Harvey Granat: Irving Berlin in Hollywood

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) arrived at Ellis Island from Russia when he was five. The Beilins settled on the Lower East Side. At eight, when his father died, the boy helped support his family by selling newspapers. At 14, he left both school and home, living in Dickensian shelters in hopes of removing at least one burden. Surrounded by the music of émigrés, he developed an ear for a tune, an appealing voice (aspiring to be a singing waiter), and a sense of simple truth. Busking, song plugging, and singing in saloons – often writing/performing risqué versions of popular lyrics, kept him from the gutter. He taught himself piano, but could only play in one key, later having an instrument that transposed custom made.

Harvey Granat

Harvey Granat (historian/raconteur/vocalist) performs two very different examples of Berlin’s talent, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet, 1936) and “How Much Do I Love You?” (Mammy, 1930). The latter, sung by Al Jolson to his mother, had some different lyrics, but the same tune. When Granat produced Words and Music on Broadway, composer/lyricist Sammy Cahn would begin every evening with the song, calling it the perfect marriage of words and lyrics. Granat is a fine vocalist, imbuing both selections with sincerity and heart.

“Finally he got a job with a music publisher which is how new songwriters got their first breaks… where they could be heard and songs would be taken into shows and movies…His first hit, are you ready for this, was My Wife’s Gone to the Country Harah Harah, Granat says. ” Another early song, Marie From Sunny Italy (with Nick Nicolson) earned $1.20 in royalties and $.33 for publishing rights. “It was important because the publisher made a mistake and put Irving Berlin instead of Beilin on the sheet music and it stuck,” he says.

Irving Berlin and the stars of the film, Alexander’s Ragtime Band Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, and Don Ameche (Public Domain)

Berlin had tremendous success with ragtime. In 1911, he published the epitome of the genre “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” about which  George Gershwin wrote, “Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.” The song inspired a film. Granat sings it with just the right understatement, lilt, and implicit raising of a brow. Accompanist /MD Rob Kelly offers a bit of bouncy instrumental.

In 1923, Berlin married vocalist Dorothy Goetz whom he swept off her feet. While honeymooning in Cuba, an epidemic of Typhoid Fever broke out. The newlyweds returned home, but Dorothy died from the disease. They’d been married only five months. At a dinner party the next year, the songwriter met 20 year old socialite Ellin Mackay and fell head over heels. Her anti-Semitic tycoon father was dead set against the marriage, promptly sending the debutante on a world tour. Newspapers had a field day.

Sheet Music (Public Domain)

While she was away, Berlin put his thoughts into song. “What’ll I Do?” When you are far away/And I am  blue/ What’ll I do?  Granat sings a lovely rendition full of warmth and yearning. “He could pour his heart into a song,” he comments about Berlin, as I might add, can our host. “This story had a happy ending.” In 1929, Ellin’s father lost all his money and was rescued by the only successful, financially secure person he knew, Berlin. Isadore and Ellin were happily married 68 years.

Apparently Paramount intended to make a film of this difficult part of Berlin’s life. In Granat’s extensive collection, he has a letter the songwriter wrote to Adolph Zucker beseeching him not to go forward with the project. “Zucker did back off which gave peace of mind to Berlin and his wife.” Upon the birth of his first child, Berlin again put personal feelings into song. Granat sings “Blue Skies.” Once more style and inflection are the vocalist’s, but one can’t help but think that Berlin would smile.

Rodgers and Hart had a show on Broadway “that needed something added to make it more successful.” They inserted “Blue Skies” to great success. “Berlin wasn’t happy about it, but it was good money.” Years later at a benefit the collaborators did a parody: Blue Skies, we’d like to know/Why is that Blue Skies in our show?/Ziegfeld tell him we’re sore/Putting that Blue Skies in our score…

Irving Berlin in the Army, 1918 (Public Domain)

“In 1918, Berlin was serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, on Long Island. He served three years and raised millions of dollars for the war effort, but he hated getting up early: Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning/Oh how I’d like to remain in bed/ For the hardest blow of all, is to hear the bugler call; you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up this morning!… That song took on a life of its own in a 1943 motion picture called This is the Army.”

Fred Astaire was the favorite singer of many of the great songwriters of the time. Berlin wrote four motion picture scores with the artist in mind. “There’s a wonderful sequence in Easter Parade where he and Garland do a priceless vaudeville routine.” We watch a clip of “A Couple of Swells.” ‘Marvelous.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat (Public Domain)

“Perhaps the greatest of the Astaire/Rogers films was the screwball comedy Top Hat. Here’s a medley of the three most popular songs from the film.” “Heaven” conjures romance, cascading chiffon, and grace – clearly the vocalist dances; “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?” to be caught in the rain…emerges stylish and eeaaazy; “Top Hat” arrives the epitome of sophistication. Berlin’s eminent biographer Robert  Kimball said that most songwriters wrote for the dollars and the specific assignment, while Berlin wrote “according to his personal feelings.”

In 1942, the film Holiday Inn introduced an iconic song that would become Bing Crosby’s greatest hit, win the Academy Award, and garner worldwide popularity. Berlin’s verse describes his poolside location while writing: The sun is shining/The grass is green/ The orange and palm trees sway/ There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, LA/But it’s December twenty-fourth and I’m longing to be up north… The song, of course, isI’m dreaming of A White Christmas.” Sentimental, replete with tuneful whistle, it’s simply lovely.

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Decca Album Cover (Public Domain)

“From the 1937 film, On the Avenue with Dick Powell, here’s another seasonal song Berlin wrote in the heat of LA”: “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Phrasing is impeccable, feeling unabashedly cheery. Written by Berlin in 1927, here’s a scene from the film, That’s Hollywood, Fred Astaire’s iconic “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” We watch the peerless performer.

In 1946 Annie Get Your Gun was produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein II who signed Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields to write the piece. Kern suffered a serious stroke. Star Ethel Merman felt strongly that Berlin should replace him. At first, the artist dismissed it with “I don’t write cowboy songs.” Talked into a weekend away with the libretto, he returned having written music and lyrics to five songs. Granat sings two ballads and the entertainers’ anthem “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, background – Helen Tamiris at auditions (Public Domain)

“Berlin wrote about holidays and important events, but perhaps the greatest of his songs, is one that many people think of as our national anthem. He wrote `God Bless America’ in 1918, but put it aside until Kate Smith asked for something patriotic in 1938. She recorded it and the rest is history. Proceeds from the song go to The Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Rather than me singing the song. Here’s the great Irving Berlin himself on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’” You’ll never hear it more moving than in the author’s thin-voiced solo.

“The songwriter spent the last 20 years of his life mostly as a recluse. Robert Kimball tells the story of a conversation they had at the time indicating he thought that music had passed him by. Well, it didn’t. Music and lyrics of Irving Berlin are a very part of who we are as a country and a culture. He had a long marriage, three children, and many grandchildren.”

Opening: 1911 gelatin silver print By Patch Brothers Studio – National Portrait Gallery
(Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

Harvey Granat : Irving Berlin in Hollywood
MD/Arranger/Piano- Rob Kelly

NEXT: Harvey Granat presents Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – Tuesday, June 20th, 12 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

About Alix Cohen (1750 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.