"Hooray for Hollywood" is the name of the song, not my general disposition toward that industry in its contemporary incarnation. For almost the entire two-decade history of this website, we have marked Oscar Night by celebrating an Oscar-winning song from the last nine decades, even though the Best Original Song category was one of the first to start running on fumes. Now the whole show is. I wasn't even aware tonight was Oscar Night until it was pointed out to me, and I would wager that general lack of interest will be confirmed by the ratings: it's a long time since the hosts have been able to do that shtick about "a billion people" watching around the world.
A few years back, it became traditional to attribute the ratings bomb to the lack of blockbusters among the nominees. But as Mrs Prodos put it in our comments section:
I never cared what movies were competing at the Oscars, whether I had seen any of them or had a favorite or not, or whether there was a blockbuster among them. I tuned in for the glamorous spectacle, all those stars in one place, all dressed up and witty and larger than life.
For half-a-century, from the dawn of television to the Nineties, from Bob Hope through Johnny Carson to Billy Crystal, audiences tuned in not out of interest in the nominees but because the real star was the show itself. Here is a fairly typical moment from the midpoint of that era. On the 1979 show, a couple of fellows (Larry Grossman and Fred Ebb) wrote a piece of what we used to call "special material" featuring dozens of movie songs Oscar's flipped the finger to, and then a couple of other fellows (Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis Jr) rehearsed and managed to learn this fiendishly complex routine and put it over:
Now you might object that, forty years on, nobody under fifty knows any of those songs except maybe "Stayin' Alive" and "New York, New York", which Fred, the latter's lyricist, amusingly included in his celebration of Oscar busts.
But that's not the objection. As I wrote four years ago:
I doubt, even with CGI, whether anybody on Sunday's show is capable of learning that medley and putting it over live, so in a certain sense there has been a massive loss of skills over the last quarter-century or so. But, as I said, that's not the point. The real objection is that, granted that times move on and tastes change, Hollywood has not replaced it with anything. Whether you like it or not, the above is something, it's a thing in itself. Ashley Judd lecturing us on 'intersectionality' before introducing a montage of white women, gays, transgenders and Muslims telling us solemnly how great it is that they're not white men is not a thing - it's a big nothing. It would be boring if it happened to you while you were having a beer at that crappy sports bar out on Route 23 past the grain elevator, and it doesn't get any less boring just because Ashley's standing in a cocoon of 45,000 Swarovski crystals that, as Jane Fonda remarked, looks like the Orgasmatron from Barbarella (which is a funnier line than any of Jimmy Kimmel's writers').
You'll notice, by the way, that the quartet who wrote and sold that medley includes African-Americans and gays. But Fred Ebb (whom I knew for many years, and who was as gay as any gay could be) didn't think the height of entertainment was walking out on stage and saying, "As a gay man, I'm proud to be able to stand here as a gay man and say that in the old days all the songs were written by butch heterosexuals like Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Noël Coward but now Hollywood is leading the world in celebrating diversity because I'm totally gay. Will that do? Did I mention I'm gay? If not, here's a Muslim and a transgender..."
This is how screwed our civilization is: the bores have seized the entertainment business.
Anyway, by way of tribute to the above medley, here's one of those un-nominated songs - and one which shows that eight-five years ago the motion picture industry at least had a sense of proportion about itself:
Hooray For Hollywood!
Where you're terrific if you're even good
- as opposed to today's Hollywood, where you're terrific even if you're not good. Whatever the mixed feelings expressed in the lyric, the tune is the nearest thing Hollywood has to a full-blown "No Business Like Show Business"-sized anthem. And, although you can do it slow and sultry (as Doris Day did for the title song of one of her albums), come Oscar night you want it played as a zippy vaudeville two-beat, just like Irving Berlin's great rouser or its marvelous Schwartz & Dietz cousin "That's Entertainment".
