When Hollywood Had A Song In Its Heart Authors Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson share the stories behind Hollywood's most beloved songs — from Casablanca's "As Time Goes By" to the melodies from Mary Poppins — in their book The Songs of Hollywood.
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When Hollywood Had A Song In Its Heart

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When Hollywood Had A Song In Its Heart

When Hollywood Had A Song In Its Heart

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

There was a time when movie characters often broke out into song and those songs were written by some of the best songwriters of the 20th century, like the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen.

My guest, Philip Furia, writes about songs from movie musicals, as well as theme songs from dramatic films in his new book, "The Songs of Hollywood." Furia is also the author of "The Poets of Tin Pan Alley," and "Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer." He's a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

"The Songs of Hollywood" is coauthored by Laurie Patterson. Let's start with one of the most famous songs from one of the most famous Hollywood musicals. Here's Gene Kelly.

(Soundbite of song, "Singin' in the Rain")

Mr. GENE KELLY (Actor): (Singing) Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo.

I'm singin' in the rain. Just singin' in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark up above. The sun's in my heart and I'm ready for love. Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place. Come on with the rain. I've a smile on my face. I walk down the lane with a happy refrain. Just singin', singin' in the rain.

GROSS: Philip Furia, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Professor PHILIP FURIA (Department of Creative Writing, University of North Carolina, Wilmington; Author): Thank you so much.

GROSS: As you point out in your book, songs for Hollywood movies have always played second fiddle to songs from Broadway musicals. Why is that?

Prof. FURIA: In a Broadway musical the songwriters were really central to the production right from the beginning. They worked with the playwright, they worked with the director, the choreographers and they were in on where the songs were going to go in the show and who was going to do them and if new songs needed to be added. And very often on opening night their names were on the marquee, you know, Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" or George and Ira Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band."

But in Hollywood, songwriters were just part of the whole production machine. They had very little say in how their songs were used. They were not brought in on conferences with the screenwriter, with the director, with the choreographer. They were just put in little bungalows and told to write songs. They really didn't have much to say in how the songs were used in the films.

GROSS: When you say that in movie musicals the songwriters were told just like write songs, write hits and that they weren't integral to the shaping of the musical the way Broadway songwriters were, that was in part because of the nature of the movie musicals and the songs weren't integral in most of the movie musicals to the story itself. Do you want to explain?

Prof. FURIA: Yeah. Historically, what happened was when they first began to present songs in movies with "The Jazz Singer" in 1927 starring Al Jolson, studios realized that the addition of sound made movies very realistic. You know, silent movies had transported audiences to another world where, you know, for one thing, people didn't talk out loud. But when sound came in, the movies became almost painfully realistic and studios worried that if people suddenly burst into song the way they did in a stage musical, audiences would just find that ludicrous.

So their solution to presenting a song in a movie was to make it a performance. Have someone putting on a Broadway show or have somebody singing in a night club - hence, "The Jazz Singer" is about a professional singer and he sings because he's performing or rehearsing.

GROSS: Yet there are lots of exceptions like in a lot of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies.

Prof. FURIA: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Even some like "A Fine Romance," they're sitting on a bench in the park talking about their relationship and they break out into that song.

Prof. FURIA: Yeah. Well, that's what I really love about the movie musicals, the ones that don't present songs as performances but as they are presented in a stage musical as an expression of what a character feels and presented as conversation, a duet between two characters that, you know, is part talk and part song. But that took a while for Hollywood to figure out.

They started doing that in the early '30s, first actually, with Maurice Chevalier. There was something about the fact that he was European that made it seem more realistic that he could suddenly go from talking into singing. You know, because they do that in Europe, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right. They're so romantic in Europe.

Prof. FURIA: Yeah, they just burst into song. And so it, you know, it didn't strain the realism of the piece.

But you're right. It's when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers began making movies at RKO in the mid-1930's that they established the principle that ordinary characters could argue in song or, you know, romance each other in song and audiences began to accept that convention.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite Astaire-Rogers example of them breaking into song naturally from the conversation?

Prof. FURIA: Well, the one you mentioned, "A Fine Romance," is a great example of that where they're quarreling and the quarrel leads into a song, and a song where they don't dance, which is unusual for an Astaire-Rogers musical. The music is by Jerome Kern and it has a wonderful lyric by Dorothy Fields, where she has clever rhymes: fellow and jello, and we should be like a couple of hot tomatoes, but you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes. Just a delightful lyric.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it?

(Soundbite of song, "A Fine Romance")

Ms. GINGER ROGERS (Actor): (Singing) A fine romance, with no kisses. A fine romance, my friend this is. We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes, but you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes. A fine romance, you won't nestle. A fine romance, you won't wrestle. I've never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants. I never had the chance. This is a fine romance.

