Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Baby! Irving Berlin (b. May 11, 1888) on Film

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, and director Henry King during the filming of Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)

This article first appeared in Bright Lights in October 2000. We reprint it as a tribute to the seminal composer on what would have been his 130th birthday. (And frankly, we’re surprised he didn’t make it to 130.)

* * *

Forget Barry Manilow — this is the guy who really wrote the songs.

In the good old days, before the sixties rewrote the standards of popular culture, Irving Berlin was an American institution almost without equal. Born in Mogilyov, Russia, in 1888, he was one of the very few men in show business with the clout to get his name not just above the title but in it. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, audiences flocked to see Irving Berlin’s On the Avenue, Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Irving Berlin was a songwriter for more than 50 years and wrote over 1,500 songs.1 He had his first big hit in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and was still going strong in 1954, with the mawkish “Counting Your Blessings.”2 It’s hard to imagine such an achievement today, given the constant flux in musical tastes, audiences, and technologies.

The very first song ever sung in a motion picture, “Blue Skies,” was a Berlin ballad. 3

In his lifetime, Berlin supplied the score for 19 films, six of them starring Fred Astaire.4 Astaire got Berlin’s very best scores,5 but Berlin’s other films, starting with The Cocoanuts in 1929 and running through There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1955, give a fascinating picture of that frequently horrifying but always intriguing beast, the American Mind.

Irving Berlin was a one-of-a-kind genius. He spoke no English until the age of 12 and received only a rudimentary education. He started out in “show business” as a singing waiter, deciding to write lyrics because lyricists got paid more than singers. He began composing as well because composers got paid more than lyricists.6 He founded a music publishing company so that he wouldn’t have to share his profits with publishers. He built a theater, the Music Box, that is still in business at 239 W. 45th St., so that he wouldn’t have to listen to theater owners. During the twenties, Berlin’s “Music Box Revues” became the most fashionable shows on Broadway.

Berlin was suspicious of technological innovations like records and radio, which he felt wore out songs too quickly. Talking pictures were a particular menace. They were made in faraway Hollywood, not New York, and they were hugely expensive. Berlin couldn’t exercise the sort of control that he enjoyed in the elegant confines of the Music Box. Like the rest of the great Broadway composers of the era, Berlin wrote for Hollywood — the money was too good not to — but always kept his heart in Manhattan. Broadway style — at once informal and polished, democratic and elitist — defined show business for Berlin. Hollywood was just an outlet.

The Cocoanuts, of course, was the Marx Brothers’ first film, shot on Long Island rather than Hollywood. Few people know that Berlin wrote the score for this property, which began life as a Broadway play.Berlin gets a story credit as well, but he couldn’t have worked very hard, because the plot, involving a pair of international jewel thieves who steal a pearl necklace and hide it in a hollow tree,7 must have been used a dozen times a season on Broadway. The four songs he contributed are hardly distinctive, and the real musical highlight is the “I Lost My Shirt/I Found My Shirt” sequence that relies on two famous arias from Carmen, “La Habanera” and “Toreadora.” It’s the Marx Brothers, not Irving, who make The Cocoanuts go, but it definitely is a musical, and it’s definitely worth seeing as a musical, a sample of the stylish, irreverent fun that thrived on Broadway during the twenties.

Berlin’s next picture was Mammy (yes, Mammy), written for Al Jolson in 1930, for which Berlin also got story credit. Jolson’s first few musicals were enormous hits, to the extent that he was demanding, and getting, half a million dollars per picture.8 Only antiquarians with very strong stomachs will want to view Mammy. There’s enough in-your-face blackface to sink a battleship, but Jolson, belting out old-fashioned showstoppers like “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” definitely makes an impression.9

Berlin was severely burned in his next film effort. He came up with the story and wrote five songs for what was shaping up as a major, major motion picture. Reaching for the Moon starred none other than Mr. Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks, in his second talking picture, and co-starred Bebe Daniels, with Bing Crosby along to do the singing. Berlin’s story was typical twenties fluff about a dashing Wall Street financier and a madcap aviatrix aboard a luxury liner, made topical by a plot twist involving the 1929 crash.10 But by the time the picture was finished, in late 1930, studio geniuses decided that “musicals were dead” and cut four of the five songs. The only one to survive was “When the Folks High-Up Do the Mean Low-Down.” No doubt the suits were stunned when the mutilated film proved DOA at the box office.

