Posted by Moira Finnie on April 16, 2008
He seems to be just a regular guy, that Hoagy Carmichael. There he is on screen, hunched over the piano, hat tipped back, in his shirtsleeves, wearing a matching series of monikers from the down home to the outlandish, playing characters called Cricket, Celestial, Hi, Butch, Willie, Smoke or Happy. I’m not sure when I first became aware of his calm, bemused presence and air of tolerance in movies, but he always struck me as the kind of guy you’d wish were your worldly uncle; the slightly disreputable family member who understands all, with that undeniable gift for music.
Yet, unlike the troubled heroes or villains that might populate the center of the screen in the movies he appeared in, he seems to lack their tension or ambition. There’s little or no romantic involvement or intrigue for him in these movies. He’s invariably the good guy or gal’s best buddy, even if that person doesn’t always have the good sense to know that immutable fact. Hoagy on screen appears to be the most relaxed man in movies from the thirties to the fifties, despite the fact that he was never hired as an on screen performer in the mid-thirties. When he landed in Hollywood as a songwriter, the place was, as Hoagy said, “where the rainbow hit the ground.” While his contemporary Oscar Levant brought an edgy wit to more musically highbrow movies, Hoagy Carmichael added a laid back sagacity and watchfulness while weaving a few bars of his own inimitable, slightly off-kilter classic standards into a movie.
Carmichael‘s own assessment of his “film persona” (a tag that he might have found quite amusing), was that, for awhile at least, he was cast in “every picture in which a world-weary character in bad repair sat around and sang or leaned over a piano…It was usually the part of the hound-dog-faced old musical philosopher noodling on the honky-tonk piano, saying to a tart with a heart of gold: ‘He’ll be back, honey. He’s all man’.”
Prior to his taking the the movies “by storm” Indiana-born Hoagland Howard Carmichael was best known as a composer of several hard to categorize songs with an eccentric style uniquely his own, beginning in the 1920s jazz age. Many of his songs also have a wistful lyricism that looks back on a rural past. As author William Zinnser once wrote “Play me a Hoagy Carmichael song and I hear the banging of a screen door and the whine of an outboard motor on a lake–sounds of summer in a small town America that is long gone but still longed for.” Though Carmichael would often bemoan his lack of formal musical training, his first music lessons probably came as a toddler from his mother Lida Robison Carmichael. The lady managed to coax a bit of ragtime, some Gilbert and Sullivan, and some rousing John Phillip Sousa from pianos as she earned a bit of money for her family by playing accompaniment for silent movies and entertained at parties in the Bloomington, Indiana area. Hoagy grew up absorbed in the piano, and by college at Indiana University, (where he took a law degree), he was playing with his own band regularly, traveling in the heady company of such major and now legendary influences as his close friend and brilliant jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke , and the extraordinarily transcendent African-American performer Louis Armstrong.
Carmichael claimed that “All these tunes are just laying on the keys. All you have to do is just go find them.” This pose of nonchalance, emphasizing his talent and whole career as something of a happy accident denies the perfectionism and professionalism that have made many of his songs still resonate as classics. The sense of time passing, nurtured in the slower pace of his Midwest roots, an amused and slightly bittersweet, off-hand allusions to romance, and an appreciation for nature permeates such classics as “Stardust”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “Rockin’ Chair”, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening”, “The Nearness of You”, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, the soaringly lovely “Skylark” and the first tune many of us learned to pick out on the piano, “Heart and Soul”. While you might easily stumble across these songs if you’re a classic movie fan, it’s interesting that just about every ten years, someone rediscovers the quiet charm of a Carmichael song, including contemporary singer Norah Jones, who recently recorded a lilting version of “The Nearness of You” .
Hoagy’s presence on screen began to turn up in American movies in the late thirties, looking less like an actor or successful composer and more like a guy who just wandered onto a film set accidentally while sweeping up. First appearing in an uncredited role in an early scene in Topper (1937) in the fast company of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, he plays a piano player playing and singing (after a fashion) his tune, “Old Man Moon.” His next appearance on the big screen came in Hoagy Carmichael (1939), which features the composer-performer in a stiff tux looking like “a deer caught in the headlights” in a Paramount musical short with Jack Teagarden and his orchestra. Singer Meredith Blake warbles the amusing “That’s Right, I’m Wrong”, along with several well known Carmichael songs sung by the musician backed up by the orchestra. As odd as it seems to see Carmichael being so formal, it’s truly painful to watch today due to several moments purportedly showing an allegedly idyllic life in the Old South by slow moving African Americans. The best feature of the short was the composer’s voice, familiar from his many recordings. His occasionally flat, off-key, and reedy voice nevertheless gave his singing an appealing expressiveness that make them uniquely compelling.