A fine romance, my gorgeous fellow. You take romance, and I'll take jello. You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean. At least they flap their fins to express emotion. A fine romance with no quarrel, with no insults and all morals. You're just as hard to land as the 'Isle de France.' I never get the chance. This is a fine romance.

GROSS: So that's Ginger Rogers from the movie "Swing Time."

My guest is Philip Furia and his new book is called "The Songs of Hollywood."

The kind of singing in movies was different from the kind of singing on Broadway before Broadway singers could mic themselves. Like now on Broadway you can sing in a small voice because you're miked. You couldn't do that until relatively recently, Broadway singers were not miked. So what was the difference between how film singers could sing and Broadway singers and how did that change the kind of songs that were written for movie musicals?

Prof. FURIA: Well, Gene Kelly once said that he had an advantage over people who could really sing because he could talk his way through a song. And that really became the style in the 1930s where you have someone who's not really a professional singer like Fred Astaire kind of chatting his way through a song.

And the fact that they had developed this system of pre-recording and playback, where they would record the songs in the studio singing into a microphone so the song could be much more intimate and casual, much more conversational, and then when they did the song on the set they would lip sync to a playback of the recording they'd done in the studio.

So when you see all those singers in the 1930s and 1940s, I always think of Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain" where he doesn't make him laugh and he's bouncing all over the room. He's lip syncing to his own pre-recorded performance so that they could make the song seem even more casual, more nonchalant and that established a style of presenting song in film where it's almost as if the characters are talking to each other.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Furia, the coauthor of the book "The Songs of Hollywood." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more about music in the movies. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Furia, coauthor of the new book "The Songs of Hollywood." When we left off, we were talking about the casual conversational style of singing that was popular in many movie musicals.

You know, in talking about that style of casual talk singing, one of my favorite examples of that, which I know from your book is one of your favorite examples of that is Bob Hope and Shirley Ross from "The Big Broadcast of 1938," singing "Thanks for the Memory."

Prof. FURIA: Oh yes, I love that scene and that song.

GROSS: And I'd like you to talk about what makes this song so special.

Prof. FURIA: Well, the song is by, again, Hollywood songwriters that most people probably have never heard of. Leo Robin was the lyricist and Ralph Rainger was the composer. And the producer came to them and said, you know, we've got this new star, Bob Hope, and he's going to be in a movie and it's going to be a song about divorce.

Well, 1938, you know, divorce is still a pretty touchy subject. And they said -the producers said to the songwriters, write a song about a divorced couple that still is in love with each other but can't really acknowledge the fact that they're still in love. And they're going to be on an ocean liner sitting at a bar and they're going sing to each other. But Hope is a comedian, so make sure the song is funny too.

So you can imagine these poor songwriters. You know, write a funny song about divorce. And they came up with this delightful - it would be called in the 1930s - a list song or a catalog song, which consists of, you know, one image, one illusion after another in a great big long list of images. The song is done with Hope and Shirley Ross sitting at a bar and they part talk it and they part sing it as they go through the memories of the days when they were married.

And the song is witty and clever and yet underneath it, Leo Robin, the lyricist manages to suggest that these are two very sophisticated people whose veneer of sophistication won't let them show their real feelings until the very end when Shirley Ross breaks down in tears and runs off. So it's a very moving performance and again, very much in the Hollywood style of a conversational kind of song.

GROSS: Yeah, they talk and sing this.

Prof. FURIA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Yeah, I love this. So, let's hear "Thanks for the Memory."

Prof. FURIA: Great.

GROSS: This is Bob Hope and Shirley Ross.

(Soundbite of song, "Thanks for the Memory")

Mr. BOB HOPE: (Comedian, Actor): (Singing) So thanks for the memory of crap on the floor...

Ms. SHIRLEY ROSS (Actress): (Singing) ...nights in Singapore. You might have been a headache but you never were a bore.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) I thank you so much.

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Thanks for the memory of China's funny wall, transatlantic calls.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) That weekend at Niagara when we hardly saw the falls.

Ms. ROSS: How lovely that was.

Mr. HOPE: Thank you.

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Thanks for the memory of lunch from 12 to 4, sunburn at the shore, that pair of gay pajamas that you bought and never wore.

Mr. HOPE: Say, by the way, what did happen to those pajamas? Huh?

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) There's a sweet little secret that couldn't be put in a day wire.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Too bad it all had to go haywire. That's life I guess. I love your dress.

Ms. ROSS: Do you?

Mr. HOPE: It's pretty.

