Saturday, August 21, 2010

Heart and Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser (Final Cut Media, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Heart and Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser (notice the order of the two common nouns in the subtitle, an accurate reflection of the agenda of this film), which I saw the second half of when Turner Classic Movies aired it on a night they were paying tribute to this great songwriter and it piqued my curiosity enough that I wanted to collect some of Loesser’s more beautiful and obscure songs and pick up the book A Most Remarkable Fella by his daughter Susan (by his first wife, singer Lynn Garland Loesser).

Though the documentary isn’t formally an adaptation of Susan Loesser’s book, she was interviewed for it (as were her brother John, her stepmother Jo Sullivan Loesser and her half-sister Emily) and the portrait of Loesser offered here is pretty much the same as the one in her book: short, quick-fused (Loesser’s epic rages were short-lived — I can relate! — but frighteningly intense; in probably the worst one, he slapped Guys and Dolls leading lady Isabel Bigley across the face during a rehearsal because he didn’t approve of what she was doing to one of his songs; that night he sent her a dozen roses and the next day the rehearsals continued with neither party mentioning the incident again), the product of a long apprenticeship through Tin Pan Alley, the Hollywood studios (he went to the film capital in 1936 on a six-month contract with Universal, worked his way up to Paramount and then MGM, but seemed to be used there largely to write songs for Betty Hutton to fracture) and finally mega-success on Broadway with Guys and Dolls.

Loesser began as a lyric writer only — his first songs to achieve any recognition at all were written with composer Joseph Meyer (“Junk Man” and “I Wish I Were Twins,” both from 1934, introduced by Benny Goodman and Fats Waller, respectively) and throughout his Hollywood career he was mostly supplying words for ace songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Akst, Arthur Schwartz and Burton Lane. His wife Lynn kept encouraging him to compose, pointing out that on many occasions the “dummy” tunes he wrote to have something to fit his lyrics to were better than the settings the superstar composers he was working with came up with later — and when Loesser wrote the lyric to “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” Lynn said, “That’s the melody. Don’t farm it out to anyone else.” He didn’t, and had a war-themed mega-hit. The film also tells the story of his song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he wrote for himself and his wife to perform at parties — they kept doing this for five years, 1944 to 1949, until (much to her disgust) he sold it to MGM for the score of the Esther Williams musical Neptune’s Daughter, and it won the Academy Award for Best Song. (The film didn’t mention that when it was nominated, Hollywood’s other songwriters protested on the ground that it wasn’t a new song — “How can you call it a new song? Frank Loesser and his wife have been singing it at parties for five years!” — but the Academy ruled that since it hadn’t been performed professionally before it was used in the film, it was within the rules and was eligible for the award.)

In the meantime Loesser began to build a reputation in Hollywood as a composer as well as a lyric writer, and he got a job offer from Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin to do the songs for a musical version of Charley’s Aunt called Where’s Charley? — but only the lyrics: Harold Arlen was supposed to write the music. Then Harold Arlen’s house burned down, and he was (understandably) so upset that he couldn’t work for a while, so Feuer and Martin asked Loesser to recommend a replacement composer — and Loesser recommended himself. The musical was a success, though more as a Ray Bolger vehicle than for an especially scintillating score — it did generate a lovely romantic ballad, “Once in Love with Amy,” recorded beautifully by Frank Sinatra (a singer Loesser would end up hating — more on that later) — and Loesser returned to Hollywood for a featured role as an actor in a Betty Hutton vehicle called Red, Hot and Blue! for which he also wrote the songs (and he’s quite engaging as a piano-playing gangster — considerably more engaging than the film’s stars, Hutton and Victor Mature, or the clichéd innocent-woman-gets-mixed-up-with-gangsters plot, or the dull direction by John Farrow, Mia’s dad, of a script that really needed the genre-bending touch of Preston Sturges).

Once he completed his Hollywood assignments he returned to New York to stay — he’d work on only one more film after 1950, Sam Goldwyn’s mega-production Hans Christian Andersen — and Feuer and Martin engaged him to write music and lyrics for a musical they had in mind based on the stories of Damon Runyon which became Guys and Dolls. This was a troubled production — the original book writer was Jo Swerling but his stuff was unusable and, asked by Feuer and Martin to recommend somebody to replace him, Loesser came up with Abe Burrows. (According to Susan Loesser, nothing of Swerling’s is in the script we know now, but his contract required that they give him credit no matter whether or not they actually used any of his writing in the final version.) Guys and Dolls is described in this film’s rather portentous narration as “the perfect musical” (the perfect musical? What about Show Boat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story?); it ran for 1,200 performances and is always, at least it’s claimed here, being revived somewhere (the show offers montages of stills from the original Broadway cast accompanied by the cast album on Decca; clips from the 1955 film, produced by Sam Goldwyn and starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons; bits of a Broadway revival with Matthew Broderick; and excerpts from a Blair High School production that looks surprisingly promising).

