march 2011

The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, propelled Freidrich Hollaender to fame and fortune when he wrote the words and music for the four immortal songs sung by the louche honky-tonk singer Lola-Lola, who was played to cinematic perfection by Marlene Dietrich; her theme song, ‘Falling In Love Again,’ became one of the greatest hits of the 20th Century.

Frederick Hollander’s Road To Dr. T.:
From Weimar Berlin To Hollywood Sound Stages (With Digs at Hitler At Every Stop)

By Alan Lareau

Frederick Hollander

“This is something altogether new,” composer Frederick Hollander told a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News in October 1952. Although he was not a member of its studio music department, Columbia hired Hollander to score a number of its top comedies, and it was likely that Columbia’s music director, Morris Stoloff, brought Hollander aboard for the new project. “The minute I heard the story I rushed right home and wrote some music. I was so excited. It wasn’t ‘to’ anything, because we didn’t even have a script yet, but it just affected me that way.” This was a perfect project for Hollander, given his gift for parody, satire and playfulness--especially his trademark juxtapositions of classical and popular music. In his memoir, he called the film “a golden opportunity, the best one Hollywood would give me.”

Frederick Hollander was born in London in 1896 as Frederick Hollaender, the son of the operetta composer Victor Hollaender, who hailed from Berlin. When the family moved back to the burgeoning Prussian metropolis, the three-year-old boy became “Freidrich.” It was soon clear that the precocious child had inherited and possibly surpassed his father’s musical gifts; his first songs were published around the age of 11, and he became an honorary student at the Berlin Academy of Music under composer Engelbert Humperdinck, who is today remembered for the opera Hansel and Gretel. Little Fritz Hollaender was destined for a career in classical music, and early on he composed lieder under the influence of his idol Richard Strauss--but most amazing was his uncanny to improvise.  When the family made a visit to New York in 1912, where Victor had been hired to write some shows, Friedrich would spend his afternoons playing at the nearby movie theater, whose proprietors were so charmed that they called his parents and begged them to let the boy stay a while longer, for his music was so delightful.

The war changed everything: the German monarchy collapsed and gave way to the short-lived democracy known as the Weimar Republic. In the 1920s, young Friedrich became the voice of the new Berlin and its climate that was politically so troubled but artistically vibrant--indeed, much of this creativity seemed to draw its energy from the social tensions of the day. Hollander wrote not only the music but also biting and hilarious lyrics for literary cabarets that sported a sharply progressive political tone; on the side, he churned out light pop songs that ranged from the topical to naïve escapism. His biggest hit of the early ‘20s, the 1923 novelty song “Liliput,” went around the world and came to America as “Tiny Town.” In the mid-‘20s he wrote and directed clever miniature revues that spoofed fashions and morals of the big city, as well as theatrical scores for director Max Reinhardt. An accomplished pianist, Hollaender also discovered and played with Berlin’s best jazz band, Weintraub’s Syncopators, and his songs became standards of the cabaret and dance band repertoire. His real breakthrough came with the advent of sound films, which made his name known far beyond Germany. Above all, it was The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, which propelled him to fame and fortune. This was not his first German sound film, but probably the most prominent musical film of the tone-setting Ufa studio, filmed simultaneously in German and English versions. Hollaender wrote the words and music of the four immortal songs for the louche honky-tonk singer Lola-Lola; her theme song, “Falling In Love Again,” became one of the greatest hits of the 20th Century.

Marlene Dieterich as Lola-Loa in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel sings her signature song, ‘Falling in Love Again,’ a 20th Century classic written by young Friedrich Hollaender.

Yet as an outspoken progressive satirist, a jazz musician and a Jew, Hollaender was for the Nazis a symbol of Weimar decadence and intellectual subterfuge. In 1931, he opened his own satirical cabaret, the Tingel Tangel Theater in Berlin, where he spoofed fashions and foibles of the day, including politics. A committed liberal and pacifist, he took a stand for reproductive freedom, women’s rights and economic justice, and he lambasted anti-Semitism and the rising Nazi movement on his tiny stage, while bloody street battles raged outside the doors. (Ute Lemper recorded several of Hollaender’s best numbers in English translation on her CD Berlin Cabaret Songs.)

When Hitler came to power at the beginning of 1933, Friedrich Hollaender fled to Paris and soon moved on to Hollywood, where he arrived as one of the first German émigré artists on the American film scene and revised his name yet again to “Frederick Hollander.” He soon found a calling as a composer in the music department at Paramount Pictures, where he wrote immortal tunes for Dorothy Lamour (“Moonlight and Shadows”), Bing Crosby (“My Heart and I”), Connee Boswell (“Whispers In the Dark”) and many others. He also quickly achieved fame once again as Dietrich’s composer, writing more immortal film songs for the actress for Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. Those musicals featured lyrics by Frank Loesser, and Hollander’s other tunes of that period had words by masters such as Leo Robin and Sam Coslow, but it was to his own lyrics that he made his best numbers--again for Dietrich--in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). In Hollander’s songs “Black Market” and “Illusions,” the cynical irony of his erstwhile Berlin cabaret background explodes in brilliant fireworks of wit and melancholy.

Marlene Deitrich, ‘The Boys in the Back Room,’ lyrics by Frank Loesser, music by Frederick Hollander, from Destry Rides Again (1939, directed by George Marshall).

