The Songs of Hollywood
By Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson
Hardcover, 280 pages
Oxford University Press
List price: $35
Some of the greatest "songs of Hollywood" were not actually written for a film but presented in it so movingly that our impression of the song is indelibly associated with that movie. Herman Hupfeld wrote "As Time Goes By" in 1931 as an independent ballad that, despite a recording by Rudy Vallee, quickly faded into oblivion. But when Humphrey Bogart implored Dooley Wilson to "Play it!" (not "Play it again, Sam") in Casablanca (1942), "As Time Goes By" was transformed into a "standard" that has taken its rightful place in what has been called "The Great American Song Book." "As Time Goes By" may thus be considered one of the "songs of Hollywood" by a process of adoption.
Still other songs were originally created for one film but more memorably presented in another. Irving Berlin wrote the title song for Puttin' on the Ritz (1930), where it was given a lifeless rendition by smarmy nightclub singer Harry Richman. Since then, "Puttin' on the Ritz," one of Irving Berlin's most rhythmically intricate songs, has been revived in several films. The most spectacular rendition was in Blue Skies (1946), where Fred Astaire danced with seven reflections of himself. The most hilarious revival came in Young Frankenstein (1974), when Gene Wilder introduced Peter Boyle on stage as, not a monster, but a "cultured, sophisticated man about town," then joined him — both attired in top hat, white tie, and tails — in a duet of "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Least interesting of the songs of Hollywood are those that were merely sung over the opening or closing credits of a film. Such "theme" songs, even when they are superb, often bear only a titular relation to the story and characters of a film. Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini wrote the theme song for Days of Wine and Roses (1962) without even looking at the script for the movie. Its haunting images of days that run away "like a child at play,/ Through the meadowland/ Toward a closing door, A door marked 'Nevermore,'/ That wasn't there before" evoke the loss of youth but have little to do with the film's searing portrait of an alcoholic marriage. Mercer later admitted that he thought Days of Wine and Roses was a costume epic set in the medieval Wars of the Roses. Even when such title songs resonate with a film's narrative, the fact that they are not presented on screen makes the connection tenuous. At the end of The Way We Were (1973), Robert Redford rushes across the street to hold his former lover, Barbra Streisand, in a futile embrace. At that moment, the title song, with its ruefully nostalgic lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman and its plangent melody by Marvin Hamlisch, comes up on the soundtrack but immediately the film concludes, and the song continues playing over the closing credits.
Songs that do figure in films are presented in one of two ways. From the very beginning of sound films and continuing to this day, the majority of songs are presented as "performances" by actors portraying singers, dancers, songwriters, or other theatrical characters. In such roles, they have a realistic excuse to sing because they are demonstrating, auditioning, rehearsing, or performing a song in a nightclub, in vaudeville, in a Broadway revue or musical, on the radio, or some other theatrical venue. The very earliest films to incorporate songs, such as The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Singing Fool (1928), told stories about singers who sang popular songs of their day before an audience who reacted to the performance with applause. This performance convention avoided the problem studios worried about from the outset of sound films: how would an audience respond to an ordinary character suddenly moving from dialogue into song then back to dialogue without even the applause that cushions such a transition in a stage musical. The performance convention for presenting a song solved the problem: in a movie, performers perform.
Yet such presentations threatened to rob song of its greatest power. In opera, operetta, and musical comedy, characters express their deepest feelings in songs at heightened dramatic moments. What they sing is not a preexisting popular song but what purports to be an original, spontaneous song that is integrally related to their character and situation. One thing Hollywood tried to do was to capture some of that dramatic power by having "performance" numbers at least resonate with character and story. In Rose of Washington Square (1939), for example, Alice Faye plays a singer closely modeled on Fanny Brice. Just as Brice in real life was in love with gangster Nicky Arnstein, Faye's character is enthralled by a crook played by Tyrone Power. When Power is arrested, Faye tells fellow-singer Al Jolson she's quitting show business. Jolson dissuades her by showing her a new song, "My Man," and telling her it expresses her stalwart love for Power and she should sing it for all the world to hear: "This is your song and you sing it and they'll never forget it or you." As Faye sings the song from the stage, Power watches from the wings, but when he sees a stagehand reading a newspaper whose headline predicts he'll be sentenced to ten years in prison, he jumps bail and flees. While Power is "on the lam," he wanders, dirty and unshaven, into a diner here he again hears Faye singing "My Man" on the jukebox. The scene then cuts back to Faye singing "My Man" on stage in another performance, and the camera finds Power in the audience, listening to her one more time before he turns himself in to the police.