After that debacle, Berlin contributed occasional songs to films but did not write another score until Top Hat (1935), which of course proved to be an enormous triumph, as did the next Fred/Ginger/Irving combo, Follow the Fleet (1936). The platinum-on-platinum look, and success, of these films must have been balm to Berlin’s heart.11

Berlin next tried his hand at a non-Astaire/Rogers musical, On the Avenue (1937). Although it lacked Fred and Ginger, On the Avenue had almost everything else — great tunes like “Let’s Go Slumming” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” lavish production numbers, and good performances by Dick Powell,12 Alice Faye,13 and the Ritz Brothers. As comedians, the Ritz Brothers fell midway between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.14 On the one hand, they weren’t funny; on the other hand, they didn’t poke each other in the eye. But they were excellent comic singers/dancers,15 and they’re featured in the opening number of On the Avenue, “He Ain’t Got Rhythm.”

“He Ain’t Got Rhythm” (“So no one’s with him, he’s the loneliest man in town”) is a good old-fashioned blast of American anti-intellectualism. The number opens in a girl’s dorm,16 with Alice Faye explaining to the gals that book-learning is just a waste of time. We cut to an observatory, where astronomer Harry Ritz is getting the same lesson.

HARRY RITZ: “I’m a scientist, to my finger tips!”

CHORUS: “But ya can’t do nothin’ with your hips!”

The plot of On the Avenue is standard, second-rate screwball comedy (so I’m going to skip it entirely), but the production numbers aren’t bad. In addition to “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” there’s “Let’s Go Slumming,” which humorously urges the masses to condescend to their betters (“let’s go slumming, nose-thumbing, on Park Avenue”), a theme that is of course tailor-made for the Ritz Brothers.17 “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” features a clever bit with a white-gloved Powell silhouetted against an all-black curtain (clever, but it doesn’t have much to do with winter). The fact that neither Powell nor Faye could dance helps keep On the Avenue from being a great musical.18

Nothing gets Hollywood’s attention like millions in profits. In 1938, Twentieth-Century Fox got the idea for a film, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which would in effect be a Berlin retrospective. They asked Berlin to come up with a story that would cover 25 years, from his first success in 1911 to the present. Berlin’s life actually contained enough triumph and tragedy for two films. He rose from extreme poverty to extreme wealth and fame. His first wife, Dorothy Goetz, died of typhoid fever on their honeymoon. His second wife, Ellin Mackay, was so wealthy that her childhood home, Harbor Hill, required 134 servants to make its 50 rooms habitable.19

Berlin, however, had no interest in sharing his private life with America. The story he gave Fox involved the fictitious adventures of “Alexander,” a New Orleans bandleader who rises to fame playing Berlin’s music. Hollywood producers changed the locale from New Orleans to San Francisco (that’s why they get paid the big bucks) but kept most of the rest of Berlin’s story, casting wasp-waisted pretty-boy Tyrone Power as Alexander.20 For some reason, Berlin drops out of the story entirely. We see his name on the sheet music to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” but the rest of Berlin’s compositions are assigned, explicitly or implicitly, to members of the band.

The Berlin family

The completed film,which features 22 of Berlin’s songs and Alice Faye, Don Ameche,21 Jack Haley,22 and Ethel Merman to sing them, is largely a disappointment. The songs are thrown at us so quickly we hardly get to enjoy them. However, there are some wonderful, frustratingly brief bits at the beginning, including a marvelously eccentric trio (Jane Jones, Otto Fries, and Mel Kalish) doing “That Ragtime Violin” and terrific comic singing and dancing from Wally Vernon (solo on “This Is the Life” and partnered by Dixie Dunbar for “Everybody’s Doing It”). Another trio, made up of Faye, Haley, and Chick Chandler, gives a nice performance of “The International Rag”.23) Once these early numbers are done, the film makes little effort to present Berlin’s music either energetically or authentically. What we get is a lot of mild-mannered mid-thirties pop.

Ethel Merman does add some heat to the second half of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, when she pounds out three up-tempo swingers in a row, separated by Faye doing two “down” numbers (“You Forgot to Remember” and “All Alone”), but the production numbers never quite get from “good” to “great.” The first of the three is “Pack Up Your Sins (and Go to the Devil in Hades),” one of Berlin’s cleverest numbers but with half the excitement left out. Berlin had a remarkable knack for writing “counterpoint melodies” — twin songs that could stand on their own but could also be sung simultaneously. The lyrics for the countermelody for “Pack Up Your Sins” are terrific (“If you’re tired and all out of sorts, Hell is the best of the winter resorts”), but we never get to hear them.24)

Merman does a better job with “My Walking Stick,” a salute to Fred Astaire that Berlin wrote specifically for Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The accompanying production number, right out of “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails,” isn’t bad either. Merman’s also in good form for the third number, “Everybody Step.” As she sings, the chorus boys put their top hats down in a line for her to walk on. (The hats are, obviously, reinforced so they don’t collapse when Merman steps on them. The bit would have worked better if Merman had had the nerve to walk on the hats without looking down.)