Those who knew Carmichael best, including his sons, Hoagy Bix and Randy, understood that despite this casual appearance, the man was a ferocious perfectionist, with a creative drive that was always present. Just as he generally made his musical abilities look so casually acquired, he’d soon develop a relaxed and seemingly simple sagacious presence on screen. He invariably played a peripheral character, one whose nearly handsome horse face, slight build, and worldly yet relaxed and pleasant manner made him an agreeable sidekick for everyone from Bogie and Bacall in the movie that brought them together to George Raft and Claire Trevor in the noir mystery Johnny Angel (1945) to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day in Young Man With a Horn (1950). Director Michael Curtiz‘s adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s novel loosely based on the brief, tragic life of Hoagy‘s friend, Bix Beiderbecke may have meant the most to the songwriter emotionally, and his laconic, though underwritten performance as the consistently faithful piano man who nursemaids the lost Kirk Douglas character is one of the best in the movie. This is especially clear when the camera lingers on his gentle face as he listens intently to the hero’s troubles. It came into sharper focus briefly in one scene when Hoagy finds his friend in an alcoholic hospital. Taking charge, he tells the indifferent attendant to call the man’s spouse (Lauren Bacall) and a singer friend (Doris Day), explaining merely that one’s his wife, and “the other?”, the orderly asks, “…isn’t“, he is told tersely by Hoagy. Even Carmichael agreed that the film lacked a realistic, strong ending, despite some fine elements in the movie, including a great performance by Juano Hernandez as “Art Hazard”, Douglas’ on screen mentor. Harry James‘ distinctive dubbing of the horn fills in some emotional blanks in the script too. (It also didn’t help that there was zilch chemistry between Kirk Douglas and an unhappy Doris Day, who wrote in her autobiography that she was reminded by the script of her own tough times as a girl singer).
Two particularly fine performances for me by Hoagy Carmichael came in the forties. One was his appearance as the amanuensis/spirit guide to blind Dana Andrews in the somewhat lachrymose romance Night Song (1948), directed by John Cromwell. Starring Merle Oberon as a society girl with a yen for classical composition (and understandably cranky sightless Dana), it might be lifeless without the pragmatic presence of Hoagy, as a clarinetist who knows “class” when he sees it, whether it takes the form of Dana‘s unfinished opus or the lovely Miss Oberon. In between trying to talk sense into Andrews‘ bitter character, Carmichael and Ethel Barrymore both enlivened the film with their surprisingly complementary styles, particularly in the segment in which the two resigned (or is it fed up?) characters sit down for a “friendly” game of gin rummy. As the younger actor recalled his byplay with the legendary Barrymore, this scene was a particular “delight. Of course she ginned on me three times in a row.”
Hoagy‘s Hollywood career probably reached its apotheosis when he was asked to play Butch Engle in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler. In the beautifully crafted, heartfelt examination of the aftermath of WWII on a trio of servicemen, The Best Years of Our Lives etched a powerful portrait of American life, touching on our national tendency to forget the past while acknowledging a need to comprehend the war’s impact. As the piano-playing owner of a cozy, if slightly risqué watering hole, Hoagy plays the uncle of amputee and first time actor Harold Russell. An army veteran from Massachusetts, Russell had both hands blown off during the war, but was tapped for the role in BYOOL by the Goldwyn studio after the director saw his performance in a Signal Corps documentary about rehabilitation called Diary of a Sergeant. A former meat cutter, Russell, who had never acted, nevertheless gave a touchingly real performance that won both a special Academy Award and a Supporting Oscar for the film. Guilt from a fat and happy Hollywood crowd eager to salute his sacrifice? Maybe, but Harold Russell maintained that one reason he looked so good on screen may have been because of the hard, patient work of Hoagy Carmichael who put him at his ease during the shoot.
As a returned sailor to fictional Boone City, Russell’s character finds himself taking refuge from his overly solicitous family in Butch’s bar, along with the equally beleaguered Fredric March and Dana Andrews. Harold Russell gets a bit of “music therapy” from his uncle Butch (Carmichael), who patiently teaches him to play “Chop Sticks” on the upright in the corner, evidence, if needed, that encouragement and determination might begin to heal the blows to the spirit wrought by the physical and psychic cost of the war. Off camera, Hoagy tried to give the uncertain veteran a few clues about film acting, (something that the director William Wyler was said to actively discourage!). Carmichael‘s conscientious efforts to teach Harold to use his metal prosthetic devices to play the piano (and golf) brought out the composer’s latent teaching ability as well as his kindness. Their alliance formed off the set added immeasurably to the rapport between the two in their scenes. Some of the most affecting moments in the movie come when Hoagy simply watches the troubled Russell with love and concern. An amusing one occurs when Russell (and the bartender in Butch’s place) is told in no uncertain terms that beer is the only adult beverage to be offered to his nephew. As usual with Hoagy‘s performances, he lends his Midwestern credibility and an authoritative air of basic decency to his character, as well as a certain mystery. A viewer is often left watching his movies wishing that more was revealed about his slightly disreputable, always enigmatic figures.
Hoagy went on to appear in several other movies, including a several Westerns, such as Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946), a sequel to the popular Cheaper By the Dozen, called Belles on Their Toes (1952) and a Vera Hruba Ralston “epic”, Timberjack (1955), but show business was changing drastically, and the studio system that gave a songwriter a chance as an actor faded with that change.
Hoagy Carmichael may have gone through an extended period when the world seemed to have lost interest in his creative talents. Still, in addition to his trying his hand at new compositions, he continued to collect very large royalties from his songs, and developed many interests, some of them rather unexpected. In addition to a passion for tennis and golf that he’d nurtured since coming to Hollywood to work for Paramount as a songwriter in the mid-thirties, he sometimes accosted friends with petitions to outlaw telephone poles, pointing out that their presence stalking across the American landscape marred the country’s beauty. He invested in a “linear motor” that generated much less friction (it never made it), and he also promoted some men’s wear that he’d taken a fancy to, a sort of combination shirt and ascot, called the “clarney” (see the photo above). Despite these minor amusements, Carmichael found himself repeatedly returning to his home state of Indiana, where many family members still lived, and where his heart always returned throughout his life. When he died two days after Christmas in 1981 he returned there for good, an Indiana boy still. But his music and his movies still live. Just the other day, while mulling over this blog, I came across a version of one of Hoagy’s songs on the car radio. It was someone unnamed singing “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” And all I could think was, “I’d hate to get along without you, Hoagy”.
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