IRVING BERLIN IN HOLLYWOOD
The talkie revolution of the late 1920's was largely due to singing pictures. The ammunition fired from loudspeakers, killing the silent screen, was pop song -- and who better to supply the stuff than Irving Berlin, hitmaker supreme, monarch of Tin Pan Alley? More than that: he was, in the words of his friendly rival Jerome Kern, "American Music", with a little bit of Wagner thrown in.
So it was no surprise to find a proven Berlin smash, "Blue Skies", occupying the key scene in "The Jazz Singer" (1927), the movie that sounded the death knell of silent pictures. The song had been written as a stage vehicle for Belle Baker in an ailing Broadway show of Rodgers & Hart's. But Al Jolson, in the movie, took "Blue Skies" to his heart, telling his mother it was all his own work, proclaiming his ecstacy to the world. The world was amazed and talkies were on their way. So was Irving Berlin, hoisted up by Al Jolson, an old Alley colleague, into the position of having another First.
He'd had so many Firsts since those early years of the 20th century when he'd been little Izzy Baline, the singing waiter who wrote songs yet couldn't read or write music. Some kind of natural genius, thrown naked into this world with all the knowledge and none of the know-how. He'd had the first world-wide hit in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) when he'd captured a new energy in the air and called it "ragtime". In faraway Russia even the Czar's military band cut a version. Vaudeville stages cried out for more of the same: Berlin rode the wave for all his worth, producing "The Ragtime Soldier Man", "The Ragtime Jockey Man" and "The Ragtime Violin". Soon he was the self-proclaimed "King of Ragtime, and proceeded to take his sensation into Stephen Foster territory like The Sunny South ("When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam'") and into new situations like the Urban Ghetto with its claustrophobic tenement culture ("Snooky Ookums").
From common vaudeville he elevated himself onto the more respectable Broadway stage with a revue "Watch Your Step", starring Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, America's No. 1 dance team and teachers to the elite. Another First: the show was billed as "The First Syncopated Musical" and it also contained the first contrapuntal pop song: "Simple Melody"-- one singer looks back fondly to simple old-fashioned days while the other raves about the joys of 1914 syncopation. More ragtime revues followed: in "Stop, Look, Listen" the boy wonder grew excited about messing with the ivories on a piano, declaring he knew a "fine way to treat a Steinway". Cocking a snook at the longhairs, identifying with the ordinary folks, letting the natural out -- all Berlin trademarks that endeared him to the masses. He was modern, he was up-to-date. But he always watched the mood of the mood of the "mob" (his pet word for the pop public).
When America entered The Great War in 1917 Private Berlin created another First by organizing an all-soldier revue, "Yip! Yip! Yaphank". But, as before, he honored the old song styles by writing such minstrel fare as "Mandy", a "darky" number. It was such a catchy tune that the Great Ziegfeld borrowed it for his "Follies" of 1919. Ziegfeld also called on Berlin to create an appropriate song, an anthem, to accompany his beauties as they paraded the stage in their beautiful gowns. "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" was just the job, wedding pop song to fashion line-up. It was a new kind of structure for Berlin, a venture into richer chords, longer lines. A change from those jumpy "Alexander" derivatives. Another first. Was there no stopping the whizzing wizard? Soon he'd be controlling the whole pop scene! Certainly he cornered his own market by starting his own publishing company in 1919. Other songwriters had tried this and failed. Berlin succeeded--and held onto his copyrights for dear life, guarding his songs against satire, making a ton of money. As a publisher he continued to turn out one-off pop hits like "After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It" and "Shakin' The Blues Away". The latter, with its picture of "darkies" jiggling heatedly in Dixie, continued the minstrel tradition in which Berlin seemed to find great comfort and sheet sales.
