Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harry's Back in Town

Harry Warren
December 24, 1893 - September 22, 1981

Harry's Back in Town was a music revue featuring the songs of the popular composer that was the first production of COMUS Music Theatre of Canada in 1976. The title is a take-off on the song Lulu's Back in Town written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin for 1935s Broadway Gondolier where it was sung by Dick Powell and The Mills Brothers. Of course, the truth is that Harry Warren didn't have to come back - he never went away. People love the hundreds of songs written by Harry Warren even though they don't know it. I was one of those people.

The Lawrence Welk Show was popular in my family and one evening Lawrence announced that the program would be a tribute to his good friend, Harry Warren. "Who the Devil is Harry Warren?" asked my Dad. My sisters and I shrugged our shoulders and the show began. As each performer started another familiar song we looked at each other and laughed. "So that's Harry Warren!"

Welk wasn't the first television host to pay tribute to Harry's popularity. Perry Como, Nat "King" Cole and Eddie Fisher did as well. Nat's program was special in that his theme song - "In the evening let me come and sing to you" - was set to the melody of Harry's Shadow Waltz from Gold Diggers of 1933.

Harry was born Salvatore Anthony Guaragna in Brooklyn in 1893. His father changed the family name to Warren. Harry was a self-taught musician picking up his father's accordion. He left school at 16 to join a carnival and in his early 20s was working at Vitagraph Studios providing mood music, playing bits, assistant directing, props, anything that needed doing. He also played piano background at movie theatres and performed in cafes. It was during a stint in the Navy in 1918 that he began composing and in 1922 had his first hit song Rose of the Rio Grande. Puccinni was a strong musical influence and Broadway his desired goal.

Harry's songs were featured in Broadway Revues such as Billy Rose's Sweet and Low in 1930 and Ed Wynn's The Laugh Parade in 1931. The Brothers Warner, those pioneering talking picture producers who had purchased Harry's old Vitagraph stomping grounds in 1925, offered him a contract in 1932. Harry Warren didn't merely provide the movies with songs, he provided the world with standards - the soundtrack of the 20th century.

Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter
42nd Street

Directed by Busby Berkeley, who worked on the Billy Rose Revue mentioned early, the backstage musical 42nd Street, based on Bradford Ropes novel, is boisterous, fast-moving fun. Songs by Harry and lyricist Al Dubin include the title tune, You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me and Shuffle Off to Buffalo. Warren and Dubin have a bit in the picture as a couple of songwriters who get chewed out by the director. They are too cute!

Just a few of the other gems given to us by Harry Warren during his time at Warner Brothers include September in the Rain introduced by that likable tenor James Melton in the 1937 feature Melody for Two. We're in the Money, Shadow Waltz, and Remember My Forgotten Man in Gold Diggers of 1933I Only Have Eyes for You was introduced by Dick Powell in 1934's Dames.

Harry Warren was nominated for the Best Song Oscar 11 times with 5 different lyricists and won 3 of the coveted statues. Harry's first Academy Award nomination and win came for Lullaby of Broadway with Al Dubin from Gold Diggers of 1935.

Thanks to Carl Stallings and Milt Franklyn you probably grew up hearing Harry's songs in the background of your favourite Looney Tunes.

By 1940 Harry was working with Mack Gordon at 20th Century Fox where it so happened that Glenn Miller and his Orchestra were featured in a couple of movies. What a dream pairing of composer and artist! Sun Valley Serenade featured the world's first gold record Chatanooga Choo Choo, the lovely ballad I Know Why (and So Do You) and the peppy It Happened in Sun Valley. Orchestra Wives gave us Serenade in Blue, I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, and the timeless At Last.

Ray Eberle, Lynn Bari (dubbed by Pat Friday) introduce At Last
Orchestra Wives

Alice Faye
The Gang's All Here

Also at 20th Century Fox was the lovely Alice Faye who would bring us two of Harry and Mack's most cherished ballads which were particularly poignant while the world was at war. No Love, No Nothin' from The Gang's All Here and the Academy Award-winning You'll Never Know from Hello Frisco, Hello. Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra with vocalist Joan Merrill introduced There Will Never Be Another You in 1942s Sonja Henie flick Iceland.

Harry's late 40s sojourn at MGM would bring him another Oscar for a song written with Johnny Mercer for 1946s The Harvey Girls, the unforgettable On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. Back in 1939, Harry and Johnny's Jeepers Creepers was nominated for a picture called Going Places. Their sprightly number lost to Ralph Rainger and Le Robin's Thanks for the Memory from The Big Broadcast of 1938, as well it or any other tune should.

The 50s saw Harry Warren's last three Oscar nominations, Zing a Little Zong (Leo Robin) performed by Jane Wyman and Bing Crosby in 1952s Just for You. Dean Martin's great hit That's Amore (Jack Brooks) from 1953s The Caddy and the theme to 1957s An Affair to Remember (Harold Adamson, Leo McCarey) which was a popular hit for Vic Damone. Harry composed the theme for the television show The Legend of Wyatt Earp. The show's star Hugh O'Brian with the Ken Darby Chorus sang the theme.

In 1955 Harry founded Four Jays Music Publishing whose business was carried on by his daughter Julia Riva.

Speaking of "amore" and "affairs to remember" Harry Warren's marriage to Josephine Wensler in 1917 lasted until his passing.

Harry Warren was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1980 the great Broadway success of the stage adaption of the movie 42nd Street brought Harry Warren's phenomenal career full circle.

When you find yourself humming a tune, wistfully or joyfully, chances are it was a tune given to us by Harry Warren.


  1. "Warren and Dubin have a bit in the picture as a couple of songwriters who get chewed out by the director. They are too cute!"

    I didn't know that. Thanks for a terrific post. So many wonderful songs this man left us. A self-taught musician who worked his way up. What a story, and so well written. "The soundtrack of the 20th century." I love that. Great post, Caftan Woman.

  2. I appreciate your kind words, Jacqueline.

    I hope you cross paths with "42nd Street" soon to get a look at the guys.

  3. My gosh, I knew about Warren's work, but seeing it all in print is formidable. 42nd Street is in the top 10 for me, and The Forgotten Man was unique and beautiful.

    I have to tell you -- I saw that you had done a new post in my blog roll on my site -- it shows the title and the thumbnail picture of Warren. That man looks so much like Harry Truman, and with your title, I expected something about Truman! LOL.

  4. Hi, ClassicBecky.

    Harry Truman and Harry Warren - separated at birth! I'd be willing to bet genuine cash money that there was a Warren tune or two in Truman's piano bench.

  5. Stylish Blogger Award to you here. Congratulations.

  6. Wonderful post about one of my favorite songwriters, someone who I think should be mentioned alongside Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, etc.

    One of my favorite Harry Warren songs is the gorgeous ballad "Wait and See" from "The Harvey Girls." Just wonderful.

  7. Great post on a songwriter who should be remembered. His music contributed to so many films. I agree with Becky that to see everything he did in print is astounding.

  8. Kevin, you have wonderful taste in ballads. Harry's songs have a way of going straight to your heart.

  9. Classicfilmboy (your parents named you well), Harry was so prolific and popular that when you remind people of all his great titles it is almost overwhelming.



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