Ms. ROSS: Thanks, (Singing) for the memory of faults that you forgave, rainbows on a wave.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) And stockings in the basin when a fellow needs a shave. I thank you so much.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Thanks for the memory.

GROSS: That's Bob Hope and Shirley Ross singing "Thanks for the Memory" from "The Big Broadcast of 1938." My guest is Philip Furia, coauthor of the new book "The Songs of Hollywood."

That song became Bob Hope's theme song.

Prof. FURIA: Yes. Most people misquote the title. They call it "Thanks for the Memories," but it's "Thanks for the Memory." But yeah, always associated with him but very few people, I think, have seen that movie.

GROSS: So sometimes songs were worked into dramatic films, films that weren't musicals. And was that sometimes because the studio owned the rights to the song...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FURIA: Oh yes.

GROSS: ...and wanted to make money from it?

Prof. FURIA: Oh yes. When sound movies came out in the late 1920s, a lot of the studios, particularly Warner Brothers, bought up the old sheet music publishing firms that used to be known as Tin Pan Alley.


Prof. FURIA: Because they wanted that catalog of songs. They figured songs that have proven their popularity, that they would own these songs and they would stick them in a movie. Probably the most famous example of that is Warner Brothers stuck the song "As Time Goes By" - which was written way back in 1931 - into the 1942 movie "Casablanca." One guy who loved the song when it came out in the 1930s was the author of a play called "They All Come to Rick's," which was the basis of "Casablanca."

And he had used the song in the play. So when Warner Brothers took the play, they thought well, they were already using that song, "As Time Goes By," and hey, we own the song. And they thought, well, that was a popular song. We'll make it popular again and sell some sheet music and some records of "As Time Goes By," and the song will have popularized the movie.

Nobody thought the song was very good when they made "Casablanca." In fact, the guy who scored the movie thought it was terrible, and he said I can write a better song than that, and actually wrote one and they were going to re-film the scene with Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson, who plays the piano and sang it. But Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair off to play Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." So the song was saved by a haircut, and it turned out to be enormously popular all over again.

GROSS: So why don't we hear the song performed by Dooley Wilson?

Prof. FURIA: Ah. Wonderful.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casablanca")

Ms. INGRID BERGMAN (Actor): (as Ilsa Lund) Play it once, Sam. For old time's sake.

Mr. DOOLEY WILSON (Actor, Singer): (as Sam) I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.

Ms. BERGMAN: (as Ilsa Lund) Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."

Mr. WILSON: (as Sam): Oh, I can't remember it, Miss Ilsa. I'm a little rusty on it.

Ms. BERGMAN: (as Ilsa Lund) I'll hum it for you.

(Soundbite of humming, "As Time Goes By")

(Soundbite of song, "As Time Goes By")

Ms. BERGMAN: (as Ilsa Lund) Sing it, Sam.

(Soundbite of song, "As Time Goes By")

Mr. WILSON: (Singing) You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by. And when two lovers woo, they still say, I love you...

GROSS: That's Dooley Wilson singing and playing piano from the movie "Casablanca." My guest is Philip Furia, author of the new book "The Songs of Hollywood."

There's a great example of Hollywood studio working a song into a movie because they own the rights to it, and a movie that is so not a musical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm thinking of "Key Largo" and...

Prof. FURIA: Oh, wonderful scene, yeah.

GROSS: Tell us the story behind the song in that movie. I mean, this is a movie where people are basically held hostage on an island during a storm.

Prof. FURIA: Yeah. A wonderful use of a song in a dramatic film is in the movie "Key Largo," where Claire Trevor sings the song "Moanin' Low." She's the moll, the girlfriend of Edward G. Robinson who, as always, plays, you know, a notorious criminal. And she's also become an alcoholic, and she's begging him for a drink in the bar in Key Largo as he is holding Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and other people hostage under gunpoint, he and his henchmen. And he says you can have a drink if you sing that song you used to sing when you were on Broadway.

And she says: Do I have to sing it without accompaniment? And he said, yeah. Just get up and sing. So she starts singing "Moanin' Low," and it's a wonderful song about a woman who's trapped in a relationship with a very cruel man. And as she's singing it, performing the song, you see her realize that that's exactly her real life situation, that she's trapped in a relationship with Edward G. Robinson. And that realization has her slowly break down, and her voice falters and she sings off key. And after she finishes, she asks for the drink and Robinson says, you were lousy. And he won't give her one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FURIA: And Bogart walks over, under gunpoint, he goes over to the bar, pours her a stiff drink, walks it over and gives it to her and says, you deserve this. So it's just a great dramatic scene, but it's a wonderful use of a song in a non-musical picture. She won a best Supporting Actress award based purely, I think, on that performance of a song.

