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Pick Yourself UpDorothy Fields and the American Musical$

Charlotte Greenspan

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195111101

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195111101.001.0001

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Hollywood through a Broadway Lens

Hollywood through a Broadway Lens

Chapter:
(p.118) 11 Hollywood through a Broadway Lens
Source:
Pick Yourself Up
Author(s):

Charlotte Greenspan

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195111101.003.0011

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Dorothy's return to Broadway. The Broadway to which Dorothy Fields returned in 1939 had not yet bottomed out financially. Every year in that decade saw fewer productions on Broadway than did the year before. Producers of shows in 1939 had hoped that with the increased number of visitors to New York to see the World's Fair, ticket sales on Broadway would go up, but in fact they went down. Nevertheless, many composers and lyricists who had tasted what Hollywood had to offer in the first half of the 1930s found themselves carried on a return current to New York.

Keywords:   World's Fair, women songwriters, Broadway, Hollywood

The Broadway to which Dorothy Fields returned in 1939 had not yet bottomed out financially. Every year in that decade saw fewer productions on Broadway than did the year before.1 Producers of shows in 1939 had hoped that with the increased number of visitors to New York to see the World’s Fair, ticket sales on Broadway would go up, but in fact they went down. Nevertheless, many composers and lyricists who had tasted what Hollywood had to offer in the first half of the 1930s found themselves carried on a return current to New York.

Of course, there were a number of Hollywood songwriters who had little or no attachment to Broadway—Harry Warren, Ralph Rainger, Richard Whiting, and Hoagy Carmichael among them. Once they arrived in Hollywood, for the most part they stayed there. Others successfully adapted their talents to the demands of stage or screen. Chief among them were Irving Berlin and the seemingly imperturbable Cole Porter.

Other songwriters, such as Richard Rodgers, tested the waters on both coasts but found the Broadway stage definitely more congenial. In his autobiography, Rodgers refers to his first stay in Hollywood, two and a half years starting in 1931, as “the most unproductive period of my professional life.”2 Broadway was still in the doldrums when Rodgers and Hart returned to New York in 1934. Rodgers noted, “Between March and June not a single new musical opened on Broadway, and the prospects for the fall weren’t encouraging.”3 Nevertheless, starting in 1935, Rodgers and Hart had an extraordinary run—ten productions and nine successes in seven years, including Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), and The Boys from Syracuse (1938).

For Dorothy, and indeed the entire Fields family, Hollywood had been a good place to be in the 1930s. Lew Fields’s career did not have a resurgence in films, as he had hoped it might, but retirement in California was comfortable. Joseph Fields established himself as a screenwriter before he started writing (p.119) books for Broadway shows. From 1935 to 1939 he wrote two or three scripts a year, for Republic Pictures, Warner Brothers, and RKO. Herbert Fields, a bit like Cole Porter, seemed able to ride the waves of success and failure in both New York and Hollywood. On Broadway, Herb provided the books for Pardon My English (1933), which flopped, and for Du Barry Was a Lady (1939), which was a great hit. A few of the scripts he wrote in Hollywood got panned by reviewers. The New York Times critic considered the story of The Luckiest Girl in the World “formularized” and that of Love before Breakfast “thin to the point of emaciation.” Still, Herb seldom lacked for work. For the second half of the decade, only in 1937 did Herbert Fields not have a screenplay before an audience. For Dorothy Fields, as we have seen, the 1930s in Hollywood was a time of professional and personal blossoming. Nevertheless, in 1938 she moved back to New York and did not return to Hollywood for more than a decade.

The New York stage in the 1930s was undergoing both quantitative and qualitative changes. There were fewer productions each year, and, not surprisingly, many productions took on a darker, more satirical and socially relevant cast. The change was most noticeable in the musicals; in the 1930s, revues raised social and political issues to a degree unthinkable in the 1920s. New Americana (1932) was a multi-authored revue with songs by Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, Vernon Duke, and Johnny Mercer. It provided one of the Depression’s anthems, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” by Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg. In Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer (1933), what should have been an impossible mixture (even in a revue) of comic and serious coexisted. In one part of the show, Ethel Waters sang the sizzling and sexy “Heat Wave,” and in another the searing indictment of lynching, “Supper Time.” Some shows were lighthearted, like Harold Rome’s Pins and Needles (1937), a life-imitates-art revue in which a group of amateur players from the garment-manufacture trade created a show that unexpectedly became a long-running hit.

