Thursday, March 28, 2019

Sounding Out: Mamoulian, Rodgers, Hart, and “Isn’t It Romantic?”

There was a time, soon after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier for motion pictures, when movie musicals were all the rage. Every studio wanted to make flicks that could boast “all talking-all singing-all dancing.” (Singin’ in the Rain, the Golden Age musical from 1952, captures the frenzied efforts of that earlier era to capitalize on early sound technology. This Gene Kelly vehicle exaggerates for comic effect the challenge posed by sound, but not all that much. Yes, early microphones were large and cumbersome; soundstages were overheated to the point of feeling like saunas; many popular stars of the silent era simply didn’t know how to talk, or sing, in an appealing way.)

I was highly fortunate, back in 1982, to interview a pioneer of motion picture sound. We met in the Hollywood Hills in a villa-like home that was crawling with cats. Rouben Mamoulian, an Armenian from Tibilisi, Georgia, came to America in 1922 to direct theatre and opera. He directed the original Porgy on Broadway, then was sought out by Hollywood in 1929. His Applause, a backstage drama shot that same year, was a landmark early talkie, praised by film historians for its innovation use of camera and sound. Later Mamoulian went on to shoot such films as the Frederic March version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), as well as Queen Christina with Greta Garbo and Golden Boy with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. He also returned to Broadway to stage the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and spent much of the 1940s helming innovative stage musical  hits: Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Lost in the Stars.

Late in his career, Mamoulian had some notable Hollywood disasters: he was fired from the Technicolor film adaptation of Porgy and Bess after shooting only one scene, and later resigned from the notorious Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton Cleopatra. His very last complete film, shot in 1957 when he was sixty years old, was another musical, Silk Stockings. Starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, it was a Technicolor version of the 1937 Garbo comedy, Ninotchka.

But I want to focus here on Mamoulian’s interaction with two of Broadway’s favorite sons, the musical team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Rodgers and Hart, who started out writing comic songs for the undergrads of Columbia University, became the toasts of the Great White Way via a long string of sparkling musical entertainments, with Rodgers responsible for music and Hart supplying the witty lyrics. Their plots tended to be forgettable, but they contributed to the Great American Songbook such tunes as  “(I’ll Take) Manhattan,” “Mountain Greenery,” “Where or When,”  “My Funny Valentine,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” Their most famous show, Pal Joey, eventually became a Frank Sinatra musical that incorporated several of the Rodgers and Hart standards written for earlier shows, changed the cold-hearted Joey from a dancer to a singer, and redeemed him to create a happy ending.

Pal Joey was filmed in 1967, seventeen years after the play surfaced on Broadway and long after Hart’s death. But a younger Rodgers and Hart had been brought out to Hollywood circa 1932 to provide music for a Maurice Chevalier vehicle, Love Me Tonight, in which a romantically-inclined tailor falls in love with a princess (Jeanette MacDonald). The opening song, Isn’t it Romantic?”, was brilliantly staged by Mamoulian to take advantage of what a motion picture camera and sound equipment can do. The song begins with Chevalier in his tailor shop, then moves outdoors to cover the quaint locale and its citizens, before finally ending up on the lips of princess Jeanette. Isn’t it inventive?    

No comments:

Post a Comment