Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Irving Berlin, Genius and Mediocrity

It's not exactly a new statement, but every season reminds me that White Christmas is one of the weakest movies ever to gain the "Christmas Classic" label. It's the sort of movie that, simply based on the talent involved ought to be good, and of course there's a nostalgic haze around any old movie with well-known stars (that's why we use the term "classic" interchangeably with "old"). But every one of these great talents is below his or her best form, and in Danny Kaye's case, is overcompensating for the fact that the part is wrong for him. (Crosby was supposed to be partnered by a dancer, the way he was in the Astaire movies, and Donald O'Connor was supposed to play the part. Paramount was lucky to get their new hire, Kaye, to fill in for him when he pulled out, but this is not Kaye's kind of part and the dance-related songs are clearly meant for an Astaire or O'Connor.) Michael Curtiz once again demonstrates how flaccid his direction became after leaving Warners, and the songs, apart from the recycled title song, are really nothing special.

What always surprises me about Irving Berlin is how few great "unsung" songs he really wrote. Most songwriters of that generation who were on Berlin's level -- and there were very few who were -- turned out many songs that didn't become hits for one reason or another, but were every bit as good as their hits. You can go through the catalogue of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Kern (these are the four people or teams who, along with Berlin, made up the top tier of New York-based theatre songwriting in the '30s), and find lots of hidden gems. With Berlin, I don't think you can. Not that he never wrote a good song that didn't become a hit, but I've rarely been blown away by one of his unknown works, the way I'm frequently blown away by Rodgers and Hart rarities. I can name a few songs by Berlin that aren't famous but should be, like "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun." I can name dozens of great Rodgers and Hart or Kern songs that deserve to be famous.

Maybe this has something to do with Berlin's style of prizing simplicity above all: simple lyrical hooks, simple musical ideas. They weren't as simple as they sounded, of course, and he worked like crazy to make his songs seem simple (the point of a song like "White Christmas" is that it needs to sound like a thought you yourself might spontaneously express, and that's a tremendously difficult thing for a professional songwriter to accomplish).

But most of his songs, from the 1910s through the 1960s, have certain stock ideas and formulas built in. If the song is inspired, then it can turn those formulaic phrases into something that resembles folk art; it feels like this song has existed forever.

If the song is not inspired, then there's nothing left in it except the formulaic bits -- which is how you get a dismal song like "What Can You Do With a General." It's a completely generic melody married to a completely generic lyric, and there are a lot of songs like this in Berlin's catalogue, where you can almost sense what the next line or musical phrase is going to be.

Even Berlin's greatest score, Annie Get Your Gun, has a few bits like that, some lazy-sounding introductory verses and one song, "I'll Share It All With You" (which is usually cut) that doesn't seem to be about much of anything. Overall, though, it's obvious that with Annie Get Your Gun, challenged by the presence of Rodgers and Hammerstein as producers and by the fact that he was replacing Kern on the project, Berlin made an unusual effort on nearly every song. (Or maybe it was more that with Rodgers and Hammerstein, he couldn't get away with less than top-quality work; most producers who worked with Berlin were understandably deferential to him.) The result was a score where the majority of songs are hits, or at least popular with audiences. But most of his scores are a mix of inspired songs and rather mediocre ones; that's how "A Fella With an Umbrella" turns up in Easter Parade.

Because of the harmonic and structural surprises Rodgers, Gershwin, Kern and Porter liked to pull, they could astonish you even in songs that didn't have what it took to become hits. Berlin, I think, wasn't naturally surprising; he wanted songs to sound inevitable, not calculated. But, being a great craftsman, he could incorporate unusual or surprising elements into his work; he did it in "Annie Get Your Gun," and he did it in a song like "Cheek To Cheek," with its extra-long refrain.

And even a conventionally-structured Berlin hit like "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" is masterful; again, it never sounds cliche'd, it just sounds like we've been singing it all our lives. (And it can't be emphasized enough: good lyricists use concrete images over abstract ones wherever possible. This song is about a metaphor -- love does not, in fact, keep you warm -- but the lyric is mostly concrete: snow, wind, icicles, overcoats, gloves.)

So I don't want to make Berlin sound like some kind of naif or unsophisticated composer; it's easy to portray him that way because he couldn't read music (there were other songwriters who couldn't; I think he deliberately played it up because the image of the untutored child of nature was good for his brand name). He was brilliant at adapting his basic style and formulas to whatever type of rhythms and harmonies were popular at a particular time; from ragtime onward, his hit songs are timeless but have the sound of their era. The difference between a Berlin hit and a Berlin non-hit is that the hits have some kind of spark in them, something that keeps them from being just a collection of stock gestures. One of the things that often provided the spark was Berlin's ability to keep up with and learn from what his contemporaries were doing: "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is informed by the major/minor shifts and structural games that Berlin's friend Cole Porter loved so much.

