- The Songs of Hollywood
- Oxford University Press, 270 pp.
Singin’ on the Screen
The timeline of American cinema history is usually divided into two distinct eras: “Silents” and “Talkies.” In truth, movies were seldom screened in an atmosphere of hushed quietude. Almost from the beginning, music complemented action on the screen. From solitary organists and piano players to full orchestral accompaniment in the movie palaces of the 1920’s, music fused with film to create a major new art form.
In their spirited account of American movie music, Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson chronicle the film industry’s leap into synchronized singing and speaking that began with Al Jolson’s fabled, unscripted remark in The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing’ yet.”
As Furia and Patterson record this dramatic incident, Jazz Singer director, Alan Crosland, wasn’t sure that producer Sam Warner wanted to hear Jolson talk on camera at all. The Jazz Singer (1927) was planned as a silent film with interludes of recorded singing.
Looking “through the glass wall of the soundproof box that enclosed the camera,” Crosland signaled to Warner for instructions, sliding his fingers across his throat, Hollywood sign language for “Cut!”
Warner responded by silently mouthing the words, “Leave it in.”
In an almost uncanny reprise of the whole course of Hollywood history, Crosland and Warner silently communicated the words that heralded the coming of spoken dialogue in a film about singing.
Furia and Patterson are professors at the University of North Carolina. Their new book, The Songs of Hollywood, is a spirited and a scholarly account of the symbiotic relationship of singing and speaking in American films. Like many marriages, it was both a loving and a troubled union.
Right from the start, filmmakers were faced with a bizarre handicap. Audiences accepted actors singing on film readily enough, perhaps due to cultural preconditioning from going to musical plays and opera. After the initial shock of listening to Jolson speak in The Jazz Singer, moviegoers adapted to listening to actors and actresses converse with each other on screen. But talking and singing to each other was an entirely different matter. After all, people don’t sing to each other in real life.
“Reel” life confronted the matter of audience disbelief almost from the moment that Crosland gestured to Warner on the set of The Jazz Singer. Soon after, Warner confided to Crosland that he had a plan whereby Jolson would sing Blue Skies to his mother, as though he were demonstrating a new song for his nightclub act.
For the next few years, Hollywood musicals, climaxing in 42nd Street (1933), would be “backstage” pictures. Songs would be delivered in scenes depicting stage rehearsals, with aspiring singers and hard-bitten producers battling against the odds to “put on a show.”
It was fun while it lasted – and big profits for the film studios. But after a few years, audiences grew tired of predictable scenarios of theatrical angst and happy “all singing, all dancing finales.” Furia and Patterson quote Variety in 1930 which noted that movie patrons were inquiring at the box office if the film was a musical and “walking away if it was.”
This was the moment when filmmakers responded to audience apathy by introducing “integrated” song to the plots of their musicals. Integrated songs dropped the pretense of backstage realism. Actors and actresses now sang to each other, as if speaking, with songs propelling the narrative flow of the storyline. The first Hollywood musicals to rely on integrated songs recalled the romanticism of European operetta, in The Love Parade (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932), starring Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.
Integrated songs also worked in contemporary settings, as in the memorable series of RKO films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Now chiefly remembered for their spectacular dance numbers, the Astaire-Rogers films were also landmarks in the evolution of Hollywood’s treatment of song. Modern, sassy dialogue combined well with a naturalistic singing style because of the new technique of pre-recording songs. These songs, carefully recorded in sound studios, were coordinated with corresponding film sequences in which actors performed without actually singing. This enabled stars like Astaire, who had a limited vocal range, to successfully handle difficult lyrics. Irving Berlin, who wrote the lyrics for Top Hat (1935), relied on “Astaire’s ability to enunciate syllables and follow the trickiest rhythms to make Fred Astaire singing sound more like Fred Astaire talking.”
It was at MGM Studios that integrated songs achieved an unrivaled degree of success. Audiences now accepted integrated songs as musical numbers and as vital elements of film narrative because of the sophisticated production values that characterized MGM musicals.
But it was more than a matter of MGM’s sparing no expense. Arthur Freed, a gifted lyricist, led a production team at MGM, universally known as the “Freed Unit.” Louis Mayer, the otherwise dictatorial head of MGM gave Freed unprecedented artistic freedom that enabled him to produce a string of hits that spanned the last years of the golden age of Hollywood and helped cushion the blow of the coming of television in the 1950’s.