GROSS: So let's hear that scene with the song from the movie "Key Largo."

(Soundbite of movie, "Key Largo")

Ms. CLAIRE TREVOR (Actor): (as Gaye Dawn) My gowns were gorgeous. Always low-cut. Very decollete. I wore hardly any makeup - just some lipstick, that's all. No lights, just a baby spot. And I wouldn't have any entrance. They'd play the intro in the dark, and a spot would come on, and there I'd be.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. EDWARD G. ROBINSON (Actor): (as Johnny Rocco) Well, go ahead sing.

(Soundbite of song, Moanin' Low")

Ms. TREVOR: (as Gaye Dawn) (Singing) Moanin' low, my sweet man, I love him so, though he's mean as can be. He's the kind of man needs a kind of woman like me. Gonna to die if sweet man should pass me by. If I die, where'll he be? He's the kind of man who needs the kind of woman like me. Don't know any reason why he treats me so poorly.

GROSS: That's Claire Trevor singing "Moanin' Low" from the movie "Key Largo."

My guest, Philip Furia, is the coauthor of the book "The Songs of Hollywood."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about music in the movies.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Furia who is coauthor of the new book "The Songs of Hollywood." He's written extensively about American popular song. He's the author of a biography of Johnny Mercer. The new book, "The Songs of Hollywood," is about music in movies.

Now, although a lot of Hollywood were written differently than Broadway songs, and although the role of the Hollywood songwriter was different than the Broadway songwriter, at some point a lot of Broadway musicals were adapted for the screen, and so the Broadway musical became transposed for movies.

What do you think worked and what didnt work? Like in the - I guess it was in the 50s that this phenomenon really bloomed.

Prof. FURIA: Right. In the 1950s television moved into the American home and it really took business away from Hollywood. And studios had to cut back on the number of movies they made. And the most expensive kind of movie to make is the musical, where you have to have dancers, musicians, songwriters, choreographers.

And so Hollywood, when they made a musical, took the safe route of making a film version of a Broadway musical that had already proven successful, rather than do what they'd done in the '30s and '40s, and that is make original film musicals like "42nd Street" and "Meet Me in St. Louis," those are originally done as Hollywood movies. But things like "Oklahoma" and "The King and I" and "South Pacific" were just film adaptations of Broadway shows, and I frankly find most of them boring.

GROSS: Oh, I'm so glad you said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FURIA: Oh good. I dont know, most people adore them and get very irritated when I say that, because I say, you know, I'm writing about movie musicals and they say oh, I love "West Side Story." And I say well, that's not a movie musical, that's a Broadway musical that was turned into a movie. And usually when that happens, you get the worst of both worlds.

GROSS: Well I love "West Side Story," so I love the movie adaptation of it, so I'm going to leave that one out of...

Prof. FURIA: Oh, okay.

GROSS: But a lot of the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptations, like the songs are schlep on and on and there's so much talking in between, and that...

Prof. FURIA: Right. Mm-hmm. They're very stagy. I mean these were successful stage musicals. What makes it even worse sometimes, it's - some of them are dubbed. You know, like Audrey Hepburn - poor Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady." You know, she's so sweet and fragile looking and yet, she's dubbed by this operatic singer, Marni Nixon. And out of little Audrey Hepburn comes this booming voice. But the fact that people love them, I think, is a tribute to how great the stage musical was, that even in a canned film version it can still audiences.

GROSS: When you mentioned Audrey Hepburn being dubbed by Marni Nixon for "My Fair Lady," in the film "Funny Face," in which she co-starred with Fred Astaire in 1957, she sings for herself and she has such a lovely voice.

Well, why dont we end by hearing that for people who haven't heard Audrey Hepburn sing in her own voice, although probably a lot of people heard her sing a little bit in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." So this is her singing the Gershwin song, "How Long Has This Been Going On?"

Do you like this version of it?

Prof. FURIA: Oh yes. I love it. And again, youre talking about a song in a movie that's presented more conversationally, and like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, not by someone who's a professional stage singer, but an ordinary person just breaking into song.

GROSS: Philip Furia, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. FURIA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Philip Furia is the coauthor of "The Songs of Hollywood."

(Soundbite of song, "How Long Has This Been Going On?")

Ms. AUDREY HEPBURN (Actor): (Singing) I must find why my mind is behaving like a dancer. What's the clue to pursue? For I have to have the answer. I could cry salty tears. Where have I been all these years? Is it fun? Or should I run? How long has this been going on?

GROSS: You can read an excerpt of Philip Furia's book The Songs of Hollywood" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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