Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Howard Hawks and A Song Is Born

In 1941 one of the most commercially successful and artistically enduring comedies of all time was released: Ball of Fire. The story was set against a mansion in which a bunch of old professors (with exception of one young chap) are collaborating to write an encyclopedia. The problems arise when they reach the "slang entry" of the project, and learn that their knowledge for writing that section is so narrow that a volunteer is needed to leave the secluded mansion and map the changes in the language of the street.

Only seven years passed since the completion of the Ball, producers thought that the very successful idea can be used again, and this time the professors should search for a new word, JAZZ!

The same director who made Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, was hired again for the job. Unlike ignorant professors of the story, Hawks had a great understanding of American modern popular music and had even incorporated them into his film whenever necessary. (For that matter, see Hoagy Carmichael's glowing presence in To Have and have Not.)

The script, written and rewritten by an army of writers, based on an original idea by Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe, was considered too messy to be credited to anyone, therefore the whole weight was put on jazz and jazz musicians -- and rightly so.

Aside from principle stars, Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, the studio hired Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell, Louie Bellson and many more to carry on the jazz weight of the film which fell out of balance with rather poorly narrated romantic story and gangster sub-plot.

Hawks' main achievement was tuning to whole ensemble into a celebration of unappreciated art of jazz, as if in the process he was reflecting on his status in Hollywood as a misunderstood director.
from L: Dorsey, Goodman, Barnet, Hawks, Hampton

According to Hawks' biographer Tod McCarthy, during the production of A Song Is Born, the director loved listening to the music more than directing the musicians:

Hawks, whose own musical talent was limited to playing two songs on the banjo, liked jazz and popular music and got a kick out of the jam sessions on the set. On numerous occasions, according to Virginia Mayo, Hawks "would stop the action and just listen to them play, which wasn't very professional. Mr. Goldwyn [the producer] wouldn't like him wasting time like that." Hawks sometimes invited the musicians up to his house, where his daughter Barbara remembers some incredible evenings with Goodman, Powell, and a couple of the others would play and cut homemade 78 recordings into the small hours. [Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Tod McCarthy]
My favorite scene in the film is when Danny Kaye asks the musicians about a certain musical term, and Lionel Hampton wanting to explain feels that to fully demonstrate the idiom a clarinet is needed. Kaye gets Goodman who is a professor knowing nothing about jazz and having a classical duet with a fellow cellist. When Goodman is brought, things start to change within the community of academic and intellectuals. Goodman's performance is exceptional and his acting innocent and not-having-heard-jazz suits him perfectly well. But the moment he starts to swing is really the birth of the song Hawks is promising - and what a wonderful moment:

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