October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
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
They didn’t all make the journey at once, but it’s nice to imagine it—a panorama of wagon trains jumping and jiving along the Yellow Brick Road as optimistic musicians from all over the country headed for California in the great Music Rush of 1928. In October of the previous year, Al Jolson had gone down on one knee to sing “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer , but it should have been “California Here I Come,” because no sooner had the movies begun to talk than they began to sing—and dance, and play the fiddle and even, at Sam Goldwyn’s famous request, the French horn (Sam’s reaction on hearing that a certain song was set in Paris).
The first talkies needed music the way the silents needed epic and television needed sports—namely, to strut their stuff and show what they could do, and maybe find out what they could do as well. So for a short giddy time, there seemed to be work and swag for all the pipers, and they headed for the wagons in a body: not just the sweat-hogs of Tin Pan Alley, whom one pictures traveling like Mother Courage amid a clatter of junk, but longhairs from Arnold Schoenberg to Fritz Kreisler and solid-gold squares like Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, so that if everyone had traveled together, the trail would have sounded like the practice rooms at the Juilliard School of Music. (In sober fact, the migration trickled along for almost twenty years, with the first wagons containing nothing much but sheet music and Fanny Brice; the songwriters came out one at a time, left in many cases as the musical market turned uncertain in 1931, and came back to stay as the Depression outside deepened. The one persistent presence was Nacio Herb Brown, who had been on the spot when the whole thing began and tied up the Broadway Melody series, which Singin’ in the Rain celebrates. Brown is the one total success story.)
It was one more last frontier in a country that never seems to run out of them. And as with most such, the results were seldom quite as good as they should have been, this time for two very good Hollywood reasons, the first being that when the musicians got there, nobody quite knew what to do with them or with sound itself (as Oscar Levant reports in his invaluable book A Smattering of Ignorance , the immediate reaction to the need for background music was to have a band playing outside the window) and the second being that when the experts did arrive, there were instantly far too many of them, from assistant producers in charge of musical development on down through market researchers and any studio executive who happened to stray through the studio that day. Everybody knows about music, just as everybody knows about dialogue and as babies yet unborn know how to direct. So prodigious talents were wasted in the grandest Hollywood manner: great songs were transferred willynilly from film to film or sabotaged by bad arrangements and tone-deaf directors, and the plots they were hung on became more resolutely B-movie standard issue, barely distinguishable even by the label. (Names like Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937 told you at least that time had passed. Naughty but Nice and Hard to Get told you nothing at all.)
Yet of all the precious objects the studios manhandled in those years, the songs were probably the sturdiest and hardest to ruin. Great ones like Harry Warren’s “There Will Never Be Another You” or Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” might respectively be buried in obscure movies ( Iceland ), or thrown away in offhand treatments ( Swing Time ), but once they were in the air in any form whatever, eager bandleaders and singers on the outside swooped on them and repackaged them for two other hungry young industries, the radio and record businesses. Meanwhile, the movies had frequently helped the songs enormously in a way that only movies could, by playing the best of them over and over as background music. Richard Rodgers once said that even an old pro like him couldn’t spot a hit for sure the first time he heard it, but by the time the audience heard one in a movie, they had most likely been absorbing it in a Muzak sort of way for half an hour or more, so that it seemed like an old favorite when Bing finally got around to it. (In the movie Mississippi the fine song “Easy to Remember” is quoted often enough before it is sung to constitute the longest overture in history.)
Above all, of course, the movies provided work in ungovernable quantities. The golden age for songwriters occurred between the very early thirties, when the studios began to do their own song publishing and incidentally plug the hell out of their latest songs, and the late forties, when sheetmusic sales had declined and the studios decided that the granaries were full now anyway and they could live off the songs they already owned (hence Singin’ in the Rain and the worst of Dan Dailey; almost all the last big musicals were either anthologies or Broadway retreads).
But during that brief boom the demand for melody was as insatiable as it was indiscriminate, and good tunes and bad tunes were poured into the Hollywood maw at a rate that would have taxed Papa Haydn himself—or even the capacity of the 250 or so legitimate theaters that Hollywood was methodically putting out of the business. In his autobiography, Musical Stages , Richard Rodgers recounts the difficulty he and Larry Hart had in finding producible Broadway properties even in the late twenties, when more musicals were running on Broadway than at any time before or since.
