Betty Comden 1915-2006
One of the last links to the great MGM musicals died today. Betty Comden co-wrote the lyrics and scripts to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, ON THE TOWN, and THE BANDWAGON, among others. She did other work, both in Hollywood and on Broadway, most co-credited with Adolph Green. But just those three titles are enough — quite possibly the three greatest musical films ever made.
Auteurship is sometimes difficult to unpack quickly, and the obit quotes Comden herself as saying that she and Green worked very catch-as-catch-can rather than having precisely defined permanent roles (like say, Elton John’s music and Bernie Taupin’s words). But here are two numbers that can primarily be attributed to Comden, plus the only one I can find quickly from THE BANDWAGON. (Yeah, I’ve learned to use YouTube, and now I’m worrying about the Rule of Three.™)
The opening number “New York, New York” from ON THE TOWN
What struck me when I first saw ON THE TOWN was how the song just made the movie burst onto the screen (helped no doubt by counterpoint with the preceding moments of a lethargic “yawn” song). It was the exuberance spilling off the screen as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin took this impossible tour. I’ll also never forget the shock of seeing the cabbie and thinking “is that Irene Lorenzo and Mrs. Babish. It was — and she and her relationship with Munchin, the least-known of the three sailors, was the comic heart of the film.
And “Moses Supposes” from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN:
There’s a tendency, even in the very best musicals, to skrimp on the script. A big part of what elevated RAIN and WAGON was having good stories. Light, frothy, comic stories of show-biz, of course (in fact, the notion of Tragic High Art is deliberately mocked in both), and they wouldn’t be the masterpieces they are without their music. But the stories still generally stand up, and the very fact they’re about show-biz acclimates the musical’s conventions and also makes them feel “real.”
Some silent-film scholars slam on SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN as responsible for a number of myths about silent movies, that the stars had voices as bad as Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, or that the early sound films were as bad as the test version of “The Dueling Cavalier.” Taken too literally, SINGIN’ would do that. But refracted and adjusted for the conventions of musical comedy, it’s accurate enough. “Moses Supposes,” for example, has fun with the convention of elocution coaches, which WERE a fad in the early days of the talkies that fed off the stage convention that a British accent was a mark of sophistication.
And here’s the melancholy wordless “Dancing in the Dark” number from THE BANDWAGON:
This clip doesn’t really belong to Comden artistically of course, but the tone of the number, which also suffuses her script with its fading old star (Fred Astaire) having a last hurrah, but then who-knows-what, is what I want to convey about THE BANDWAGON. It’s a much more melancholy film than either of the other two, and according to Roger Ebert, it wasn’t a happy shoot, for a variety of reason.
Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant in THE BANDWAGON are playing slightly fictionalized versions of Comden and Green, and Ebert points out that their frustrations in the film belong to their creators. The Supreme Court-weakened studios were in their twilight in 1953, with TV coughing offstage, ready to take over the lead role in the drama of the nation’s entertainment. “There are no auteurs in musical pictures,” Stanley Donen once said. And more than any other genre, musicals depended on the studio-factory approach, of having a stable of songwriters, lyricists, singers who could act, actors who could dance, cheoreographers, etc. Since THE BAND WAGON, most of the great or famous movie musicals have been imported into Hollywood direct from Broadway.
I’ve mentioned both Betty Garrett and Nanette Fabray, who began their careers in Hollywood musicals and studio second-bananas and went on to TV and do the same there, providing texture and detail to some important 70s sitcoms. They were exemplars of something about the decline of pop culture in the last 15 years or so that Camille Paglia said at an AEI talk I went to last year, something made more poignant and highlighted by the passing of Comden, one of the surviving figures from the classic era of the movie musical.
There’s less interest now in the traditional forms of popular culture and mass media. There’s a slapdash quality. If you compare the quality of TV sitcom scripts from the late ’90s or even now to the quality of scriptwriting in the great period of TV sitcoms in the 1960s and ’70s like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the quality of performance, the tightness with which the script is done, the way everybody is on their mark. You’re still seeing in that period the influence of live performing arts and vaudeville.
The whole tradition of live theater once fed early Hollywood and early TV for a very long time. In 1920s and ’30s Manhattan, when there were hundreds of theaters, people could just come right from Iowa, Connecticut or wherever and get a job and watch and learn and absorb and so on. You could go into a vaudeville house in any provincial city and a guy would say, “OK, I’ll give you a chance, let’s see what you can do, kid. Go out there.” And you could do things like that. Now, today, kids can’t even afford to get into a Broadway show.
No comments yet.