The film then takes us through the rest of Loesser’s career: The Most Happy Fella — based on Sidney Howard’s play They Knew What They Wanted and written entirely by Loesser — not just words and music but the book, too — and a hit that ran over 600 performances even though for musical innovation it was overshadowed by My Fair Lady, which had opened four months earlier; Greenwillow, Loesser’s first flop, based on a novel by B. J. Chute (the initials stood for Beatrice Joy) whose flaws as a basis for dramatization are all too accurately summed up by Susan Loesser: “a whimsical, near-fairytale of a novel … the story of an imaginary village peopled by quaint-spoken characters in a faraway time … a charming little book, filled with magic and moral lessons. But it has no real drama, very little conflict, and no villain”; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which reunited him with Cy Feuer, Ernie Martin and Abe Burrows and was a smash hit; Pleasures and Palaces, a farce set in Russia during the court of Catherine the Great, which proved so lame and unworkable Loesser closed it out of town without bringing it to Broadway; and Señor Discretion Himself, yet another fable-like tale, based on a short story by Budd Schulberg (of all people; a Fantasticks-like tale set in Mexico, it hardly seems to belong to the same universe as Schulberg’s most famous writings, What Makes Sammy Run?, The Disenchanted and his script for On the Waterfront), which Loesser abandoned before even putting it into tryouts and which wasn’t produced until 2004, 35 years after Loesser’s death. (Loesser was a chain smoker — few photos of him without a cigarette in his mouth exist — and he died at 59 of smoking-related diseases, lung cancer and emphysema.) During the later portion of this movie one gets the impression that Loesser was one of those immensely talented artists who wasn’t conscious of what he did well and what he didn’t do well: if you compare his three hit shows — Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, it’s interesting that all of them have strong bases in class, in both the economic and social meanings of the word: the urban lumpenproletariat in Guys and Dolls, the agricultural ranch setting of The Most Happy Fella (even though Loesser’s adaptation eliminated the political “edge” of Howard’s play, in which the young hired hand with a bad case of wanderlust is also an IWW organizer) and the white-collar corporate world of How to Succeed … — whereas his flops took him away from America and from any recognizable economic and social strata.

Certainly this show — written and directed by Walter J. Gottlieb and narrated by Jerry Whiddon — makes Loesser seem like much more of an innovator than he really was: he may have been one of America’s great songwriters but he wasn’t the pioneer Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers were. Due at least partly to that long apprenticeship largely out of the public eye in the Hollywood studios, Loesser didn’t really hit his stride as a full-fledged Broadway songwriter until the late 1940’s — while the “golden age of American songwriting” was already coming to an end, though he and Frederick Loewe would pump a bit more life into it and keep it going longer than it otherwise might have lasted. Charles found this show annoying in its worse-than-usual case of “firstitis,” the tendency of biographies in all media to inflate the importance of their subjects and give them credit for far more innovation than they deserve. Gottlieb claims Loesser for pioneering the contrapuntal duet in a Broadway musical — but it had been done long, long before, by Irving Berlin in 1914 (“Play a Simple Melody”). Indeed, Berlin had got upset when George Gershwin got credit for pioneering a contrapuntal duet, “Mine,” in Let ’Em Eat Cake in 1933, nearly two decades after “Play a Simple Melody.” Loesser’s lyrics certainly featured dazzling wordplay — but Cole Porter’s and Lorenz Hart’s had done that well before him. By the time this documentary was over Charles was joking, “It’s nice to know Frank Loesser invented music — or at least he invented the song,” a slight but valid exaggeration of all the “first” claims Gottlieb had for Loesser.

