The Songwriters In Hollywood

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Fred’s singing, in fact, enhanced everything it touched, as Berlin at least recognized loud and often, and that wistful voice turned out to be hauntingly perfect for the last cataract of Gershwin songs that preceded the great man’s tragic brain tumor. “They can’t take that away from me,” sang Fred with his usual sheepish authority, and no better epitaph exists for this most gifted of popular composers.

But if he was good for Gershwin, Astaire was much more than that for Kern and Berlin. According to Dorothy Fields, Fred had to dance all over Jerome Kern’s hotel room, including presumably the top of the omnipresent thirties piano, to awaken the cautious Kern at long last from his Viennese slumbers and get him to swing.

This was a popular theme at the time—the maestro reluctantly learning to tap his foot and throw away his baton—but for Kern, it proved to be just what the doctor ordered, and he responded with ten years (the last ten years of his life, alas) of the best music he’d ever written, possibly excepting the score of Showboat . The American idiom that had previously seemed too vulgar and parochial to contemplate for the likes of Kern was transformed by Astaire into the height of international sophistication, and Kern proved to be born to it, or at least born-again to it, batting out such echt American songs as “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m Old Fashioned,” as if he’d been writing like that all his life.

Irving Berlin, needless to say, did not need to be Americanized by anyone; once long ago, a thousand years earlier in pop musical time, he had actually helped invent the American song. But his secret had always been simplicity, and it must have been especially hard for this musical illiterate to believe that the public would pay good money to hear chords he could barely even play himself on his famous “fixed” piano. Yet never was such a stubborn mind attached to such adventurous and susceptible ears, and despite his misgivings about anything new, Berlin would wind up composing just for Astaire several of the most complicated bars of music in the whole popular canon—to wit, the verse of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” the bridge of “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” and the second A section of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (cited because musical friends of mine have been stumped by each of these at one time or another). The point is that if Astaire had never existed, we might never have known how good Berlin was, and the best chapter of his life would be missing.

As Irving went, so went the nation—and vice versa, of course. And by the late thirties and early forties, movies were accommodating the most sophisticated songs the nation’s composers could concoct. Suddenly Warren no longer had to write frisky musical phrases for gold diggers (“With Plenty of Money and You”) and could settle into the exquisite modulations of “The More I See You” and “I Had the Craziest Dream”; old studio workhorses and hit men, like James (“You Made Me Love You”) Monaco and Jimmy (“Sunny Side of the Street”) McHugh would turn out streamlined World War II tearjerkers like, respectively, “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” and “I’m Making Believe,” and hip new guys like Jimmy Van Heusen would arrive fully armed harmonically to find a scene more congenial than Broadway had ever been. If a Broadway musical sank, it could take several great songs with it into oblivion. But anything of any merit at all that Van Heusen and Johnny Burke ever wrote for the Bing Crosby Road movies has probably been played or sung somewhere in the United States, or Zanzibar, or Utopia, within the very last month.

It would be foolish to try to trace all this wild blossoming to Astaire or even Berlin alone. By the late thirties wonderful things were stirring and shaking all over the country, most of which could be filed under the loose heading of “Swing,” which, again loosely, might be defined as housebroken jazz, expressly designed to accommodate the thirty-two-bar song. So the new music would have got there somehow or other. All that Astaire did for sure was set the highest standards for it—and prove that these standards could work commercially.

Coinciding with these musical developments came a great leap forward in lyric writing—despite the misgivings of the high priests whose tendency to equate their own tastes with that of the public worked, if it worked at all, only when the subject was nonverbal. In this case their assumption that movie songs should be insistently clear to first-generation grammar school dropouts with a background in nickelodeons fell some distance short of the mark, and by the second half of the decade, the likes of Leo (“Thanks for the Memory”) Robin, Frank (“Small Fry”) Loesser, Johnny (“Moonlight Becomes You”) Burke, and the incomparable Johnny (“titles too numerous to mention”) Mercer had redrawn the boundaries by sheer dint of talent—although even they could never get their songs integrated into the plots operatically or cinematically the way Larry Hart had in Love Me Tonight . To the end, the songs were usually “spotted” throughout the script like so many intermissions and had to play out complete dramas in themselves.