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Q: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   16 Comments )
Subject: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Movies and Film
Asked by: probonopublico-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 22 Jan 2005 03:06 PST
Expires: 21 Feb 2005 03:06 PST
Question ID: 461427
For no particular reason, I've made a list, as follows:

Rodgers & Hart
Kalmar & Ruby
Sigmund Romberg
Jerome Kern
Cole Porter
George Gershwin
Stephen Foster
Gus Kahn
De Sylva, Brown & Henderson
George M Cohan 
W C Handy

From long experience I know that I have omitted A LOT.

But I can't figure out whom I might have forgotten.

I'm not counting any Biopics of performers who may have penned the odd ditty.

Clarification of Question by probonopublico-ga on 22 Jan 2005 07:55 PST
Please note this Question has now been reserved for Markj-ga!

Many thanks.

Clarification of Question by probonopublico-ga on 22 Jan 2005 10:16 PST
I've remembered another: John Philip Sousa.
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
Answered By: markj-ga on 23 Jan 2005 05:29 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Bryan --

Thanks again for the opportunity of posting an answer to your
question.  Rather than repost here all of the information that posted
previously by me and others, here is a list of the names that have
been mentioned:

Al Jolson
Scott Joplin
Bix Beiderbecke
Gus Edwards
Ben Bernie
Percy Grainger (with Hollywood being broadly defined)
Paul Dresser
Joe Howard
Billy Rose
Woody Guthrie
Hank Williams
Jimmie Davis
Michael Jackson

The list could be lengthened if we included jazz musicians like
Charlie Parker, who "invented" improvisations that evolved into jazz
standards (his biopic was Clint Eastwoods's "Bird"), but I think I
have pushed the limits beyond your original intent already
probonopublico-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00

You are a marvel!

Many thanks for enlarging my original list so admirably.

If you would like to borrow the book that Pink is getting for me, please say.

All the Best


Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 22 Jan 2005 06:28 PST
probonopublico --

You've done a through job of covering the territory.  I do have one
more nominee who, I think, should definitely be on your list, along
with four more whose credentials might or might not meet your
definition of a biopic or "songwriting," or both.

In my view, the one who should definitely be included on your list is
Al Jolson.  His limited but enormously popular output of songs
included "Avalon," "Back in Your Own Back Yard," "California, Here I
Come," and many others.  His biopic, of course, was "The Jolson Story"

IMDb: "The Jolson Story" (1946)

Here's a link to Jolson's bio:

Musicals 101: Al Jolson

The first of my remaining four candidates is Scott Joplin. The problem
with Joplin is that one can quibble about whether his immortal
instrumental rags count as "songs."  His biopic, which seems to
clearly fit the definition, was "Scott Joplin":

IMDb: "Scott Joplin" (1977)        

Here's a link to Joplin's bio:

W.W. Norton: Scott Joplin

My next candidate is Bix Beiderbecke.  Your problems with Bix might be
that he is primarily remembered as a performer and, like Joplin, his
best-known compositions were written for the piano.  His biopic
qualification is clear, however:

IMDb: Bix (1991)

The next possibility is Gus Edwards.  Edwards was a prolific composer
of early 20th century classics like "In My Merry Oldsmobile," "School
Days," and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon": Gus Edwards  

However, it is unclear whether the movie loosely based on his life
qualifies as a "biopic," because it does not purport to be strictly
biographical, and Edwards is not even portrayed in the film:

IMDb: "The Star Maker" (1939);fc=3;ft=21;fm=1

My final candidate is Ben Bernie.  Bernie's problem is that he was a
famous and colorful bandleader in the radio days, but was only
incidentally a songwriter.  He is credited with the authorship of the
classic "Sweet Georgia Brown," but he may have been the beneficiary of
the credit as consideration for featuring the song with his band on
the radio (a not uncommon practice).  He is also credited with some
other not especially memorable songs.

British Telecommunications: Ben Bernie

The movie about Bernie that may or may qualify in your eyes as a
biopic is focused on one famous episode in his career, his supposed
feud with Walter Winchell, and it stars Bernie and Winchell

IMDb: "Wake Up And Live"

You have chanced upon one of my favorite subjects (pre-WW II American
popular music), and I will do some more thinking and looking later,
but I wanted to
get these suggestions before you this morning.

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: probonopublico-ga on 22 Jan 2005 07:55 PST
Hi, Markj

Great stuff!

I almost addressed the question to you because I admire your expertise
in this area (among others).

I only hesitated because I wasn't sure whether or not you peeped in regularly.