It was written for a 1938 film called Hollywood Hotel, an otherwise forgotten picture that marked the end of the Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley extravaganzas that had begun a mere half-decade earlier with 42nd Street. The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers series at RKO had left the Berkeley style of overhead shots of thousands of extras in geometric patterns looking rather clunky, and dehumanizing in their formation choreography - Nurembergesque, as later critics would charge. Still, Buzz Berkeley was game for one last go-round, and in this instance he had his regular leading man, Dick Powell, playing a singing saxophonist who wins a talent show and gets to go to Hollywood. The plot hinges on the fact that he thinks he's squiring film star Mona Marshall (played by Lola Lane) to a glamorous premiere, but in fact he's taking Mona Marshall's stand-in (played by Rosemary Lane).
The songs were written by a composer at the very end of his career (though he didn't know it) and an up-and-coming lyricist whose glory days were still to come. Richard Whiting was born in 1891 and composed one of those numbers that conjures the spirit of an entire era - "Ain't We Got Fun?", as good a summation as anything of the Jazz Age and the years before the Wall Street Crash. Before that he wrote one of the great ballads of the Great War - "Till We Meet Again" - and afterwards he gave us "Sleepy Time Gal" and "She's Funny That Way". Johnny Mercer was still in Savannah in short pants when most of those were written, but within a few years in the Tin Pan Alley of the early Thirties he'd given us an enduring torch ballad, "When A Woman Loves A Man"; one of the classic revenge songs, "Goody Goody"; a genuine slice of sleepy rural charm, "Lazybones"; and a slab of western parody, "I'm An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)".
Yet, like every other New York songwriter of the era, old hand and ambitious neophyte alike, Whiting and Mercer found themselves "taking the Chief" - the four-day train to Hollywood where talking pictures were also singing and dancing, and needed plenty of composers and lyricists to supply the songs - unlike Broadway, which was still hungover from the market crash.
It was Harry Warren, composer of 42nd Street, who landed Whiting and Mercer the gig at Warner Brothers. With his lyricist Al Dubin spiraling ever deeper downward in drink and drugs, Warren persuaded the notorious tightwads at the studio it was time to hire some extra writers. So Whiting and Mercer came on board and got assigned to Ready, Willing And Able, for which they wrote "Too Marvelous For Words", and then to Hollywood Hotel. When he'd caught the Super Chief to Hollywood, Mercer found himself along for the ride with several celebrities, including Al Jolson and Joe Schenck, the pioneer movie mogul who founded 20th Century Fox. As the young lyricist recalled it, Jolson and Schenck ostentatiously ordered the waiter to bring a brace of either pheasant or duck to their table so that they might inspect them before having them cooked. Mercer thought this a wee bit pretentious for Jolson and Schenck, one of whom was the son of a slaughterer of kosher animals and the other a Russian immigrant who'd started out operating concessions at the Fort George Amusement Park. But that was Hollywood. In those days southern California might almost have been a separate nation: in his biography of Mercer, Gene Lees describes the immigrants sending exotic gifts to the poor folks back east - dates packed in exqusite redwood boxes showing cars driving through a tunnel cut into a giant tree. The songs of the Golden State's golden years hailed a lotus land of orange groves and "bowers of flowers" - "Home In Pasadena", "California, Here I Come". Not like that anymore, with its coastal cities of homeless encampments and fecal needle-strewn streets.
Yet, aside from a couple of tunes on the "You Oughtta Be In Pictures"/"If I Had A Talking Picture Of You" theme, there was only one song that even attempted to find the music in the industry capital itself. In his pre-movie star days, Bing Crosby introduced it in a short at MGM:
Out where they say
Let us be gay
I'm Going Hollywood!...
Say, while you sleepy heads are in the hay
I'll be dancing
I'm gonna be dancing with a sun-kissed baby...
