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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 this time the writers’ loss is posterity’s gain, because the songs were usually so much better than the movies they were in that they were the only parts worth saving (who would want to have to sit through the movie Blues in the Night to get the point of the song?). In terms of words and music alike, it seems possible to divide the thirties into two distinct periods, a pioneering one followed by a golden age in which things went more smoothly yet still had the bloom of newness on them, though staleness and formula had to be beaten back every inch of the way.
For the tunesmiths the break in the decade even has a date on it. When George Gershwin died, on July 11, 1937, clocks stopped for a moment and the sun stood still in the skies. Or at least that was the way it seemed to his colleagues, whose expressions of shock echo most desolately through memoirs of the period, as if nothing this real had ever happened in Hollywood before. Richard Rodgers, that least demonstrative of men, summed it up as well as anybody in a letter to his wife, Dorothy: “I’m so upset at the moment I can hardly think enough to write. … I’ve been interrupted at least five times since I started this by people calling up. Moss [Hart] just phoned, crying so he could hardly talk. … The town is in a daze and nobody talks about anything but George’s death.”
And Rodgers wasn’t even, strictly speaking, part of Gershwin’s circle. But then you didn’t need to be. Although the songwriters had, in the manner of our species, tended to split into castes the moment they hit Hollywood, with the Broadway people leaning toward the suburban life while the Alley guys assembled in the bar of the Roosevelt Hotel, Gershwin seems to have crossed class lines with the ease of an apparition and to have made close friends all over the map, from the New York theater elite all the way out to such Midwestern talents as Carmichael, Richard (“Hooray for Hollywood”) Whiting, and Milton (“Ain’t She Sweet”) Ager.
“She had a little love for everybody but not very much for anybody.” This was George talking about Ginger Rogers, but one might suspect a man with so many dear, dear friends of being a bit like that himself if it weren’t for the number of songwriters Gershwin took the time to actively help and encourage along the way. Perhaps the most spectacular serving of Gershwin’s goodwill landed on one Vladimir Dukelsky, whom George helped turn into Vernon (“April in Paris”) Duke almost single-handedly back in the twenties. But only slightly lesser favors were accorded at various times to Vincent Youmans, Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, Kay Swift, and it seems anyone else whose work he fancied. As far as this vainest and most generous of men was concerned, they were all engaged in a common, and quite miraculous enterprise, with himself in front; and his quicksilver visit to Hollywood in 1936–37 seems to have raised the level of the whole game. Fresh (and comparatively broke) from the writing of Porgy and Bess , George and Ira hit town for a quick killing, and within the cramped confines of RKO’s keep-moving schedules—thirteen weeks per movie, and not one minute more—turned out arguably the two best scores ever written solely for film plus three of the hits that Sam Goldwyn asked for before time ran out. (The movies they wrote for were Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress , and the argument as to best original score probably comes from Irving Berlin’s Top Hat and Follow the Fleet . And I could listen to them all day.)
After George’s death the easygoing Ira decided to settle in Hollywood: a little work, a little golf. At last he had found a place slow enough for him. And over the years his house became more and more a club, a sort of last-hope salon, in fact, for the best songwriters, who continued to drop in even after the work had stopped coming, stopped first in Hollywood but later anywhere, to talk about the old days and curse the new music. By then what remained of the action had moved to Palm Springs, where Jimmy Van Heusen had had the foresight to move in next to Bing Crosby and later Frank Sinatra and subsequently became court composer to each. For others the jig was up.
Although it is not the last song he wrote, Van Heusen’s final movie hit was probably Thoroughly Modern Millie (words, as usual, by Sammy Cahn), written for Julie Andrews in 1967, and this date, exactly forty years after The Jazz Singer , marks to all intents and purposes the end of the period, since which time the songs nominated for Oscars have so far deteriorated that they now have to slip them into the award ceremonies under a ton of makeup, in the guise of “production numbers.”
By way of contrast, in 1935 “Lullaby of Broadway” beat out “Cheek to Cheek,” and in 1936 “The Way You Look Tonight” edged “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (“Easy to Love” wasn’t even nominated). And that’s how it went, year after wonderful year, leaving the old boys at Ira’s with plenty to grumble about afterward but a lot more to feel proud of. Because even today those titles probably ring more bells with more people than last year’s winners ever have. And twenty years from now it will be no contest at all.