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The Product as Advertised: The Hollywood Musical Adaptation

By FRANK BEHRENS
May, 2003

Having written a diatribe against "revivals" that are no such thing, I began to consider how Hollywood treated some of our Broadway musicals in the past. Here the early record is even more lamentable.

When Hollywood found it could speak in the late 1920s, it seemed natural to turn out musicals. And musicals came in two varieties: those that already existed as stage plays and those that had to be created entirely for the films. When it came to the former, the title the audience saw flashed on the screen often bore little resemblance to the show they might or might not have seen on the stage.

Among the first musicals to be "adapted" for the screen was the 1926 "The Desert Song" with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg. Only three years later it became a film with John Boles, Carlotta King and Myrna Loy and kept almost all the great songs from that score. It appeared again in 1944, updated to bring in Nazis; but I cannot find any record of what songs were retained. A more familiar version appeared in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and again kept most of the score. So "The Desert Song" did not do too badly at least two out of three times.

On the other hand, "Rose-Marie" certainly underwent several changes. The 1924 production had book and lyrics by the same two who gave us "Desert Song," while the score was shared between Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart. In 1928, it showed up as a vehicle for Joan Crawford (!) with background music but no singing. It is the 1936 film with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that is THE "Rose-Marie" for thousands. Casting MacDonald led to changing the title character from a backwoods singer to a Canadian opera star, while the plot was twisted to make Eddy the Mounty her love interest. A few songs were kept, others by different composers were added, and some Puccini and Gounod were jammed in for Jeanette to show off. And in non-singing roles are James Stewart as the brother and David Niven (you will have to keep from blinking to catch him).

In 1954, this musical appeared yet again, in Cinemascope no less, with Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Ann Blyth, and Burt Lahr. Again only a few songs were kept, but Friml himself was called upon to write some new melodies to lyrics by Paul Francis Webster; while two others supplied Lahr with an hilarious lament called "The Mounty Who Never Got His Man." (And let us not forget that fabulous spoof of this musical and all the others like it, "Little Mary Sunshine"!)

So with three musical films of "Rose-Marie," we still do not have the version that lasted 557 performances in its original run. "The product as advertised" strikes again!

Of course there were times when no one really expected to see what the title promises. When "The Bohemian Girl" came out in 1936 with a certain comic team, we all knew that the Balfe original would rest on its Laurels nor would any one be so Hardy as to complain. Two songs and one chorus were kept (one being, of course, "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls") and the plot bore only the most fleeting resemblance to the original. (With Ollie married to Mae Bush, how could it be otherwise?)

The same goes for the Laurel & Hardy vehicle "Babes in Toyland," which managed to keep several of the songs to be warbled by Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry in the 1934 vocal style. The unfortunate Disney remake in 1961 was pronounced "dismal" by the critics, even with such high-toned singers as Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello! But by that date, how many in the audience really knew the original score?

Typical Hollywood disdain was shed upon the Rodgers and Hart "On Your Toes." When it opened in 1936 on Broadway, it stunned audiences with its two integrated ballets, the second of which is the immortal "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," and the hit song "There's a Small Hotel." Its stars included Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva and Monty Wooly. Ironically, this show had been offered as a film for Fred Astaire, who waltzed out because he would not have had the chance to wear his top hat and tails! When the 1939 film came out, audiences saw a different plot, heard snatches from one of the ballets that was dropped from the film, enjoyed only three of the many songs, and the rest was pretty dull.

Soon things got a bit better with fairly faithful screen adaptations of "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "My Fair Lady," "How to Succeed in Business," and too many others to list here. More recent is "Chicago," which presents other problems but certainly remains fairly close to what people saw on Broadway.

To end with a trivia question, can you name a Cole Porter Broadway hit that retained only one song in the film version?

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