This week I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Alexis Gershwin and company. Alexis is the niece of the great George and Ira Gershwin, the daughter of their younger sister. And her show at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, in which she was backed by terrific singers and a spectacular little combo, put the spotlight on the romantic songs of the Gershwins, classics like “S’wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
Afterwards, with Gershwin melodies running through my brain, I began to wonder the extent to which George and Ira’s songs—often written for the Broadway stage—were featured in movies. I knew the brothers were popular with filmmakers, but I didn’t expect what I found: George’s musical compositions are listed on the invaluable Internet Movie Database as being featured on 598 movie and TV soundtracks. His lyricist brother Ira, who lived a good deal longer and worked with other composers after George’s untimely death, has 480 soundtrack credits. That’s a whole lot of Gershwin, dating back to the 1930s. I can’t go into every film that’s been graced by Gerhswin music, but here comes a sampling of some of my very favorites.
Gershwin standards like “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” were featured in two different versions of Girl Crazy, based on a Broadway play that introduced Ethel Merman and made Ginger Rogers a star. The first movie adaptation—totally forgettable—was made in 1932, molded to the talents of a comedy team known as Wheeler & Woolsey. More distinctive was a 1943 version starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who performed a soulful rendition of “But Not for Me.” (There’s also a 1965 variation on Girl Crazy, retitled When the Boys Meet the Girls. It stars Connie Francis, and features the unlikely team of Herman’s Hermits, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace. Wow!)
Some of the Gershwins’ best songs also show up in Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers movies like 1937’s Shall We Dance. Years later, Astaire teamed with the beautiful young Audrey Hepburn to sing and dance to Gershwin music in 1957’s Funny Face. Hepburn is hardly a trained singer, but I’ll always remember her wistful “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Another Fifties gem is An American in Paris, which features not only Gershwin songs but a climactic dream ballet danced by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron to the full “American in Paris” score. In 1959, the operatic Porgy and Bess was brought to the screen in a production (starring Sidney Poitier) that is still generating controversy.
Woody Allen, who associates Gershwin music with his beloved New York City, brilliantly used George’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in the opening to one of his best films, 1979’s Manhattan. Two decades later, George and Ira’s songs figure prominently in every music teacher’s favorite flick, Mr. Holland’s Opus. The singing of “Someone to Watch Over Me” by a talented high school student who’s falling for her teacher is for me one of that film’s highlights.
When Harry Met Sally (1989) also uses the Gershwins (as performed by Harry Connick, Jr.) to evoke romance, via tunes like “Our Love is Here to Stay” and the witty “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” And when Disney, in 1999, dared to introduce its Fantasia 2000, it chose “Rhapsody in Blue” as the inspiration for an animated segment done in the style of Al Hirschfeld’s jazzy Broadway caricatures. Though Fantasia 2000 never reached the heights of the 1940 original, “Rhapsody in Blue” is its finest creation. In a word, “S’wonderful”!