The Songwriters In Hollywood

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The aim of American movies in the thirties—as it was of Henry Luce’s Time and even, to a lesser extent, of Harold Ross’s New Yorker in the thirties—was to appear seamless , all of a piece, and seamless in effect meant “anonymous.” The assumption with movies was that if the audience ever stopped to ask themselves where the songs or the dialogue were coming from, they might also start asking how the pictures moved in the first place and what the sound looked like on the reel.

Just as every art is said to strive to be as pure as music, every thirties film strove to be as anonymous as one of Walt Disney’s, which arrived regularly with no names on them at all, except for the master’s own mass-produced and strangely unreal signature. Even the album of Snow White had no names on it, so that while millions of small children knew their songs by heart, the identity of Larry Morey and Frank Churchill, who actually wrote “Whistle While You Work” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” has remained a trade secret from that day to this—except, curiously, in Europe, where audiences were not so eager to be fooled and even Harry Warren found himself a hero. It takes two to make a conspiracy, and the American public did not particularly want to know the writers’ names.

The exception to the seamlessness rule in more earthbound studios than Disney—and it obviously galled the likes of Warren to madness—was the writer whose name, like his songs, had been tested elsewhere and had become sort of legendary itself. Irving Berlin, for instance (whom, according to Johnny Mercer, “they took seriously because he took himself so seriously—), had become over the years almost as big and unreal as the MGM lion or Disney himself. Gershwin and Kern were brand names too, although they could be roughed up a little in use, and Cole Porter was increasingly becoming one (the thirties were his decade as the twenties had been Gershwin’s).

Insofar as there was a pecking order, Rodgers and Hart were probably slightly lower on it, because their reputation at that point was almost too Broadway, and because Rodgers was too proud and Hart too far out in space to hang out with their colleagues or make friends in the music departments with the lower-echelon ward heelers you find in any business. It was Louis B. Mayer or nothing for Rodgers.

And nothing could demonstrate more clearly the difference between being respected in Hollywood and actually getting your way there. In one priceless interview, Harry Warren pauses in his stage-whining long enough to say, quite matter-of-factly: “He [William Randolph Hearst, who was presiding over a movie Warren was working for] never turned anything down. Neither did the other producers. They took what we wrote and onto the screen it would go.”

But for once Warren is making success seem almost too easy; it had in fact taken him several years of quite undignified maneuvering to arrive at this blessed condition. In retrospect, Warren describes with glee how he used to play Hal Wallis off against Jack Warner (“well he liked it”) in order to get his best songs accepted—and this after he’d written all of Busby Berkeley’s greatest hits (“We’re in the Money,” “Shuffle off to Buffalo,” and on and on) and was the toast of radio’s “Hit Parade.”

In Hollywood you played politics until you dropped. Or if you didn’t, your career could easily pass Warren’s going in the other direction with the speed and thoroughness of a Hogarth series. Richard Rodgers, arriving in Hollywood in 1931 on the crest of his Broadway triumphs and finding it still a wide-open city with no preconceptions about musicals that couldn’t be changed overnight, began at the very top, with an assignment that must have remained every songwriter’s dream for the rest of the decade. In Love Me Tonight , with Maurice Chevalier, Rodgers and Hart got to do absolutely everything they wanted to, weaving their music right into the film in a way that has seldom been attempted since, and they produced a small classic.

After which there was nowhere to go but down. And within five years Rodgers and Hart had passed through the purgatory of seeing individual songs removed from movies and replaced to the ultimate indignity of having a whole show canceled by the lordly fiat of Irving Thalberg, the sensitive philistine ( I Married an Angel , later a hit on Broadway). Other Broadway hotshots, including Kern, would experience a gradual dimming of luster the longer they stayed on the Coast: If he’s so good, what is he doing around here? But few can have lost it so fast while they were still at the absolute peak of their powers—and lost it so poignantly and Chaplinesquely that when Rodgers went round to say good-bye, Thalberg couldn’t remember who he was. (Lovers of melodrama should be assured that the composer more than gets even in the last reel. Returning to Broadway, he proceeded to build a reputation so towering that no one would ever put him down again. And he would write State Fair to his precise specifications entirely in Connecticut.)