Years ago I did a movie show on the radio and I used "Going Hollywood" as the theme song mainly because I wanted to avoid the obvious and not play "Hooray For Hollywood" every week. But in truth it's nowhere near as good, especially de-Binged. Mercer had an eye for "sun-kissed babies", but he also appreciated the circumstances that had brought them out to California. What he found when he got off the train was not a metropolis but a strange collection of what were, in effect, unconnected villages, all full of men in the same business making a ton of dough, and the most beautiful girls from all over the world trying to catch their eye. There wasn't a lot of night life because everyone had to get up to go filming in the early morning, but there were weird mini-golf joints on every corner in strange shapes - a boat, a dog, a hot dog on a bun. Everyone started out like that Dick Powell character in Hollywood Hotel - you win a contest and a train ticket - and next thing you know you're inspecting pheasants with Al Jolson. That's the Hollywood Mercer tried to capture in his song. Unlike other showbiz anthems, this one isn't starry-eyed about what's going on:
Hooray For Hollywood!
That screwy ballyhooey Hollywood
Where any office boy or young mechanic
Can be a panic
With just a good-looking pan
And any barmaid
Can be a star maid
If she dances with or without a fan...
It's in the argot of the day - "pan" equals "face", and "fan" is a reference to Sally Rand, who danced with vast feathery ones behind which she was supposedly naked. As Mercer deduced, "celebrity" exists independent of thespian talent, especially in Hollywood...
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple
To Aimee Semple
Is equally understood
Go out and try your luck
You could be Donald Duck
Hooray For Hollywood!
Donald Duck was Disney's Number Two star, Aimee Semple McPherson was the evangelist with a career-detonating scandal, and Shirley Temple was the child tapper whose signature song - "On The Good Ship Lollipop" (our Song of the Week #212) - was composed by Mercer's writing partner Richard Whiting. None of the three had what you might call typical career trajectories, which Mercer left to the second chorus to map out:
Hooray For Hollywood!
That phony super-Coney Hollywood
They come from Chilicothes and Padukahs
With their bazookas
To see their names up in lights
All armed with photos
From local rotos
With their hair in curlers and legs in tights...
"Local rotos" is a reference to the "rotogravure" section of the Sunday paper, the one with all the pictures in at a time when most big dailies were very sparing with photographs. In the early Thirties, they were the most popular feature in the newspaper. Hence, Irving Berlin in "Easter Parade":
Will snap us
And you'll find that you're
In the rotogravure...
Next stop, Hollywood! "Chilicothes and Padukahs" was Mercer shorthand for hick burgs: he had a wonderful knack for finding the music in the American gazetteer. As for "bazookas", I always assumed that meant an aspiring starlet's prize assets. But, thanks to SteynOnline reader Brian Johnson of Canton, Ohio, I now know that the "bazooka" derives from Bob Burns, the Arkansas Traveler. The house comic on Bing Crosby's "Kraft Music Hall" from 1936 to 1941, Burns used to feature an American version of what the British would call a Heath Robinson musical contraption assembled from a funnel and plumbing pipes. He named it the "Bazooka". In fact, wartime GIs nicknamed the weapon after Bob Burns' instrument, not, as one might suppose, vice-versa. Mr Johnson notes that you can see Burns and his invention in the Crosby picture Rhythm On The Range, which also includes uncredited performances by Roy Rogers and Louis Prima joining Messrs Burns and Crosby and Martha Raye in Johnny Mercer's "I'm an Old Cowhand":
I think I sort of preferred the idea of bazookas as a lady's points of interest. But, of course, the great thing about the magic of the movies is that that kind of thing can always be fixed. Your pan doesn't need to be that good-looking, not with Max Factor to hand:
Hooray For Hollywood!
You may be homely in your neighborhood
But if you think that you can be an actor
See Mister Factor
He'd make a monkey look good
Within a half an hour
You'll look like Tyrone Power...
The word for all this is "ballyhooey" - a Mercer neologism, suggesting a cross between "ballyhoo", the showbiz huckster's noisy self-promotion, and "hooey", as in rubbish. Unfortunately, in the film Hollywood Hotel, it fell not to Dick Powell but to Johnnie "Scat" Davis to introduce Whiting and Mercer's movie anthem. And Mr Davis' otherwise creditable performance begins not with a hooray for "that screwy ballyhooey Hollywood" but for a "screwy ballyhooley Hollywood":
Aside from blowing the internal rhyme, Johnnie "Scat" Davis raises the interesting question: what is "ballyhooley"? My late friend Dick Vosburgh once did a BBC special set in the charming Irish village of Ballyhooley, home to all the many singers who take exquisitely crafted lyrics and mangle them. And the Mayor of Ballyhooley, according to Dick, was Burl Ives, whose record of "Swinging On A Star" eschews...