The finale has Alexander giving a concert at Carnegie Hall, which Berlin did not do, unlike his rivals Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin. Merman’s featured in an elaborate choral version of “Heat Wave,” the first of three film versions of this song.25 “Easter Parade” gets its first film airing by a dreadfully smirking Don Ameche,26 followed by Faye doing a reprise of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

The Louisiana Purchase (1941) is one of three Berlin musicals available on video that began life on Broadway. The film is something of a curiosity, although its charms are distinctly limited. It’s the only film of this era I’ve ever seen that contains a lot of topical political humor. But whether you get the allusions or not, most of the jokes are pretty lame. The stars are a young Bob Hope (that’s how old the picture is), actress/ballerina Vera Zorina, Victor Moore, and Irene Bordoni.27

The picture begins with an unusual gag: We see a bigshot in his office reading the script of The Louisiana Purchase. He calls in his secretary and starts singing “Take a Letter to Paramount,” explaining that the script is a libel on the State of Louisiana.28 To protect itself, the studio must claim that the story is completely fictional. We cut to a chorus of pseudo-Southern babes (the “Louisiana Belles”), who assure us in song that the story we’re about to see is not based on any real persons, living or dead.

Once we get the plot, we discover that the Louisiana Purchasing Company, headed by state representative Bob Hope, is being investigated for illegal business dealings with the federal government by an incorruptible New England senator, played by Moore. Zorina is a poor girl from Austria fleeing the Nazis, hoping to become a citizen.29 “Once I get my papers, I go on relief. Heil Roosevelt!”30 In exchange for assistance in getting her mother out of Austria, Hope persuades Zorina to inveigle Moore into a compromising position, so that he can be blackmailed into abandoning the investigation.

The plot’s quite a serviceable one for a musical comedy, but the film doesn’t do much to bring it off. Moore, best known as Fred Astaire’s sidekick in Swing Time, had a scratchy, croaking voice, which apparently got laughs back in the thirties but which I find ineffably tiresome. He does nothing to convince us that he actually is from New England, the one thing that might have given his character some believability. (As an old-time character actor, it was his job, after all, to play exactly the same character over and over again.)

As a young man, Bob Hope wasn’t much funnier than he was as an old man. Hope was more than competent as a song-and-dance man, but for some reason the film doesn’t ask him to do either. Zorina does quite a bit of ballet,31 which is pleasant enough, but the only real musical energy in the film is provided by shimmying cutie Dona Drake,32 who gives us a swinging version of “The Louisiana Purchase,” and an unidentified black chorus, who sing the best song in the picture, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.” Half of Berlin’s Broadway score, including the snappy “Sex Marches On,” is left unsung.

The Louisiana Purchase really functions more as spectacle than as either a musical or a comedy. The color is extremely good for such an early film, and we are treated to both a fashion show and the Mardi Gras (shown as an all-white affair), both predictably ridiculous.33 The picture does have a few funny lines. When Hope finds out that Moore is still dreaming of a shot at the presidency, he warns him, “If you continue this investigation, you’ll see less of the inside of the White House than Eleanor.”34

Berlin’s most remarkable film has to be This Is the Army (1943). In the stage version,35 Berlin did what he had previously done in World War I, create an all-soldier show that would raise money for war-related charities. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, in part through the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw the show three times while it played in New York and encouraged Berlin and the Army to bring it to Washington so that FDR could see it. After its success in Washington, This is the Army went on a national tour and then an international one, visiting both the European and Pacific theaters. From 1942 through 1945, Berlin and his troupe gave hundreds of performances and traveled tens of thousands of miles.

They also made a film, with the help of ringers George Murphy and Ronald Reagan. The film puts a frame around This Is the Army, loosely derived from Berlin’s own life. In This Is the Army, we see Murphy/Berlin putting on his WWI all-soldier revue, Yip! Yip! Yaphank.36 Berlin himself appears to sing the show’s most famous song, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

In the film, Murphy goes overseas and is wounded (which did not happen to Berlin). The years pass. Murphy’s son grows up to be Ronald Reagan, and war clouds loom in Europe. (The two presumably are unrelated.) Murphy/Berlin dusts off an old song he wrote for Yip! Yip! Yaphank but never used, “God Bless America,” and gives it to Kate Smith.

Kate Smith, “America’s Songbird,” was one of the fattest and most popular singers in the country. (The radio era was the heyday of the fat girl singer.) Smith sang “God Bless America” in a bombastic, “symphonic” arrangement, complete with orchestra, chorus, and crashing cymbals, almost every week on her radio program during the early years of World War II, prior to America’s entrance.37 She sang it because people wanted her to. Americans desperately wanted to avoid both the scourge of fascism and the scourge of war, a form of semi-paralysis that gripped the country until Pearl Harbor.38 “God Bless America,” which Smith sings in This Is the Army, expresses the feverish, confused patriotism of that time, the longing to do something, provided that it would not actually result in war.

