The Movie Music of George Gershwin
“I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?”
-Burton Lane / Ralph Freed
George Gershwin, born on this day in 1898, miraculously created a vast body of popular music in a very short time. His work ranged from pop songs, to orchestral pieces, to more than 30 musicals written for the Broadway stage, usually with his older brother Ira as lyricist.
Add to this another 25 shows where Gershwin was hired to punch up a listless score, and you get an idea of how integral this wunderkind was to his era. Sheet music sales alone made him rich. Chances are, if you went out for a night on the town during the 1920s or '30s, a Gershwin melody was in the air.
George's prodigious talent was apparent early on. By age 17 he was already a figure in New York's famous Tin Pan Alley, selling songs to established singers. By 24, he'd composed the legendary "Rhapsody in Blue," which the composer described as "a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness." It’s impossible to hear “Rhapsody” and not be swept away by it.
Though Gershwin called himself "a man of the time," his legacy not only endures, but grows. Artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse have recorded his work. Even Gershwin productions that were initially commercial failures, such as “Porgy and Bess,” have since become beloved slices of Americana.
Tragically, a brain tumor snuffed out George Gershwin’s brilliant flame when the composer was just 38. When his friend, author John O’Hara, learned of his passing, his shock reflected the nation’s. “I don’t have to believe it,” O’Hara said, “if I don’t want to.”
Though the majority of his work was first heard on the New York stage, Gershwin’s sizable impact on film is undeniable. According to the Internet Movie Database, Gershwin’s “fascinating rhythms” have been featured in over 500 movies and television programs, including seven episodes of “The Simpsons”. (We always knew Homer had class!)
Reportedly, "Someone to Watch Over Me" is the most covered Gershwin song on film (it’s even the title of a 1987 romantic thriller with Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers). The brilliant, haunting "Summertime" runs a close second.
To honor the memory of this long-departed genius, here are five top-notch films elevated by an immortal Gershwin soundtrack.
"Shall We Dance" (1937)
“Dance,” the seventh Astaire/Rogers teaming, hit screens just as Gershwin’s health was deteriorating. It’s crammed with hummable standards like “They All Laughed” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.” Though Gershwin died two months after the movie’s release, he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for the song, "They Can't Take That Away From Me." But of course he did — and truthfully, it’s hard to understand how he didn’t win.
"An American in Paris" (1951)
Vincente Minnelli's glorious musical is highlighted by dance numbers choreographed by Gene Kelly and set to such Gershwin tunes as "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You." The movie won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and features a 16 minute dance by Kelly and Leslie Caron set to the Gershwin composition that inspired the whole film. This extended sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
"Funny Face" (1957)
Paris's foul weather and political riots created tension during filming, but it certainly doesn’t show on-screen. Thankfully, nothing could stop this beautiful movie from being made, not even the fact that Fred Astaire was 30 years older than when he’d first appeared in the stage version. Audrey Hepburn certainly wasn't going to be stopped - she not only vetoed her agent's advice to turn the film down, but even incorporated her little dog into one of the scenes. Just remember: think pink!
"...his was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
- Woody Allen
To enhance the impact of this love letter to his hometown, Woody Allen hired the New York and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestras to record instrumental versions of classic Gershwin tunes. The opening shots of the New York skyline streaked with fireworks while "Rhapsody In Blue" soars in the background still astonishes. Thanks to Woody, a whole new generation fell in love with songs like "S'Wonderful," and "I've Got A Crush On You."
"When Harry Met Sally" (1987)
Three Gershwin numbers appear on the soundtrack of this memorable comedy: "But Not For Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "Our Love is Here To Stay." Gershwin’s melodies, which Leonard Bernstein once declared were “God given,” add immeasurably to the film's atmosphere of romantic longing. We're also pretty certain this is the only movie that includes both Gershwin and Allman Brothers music. (By the way, "I'll Have What She's Having" is not the titles of a Gershwin tune.)