Irving Berlin Beats the Depression

Based on the second of four lectures by historian Charles Troy under the aegis of The York Theatre Company.

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”  Jerome Kern.

When we left Irving Berlin at the end of Charles Troy’s first lecture, he and Catholic socialite Ellin Mackay married at City Hall despite fervent objections by her industrialist father. Berlin was so anxious, he forgot this wallet and had to borrow two dollars from a commandeered witness. Newspapers had a feeding frenzy. Neither the songwriter nor his wife would be welcome in New York society and Ellin, for all intents and purposes, lost her dad. The couple went off on a lavish honeymoon.

Back in New York, the country’s most popular songwriter found himself adrift between genres. Upon the birth of his first child, he reconnected with his roots writing “Russian Lullaby”. A few years later, the Berlins would lose a son to crib death. Ellin’s father rushed to her. He still disapproved but was more available after the tragedy. The song “My Little Feller” was never published or performed. Eventually they had another daughter.

Irving Berlin 1923

Vaudeville star Belle Baker was about to open in Rogers and Hart’s Betsy. The night before, she asked Berlin for help (a showstopper). In less than 24 hours, he finished “Blue Skies” with which she startled everyone except Ziegfeld, the orchestra and the song’s author. It was a tremendous success, sung next by Al Jolson to his mother in the film The Jazz Singer.

“That year Berlin only published nine songs,” Troy tells us. “He couldn’t sustain his return to writing. The work seemed old fashioned up against sassy new musicals.” Returning to Tin Pan Alley, he discovered that sheet music revenues now took a back seat to phonograph records. We listen to Ruth Etting with a touching, rueful “The Song’s Ended, But the Melody Lingers On.”

The once financially supportive Ziegfeld Follies (of 1927) had a short run, but gave us what Troy (and the era) called “another coon song”: “Shaking the Blues Away.” The word “Darkie” repeats and repeats. Years later, Berlin would replace the word.  He wrote isolated numbers for the scores of Talkies, played himself in the first film biography of Flo Ziegfeld, and met failure with the film Reaching for the Moon, based on Berlin’s idea and script. Hollywood did not exactly roll out the red carpet.

In 1929, Berlin wrote “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” also described as “a coon song.” As it appeared in the Jolson film, Mammy, lyrics referred to Lennox, not Park Avenue, “hats and colored collars not arrow collars.” The lyric was that of a voyeur.

In a departure from her earlier flapper girl image, Joan Crawford performed it in Our Blushing Brides as a shopgirl with integrity. Next came Clark Gable (his only appearance singing and dancing) in Idiot’s Delight. (This was the same year the actor played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.) “Finally it was given to the guy who should’ve done it all along, Fred Astaire,” Troy comments. Thirty years later, Mel Brooks used the song for a duo by Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) and the monster (Peter Boyle) in Young Frankenstein.

“Very little about Hollywood amused Irving Berlin in the 1930s. He lost five million net worth on paper with the crash, but had a valuable asset in his catalog and still co-owned The Music Box Theater which housed the successful Of Thee I Sing by George and Ira Gershwin.

A breadline in New York City

Meanwhile, his father-in-law, Clarence Mackay, had sold cash cow Postal Telegraph Company in the late 1920s for stock. In half an hour, he lost $36 million, the greatest loss of any single American. Mackay fired a staff of 134, closed his palatial estate and moved into the gate keeper cottage.” (Troy)

When fellow immigrant, now president of United Artists, Joe Schenck, offered him a building to run for income, it was the last straw. Berlin gave to charity, he didn’t receive it. It was time to undertake a show again. The songwriter approached young Moss Hart fresh off the latter’s success Once in a Lifetime (written with George S. Kaufman). The result was Face the Music which centered on a Broadway producer who discovered he could make money by getting rich people to back a show that would be a sure flop. Sound familiar? (The Producers)

Finding humor in rather than ignoring the Depression, it was billed as a musical comedy revue straddling sketches and songs. Berlin knew he needed to instill the piece with a cheery outlook. Featured songs were: “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” in which the iconic let a smile be your umbrella was first coined, “Lunching at the Automat” and, in response to Cole Porter’s wildly successful New York songs, “Manhattan Madness” evocative of the hum and buzz of the city. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called the musical a “bountiful merry-go-round” of songs and “gibes”

“Berlin had a deep seated inferiority complex beneath his bravado,” Troy notes. Old friend Max Winslow, who was managing his catalog, couldn’t get the writer to submit any more songs. Secretly, he took “Say It Isn’t So” to Rudy Vallée. Response was great. This encouraged Berlin to finish “How Much Do I Love You,” a hit for Bing Crosby.

Tin Pan Alley recognized two hits in a row, but Berlin had other plans. He teamed with Moss Hart again for Thousands Cheer with Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Helen Broderick. This time it would be an out and out revue, every song introduced by tabloid headlines. “Man Bites Dog” is a duet between a harried editor and her enthused reporter. Eventually a story on Roosevelt is dropped in favor of “a bitch bit a man and the man bit the bitch right back.”

Other numbers parodied John D. Rockefeller refusing to accept Radio City Music Hall as a birthday gift, Mahatma Ghandi, marital woes of Barbara Hutton, and Josephine Baker. For the Baker songs, they hired Ethel Waters, the first Black woman integrated into an otherwise all White show. The performer even secured billing. When the three stars said they wouldn’t take curtain calls with her, Berlin threatened to cut out the curtain calls.

Waters also introduced “Heat Wave” (as a weather report) which would later be performed in film by both Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire, and the splendid “Supper Time” which shocked Broadway audiences.

The finale, Troy tells us, was really at the end of Act I. It was a nostalgia number and one for which Berlin uncharacteristically recycled an old tune. What was once “Smile and Show Your Dimple” became “Easter Parade.” In 1933, The New York Times review said, “As for Mr. Berlin, he’s never written better tunes or more sparkling lyrics.” The show was a rare Depression-era hit. Hollywood called.

End of Part II

Charles Troy

Charles Troy is both illuminating and entertaining. Visuals and songs are well chosen. All of these lectures will remain accessible for awhile. Take advantage!

Opening Art Courtesy of The York Theatre Company
All Photos are in The Public Domain

NEXT: Monday December 6 at 5:30 p.m.

Irving Berlin in Tinseltown 1935-1945
Berlin conquered Hollywood with scores for three Astaire-Rogers films, then produced “God Bless America,” then, in the midst of war, introduced the immortal “White Christmas,” and then toured his show “This is the Army” to soldiers all over the world.

About Alix Cohen (1331 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine 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, 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.