Saturday, April 2, 2011

A stolen waltz

In 1929, when the talkies flooded the world, all the musicals produced had to be filled with songs. Naturally all these musicals became a fantastic opportunity for aspiring songwriters to get recognition. Sometimes the songs were brilliant, sometimes not. The music publishers quickly hired songwriters who wrote songs more or less off the cuff. The need for songs seemed never ending. Inspiration wasn't always at hand, so some of the songwriters recycled chord progressions and even parts of melody that had worked before, if only to get a song placed. The songs at this time had to fit the three minute limitation of a record, the radio and now the talkies. Basically, a quite strict template for hit songs was created. This template would be used more or less untouched until the advent of Television and Rock'n'Roll.

Many of the late silents and early talkies indeed included some brilliant songwriting. Many of the songs became evergreens even if the film it was performed in quickly fell into oblivion. One of the most popular types of theme songs in the late 20's was the romantic waltz. Ramona, Diane, Charmaine, Coquette to name a few, almost every film had one. The theme song was often performed throughout the picture in many different versions and styles just to show off how versatile it was. Very often it was even turned into a snappy fox-trot. The goal was of course to induce it as much as possible to get it to stick properly with the audience. It was important to get a hit song. With the increasing output it became more and more difficult to tell which songs would work the best. Sometimes publishers were even lurking outside the theatres just to pick up which songs people were humming when leaving.

The theme song in Our Dancing Daughters in 1928 was no exception to the rule. I Loved You Then As I Love You Now, written by the team Axt-Mendoza-MacDonald is perhaps not well remembered today but it’s still a very efficient song that is very characteristic. There are several 1928 recordings of it so it was definitely a hit back then. Here is the fox-trot rendition of it from the party scene in the movie:

The chorus works rather well as a fox-trot even if it was conceived as a waltz. If we slow down the tempo a bit, change the meter to ¾ and attach the verse, in its original form it sounds like this, performed by Louis Wick:
Our Dancing Daughters was released early September 1928 in the US. It was a silent movie but it had a rather elaborate soundtrack, still not synchronized but it included some off camera dialog.
Now we fast forward about six months. The young Swedish songwriter Jules Sylvain was hired to write some songs for the first Swedish talkie Säg Det I Toner (Say It With Songs) in the summer of 1929. Sylvain had seen The Singing Fool in Berlin late 1928 and immediately understood where it all was heading. According to Sylvain's memoirs the occasion was not only the first time he saw a talkie but also the premiere of talkies in Europe all together. On his return to Stockholm he immediately started lobbying for Swedish talkies. Naturally he saw the opportunity to promote his own songwriting. So when SF, the leading studio finally decided to make a talkie it was quite obvious which composer to hire for the project.

However, Sylvain apparently had trouble finding appropriate songs for the picture. He even admits it in his memoirs. After all he had no experience writing for movies. To get the hang of it he saw as many talkies he possibly could. When shooting was to begin he was over in London where it was much easier to catch a talkie than I Stockholm where only one cinema had installed a Vitaphone system.

This might sound controversial but I think he must have seen Our Dancing Daughters sometime during the summer of 1929 and contrary to the official story he more or less nicked the theme song from it to use in “his” film. Judge for yourself but I think the similarities are apparent.
Sylvain’s theme song to Säg Det I Toner is in the same key, the verse has basically the same melody and the general feel of the songs are very much alike even if the chorus is different in the Swedish song. I'm sure he thought the original was a great waltz and believed he would get a away with murder borrowing parts of it. Actually, I think he did!

Sylvain wasn't the only one who borrowed stuff from fellow composers. Here's another example, not as evident but every time I hear one of these songs I always sing the melody to the other one on top just because it can be done, well almost.

Tip-Toe Through The Tulips With Me (Burke-Dubin) From Gold Diggers Of Broadway (1929)
Performed by Nick Lucas and chorus.

Everyone Says I Love You (Kalmar-Ruby) from Horse Feathers (1932)
Performed by The Marx Bros.

A special thank you to Aubyn/Rachel at The Girl With the White Parasol presenting me with a Stylish Blogger Award!

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