Hollywood's 'Hooray': Hardly A Happy Hymn

Feb 11, 2013
Originally published on February 11, 2013 11:41 am

When the Oscars are handed out later this month, the ceremony will most likely be punctuated by music that has pretty much come to stand for movies and Movieland. Ironically, the composer grew up in Detroit, and the lyricist came from Savannah, Ga. — yet together they wrote the quintessential Tinseltown anthem.

"Hooray for Hollywood" was written for the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Hotel. It was a corny little "let's-go-to-Hollywood-and become-stars" movie from 1937, with some cute dialogue.

The movie didn't do much, box office-wise, but that song made it big. (Although it took awhile). The Warner Brothers put it in a few cartoons, but not until the 1950s, when the Oscar ceremonies nabbed it, did it really take off. Richard Whiting's music and Johnny Mercer's lyrics moved from the silver screen into the stratosphere.

"I saw a piece of paper that had the list of material that Whiting and Mercer had to write for this movie," says singer Michael Feinstein, host of NPR's Song Travels. "It was a factory, and they had to churn out these things. There was a deadline, and this was just one of many things they had to supply.

"I'm sure they sat there thinking, 'OK, this is the opening number. We've got Benny Goodman and his band to perform it, so we have to come up with something that is rousing but will be great, performed by a big band.' And he wrote something that is kind of a march, but it also has a swing to it. And because he does all these little twists and turns with the melody — it is rather complex, but it's easy to sing."

Composer Richard Whiting arrived in Hollywood in 1919, scored more than a dozen films, and was known as a go-to guy who could write any kind of song. Lyricist Johnny Mercer was a newcomer — he went West in 1934 with dreams of stardom and of being the next Bing Crosby. He and Whiting did several movies together.

Mercer's biographer Philip Furia says the music always came first — and the music for this song posed problems for the lyricist.

"So he wrote what was sometimes called a dummy lyric, where you just use nonsensible words to remember the melody," Furia says. "His lyric was, 'piece of ma-ter-ial,' 'piece of mat-er-ial' before he came up with, 'ho-oray for Hol-ly-wood.' "

But Furia says it wasn't all hooray for Mercer in Hollywood. And these lyrics reflect it.

"He was kind of bitter toward Hollywood, because he had flopped as an actor," Furia says. "And, so, when he wrote 'Hooray for Hollywood,' he was really making fun of a lot of things he didn't like about Hollywood. That's why he says, 'Hooray for Hollywood, Where you're terrific if you're even good.' He was, you know, put off by all the glitz and glamour and that it was all 'Tinseltown' fakery and you didn't really need to have a lot of talent. So, it's surprising that that song has become kind of the anthem of Hollywood, because it takes a very cynical, satirical view of the whole movie industry."

It's probably the peppy, upbeat Whiting music that makes the song seem like such a salute — along with the repeated "Hoorays!" from Mercer). Despite the cynicism, it's a song about making it big, trying your luck. A song about dreams.

And Mercer knew all about dreams. "Old Dream-Maker," he wrote in his lyric for the Oscar-winning "Moon River" — more than two decades after this complicated, sometimes-moody standard. Listened to with close attention to the lyrics, Doris Day's slow, bluesy reading of the song comes closer to the dark-bright shadings of Movieland.

The aspirations and realities of Hollywood mingle clearly at that historic intersection of Hollywood and Vine. On the Walk of Fame the other day, a legless man, his crutches lying on the ground, sat polishing one of the brass stars. And tourists from everywhere strolled along, reading the pavement, dreaming their own dreams.

"The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is what some call Hollywood Boulevard. But the dreamers keep coming.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

"Argo," the movie about rescuing American diplomats from Iran during the 1979 revolution, is raking in more trophies this award season. This past weekend, it won Best Picture at the British Academy Film Awards, Britain's version of the Oscars.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

"Argo's" director, Ben Affleck, also took home Best Director. He did not receive an Oscar nomination in that category. Affleck dedicated his award last night to, quote, "Anyone out there who's trying to get their second act."

MONTAGNE: You'll hear a song that's had many second acts when the Academy Awards take place here in Los Angeles later this month. That song has come to stand for movies and for movieland. But the composer grew up in Detroit and the lyricist came from Savannah, Georgia. Yet together they wrote the quintessential anthem to Hollywood.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has the story of the tune "Hooray for Hollywood."

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The history of entertainment is spelled out on the pavements of Hollywood and Vine, in Los Angeles.

LERON GUBLER: Now, there's Ellen DeGeneres, Carmen Miranda, Anjelica Huston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus - we misspelled her name; Bruce Dern...