Once the war does come, of course, we are given an actual presentation of This Is the Army, which is in fact an all-soldier show. Murphy and Reagan remain on the wings. Berlin’s hit song for the show was “This Is the Army,” which struck a note of egalitarian austerity:

“This is the Army, Mr. Jones.

We have no private rooms or telephones.

You had your breakfast in bed before,

But you won’t have it there any more.”39

Berlin insisted that the cast of This Is the Army be integrated (it was the only integrated unit in the Army) and he wrote a fairly hip song for the black GIs to sing, “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Is Wearing.” At the same time, he also insisted on a minstrel sketch. (For Berlin, minstrels were show business. He couldn’t imagine a show without them.)

One would think that with “God Bless America” and the stage and film versions of This Is the Army, Berlin had made a sufficient contribution to the war effort. However, his greatest contribution of all was “White Christmas,” written for the Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn.40 When World War II was over, Irving Berlin was a bigger name than ever.

American popular culture changed dramatically during World War II. It became much more democratic, middle-class, and sentimental. The great symbol of this change, of course, was Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, which hit Broadway in 1943. Instead of endless drawing-room comedies about the idle rich, Broadway audiences were now entertained by the trials and tribulations of ordinary gals and fellas.

But Broadway was still the source of popular culture. Like his competitors, Berlin was able to adapt to the change. He had his greatest Broadway show ever in 1946, Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, which was made into a hit movie in 1950 with Betty Hutton in the lead. He had another hit show in 1950 on Broadway, Call Me Madam, again with Ethel Mermen, made into a successful film in 1953, with Merman as the star.41 Back in the forties, Fred Astaire had starred in two Irving Berlin compendium films, Blue Skies (1946) and Easter Parade (1948), which both made piles of money. The success of all these films set the stage for another Berlin compendium, White Christmas, in 1954.

White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, dancer Vera-Ellen, and pop singer Rosemary Clooney, is a good, old-fashioned slice of wholesome fifties family entertainment.42 Despite that fact, it’s surprisingly watchable, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Vera-Ellen, who shines in four dance segments.43 Danny Kaye, a hoofer rather than a dancer, partners her nicely in “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.” Kaye also takes some nice flying spins around a pole in the number, showing some impressive athleticism for a man in his thirties. In more demanding numbers, including “Mandy” and “Abraham,” Vera-Ellen appears with dancer John Brascia. In the less-than-witty “Choreography,” an attack on Martha Graham-style seriousness, Vera-Ellen and Brascia represent good old-fashioned hoofing (and dance nicely) while Kaye goes through some clumsy contortions to parody the “bad” new styles of dance.

The one vocal highlight of the film is provided by Rosemary Clooney, who does a very nice job with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” a song Berlin wrote especially for the film. Clooney’s performance has a definite “progressive”44 flavor to it, a dissonance that suits the song’s mood. She’s accompanied by a quartet of overly intense young men in black tights and turtlenecks (including a youthful and aggressively coiffed George Chakiris) who look like they’ve stepped right out of “Choreography.” They’re funny, but they detract a little from Clooney’s efforts.

The plot of White Christmas is a shameless rip-off of Holiday Inn (1942). Crosby and Kaye play two ex-GIs who put on a show to save a ski resort opened by their beloved general. The tone of the film is quite respectful and solemn. During World War II, Berlin seems to have developed an almost worshipful attitude toward General Eisenhower, and this almost certainly influenced the film.45 White Christmas glosses right over the atomic bomb, McCarthyism, and the Korean War, among other things, and is really a salute to the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower years.46 But after all that Irving Berlin and America had been through, they deserved a little peace and prosperity.

Hollywood, of course, makes movies on the basis of profitability, not aesthetic completeness. White Christmas proved to be perhaps the biggest Irving Berlin money maker of them all, so MGM decided to go to the well one more time with another compendium film. There’s No Business Like Show Business is a sometimes awful, sometimes delightful Cinemascope extravaganza starring Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey47 as the leads, with Donald O’Connor,48 Johnnie Ray,49 and Mitzi Gaynor50 as their children, and Marilyn Monroe more than along for the ride as a (guess what?) blonde bombshell.

