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Kurt Weill, a Commuter to Hollywood

by Thornton Delehanty

Source: New York Herald Tribune, June 3, 1945

Hollywood. A form of existence highly envied and rarely achieved is that of the Broadwayite who can successfully split his time between New York and California without splitting his personality, his pocketbook or the quality of his work.

Kurt Weill is such a person, a creative commuter who uses his whim for a timetable. He has been here now for weeks touching up the film version of “One Touch of Venus,” writing some additional music to his original score, and taking a swim every day in the ocean.

He says that a swim in the ocean has the mental and moral stimulus of a brisk walk down Madison Avenue and that tossing about in a bed of kelp is as energizing as a brush with the milling crowds of Times Square.

In an office at 20th Century-Fox the other day he talked about music and the picture business, the alertness of American audiences, the occasional snootiness of Broadway toward Hollywood, about bobby soxers, the influence of American jazz on European composers, and his own method of collaboration.

He talked also about “Where Do We Go from Here?”, the Fred MacMurray musical which he did when he was here last year and which illustrates some of his cherished ideas about the relationship between music and pictures.

This picture, he says, was frankly an experiment with an opera form, in that the music and lyrics are integrated with the story, advancing it rather than retarding it, as is the case with most musical films.

Got Sort of Humorous Fantasy

“We had to have the right story to start with,” he said, “one that lent itself to comedy and action. What we got was a sort of humorous fantasy. It concerns a young man who, when he is turned down for the Army, consults a genie who gets mixed up in his time sense and translates the chap into Washington’s Army. Our hero then decides he wants to be in the Navy and, presto, the genie puts him on the ship with Columbus on the voyage to America.

“With that kind of material,” he went on, “we felt we could afford to have fun. Take the mutiny scene aboard Columbus’s ship. The scene runs for something like fifteen minutes and the whole thing is sung. We had good singers too, men like Carlos Ramirez and Fortunio Bononova, but we also had MacMurray, and thanks to the mechanical wonders of the microphone we were able to make his voice come out like an opera singer’s.

“That’s the great advantage of the movies over the stage. One of the difficulties in casting a stage musical is to find actors who can sing or singers who can act. It’s very hard to get a combination of the two. But in pictures you can take actors who don’t need to know anything more than how to carry a tune and the mike will do the rest. Like these aviators, our movie actors can sing by instrument.”

Mr. Weill does not belong to the school which maintains that screen music must be accounted for and explained.

Calls Opera Form a Convention

“It isn’t necessary,” he said, “for some one [sic] to walk over to a piano in order to show he is going to sing. The opera form is just a convention, and ninety-nine out of a hundred people in the theater wouldn’t notice, and wouldn’t care if they did, whether the music is introduced by story cues or not. That’s what we tried to show in ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’ Ira Gershwin and I simply put the whole thing into musical form–we let the action sing for itself. Of course, you have to be particular about the kind of story you choose. It’s better if the opera is built around some familiar legend, like Rip Van Winkle or the Columbus voyage, so that the audience can keep ahead of it.

“Here in America is the best audience in the world to write music for. They are remarkably quick to catch what you are trying to put over. They laugh when the music is meant to be funny. I find I can switch them over from laughter to tenderness or any other kind of response in a few bars.”

Weill said he was amazed at the enthusiasm of youngsters in America for instrumentalists. “In Europe,” he said, “young people liked music deeply but they listened to it in a kind of dumb rapture. The average youngster over there didn’t have any appreciation for orchestration and they didn’t know one instrument from another. They were fed on classical music and they accepted what was given them. But here the great instrumentalists like Benny Goodman and Harry James and Gene Krupa are gods. The young people can tell the minute they hear a recording what band is playing. The younger generation here may not know or care anything about so-called classical music but it would be an easy step for them if they wanted to take it.”

Influenced by Armstrong

He said that the records of Louis Armstrong and the early Gershwin music had influenced him when he was writing operas in Germany and that Stravinsky and other modern composers in Paris had also been influenced by American jazz.

Weill is returning to New York shortly but he has no definite plans for a Broadway musical. He has to have a story idea that appeals to him before he can start work, and his method of arriving at the idea is to beat his brains out jointly with some playwright until the theme develops.

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