Irving Berlin - Writer

Composer and Songwriter. Nationality: American. Born: Israel Isidore Baline in Temun, Siberia, 11 May 1888; family emigrated to the U.S., 1892. Career: As a boy sang on street corners in New York's Lower East Side; 1902—ran away from home and sang in cafés in the Bowery; 1907—hired as singing waiter at Nigger Mike's Saloon; hired by publishing firm as songwriter; 1911—wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band," followed by numerous scores for the stage including the Ziegfeld Follies; 1927—moved to Hollywood and began scoring films. Awards: Academy Award for "White Christmas," 1942. Died: In New York, 22 September 1989.

Films as Songwriter/Composer:


The Jazz Singer (Crosland)


The Awakening (Fleming)


Cocoanuts (Santley) (+ original play); Coquette (Sam Taylor); Glorifying the American Girl (Webb); Lady of the Pavements (D. W. Griffith); Hallelujah (Vidor)

Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin


Puttin' on the Ritz (Schenk); Mammy (Curtiz) (+ original play); The Bad One (Fitzmaurice)


Reaching for the Moon (Goulding) (+ story)


Kid Millions (Goldwyn); Top Hat (Sandrich)


Follow the Fleet (Sandrich)


On the Avenue (Del Ruth): Way out West


Carefree (Sandrich); Alexander's Ragtime Band (King)


Second Fiddle (Lanfield)


Holiday Inn (Sandrich) (+ story); Louisiana Purchase (Cummings) (co)


This is the Army (Curtiz) (+ story + ro)


Christmas Holiday (Siodmak)


Blue Skies (Heisler); The Jolson Story (Green)


Easter Parade (Walters)


Annie Get Your Gun (Sidney) (+ original play)


Call Me Madam (Walter Lang): Run for the Hills


White Christmas (Curtiz); There's No Business Like Showbusiness (Walter Lang) (songs)


Sayonara (Logan) (song)

Film as Writer of Original Story:


Stop, Look and Listen


On BERLIN: books—

Freedland, Michael, Irving Berlin , London, 1974.

Woollcott, Alexander, The Story of Irving Berlin , New York, 1982.

Bergreen, Lawrence, As Thousands Cheer , London, 1990.

Barrett, Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir , New York and London, 1995.

Furia, Philip, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song , New York, 1998.

On BERLIN: articles—

Films in Review (New York), vol. 9, no. 5, May 1958.

Hemmings, Roy, in The Melody Lingers On , New York, 1986.

The Listener (London), vol. 119, no. 3061, 5 May 1988.

Obituary, in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 173, November 1989.

Hayes, H., "Of Life and Love, Of Happiness and Friendship," in New York Times , Section 2, 28 March 1993.

Hamm, Charles, "Genre, Performance and Ideology in the Early Songs of Irving Berlin," in Popular Music , May 1994.

Schiff, David, "For Everyman, By Everyman: In Creating Himself According to the Nation's Enthusiams for His Songs, Irving Berlin helped create a National Identity," in Atlantic Monthly , March 1996.

"A Song for America, The Lost Generation Wobbles," in Newsweek, June 28, 1999.

* * *

Irving Berlin's career as a songwriter was so long that he out-lived some of the copyrights of his early works. Although he was hit-making as early as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, he was obviously barred from the cinema until 1927, when he got in at the earliest possible moment by providing "Blue Skies," a tune featured in The Jazz Singer , the first musical movie. The burst of song and dance activity that naturally followed Al Jolson's warbling found Berlin's work featured in a clutch of late 1920s and early 1930s musicals, most notably the Marx Brothers' Cocoanuts ("When My Dreams Come True," the first song Berlin wrote expressly for a film, "Monkey Doodle-Doo," "The Tale of a Shirt") and the all-black Hallelujah ("Waiting at the End of the Road," "Swanee Shuffle") in 1929, but also Glorifying the American Girl ("Blue Skies" again), Puttin' on the Ritz (the first film titled after a Berlin tune), and The Jazz Singer follow-up Mammy (with a Technicolor sequence, and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"). However, once the first burst of screen musicals died down, Berlin had to wait until 1935 to be offered something worthwhile in the way of a credit.

