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The Songwriters In Hollywood
They headed West from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley in the late 1920s, griped and groused when they reached Hollywood, and spent decades there producing the greatest outpouring of song America has ever known
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
They didn’t all make the journey at once, but it’s nice to imagine it—a panorama of wagon trains jumping and jiving along the Yellow Brick Road as optimistic musicians from all over the country headed for California in the great Music Rush of 1928. In October of the previous year, Al Jolson had gone down on one knee to sing “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer , but it should have been “California Here I Come,” because no sooner had the movies begun to talk than they began to sing—and dance, and play the fiddle and even, at Sam Goldwyn’s famous request, the French horn (Sam’s reaction on hearing that a certain song was set in Paris).
The first talkies needed music the way the silents needed epic and television needed sports—namely, to strut their stuff and show what they could do, and maybe find out what they could do as well. So for a short giddy time, there seemed to be work and swag for all the pipers, and they headed for the wagons in a body: not just the sweat-hogs of Tin Pan Alley, whom one pictures traveling like Mother Courage amid a clatter of junk, but longhairs from Arnold Schoenberg to Fritz Kreisler and solid-gold squares like Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, so that if everyone had traveled together, the trail would have sounded like the practice rooms at the Juilliard School of Music. (In sober fact, the migration trickled along for almost twenty years, with the first wagons containing nothing much but sheet music and Fanny Brice; the songwriters came out one at a time, left in many cases as the musical market turned uncertain in 1931, and came back to stay as the Depression outside deepened. The one persistent presence was Nacio Herb Brown, who had been on the spot when the whole thing began and tied up the Broadway Melody series, which Singin’ in the Rain celebrates. Brown is the one total success story.)
It was one more last frontier in a country that never seems to run out of them. And as with most such, the results were seldom quite as good as they should have been, this time for two very good Hollywood reasons, the first being that when the musicians got there, nobody quite knew what to do with them or with sound itself (as Oscar Levant reports in his invaluable book A Smattering of Ignorance , the immediate reaction to the need for background music was to have a band playing outside the window) and the second being that when the experts did arrive, there were instantly far too many of them, from assistant producers in charge of musical development on down through market researchers and any studio executive who happened to stray through the studio that day. Everybody knows about music, just as everybody knows about dialogue and as babies yet unborn know how to direct. So prodigious talents were wasted in the grandest Hollywood manner: great songs were transferred willynilly from film to film or sabotaged by bad arrangements and tone-deaf directors, and the plots they were hung on became more resolutely B-movie standard issue, barely distinguishable even by the label. (Names like Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937 told you at least that time had passed. Naughty but Nice and Hard to Get told you nothing at all.)
Yet of all the precious objects the studios manhandled in those years, the songs were probably the sturdiest and hardest to ruin. Great ones like Harry Warren’s “There Will Never Be Another You” or Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” might respectively be buried in obscure movies ( Iceland ), or thrown away in offhand treatments ( Swing Time ), but once they were in the air in any form whatever, eager bandleaders and singers on the outside swooped on them and repackaged them for two other hungry young industries, the radio and record businesses. Meanwhile, the movies had frequently helped the songs enormously in a way that only movies could, by playing the best of them over and over as background music. Richard Rodgers once said that even an old pro like him couldn’t spot a hit for sure the first time he heard it, but by the time the audience heard one in a movie, they had most likely been absorbing it in a Muzak sort of way for half an hour or more, so that it seemed like an old favorite when Bing finally got around to it. (In the movie Mississippi the fine song “Easy to Remember” is quoted often enough before it is sung to constitute the longest overture in history.)
Above all, of course, the movies provided work in ungovernable quantities. The golden age for songwriters occurred between the very early thirties, when the studios began to do their own song publishing and incidentally plug the hell out of their latest songs, and the late forties, when sheetmusic sales had declined and the studios decided that the granaries were full now anyway and they could live off the songs they already owned (hence Singin’ in the Rain and the worst of Dan Dailey; almost all the last big musicals were either anthologies or Broadway retreads).