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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
But during that brief boom the demand for melody was as insatiable as it was indiscriminate, and good tunes and bad tunes were poured into the Hollywood maw at a rate that would have taxed Papa Haydn himself—or even the capacity of the 250 or so legitimate theaters that Hollywood was methodically putting out of the business. In his autobiography, Musical Stages , Richard Rodgers recounts the difficulty he and Larry Hart had in finding producible Broadway properties even in the late twenties, when more musicals were running on Broadway than at any time before or since.
So long as they were not too fussy and had a rudimentary grasp of studio politics, Rodgers and his colleagues would seldom have this problem in Hollywood. There was always some damn musical coming down the line: Swinging Saddles , or Babes in Paris , or simply Everybody Goes to College . Songwriters need work even more than they need money, and writing songs for the dumbest of dumb movies seems to have been more stimulating to most of them than staying home and trying to write into a vacuum. At any rate, more songs probably were published in the thirties and early forties than in any comparable period of history, and if staying power is the test, more of them were good.
Nor was this just the law of averages at work. The musical melting pot that Hollywood absent-mindedly provided brought the nation’s songwriters together, like the climax of a detective story, at a particularly fruitful moment in their combined history. Consider some of the elements. From Broadway, where the lights began going out like birthday candles right after the Crash of 1929, came not only the old guard, like Romberg and Friml, who still wrote quasi-European operettas, and the new guard, Youmans, Gershwin, Rodgers, and Porter, who had been polishing the American theater song out of recognition, but the middle guard himself, the great Jerome Kern, who still wrote a species of operetta but had Americanized the form and brought it halfway into the Jazz Age, where it and he seemed to be stuck (Hollywood would dislodge him, to magnificent effect).
In New York they had all been rivals; now they were a clan among aliens in a strange land, a million miles from Lindy’s.
And from the other side of the tracks came the kings of sheet music and vaudeville, led by the teams of Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva (“The Varsity Drag” etc.), and Donaldson and Kahn (“Making Whoopee”), followed hotly by their young competition, Harry Warren, Sammy Fain, Jimmy McHugh, and more names than you can fit into any one or five categories: Hoagy Carmichael, for instance, a pure jazzman who still strikes chords with both rhythm-and-blues musicians and country singers; Harold Arlen, the cantor’s son and unrivaled master of white man’s blues; and the lonely eminence and boss of bosses, Irving Berlin, who, according to Kern, was American music —but who, like Kern, didn’t seem quite sure which way to jump next as the twenties ended. (Hollywood would help him decide that too.)
“It was a great period!” recalled Harold Arlen, presenting the case for the defense of Hollywood. “Practically every talent you can name … all of us, writing pictures so well. We were all on the weekly “Hit Parade.” If we weren’t first, we were second; if we weren’t second, we were fourth”—and you can be sure they knew exactly which number they were. Thrown together in this bizarre writers’ colony, with grants from Warner’s and Paramount and MGM, they competed, they copied, they learned from one another, as schools of artists have done since time immemorial. In New York they had been isolated rivals, but in Hollywood they were a clan, a guild, working at a shared craft among aliens in a strange land, a million miles from Lindy’s. And their songs not only got better and better but took on a certain group definition, as if they had been working on them together. Thus Cy ( Sweet Charity ) Coleman, listening to the radio as an infant, could fall in love with the whole period without quite taking it in that the songs weren’t written by the same guy.
Arlen appreciated the Hollywood condition more than most because he was courting a girl in New York at the time. That took him back East at regular intervals to witness the darkened theaters and, just around the corner, breadlines with guys his own age standing on them, and he knew the value of a place where “I went to the studio when I damned well pleased” and where, as he told me the one time I met him, “they brought us money on bicycles.” All this and tennis too—plus for a short while the boundless excitement of his friend George Gershwin’s company (Arlen can be spotted, looking shy but happy, in George’s Hollywood home movies, along with the likes of Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers).
In retrospect, and much too late to help anybody, Arlen’s career can now be viewed as a picture-book example of how to beat the game. Not only did his coastal comings and goings enhance his appreciation for the lush life out there, but they also unwittingly increased his value as the perennial new boy in town, a precious Hollywood commodity at any time—and yet a new boy who had been there before and knew all the angles. Above all, his choppy life was probably what kept him clear of Hollywood’s most seductive pitfall, that of selling his soul to a single studio and spending the best years of his life clawing his way out of an iniquitous contract.