Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on May 26, 1974 · Page 96
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 96

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 26, 1974
Page 96
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Lured to Hollywood for $1500 a week ·····II CONTINUED Broadway," "You'n Never Know," "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," and according to ASCAP--the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers--Harry Warren's songs have come to be regarded as popular classics along with Irving Berlin's, the late Jerome Kern's, and the late Cole Por^ tor's. He is one of the all-time greats, especially of Hollywood's Golden Age, for it was he who composed the tunes for so many of those early, lavish, unforgettable Hollywood musicals, Forty- Second Street, The Go/d Diggers of 1933, '35, and '37, Down Argentine .Way,Jhe Harvey Girls, and so many others which are now shown on TV. They all sang his songs . It is difficult to think of a major musical performer who at one time or another has not worked with Warren. There was Al Jolson who sang his tunes in Go Into Your Dance and Wonder Bar. There was Jimmy Cagney who sang "Shanghai Ltl." Dick Powell, Judy Garland, Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin--the history of musical Hollywood is the history of Harry Warren. And what is so poignantly sad is that the movie musical is at its nadir. A few weeks ago at his tastefully furnished Beverly Hills mansion, complete with swimming pool and tennis court, I asked the 5 foot 6,180-pound War' ren why the production of Hollywood musicals has diminished to zero. "A few years ago," he explained, "the studios made several musicals-Hello, Dolly!,, Finian's Rainbow, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. They cost a fortune, and they all bombed. I think the latest bomb was the musical version of lost Horizon. Now there's Mame with Lucille Ball. Changing times "My feeling is that there are only a, very few good tried-and-true songwriters like Dick Rodgers and Lerner and Loewe who are capable of putting together a top-grade musical show. And sometimes what goes on the Broadway stage just doesn't go for the rest of the United States and overseas. You've got a problem with a musical in the overseas market where at least half of Hollywood's money comes from. People in foreign lands often don't understand what the book is all about "Another thing," Warren continued, warming up to his favorite topic, "is- the trend to make songs socially significant, to abandon the old moon-in-" June tradition. Maybe I'm old-fash- - ioned, maybe I've lived too long, but Those were the days: From /eft, Lloyd Bacon, director of "Forty-Second Street"; Al Jolson, one of the big stars who sang Warren's tunes, and Warren himself. the kids today--they put a lot of words together, and most of the time they don't even rhyme, then they add some music And they call it a song. I don't know: For instance, a guy says, 'I woke up this morning, and I wasn't feeling good. I went into the kitchen and drank some orange juice.' What the hell kind of song is that?" Shortage of talent Warren believes, too, that there are virtually no men left in Hollywood who know how to produce a movie musical from scratch. "Arthur Freed," he says, "was one of the last Now there's almost no one, no one who knows how to judge the ingredients, no one of taste and experience. What they try to do is to take a Broadway hit and transplant it to the screen. That copycat formula just doesn't work anymore. In a way, one of the worst things that happened to this business was The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews. Hollywood took it from the Broadway stage, turned it into a movie and it made $100 million. Immediately everyone said lef s do the same thing. The trouble is there was only one team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Now that team is gone." Harry Warren hasn't written for the movies since the late 1960/s. "I guess," he says, "I priced myself out of the market. Besides," he. adds, "there hasn't been much of a market out here --except for movie theme or background songs. Television has changed the entire picture, and frankly, that TV screen is just too small for the kind of musicals Hollywood used to mount To tell you the truth, I'm glad I worked when I worked. .In retrospect it was a crazy, wonderful, glamorous era." Harry Warren was bom in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec 24,1893. The son of Anthony Guarana, an Italian immigrant factory worker,.whose name was later anglicized to Warren. Harry's older brother Charlie was a vaudevillian who inspired Harry to take piano and drum lessons although his father strongly urged him to become a shoemaker. At 16 young Warren dropped out of Commercial High School in Brooklyn, signed on as a drummer with Keene Shippey's Carnival, began to compose tunes in his spare time. When World ·War I came along he was assigned to the naval air station at Montauk Point, Long Island. There he had nothing but spare time and spent it composing. He also courted a girl named Josephine Wensler whom he married. "When she became pregnant," he recalls, "I was forced to make a living so I got a job as a rehearsal pianist and song-plugger. Anything was better than living with my mother-in-law." After five years of song-plugging, Warren collaborated with an aggressive little Manhattan dynamo named Billy Rose "whom I had met in a poolroom- I wrote the music and he wrote t h e lyrics." ' . . " . In 1932, after composing the scores for three hit Broadway musicals, Warren was lured to Warner Brothers in Hollywood at a salary of $1500 a week. "You wouldn't believe it," he recalls. "Hollywood in those days was" like some small town in North Dakota. There weren't any good restaurants. There was just the Brown Derby. That was about the only place in town where a meal wouldn't poison you. And a guy like Jack Warner who ran the studio. He was a tyrant If you had a hit picture, he'd congratulate you and then try to cut your salary. Recalls Ginger Rogers "I remember I did a picture in 1935 with Ginger Rogers, Twenty Million Sweethearts. Ginger'was so good Warner offered to sign her for $250 a week. . She wouldn't take it Turning him down was the best thing she ever did." At Warner's, Warren wrote most of the hit musicals of the '30's and '40% was. soon in demand by the other studios where he collaborated with Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Al Dubin, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Reids, Mack Gordon, in fact,all the leading lyricists with the exception of the late Oscar Hammerstein who teamed only with Richard Rodgers. Over the years he got to know anyone who was someone in the movie colony. As a result film historians today beat a steady path to his door, asking questions and tape-recording his memories. He knows pretty much all there is to know about Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, John Barrymore, the stars of the '30's, '40% '50/s and '60V He saw Hollywood grow and peter out A new breed Of the youngsters who currently write songs, he says, "most of them have good heads on their shoulders. They do their own recording, their own publishing. No publisher steals from them the way they stole from us old- timers. The kids get a good count. In the old days if 1 had a' song that was a big hit in, say, Australia, I'd never hear about it. I'd probably never get a nickel. "I'm glad it's all behind me," he goes on. "I wouldn't want to be starting out in the music business today. I was able to make a good living here in Hollywood. Now I'm resting on my laurels and my ASCAP royalties (about $100,000 per year). I'm earning money from what I did for myself, not from what anybody did for me. "As a matter of fact, I've been here in Hollywood for more than 40 years, but I lack charisma. To tell you the .truth, not even my best friends have heard of me."

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