Sunday, May 13, 2007

From San Pedro to Fresno, No Maiden There Says No

The success of Oklahoma! was probably the biggest turning point in the history of musicals, not so much for the content as for the way it redefined the parameters of success. (Before Oklahoma!, almost no musical ran longer than 400-500 performances, and so musicals were planned, cast and written to last no more than a year or so. Oklahoma! proved that a musical could be as big and durable a hit as the biggest hit non-musicals, which meant that musicals had to be timeless instead of topical, star-proof instead of built around one particular star.) But the most immediate effect of its success was that there was a flood of imitators, both on Broadway and in Hollywood, that tried to copy Oklahoma!'s good-natured Americana.

One such imitation was Universal's musical Western Can't Help Singing, starring Deanna Durbin (and beautifully photographed in Technicolor by the great Elwood "Woody" Bredell, who shot many of Durbin's pictures and then moved to Warner Brothers to do similarly fine work on Doris Day's first movie), with a score by Jerome Kern. The big number, "Californi-ay," is an obvious attempt to do for California what Oklahoma! did for you-know-where. But Kern's waltz tune is typical of his late output: it's very pretty and has some ingenious touches (like his favorite trick of using a portion of the introductory verse in the main refrain), but it doesn't have a lot of energy. But the lyricist, Yip Harburg -- who'd already done one Oklahoma! imitation, Bloomer Girl -- has some fun with the song, writing what is clearly a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the Oklahoma!-style tribute to a region or state, full of silly rhymes that get increasingly sillier ("The hills have more splendor, the girls have more gender").

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw CAN'T HELP SINGING years ago and was impressed by the remarkable degree of historical accuracy they got into the costumes, wagon train, and trek west. It's a light piece of fluff (especially the very beginning and the big musical number at the end, none of which really match up to the trek west that occupies the middle 80% of the movie) but it's a dang well researched piece of fluff. This film and PAINT YOUR WAGON and McCABE AND MRS. MILLER are among the most visually accurate films on the old West ever made.