Johnny Mercer - Writer

Lyricist. Nationality: American. Born: John H. Mercer in Savannah, Georgia, 18 November 1909. Education: Attended Woodbury Forest School, Orange, Virginia. Family: Married Ginger Meehan, children: one daughter, one son. Career: 1927–29—stage actor; then band vocalist; lyricist for Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, and others; 1933—lyrics for first film, College Coach ; co-founder, Capitol Records. Awards: Academy Award, for songs "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe," 1946, "In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening," 1951, "Moon River," 1961, and "Days of Wine and Roses," 1962. Died: 27 June 1976.

Films as Lyricist:


College Coach (Wellman); The Good Companions (Saville) (co)


Old Man Rhythm (Ludwig) (+ ro); To Beat the Band (Stoloff) (+ ro)


Rhythm on the Range (Taurog)

Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer


Varsity Show (Keighley); Ready, Willing, and Able (Enright); The Singing Marine (Enright); Hollywood Hotel (Berkeley)


Gold Diggers in Paris (Enright); Going Places (Enright); Hard to Get (Enright); Cowboy from Brooklyn (Bacon); Garden of the Moon (Berkeley)


Naughty But Nice (Enright); Wings of the Navy (Bacon)


You'll Find Out (Butler)


Second Chorus (Potter); Blues in the Night (Litvak); Let's Make Music (Goodwins); You're the One (Murphy); Navy Blues (Bacon); Birth of the Blues (Schertzinger)


The Fleet's In (Schertzinger); Star Spangled Rhythm (Marshall); You Were Never Lovelier (Seiter); All through the Night (Sherman); Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz); They Got Me Covered (Butler)


The Sky's the Limit (Griffith); True to Life (Marshall)


Here Come the Waves (Sandrich); To Have and Have Not (Hawks)


Out of This World (Walker); Her Highness and the Bellboy (Thorpe)


The Harvey Girls (Sidney); Centennial Summer (Preminger)


Dear Ruth (Russell)


Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel)


Make Believe Ballroom (Santley); Always Leave Them Laughing (Del Ruth)


The Petty Girl (Levin)


Here Comes the Groom (Capra); My Favorite Spy (McLeod); The Belle of New York (Walters)


Dangerous When Wet (Walters); Everything I Have Is Yours (Leonard); Those Redheads from Seattle (Foster); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Donen)


Timberjack (Kane)


Daddy Long Legs (Negulesco) (+ composer); I'll Cry Tomorrow (Daniel Mann)


You Can't Run Away from It (Powell); Spring Reunion (Pirosh)


Bernardine (Levin) (+ composer); Missouri Traveler (Hopper)


Merry Andrew (Kidd); Love in the Afternoon (Wilder)


Li'l Abner (Frank)


Facts of Life (Frank)


Breakfast at Tiffany's (Edwards); Hatari! (Hawks)


Days of Wine and Roses (Edwards); Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (Koster)


Charade (Donen); Love with the Proper Stranger (Mulligan); How the West Was Won (Ford, Marshall, and Hathaway)


The Americanization of Emily (Hiller); The Pink Panther (Edwards); Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks)


The Great Race (Edwards); Johnny Tiger (Wendkos)


Not with My Wife, You Don't! (Panama); Alvarez Kelly (Dmytryk); Moment to Moment (LeRoy); A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Cook)


Barefoot in the Park (Saks); Rosie (Rich)


Darling Lili (Edwards)


Kotch (Lemmon)


Robin Hood (Reitherman); The Long Goodbye (Altman)


On MERCER: book—

Bach, Bob, and Ginger Mercer, editors, Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times, and Lyrics of Johnny Mercer , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1982.

On MERCER: articles—

Lees, Gene, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December/January 1978.

Craig, Warren, in The Great Songwriters of Hollywood , San Diego, 1980.

Albertson, Chris, "The Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," in Stereo Review , June 1988.

Zinsser, William, "From Natchez to Mobile, From Memphis to St. Joe: Songwriters Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer," in American Scholar , Spring 1994.

Macnie, Jim, "On Midnight Soundtrack, Mercer Is Man of the Hour," in Billboard , 6 December 1997.

* * *

When the American film business converted to sound movies in the late twenties, an important motive for this sweeping technological and institutional change was economic. Though films had been silent, theaters had not; an important element in the attractiveness of the "picture palaces" built in the first two decades of the studio period was that they had not just screens, but stages, orchestra pits, and elaborate organs, all of which produced music to please the paying customers. Sound film not only enabled the films themselves to talk; it allowed them to make music as well, replacing the expensive live musicians who had previously provided it.

It was this change that permitted a number of experienced lyricists and composers to leave Broadway for California, lured by the promise of large salaries and steady work. The list of Broadway notables who began film work in the early thirties includes Ralph Rainger, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Mack Gordon, Richard Whiting, and Al Dubin. And there was also Johnny Mercer, a lyricist who had worked on stage productions with such notables as Jerome Kern and had written songs for Paul Whiteman's band. Taking advantage of the boom in film music work, he was able to launch a Hollywood career that would endure for four decades. In the thirties and forties, Mercer's talents were in demand to write songs not only for those films in which vocal performance was of predominant importance (the genre that would, on the analogy of similar productions on Broadway, be known as "musicals"), but also to write numerous songs for films that featured one or at most several vocal performances that provided moments of musical entertainment that interrupted what was otherwise a dramatic or comedic narrative. Though they often led to the sale of lyric sheets, the majority of these songs achieved no enduring popularity outside the films in which they were performed, and these were largely forgettable themselves: not prestige productions but ordinary films that were a part of Hollywood's vast output during the decade. For Varsity Show , for example, Mercer penned no fewer than ten songs, including "On with the Dance," "Little Fraternity Pin," and "We're Working Our Way through College." The work was varied and steady. Occasionally, Mercer got the opportunity to do title-song work for prestige productions; a good example is his "Jezebel" for the Warners's Civil War epic of the same name. These songs were often more recognized, notably the title song for Blues in the Night , which received an Oscar nomination.

In fact, during the forties it became more common to market a film through its title song. Mercer wrote the title theme for Laura , for example, after the movie was released; the nondiegetic music in the film itself is wordless. Mercer also did important title work for I'll Cry Tomorrow , Love in the Afternoon , Bernardine , Days of Wine and Roses , and, of course, most famously, Breakfast at Tiffany's , whose "Moon River" became his signature song. In the fifties and sixties, demand for film lyrics lessened as Hollywood began to depend more exclusively on already successful Broadway productions as source material for film musicals. At the same time, dramatic films and comedies of the period depended less on the "performance moments" that required the lyric inventiveness of a commercial composer such as Mercer. Because he was never much of a success on Broadway, despite several attempts, and because he never formed a long-term partnership with a music composer, Mercer has undoubtedly received less than a fair share of credit for contributions to American popular music, especially of the Hollywood variety. His many songs, however, some of which have become standards, decisively shaped the character of the American cinema during the studio period, which without him would have lacked the joyful humor of "The Square of the Hypoteneuse" ( Merry Andrew ) and the poignant romanticism of "Moment to Moment" (from the film of the same name), among many other examples.

—R. Barton Palmer

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