Europe had seen a golden age of satirical operetta in the second half of the nineteenth century, memorable for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in England and Offenbach in France. In the United States in the 1930s, George and Ira Gershwin showed that musical comedy and political satire were not strange bedfellows with Strike Up the Band (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Let Them Eat Cake (1933). Of Thee I Sing even won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the authors of the book, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Kurt Weill, transplanted from Germany to the United States, made two important contributions to the genre, Johnny Johnson, set in the present, and Knickerbocker Holiday, set in seventeenth-century New Amsterdam. Some of the musical satires had an earnest, didactic tone, such as Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Hooray for What! (1937), and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1938). (p.120) Others were more playful, as when George M. Cohan portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right (1937). I’d Rather Be Right was very successful in its time, but it is likely that celebrity gawking—watching George M. Cohan impersonate FDR—rather than cutting satire accounted for much of its popularity.

Another rich target for satire on Broadway, both in musicals and nonmusicals, was the film industry. Talking pictures constituted serious competition for the entertainment dollar, but they were also fodder for comic plays throughout the ’30s. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart produced one of the first, and perhaps one of the best of these shows in 1930, Once in a Lifetime, in which some former vaudevillians become elocution experts for talking films. The foibles of Hollywood were revisited in 1935 in Boy Meets Girl by Sam and Bella Spewack. Insiders themselves, the Spewacks mocked actors, agents, and producers alike. The search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone with the Wind gave Clare Boothe Luce the grist for her play Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938).

The idea for a musical satire of Hollywood, Stars in Your Eyes, originated with the composer Arthur Schwartz. Schwartz had an impressive number of academic degrees, but none of them in music. He had a bachelor’s degree from New York University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with master’s and law degrees from Columbia University. As a pianist and composer, however, Schwartz was essentially self-taught. He was born in Brooklyn in 1900 and became a lawyer under the insistent guidance of his lawyer father. His mother supported his love of music, which first found expression in low-profile activities such as playing piano for silent movies and collaborating on songs with Lorenz Hart at a summer camp where they were both on the staff. Hart found success some years later with Richard Rodgers, with songs for the Garrick Gaieties, and he never worked with another composer. It took Schwartz several more years to find the person who would be his longtime, but not exclusive, collaborator, Howard Dietz, a fellow Columbia alumnus. They were not classmates, Dietz being four years older, but Dietz had left behind him a reputation as a wit. Schwartz recalled, “Howard was a very funny man. You know, when he was at Columbia, they held a competition among all the students at the Journalists’ School to see who could write the most sensational short headline. Howard won with ‘Pope elopes.’”4

Schwartz first approached Dietz by letter in 1924. He wrote, “I’d love to work with you.…. I think you are the only man in town to be compared with Larry Hart, and from me that’s quite a tribute, because I know almost every line Larry has written. I think that three or four tunes of mine will be riots in the Grand Street Follies this year IF they have lyrics such as only Larry and you (p.121) can write. Don’t be too amused at the fact that I speak of tune-writing under a lawyer’s letterhead. I’m giving up the law in a few months to spend all my time at music.”5 Schwartz was rebuffed by Dietz initially, but they got together a few years later. Their first Broadway success, in 1929, was a revue called The Little Show. This was followed by Three’s a Crowd (1930) and The Bandwagon (1931), which Stanley Green said “may well have been the most sophisticated, imaginative, and musically distinguished revue ever mounted on Broadway.”6

Dietz’s talent as a writer gave him careers as both a lyricist and as a publicist. For more than thirty years, he worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He invented the company’s trademark, Leo the Lion, and its slogan, Ars Gratia Artis. After 1937, for almost a decade, Dietz gave his attention entirely to his duties as a publicist for MGM, obliging Schwartz to find other lyricists. Schwartz turned first to Albert Stillman for songs for Virginia (1937) and then, for the Stars in Your Eyes project, to Dorothy Fields.

The book writer for Stars in Your Eyes, J. P. McEvoy, had a peripatetic writing career including stints as a journalist and a writer of greeting card messages. He also spent time as a writer in Hollywood. The first version of the libretto, then called Swing to the Left, was a satirical look at the clash between earnest propagandists trying to reveal social injustices in America and the commercial machine that drives picture making in Hollywood. Schwartz, Fields, and McEvoy brought their idea for a musical to Dwight Deere Wiman.