Yet another First was his having a theatre, The Music Box, where he could try out new numbers in lavish revues stacked with long-legged chorus girls. Here, for example, was where he introduce his contribution to the Jazz Age: a jerky, yet refreshing, syncopated hot rhythm pattern in "Everybody Step" that he was to re-tread later in such songs as "Puttin' On The Ritz", "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Steppin' Out With My Baby." He had also proved to be an adept at the sentimental waltz ballad by concocting, "All Alone" and "What'll I Do?". He had every pop song base covered and he ran his own game, too.
So when "The Jazz Singer" dragged in the talkies Irving Berlin, Inc. was ready to supply Hollywood's frantic demand for pop songs. He was now "Mr. Music" and though the rest of Tin Pan Alley sold out when Hollywood came buying up publishers for their All-Singing, All-Dancing movies, the main man refused all offers. He was wise--for in 1930 the public were fed up with movie musicals. Too many, and too thoughtlessly-made.
Not that Berlin hadn't been burned by the movie song craze. He was safe providing one-off songs from his New York fortress base, but in 1930 he'd made the mistake of actually going to the West Coast and getting involved in a project that was supposed to be a sure-fire vehicle for Berlin hits. When "Reaching For The Moon" was released in late 1930: he was like Samson without his hair: only one song sequence remained. The producers had run scared. Berlin realized to his horror that he couldn't control the crazy ways for Hollywood. No-one seemed to be in charge. Chaos and committees ruled. This was anathema to "Mr. Music" and he never forgot the horrid experience.
Back on Broadway things, too, were getting sticky--but for artistic reasons. "Show Boat", Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein Jr.'s revolutionary creation of 1927 the first musical with a serious book and songs integrated into the plot, had set a new standard and thrown down a challenge. Lettered men of sophistication and taste were entering what had once been a simple stage of girls and gags and jingly melodies. Berlin joked that these were "S.O.S shows"--meaning that they were full of "songs of situation". However, a distress call was also implied and he responded to the situation with a compromise for the times: sticking to the old revue format he wrote show tunes injected with some topical satire and social comment ("Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee" refers to the Depression, while "Supper Time" deals with a lynching). Nevertheless his Broadway hits were decidedly non-political: "Heat Wave" and "Easter Parade" (a re-working of a failed 1917 pop song, "Smile And Show Your Dimple"). Timelessness (circa the teen years of Tin Pan Alley) was always an integral part of the Berlin muse rather than merely being in the current mode.
In 1934 Hollywood, albeit a modest but feisty little studio called RKO, called on him again. How much input would he have, though? And where were his old Alley pals like Al Jolson? Before the humiliating debacle of "Reaching For The Moon" he'd had a rewarding spell with Jolson on "Mammy" a movie vehicle for the blackface star. Berlin had written a minstrel show story for Al with a theme song that neatly summed up exactly what the two men were all about: entertainment by friendly manipulation of the audience. The song, "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy," says that politics are nothing compared to the joy of making people laugh and cry, of having them in the palm of your hand and squeezing them tight. Now that's show business!
The powers at RKO didn't see the business in quite such primary colors. True, they wanted songs to fit their stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they also wanted musical integration. "S.O.S" again! Berlin, in his usual excitement, had written all the songs before he'd read the script. The film-makers accepted "Cheek To Cheek" but the rest were rejected and the king of songwriters retired to tackle integration. Working all night for six weeks in pajamas and slippers, fueled by coffee and cigarettes and gum, banging with one finger on his transposing "Buick" piano(he only played on the black notes), he returned with a satisfactory score that included "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" "Isn't This A Lovely Day?" and "The Piccolino".
"Top Hat" was a huge box-office success and marked the real beginning of Berlin's rewarding relationship with Hollywood. He was now calling the tune financially: RKO had paid him $75, 000 up front, plus 10% of the gross profits. He also retained the song copyrights. All this was revolutionary as far as a mere songwriter was concerned. Further than dollars, though, he had pushed his creative abilities like never before. "The Piccolino" is full of tricky rhythms and as for "Cheek To Cheek", it's an elongated masterpiece, soaring up to heaven and then down to a peaceful haven on earth, driven by the logic of the lyrics. And then suddenly we're on a dim-lit dance floor in a new and sensual minor key melody. Odd and yet ultimately natural.
