The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Dreamgirls

Friday, February 4, 2011

High Button Shoes

So why wasn’t High Button Shoes  made into a film? A big hit on Bway in 1947, the show was done in London the following year; was a standard in stock and straw-hat circuits thru half the Golden Age and had obvious film potential. You’d think Fox would have snapped it up for Betty Grable. The show was a lighthearted slice of Americana, circa 1913, about a New Jersey family, conned by a snake-oil salesman, winding up in a chase thru Atlantic City. Phil Silvers cemented his swindler persona on stage and should have preserved it on screen. Grable and Dan Dailey were tailor-made for the Longstreet couple-can’t you just see them in a lovely boardwalk soft shoe doing “I Still Get Jealous”? And no question there’s a surefire rouser in the picnic polka, “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me?” These two songs alone, by established Hlwd songwriters Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn off their first Bway hit, should have sealed a deal. With another half dozen audience-friendly tunes and a signature madcap “ballet” recalling Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops & bathing beauties, it would seem a surefire package, especially when nostalgic Americana the likes of On Moonlight Bay  Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Grable’s own Wabash Avenue were big box-office hits. On the other hand, Warner Bros. could have picked it up just as easily for Doris Day—after all, she’d already had a hit record of “Papa, Won’t You Dance…” from back in 1947. Throw Jack Carson in (as either her spouse or the slippery Harrison Floy) and it’s no less a valid prospect.  Or at MGM: Esther Williams (or June Allyson, or Dinah Shore) and Van Johnson would do, with Red Skelton as con-man Floy. The point is: any studio could have found suitable players and banked on this recognizable Bway title, so what happened? Apparently the fly in the ointment was Jerome Robbins. Claiming ownership of the show’s justifiably lauded dances, he refused to negotiate with Hlwd, despite offers on the table, or even a lawsuit from the show’s authors. Perhaps he was still nursing a grudge from not participating in On the Town; and we know he will exercise far greater muscle with West Side Story. But in this case, an impasse left  behind  one  of  the 1940s more popular Bway hits. Preserving Bway musicals on screen (even in botched or aborted versions) would prove instrumental in extending a show’s life and fame. In this way, HBS is rather lost to us now, and gets far less interest today than say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Styne’s next project (which had its own negotiation problems, as we shall see). Some agreement was worked out for HBS, however, for the show was abridged for a television “Saturday Spectacular” on NBC, broadcast on Nov 24, 1956, five days before Styne’s Bells Are Ringing opened on Bway.  Silvers, busy with his career-defining sitcom, You’ll Never Get Rich (as Sgt. Bilko), was replaced by Hal March. Don Ameche and Nanette Fabray (recreating her Bway role) played the Longstreets. I’ve yet to find anything anywhere written about it.

With the advent of sound songwriters flocked to Hlwd like prospectors in the gold rush. The flood of movie musicals gave countless opportunities to tyro lyricists & composers, many of whom never strayed from their Beverly Hills mansions. But once Oklahoma! brought new prestige to the stage, a good many Hlwd tunesmiths grabbed for the Bway brass ring—with mixed results. Among them: Johnny Mercer, Sammy Fain, Johnny Burke, James Van Heusen, Leo Robin, Harry Warren, Victor Young, Jimmy McHugh, Gene DePaul, Harold Adamson, Sammy Cahn, Ralph Blane, Elmer Bernstein, Jay Livingston & Ray Evans. But of all the Hlwd talents who later came to try their hand on Bway, only two: Jule Styne & Frank Loesser (who on occasion even wrote songs together), would find greater success and glory on The Great White Way than they ever had in California.  In the late ‘40s both would deliver inaugural Bway hits with old-fashioned settings.  Both would score bigger sophomore hits; adapt children’s fairy tales in the early 50s; and write Oscar-winning songs after moving to Bway. Having begun in Hlwd, it’s fitting that both Loesser & Styne would have more Bway shows transferred to the screen than most of their stage brethren. All the more reason it’s a shame that High Button Shoes never made it on screen.

Next Up: Where's Charley?

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