'S MARVELOUS-the Music Lives On

The UCLA Film Archive will be screening most of the movies containing songs written by George Gershwin and his brother, Ira, from Thursday to May 30. These include the 1945 biopic "Rhapsody in Blue"; the rare original version of "Girl Crazy" (1932); the spectacular revue "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938), during the making of which George Gershwin suddenly died, and the masterpiece "An American in Paris" (1951). The series, marking the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin's birth, is called "Strike Up The Band!"

Musicologist Ian Whitcomb tells the story of George Gershwin's experience in Hollywood.

By Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to

"When you hire me, you hire Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner!"proclaimed songwriter Fred Fisher to the movie mogul in 1930. Talkie tunes were all the rage and he was a veteran Tin Pan Alley man with such old hits as "Chicago" and "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" under his belt. The statement, fired in his trademark German accent, busted with braggadocio, but it was tempered with pleading: Please, please let me into your big party with the lovely presents! Like today, everybody wanted in on the fabulous movie kingdom. And the gatekeepers knew it and smiled.

Starting in the late 1920s, a gold rush of New York songwriters had descended on Hollywood to manufacture snappy songs for hungry studios. Pretty soon the one-shot Alley men were joined by their classier brethren from Broadway-the show-tune song jewelers with their French harmonies, rhyming dictionaries and New Yorker subscriptions. Men who wrote book musicals and strove to integrate song into story so that their work could be elevated into a seamless-even serious-work of art.

Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin-all were eventually to answer the challenge and the checkbook's call; all were to be shocked by the lack of respect: their precious songs scissored out, books defaced by studio hacks, sometimes only a musical's title remaining.

And what of the great kid genius George Gershwin? How would Broadway's brightest light fare in the glare of Hollywood's cruel Kliegs? Would Mr. Music, who had helped make "a lady out of jazz" by tickling blues from the gutter into the heady brew of a rhapsody, be vanquished by that West Coast gang of fairground barkers?

No fear. For all his concert hall sheen, George Gershwin harbored inside him a rough diamond tunesmith talent nurtured on the rock pile of Tin Pan Alley. In the late teen years, he'd served an important apprenticeship as a song plugger and demonstrator before striking gold in 1919 with "Swanee," a mammy number that Al Jolson pushed and shoved into becoming a multimillion-seller. In fact, it was to remain Gershwin's biggest hit, an alarmclock melody with striking shifts from major to minor in the verse-very Russian, said some; very Yiddish, said others-and which then bursts bright into a triumphant one-step at the chorus, marching onward to a never-never-land called Dixie.

During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, he'd gravitated to Broadway shows, first revues and then full-blown book musicals: "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" employed effective blue (or crushed) notes, a pop fashion of the time; "Fascinating Rhythm" showed that Gershwin was right up there with Irving Berlin as a fabricator of clever syncopation devices; "The Man I Love" proved he could write as good a torch song as any on the market-a constant blue note used for yearning sentiment while the harmony changed sinuously until you just had to reach for a hankie.

For several years he'd had his brother Ira, a Gilbert & Sullivan buff, writing the lyrics, instead of the rude Alley men of yore. Ira was a bookworm who ate dictionaries for breakfast, but he had his feet squarely on the sidewalk and was nifty with the wordplay: "'S Wonderful" is a swishing mouthfest, while "The Man I Love," describing a dream home from which you'd never roam, goes on to surprisingly ask, "Who would, would you?" like a mother tempting one with a pastry.

Of course, there was always the concertizing side of brother George, a restless soul who longed to be up in the pantheon with Beethoven and all of Fred Fisher's other alter egos. "I wonder if my music will be played a hundred years from now," asked George of a friend. "Yes-if you're around to play it," was the retort. In 1924, he'd been seriously reviewed by the quality press for his "Rhapsody in Blue." Was it a true marriage of art music to pop, of jazz to classical? Time would tell, but more immediately the music industry and the masses quickly recognized two terrific tunes when they heard them, and the flash piano filler in between was 'smarvelous.

