Friday, July 25, 2008

A Gershwin Friday: The Jewish Cowboy Musical

Bronco busters Jacob and Israel Gershowitz (George and Ira Gershwin)

For me, the name Gershwin has always conjured up 1920s New York sophistication. George and Ira hanging out with Fred Astaire and Kay Swift in George's immaculate 5th Avenue art deco penthouse. Parties with young socialites and the artistic elites of the day. Soirées with great Harlem musicians such as James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith" playing on George's grand piano.

Lest we forget, however, George and Ira also tackled the cactus and cowboys of the great American west. Their 1930 Broadway show, Girl Crazy, concerns the romantic adventures of Danny Churchill, a young playboy from Manhattan who's been chasing too much skirt and gets sent by his father to a small men's college in Arizona.

Gieber Goldfarb, a Jewish cabbie, drives Danny from 48th Street all the way out west. He winds up staying with Danny and encounters his own adventures - basically being an urban New York Jew trying to survive among rattlesnakes and roughnecks. At one point, about to be lynched by cowboys, Goldfard asks, "So, this is God's country?"

Later, Goldfard disguises himself as a Native American, only to encounter a real Native American named Eaglerock. Andrea Most describes the ensuing scene in her article, "'Big Chief Izzy Horowitz': Theatricality and Jewish Identity in the Wild West" [American Jewish History 87.4 (1999) 313-341.] :
Eaglerock is simply dressed, speaks perfect English, and has just returned from college. When Gieber enters he assumes the pose not of a "real" Indian but of a stage Indian who wears a full headdress, whoops loudly, and speaks a strange "ugga-bugga" language which confuses Eaglerock thoroughly. The two "Indians" try a number of languages before Gieber finally introduces himself in Yiddish. This works, Eaglerock responds, and the two exit speaking animatedly.
Girl Crazy was a big success at the time and made stars of two young actresses: Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman. Down in the orchestra pit were future big-band legends Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa. Hit songs from the show included "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," and "I Got Rhythm."

But the titles that attract my attention now are those such as "The Lonesome Cowboy," "Bronco Busters," "Land of the Gay Caballero," and "(When It's) Cactus Time in Arizona." In retrospect, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Gershwins would explore the American west as subject material, given how essential it is to our national mythology. Later, of course, George would also delve into the America South for his opera Porgy and Bess.

The 1943 film version of Girl Crazy, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, removed the Jewish elements of the plot.

A few years after Girl Crazy, George and Ira would themselves follow the cattle trail out west (via modern airplane), lured by the siren call of Hollywood. We may think of George Gershwin as being one with New York City - Woody Allen's Manhattan! - but he actually died in Los Angeles in 1937.

In 1943, MGM decided that this Jewish cowboy musical was a perfect vehicle for the ninth pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sadly, however, the studio removed Gieber Goldfarb and his adventures, as well as his song "Goldfarb, That's I'm!," converting the Gershwins' interesting cultural mix and comic fantasy of a fellow Jewish New Yorker out in the wilds of Arizona into a more comfortable and bland WASP vision of the American west.

It's interesting to note that this erasure of the Jewish elements of the story took place at a time when news about the concentration camps was first coming out of Europe. And that the head of of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, was Jewish himself. Evidently, Hollywood didn't think that a Jewish cabbie and a well-spoken Native American communicating in Yiddish would play in Peoria as it had on Broadway.

What the film does offer, however, is Judy Garland at the height of her vocal powers. And a typically surreal and mind-boggling musical number from Busby Berkeley. Busby was the original director for the movie, but he and Garland clashed on the set, so he was replaced by Norman Taurog. One of the few traces that remain of Berkeley's work is the bizarre finale that features a Tommy Dorsey big-band version of "I Got Rhythm," set out west, with cowboy outfits (perhaps the geekiest ever seen on screen), fake cactus, synchronized six-guns, a cannon fired directly at the audience, and strange, whip-like banners that remind me of Kurosawa.

It all adds up to classic Hollywood weirdness. (Especially the last minute of the video.)

Now, how we go from Jewish cowboy musicals and a freaky Busby Berkeley number to Bird and Diz using the same song as one of the foundations of Be-Bop is . . . well . . . one of those sweet mysteries of life.


Liam said...

Wow... that number was something else. It got mind-bendingly psychotically weird once the firearms came into play.

I would like to see the thing in the original form, with the Jewish cabbie. Maybe it's time for the Coen brothers to make their first musical.

BTW, your writing on subjects like this is excellent.

cowboyangel said...

Originally, I said the last minute of the video "verges on violent insanity." It seemed an unnecessary observation. And you actually describe it better: Psychotically weird. You add the firearms, the military precision of the dancing girls, and the stomping in their boots like goose-steppers, and it starts to feel fascistic, as if Leni Riefenstahl had made a musical.

According to Wikipedia, "During World War I, Berkeley served as a field artillery lieutenant, where he learned the intricacies of drilling and disciplining large groups of people."

Wow, the Coens doing Girl Crazy. Dude, that's a fantastic idea! We should both write and encourage them. Seriously. They obviously already have a feel for the west. Help me find their contact info.

Thanks for the compliment on my writing. I'm not feeling particularly positive about it right now. As though I'm just spitting out useless information.

cowboyangel said...

Even better, we should write the screenplay for them. We should at least put together a treatment that we could send them when we presented the idea.

Really. I know you have the dissertation, but a treatment wouldn't take long. One day of drinking.

Liam said...

Really, when you write cultural history, your writing is strong and your ideas interesting. You have a great idea for connecting surprising dots.

"As though I'm just spitting out useless information."

Welcome to my dissertation.

As far as the Coen bros treatment for "Girl Crazy" -- Hell, yeah!

crystal said...

I've always wanted to write a screenplay :)

Your writing is really good, very insightful. Sometimes I don't comment, but it's not because it isn't interesting but because I can't think of anything worthy to add.

cowboyangel said...


Are you really struggling with the idea that you're writing useless information in your dissertation? That's probably not an unusual feeling at some point in the process, is it? When you spend so much time with certain information?

I'll see if I can track down more info on Girl Crazy before Wednesday.

cowboyangel said...

You know, Crystal, just from reading a bit of your fiction, and from your posts, I think you'd do well with a screenplay. Jesuits and Anacondas. There's a film there waiting to be made.

Thanks for the kind comments on my writing.