A Song Is Born

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A Song Is Born
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHoward Hawks
Screenplay byHarry Tugend (adaptation, uncredited)
Story byBilly Wilder
Thomas Monroe
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
StarringDanny Kaye
Virginia Mayo
Benny Goodman
Tommy Dorsey
Louis Armstrong
Lionel Hampton
Charlie Barnet
Mel Powell
Steve Cochran
CinematographyGregg Toland
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • October 19, 1948 (1948-10-19) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
  • November 6, 1948 (1948-11-06) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.3 million[2]
Box office$2.4 million (US rentals)[3]

A Song Is Born (also known as That's Life),[4] starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, is a 1948 Technicolor musical film remake of Howard Hawks' 1941 movie Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. This version was also directed by Hawks, based on the story "From A to Z" by Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe, adapted by Harry Tugend (uncredited) and produced by Samuel Goldwyn and released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Filmed in Technicolor, it featured a stellar supporting cast of musical legends, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman (with Al Hendrickson as cameo), Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Benny Carter. Other notable musicians playing themselves in the cast include Charlie Barnet (with Harry Babasin as cameo), Mel Powell, Louis Bellson, The Golden Gate Quartet, Russo and the Samba Kings, The Page Cavanaugh Trio, and Buck and Bubbles. Other actors include Steve Cochran and Hugh Herbert.


In the Totten Foundation’s Victorian mansion in New York City, mild-mannered Professor Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye) and his seven fellow academics, among them Professor Magenbruch (Benny Goodman), are writing and recording a comprehensive musical encyclopedia. They have been living cut off from the world for 9 years, living without a radio. Thanks to two window washers (Buck and Bubbles) seeking help with a radio quiz, they discover that there are many forms of popular music—including swing, jive, jump, blues, two-beat Dixie, boogie woogie, and bebop—that they know nothing about. Hobart, the expert on “folk music” goes out and explores the music scene before, during and after hours, inviting all the artists he meets to come to the Foundation.

The professors become entangled in the problems of nightclub singer Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo). She needs a place to hide out from the police, who want to question her about her gangster boyfriend Tony Crow (Steve Cochran). Tony wants to marry her—because a wife cannot testify against her husband. Honey invites herself into the sheltered household, over the objections of Hobart and Miss Bragg, the housekeeper. While there, she introduces them to the latest music, of which they are completely ignorant, aided by many of the musicians Hobart met the night before. The songs they play include "A Song Is Born", "Daddy-O", "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You", "Flying Home", and "Redskin Rumba".

When Miss Bragg delivers an ultimatum, Honey persuades Hobart to let her stay by telling him she is “wacky” about him and introducing him to “yum yum”, i.e. enthusiastic kissing. Smitten, the innocent Hobart (who graduated from Princeton at age 13) scours the city for an open jewelry store so he can buy an engagement ring. He proposes the next morning. They are interrupted by a phone call from her “Daddy”. Pretending to be her father, Tony easily persuades Hobart to come to Rancocas, New Jersey to be married. Delighted, all the professors join in the elopement. (Honey knocks Miss Bragg out and locks her in the closet.)

A minor accident lands them in an inn near Kingston. There, Honey—who is feeling very guilty and is deeply moved by what she has learned about Hobart—realizes that she has fallen in love with him. Tony and his men arrive and reveal the truth. When Hobart goes to tell her that “Daddy's here,” Miss Bragg arrives with the police. Hobart sends them away. Honey shows him her excuses—a blank sheet of paper.

At the Foundation, the professors refuse Miss Bragg's offer of breakfast. Miss Totten and her lawyer arrive, planning to close down the Foundation. Tony's two men break in and hold everyone at gunpoint. Meanwhile, Honey refuses to marry Tony, even though she will never see Frizzy again. Tony descends on the Foundation with Honey and a very deaf justice of the peace and forces Honey to go through the ceremony by threatening the professors and the assembled musicians. When Hobart learns that Honey is being forced, the hostages join to overwhelm the gunmen. The finale, of course, is not decided by guns but by music, its resonance and reverberation, as, inspired by Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, the musicians send a drum crashing on one of the henchmen and a professor pulls the rug out from under the other. Frizzy gives Tony a beating.

Hobart overcomes Honey's objections to their marriage—she feels unworthy—with his own compelling demonstration of “yum yum”.




Kaye's personal writer/composer, Sylvia Fine, who also happened to be Kaye's wife, refused to take part in any more of his projects because Kaye had recently left her for actress Eve Arden. Kaye didn't want anyone else writing songs for him, so he did not perform any songs in the film.[5][6]

Hawks had little interest in remaking his own earlier movie, and only came to work on it because of the $250,000 paycheck. When speaking of the film, he said "Danny Kaye had separated from his wife, and he was a basket case, stopping work to see a psychiatrist [every] day. He was about as funny as a crutch. I never thought anything in that picture was funny. It was an altogether horrible experience...and Virginia Mayo's performance was 'pathetic'... she's not Barbara Stanwyck, I'll tell you that." [5]


A Song Is Born was the number one film in the country from the time of its release until November 1948, while Hawks's other (and in his opinion, best) film, Red River, was second.[5] However, A Song Is Born never broke even, only earning about $2.2 million (equivalent to $26.8  million in 2022[7]), while Red River went on to gross $4.1 million.[6] It has since been released on home video in both VHS and DVD formats.[8]


  1. ^ a b "A Song is Born: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved May 10, 2014.
  2. ^ Variety (4 February 2018). "Variety (February 1948)". New York, NY: Variety Publishing Company – via Internet Archive.
  3. ^ "Top Grossers of 1948", Variety 5 January 1949 p 46
  4. ^ A Song Is Born at the TCM Movie Database
  5. ^ a b c "A Song Is Born". Tcm.com. Retrieved 2012-09-08.
  6. ^ a b Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye. Martin Gottfried. Simon and Schuster, 1994, ISBN 0-7432-4476-1[page needed]
  7. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved May 28, 2023.
  8. ^ "A Song is Born: Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Louis Bellson, Benny Goodman, Sidney Blackmer, Felix Bressart, J. Edward Bromberg, Buck and Bubbles, Howland Chamberlain, Lane Chandler, Ben Chasen, Steve Cochran, Joseph Crehan, Esther Dale, Joe Devlin, Tommy Dorsey, Robert Dudley, Jack Gargan, Karen X. Gaylord, The Golden Gate Quartet: Movies & TV". Amazon. Retrieved 2012-09-08.

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