In the ‘40s Hollander moved on to write background scores for Warner Bros. and RKO. His brilliance shines through in films such as The Man Who Came To Dinner, Princess O’Rourke and Berlin Express. For Columbia Pictures, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was a tremendous success, its music acclaimed as novel and brilliant; his score for the following year’s Talk Of the Town earned an Oscar nomination. Hollander’s greatest opportunity for a full-blown musical  came with fellow Berliner Ernst Lubitsch’s 1948 operetta That Lady In Ermine, starring Betty Grable. Unfortunately, Lubitsch died after filming the musical numbers and Otto Preminger finished the work. In the early ‘50s, after Hollander had been working in Hollywood for nearly 20 years as one of its most widely employed film composers, a major musical film that could once more make his name appeared on the horizon: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Screenwriter Theodore Seuss Geisel’s basic premise of the project, the conflict between imagination and reality, was also close to Frederick Hollander’s heart. The Cat In the Hat (1957) is Seuss’s most famous portrayal of the violent intrusion of fantasy into the everyday world, but it had been a running theme in Hollander’s own cabaret songs as well. As an absurd nightmare, the story was a distorting mirror commenting on persons and relationships drawn from the mundane everyday life of the young protagonist. Figures from the opening scene--the boy’s mother, the plumber, the piano teacher, even the uncles whose portraits perch on his piano--reappear in new forms in the dream that forms the core of the story, and in this regard The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. has been compared to The Wizard of Oz. The closing joke, in which the characters discover inexplicable bandages on their fingers acquired during their dream-world adventures, is a winking homage to that formula.

‘Dungeon Elevator,’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

The composing job was an attractive challenge for Hollander: rather than just using incidental songs, here music would be integral to the plot and conception of the film. There would be huge amounts of scoring, running almost from beginning to end, with two ballets. Initial publicity reported that Hollander had composed an unheard-of 24 songs. It verged on “an unusual children’s opera for adults,” as Hollander called it.

The topsy-turvy brand of humor and caricature that are essential to any Dr. Seuss book found full expression in Hollander’s voice of comic distortion. Geisel’s barely masked allegory of Hitler in the figure of Dr. Terwilliker also recalled the Berlin satires of the Tingel Tangel Theater. References to the German dictator abound, for the film villain is a vain and “crazy” despot who rules by hypnotizing his subjects into blind obedience. His realm is a concentration amp surrounded by barbed wire and illuminated by searchlights, where armed guards salute with raised arms, and the children wear beanies of “happy fingers” signifying mandated joy. Beneath its colorful surface, this is a world of hidden cells and dungeons that are sites of sadistic punishment. At the climax of the film, the deranged leader cries out, “This is my day! Five thousand little fingers! All playing together on my piano! Every finger obedient to the whim of me, the master! Every infinitesimal, microscopic piece of living tissue of those 5,000 fingers cringing and groveling and trembling before me, before me!”

Tommy Rettig. ‘Because We’re Kids,’ from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

But the film ran deeper than an anti-Hitler allegory; after all, this was the 1950s and the defeat of the Nazis was history. Meanwhile, the atomic bomb (also reflected in the story) had become the more frightening specter. Geisel’s script worked this reference into an all-encompassing anti-authoritarian manifesto. His denunciation of those “who push and shove us kids around” echoed the motto of the satirical journal PM, for which he had once worked. The magazine declared itself “against people who push other people around,” which expressed the sentiments of the composer as well. Geisel and Hollander were kindred souls, and they greatly admired each other’s work on the film.

Frederick Hollander wrote an enormous score: 15 songs, two ballets and a parodic concert based on “Ten Happy Fingers.” (A 16th song, “Count Me Out,” was eliminated early on.) He also provided the bulk of the incidental cues, while fellow émigré Hans Salter and his colleague Heinz Roemheld supplied some of the background scoring. Salter also composed a lengthy chase scene and the roller-skating dance sequence, drawing on Hollander’s themes. Arthur Morton and Gil Grau did most of the orchestrations, with additional help from Bobby van Eps and Nelson Riddle (both of whom also write minor cues), as well as Bernhard Mayers; Paul Mertz did the vocal arrangements. Musical director Morris Stoloff conducted a 98-piece orchestra.

In recent decades, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. has become a cult classic. Its camp quality is rooted in its hilarious exaggeration and the over-the-top performance of Hans Conreid. Thus Film Comment said that in retrospect, the film “rates the three Ks--kitschy, kampy and kool--with perhaps its greatest historical value centered on the whimsical soundtrack.”

Tony Bennett, ‘Because We’re Kids’ (or ‘Kid’s Song’) from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., as recorded for his The Playground album (1998)

The songs have become legend to devotees of the esoteric, such as classic pop interpreter Michael Feinstein (who includes two numbers from Dr. T on his album Pure Imagination), Michelle Nicastro (on her album Reel Imagination) and even crooner Tony Bennett (with a rendition of the “Kid’s Song” on his children’s album The Playground). Jerry Lewis also used that song on his Muscular Dystrophy telethon--a perfect anthem for his cause. The songs have found an audience with jazz musicians and in the musical subculture--an experimental techno group from Australia even named themselves after the film.

Dr. T. earned Frederick Hollander an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (but the winner was Alfred Newman for Call Me Madam). Subsequently, Hollander longed to return to his first love, the theater, and to be able once more to write both words and music. In the fall of 1955, he packed up his bags and returned to Germany with an ambitious new musical named Scherzo in his suitcase. In the last few years of his life, Friedrich Hollaender, as he was now known again, devoted his energies to writing his memoirs and experimental novels. Frederick Hollander’s score for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. was one of the works of which he was most proud, and arguably the most significant, albeit underappreciated, contribution of his 22-year American career.

(excerpted from Alan Lareu’s in-depth essay on the film’s production and the genesis and evolution of Frederick Hollander’s score published in the liner booklet accompanying Film Score Monthly’s three-CD release of the complete Hollander score for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., available at Film Score Monthly.)

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