Screen Gems

Com­poser Na­cio Herb Brown and The Broad­way Melody

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Na­cio Herb Brown’s con­nec­tion to New Mex­ico is so ob­scure that his 1964 obit­u­ary in The New York Times iden­ti­fies him as a na­tive of Dem­ing, North Dakota. Dem­ing is ab­so­lutely cor­rect, but who­ever penned the obit­u­ary ob­vi­ously mis­took N.M. for N.D. One thing you can say about the typo: The jour­nal­ist just might have been chan­nel­ing one of Brown’s most fa­mous songs — “Make ’Em Laugh.”

Brown, the first com­poser hired by MGM in the sound era of movies, wrote scores of hits in­clud­ing “Sin­gin’ in the Rain,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Wed­ding of the Painted Doll,” and “All I Do Is Dream of You.” Most of­ten, he col­lab­o­rated with lyri­cist Arthur Freed, who went on to head his own unit at MGM, serv­ing as pro­ducer of Os­car-win­ners An Amer­i­can in Paris and Gigi, not to men­tion The Har­vey Girls and Show Boat.

Brown nearly by­passed the op­por­tu­nity to work in Hol­ly­wood. Irv­ing Thal­berg, head of pro­duc­tion at MGM, came court­ing the song­writer once it be­came clear that a new era in movies was just around the cor­ner. Brown had al­ready en­joyed some suc­cess as a song­writer, hav­ing writ­ten his first hits — “Co­ral Sea” and “When Bud­dha Smiles” — in the early 1920s. Even so, Brown re­jected Thal­berg, not want­ing to aban­don his highly suc­cess­ful real-es­tate busi­ness. It’s was a good thing Brown even­tu­ally re­lented. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 pretty much wiped out the real-es­tate busi­ness. And as the De­pres­sion took hold, Amer­i­cans turned to the “all talk­ing, all singing, all danc­ing” movies to lift their trou­bles and their bur­dens.

“All Talk­ing, All Singing, All Danc­ing” was, in fact, the slo­gan coined for the 1929 MGM mu­si­cal The

Broad­way Melody, pro­duced by Thal­berg and the first fea­ture in­cor­po­rat­ing songs by the new crack team of Brown and Freed. Here, they not only in­tro­duced “Wed­ding of the Painted Doll” and “You Were Meant for Me,” but also “The Broad­way Melody,” “Love Boat,” and “Har­mony Ba­bies.” Pre­sum­ably, they penned th­ese songs the way they did most of their works — start­ing with a catchy ti­tle, and then fit­ting the lyrics and mu­sic to­gether around that theme.

Brown makes an un­cred­ited ap­pear­ance as a pi­anist in the movie. The prime fo­cus, though, is on Bessie Love and Anita Page as two sis­ters on the vaudeville cir­cuit, com­pet­ing for the af­fec­tions of a singer played by Charles King. He chases af­ter the younger sis­ter played by Page, who takes up with a scummy play­boy to avoid hurt­ing her si­b­ling. View­ers to­day might find the plot creaky but may be sur­prised by the open treat­ment of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity — the movie came

Above left, mu­sic and words: Na­cio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; be­low, Brown with ac­tress Anita Page

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