So long as they were not too fussy and had a rudimentary grasp of studio politics, Rodgers and his colleagues would seldom have this problem in Hollywood. There was always some damn musical coming down the line: Swinging Saddles , or Babes in Paris , or simply Everybody Goes to College . Songwriters need work even more than they need money, and writing songs for the dumbest of dumb movies seems to have been more stimulating to most of them than staying home and trying to write into a vacuum. At any rate, more songs probably were published in the thirties and early forties than in any comparable period of history, and if staying power is the test, more of them were good.
Nor was this just the law of averages at work. The musical melting pot that Hollywood absent-mindedly provided brought the nation’s songwriters together, like the climax of a detective story, at a particularly fruitful moment in their combined history. Consider some of the elements. From Broadway, where the lights began going out like birthday candles right after the Crash of 1929, came not only the old guard, like Romberg and Friml, who still wrote quasi-European operettas, and the new guard, Youmans, Gershwin, Rodgers, and Porter, who had been polishing the American theater song out of recognition, but the middle guard himself, the great Jerome Kern, who still wrote a species of operetta but had Americanized the form and brought it halfway into the Jazz Age, where it and he seemed to be stuck (Hollywood would dislodge him, to magnificent effect).
And from the other side of the tracks came the kings of sheet music and vaudeville, led by the teams of Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva (“The Varsity Drag” etc.), and Donaldson and Kahn (“Making Whoopee”), followed hotly by their young competition, Harry Warren, Sammy Fain, Jimmy McHugh, and more names than you can fit into any one or five categories: Hoagy Carmichael, for instance, a pure jazzman who still strikes chords with both rhythm-and-blues musicians and country singers; Harold Arlen, the cantor’s son and unrivaled master of white man’s blues; and the lonely eminence and boss of bosses, Irving Berlin, who, according to Kern, was American music —but who, like Kern, didn’t seem quite sure which way to jump next as the twenties ended. (Hollywood would help him decide that too.)
“It was a great period!” recalled Harold Arlen, presenting the case for the defense of Hollywood. “Practically every talent you can name … all of us, writing pictures so well. We were all on the weekly “Hit Parade.” If we weren’t first, we were second; if we weren’t second, we were fourth”—and you can be sure they knew exactly which number they were. Thrown together in this bizarre writers’ colony, with grants from Warner’s and Paramount and MGM, they competed, they copied, they learned from one another, as schools of artists have done since time immemorial. In New York they had been isolated rivals, but in Hollywood they were a clan, a guild, working at a shared craft among aliens in a strange land, a million miles from Lindy’s. And their songs not only got better and better but took on a certain group definition, as if they had been working on them together. Thus Cy ( Sweet Charity ) Coleman, listening to the radio as an infant, could fall in love with the whole period without quite taking it in that the songs weren’t written by the same guy.
Arlen appreciated the Hollywood condition more than most because he was courting a girl in New York at the time. That took him back East at regular intervals to witness the darkened theaters and, just around the corner, breadlines with guys his own age standing on them, and he knew the value of a place where “I went to the studio when I damned well pleased” and where, as he told me the one time I met him, “they brought us money on bicycles.” All this and tennis too—plus for a short while the boundless excitement of his friend George Gershwin’s company (Arlen can be spotted, looking shy but happy, in George’s Hollywood home movies, along with the likes of Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers).
In retrospect, and much too late to help anybody, Arlen’s career can now be viewed as a picture-book example of how to beat the game. Not only did his coastal comings and goings enhance his appreciation for the lush life out there, but they also unwittingly increased his value as the perennial new boy in town, a precious Hollywood commodity at any time—and yet a new boy who had been there before and knew all the angles. Above all, his choppy life was probably what kept him clear of Hollywood’s most seductive pitfall, that of selling his soul to a single studio and spending the best years of his life clawing his way out of an iniquitous contract.
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.”
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.