Like White Christmas, There’s No Business Like Show Business is a classic “anti-TV” picture, the sort of film that flourished from about 1950 to 1957, when it became clear that the goddamn tube was not going to go away. The purpose of these films was to give audiences everything they couldn’t get at home — Big stars! Big screens! Full color! Huge production numbers! Ultimately, such pictures collapsed of their own weight, and, without the modern miracle of fast forward, watching There’s No Business Like Show Business would be something of a chore. With it, however, we can weed out the seriously lame plot and revel in the numerous production numbers.51

The best thing about There’s No Business Like Show Business is its consistently raucous tone, a welcome relief from all the good taste of White Christmas. Both Merman and Dailey were loud, brassy “There’s no business like show business” performers, while Marilyn holds back very little indeed.52

We start off with an agreeably unsubtle rendition of the agreeably unsubtle “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam” by “The Two Donahues” (Dailey and Merman). The number concludes with Dailey costumed as a steam engine and Merman as the caboose, with the back door open so we can see her wiggling hercaboose.53 Next up is “Play a Simple Melody,” one of the two Berlin two-parters on film.54 The lyrics of the two melodies illustrate how the melodies fit together. Merman, who handles the flowing “legato,” asks for a “simple melody, one my mother used to know,” while Dailey says “if you can copy a tune that is choppy, you’ll get all my applause.”

When the three kids are grown up (this takes a while), we get “The Five Donahues” and a massive production number based on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” an exercise in aimless excess. Merman and Dailey are first up, with a Swiss version. (God knows why; there was a special maybe on liederhosen?) O’Connor follows in a Scottish twist, dancing bravely in a kilt, followed by Mitzi, providing a little ooh-la-la from gay Paree.55 The film saves the worst for last, a grossly grinning Johnny Ray, pounding away on a Steinway in white tie and tails.56

We get a needed break from the Donahues with a heavy dose of Marilyn, a walkin’, talkin’ oxymoron in “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It.”57 The girl’s clearly in a teasin’ if not pleasin’ mood, dressed for success in a pre-Bob Mackie Bob Mackie, with a swirling lace flower over each breast, just in case you weren’t paying attention. She follows that with her big production number, “Heat Wave,” entering in a burlesque queen outfit and riding on a litter borne by her “boys,” as she calls them.58 She sings the song in the first person (“I started a heat wave, a tropical heat wave”) but instead of singing “I started a heat wave by letting my seat wave” she actually waves her seat, in an exaggerated dip and sway — not exactly a bump and grind, but not bad, either.

O’Connor falls in love with Marilyn (why not?), and a date with her sends him into his big solo, “A Man Chases a Girl.” O’Connor, too short to play a leading man, was an astonishingly light-footed dancer, and his superb abilities are on full display here. The production gets a little elaborate at the end, with statues coming to life and fountains squirting water, but O’Connor triumphs over all the artifice.

O’Connor, Gaynor, and Monroe all combine for another first-rate number, “Lazy.” Marilyn, irresistible and unapproachable in basic black, lolls on a couch in her penthouse, fending off endless phone solicitations from suitors, while O’Connor and Gaynor offer sardonic, rat-a-tat-tat counterpoint. (Mitzi, in skin-tight slacks and a midriff-baring sweater, looks pretty damn irresistible herself.)

This is followed by the strange “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor Until He’s Been Tattooed,” which Berlin wrote especially for the film, with Mitzi and Ethel in drag. Neither the song nor the production number have much to offer, unless you’re dying to see Mitzi Gaynor get tattooed.

There’s No Business Like Show Business concludes, appropriately, with Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (The ponderous production number that follows is much more predictable than appropriate.) Irving and Ethel were two of a kind, indefatigable troupers who simply never wanted to get off stage. Berlin’s last blaze of glory came in 1966, when Merman appeared on Broadway in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun, 20 years after the premiere. In 1955, neither of them could have guessed that the Broadway-centered world that had defined show business for both of them was on the verge of collapse.

The agent of this destruction was already at work. Down in Memphis, Tennessee, the first recordings of an unknown singer named Elvis Presley had just gone on sale. In 1956, Presley would be the hottest act in show business. In 1957, Hollywood would release the last of the great “Broadway” musicals, Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Les Girls with Gene Kelly.59 While Astaire was ready for retirement, Kelly must have expected to be working for another decade or more. But America no longer cared for Broadway elegance. Instead of watching the folks high up do the mean low down, she wanted to see the folks low down do the mean low down. Broadway’s, and Berlin’s, day was over. But it had been a great run.


There are at least 34 CD collections devoted to Irving Berlin’s work listed on the Internet, and I haven’t heard them all. As always, Ella Fitzgerald is a safe place to start. A recent CD, “Irving Berlin in Hollywood,” includes songs from many of the films described here, as well as a few outtakes.60

There are at least five “original cast” CDs for Annie Get Your Gun, including the original 1946 version with Ethel Merman (available in both budget and deluxe versions); the 1957 television version starring Mary Martin and John Raitt; the 1966 revival, which also starred Ethel Merman and which included Irving Berlin’s last song, “An Old-Fashioned Wedding”61 (written for the revival); a 1995 “Lincoln Center” operatic version (on two CDs) starring Judy Kaye and Barry Bostwick; and the 1999 revival starring Bernadette Peters. There are two recent “original cast” CDs for revivals of other Berlin shows, As Thousands Cheer (1933) and Call Me Madam (1950).

