Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell Adolph Green

Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell Adolph Green

Article excerpt


Arthur Freed was the top producer of film musicals in the days when that was still a competitive field. But he'd started out in the Twenties, as a lyricist on the early talkies, and one day in the early Fifties, at MGM, it occurred to him that his songwriting royalties could use a little boost. So he called in a couple of writers and gave 'em the assignment: `Kids, I want you to take all my old songs and make a picture out of them. We're gonna call it Singin' in the Rain.'

As Betty Comden told me, `All we knew is that somewhere we'd have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing.'

`In it,' added Adolph Green.

After more than a few false starts they stumbled on the obvious solution: as all the numbers were written for the early days of talking pictures, why not set the movie in the early days of talking pictures? The first time I met Comden and Green they told me proudly that in an international film critics' all-time top ten, Singin' in the Rain had come third after La Regle du Jeu and Citizen Kane, which I think they thought would impress me. But I'd rather watch Singin' in the Rain than Renoir or Welles any day. A grand comedy of crises about an entire industry scrambling to transform itself, Comden and Green's script is that rare thing: a movie about movies that doesn't sour on its own insider's cynicism. They made a film about making films that looks like it was fun to make. And, in that sense, it's the perfect monument to Betty and Adolph, a writing team who made writing look fun.

Comden and Green wrote a lot of other things: On the Town, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, shows and films, scripts and lyrics, sketches and (something of a specialised skill) sung acceptance speeches for awards ceremonies. They began writing together in the late 1930s, when they found themselves in a Greenwich Village nightclub act and, having no material, were forced to supply it themselves. After two-- thirds of a century, the longest-running partnership in showbusiness finally broke up last week, when Adolph Green died a couple of weeks shy of his 87th birthday. They occasionally worked solo - you can see Adolph playing the harassed TV producer in My Favourite Year (1982) and Betty looking bored out of her skull in the so-cool-it's-comatose movie of Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York (1989) but, unlike almost any other team, they liked each other's company enough to stick it out to the end.

MGM hired them as writers, but they were always performers at heart: Fred Astaire recalled sitting in Arthur Freed's office listening to Betty and Adolph read through the script for The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and worrying he'd never be able to do the role as well as Adolph. Four years later, another Astaire movie, The Band Wagon, featured Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant as a writing team Comden and Green loosely based on themselves. The early scene at Pennsylvania Station is taken more or less directly from the team's dues-paying days, when a penniless Adolph got off the train in New York to be greeted by Betty waving a big placard reading `ADOLPH GREEN FAN CLUB' to the bewilderment of commuters.

The Comden And Green Fan Club was more select than they might have wished, but it included some heavy-hitters: their friend and composing partner, Leonard Bernstein, adored Adolph because he was a mine of knowledge about great art but was also a great laugh, a balancing act Lenny himself eventually lost the knack of. …

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