Today I've posted a fascinating look at another era's moviemaking process. Below is a short film (runs just under ten minutes) called "Hollywood Rhythm", shot in 1934 and purporting to be a behind the scenes look at how a popular song was constructed for a movie musical in the early thirties (though it is in fact entirely staged and bears no resemblance to what we now think of as "behind the scenes"). This charming antiquity is of real value because it captures on celluloid several non-actors who we would not, under usual circumstances, have the ability to have seen in person. Cheif among them are the songwriting team of Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, whose hit songs of the thirties include the lovely "Stay As Sweet As You Are" and "There's A Lull In My Life". Also captured in this mini-tour of old Hollywood is the director Norman Taurog, whose best known film is the original "Boys Town" starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney and who later wound up directing some Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicles at Paramount in the early fifties. (Taurog gradually went blind but apparently continued directing--making Woody Allen's absurd hook for "Hollywood Ending" seem plausible and not nearly as strange as it might seem. If Beethoven didn't need to hear to write music, why should Taurog need to see in order to stage a scene?)
Best of all you get to see Mack Gordon (pictured) who's a real hoot. They don't build 'em like Gordon anymore--his outsize appearence, personality and enthusiasm is initially a little shocking but by the end you see that this was a guy who lit up any room he walked in, feared nothing and sold himself (and his lyrics, no doubt) without mercy. He's fat, cigar-smoking, homely, wearing spats and utterly charming. Oddly, he's not a bad dancer--check out his rumba...
Mack Gordon was nominated for the best original song Oscar nine times, including six consecutive years between 1940 and 1945, and won the award once, for "You'll Never Know". His most famous song is probably "At Last" --he wrote both of the previously mentioned tunes with the great Harry Warren for 20th Century Fox wartime musicals. Although originally a performer in vaudeville, he quickly proved to be a more than able tunesmith--and a big part of a tunesmiths job was "selling the tune", not just in the business sense but in the sense of "putting it over". I've met a handful of people (all are now dead--most of them I met during my childhood) who were Tin Pan Alley habitues and they all loved sharing their tips on how to "put one over" on the publishers. Harry Warren, who I had the privilege of knowing, told me that he used to play the first notes of a new melody a bunch of times as a "warm up" excercise when seated in the publishers office, given that the publisher was usually in the midst of signing contracts, taking phone calls, lighting cigars etc. All through this dismissive behavior, Harry would subtly work in his new melody to what sounded like scales and excercises. When he finally played the new song, the publisher would usually look up in wonderment; where had he heard it before? This of course gave him the confidence that the melody was a "natural". Oddly, most of Harry Warren's melodies were actually naturals and probably didn't need any tricks to get them across. But why take chances?
Also available in "Hollywood Rhythm" are a couple of glimpses of the Paramount Sound Stages which still stand (though they are largely empty) as well as the wonderful Jack Oakie (the guy in the football get-up--he's probably best remembered for his crypto-Mussolini turn in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator") and the charming but utterly forgotten Lyda Roberti (pictured), a Broadway star gone Hollywood for a moment before a heart attack killed her at age 32 and oblivion swept her from the cultural zeitgeist.. Ever since the invention of movies, people have wanted to know what goes into their making--the fact that the studio decided to do this film at all speaks probably to the volumes of fan mail and questions that movie fans were peppering them with.
Subscribe in a reader