Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 15, 2022)
One way to know that a movie won’t offer a hard-hitting biopic: it stars the subjects as themselves. Not that the 1940s offered a whole lot of “warts and all” tales anyway, but this fact still makes 1947’s The Fabulous Dorseys seem more likely to offer a hagiography than anything else.
Jimmy (Buz Buckley) and Tommy Dorsey (Bobby Warde) grow up poor in Pennsylvania. Despite the family’s poverty, their father Tom (Arthur Shields) encourages them to develop their musical talents.
This pays off down the road, as the brothers (themselves as adults) become famous, successful musicians. However, they encounter occasional rifts, and their friend/singer Jane Howard (Janet Blair) attempts to keep the brothers together.
I’ll say this about Fabulous: it acts as less of a glorification of all things Dorsey than expected. I anticipated a movie that served to do little more than slather praise on the musicians, but instead, it attempts to tell a semi-objective story.
Emphasis on “semi”, for outside of some fairly perfunctory sibling rivalry material, we don’t find a lot of real drama in Fabulous. In an attempt to expand the narrative, Fabulous tacks on a Hollywood romance between Jane and pianist Bob Burton (William Lundigan).
Though much of Fabulous at least generally follows the Dorseys’ actual path, Jane never existed in real life, and neither did Bob. The movie invents the characters and their relationship in a desperate attempt to fill space.
Make no mistake: even at a mere 88 minutes, Fabulous feels padded. The dramatic scenes often lack much real momentum, and we find lots of musical numbers.
Of course, that makes sense, as the talents of the Dorseys offer the movie’s main appeal. A film about famous musicians without much actual music wouldn’t seem smart, though I get the impression the performances exist more to expand the running time than anything else.
The Jane/Bob situation becomes less pleasing – and less logical. I suspect it exists partly to add some romance to the tale, but it also serves to minimize the screentime occupied by its non-acting leads.
I expect the producers wanted to ensure that the Dorseys couldn’t harpoon the movie with poor performances, so they often feel like guests in their own tale. This seems like overkill, as the Dorseys actually offer semi-competent work.
Not that I’d call either of them skilled thespians, but they seem adequate. In particular, Tommy manages a little verve and comedic flair, though Jimmy tends to feel more stiff and unnatural.
Nonetheless, neither Dorsey produces a performance that damages the movie – though as noted, there’s not a whole lot of film to hurt. A slim musical confection, Fabulous goes down painlessly, but it acts more as a moderately interesting historical artifact than a compelling drama.