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When Hollywood Had A Song In Its Heart

Chances are the name Henry Warren isn't immediately recognizable. But Warren -- a songwriter who toiled in relative obscurity throughout his career -- wrote some of the most recognizable film lyrics of all time: "42nd Street," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "At Last" and "Lullaby of Broadway."

The reason Warren remains virtually unknown, explains author Philip Furia, is "because he wrote exclusively for Hollywood [instead of for Broadway]."

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Furia says, songwriters who wrote for Broadway were celebrated far more often than their contemporaries in the film industry. On Broadway, he says, the songwriters were "central to the production right from the beginning." Their names were featured prominently on the marquee -- think Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma or George and Ira Gershwin's Strike Up the Band.

More important: They were intimately involved with all stages of a production -- working with the director, producers and choreographers to translate their visions to the stage.

"But in Hollywood, songwriters were just part of the whole production machine," says Furia, the coauthor (with wife Laurie Patterson) of The Songs of Hollywood, an account of how music in films has changed over the past 80 years.

"They had very little say in how their songs were to be used," he says. "They were not brought in on conferences with the screenwriters, with the director, with the choreographer -- they were just put in little bungalows and told to write."

It Started With The Talkies

Long before songwriters were brought on set, the film industry debated what to do with sound.

"When it became possible to make sound movies, almost no studio wanted to do it," says Furia. "Even Warner Brothers, which made [the first talkie] The Jazz Singer -- Jack Warner thought nobody would pay money to hear actors talk."

In addition, sound was extremely expensive. Studios had to build sound stages, deal with noise on the set and figure out how to film outdoor scenes.

"People making a silent movie would make a lot of noise," says Furia. "They'd shout at each other. The director had to run around with a megaphone. There were all sorts of problems transferring [from silent movies] to sound."

Surprisingly, he says, The Jazz Singer wasn't even supposed to be a talkie.

"It was only after Al Jolson spontaneously began talking after he sang that audiences were electrified by hearing someone talk as well as sing," Furia says. "That was a big surprise. ... The sound [in movies] had come by almost by accident."

The Rise of the Musical

After the premiere of The Jazz Singer, studios realized just how lucrative sound could be -- but they also feared how audiences might react to song-and-dance numbers on the big screen.

"They were worried that if people burst into song and sang about how they felt, audiences would find it ludicrous," says Furia. "Remember, [movies] didn't have convention of applause after a song to ease the transition back to dialogue."

The solution, he says, was to present the songs in a movie as if they were a performance. So featured singers in movies played roles -- a Broadway singer or a night club ingenue -- where they would be likely to burst into song.

It was not until the 1930s, with the emergence of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that movie studios began to embrace the idea that film characters, like their stage counterpoints, could sing musical numbers in the middle of a scene.

"That established the principle that ordinary characters could break out in song, not as performance but as expression of what they were feeling," says Furia. "They could argue in song or romance each other in song and audiences began to accept that convention."

Songs were also worked into dramatic films -- particularly after studios realized how much money they could make from owning the original music rights. Furia points to "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca as a classic example.

"[Warner Bros.] thought they would sell some sheet music and some records and help popularize the movie," says Furia. "[But] nobody thought the song was very good. In fact, the guy who scored the movie thought it was terrible and said he could write a better one. He actually wrote one, and they were going to refilm the scene with Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson, who played the piano and sang it."

But Bergman had already cut her hair off to play Maria in For Whom the Bells Tolls.

"So the song was saved by a haircut," Furia says. "And it turned out to be enormously popular."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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