Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jule Styne's Big Break

I was just watching this clip from the movie Sis Hopkins, starring Judy Canova, and was reminded that Jule Styne claimed (in Max Wilk's book They're Playing Our Song) that this was the film that turned his career around. Having decided that he wanted to dedicate himself to songwriting instead of arranging, Styne was composing for low-budget movies at Republic, and the way he told it (which may not be the way it was) he asked Republic to borrow Frank Loesser from Paramount to be his lyricist on this picture. Loesser, a rising star as a lyricist, was (according to Styne) not happy about being loaned out to a "B" studio, but he liked a tune Styne had lying around, and told him not to use it in Sis Hopkins, but to save it for a future project.

When Loesser went back to Paramount, he got them to borrow Styne, and the two of them wrote the song up as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," which became a major hit and made Styne one of the most in-demand composers in the business. As he told it, once he'd written a hit while on loan-out, he was suddenly treated with respect at Republic, teamed with Sammy Cahn as his regular lyricist, and freed to write an astonishing string of pop hits.

"When I come back to Republic with two hit songs at Paramount, you know, it's a whole different ballgame. They now ask me, and now they're recording there with forty-six men! They never paid a flute $135 for a date before. The music contractor says, 'Why do we need a flute? We never used a flute here.' I said 'It's a very important instrument.' 'Harps? We're walking in the mud and you want harps?' They're paying $10 a page for orchestration - always paid $3. They were kind of shaken, but they went with me because it must be right. I must be right if I'd written songs with Frank Loesser."

This song from Sis Hopkins by Styne and Loesser is pretty good too, and makes me want to see the rest of the picture just to hear what else they came up with. One thing that struck me is that it's a song in a subgenre of entertainment that was particularly big in the years 1939-41, during World War II but before America entered the war. That is: left-wing patriotic entertainment. This is a rah-rah America song, but with a distinctly liberal, populist, Rooseveltian message about the glory of working people and the value of what they do -- and it ends by connecting the celebration of the working man to the celebration of the military, which is getting ready to defend America from the coming storm. This strain of left patriotism is all over movies like The Grapes of Wrath and The Devil and Daniel Webster, and songs by the likes of Yip Harburg and Loesser. This would be less common after the U.S. got into the war, since the messages had to be more about the necessity to win, and after the war, of course, came the Cold War and the end of this kind of populist (or, depending on who was writing it, Popular Front) style.

Here's the number, staged by the director -- or the second-unit director -- with an obvious nod to Lubitsch's "Beyond the Blue Horizon."

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