on crutches to the seat that has been saved for him.

We don't remember the Spanish-American War, but we know about wounded veterans who need to be welcomed and given a place in the band.

The movie jubilantly reminds us how important music is to define an era. The music performed in this movie is the real star of the show, and triumphantly ends with Sousa's march, now the National March of the United States of America – "The Stars and Stripes Forever."


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century, available online at Amazon, CreateSpace, and the author. Website:

Meet Jacqueline