While songs done as performances can resonate with character and story, another, more expressive convention for presenting songs developed more gradually. This convention derived from stage musicals where characters broke into songs that expressed what they were feeling at particular dramatic moments. Such "integral" songs were not done as performances by actors portraying singers but as spontaneous emanations of emotion. Initially, only a few characters could sing without a realistic "excuse": cartoon figures (since they were already stylized, what did it matter if they broke into song?); children (who uninhibitedly burst into song); and, in a strange racist twist, blacks, who, stereotypically, were thought to be full of "natural rhythm." The convention of breaking into song gradually extended to Europeans in films Maurice Chevalier made at Paramount in the early 1930s. Then, with the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO in the mid-1930s, ordinary Americans could move from dialogue into song as easily as they moved from walking into dancing, though in most of their films Astaire and Rogers portrayed professional singers or dancers, so that their forays into song put less strain on verisimilitude. By the late 1930s, the convention was finally established that characters could sing songs that were an integral expression of what they felt at a particular dramatic moment. The studio that capitalized on this new convention was MGM, which, under the supervision of producer Arthur Freed, created musical films where characters broke into integral song as easily as did characters in Broadway stage musicals. And, again as in stage musicals, other characters take no notice of the fact that a fellow performer has just moved from talking into singing.
The way many songs were presented in Hollywood movies, either as performances or integral expressions of character, was different from the way songs were presented on Broadway. As Busby Berkeley was one of the first to demonstrate, cinematography and editing could render a song more spectacularly on the screen than would be possible in even the most lavish stage production. Berkeley filmed dancers from overhead in kaleidoscopic patterns that could never have been seen from the perspective of a theater audience. His camera also tracked through the outspread legs of gorgeous chorines in his patented "crotch shots." When the sequences were edited, shots were juxtaposed in montages that would be impossible to present in a live stage performance.
Cinematography and editing could also render a song more intimately than any stage production. In Swing Time (1936), Fred Astaire sits at a piano in Ginger Rogers's apartment and sings Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" to himself as she washes her hair in the bathroom. The camera cuts back and forth between him and her as she becomes increasingly enthralled by the song. As she wanders out of the bathroom to be near him, her hair still smothered in shampoo, the camera moves in on her in an extreme close-up. Her slightest facial movements, movements that would not be visible to the audience of a stage production, register how deeply she is touched by the song while her shampooed hair adds a delightfully comic counterpoint to her rapture.
Just as songs in film could be presented in ways that outshone stage productions, they were often crafted differently from Broadway songs. A song such as "The Way You Look Tonight" is more understated, musically and lyrically, than ones created for stage performance — more casual, nonchalant, conversational; less florid, less operatic, less, well, "theatrical." In writing for a Broadway musical, in days when performers weren't "miked" as they now are, composers had to create "singable" melodies with plenty of long notes that performers could sustain and project to the back of the balcony. Lyricists then set such long notes with equally long open vowels — "oohs" and "aahs" — and tried to avoid ending a phrase with a word that had a terminal consonant that could not be sustained by a singer (Oscar Hammerstein once fretted about concluding a line with "and all the rest is talk!")
In the early 1930s, however, Hollywood devised the "playback" system, which changed the rules of songwriting. In this system, performers first recorded a song in a sound studio by singing into a microphone. Then, during shooting, they would lip-synch to a playback of their own recording. For songwriters, the playback system meant that composers need not worry about providing long notes to give a melody "singability"; because singers were using a microphone, every note, even the shortest, was picked up clearly and amplified. For lyricists, the microphone provided even more flexibility: instead of concentrating on long open vowels, they had a wider palette of short vowels and consonants—not just the more singable "ls," ms," and "ns" but dental "ts" and "ds," guttural "ks" and "gs" — even plosive "ps" and "bs" (though these could sometimes "pop" the mike). Since, as a Germanic language, English is rich in such consonants, lyrics that used them liberally — "Isn't It Romantic?" "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" — sounded more like everyday conversation.
The playback system also offered new opportunities for the way songs were performed in film. Because singers merely had to lip-synch to their own prerecording, they could seem to be singing while performing the most athletically demanding dances, as Donald O'Connor does with "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain. On the other hand, prerecording enabled them to render the most intimate songs with casual nonchalance. Some of the best performers in musical film, such as Maurice Chevalier, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly, never sang out bombastically but rather presented a song as if they were talking rather than singing. "The one advantage that nonsingers like myself have on good singers," Kelly observed, "is that we can almost talk what we have to say." More gifted singers, such as Judy Garland, learned to deliver songs more informally and understatedly than she had from the vaudeville stage.
Given the fact that Hollywood movies could showcase songs much more spectacularly, as well as more intimately, than Broadway stage productions and that the prerecording and playback system gave composers and lyricists so much more freedom as they crafted words and music, it might seem strange that songwriters would compare writing for Broadway to "Park Avenue" and working in Hollywood as "Skid Row." Part of the discrepancy simply reflected the songwriters' sense of disruption as they moved from the East to the West Coast. While some songwriters gladly left New York for Hollywood with the advent of sound films, the major Broadway songwriters — Kern, Porter, the Gershwins — trekked westward only because the Great Depression darkened so many Broadway theaters. As Broadway songwriters migrated to Hollywood in the early 1930s, they found film a very different venue for their work.
Reprinted with permission from The Songs of Hollywood by Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 2010 Oxford University Press