It was all very well for Broadway and Hollywood to call for the fashionable integrated song but the fact is that we remember the Berlin numbers and not the plots of these shows. Perhaps he knew this all along because after a follow-up movie, "Follow The Fleet" and other commissions for which he delivered the required work, he was happy to let Twentieth Century Fox in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" celebrate his hit-making life through a cavalcade of songs ranging from the ragtime years up to the current craze for Swing. Ethel Merman did her usual fine job of enunciating "Heat Wave" as if she possessed a built-in bullhorn. Berlin thoroughly approved of her way with his work (just as he did Jolson's and Astaire's) because she respected both words and music-something the Swing Musicians neglected, even ignored. After hearing Benny Goodman's interpretation of "Blue Skies", in which the tune got buried, he told the King of Swing: "That was the most incredible playing I've ever heard-Never do it again!"
Other Broadway songwriters echoed this sentiment, including Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. In the early 1940's, as a theatrical production company, Rodgers & Hammerstein took shelter from the juggernaut of Jazz and Swing by settling on period stories for both "Oklahoma" and "Carousel". Next they invited Jerome Kern to compose the Music to their production of the story of Annie Oakley, the hillbilly sharpshooter of the 1880's. When Kern dropped dead just as work was about to begin, they called on Berlin. Startled but honored, he protested that he knew nothing about hillbilly music. He'd amassed a mountain of hits, including a national anthem ("God Bless America") and a Christmas anthem ("White Christmas"), and he was at early retirement age-so what did he need this assignment to prove? That he could write a Broadway show as good as those college graduates, and one that was packed with hits.
A week after accepting the job he had most of the songs written. "Annie Get Your Gun", starring his pet performer Ethel Merman, became the third longest-running show of the 1940's, and the greatest Broadway success for Berlin (and for Merman). And the hits poured from the show, played on radio and in ballrooms. Folks who never went to a theatre waltzed to "The Girl That I Marry", bobbysoxers jived to "I Got The Sun In The Morning", and "There's No Business Like Show Business" became another Berlin anthem.
Although Rodgers & Hammerstein had warned Berlin that the stage production of "Annie Get Your Gun" would not be preceded by "Irving Berlin's . . ." (as had been the possessive case previously), when it came to making a movie of his treasured baby the songwriter's tough business side came to the fore. There was a year of negotiation with MGM before a record $650,000 fee was agreed upon. Producer Arthur Freed muttered that it took longer to write the contract than write the show. But Berlin was protective of "Annie"-working on it had been a challenge, had fully-stretched his abilities; and had secured him a place in the pantheon of American Musical Comedy. He waited for celluloid to afford a permanence for his contribution to world culture.
Meanwhile MGM, at his suggestion, packaged another anthology of old-time Berlin hits in "Easter Parade", a backstage vaudeville story set in 1912. When Fred Astaire came out of retirement to substitute for an injured Gene Kelly, Berlin was tickled pink. His songs were in safe hands. With Judy Garland as co-star he was assured of some attention from the younger generation. Even if his heart was back in early Tin Pan Alley his business brain was thinking contemporary: Ann Miller sang adjusted lyrics in "Shakin' The Blues Away" with "darkies" becoming "voodoo". He wrote a new hot number (which was really a re-working of his old hot numbers) called "Steppin' Out With My Baby" which Astaire leaped to in slow motion as the chorus moved at normal speed. It was all so modern, and yet one of the best bits was a ragtime medley on the vaudeville stage performed by Astaire and Garland, ending with some energetic hoofing to "When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam'". Vaudeville may have been murdered by the movies but here was MGM rendering up a lively ghost on the silver screen.