There is plenty of information about Berlin on the web, but I haven’t been able to find a site that pulls it all together, so you’ll have to do your own research. There are also numerous books about Berlin. As Thousands Cheer, by Laurence Bergreen, gives more detail than most readers will want. Irving Berlin, A Life in Song, by Philip Furia, is more manageable, although Furia never convinces me that he knows quite as much about popular songs as he thinks he does. If you want to play Irving Berlin, there is collected sheet music for his songs arranged for just about every instrument imaginable.

  1. Berlin was unusual in that he wrote both music and lyrics (his only competitor was Cole Porter) and unique in that he couldn’t actually write musical notation. He would sing or play his compositions for a transcriber to take down. []
  2. Berlin’s last Broadway show, Mr. President (1962), written when he was 74, was a painful flop. As the sixties wore on, Berlin grew hopelessly out of date and became increasingly bitter and withdrawn. Sadly, he lived to be 101. []
  3. The film, of course, was The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. “Blue Skies” was already a legendary standard. When it premiered on Broadway in 1926, the first-night audience demanded 23 encores (Berlin, sitting in the front row, joined in the last when Belle Baker, the singer, suffered temporary brain lock and forgot the lyrics). []
  4. The six were Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Carefree, Holiday Inn, Blue Skies, and Easter Parade. Top Hat is discussed in this issue. Articles on the rest will appear in future issues, if the Internet lasts that long. I’m omitting discussion of Puttn’ on the Ritz (1931), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), and Call Me Madam (1953) because they’re not available on video, and Second Fiddle (1940) because it stars Sonja Henie (in addition, none of the songs are well known, and all of the critics have been unkind). []
  5. Berlin said publicly that Astaire was his preferred singer for introducing a song, “because his delivery and diction are so good that he can put over a song like nobody else.” []
  6. He never learned to read or write music, and could play in only one key, f-sharp major. He used a special piano (they were manufactured commercially) that allowed him to shift keys by adjusting a lever. []
  7. Well, what would you do with it? []
  8. The first actor to get a million-dollar paycheck was Sean Connery, who received a million in 1971 to resume the James Bond role in Diamonds Are Forever. []
  9. Jolson, an overwhelming “Mr. Show Business” type, had an ego massive even by Hollywood standards. According to George Burns, when Jolson was in vaudeville, he would turn the water faucets in his dressing room on full force, so he wouldn’t have to listen to the applause for the other acts. “It could be Henderson’s Elephants. He didn’t care.” []
  10. Don’t worry. Doug and Bebe get married anyway. []
  11. Berlin made over $300,000 on Top Hat alone (as did Astaire), a huge sum at the time. []
  12. Powell, a baby-faced smoothie who was a very big star in thirties musicals (he could sing and act, but couldn’t dance), reinvented himself for fifties TV as a gritty, grizzled gunslinger in Dick Powell’s Zane Gray Theater. []
  13. Faye was very popular in thirties musicals. Like Powell, she could sing and act but not dance. []
  14. The Ritz Brothers were Mel Brooks’s favorite comedians, particularly Harry Ritz, the leader of the three. Neither Mel nor the Ritz Brothers could resist beating a gag to death. Marty Feldman looks exactly like a Ritz Brother, which is undoubtedly why Brooks featured him so much. If there is a heaven, and if Mel Brooks gets there, he will spend eternity making an infinite number of films exactly like On the Avenue. []
  15. When they could resist beating a gag to death. []
  16. Thirties musicals often had numbers set in outrageously inauthentic girls’ dorms. This sort of voyeurism didn’t start with Animal House. []
  17. “Let’s Go Slumming” gets a double run-through, the first time with Alice Faye surprisingly explicit in the guise of a prostitute (she’s leaning against a lamppost with her skirt slit half way up her thigh), and the second with Harry Ritz in drag. []
  18. Unless you’re Mel Brooks. []
  19. Yes, that’s 134 servants, and, yeah, she was a shiksa. Harbor Hill, a Long Island estate designed at the turn of the 20th century by famed architect Stanford White, cost Mackay’s father $6 million, which was a lot of money for a house back then. []
  20. Since Power couldn’t sing or dance, he spends most of his time waving a two-foot baton, so you won’t forget about him. []
  21. Don Ameche was an affable, versatile actor who achieved an odd degree of fame by starring in the film The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), which led to a long-running gag about Don Ameche inventing the telephone. (Groucho used it in Go West, which is not-bad late Marx Brothers.) For a while, it was also considered funny to refer to the telephone itself as the “Don Ameche.” []
  22. Haley, of course, is best known as the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. []
