Two screen legends of titanic talent. Two movies with jazzy and bluesy song scores linked to backstage stories shaped around the ups and downs of show business careers. Two torchy title tunes that became inextricably linked to the musical legacy of their respective leading ladies. The link between them, born this day in Buffalo, NY, 113 years ago, is one of the 20th century’s premier composers of popular song, Harold Arlen (1905-1986), the masterful melodist behind famous tunes familiar to movie lovers, stage musical connoisseurs, TV shows and commercials, evoked time and time again when immediate access to our emotions is called for. We’re talking Over the Rainbow, Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, Blues in the Night, Get Happy, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Let’s Fall in Love, The Man That Got Away, That Old Black Magic, and the song scores of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Star Is Born (1954), barely scratching the surface of the prolific maestro’s treasure trove of 50 years of superior songwriting. The movies and leading ladies are class acts too. With lyrics by long-time collaborator Ted Koehler, the song Stormy Weather was created in 1933 and introduced, quite memorably, at Harlem’s Cotton Club by the great Ethel Waters. Ten years later, the song found a younger-generation interpreter, even more memorably, in luminous Lena Horne, when it lent its title to the sensational African-American show-business chronicle Stormy Weather (1943, directed by Andrew L. Stone for Twentieth Century Fox), which also starred Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway, Ada Brown, Dooley Wilson, Fats Waller and the Nicholas Brothers. Funny enough, Horne had already appeared in another groundbreaking black-centric musical that year, MGM’s Cabin in the Sky (1943), wherein headliner Waters and up-and-comer Horne each got to sing a new Arlen/E.Y. Harburg composition; Ethel warbled the wistful Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe (which earned a Best Song Oscar® nomination), while Lena crooned the sly and sassy Ain’t It the Truth; however, as the latter number was staged and filmed while the lanky lady took a “scantily clad” bubble bath, it was deemed too “daring” and cut from release prints. (The delightful ditty was brought back into the Horne standards roster when annexed to the score of Broadway’s Jamaica in 1957.) And the Waters-debuted song Stormy Weather, courtesy of Stormy Weather the movie, became Horne’s signature from the moment she and the vibrant Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe committed it to celluloid.
What’s also the truth is that Arlen had an enduring association with another legendary performer, the inimitable Judy Garland, via the aforementioned The Wizard of Oz (lyrics by Harburg), A Star Is Born (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) plus the bonuses of the underappreciated animated musical Gay Purr-ee (1962, lyrics by Harburg) and unforgettable renditions of the 1930 Arlen favorite Get Happy (lyrics by Koehler, worked into the score of the 1950 movie Summer Stock) and Come Rain or Come Shine (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), grabbed from the 1946 Broadway musical St. Louis Woman for Garland’s concert songlists. Speaking of Garland as a charismatic concert performer, for I Could Go on Singing (1963), the lady’s final movie, a drama with tunes that uncannily echoed her own life in its story of a beloved singer with personal demons galore and family relationship issues, Arlen and Harburg were there with a defiant, anthem-like title number that would be the last she delivered on the theatrical screen. To audiences who embraced her dreams of bluebirds flying over the rainbow 24 years before, the yearning melody and cheering words that spoke of doves coo-cooing, owls on the prowl and roosters crow-crowing (like the Gale farmyard yet!) to describe the exhilaration that singing provides to a lovestruck artist, it seemed like the closing of a circle, which it regrettably turned out to be. I Could Go on Singing (directed by Ronald Neame for United Artists) offers other delights: great supporting actors (Dirk Bogarde, Jack Klugman, Aline MacMahon), colorful London and English countryside Panavision lensing by veteran Arthur Ibbetson, and the smooth, custom-tailored musical arrangements of long-time Garland compatriot Mort Lindsey. But it surely also seals the unique bond between entertainer and composer, both of whom are inextricably linked to our collective memories of soul-lifting music and honest, direct sentiment. Savor birthday honoree Arlen’s two title tunes – and all the excitement and heartache of the top-flight productions that accompany them – in the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Stormy Weather and I Could Go on Singing, the latter of which can literally had for a song – now reduced to 50% off original list during the label’s current limited-time MGM Sales Promotion through February 28.