America Had Eyes For
Harry Warren And His Tunes
The Oft-Forgotten Composer Who Worked At All Three Of The Major Studios And Arguably Was Just As Accomplished As Berlin, Porter, Kern And The Gershwins, Discusses His Lack Of Chutzpah And Much More
Image provided by Tom Johnson and David Fantle of Reel To Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 29, 2014 — Eighty years ago songwriter Harry Warren wrote music (with a lyric by Al Dubin) for a romantic love song they called “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The tune, introduced in the 1934 musical Dames by Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, came smack-dab in the middle of the “Golden Age” of American popular music.
Warren, along with dozens of other composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins, was a major proponent of a sound and style that would set a standard and come to be seen in ensuing decades as uniquely American.
Working with a succession of lyricists, Warren, during his long and prolific career, penned his share of that classic Tin Pan Alley song catalogue, which included winning three Oscars for “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’ll Never Know,” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”. Other hits include the Swing-era standards “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” and “I Had the Craziest Dream,” as well as novelty songs like “Jeepers Creepers” and “That’s Amore” which was a major hit for Dean Martin in the 1950s.
We visited with Warren in 1980, a year before his death, at his home off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills when the tunesmith was 87. Warren enjoys the singular distinction of having more songs on radio’s Your Hit Parade top-10 list between 1935 and 1950 than any other composer — including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. Yet, Warren’s name borders on anonymity to anyone unfamiliar with the Great American Songbook.
“Unfortunately, I guess I wasn’t newsworthy,” he told us. “In the first place, the average person wants to have his name known. He’s got what they call chutzpah, which I’ve never had.”
Warren was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna, one of 11 children of Italian immigrants, in Brooklyn on Christmas Eve in 1893. He never took a single piano lesson and took pains to discount to us his rare, untutored gift.
“I think you’re just endowed that way — born that way. I think it’s a God-given gift. That’s the only excuse I can give you,” he said.
Warren’s first musical triumphs came at Warner Bros., where he and Al Dubin wrote most of the music for the Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopic extravaganzas. Warren was the only composer who conquered all four major Hollywood studios – Warner’s, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount.
He recalled for us one of the more humorous days at Warner’s.
“We were doing a number for Berkeley and he told the entire set that he was waiting for me,” Warren said. “I was holding him up. And there was a Mexican number called ‘Muchacha’ which had the guys on horseback riding on a treadmill. Anyhow, they called me at 9 a.m. In those days I used to get up at 12 noon. So I got dressed and rushed over there.
“I had a piano player who was sort of a musical secretary. I said to him, ‘I’m going to fake something. Try to remember what I’m going to play. So, there’s Jack Warner and everybody; about 100 girls and a piano. And they asked me, ‘Where’s the rest of the number?’ So I sat down at the piano and faked it and they thought it was great.”
The anecdote was instructional because Warren said that of the four studios at which he worked, Warner’s (where he composed perhaps his greatest hits) was the worst.
“The studio executives knew nothing about musicals,” he said. “How could they? They didn’t have any experience in music. My favorite musicals were all at MGM. I didn’t like the other pictures at all. I didn’t like the scripts. There was nothing to them. I like a story script where you can write something to it.”
Although we pressed, Warren deferred telling us which of his films contained his favorite score. But he did imply that it was the seldom seen and much neglected Summer Holiday – the musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!
“I was very fond of that film,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing I ever did at Metro. The script to Ah, Wilderness! lent itself so nicely to music. It just flowed. I think it will be rediscovered.”
When we visited Warren more than 30 years ago he assiduously avoided the show business limelight (as assiduously as it had avoided him), preferring instead to tinker at the keyboard if a melody came to mind. He told us his greatest pleasure came from listening to the symphonic music of Puccini, Verdi, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. As for those three Academy Awards for Best Song: he used them as weighty doorstops in his house.
Carved on Warren’s tombstone – presciently we think – are a few notes from one his Oscar-winning songs: “You’ll Never Know.”
Incidentally, for our money, we think the best version of Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” is the one Ella Fitzgerald recorded with Nelson Riddle's orchestra on her 1966 Grammy Award-winning Verve release, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson.
An American original singing an American standard; it doesn’t get better than that.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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