by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night's big PBS pledge special was The Great American Songbook, a documentary hosted by Michael Feinstein that covers American songwriting pretty much from 1917 through 1955 or so, though the start of the story reaches back to the 1890’s and the first million-selling song (in sheet music copies), Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball.” (They could have started the story even earlier — in the 1850’s with Stephen Foster, not only the first identifiable songwriter to become an American celebrity but also the first white musician to make his fortune ripping off African-American music and culture: in that regard Foster was the precursor of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Elvis Presley.) It suffered from the attempt to cover the subject matter in an hour and a half (PBS did a much better job on the same subject in the six-hour, three-part Broadway: The American Musical from 2004, a year after The Great American Songbook was made: though it was being billed as if it were new, it was actually a Turner Classic Movies cable production from 2003!) and from the overfamiliarity of some of the film clips used — just about any time anyone does a history of American songwriting we’re going to see clips from Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland, and we pretty well can guess which clips it’s going to be (though oddly they did not include Judy singing “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz: instead Harold Arlen was represented mostly by Lena Horne singing “Stormy Weather” from the musical of that title).
There were also some odd mistakes in the narration: it identified Jolson as one of America’s top vaudevillians (Jolson never played vaudeville: he went straight from minstrel shows onto the Broadway stage) and it repeated the obnoxious mistake from the 1999 PBS documentary Yours for a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley (also hosted by Michael Feinstein) that Dorothy Fields was the first woman to write a hit Broadway show. (She was not: before her Dorothy Donnelly had written the book and lyrics for Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, and before her Rida Johnson Young had written book and lyrics for The Naughty Marietta with Victor Herbert — a show heavily profiled in The Great American Songbook but with no mention that it was written by a woman.) Still, it was a charming show and offered a lot of snippets of good music (maybe the bonus promotional DVD’s PBS is hawking for contributions include complete performances of some of these great songs!), and though the clips were not always as well chosen as they might have been, some of them were quite appropriate: notably the one in which Tyrone Power teaches his band to play “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in the 1938 musical of that name (which, interestingly, was one of the few Hollywood musicals set in the past to duplicate the style of musical arrangements common in the periods it was depicting: the on-screen ensemble actually plays the song in the manner of old records from the period rather than updating the musical style to that of 1938 — perhaps Irving Berlin used his clout and his direct experience of the period to ensure that they got it right).
Ironically, when I looked this movie up on imdb.com the user review that came up was from a Doris Day fanatic who complained that there was too little of her and too much of Judy Garland — Judy was represented by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (a pretty downbeat song which the narration suggests was a hit because people with family members fighting in World War II related to its sentiments of loss and nostalgia — though the show doesn’t mention that the original lyrics were even more downbeat than the ones we know and it was Judy herself who insisted the songwriters lighten them up). “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “Easter Parade” with Fred Astaire, and “The Man Who Got Away,” while Doris got two songs (not just one, as her incredibly defensive fan claimed), “It’s Magic” (which she introduced in her first film, Romance on the High Seas, and she sang beautifully, though I still think Sarah Vaughan sang it even better) and “Just One of Those Things” (from a number in which Doris shows her butch side, doing a dance in tight-fitting black jeans). It was probably unfair that Doris Day’s best musical, Calamity Jane, wasn’t included at all (while we got a dreary sequence of Betty Hutton butchering Irving Berlin’s “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” from Annie Get Your Gun, the movie Calamity Jane started out as a ripoff of and which turned out to be better than its model), but the film certainly didn’t give her short shrift. It did peter out in the 1950’s, as the great American songbook gave way to rock ’n’ roll as America’s most popular music, and Feinstein’s partisan (to put it politely) narration tries to make the 1950’s musicals sound better than they were (and he ducks any discussion of the sad end of the Say It with Music project that was supposed to mark the swan song of both Irving Berlin and Arthur Freed, and ended up not being made at all), but it’s still a fun program even though also a maddeningly frustrating one.