Heart and Soul (the title comes from an early song for which Loesser wrote the words and Hoagy Carmichael the music; it’s a simple enough melody to play on piano that it’s one of the first songs just about every aspiring pianist learns) touches on an issue that’s much more important in Susan Loesser’s book: the bizarre relationship Loesser had with his parents and his brother Arthur, all of whom listened to nothing but classical music. Frank grew up with regular chamber-music sessions at his home, and his brother Arthur became a concert pianist and eventually head of the piano department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Arthur’s published comments on Frank’s success drip with snobbish patronization (though they’re not quite as patronizing as they sound in the movie): “He knows that popular songs are largely formulas without intrinsic distinction, that thousands of people can make songs that are just as ‘good’ as the most successful, that a song is a flimsy, perishable article of merchandise whose success often depends on an immediate topicality and which is frequently cold-bloodedly tailored to the imponderables of a fleeting situation … The interesting thing is that despite all this Frank has so many bright and amusing ideas … A hundred and forty million people, including newspaper editors and star politicians, docilely babble the words he puts into their mouths; but only a minor fraction of these persons knows that he is the author of their little pleasure. A relatively small number of people have ever heard of Frank Loesser; he is far less famous than his songs.” It’s less evidence of any bad blood between the Loessers (they seem to have been a quite close-knit family) than the quite typical snobbery with which fans of classical music frequently looked down on people who listened to anything else — and vice versa: in the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly heroine Beverly Ross (Ann Miller) takes pride that she aces a classical D.J. (Franklin Pangborn) out of his morning show so she can play swing music for servicemembers; and in the 1949 film A Kiss in the Dark heroine Polly Haines (Jane Wyman) upbraids classical pianist Eric Phillips (David Niven) when he plays an old song by Victor Herbert and she says, “You see? There’s nothing wrong with music just because people happen to like it” — when Phillips has already been depicted as a superstar who’s sold 27,000 tickets for a classical recital at the Hollywood Bowl, which indicates that there are people who happen to like his music, too.

It does seem after a while that Loesser’s temper and notorious pickiness as to how his songs were performed may have come at least in part from the patronization he got at the hands of his relatives; he was famous for auditioning singers by having them do Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” raising the key each time they repeated it and asking them to project (“Loud Is Good,” ran the sign he posted backstage during rehearsals for one of his shows — which may explain why he was able to tolerate writing for Betty Hutton as long as he did and makes it surprising that, aside from a wartime collaboration called “Why Do They Call a Private a Private?,” he never wrote for Ethel Merman), and one aspect of this show that amazed me when I first saw it was how much better he got on with Marlon Brando than with Frank Sinatra during the making of the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls.

While virtually everyone else who has written about this film has questioned the bizarre decision of producer Sam Goldwyn to cast Brando and Sinatra in a musical and give Brando the part with all the good songs (Goldwyn’s biographer Samuel Marx said flat-out the film would have been better if they’d switched roles and another Goldwyn biographer, Carol Easton, said, “’BRANDO SINGS!’ the ads promised — or warned”), Loesser liked Brando better precisely because he wasn’t a professional singer and therefore was willing to follow Loesser’s orders on how to accent and phrase his vocals, while Sinatra came on set with an attitude that nobody was going to tell him how a song should be phrased — which led to a series of nasty arguments that, while they stopped just short of fisticuffs, ended with Loesser refusing to speak to Sinatra and Sinatra announcing he’d no longer perform any of Loesser’s songs. (He relented in time to record an absolutely incandescent version of “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls — offering definitive proof that Goldwyn and his director, Joseph Mankiewicz, had given Sinatra the wrong role in the film.)

Loesser emerges from Heart and Soul as a bundle of contradictions: a hard-headed businessman who was also generous to up-and-comers; a victim of musical snobbery as well as a practitioner of it (when rock ’n’ roll came in he had the same horrified reaction as just about everyone else from his generation in showbiz — the show mentions that he lived long enough to see, or at least hear the songs from, the musical Hair and, predictably, he hated it), a family man who rather unceremoniously dumped his first wife for a younger successor, a largely private person in one of the most exposed businesses in the world (he noted early on that selling songs wasn’t that different from selling anything else: it all depended on you getting out there and making contacts that could help you) and a man full of life and vitality who smoked himself into an early grave. Certainly Arthur Loesser had a point about his brother being less famous than his brother’s songs — there were quite a few songs mentioned in this film and in Susan Loesser’s book (including “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” lovingly phrased by Ella Fitzgerald on her Swinging Christmas LP on Verve ) that I hadn’t realized were Loesser’s — and Heart and Soul overall is a marvelous tribute to a songwriter who achieved success and became famous in his own right but didn’t become the sort of household name some of his predecessors in the field had done.