James Van Heusen - Writer

Songwriter. Nationality: American. Born: Edward Chester Babcock in Syracuse, New York, 26 January 1913. Education: Attened Syracuse University. Family: Married Mrs. William Perlberg. Career : 1928—radio announcer for WSYR; 1933—composed songs for Cotton Club revue; 1933–38—staff pianist at various Tin Pan Alley music publishers, including Santly Brothers and Remick's; 1939—composer for Broadway musical Swingin' on a Dream , songwriter for popular bands; 1940–74—songwriter for films. Awards : Academy Award, for "Swinging on a Star," from Going My Way , 1944, "All the Way," from The Joker Is Wild , 1957, "High Hopes," from A Hole in the Head , 1959, and "Call Me Irresponsible," from Papa's Delicate Condition , 1963; Emmy Award, for "Love And Marriage," "Our Town," and other songs from Our Town , 1955. Died : February 1990.

Films as Songwriter:


Love Thy Neighbor (Sandrich)


The Road to Zanzibar (Schertzinger); Playmates (Butler)


My Favorite Spy (Garnett); The Road to Morocco (Butler)


Dixie (A. Sutherland)


Lady in the Dark (Leisen); Take It Big (McDonald); And the Angels Sing (Binyon); Going My Way (McCarey); The Road to Utopia (Walker); The Belle of the Yukon (Seiter)


Duffy's Tavern (Walker); The Bells of Saint Mary's (McCarey); The Great John L. (Tuttle)


Cross My Heart (Berry); My Heart Goes Crazy (Ruggles)


Welcome Stranger (Nugent); Variety Girl (Marshall); Magic Town (Wellman); The Road to Rio (McLeod)


The Emporer Waltz (Wilder); Mystery in Mexico (Wise)


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Garnett); Top O' the Morning (Miller)


Riding High (Capra); Mr. Music (Haydn)


The Road to Bali (Walker); Little Boy Lost (Seaton)


Young at Heart (Douglas)


The Tender Trap (Walters); Not as a Stranger (Kramer); Our Town (Bettis for—TV)


Anything Goes (Lewis); Pardners (Taurog)


The Joker Is Wild (C. Vidor)


Some Came Running (Minnelli); Indiscreet (Donen); Paris Holiday (Oswald)


Hole in the Head (Capra); They Came to Cordura (Rossen); Say One for Me (Tashlin); Career (Anthony); This Earth Is Mine (H. King); Night of the Quarter Moon (Haas); Holiday for Lovers (Levin)


High Time (Edwards); Wake Me When It's Over (LeRoy for—TV); Who Was That Lady? (Sidney); The World of Suzie Wong (Quine); Let's Make Love (Cukor); Ocean's Eleven (Milestone)


A Pocketful of Miracles (Capra)


Boys Night Out (Gordon); The Road to Hong Kong (Panama)


Papa's Delicate Condition (Marshall); Come Blow Your Horn (Yorkin); Under the Yum Yum Tree (Swift); Four for Texas (Aldrich); My Six Loves (Champion); Johnny Cool (Asher); Come Fly with Me (Levin)


Robin and the Seven Hoods (Douglas); Where Love Has Gone (Dmytryk); The Pleasure Seekers (Negulesco); Honeymoon Hotel (Levin)


The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (Shonteff)


Thoroughly Modern Millie (Hill)


Star! (Wise)


The Great Bank Robbery (Averback)


Journey Back to Oz (H. Sutherland—animation)


On VAN HEUSEN: articles—

Ewen, David, in Great Men of American Popular Song , New Jersey, 1970.

Cahn, Sammy, in I Should Care , New York, 1974.

White, Mark, in You Must Remember This , New York, 1985.

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

Obituary in New York Times , 8 February 1990.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 21 February 1990.

Obituary in Classic Images (Muscatine), March 1990.

Obituary in Current Biography , April 1990.

Lichtman, Irv, in Billboard , 30 January 1993.

* * *

Well-respected by his peers and popular with the ladies, James Van Heusen was as multifaceted as the music he wrote. Privately a role model for Frank Sinatra, among others, he was both loud and sublime, qualities which would manifest themselves in his most popular works.