Berlin's problem by the early '50s, which I think helps explain why his songs in White Christmas are mostly lackluster, is that he couldn't go to other influences or styles to inform his songs and keep them from sounding cliche'd. The pop music of the era was already starting to fragment, and didn't really provide clues as to how his music should sound. (Porter, who had also in his own way tried to keep up with the times, also started to seem a little lost around this time.) Then the arrival of rock n' roll completely wrecked Berlin's working method: the most popular songs of the period weren't compatible with his "base" style, and so all he could really do was produce the bare outlines of a Berlin song, with nothing to ignite it. That's why his last score, Mr. President, is generic-sounding and bland almost from beginning to end (except for his attempt at rock on "The Washington Twist," which isn't as bad a song as it's made out to be). He could always write a Berlin tune and a Berlin lyric, but he couldn't always make it something special.


J Lee said...

The success of "White Christmas" rests entirely on a Jeopardy-like question: "In what movie was the song 'White Christmas' heard?" If you're up on your movies, you know that it debuted in "Holiday Inn", but if you aren't and are just trying to find the Christmas movie with Crosby's song during the holiday season, Paramount made it easy to figure out. The best thing the 1954 movie has going for it nowadays is VistaVision fits nicely into the new HDTV screen ratios, and it's in Technicolor, in an era where more and more people just pass over black & white movies.

Steve said...

Let's not forget who the real star of "White Christmas" really is: Vista Vision. Paramount's debut feature for this wide-screen process needed to be a sure bet, or else the expensive process could sink the studio. What could be safer than remaking "Holiday Inn" in modern dress and singing the biggest selling record of the time? So what if Berlin's agreement called for exclusive use of only his songs. It worked with Gershwin on "American in Paris."

Several things make watching "White Christmas" fun for me:

Watching Paramount try to turn Rosemary Clooney into another Marilyn Monroe, ("Love, You Didn't Do Right" actually turns on the heat, and is a welcome break from the Comeonamyhouse crap she usually got stuck with in those days)

Watching the influence of rhythm and blues - prototypical rock and roll - flavor some of the more upbeat dance numbers aimed at the younger audience members. ("Joshua.") You'll note they had to replace the leads with ringers to dance in those numbers.

Watching Paramount's broadside shot against the onslaught of television and the decline of the night club culture (Wallace and Davis are Boffo in Better Bistros) with a plot line that, when the things look their darkest, uses television to save the day.

BTW: Those WNBT call letters on the TV camera were slightly out of date by the time the film was released. The NBC flagship station changed to WRCA during 1954.

Anonymous said...

It may be black and white and in 1:33 but "Holiday Inn" is a million times the motion picture that "White Christmas" happens to be. Fred Astaire's firecracker dance alone is sheer genius and he made a better partner for Crosby than Kaye. Mark Sandrich remains underrated as a director and pulled off a better version here than the post-Warner Curtiz.

Anonymous said...

I'm always amused by the romantic pairing of Crosby (age 50) and Clooney (age 25).

Anonymous said...

I would agree that "Holiday Inn" is a much much better film than "White Christmas" but I can't be too hard on WC. And there was a new song of quality that became a classic: "Count Your Blessings", which I think fits the definition of a simple yet indelible song. I think you're a little hard on Berlin here because remember, he was 66 years old. The vast majority of composers...pop,rock, and classical...are dried-up & spent forces by the time they're 60Did any Broadway-style tunesmith write a hit after age 60?

Anonymous said...

Conversely, Berlin (who was much more a creature of the pop marketplace than the other songwriters mentioned) seems to have quite a few songs that were hits in their day which nobody sings much any more. I'm thinking of things like My Bird of Paradise, He's A Devil In His Own Home Town, Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone, Home Again Blues, Some Sunny Day, I Poured My Heart into a Song, plus quite a few topical novelty songs.

I suspect the reason the "Annie" score is so good isn't Rodgers and Hammerstein's presence necessarily but the fact that Berlin had been off doing war-related stuff (This Is the Army, propaganda and other pop tunes) almost exclusively for several years and was looking to reestablish himself in the commercial theater. He had something to prove, sort of like when he returned to films in the mid-thirties and wrote that hit-laden score for Top Hat.

Anonymous said...

First let me say how much I enjoy Jaime's usually informed and often facinating insights and oppinions about "classic" popular culture. OK, White Christmas--certainly no true classic cinema-wise. But I think the songs are as good or better than the large majority of movie musical scores written for the screen. "Count Your Blessings" is truly a classic. "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me", "When You're Dancing", "Sisters", and "Choriography" are all accomplished, effective songs. The latter was perfectly tailored to Fred Astaire, who was originally slated to play the Danny Kaye role; too bad Astaire never recorded it.

As for Berlin drying up because popular song styles were changing away from his core style, perhaps this is a valid insight related to 1962 but not 1952, when the songs for White Christmas were written. Rock and roll was still 3 or 4 years away and mainstream pop music was still in the Berlin idiom.