The Songs of Hollywood

Theater lovers with well stocked shelves should have a side-shelf for volumes about movies. After all, they are a form of performance art akin to theater. Those interested in musical theater might want at least one book on musical movies. Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson have produced a remarkably well constructed, comprehensive overview of the songs of Hollywood that they call, naturally enough, The Songs of Hollywood.

Much more than simply a chronology of notable songs from important movies, the book is a cogent analysis of the evolution of the genre of musical cinema and its elements from the scripts to the directorial styles and performance techniques. If that sounds a bit dry and academic, you don’t know Furia, the author of interesting biographies of the likes of Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer. He seems to have found a compatible colleague in Patterson, who, like Furia, is on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

As could be expected of Furia, the book is peppered with interesting, if a bit too brief, biographical sketches of the major creators of the genre from Al Jolson through the Sherman brothers, who wrote the score for Mary Poppins. On that movie, Furia and Patterson quote reviewers with such praise as “cinematic excitement” and “probably the best, most inventive, original screen musical of the decade.”

The authors don’t pull their punches when they disapprove of a movie’s stylistic choices even when films are successful. Of West Side Story they ask “what could be more cinematically turgid … than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood singing ‘Tonight, Tonight’ … on a tenement fire escape with virtually no camera movement?”

The bug-a-boo of many authors of chronological surveys is keeping the dates clear without boring repetition. These authors manage to keep it all straight without frequently repeating the year by setting out an easily comprehended chronology starting with the advent of sound films. They don’t limit their discussion to just the legendary Al Jolson film, The Jazz Singer, which has become the common but overly simplistic answer to the question “What launched the phenomenon of the ‘talkies’?” They give nearly equal billing to the follow-up film from Warner Brothers, The Singing Fool, which exceeded even the success of that first feature, proving that it’s popularity wasn’t just a fluke and that sound was here to stay.

They give a cogent explanation for the habit of Hollywood studios of buying up the rights for a successful Broadway musical only to jettison most or all of its songs in favor of often inferior ones. Quoting Harry Warren, composer of 42nd Street and some 55 other musicals, they explain that the purchase of music publishing houses by the major studios resulted in a situation where “they wanted to collect royalties on new songs written for their films rather than pay for the right to use songs that had been written for the original Broadway musical.”

The book does bog down a bit when discussing the 1940s, but that may be a consequence of the lull in the evolution of the musical cinema between, say, 1939′s The Wizard of Oz (or at least 1945′s Meet Me in St. Louis) and 1952′s Singin’ in the Rain (or perhaps 1951′s An American in Paris).

It also tends to give Disney a bit of a short shrift because the thrust of the book is the evolution of the “Integral Song” as opposed to the “Performance Song.” They point out that, with the exception of Mary Poppins, Disney’s films tended to steer clear of obvious opportunities for integral songs where the characters sing what is on their mind or in their hearts in favor of songs where the characters know they are singing. The authors may overstate this a bit, but they do point out that neither Lady nor Tramp actually sing in The Lady and the Tramp and that Peter Pan, Dumbo and Bambi are all similarly songless.

The title of the book is The Songs of Hollywood not The Songs of Hollywood Musicals, so the authors include a very interesting discussion of songs in non-musical movies. They explain the rationale behind the advent of composers of background scores for movies also writing songs to be featured in the movie: A movie can make a song popular enough to produce hefty revenues from royalties that the background music rarely provide (unless the composer’s name happens to be Mancini).

The plan of the book includes the strategic placement of over 200 photos that match the adjacent text. It is a good plan, but it is defeated by the poor quality and small size of the blurry, greyscale pictures, some of which are only recognizable if you already know the scene in the movie from which they are taken.

You needn’t rely on the pictures in the book, however. The orderly presentation of the most important musicals in Hollywood’s history (up through 2010 – sorry Les Mis fans) gives you a guide from which you can purchase, check out or stream the top 20 for your personal examination. The majority of them are now available. In chronological order, they are:

1.  The Jazz Singer
2.  The Singing Fool
3.  Broadway Melody
4.  Sunny Side Up
5.  The Love Parade
6.  Love Me Tonight
7.  42nd Street
8.  Gold Diggers of 1933
9.  Top Hat
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
11. The Wizard of Oz
12. Meet Me In St. Louis
13. The Road to ____ (Fill in the blank, any one of the early ones will do.)
14. Holiday Inn
15. Singin’ In The Rain
16. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
17. High Society
18. Gigi
19. Hans Christian Andersen
20. Mary Poppins

Your favorite didn’t make the list? It may not be because it isn’t either important or good. It may just be that another film of the same type better illustrated the specific genre or stands out as the trend setter. Still, these 20 should make a tremendously entertaining adjunct to this tremendously informative book.

The Songs of Hollywood
Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson
Oxford University Press
270 pages including notes, references and an index
200+ small, fuzzy black and white illustrations
Hardback ISBN 978-0-19-533708-2
List price $35
Paperback ISBN 0199931755
List price $24.95 

January 29, 2013