Before being summoned by Hollywood, Van Heusen was a fledgling composer who used his photographic musical memory to transcribe songs for a radio orchestra long before any sheet music was available. His special talent allowed him to dissect hit songs and understand them. In his ten-year career through radio, nightclubs, and Tin Pan Alley, he peppered the Hit Parade with his own stylish hits until "Imagination" caught the ear of Hollywood and he was called upon to compose songs for the Jack Benny vehicle Love Thy Neighbor .

It was Van Heusen's next assignment which would cement his position in Hollywood by giving him an important mouthpiece for his music. Beginning with The Road to Zanzibar , Van Heusen would compose songs for about 20 Bing Crosby movies. Songs from Crosby and Hope's Road pictures, such as "Road to Morocco," "Moonlight Becomes You," and "Personality" became national favorites. Crosby's easygoing, relaxed style was amiably buoyed by Van Heusen's smooth compositions, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Going My Way . Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke were instructed to write the Ten Commandments as a rhythm song. They came up with "Swing on a Star," an enduring and charming number which is still a favorite for children.

After his longtime lyricist Burke fell ill, Van Heusen fell into a partnership with Sammy Cahn, the lyricist behind the popular song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" and the Oscar-winning "Three Coins in the Fountain." Together, they formed a powerhouse of a songwriting team, with Cahn's goofy lyrics playing well with Van Heusen's sweeping compositions. They became Hollywood's "Kings of the Title Songs" and also the unofficial official songwriters for Van Heusen's old friend, Frank Sinatra, who was reemerging in his career. This three-way partnership would literally redefine all their careers and create a body of work for which all three men are primarily identified.

Van Heusen's work for Crosby could never project the good-time, playboy image that he had personally, but with Sinatra as his new musical face, that attitude took precedence. Their first collaboration as a threesome was the title track to the film The Tender Trap , a hard-hitting and vibrant number with lyrics espousing the evils of marriage and music representing the beauties of bachelorhood. They followed this up with songs for a television production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town , featuring "Love and Marriage," the antithesis to "Tender Trap" in which Cahn's optimistic and naive lyrics are bounced around by Van Heusen's melodramatic circus waltz, which seems to illustrate the ups and downs of marriage that Cahn's lyrics overlook.

Van Heusen also had a strength for using his ballads, which are considered overlooked and deserving of the same praise as Jerome Kern's, to reveal the other side of a rather coarse character. In Papa's Delicate Condition , "Call Me Irresponsible" creates some sympathetic pathos for an alcoholic, played by Jackie Gleason, and is generally considered to be the only good thing about the movie. In the superb The Joker Is Wild , Frank Sinatra plays an unlikable singer who has his throat cut. The song "All the Way" was specifically written by Van Heusen, note by note, for the character to have some difficulty singing it once his throat is cut. Cahn's double-entendre lyrics glide over Van Heusen's sentimental and sweeping music to create a remarkable soliloquy for a snake.

Van Heusen's lesser work was of a playful nature. If there was not an "All the Way" for every picture, there was at least a "Career," an easygoing lament from the film of the same name, sung by Dean Martin. Highlights of Van Heusen's secondary work include "Young at Heart," from the movie of the same name, a sentimental and sweet number; "High Hopes" from A Hole in the Head , a playful children's song; "Ain't that a Kick in the Head," from Ocean's 11 , a rollicking tour de force performed by Dean Martin; "My Kind of Town" from Robin and the Seven Hoods , an equally rollicking paean to Chicago which has become one of Sinatra's most beloved standards; and "Come Fly with Me," sung by Frankie Avalon for the film of the same name, has also become a beloved Sinatra standard, a testament to the lifestyle that singer and songwriter both held as their preferred one.

As the sixties wore on, musicals fell out of the vogue, as did songs in Van Heusen's style. While there were attempts at musicals, such as Thoroughly Modern Millie , they often fell flat, and Cahn and Van Heusen were left to write title songs for such films as The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World . Twenty-five years later the world turned around and Van Heusen compositions have been given a new life. "Love and Marriage" was used as the theme to the popular television sitcom Married . . . With Children , though now Sinatra's version sounds even more sarcastic and doom-saying than ever before. "Young at Heart," as performed by Sinatra, was featured in the 1994 film It Could Happen to You . The revived popularity of crooners such as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra has meant that songs such as "Ain't that a Kick in the Head" and "Come Fly with Me" have been reissued on CDs now being marketed to college-age music lovers. Van Heusen's music has come full circle.

—John E. Mitchell

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