STAMBERG: Some 2500 names, outlined by brass stars, embedded in the Walk of Fame. Leron Gubler, head of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, says studios, sponsors, fans, put up 30,000 bucks for each tribute. And if they don't do it with a smile, at least there's a song.

(LAUGHTER)

GUBLER: You want me to sing it? (Singing) Hooray for Hollywood, that crazy, ballyhooed Hollywood, where any office boy or new mechanic...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

STAMBERG: The song was written for the Warner Brothers film "Hollywood Hotel," a corny little 1937 let's-go-to-Hollywood-and-become-stars movie, with some cute dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOLLYWOOD HOTEL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm sorry I can't stick with you, Bowers, but I've got to interview a horse. We just signed him up for the lead in a western.

DICK POWELL: (As Ronnie Bowers) What are you going to say to a horse?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know yet. He's an Arabian horse. But they'll have an interpreter there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

STAMBERG: The movie didn't do much, but that song made it big - although it took a while. Warner's put it in a few cartoons. But not until the 1950s, when the Oscar ceremonies nabbed it, did it really take off. Then, Richard Whiting's music and Johnny Mercer's lyrics moved from the silver screen into the stratosphere.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I saw a piece of paper that had the list of material that Whiting and Mercer had to write for this movie. You know, it was a factory and they had to churn out these things.

STAMBERG: Singer and host of NPR Music's SONG TRAVELS, Michael Feinstein.

FEINSTEIN: There was a deadline and this was just one of many things that they had to supply. I'm sure they sat there thinking, OK, this is the opening number. We've got Benny Goodman and his band to perform it, so we have to come up with something that is rousing, but will be great performed by a big band.

And he wrote something that is kind of a march but it also has a swing to it. And because he does all these little twists and turns with the melody, it is rather complex, but it's easy to sing.

(Singing) Hooray for Hollywood, that screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood, where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic with just a good-looking pan. And any barmaid can be a star maid if she dances with or without a fan. Hooray for Hollywood. Where you're terrific if you're even good. Where anyone at all from Raymond Massey to dear old Lassie is equally understood. Go out and try your luck, you may be Donald Duck, hooray for Hollywood.

STAMBERG: Composer Richard Whiting arrived in Hollywood in 1919, scored more than a dozen films, and was known as a go-to guy who could write any kind of song. Lyricist Johnny Mercer was a newcomer. He went West in 1934 with dreams of stardom - being the next Bing Crosby. He and Whiting did several movies together.

Mercer's biographer Philip Furia says the music always came first. And the music for this song posed problems for the lyricist.

PHILIP FURIA: So, he wrote what was sometimes called a dummy lyric, where you just use non-sensible words, to help remember the melody. His lyric was: piece of material, piece of material, before he came up with, hooray for Hollywood.

STAMBERG: But biographer Furia says it was not all hooray for Johnny Mercer in Hollywood. And these lyrics reflect it.

FURIA: No, he was kind of bitter toward Hollywood because he had flopped as an actor. And, so, when he wrote "Hooray for Hollywood," he was really making fun of a lot of things he didn't like about Hollywood. That's why he says: Hooray for Hollywood where you're terrific if you're even good. He was put off by all the glitz and glamour and that it was all Tinseltown fakery and you didn't really need to have a lot of talent.

So, it's surprising that that song has become kind of the anthem of Hollywood, because it takes a very cynical, satirical view of the whole movie industry.

STAMBERG: It's probably the peppy, upbeat Whiting music that makes the song seem such a salute - and the repeated hoorays from Mercer.

Despite the cynicism, it's a song about making it big, trying your luck, a song about dreams. And Johnny Mercer knew all about dreams. "Old Dream-Maker" he wrote in his lyric for the Oscar-winning "Moon River." more than two decades after this complicated, sometimes moody standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

DORIS DAY: (Singing) Hooray for Hollywood, where you're terrific if you're even good, where anyone at all, from TV's Lassie to Monroe's chassis is equally understood...

STAMBERG: This song comes closer to the dark/bright shadings of Movieland. The aspirations and realities of Hollywood mingle clearly at that historic intersection of Hollywood and Vine.

On the Walk of Fame the other day, a legless man - his crutches lying on the ground - sat polishing one of the brass stars. And tourists from everywhere strolled along, reading the pavement and dreaming their own dreams. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is what some call Hollywood Boulevard. But the dreamers keep on coming.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

DAY: (Singing) Hooray for Hollywood...

MONTAGNE: And that's Doris Day singing on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

DAY: (Singing) They come from Chillicothes and Padukahs with their bazookas to get their names up in lights. All armed with photos from local rotos, with their hair in ribbons and legs in tights. Hooray... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.