The only doubt in my mind is Al Jolson. True his name appears on many
a songsheet but my understanding was that he made no contribution
other than putting the song over. And songsmiths sometimes placated
his ego and sweetened his purse by sharing their royalties with him.

Jolson apparently didn't invent this wheeze and you may recall that in
'Swanee River' E.P.Christie (played by Jolson) demanded a share of
Stephen Foster's royalties.

Incidentally, I received a copy of Gaby Deslys's biography this
morning and apparently Jolson treated her very shabbily because she
topped the bill and got a huge paycheck.

I didn't know biopics had been made about the others. In fact, I
hadn't even heard of Ben Bernie.

I am now looking forward to your Answer and any further names you can conjure up.

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 22 Jan 2005 08:55 PST
Bryan --

Thanks for your comment.  

Since you apparently are comfortable about a reasonable broad
definition of "songwriter" and "biopic," I will eagerly look around
for some more examples over the next few days.

Re Jolson, I am not an expert on his life and business practices, but
I certainly should have mentioned the caveat about questionable
co-writer attributions to him, certainly as to "California, Here I
Come."  While the whole truth may never be known, songwriting
credit-for-performance was common, and Jolson may have made some
contribution to the lyric or melody in some or most cases where he
gets credit  -- or not.

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 22 Jan 2005 10:55 PST

I demand credit for Sousa!  I just returned to the thread to post the
information.  Darn!  13 operettas and 70 songs.

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: pinkfreud-ga on 22 Jan 2005 11:07 PST

This book might be of interest to you:

Movie biographies--or biopics--have depicted composers as diverse as
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George M. Cohan, Stephen Foster, and George
Gershwin. In this enticing book, the first devoted entirely to such
films, John C. Tibbetts surveys different styles and periods from the
Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s to the international cinema of today,
exploring the role that film biographies play in our understanding of
history and culture.

Tibbetts delves into such questions as: How historically accurate are
composer biopics? How and why have inaccuracies and distortions been
perpetrated? What strategies have been used to represent visually the
creative process? The book examines the films in several contexts and
considers their role in commodifying and popularizing music. Extensive
archival research, dozens of illustrations, and numerous interviews
make this an appealing book for film and music enthusiasts at all
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 22 Jan 2005 11:11 PST
Bryan --

How about Percy Grainger?  Although he was born in Australia in 1882
and lived in London from 1901 to 1914, he became an American citizen
and lived in the U.S. from 1914 until his death in 1961.  Among his
output of 1200 compositions and arrangements were many songs:

Bardic-Music: Percy Grainger Compositions and Arrangements

U. of Melbourne: Percy Grainger

However, the biopic was made in Australia:

IMDb: Passion (1999)

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: efn-ga on 22 Jan 2005 11:45 PST
Here's another one, just in case markj didn't happen to turn it up on his own:

Paul Dresser (1858-1906)

"My Gal Sal"

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: pinkfreud-ga on 22 Jan 2005 13:22 PST
"I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (1947)
A biopic of the career of Joe Howard (12 Feb.,1878 - 19 May, 1961),
famous songwriter of the early 20th Century. Howard wrote the title
song, Goodbye, My Lady Love; and Hello, My Baby among many others."
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 22 Jan 2005 15:59 PST
Bryan -- 

I'm going to wrap this up for today with four more suggestions:

The first one is Billy Rose.  There is no doubt that Rose qualifies as
a songwriter (lyricist), although he may be best known today as a
producer. Here is a link to some biographical information:

Songwriters Hall Of Fame: Billy Rose 

As for a biopic, one notorious period in his life -- his "stormy
relationship" with Fannie Brice -- was the subject of the sequel to
"Funny Girl" titled "Funny Lady":

IMDb: Funny Lady

My last three suggestions for now are legendary folk or country
singers/songwriters, all of whom wrote immensely popular songs that
have become American standards.

Woody Guthrie is probably best known today for his anthem "This Land
Is Your Land," but he wrote dozens of other songs that have been
continuously performed and recorded by country and folk artists:

Woody Guthrie

His biopic was "Bound For Glory":

IMDb: Bound For Glory (1976)

My next candidate is Hank Williams:

"But Williams' songs went where he couldn't, and from 1951 onward,
there was a rush to reinterpret them for the pop market. Ironically,
those pop versions, which comfortably outsold Williams' originals in
the early Fifties, now sound over-ornamented and outdated, while
Williams' spare and haunting versions sound ageless."

