It has always intrigued me, how throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals – of which I am an exceedingly huge fan – how the Western Theme ran strong.
You might as well have today’s Daily Create #tdc1469 which is a picture of something ordinary that I think beautiful. That has to be my Mum’s 1950’s tatty score of Oklahoma the musical – more later.
For me, although I love all eras of musical, things really kicked off in the late 40’s with Judy Garland and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s large studio productions. You only have to listen to the musical score recreations of John Wilson Orchestra – (yes, John Wilson painstakingly has transcribed entire MGM scores after they burnt their music archive to build a car park) – to marvel at the talent not just for music and libretto, but the incredible orchestrations. I love the fact that the same orchestrations, and the musicians who built up their performing capabilities over decades with the studios, can be heard in the cartoon music from the same studio – Tom and Jerry. (That, and the MGM inspired music of yet another hero Seth McFarlane of Family Guy, must be the subject of another blog).
However, MGM weren’t first off the starting line with a Western-Themed Musical. Here is a timeline of stage and musical productions.
Let’s first go to “Way Out West” and two of my favourite screen performers Laurel and Hardy. The duo enter Brushwood Gulch, oo I do like a gulch, panning for gold to seek their fortune. Certainly in my top ten of favourite film moments of all time is the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” song and dance sequence, I might add beautifully performed by the pair and subject of a previous Daily Create which I was going to link to. Strangely the very day I’m writing this blog YouTube have requested me remove the less than 1 minute clip of Laurel and Hardy because the 26 views it has attracted is a threat to Sony Music. The power of the Daily Create!
We hot foot to another gulch in 1939 for our second black and white feature “Destry Rides Again”, Marlene Dietrich stars in this musical version as Frenchy a saloon singer from Bloody Gulch. We have the classic number by Frank Loesser “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” sung here by Marlene. A song more evocative of a war ballad than Frank’s later musical stylings of Guys and Dolls. Probably, the highlight over the lack of singing talents of Ms Dietrich is the first western performance of James Stewart as Thomas Jefferson Destry Jr. Swoon.
“Destry Rides Again” was reincarnated in 1959 as a stage musical and incredibly an excerpt of Dolores Gray in the lead role exists on YouTube. I can’t get over how dated this seems bearing in mind the big clouting MGM productions would have been familiar to folk by this time, and of course, the world would have already gotten to know “Oklahoma”.
Dolores Gray is though sensation and later starred delightfully in “Kismet” with someone who was to feature heavily in the Western Musical Genre – Howard Keel. Dolores went to feature in stage versions of our other cowboy musicals.
We now enter deeply into Western culture and feature two of the most infamous guns lingers of all time – and they were female. No problems with equal opportunities back then. Miss Martha Jane Canary born 1852 and Phoebe Ann Mosley in 1860 were more famously depicted as…..can you guess it….”Calamity Jane” and Annie Oakley of “Annie Get Your Gun”.
With such subject matter you just have to set something to music. Firstly, “Annie Get Your Gun”, released in 1950 by MGM was supplied with songs by Irving Berlin, and plenty of them. Based on an earlier stage version from 1946, whilst I love the whit and sophistication of Berlin songs always, I certainly couldn’t recall many songs from this musical. For an MGM production, they aren’t the big toe tapping numbers that get you dancing around your living room. But Annie was fraught with difficulties and perhaps it was somehow jinxed by a sequence of bizarre events that altered course of production several times. The music was originally destined for Jerome Kern (of Show Boat fame) who suddenly died before he had chance to put pen to stave. Irving was therefore second choice. The lead role in the musical film was destined by tetchy screen star Judy Garland, but she left the role shortly after production started and was picked up by Betty Hutton. Another lead character died during the filming. For the lead male, we were in the safe hands of Howard Keel who seemed to redeem the whole thing.
Here is Dolores Gray with one of the starring numbers “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”.
It is an odd musical with western-themed songs in combination with “Anything You Can do I Can Do better” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, and these to me seem out of place in parts of the production. Of course, originally destined for the large lungs of Ethel Merman in the stage productions.
Hollywood musical era saw immense rivalry between the big film studios and Warner Brothers came back with a similar story featuring a hot-shooting cowgirl in the form of “Calamity Jane” in 1953. Many of the songs were closely matched “Anything You Can Do” = “I Can Do Without You”, based on real life characters of Ms Canary and Wild Bill Hickok. Again featuring Howard Keel in the lead role, but something about C’lam was more authentic, although steeped in Hollywood syrup and with rather unconvincing moments such as sudden changes in love preferences all in the space of one short wagon ride.
The music by lesser knowns David Buttolph and Howard Jackson was far more compelling than Berlin’s music, with lists of classic songs. The stage production came after and it has been a big favourite ever since.
