'Till the Clouds Roll By,' in Classic, Cool Context

This Saturday night, KCET brings you the 1946 musical "Till the Clouds Roll By," the all-singing, all-dancing tribute to American composer Jerome Kern. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "Till the Clouds Roll By" back on Dec. 5, 1946.

Best known today for composing the musical "Show Boat" as well as the pop standard "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Jerome Kern actually died from a brain hemorrhage just one month before "Clouds" hit theaters. And while the film gives a broad overview of his career -- featuring about 30 of his finest songs, from a handful of his different shows -- it falls short in terms of historical accuracy. (This is a trend for biopics from the era. See previous KCET write-ups for "The Perils of Pauline" and "Annie, Get Your Gun" for other instances.)

Factual or fictional, the life presented in "Clouds" still does Kern justice, because his work speaks for itself -- or sings, as the case may be. And his compositions sound as polished as they ever did when performed by a who's-who of celebrities of the day, including Judy Garland, June Allyson, the Vans (Heflin and Johnson), Dinah Shore, Tony Martin, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and even Angela Lansbury. It's easy to forget about Lansbury's pre-"Murder, She Wrote" musical career, but here's a way to remind yourself: a clip of 20-year-old Lansbury singing the number "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?"

You'll never look at Jessica Fletcher the same way again.

In the context of U.S. history, it's also interesting to examine Lena Horne's involvement in the film. In the version you'll see, Horne sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but her scenes were filmed specifically so they could be removed from the print shipped to theaters in the American south. That fact is especially noteworthy when you consider that President Truman issued the executive order that formed the President's Committee on Civil Rights on December 5, 1946 -- the very day that "Till the Clouds Roll By" opened in U.S. theaters -- either with or without Horne, depending on the state.

Take a Closer Look Back

Hands down, this is one of the coolest things you will see all week: color footage of a cruise through Los Angeles back in 1946. It was shot for an as-of-yet unidentified film. Do you recognize it? Look for landmarks such as the Olympic Theater, Clifton's Cafeteria and the Yorkshire Hotel. What else can you identify?

Say you caught "Clouds" on opening night. What might you have seen on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the following morning? The headline "Peace Feeler in Coal Strike Issued From Lewis Camp" topped the lead story about striking miners, and a sub-article delves into the effects of the strike on the Southland: A materials shortage prompted the Pomona-based Salisbury Motors shut its doors, "plunging 400 workers into idleness," while Imperial Valley fretted about a lack of refrigeration cars to carry produce and Southern Pacific cancelled a 20-car train carrying Christmas mail. A bottom-of-the-page story, "Rain Dampens Sidewalks," shows that certain matters still seem pressing to Angelenos.

Courtesy of the UCLA Library Digital Collections, a look back at photos of 1946-era Los Angeles:

Customers at meat counter of Los Angeles' Grand Central Market in 1946 (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)

Women inmates at Los Angeles' Lincoln Heights Jail, in 1946 making dolls for Christmas on Dec. 1, 1946 (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)

Group pickets Colorado St. and Lotus Ave. for traffic signals in Pasadena, Calif., 1946 -- Mrs. Bonnie Heller, mother of John M. Heller, 31, killed at corner, Nov. 24 his sister, Nancy, 7 his son Ronald, and widow Violet, hold two signs at left as group pickets Colorado St. and Lotus Ave., Pasadena, for traffic signals. (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)

Los Angeles, the elevated city? In 1946, city planner Milton Breivogel received a novel proposal to eliminate congestion in the L.A. business district: moving all sidewalks up to the second story. No, really. Obviously, the plan was infeasible. But what an idea! Thanks to 1940s.org, You can actually see the entire proposal in PDF format here, and there are in fact illustrations of what the second-story city would have looked like.

Some Hollywood context for you: Can you guess what eternally classic movie hit theaters on Dec. 20, 1946, two weeks after "Till the Clouds Roll By" did? Click here to get your answer.

Map fanatics may get a kick out of this roadmap of the San Fernando Valley as it looked in 1946.

And finally, read the crazy story of Erwin "Machine-Gun Walker." His crime spree ended in 1946, and the events inspired a film, "He Walked By Night," which ultimately inspired the TV series "Dragnet."