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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
It’s a nice life to contemplate, but to judge from the various memoirs that have come down to us, practically nobody else had it—or at least admitted to having it—anything like as good as that. In fact, the one thing that these very different musicians seem to have had in common, and it bound the brotherhood still tighter, is that they all hit the ground grumbling. To the city kids who wrote the songs, the pleasures of golf and tennis could never make up for the professional stupidities and indignities that the studios routinely served out to their slaves. Indeed, if you played golf and tennis as badly as they probably did, and looked as funny in a bathing suit, the outdoor life could only have added to your billowing list of grievances. If Jerome Kern was impatient with lyricists and arrangers, imagine him in a sand or water trap with his pants rolled up and his partner perhaps whistling off tune.
One set of professional complaints could be grouped under the general heading of “Hollywood philistinism,” of which vast empire songwriting occupied only one small corner. Hoagy Carmichael wrote that the only phrase he heard out there on his first visit was “it’s not commercial,” repeated like a mantra. The notion that you should start thinking about money the moment you sat down at the piano took some getting used to (except perhaps by Irving Berlin), and Gershwin could scarcely believe his ears when Sam Goldwyn airily requested him to write six hits for his next movie—not just songs but hits, as one might order up a half-dozen million-dollar masterpieces from a painter. (And we need one by tomorrow morning.) When Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce was brought to the screen, all the wonderful songs but “Night and Day” were thrown out because they hadn’t been “hits” on Broadway and were replaced by new putative hits to feed to the studio’s publishing outlet.
Fortunately, the only lasting damage done by this particular exercise in barbarism was the systematic gutting of the few Broadway musicals unlucky enough to make the trip. The moguls knew just where they stood on music the public had already decided about. Otherwise they had no idea what they meant when they asked for a hit, and as the years went by, they more and more had the good sense to defer to musical directors like Arthur Freed and Johnny Green at MGM and Victor Schertzinger at Paramount, who by good chance were all songwriters themselves. Although a few legends survive of producers’ not “getting” a great song (Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” was a famously hard sell, and so was “Over the Rainbow”), the same thing happened, only more so, on Broadway, and meanwhile, dozens of exquisitely uncommercial and downright difficult songs got past the old boys’ guard. Through no virtue of their own, and with the workers cursing every inch of the way, the monsters actually presided over a golden age of American song. (The notion that Broadway was all about art and Hollywood all about money was at least as misleading in the twenties as it is today. At its vulgar worst Hollywood never produced a meaner spirit than the Shubert brothers’ or a grosser sensibility than Flo Ziegfeld’s.)
The second major school of complaint, the one that really brought the writers together, was in fact one they shared with every unhappy soul who worked in movies except for the very biggest stars—namely, that they felt like interchangeable parts in a Brave New World machine. Two matching quotes from the reigning malcontents illustrate both the range of the grievance and, inadvertently, how hard some of these men may have been to satisfy. The first is from Harry Warren (“I Only Have Eyes for You” and every other song you can’t quite place), the Rodney Dangerfield of the full-time film composers, in full spate. “Out here in Hollywood a songwriter was the lowest form of animal life. Unless, of course, you were a Broadway show-writer. Then they paid you respect.” And the second is from the East Coast champion, Rodgers again (who comes up so often because he wrote so poignantly about his movie period; Kern was from most accounts even touchier): “Perhaps for reasons of insecurity, studio moguls always seemed to have a certain antipathy toward people from the Broadway theatre. They used us when they had to, but … the people who succeeded in moving pictures … were those who did not have an extended background in the theatre.”
In Love Me Tonight Richard Rodgers created a classic. Five years later Irving Thalberg had forgotten who he was.
When scolds differ, the temptation is just to withdraw quietly and leave them to it. But while Warren and Rodgers undoubtedly were thin-skinned beyond belief, they were also shrewdly professional, and it seems from a quick cross-check of anecdotes, credit lines, and scores that they may each have had a point, based on the two quite different ways in which Hollywood paid its respects; to wit, if you wanted a ceremonial dinner with Louis B. Mayer, followed by the spectacle of your name in big letters on the film, there was no substitute for a Broadway, or, better still, Carnegie Hall, reputation, but if you wanted your songs actually used in the film, you might be better off with a little Hollywood know-how.