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Reviewed by:
  • When Broadway Went to Hollywood by Ethan Mordden
  • Bernard F. Dick
Ethan Mordden. When Broadway Went to Hollywood. New York. Oxford UP. 2016. 257 pp.

Ethan Mordden, who has chronicled the development of the Broadway musical in a series of definitive studies that spanned the 1920s through the 1950s, has now turned his attention to Broadway songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who enriched the Hollywood musical with their art. Anyone familiar with Mordden's work such as Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s (Oxford, 1999) knows he has the ability to describe the shows of an era that he did not experience personally but through methodical research at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and original cast recordings can write about them so authoritatively that it seemed he attended the opening nights. He had an easier time with When Broadway Went to Hollywood, having seen the films he discusses. Still, he writes with such immediacy, distilling the world of the film in a few paragraphs, that one does not seek a detailed analysis. That scholar can provide. Mordden is a scholar-critic. Although his works are not heavily documented, his research is so deeply embedded in the text that one does not miss the scholarly apparatus. There are more ways for an author to prove that he or she is knowledgeable without adding on fifty pages of small-print footnotes.

The question that When Broadway Went to Hollywood poses is whether or not songwriters from the musical stage brought something unique to the movie musical that it otherwise would have lacked. One has only to look at the musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made at RKO in the 1930s. Astaire and Rogers may have been the greatest dance team in film, but Top Hat (1935) would have been just another "boy meets girl" musical without Irving Berlin's songs, particularly "Cheek to Cheek." The same would be true of Follow the Fleet (1936) without Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and Carefree (1938) without his "Change Partners and Dance." Think of Swing Time (1936) without Jerome Kern's "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight" or Shall We Dance (1937) without George Gershwin's "They All Laughed (at Christopher Columbus)" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Compare the scores of their RKO movies to their reunion film, The Barkleys of Broadway (MGM, 1949). Only one number stands out, Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away from Me," which Astaire sang to Rogers a decade earlier in Shall We Dance,

Stage musicals either came to the screen more or less intact (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady) or radically altered. If the studio felt that some of the songs were too risqué ("But in the Morning, No" in Du Barry Was a Lady [1943]) somber ("Lonely Town" in On the Town [1949]), or beyond the vocal ability of the performers ("I've Never Been in Love Before" in Guys and Dolls [1955]), they were dropped. In The Gay Divorcee (1934), the movie version of Cole Porter's provocatively entitled The Gay Divorce (1932), all of the songs were discarded except "Night and Day." But that was Hollywood, which wanted Broadway composers and lyricists but often did not know what to do with them. Much of Kurt Weill's score for One Touch of Venus (Universal-International, 1948) was scrapped, but at least "Speak Low" survived, with Ava Gardner lip synching to Eileen Wilson's vocal.

If the reader is new to Mordden, be advised that he can raise an eyebrow. For example, he calls The Pirate (MGM, 1948) "the first gay movie musical" (134). True, the composer, Cole Porter, and the director, Vincente Minnelli, were gay, but Mordden goes further and implies that Gene [End Page 72] Kelley's biceps rings are gay accessories. The book jacket notes that Mordden is the author of "five collections of short stories chronicling gay life in New York City." Presumably, he knows whereof he speaks.

Anyone new to the movie...


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