Gus Kahn - Writer

Lyricist. Nationality: Russian. Born: Koblenz, Germany, 6 November, 1886. Career: Vaudeville; Tin Pan Alley; Broadway; 1927–1930—served on the board of directors of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers); 1933—began working in the film industry as lyricist. Award: Academy Award for One Night of Love , 1934. Died: Of a heart attack, in California, 8 October 1941.

Films as Lyricist:


The Jazz Singer (Crosland)


Hit of the Show


Whoopee! (Freeland)


Big City Blues (LeRoy)


Flying Down to Rio (Freeland); Storm at Daybreak (Boleslawski)


Bottoms Up (Butler); Caravan (Charrell); Hollywood Party ; Kid Millions (Del Ruth); The Merry Widow ( The Lady Dances ) (Lubitsch); One Night of Love (Schertzinger); Stingaree (Wellman)


Escapade (Leonard); Love Me Forever (Schertzinger); Naughty Marietta (Van Dyke); Reckless (Fleming); Thanks a Million (Del Ruth)


Let's Sing Again ; Rose Marie ( Indian Love Call ) (Van Dyke); San Francisco (Van Dyke); Three Smart Girls (Koster)


Captains Courageous (Fleming); A Day at the Races (Wood); The Firefly (Leonard); Music for Madame (Blystone)


Everybody Sing (Marin); The Girl of the Golden West (Leonard)


Balalaika (Schunzel); Broadway Serenade (Leonard); Honolulu (Buzzell); Let Freedom Ring (Conway)


Bitter Sweet (Van Dyke); Go West ( Marx Brothers Go West ) (Buzzell); Lillian Russell (Cummings); Spring Parade (Koster)


The Chocolate Soldier (Del Ruth); Ziegfeld Girl (Leonard)


Broadway Rhythm (Del Ruth); Show Business (Marin)

* * *

When the film industry learned to talk, it was evident it would also have to sing. While technicians struggled with the technology of sound recording, recruiters turned frantically to Broadway for talent; Irving Berlin, Busby Berkeley, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, the Gershwins, and many others were obtained to give voice and form to the musical motion picture. The frenzy that ensued has never been fully documented by film historians, and one such talent overlooked during the period was lyricist Gus Kahn. Working initially in Tin Pan Alley and later on Broadway, Kahn entered the industry in 1933. For eight years, until his death in 1941, he worked prolifically as lyricist for many of the major studios. Spanning the 1920s and 1930s, his work expressed both the capricious energy of the Jazz Age and the forlorn escapism of the Depression. Though he remained largely unknown to the public, his lyrics were linked to many of the great musical talents of the era, most notably Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Jeanette McDonald.

A native of Koblenz, Germany, Gus Kahn emigrated to the United States with his family in 1890. His career as lyricist began in earnest with the success of "I Wish I Had a Girl," written in 1908 with composer (and future wife) Grace LeBoy. In 1915, he wrote the hit song "Memories" with Egbert van Alstyne, and later in 1921, they provided "Pretty Baby," for Al Jolson. Shortly afterwards, Kahn moved to New York and began a productive partnership with composer Walter Donaldson, releasing such hit songs as "Carolina in the Morning," "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," and "My Sweetie Turned Me Down." In 1927, in The Jazz Singer , Kahn's lyrics to the peppy, effervescent "Toot, Toot Tootsie" ("Watch for the mail /I'll never fail /If you don't get a letter /Then you'll know I'm in jail") were given wonderful treatment by Al Jolson's high-energy vocalizations.

In 1928 Kahn and Donaldson wrote Whoopee! , their only score for Broadway. Produced by Flo Ziegfeld and starring comedian Eddie Cantor, the play was an immediate box office success. It ran for 379 performances and launched Cantor's career. Most notable are Kahn's lyrics to the title song: "The Choir sings 'Here comes the Bride' /Another victim is by her side /He's lost his reason /Cause it's the season /For makin' whoopee"—a sly, witty little number made famous by Cantor's dead-pan delivery. In 1930 MGM produced the film version with replacement songs from Kahn and Donaldson, including the memorable "My Baby Just Cares for Me." Cantor repeated his role. The film's music numbers were choreographed by Busby Berkeley (his first for Hollywood), and the entire project was shot in the early 2-color Technicolor process. A static and stilted film, the energy—what there is of it—is derived largely from the music.

Despite the growing relationship between Broadway and the film industry, Kahn, out of reticence, remained distant from Hollywood. However in the early 1930s a combination of financial need and ill health brought Kahn to California. And it was here, in 1933, that he undertook full-time employment in the industry. His first project was Flying Down to Rio (1933), notable for the first-ever pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Kahn provided lyrics for the title song, "Orchids in the Moonlight," and the energetic "Carioca."

He resumed his collaboration with Donaldson for the Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Millions (1934), writing the suitably loud "An Earful of Music" for Ethel Merman and Cantor's hopeful, anti-Depression hit "When My Ship Comes In." Released at the height of the recession, "When My Ship Comes In" was indicative of Hollywood's attempt to distract audiences with fancy: "I'll buy out every ice-cream factory /So all the kids can come and get in free /And I'll throw all the spinach in the sea /When my ship comes in."

During his stay in Hollywood, Kahn had many collaborators; he worked with such composers as Vincent Youmans, Bronislaw Kaper, Sigmund Romberg and Jerome Kern, and penned lyrics for the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Nelson Eddy, Dick Powell and Jeanette McDonald. It was for McDonald (with Kaper as composer) that he wrote "San Francisco," the title song to the 1936 film which has since become the unofficial anthem of the city.

Though many of Kahn's lyrics are noted for their comic vibrancy, he was also a proficient writer of romantic operetta songs. In 1934, Kahn's delicious, whimsical score for One Night of Love , a film for which he provided thematic music and title song, earned him his only Academy Award. He wrote the lovely lyrics to Jeanette McDonald's "Tonight Will Teach Me to Forget" number from Lubitsch's The Merry Widow and worked on several other MGM operettas, including Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose Marie (1936) and The Firefly (1937).

In 1941 Kahn died suddenly of a heart attack. A consummate lyricist, his death marked the end of one of the busiest and most productive careers in popular songwriting. In 1952 MGM produced I'll See You in My Dreams , a biopic based on Kahn's life, with Danny Thomas as Kahn, Doris Day as LeBoy, and Michael Curtiz directing. Featuring many of Kahn's greatest songs, the film traced the inimitable success of a man who conveyed in popular, colloquial terms the simple (and oftentimes humorous) feelings of love, patriotism and the desire for something better.

—Peter Flynn

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