Freed’s first success was The Wizard of Oz, released in theaters in 1939, the “rooftop” year of American cinema. All of the strengths of the integrated song were present. Composer Harold Arlen and lyrics writer E.Y. “Yip” Harburg created some of the most original and beloved songs in American history. With Judy Garland, who convincingly portrayed a little girl while singing with the vocal range of a young woman, as the film’s lead, the Freed Unit produced a film that was pure magic. Defying expectations, it also made a profit. The Wizard of Oz had been projected as a prestige project with MGM willing to take a loss. It would be years before an Arthur Freed film failed to bring in a profit.
To really understand integrated songs, another MGM film, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), supplies the perfect illustrative example. In planning this nostalgic look at an American family during the early 1900’s, Freed incorporated details of their life style as vital elements of the film. From the ketchup-making scene at the film’s beginning to the realistic depiction (for Hollywood) of the anxieties felt by children, Meet Me in St. Louis was far more than a musical comedy in period dress.
Initially, Freed envisioned using actual songs from 1904. Rethinking his approach, he commissioned Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin to compose new music to evoke the era. Freed wanted a song for Judy Garland and friends to sing as they ride a trolley to the St. Louis World’s Fair, a song which gives the sense of what it was like to use the noisy, lurching mass transportation of the period. Missing this thematic point, Blane and Martin kept writing songs that they thought young people would have sung on a trolley. And just as quickly, Freed rejected their efforts, until one day Blane found a 1903 photo of a trolley with the caption, “Clang, Clang Went the Trolley.” The resulting song was a masterpiece of expressing both the feelings and experiences of film protagonists.
Whether as original compositions, as in the case of Meet Me in St. Louis, or in the brilliant use of existing songs by George Gershwin in An American in Paris (1951), Arthur Freed and his team took the integrated song to the very peak of creative excellence. But a nemesis for the great Hollywood movie studios was at hand. The rise of television during the early 1950’s and the enormous popularity of Broadway musicals toppled the film companies from their position as arbiters of culture. The classic, original film musicals that were among the most innovative products of Hollywood’s golden age were the first casualties of the studios’ fight for survival.
Furia and Patterson expound with considerable insight on the temptation to make film versions of the great Broadway musicals rather than continue to create original musical productions in the Freed Unit mode. All the studios eventually yielded because it was cheaper to make a movie version of My Fair Lady or West Side Story than it was to plan and film something entirely new.
The authors also investigate another intriguing aspect of the 1950’s and 1960’s. A number of films incorporated songs into the framework of the narrative that were not sung by protagonists. The authors characterize this technique as “silent song.” In the film that they use to illustrate this new approach, High Noon (1952), the haunting song “Do Not Forsake Me” “functions as an internal monologue for Gary Cooper who plays a western marshal torn between facing men out to kill him or running off with his Quaker bride…”
Furia and Patterson note that a number of Hollywood songwriters were disturbed by this approach. Critics of Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkin, who composed the lyrics and music of “Do Not Forsake Me,” maintained that the duo “wrote with their heads …They would sit down and write interesting melodies, but they weren’t songs. There was no heart, no feelings.”
How much this controversial approach to film music contributed to the decline of Hollywood song writing, especially of integrated songs, is a matter of speculation. More to the point, the progressive abandonment of integrated songs during the late 1950’s and 1960’s indicated that film studios were unable or unwilling to devote the talent and resources that had enabled Arthur Freed to score success after success at MGM.
By the 1970’s, the consequences of Hollywood’s failure to sustain the creation of original musical productions was readily apparent. Dreadful film adaptations of Broadway hits like Man from La Mancha (1972) and Mame (1974, with dubbed singing and miscast actors, accelerated the downward slide of the great studios into oblivion.
Yet the classic songs from Hollywood remain and Furia and Patterson do not end their book without some hopeful reflections that American film music is not an entirely lost art. They study the uses of classic American song in films from recent decades like Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), which featured a high school class staging a review of Gerswin tunes. A trio of biopics from 2004, depicting the lives and music of Cole Porter (De-Lovely), Ray Charles (Ray) and Bobby Darin (Beyond the Sea), are a new spin on the backstage format pioneered long ago in The Jazz Singer.
The Songs of Hollywood is a book that can be used to advantage in serious film study or read for pure enjoyment. Furia and Patterson are correct in asserting that these ageless songs from the great age of American filmmaking give “America the closest thing we have to a vital repertoire of classical music.” These songs are nothing short of some of the greatest creative achievements of American popular culture, gold standards of our nation’s musical heritage.