Wiman had produced Schwartz’s first success, The Little Show, in 1929. In the 1930s, the most successful musicals he produced were Gay Divorce (1932), On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), and I Married an Angel (1938). Wiman was the heir to the John Deere farm machinery fortune. Richard Rodgers thought, “Wiman was a curious anomaly in the frequently rough-and-tumble world of Broadway…. Something about him made people take him for a dilettante. He was what my mother called a ‘swell.’ He had inherited wealth, plus the manners, accent and appearance to go with it. He may have lacked that certain drive and dedication associated with producers, yet he probably had more profitable attractions than most of the more aggressive members of the breed.”7

Wiman brought in as director of the play one of his protégés, Joshua Logan, who had worked in various capacities both on Broadway and in Hollywood. The first two musicals he had directed were the very successful I Married an Angel (338 performances) and the less successful but well-esteemed Knickerbocker Holiday (168 performances). Logan recalled, “McEvoy’s plot line for this show was based on a young boy genius, like Orson Welles or Pare Lorenz, going to Hollywood. Only this boy would be leftist, which was a popular theme (p.122) then…. [Wiman] was on fire to have a big musical on Broadway in time for the upcoming 1939 World’s Fair, and had already signed two supergreats, Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. He told me, ‘If you don’t like it the way it is change it; only make sure it’s a hit.’ ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Let’s throw all the unfunny Communist stuff out the window and just do a show about the crazy way Hollywood people mix sex and movies.’”8 Since no one involved in the show had the socialist zeal of, say, Yip Harburg or Marc Blitzstein, Logan’s attitude prevailed. The book was revised throughout rehearsals. When the show opened in Boston, it was about an hour too long, and a new round of cutting and rewriting began before the New York opening. Theater historian Ethan Mordden writes, “Out went the fifth-column jokes, the pointed songs, the carefully planned-out book. All that remained was the movie lot of Monotone Pictures and the cast, Ethel Merman as a temperamental movie star, Jimmy Durante as the studio troubleshooter, Richard Carlson as a roiled-up writer, Mildred Natwick as Dorothy Parker called something else, and Tamara Toumanova as (what else?) a ballerina.”9 The show still contains the character of an idealistic midwestern writer, but the satire is directed away from larger social issues and aimed more at empty-headedness and misuse of power in the film industry. More significant, the burden for the success of the show shifted away from the book and toward the ability of the star performers, Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, to delight the audience.

The paths of Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman had intersected several times. One of Merman’s earliest professional appearances, in 1930, was at Les Ambassadeurs, the same nightclub in which the team of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante were performing. Both Merman and Durante spent several years in Hollywood that were only mildly productive.

Merman made twenty-seven movies in Hollywood, but she seldom had a leading-lady role. The main exceptions were film versions of Broadway shows in which she had starred, such as Anything Goes and Call Me Madam. One writer theorized that it was her “oversized quality that confounded Hollywood…. It was her exultant presentation. No matter how Merman toned down her performance in front of the cameras, it was always too much for closeups.”10 On Broadway, she was sensational in her debut in Girl Crazy and was a large-magnitude star thereafter. Over the span of four decades, she gave definitive performances of songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz, Irving Berlin, and Jule Styne. She and Durante had appeared together in Cole Porter’s Red, Hot, and Blue (1936), notable to theater historians for the Solomonic solution to the problem of how to give top billing to both stars.

(p.123) Jimmy Durante also had great talents which did not translate well to film. (There were more people in Hollywood who were able to spot talent than there were people who knew how to use that talent to good advantage.) Just as Merman’s voice made its best effect when heard live and unamplified, Durante’s type of humor was best suited to a setting that allowed for spontaneous, improvisatory wackiness—nightclubs and cabarets, his own radio or television programs, or even the New York stage if he was not too tightly reined in. Unlike, for example, the Marx Brothers, whose zaniness remained untamed on a Hollywood set, Durante obediently read the lines given to him by a succession of inferior script writers. Although he was well paid, being seen in one bad film after another was undermining his career. Durante and Dorothy Fields first met in 1930 when they were both novices in Hollywood. Durante appeared in The Cuban Love Song, which had two songs by Fields and McHugh. Dorothy very likely admired Durante’s gift for mauling the English language, a gift he shared with her father.

After securing the services of Merman and Durante, Dwight Deere Wiman added one more signature touch to the casting; he hired Ballet Russe ballerina Tamara Toumanova. Wiman had had great success with Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, in which dance was not simply decorative but essential to the plot. Rodgers noted, “We made our main ballet an integral part of the action; without it, there was no conclusion to our story. During the dance, two gangsters enter a theater box intent on shooting the hero [a dancer on stage] at the conclusion of the ballet. Seeing their guns aimed at him, he beckons the conductor to continue the music so that he can keep on dancing to avoid being a target. Finally the police come, and the hero falls to the floor exhausted.”11 The main dancers in On Your Toes were Ray Bolger and Tamara Geva; the choreographer was George Balanchine. The next dance-centered show Wiman produced was I Married an Angel. Again the songwriters were Rodgers and Hart, and again the choreographer was George Balanchine, but this time the ballerina was Vera Zorina.