  23. Ragtime was passé by the time Berlin started writing songs, but many of his early songs have a rhythmic, herky-jerky energy that in effect re-creates the excitement of rag. Authentic ragtime was repopularized in the current era by the Robert Redford/Paul Newman monster hit The Sting (1974), whose soundtrack featured Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” (However, The Sting confused a lot of people by using ragtime to back a film set in the twenties, at which time traditional rags were seriously “old-time” music. []
  24. They’re available on a discontinued Irving Berlin CD from the Smithsonian, in a fantastic double-track performance by Dorothy Loudon. If you’re a fan of counterpoint pop (there must be at least three of us out there), this CD is worth searching for. It also features a double-tracking Dinah Shore, doing a nice job with “Play a Simple Melody” and Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor giving “You’re Just in Love” a serious workout. (When Berlin first played the song for Merman, during rehearsals of the Broadway show Call Me Madam, Merman said, “We’ll never get offstage.” []
  25. Olga San Juan sang it in Blue Skies and then joined Fred Astaire in a “passionate” tropical dance. “Heat Wave” got its third go-round in 1955 courtesy of Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business. []
  26. Unsurprisingly, Ameche proves to be no Judy Garland. It’s not clear why he’s smirking. Presumably, he couldn’t help it. []
  27. Bordoni was a Broadway legend (“you’re the eyes of Irene Bordoni,” sang Cole Porter in “You’re the Top”), but born too late to play a leading lady in talking pictures. []
  28. Under Governor and then Senator Huey Long, Louisiana had garnered a well-earned reputation, not just for corruption but for tyranny as well. Long controlled every government job – federal, state, and local – in the state. “I buy and sell legislators like sacks of potatoes,” he bragged. Fortunately for the republic, he was assassinated in 1935. Huey Long’s Louisiana inspired a famous novel by Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men. The 1949 film version won three Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). Huey Long aside, making fun of the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, pro-Prohibition South was always a safe bet on Broadway. []
  29. In 1937, Austria united with Germany (the “Anschluss”), resulting, of course, in the nazification of Austria. Jews who did not get out in time were made subject to all of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish laws. This theme must have had great emotional resonance for Berlin and other Jews in New York and also Hollywood. However, to avoid arousing the anti-Semites, Zorina’s character is clearly intended to be non-Jewish. (Her mother, we’re told, is a countess.) In the 1960s, another, more successful musical also drew its plot from the Anschluss – The Sound of Music. []
  30. During the thirties, New Deal relief programs saved millions from despair, if not outright starvation, although by 1941 these programs were largely unnecessary thanks to the war-time boom. At one point, Ronald Reagan, his brother, and his father were all employed by a federal relief program. This is one of the first things Ronald Reagan ever forgot. []
  31. She is partnered by Charles Laskey, identified in the credits as “danceur.” Trés bon! []
  32. In a nifty twofer, Drake dubbed Zorina when she sang “I’m Lonely and You’re Lonely” earlier in the film. Drake, apparently a Hispanic, first worked under the name Rita Rio and appeared in a number of musicals in the thirties and forties. Still active in the fifties, she played “Joyce” in the “Dog Who Knew Superman” episode of the George Reeves “Superman” TV series. []
  33. Production and costume designer Raoul Pene Du Bois more than lives up to his name. []
  34. The Roosevelts’ marriage was even more dysfunctional than the Clintons’. Eleanor spent almost all of her time on the road, doing good works. []
  35. The National Archives has an excellent online article about This Is the Army here. []
  36. In 1917, apparently, that was funny. The title makes more sense if you know that Camp Upton, where Berlin did his training, was located near Yaphank, Long Island, about a hundred miles from the Big Apple. Long Island in 1917 was largely farmland except for the occasional 50-room bungalow. []
  37. Berlin donated all of the royalties for “God Bless America,” which were of course enormous, to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. []
  38. It took us almost as long to get into World War II as it took to get out of Vietnam. Americans wanted to win WWII without fighting it; they wanted to leave the Vietnam War without losing it. []
  39. When Berlin went to Camp Upton in 1917 as a draftee, he sought to bring his valet along to make his bed and shine his boots. His drill sergeant, evidently a bit of a primitive, vetoed the arrangement. []
  40. Crosby’s 1942 recording of it sold seven million copies, which is a lot. He sang it in three films –Holiday Inn, Blue Skies (1946, another Irving Berlin film, and also co-starring Fred Astaire), and White Christmas. []
  41. For some reason, neither of these films is available on video. []