Hollywood bought the rhapsody for a tidy sum, only to make a dog's dinner out of it in "King of Jazz," an early talkie from 1930 starring the kindly bandleader-publicist Paul Whiteman. It was not an auspicious start to the Gershwin movie relationship, what with a row of extras on a piano bench poking at a giant keyboard as the masterwork was performed, and this monstrosity followed by a cartoon in which portly Paul is pursued by natives through Africa.

Now what could be despoiled in 1932's "Girl Crazy," a comic western full of bad men, lovelies and a score ranging from the red-hot "I Got Rhythm" to the sure-fire couch ballad "Embraceable You"? Well, Radio Pictures threw out the stage cast, including Ethel Merman and her amazing high Cs in "Rhythm," as well as the delectable Ginger Rogers, and made the musical into a vehicle for the vaudeville team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Songs were cut and a novelty number ordered up for stars Eddie Quillan and Dorothy Lee; the Gershwins obliged by mailing "You've Got What It Takes." Actually, the picture is a decent slapstick effort studded with a few songs acting as welcome relief to the belly laughs.

Eventually the Gershwins were required in person. They arrived in Hollywood just as the movie-musical craze was in its dying days. Fox assigned them to supply songs for "Delicious," a 1931 vehicle for the popular team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

Neither of the stars could sing, but they looked awful cute when romancing on the screen. The brothers came up with a cleaver number in "Delishious," which was Ira's homage to his immigrant father-in-law's fractured English. The family was a trove of such misheard words: The Gershwin father spoke of "Fashion on the River" rather than "Fascinating Rhythm." Perhaps this made Ira aware of the fun that could be had by messing around with words for sound's sake.

The Fox songs took no time at all to complete. George was always quick at songwriting-doodling them up from piano improvisation or else, if in a deadline hurry, dashing in tuxedoed from a party to knock out a tune for the ever-ready homebody Ira. Thus there were plenty of days for George to play golf, work on his tan and sleep in Greta Garbo's old bed.

He couldn't resist, however, writing a serious program piece for "Delicious." Another rhapsody, this time evoking rivets being driven into Manhattan skyscrapers, the work is only heard briefly in the finished film. But he was allowed to return to New York with his Second Rhapsody under his arm, explaining that although he could turn out hits whenever so commanded: "The old artistic soul must be appeased every so often."

New York, as always, was a fine artistic breeding ground, and the next few years saw four new Gershwin shows-but only one hit ("Of Thee I Sing," which also won a Pulitzer Prize). "Porgy and Bess" was a box-office flop on Broadway, strange as it seems today. So George put out the word to Hollywood that they were available again. But having a reputation as a composer of tone poems, rhapsodies and a "folk" opera was no help in winning the hard hearts of Hollywood. Pulitzer Prizes made for even greater distance. The studio buzz was that George had gone high hat and long hair. Quickly he sent out a wire "RUMORS ABOUT HIGHBROW MUSIC RIDICULOUS STOP AM OUT TO WRITE HITS."

By 1937 there was lots of competition on the coast. Writers in residence like Harry Warren and Ralph Rainger could serve up exactly what was wanted: short, catchy choruses that could be dinned and dinned into audiences until they cried for piano copies and phonograph records. RKO Pictures (once called Radio) was proving to be a safe refuge for Broadway musical men. Their successful Astaire & Rogers pictures had provided work for Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.

RKO liked prestige Broadway names and the Gershwins had written for Fred Astaire in "Lady Be Good!" and "Funny Face." Astaire's insouciance and articulate crooning were perfect for the Gershwin brand of smart, shiny songmanship. RKO signed them, hoping they'd meet the market.

