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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
If however, one puts these two parables, Rodgers’s and Warren’s, under a microscope, one observes enough irregularities to suggest a complicated world in which no generalization holds up for more than five minutes. Rodgers’s decline, for instance, was providentially arrested by the intervention of an influential friend called Arthur Hornblow, who had the clout and moxie to insist, over the producer’s dead body, that Rodgers’s second -best movie, Mississippi , with Bing Crosby and W. C. Fields, be seen all the way to completion. Meanwhile, Warren would need all his guile as well as luck to jump or be pushed from Warner’s just as its musicals were going down the tube and land at 20th CenturyFox in time to start a second—and greater—career, writing for the big bands of Glenn Miller and Harry James, among other people.
When one notes that Warren’s lyricists were changed on him in the process from the perfect thirties partner Al Dubin to the voice of the forties Mack (“Chattanooga Choo-Choo”) Gordon, one gets a hint of the variables at play at every moment. So much depended on the right team being in the right studio in the right year that a graph of the period would look more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a story that goes somewhere. To take just one detail from the picture, Arlen and Yip Marburg got the Wizard of Oz commission on the strength of one throwaway song called “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree” in a Broadway show that Arthur Freed of MGM, who happened to be in New York, happened to catch while the Wizard was on his mind. (And the two men happily happened to be between studio contracts and were free to do it.)
There were larger trends, of course, and amateur social historians, which means all of us, have had a fine time for years matching these to the mood of the times and the contours of the Depression. But the onset of television reruns and cassettes has cast this kind of theorizing into much question. If Gone With the Wind was just right for 1939, why has it worked so well ever since?
If Astaire hadn’t existed, we might never have known how good Irving Berlin was. Astaire set the highest standards.
The great movies of that era have become popular all over again in several quite different eras since then, none of them much like the thirties, and the trends that once seemed so telling begin to look like nothing more serious than Hollywood’s usual lame attempts to imitate its successes ( some things certainly don’t change). Try a Fred Astaire movie on a child of any age or era, and chances are you’ll be rewarded that same evening with the sound of small feet attempting to tap in the next room.
And speaking of Astaire, probably no one person played a more important role in improving the quality of American songs than this least likely of Hollywood figures. Everything about Astaire said “Broadway,” and not just Broadway but yesterday’s Broadway: the light voice, the breezy manner, the face like a theater mask of light comedy. Those kinds of people were supposed to have jumped out of windows in 1929, not be heading the charts in the thirties.
In fact, every single thing about Astaire must have seemed out of place and out of date when he arrived in Hollywood with the other struggling musicians. The movies might not know what they were looking for yet, but it simply couldn’t be this . In that pre-McLuhan age, and coming off a tradition of overexposed melodramas (silent movies had to scream to make themselves heard), the big studios couldn’t imagine that understatement might be the way to go now, and it took an outfit as unpretentious as he was—namely, RKO—to unleash Fred upon the future.
What is particularly striking about Astaire’s success is that he didn’t need to change a thing, even his Broadway clothes, to be an almost instantaneous movie star. At his insistence, and no doubt with the ardent approval of the RKO budget watchers, his song-and-dance sequences were shot straight and cheap, as they would be on a stage, without recourse to audience reaction shots or other screen-widening tricks, let alone Busby Berkeley hysterics; and above all, he sang the same kinds of songs he always had, smuggling out the greatest Broadway writers to write them and guaranteeing them a safe passage through Philistia. No song was too subtle or harmonically far-out for Astaire to get his pipes around it, and since people paid to watch him dance, he could sing whatever he liked. Perhaps the best clue we have to Fred’s musicianship is the sequence in Broadway Melody of 1940 in which he sings Porter’s “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” while dancing and playing the piano. Such a man could jerk melody out of you with sheer excitement and perform it into a finished song.
“There is no set-up in Hollywood that can compare with doing an Astaire movie,” wrote Irving Berlin to George Gershwin. And although Gershwin was startled to find that even with Astaire he had no say in what happened to the songs after he wrote them and once expressed mild frustration at having to have all of them sung by Fred or Ginger, it’s hard to imagine any third complaint he might have had.