Tamara Toumanova had been under Balanchine’s guidance from a very early age. (But unlike Geva and Zorina, she did not marry him.) An abundance of dancing talent supported Toumanova in Stars, including Dan Dailey, Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, and Jerome Robbins, all of whom went on to distinguished and diverse careers. The credited choreographer for Stars in Your Eyes was Carl Randall, but it is likely that Toumanova did much of the choreography for her own solos. There are two ballet scenes in Stars in Your Eyes, one in a night club and one a dream ballet. After Oklahoma!, the dream ballet sequence was a frequent feature in musicals, but Stars predates Oklahoma! by four years.

(p.124) Stars in Your Eyes opened in New York on February 9, 1939, and closed 127 performances later. Critics were unanimous in lavishing extravagant praise on Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. Several reviewers admired Merman’s acting and comedic skills as well as her singing. A few complained that Merman and Durante did not have a number together until the very end of the show but they also reported that this part of the show was its high point in hilarity. Likewise, Tamara Toumanova was almost universally praised, and some critics found her a charming actress as well as an admirable dancer. Also well liked were the supporting players, Richard Carlson and Mildred Natwick, and the imaginative sets of Jo Mielziner.

What did not go down well with about half the critics was the book. Some complained about the premise. In the New Yorker, Robert Benchley said, “It is not so much that we were all crazy mad to see another Hollywood satire.”12 In Billboard, Eugene Burr felt that the “idea of satirizing Hollywood [was] a pastime that should have—and to all intents and purposes did—end with Once in a Lifetime.” Others disliked the realization. Richard Lockridge complained that “the book hobbles the fun during much of the first act,” and Richard Watts suspected “the libretto of getting under the feet of the performers from time to time, but they wisely push it aside and go on with their more comforting songs and antics.”

The score also received a mixed reception. John Mason Brown thought Schwartz’s songs were inferior to the ones Cole Porter had previously composed for Merman. “The proof … of her skill as a singer is that while she is singing them, even Mr. Schwartz’s songs at the Majestic seem to be almost as good as were such of her past masterpieces as ‘Eadie Was a Lady,’ ‘Sam and Dalilah,’ ‘You’re the Top,’ and ‘I Get a Kick Out of You.’13 It is only when she has stopped that you realize how flat most of them are.” Richard Watts felt Schwartz fell below his own normal high level in this show. “I have heard better scores from Arthur Schwartz, but his current contribution is a lively, tuneful and pleasing one.” Some critics picked the numbers they liked best—almost all sung by Merman—or the ones they thought most likely to become hits. In fact, none of the songs in Stars in Your Eyes became a standard.

The reviewers who mentioned the lyrics did so admiringly. Brooks Atkinson noted there were “a number of good music hall songs for which Miss Fields has written salty lyrics.” Kelcey Allen thought “the lyrics … are away above average … [and the music] is richly tuneful.” George Ross thought “Miss Fields’ words fit the music neatly and she has written a turbulent set of lyrics for Jimmy.” Columnist Wilella Waldorff noted that Merman “will probably never have a number as rare as “Eadie Was a Lady” … but Arthur Schwartz’s tunes are pleasant enough and Dorothy Fields has provided neat lyrics to match.”

(p.125) Irving Berlin once warned “You better not write a bad lyric for Merman, because people will hear it in the second balcony.”14 Berlin wrote very good lyrics for Merman in Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950). Dorothy Fields also wrote excellent lyrics for Merman. Excluding the finales, there are sixteen different musical numbers in Stars in Your Eyes. Two of them are ballets and five are ensemble or company numbers. Of the nine remaining numbers, five are sung by Ethel Merman—three as solos, one with ensemble backup, and one a duet with Jimmy Durante. All of the Merman songs except the duet were recorded in 1939. Of the three solos, “I’ll Pay the Check” is a torch song; “A Lady Needs a Change” is an antisentimental song—a song that announces “I am not an ingénue”; and “Just a Little Bit More” is an uncharacteristic social relevance song, first conceived in the earlier, more political, phase of the show.