The brothers wrote scores for "Shall We Dance" and "A Damsel in Distress," while Sam Goldwyn wanted them for his spectacular revue "The Goldwyn Follies." This was an exciting time, filled with high promise. Holed up in comfy Beverly Hills digs (swimming pool, tennis court, etc.), they proceeded to create a collection of hit songs that soon became standards, lapidary anthems that seem now to have existed forever: "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "A Foggy Day." For the most part, their 1930's pop is less antsy, less chrome-and skyscraper than it was in the Roaring '20s. War clouds were looming over Europe, the Great Depression wouldn't go away; the lyrics turned inward and the melodies smoothed out (frequently along pentatonic lines--the black notes on the piano). For example, "A Foggy Day" is about a spiritual change made by a vision of loveliness; the chorus strikes a characteristic Gershwin blue note on "day," but it's supported by a nice chocolate chord and from then on the warmth of the thick ninth chord sees us safely home where the sun is shining through the fog. The only high-cultural reference is to the British Museum--and even that has "lost its charm."

Even so, Sam Goldwyn was worried. When George demonstrated his "Follies" songs to the great producer, he was told to try "writing hits like Irving Berlin, songs you can whistle." This only made Gershwin's headaches worse. Lately he'd been getting too many of them, skull-splitters that some times spoiled his piano playing: At an L.A. performance of his Concerto in F, he hit some clangers when his fingers stiffened. Afterward he said he'd smelled burnt rubber. In fact, his brain contained a tumor as big as a grapefruit, and on July 11, 1937, he died on the operating table. He was 38.

Composer Vernon Duke finished the rest of the required score, touching up some uncompleted verses. But what choruses! Two of the loveliest ballads--melodious and accessible--are in 1938's "The Goldwyn Follies": "Love Is Here to Stay" deals with the impermanence of the material world (mountains are only made of clay, horrid atmosphere of cash-cow requirements, beautifully illustrate not only the lost art of the movie musical but also of the well-made pop song, a gem of gentility, witty intelligence and the warmth of love. Rock, with its hobnail boots in the glorious mud of roots music, cleaved a great divide like a hardchewing frontiersman. Of course, rock was only doing its duty as a mirror of the manners of a changing society. Gone forever are the days when the masses looked to top hat and tails and the decorous gestures of a Fred Astaire as the model for modem living.

Finally what we're left with are the songs--imperishable so long as paper doesn't crumble. For you don't need product values--singers, orchestras--to enjoy these treasures. You don't need to use them as a trampoline for flights of hot jazzing. You don't even need electricity. You can sing them in the shower. But it's better to have a piano.

Because then, examined anew under the fingers, clouds of fresh pleasure appear as you pick out the culture is full of passing fancies) to a tune that falls on safe, homey notes (tonics and thirds), mattressed by those familiar ninth chords; "Love Walked In" is easy as pie, a straightforward sentiment with a melody as reassuring as a Brahms lullaby sung by a barbershop quartet. Both numbers were introduced in the movie by the cleanly boyish Kenny Baker, who sang them straight and with no embellishment. Both numbers became immediate hits. The Gershwins had proved they still could muster up the common touch.

George had never believed his pop songs would outlast their period. He was dead wrong. After his death and into the next decades, the Gershwin catalog grew greener as the world learned to appreciate the brothers' easy artfulness at moving around within the prison form of the pop song. Movies such as "Rhapsody in Blue," " An American in Paris" and "Funny Face," all loaded with Gershwin delicacies, took the feast global in the best tradition of exported American culture.

Seen today, these Hollywood concoctions, free now from the original melodies and perfect harmonies. It becomes clear as a liberty bell that the classic American pop song is this country's real contribution to world culture. And that the Gershwins stand foursquare in the center of the song smithy of the West, beating out a rhythm of the heart and head (with tasteful portions of gut), and providing a balm for all our wounds. Who could ask for anything more?

"Strike Up the Band!" tickets are available one hour before show time at the James Bridges Theater (the old Melnitz). The theater is at the northeast corner of the UCLA campus, near Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue. Admission is $6 general and $4 for students and seniors. Parking is available for $5 in Lot 3. Information: (310) 206-3456.

Ian Whitcomb is a songwriter, composer and entertainer. He is the author of "After the Ball--Pop Music From Rag to Rock" (Limelight) and producer of the Grammy-winning CD "Titanic--Music Heard on the Fateful Voyage" (Rhino).

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to