  42. As is well known, it was the first film shot in Vista-Vision. []
  43. Robert Alton, who directed all the production numbers for White Christmas (as well as those for the last Irving Berlin film, There’s No Business Like Show Business), also directed my favorite “all star” musical, Words and Music. []
  44. “Progressive” jazz was more or less what happened when white jazz musicians played bebop. The Swing Era came to a screeching halt with the end of World War II, but for a few brief years progressive big bands like Woody Herman’s (the best) and Stan Kenton’s (the most pretentious) enjoyed a considerable success. Girl singers influenced by this music, like Peggy Lee, Chris Connors, Anita O’Day, June Christy (“The Misty Miss Christy”), Blossom Dearie, and Clooney herself, were favorites of urban sophisticates during the fifties (What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?). Sid Caesar’s “Progress Hornsby” character was a not-too-intelligent satire on the progressive jazz scene. []
  45. Eight years as president made Eisenhower a partisan political figure, but in the years immediately following WW II the simple Kansas farm boy who broke the Nazis’ pride was an unquestioned national hero. Berlin wrote a number of songs about generals during this period, and he also wrote “I Like Ike,” which was used as Eisenhower’s campaign song in 1952. []
  46. Trivia buffs may be interested to know that Barrie Chase is one of the dancers in White Christmas. She later enjoyed at least two hours of fame as Fred Astaire’s last partner in the two TV specials that Fred did in the late fifties as his farewell to dancing. Also appearing in a bit part (though not as a dancer) is Grady Sutton, one of W. C. Fields’s favorite sissies, and perhaps the most testosterone-challenged man in show business. Sutton had been in pictures for almost 30 years when he made White Christmas (he appeared in Harold Lloyd’s 1925 classic The Freshman) but had another 25 to go, calling it quits in 1979 with Rock and Roll High School. []
  47. Dailey was a hard-working song-and-dance man and actor who made it into big musicals just as the genre was falling apart. In 1970 he was still enough of a name to appear in a “Lucy” episode as “Himself.” []
  48. O’Connor was a terrific song-and-dance man, best known for his role in Singing in the Rain. O’Connor must have been a worrier. At the same time he was appearing in big-budget musicals, he was knocking out a series of low-budget, black-and-white comedies, playing the sidekick of “Francis the Talking Mule.” []
  49. Ray, an early fifties pop sensation, is often cited as a halfway point between Sinatra and Elvis. He had a huge hit with “Cry,” which consisted largely of him sobbing. Ray’s fans are apparently all dead, because I’ve never read anything kind about him. []
  50. Gaynor was an excellent dancer who starred in many fifties musicals. Catch her in particular in Les Girls (1957), really the last of the great Hollywood musicals. []
  51. Cinemascope was the most exaggerated of all the giant-screen processes devised by Hollywood to crush the tube. Unfortunately, TNBLSB is only available on video in a pan ‘n’ scan format, so that almost half the screen is missing. In another and better world, TNBLSB will be available on letterbox DVD and we will all have big-ass widescreen TVs, so we can watch this shaggy monster in all its untrammeled glory. []
  52. O’Connor and Gaynor, both trained dancers, were a little too sleek and restrained to be garish. Johnnie Ray, on the other hand, was in a class by himself. []
  53. Later in the film, O’Connor and Gaynor do a parody of this number. Mitzi puts a wire wastebasket on her tush, whose bottom (the wastebasket’s, not hers) bears the legend “That’s All, Brother.” []
  54. The other is the wonderful “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,” wonderfully sung by Bing Crosby and Olga San Juan in Blue Skies. []
  55. In the fifties, Paris was the capital of sex rather than attitude. []
  56. In an exceedingly welcome plot twist, Ray enters the priesthood shortly after this number, and sings only one more song, the dreadful “If You Believe.” Ray could not act at all, which is probably why his role in the film is so limited. []
  57. Marilyn, of course, was not a dancer, but in the early days of her career she was quite willing to work hard to look good, and she moves confidently here in all her numbers. []
  58. “I’m working with some boys,” she tells O’Connor. The boys are swarthy Caribbean types, but her comment doesn’t seem racist because she later kisses one of them on the mouth. []
  59. Of course, Hollywood has made films from dozens of Broadway shows since 1957. But they all lack the style and polish of Broadway’s great era. []
  60. For unrestrained Judy Garland fanatics, the CD has Judy singing “Anything You Can Do” with Howard Keel from Annie Get Your Gun. Garland, who was slated to star in the film version, recorded the entire soundtrack and then bailed. []
  61. Appropriately, “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” is a counterpoint song. In contrast to Berlin’s best two-parters, the two melodies are pretty bland when sung alone, but they fit together nicely. Not bad for a 78-year-old man! []