"Annie" was another matter. The production ran into trouble right from the start: Howard Keel, the male star, broke his ankle; Busby Berkeley had the wrong sensibility for directing straight-forward Americana; Judy Garland, as Annie, was floored by drug addiction and fired after a few days of shooting. Production stopped. Berlin was frantic. Stuck in New York on his next musical, "Miss Liberty" (a humorless waxwork that proved to be a disaster), he was reduced to frantic long-distance phone calls. Why not use Ethel Merman? Too brassy, too stagey, too old. Betty Hutton, young and sassy and vibrant, was borrowed from Paramount; George Sidney, solid and reliable, replaced Berkeley. Cameras rolled and everything went smoothly and tidily. The result was a box office bulls-eye: simple, wholesome, old-fashioned entertainment. "Hokum" was the venerable show-biz word to sum up such stuff.
Some of Judy Garland's aborted work survives outside of the release print. There's the touching vulnerability of a little lost girl in her recording of "They Say It's Wonderful"; and a fragile impishness coupled with gamin charm in the comic competition of "Anything You Can Do". In contrast, Betty Hutton contributes a tomboy hee-hawishness to "Doin' What Comes Naturally" which is exactly what was needed for the Annie character. Berlin, always shy of sophistication, never tired of stressing the importance of being natural in song. And Oscar Hammerstien had told him that the secret to writing folksy was simple: you clip the G's off the ends of words.
After "Miss Liberty" proved too stodgy a work for Broadway (and the masses, for they responded to none of the show's songs) Berlin returned to easy entertainment: another sure-fire vehicle for Ethel Merman. "Call Me Madam" (1950) was based on real-life society hostess Perle Mesta's unlikely position as Ambassadress to Luxembourg. The proposition of pushy Ethel ruffling up stuffy old Europe promised lost of laughs. And, of course, Berlin adored her way of projecting his every precious word and note to the back of the theatre.
The songs, as usual, were a breeze: there were two winners in Act One alone--"The Hostess With The Mostes' On The Ball" and "It's A Lovely Day Today". But in Act Two the plot bogged down and so the producer called for a Berlin airlift, suggesting a double melody novelty on the lines of "Simple Melody", the 1914 chestnut currently on the hit parade in a version by Bing Crosby and his son Gary.
Galvanized, Berlin shot off to his hotel room, put on his trusty pajamas and slippers, and knuckled down to the ritual banging on the "Buick" piano for two solid nights. He emerged with "You're Just In Love" which Ethel Merman immediately performed in tandem with her juvenile lead. After the last triumphant note she predicted, "We'll never get off the stage". She was almost right: audiences demanded encore after encore of this folksy masterpiece of counterpoint. It was the big hit of the show.
"Call Me Madam" was competently and lavishly filmed by Twentieth Century Fox. Ethel Merman, after much lobbying, was allowed to play her star part on the big screen. As an added delight she delivered a socko version of Berlin's 1913 hit, "The International Rag". Audiences of 1954 responded positively to the movie. Next year there were two more oldies-loaded Berlin screen packages: "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business". The old Alleyman seemed everywhere, but in fact this was to be his last hurrah. Rock 'n' roll, with its emphasis on the singer and not the song, was about to put an end to a golden age of tailor-made popular music. The old creators, from their castles in New York, had lost control of the masses, who lived in a hitherto unknown and unexploited America. Marilyn Monroe seemed to presage the whirlwind of animal rock when she writhed and wriggled her erotic and demotic way through "After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It" in "There's No Business Like Show Business".
For Irving Berlin and most of his songwriter colleagues, the triumph of rock marked the end of their long reign as makers, purveyors and controllers of American Music. Berlin went quietly, eventually becoming a recluse holed up in his New York mansion, a troubled voice on the telephone in the wee, wee hours of the morning. Sometime in the early 1980's, with punk gone and rap coming on strong and himself nearing his century, he whispered to a telephone pal: "Show business? There's no more show business! We whistle in the wind . . ." But although that old-time show business has vanished the songs, made to last by quality craftsmen, continue to be whistled and carried forever down the wind.
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