A Year in Music: Why 1933 was on the money
PUBLISHED: 10:00 22 April 2019
The remarkable year which churned out a string of classic songs that still resonate today.
It was an ominous time for Europe. As Hitler became German chancellor in January, some in Europe welcomed him after the instability of the Weimar years, but within a month the Reichstag fire became the pretext for a severe curbing of civil liberties.
The Enabling Act followed less than a month later. Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened just the day before the Act and the Gestapo was formally established at the end of April.
Full-blown totalitarianism had been established in a matter of weeks and book burnings and the institution of a eugenics programme foreshadowed even greater destruction to come.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s Soviet Union was visiting famine upon Ukraine as a tool of political subjugation, at a cost of 10 million lives. As the Great Depression continued to bite, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London highlighted that, while France and Britain were peaceful for now, there was still considerable human misery.
In the US, 15 million were unemployed and, having been sworn in in March, Franklin D. Roosevelt set about implementing the New Deal. It was against this backdrop that some of the most vibrant popular culture of the decade emerged – an escapist response to the times, as intoxicating as the booze that once more became legal when prohibition was finally lifted in December.
Audacious new characters debuted in 1933. The Lone Ranger appeared in a series on a Detroit radio station, making the March of the Swiss Soldiers from Rossini’s William Tell Overture synonymous with the golden age of American mass entertainment.
Popeye was plucked from earlier newspaper comic strips to star in animations by Disney rivals, the Fleischer brothers, with Romanian-born Sammy Lerner, writer of the English lyrics to Marlene Dietrich’s Falling in Love Again, supplying the theme tune.
Cinema was the dynamic new medium, however, and it was pushing the boundaries in this year. The first movie drive-in opened in New Jersey in June, a wacky experiment that came to stick. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, appearing at the end of the year, was a visually bold satire on war and dictatorship, regarded as one of the finest comedy films of all time. But film was also moving towards ever greater on-screen spectacle and, in the year of the first modern sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong gave birth to the monster movie. The stop-motion animated gorilla scaling the Empire State Building was a moment that ushered in a new era in cinema, and it would have hardly been the same without Max Steiner’s dramatic, Wagnerian score. And the film proved that popular culture was still of huge significance to people, even during times of economic catastrophe, as a New York newspaper proclaimed “No money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in four days to see King Kong at Radio City, setting a new all-time world’s record for attendance at any indoor attraction”.
One man in particular was making movie music his domain in 1933 – Harry Warren. Warren was typical of the immigrant stock of Tin Pan Alley, born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in Brooklyn to an Italian bootmaker father. A self-taught drummer and pianist, he played for a travelling circus, early movie studios, cafes and silent movie theatres before joining the navy and beginning composing during the period of the First World War.
In the 1920s he broke through into the music industry and had some initial hits, but 1933 was to prove a watershed year for him. Tasked with scoring the Busby Berkeley-choreographed big-budget 42nd Street alongside lyricist Al Dubin, Warren’s tunes were the backdrop to what turned out to be the original Hollywood musical, with dazzling, kaleidoscopic numbers in which showgirls completely filled the screen. Nothing like it had been seen before, and Dubin and Warren’s songs featured in two more Berkeley films that year, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933, adding up to a seminal year for the all-singing, all-dancing movie musical.
For all the exposure the songs from all three of these films got, none of them turned out to be as enduring as Gold Diggers of 1933’s We’re In The Money. In the film, it was performed rather idiosyncratically by Ginger Rogers, who was also having a pivotal year, seeing her first film with Fred Astaire, Flying Down to Rio, hit cinemas in December.
Appearing in a costume made of coins and singing much of the song in extreme close-up, Rogers sang one of the verses in pig Latin. Yet, despite its bizarre first outing, the jaunty lyric meant it was destined to be reused over and over again. Warren’s other enduring hit of the year, Keep Young and Beautiful, was first performed by Eddie Cantor in Goldwyn’s Roman Scandals of that December.
Cantor’s appearance in grotesque blackface, and Al Dubin’s questionable lyrics (“If you’re wise, exercise all the fat off/ Take it off, off of here, off of there”) have been no barrier to the song being much heard in the decades since, perhaps because of its unforgettable lilting melody.
Harry Warren spent six years writing for Warner Brothers and won three Best Song Oscars in a long and fruitful career which included working for all four major studios during the golden age of musicals. Warren was easily as successful as Irving Berlin in his day, but has largely been forgotten. But with the likes of I Only Have Eyes for You, Jeepers Creepers, That’s Amore, The More I See You, At Last and Chattanooga Choo Choo to his name, songs recorded by all the major pop artists of the 1930s and beyond, his monument is his work.
While in the US popular entertainment was increasingly leaning towards the spectacular, in Britain things were altogether more homely. Gracie Fields, born above a Rochdale fish and chip shop at the close of the 19th century, was a star of stage, screen and turntable by 1933, having made her film debut in light romance Sally in Our Alley in 1931.
The film referenced Fields’ existing hit Sally, where her unusual high-pitched vocals certainly set her apart from the smoother sounds of the era. A measure of her success by 1933, just five years after beginning her recording career, was that she appeared at the HMV factory in Hayes to personally press her four millionth record.
Welsh songwriter, Harry Parr-Davies, who would later give Gracie Fields her trademark wartime song, Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye, provided the lyrics for all five numbers in Fields’ film vehicle, This Week of Grace, released in September. Focussing on class, it was a typically British turn-out, and songs like My Lucky Day and Happy Ending made full use of Fields’ happy-go-lucky, girl-next-door persona. Both My Lucky Day and When Cupid Calls were issued as singles by HMV that year. Fields in many ways set a blueprint for the nation’s sweetheart, a proto-Princess Diana for whom charity work was a large part of her public face.
In this year Fields established an orphanage for the children of actors and performers, and breakdowns and illnesses later in the 1930s further endeared her to the public. ‘Our Gracie’ was as successful a performer, and as loved a public figure, as Britain has ever known.
A very different female star also had a breakthrough year in 1933. After a harsh childhood and turbulent adolescence, the 18-year-old Billie Holiday was making a living singing in the nightclubs of Harlem, where she was discovered by young producer John Hammond. A legendary figure who would later sign Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen, Hammond wrote in the April 1933 issue of Melody Maker that Holiday was “incredibly beautiful and sings as well as anybody I ever heard”, and he subsequently arranged for her to make her first recordings. So it was that in late November Holiday went to Columbia’s New York studios to sing to the accompaniment of Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, recording the incredibly moody plea for commitment, My Mother’s Son in Law (“Ain’t got the least desire/ To set the world on fire/ Just wish you’d make it proper/ To call my old man papa”), and Riffin the Scotch, an age-old tale, typical of her oeuvre (“I jumped out of the frying pan/ And right into the fire/ When I lost me a cheating man/ And got a no-count liar”). Holiday’s commercial success would come in the next decade, but the recording charisma that made her so successful was fully in evidence on these first songs.
The classic songs of 1933 are countless, from Yip ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ Harburg’s It’s Only A Paper Moon, to Jerome ‘Ol’ Man River’ Kern’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Harold ‘Over the Rainbow’ Arlen’s Stormy Weather.
And despite the vibrancy of popular culture that year, in the melancholic atmosphere of these enduring songs there was a presentiment of the struggles of the near future.