PBS: American Masters: Hank Williams

His biopic was "Your Cheatin' Heart":

IMDb: Your Cheatin' Heart" (1964)

My sentimental favorite for your list is Jimmie Davis, legendary
country singer, two-time governor of Louisiana and centenarian plus
one at his death in 2000.  Although wrote many now-obscure, often
risque songs ("Bearcat Mama," for example), he will always be
remembered for "You Are My Sunshine," which has been recorded by 350
artists since it was written in 1940:

Peer Music: Jimmie Davis

Not that "You Are My Sunshine" is a great song.  Here is a short
excerpt from my favorite reference source for detailed obscure
information and opinion about pre-WW II American popular song:

"In violent contrast was the deliberately 'corny' 'You Are My
Sunshine' (1940) by Jas. H. ('Jimmie') Davis and Charles Mitchell,
which served the former as a campaign song to win him the Governorship
of Louisiana.  It was a blatant imitation of the cheaper kind of
hill-billy music, but for some reason a great many people liked it,
possibly because it was so easy to sing. (It actually echoed the
folk-song, 'Jack o'Diamonds,' quoted by Avery Robinson in his
otherwise original 'Water Boy.')"  ("A History of Popular Music In
America," by Sigmund Spaeth (Random House, New York, 1948), at p. 534)

Jimmie Davis's obscure biopic, starring Davis himself was called
"Louisiana" and was produced in 1947, after his first term as governor
of that state:

IMDb: Louisiana

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: efn-ga on 22 Jan 2005 21:17 PST
Then there's Michael Jackson, if TV movies count.

Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: probonopublico-ga on 22 Jan 2005 21:59 PST
Wow... Many thanks one and all!

I did consider Billy Rose but 'Funny Lady' was decidedly a further
biopic of Fanny Brice in which he had largely a walk on part.

Rose was in fact an interesting man who deserved better but that's
showbiz. (I believe that he worked for Bernard Baruch in his younger

I would say Rose is a maybe.

The others ... YES Paul Dresser for sure ... I'd forgotten all about him.

Never heard of Joe Howard but he sure looks good.

I never knew that Percy Grainger became an American but that proves
that nobody's perfect.

I WAS going to give Markj an honorary credit for belatedly
acknowledging Sousa but sadly he's blown it by suggesting that
Australia is a suburb of Hollywood.  I suspect that Markj is yet
another Hollywood scriptwriter.

Very many thanks to Pink for your kind offer to buy me a book. I shall
see if I can get a copy and you can send me a PayGal in the usual way.

Oh yes ... Michael Jackson. Haven't heard much of him since he married
Catherine Zit Jones. He is certainly avoiding publicity these days.

I am now ready to hand out a bucketful of stars ... when you are ready!

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: probonopublico-ga on 22 Jan 2005 22:50 PST
Hi, Pink

I now find that 'Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography' 
by John Tibbetts is not published until May 11, 2005.

And it will come in at a whacking $45!

If we request Priority International Courier from the
shipping cost will be a further $35.98.

Thank you ever so much for your generosity.

It is much appreciated.

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 23 Jan 2005 06:25 PST
Bryan --

Thanks for the kind words, the stars and the generous tip.  

I see that the last paragraph of my answer never got posted for some
reason.  As I recall, it went something like this:

"Search Strategy:

I started with the inefficient (but fun) strategy of racking my brain
for likely biopic candidates, checking them out with IMDb search
tools, and then doing the same with names gleaned from scanning the
unbelievably detailed index of Sigmund Spaeth's book.  I'd like to
think that I would have come up with Dresser this way, but I'm not so
sure I would have thought of Joe Howard. After Ms. Freud mentioned
him, I looked him up in Spaeth's book, where he tells us as Howard was
associated with Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe at least well into the
1940s and that one Harold Orbob [who?] was suspected as having
'something to do' with the writing of "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her

Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: probonopublico-ga on 23 Jan 2005 10:40 PST
So why did nobody mention:

The Great Victor Herbert (1939)?
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: markj-ga on 23 Jan 2005 16:16 PST
I took (too) seriously the user comments at IMDb that the movie did
not even resemble a biography of Herbert, but just used his music as a
plotting device:

By the time I got through stretching the definition of "Hollywood
biopic" to include an Australian production, I had plumb forgotten
about it.  I should certainly have mentioned it.
Subject: Re: Hollywood Biopics of American Songsmiths
From: probonopublico-ga on 23 Jan 2005 22:08 PST
Hi, Markj

Are any remotely near the truth?

When I get Pink's book, I hope to find out!

Diarise May 2005 ...


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