Back to MGM for a big hit based not on real characters at all. Located in Oregon was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” released in 1954. A tale of the kidnap of several women to a mountain-side retreat where they are held hostage in a cow manure-strewn shack. But guess what, it is Spring and there are plenty of “Wonderful Wonderful Days” just around the corner and one by one the gals fall in love with the log-sawing and axe-wielding talents of the fellas, and everyone is happy.
The film is marvellous and features, guess who, Howard Keel in the hot shootin’, high-kickin’ and barn raisin’ lead role. Have I mentioned barn raisin’? They feature heavily almost without exception in most Western musicals. You’ve gotta have a barn and a party to raise it.
For more barn raisin’ shoot forward to 1955 to “Oklahoma” this time the smooth tenor of Gordon McRea and see ladies of a certain age going weak at the knees over this one. Always my preference over the Howard Keel, Gordon McRea expresses a vulnerability when he sings, and what can we say about his regular leading lady Shirley Jones and the astonishing music of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein? They are the grandfathers of the Hollywood Musical and their work is unsurpassed always in my book.
Oklahoma, where the wind blows sweeing down the plain, was based on a much earlier stage play “Green Grow the Lilacs”. First of all a very successful musical stage production, Oklahoma opened Broadway in 1943 and then soon to London I presume. It was performed by my mother’s theatrical group in the 1950’s. The film production came in 1955.
Notable songs include “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” and “Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends”.
We leap nearly a decade to our final offering “Paint Your Wagon” in 1969, with music by Lerner and Lowe of “My Fair Lady” fame. We are reaching the end of the golden age of the musical. The film featured Clint Eastwood, but the song that reached top of the UK Music Charts in 1970 was by Lee Marvin who couldn’t sing a note and performed “I was born under a wandering star” which sounded like he’d just gargled with a packet of razor blades.
There were some beautiful songs in this film: “I Talk to the Trees”, “They call the Wind Maria” and “Wanderin’ Star”.
I find it amusing that my knowledge of American geography largely and entirely comes from my knowledge of American songs. What is interesting here is that I was imagining the Western Music Genre well being located largely in the west, but the songs give reference to areas all over the US.
Back to 1937 and “Way Out West” which refers to the Blue Ridged Mountains of Virginia part of an extensive range of Appalacian Mountains that reach from Tenessee up to West Virginia. As @Cogdog beautifully pointed out, Oklahoma was actually filmed slightly to the west in Arizona. “A-r-i-z-o-n-a where the wind comes whipping down the plain” almost has quite a ring to it, and certainly the plethora of cacti and mountain backdrops to the on-location scenes in the movie. Other songs in the movie mention “Kansas City” (Got To Kansas City on a Friday, by Saturday I’d learned a thing or two).
Annie Oakley was born in Ohio and it isn’t clear where the film was set. She travelled all over the US with the Buffalo Bill fair. No songs from “Annie Get Your Gun” mentioned names or locations.
Over to “C’lam”, and of course, just flew in from the windy city of Chicago on the “Deadwood Stage”, which must have been some ride east of 950 miles or so. In the film she leaps of the stage coach into a song showing no signs of the sore posterior that she surely must have suffered from all those miles of horse-drawn stage transport. Ah well, Hollywood. Later, the “Black Hills of Dakota” in which she performed alongside Howard Keel.
Back west to “Oregon” for the location of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with no mention of towns in the song titles. South to California for “Paint your Wagon”, although no town names in the song titles which included “The Gospel of No Name City”.
ROMANCE AND DARKER DEALINGS
It hardly goes without saying there has to be romance right.
C’lam and Wild Bill Hickok
Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill
Laurie Williams and Curly McLain
Frenchy and Tom Destry
Seven Brides and ‘erm Seven Brothers
There are some interesting undertones in Oklahoma and some odd characterisation such as man eating Ado Annie who was a strange casting addition to the film. I hasten to add that is the part my Mum played on the stage several times – the photo is not her as Ado but in another role at that time.
There is a scene where Laurie sniffs laudanum and enters a dream sequence set within a den of iniquity. A darker and misjudged character in the form of Jud Fry who likes Laurie and ends up falling on his knife, oh right, brings little to convince the audience and makes Curley look like a bit of a ner-do-well. One of the show-stealing songs is by Jud but yer don’t get it in the film version, “Lonely Room”:
“The floor creaks, the door squeaks,
There’s a field mouse a nibblin’ on a broom.
And I set by myself like a cobweb on a shelf,
By myself in a lonely room”.
THE END OF AN ERA AND A GENRE
From 1969 the era of the musical came crashing to an end. I guess the feeling was folk didn’t need those large toe tapping feel good musicals any more. But I can hardly believe that. Maybe this is the time for a revival.