It is interesting to consider two lyrics on the same general theme, created for the same star by two equally resourceful writers. One of Cole Porter’s classics of discontent, which Merman had sung in Red, Hot, and Blue, is “Down in the Depths.” It makes a game of contrasting how well off the singer is financially and how bad off she is emotionally. The singer declares, “I’m deserted and depressed, in my regal eagle nest.” Dorothy Fields’s lyric for “I’ll Pay the Check” also gives us a rich woman’s love lament, but the sentiment and expression are more straightforward, simple, and direct. The singer recognizes disappointment and has the courage and the dignity to face up to it. It is the song of someone down but not out.15

“A Lady Needs a Change” is a sassy song, not disillusioned, but nevertheless without illusions. It is, incidentally, a song that meets Cole Porter on his own ground, a kind of a list song with both current (Havelock Ellis) and historical (Lucrezia Borgia) allusions, and it drips innuendos.16 The lyric has a family resemblance to that of “A Fine Romance.” Where the earlier song complained that the loved one “won’t wrestle,” the later one states that a lady needs a change “when there’s no rough and tumble,” or “when there’s no thrill in fighting.” This connection between loving and fighting brings to mind Lorenz Hart’s “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” The tomatoes/potatoes rhyme shows up in both “A Fine Romance” and “A Lady Needs a Change” (as it does in the Gershwin song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”). There are other food metaphors. “Clams in a dish of chowder,” turns up in “A Fine Romance” and “love is just a warmed-up plate of hash” is on the menu in “A Lady Needs a Change.” As a narration by an entirely unabashed character, this song also looks forward to a later Schwartz-Fields collaboration, “He Had Refinement” from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

(p.126) “Just a Little Bit More” is a Depression lament, but a strange one. Unlike “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” or the later “One Meatball,” which speaks for the impoverished, “Just a Little Bit More” is a middle-class complaint. It is an unusual song, atypical of Fields’s body of work and of the time when it was written. Indeed, the mood of the song seems closer to our own time in that it is about finding personal satisfaction. It acknowledges that if the problem is a sense of emptiness or malaise, the solution may be more internal than external. The verse begins by establishing that the singer is not politically oriented. In the chorus the minor mode melody modulating to the major at the end of the phrase gives the song just the right touch of pathos.17

At this time in her life, perhaps, a little bit less was a little bit more for Dorothy. She was living with just one other person now, her husband. The period of the entire Fields family being together—living under the same roof or, at least, having Sunday dinner together—had come to an end. Lew and Rose Fields were still in California; Dorothy and Herbert were now living in New York. Indeed, shortly after Ethel Merman stopped singing Dorothy’s lyrics because Stars in Your Eyes closed, Herbert was putting words in her mouth—he wrote the libretto for Merman’s next show, Du Barry Was a Lady, which opened in New York on December 6, 1939. In the next few years, the family would undergo changes more profound than geographic separation; these changes would involve death and births.

Notes:

(1.) (p.264) Gene Brown, Show Time [New York: Macmillan, 1997]).

(2.) Musical Stages, p. 148.

(3.) Ibid., p. 169.

(4.) Benny Green, Let’s Face the Music (London: Pavilion Books, 1989), p. 111.

(5.) Ibid., p. 95.

(6.) Stanley Green, Broadway Musicals Show by Show, 4th ed. (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1994), p. 74.

(7.) Musical Stages, p. 174.

(8.) Joshua Logan, Josh: My Up-and-Down In-and-Out Life (New York: Delacorte Press, 1976), p. 141.

(9.) Ethan Mordden, Better Foot Forward: The History of American Musical Theatre (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976), p. 195.

(10.) James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, Hollywood Songsters (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 470.

(11.) Musical Stages, p. 175.

(12.) All of the following critical comments are taken from clippings in the Stars in Your Eyes file, New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theatre Collection.

(13.) “Eadie Was a Lady,” by DeSylva, Brown, and Whiting, was sung by Merman in Take a Chance (1932); “Sam and Delilah,” by George and Ira Gershwin, was sung by Merman in Girl Crazy (1930); “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick out of You,” by Cole Porter, were sung by Merman in Anything Goes (1934).

(14.) As quoted in Parish and Pitts, Songsters, p. 470.

(15.) Robert Kimball, ed., The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 207.

(16.) The lyric is reprinted in Engel, p. 83, and Winer, p. 123.

(17.) The lyric can be heard on the CD Ethel Merman: Red, Hot, and Blue, and Stars in Your Eyes, AEI CD 001.