But if that kind of life is what you wish
You may grow up to be a fish
...in favor of:
But if that kind of life is what you want
You may grow up to be a fish...
And nobody in the recording studio - not Burl, not his engineer, not his producer, not any of the musicians - thought it sounded a little odd.
If Mercer was bothered by "Ballyhooley", he had plenty of other things to think about. Busby Berkeley's original over-the-top routine for "Hooray For Hollywood" foresaw dancers wearing face masks, similar to the Ruby Keeler face masks in "I Only Have Eyes For You" but this time representing an entire galaxy of Hollywood stars. Berkeley dumped the idea but not before Mercer wrote lyrics for the doppelgangers to warble, a few of which Gene Lees' biography liberated from the trunk. First up, cowboy hero Tom Mix:
Hooray For Hollywood!
That bully, wild and woolly Hollywood
Some big producers came and bought my ranch out
And made me branch out
I left my ten-acre tract
And am I thankful
I've got a bankful
Shows what you can do if your horse can act...
And then swimmer-turned-swinger, Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller:
Hooray For Hollywood!
In the Olympics I was fairly good
Then someone said I was the perfect shape man
To be an ape man
And they convinced me I should
So now I grunt and yell
And people think I'm swell
Hooray For Hollywood!
Mercer would have relished writing Oscar-ceremony special material for Lindsay Lohan, though whether it would have been worth his trouble is another matter. It's probably just as well Buzz Berkeley dropped the Tarzan gags and other in-jokes. As it was, "Hooray For Hollywood" was taken up almost instantly as the great ballyhooey anthem of a still young industry, and thus is a rare example of a send-up played for real by folks who take themselves very seriously.
And, even though Richard Whiting's splendidly exuberant tune is heard more often these days without the words, the composer himself never knew the gift he'd given his business. He had always regarded Hollywood as a stressful place, especially when he had to demonstrate songs to producers. Already taking heart medication, he found himself doubling up in pain as cloth-eared execs denounced his latest offering and hurled the sheet music to the floor. "Dick must have been more ill than even he knew," Mercer remembered. "He was always feeling the veins behind his ears, and would get terribly nervous over little things." On February 10th 1938, he was working on another song with Mercer - "Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride" - for another Dick Powell picture, Cowboy From Brooklyn, when he was hit by a massive heart attack and died instantly. Hollywood Hotel had not yet been released, and "Hooray For Hollywood" proved to be a last hooray for the 46-year old Whiting.
Before tape decks and audio cassettes came along, a lyricist working on a new tune had to carry it around in his head. Unless the composer was following him around with an upright piano, the lyric writer, once he'd been handed the melody, had somehow to hold it in his memory long enough to figure out what words it needed. To aid recollection, a lot of writers came to rely on "dummy lyrics" - a bunch of meaningless words that would help them remember how the musical stresses fell. Paul McCartney's famous dummy lyric for "Yesterday" ran: "Scrambled eggs/Oh my darling, how I love your legs". Irving Caesar's famous dummy worked so well he kept it: "Picture you/Upon my knee/Just Tea For Two/And two for tea..." When Richard Whiting handed his partner the tune for "Hooray For Hollywood", Mercer wrote a dummy to fit that explosive six-note opening phrase:
Piece of ma-te-ri-al!
"Piece of material" eventually became "Hooray For Hollywood", but Mercer wasn't wrong the first time: It's a tremendous piece of material. These aren't good times for the movie biz, and, when the band strikes up "Hooray" these days, you feel vaguely like Norma Desmond: the "piece of ma-te-ri-al"'s still big, it's the industry that's got small.
~The above essay includes excerpts from Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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