Top Hat , the first of the great Astaire-Rogers musicals, features only one forgettable song—"The Piccolino," which is unfortunately the climax of the picture—but otherwise boasts four soon-to-be-standard numbers, all mounted with the maximum of RKO elegance, "No Strings," "Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?" Here, Berlin's deft but unfussy tunes and simple but perfect lyrics are at their best, expressing neither the lyrical nor musical sophistication of George Gershwin or Cole Porter—beside whom Berlin still looks like the Compleat Tin Pan Alley Professional—and yet never seeming cheap, obvious or cynical. Top Hat was followed by the underrated Follow the Fleet , which is a better all-round movie than Top Hat —with a more congenial navy-and-showbiz New York setting as opposed to the stuffily trivial London and continental high society of the earlier film—with an almost equally good score, led off by "Let's Face the Music and Dance" but featuring also "I'm Puttin' All My Eggs in One Basket," "Let Yourself Go," "We Saw the Sea" and "But Where Are You?"

Berlin would create hit-packed scores for Astaire movies again—for Carefree ("I Used to Be Color Blind") and Holiday Inn ("White Christmas," for which he won an Oscar)—as well as a few lesser talents ( Second Fiddle , for Sonja Henie) but Top Hat and Follow the Fleet were the peak of his contribution purely to cinema, most of the other Berlin movies being adapted from stage successes ( Louisiana Purchase , This Is the Army , Call Me Madam , Annie Get Your Gun ) or built around clutches of pre-existing songs ( On the Avenue , Alexander's Ragtime Band , Blue Skies , Easter Parade , White Christmas , There's No Business Like Show Business ).

Meanwhile, individual Berlin songs persistently turned up, the most lavishly overproduced number perhaps being the "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" riot of bad taste in The Great Ziegfeld . Berlin songs also appear in Kid Millions ("Mandy"), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle ("Syncopated Walk"), Hello, Frisco, Hello ("Doin' the Grizzly Bear"), The Powers Girl ("A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"), The Jolson Story ("Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"), The Fabulous Dorseys ("Everybody's Doin' It"), Big City ("God Bless America," "What'll I Do?"), Jolson Sings Again ("Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," again), Meet Danny Wilson ("How Deep is the Ocean?"), Love Me or Leave Me ("Shaking the Blues Away"), The Great Gatsby ("What'll I Do?"), Pennies from Heaven ("Let's Face the Music and Dance," soundtrack poached from Follow the Fleet ) and The Purple Rose of Cairo ("Cheek to Cheek," poached from Top Hat ). Strangely, Steven Spielberg's Always , whose mood obviously derives from the Berlin song, opts to use Jerome Kern's inapt "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" instead.

While Porter, Gershwin, Richard Rogers and Stephen Sondheim aspire to lift the musical comedy to a High Art level, Berlin was simply content to do the best possible work within the framework of a three-minute popular song, and demonstrated an astonishing versatility within those limits, turning to comedy ("Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "Doin' What Comes Nat'rally"), romance ("Cheek to Cheek," "Always"), social comment ("Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee, Let's Have Another Piece of Pie"), patriotism ("God Bless America," a song so ingrained in the national psyche it's hard to remember someone sat down and wrote it, "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue") holiday sentiment ("Easter Parade," "White Christmas"), and show stopping razzamatazz ("When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam," "There's No Business Like Show Business"). Almost always sunny and optimistic, the only variety of standard Berlin appeared never to master was the lovelorn torch song, which he either turned around into a renewal of hope ("Blue Skies") or played for laughs ("You Can't Get a Man with a Gun"). After the 1950s, his output declined, but his oeuvre probably includes more lasting songs than any other composer this century.

—Kim Newman

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