Tuesday, September 22

Hoagy Carmichael

Raise your hand if you know who Hoagy Carmichael is.  Hint:  he is not a sandwich.  Primarily a composer and a piano man, he also dabbled in some singing and some band leading.  Somehow he slipped into acting as well.  In the 11 movies he made, I always got a big smile when I saw him... so laid back, so confident, so self-assured.  He brought class to everything he did.

Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1899 of Scottish ancestry, his blue-collar father worked at an assortment of odd jobs, anything he could to make a buck.  His mother was a piano teacher who would often play at movie theaters when they showed silent movies.  While the youngster never had truly formal training, he picked up a great deal from listening to his mother and observing her play.  He was also greatly influenced by the jazz music of his local African-American community.  By high school years, he would rush home after school and hit the keys.  Playing piano was all he wanted to do.  His parents approved as much as anything because it kept him out of mischief.

With all his devotion to piano playing, he still was not thinking of it as a career.  He worked at a number of odd jobs and gave money to help his parents out while he attended law school.  His greatest tragedy in his young life occurred around this time when his younger sister died.  Although she died of influenza, which swept the world in 1918, Carmichael would say she died of poverty because the family couldn't afford the care.  He vowed to never be poor again. 

At college he fell in with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke who became his great friend and mentor.   Through his new friend he would meet many other great musical legends of the day such as Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Dinah Shore, Helen Forrest, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman.

It was on that composing side that I first heard his name.  His cool compositions echoed throughout my childhood.  One of the few things my parents ever agreed on was music.  Perhaps Stardust would be playing and one of them would say man, I love that Hoagy Carmichael.  I got to hearing that funny name so often that  I began to recognize his music.  I even got to where I could sing Heart and Soul with my parents.  Or maybe it would be Two Sleepy People, The Nearness of You, Up a Lazy River, In the Still of the Night, I Get Along Without You Very Well, Georgia On My Mind or my favorite of all his works, Skylark.  My old man loved Carmichael's jazz influence and Mama loved his easy way of crooning.

He formed his own band during his college days and they toured some in his local environs.  Then he moved to New York where he met lyricist Johnny Mercer and they would become longtime collaborators.  Carmichael made a number of recordings during his New York years but by 1936 he abandoned the Big Apple for good and headed west.

It was inevitable that Carmichael would fall under the spell of Hollywood.  In the 1930s songwriters began to get contracts with movie studios.  Every studio employed several.  What was unusual was that songwriters didn't usually become onscreen performers but there was something about Carmichael that was so engaging.  He was almost always a piano player in his films and usually sang at least one song that he wrote.

He started with Paramount and soon he would be singing on screen, at a piano, to Constance Bennett and Cary Grant in 1937s Topper.  He would not appear in his second film for another seven years and it remains one of his most memorable.

I remember the first time I ever saw him in a movie, although it came courtesy of television.  I was about 11 when my mother called me to the couch to watch Hoagy at the piano with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.  It remains today my favorite Carmichael moment... and not too shabby for Bacall either as they had fun with Am I Blue?

He played a cab driver in a good noir, Johnny Angel (1945), featuring one of wooden actor George Raft's best performances.  He even managed a western, 1946s Canyon Passage with Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward, in which he closes the film astride a mule singing his famous Ole Buttermilk Sky.  In his sober-faced way, Hoagy Carmichael always seemed to be having fun in his films.

He even managed being a part of a well-deserved Oscar-winning best picture when he appeared in 1946s The Best Years of Our Lives which starred Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo.  He was showcased at the piano teaching the disabled Harold Russell how to play. 

Carmichael worked with Andrews a third time in Night Song (1947) in which the latter played a blind pianist in the former's swing band.  It was a good comical role for Carmichael, something he pulled off with his special élan.

Johnny Holiday (1949), about a tough street kid sent to reform school, is probably his least-known film.  He played himself in a bit part that he couldn't resist because it was filmed in Indiana.

One of his best roles came in what was quite probably his favorite film, 1950s Young Man with a Horn.  He was the best friend of Kirk Douglas who played Carmichael's real-life good friend Bix Beiderbecke, although his name was not used in the fictionalized film.  It was a larger part than he usually had.

In 1951 he and Johnny Mercer won Oscars for their tune In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, featured in the film Here Comes the Groom starring Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman.  For Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953 he wrote two songs, Ain't There Anyone Here for Love? and When Love Goes Wrong.

In 1952 he was Happy, a piano player in a gambling joint in the Jane Russell-Victor Mature romance-drama, The Las Vegas Story.  He sang his own compositions, I Get Along Without You Very Well, The Monkey Song and My Resistance is Low.  The same year he had a small role in Belles on Their Toes, a decent sequel to the immensely popular, Cheaper by the Dozen.

Both the songs he wrote and his comic acting were highlights in the routine Sterling Hayden-Vera Ralston western, Timberjack (1955) and it drew the curtain on Carmichael's acting career.  He turned to television for some acting roles and had a regular part for a spell in Laramie.

Hoagy Carmichael was married twice and had two sons by his first wife.  He died of heart failure at age 82 in 1981 in Rancho Mirage, California.

His screen career was a mere blip, of course, compared to his music.  His songs were often nostalgic in tone; many of them drew inspiration from American small towns and bucolic lives and the emotional attachment Americans had to the land.  His most popular tune, Stardust, may be the most recorded song in American history.

His music has been featured in scores and scores of films over the years.  Arguably my favorite is the use of Skylark in the opening of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).  More recently his music was featured in My Week with Marilyn in 2011.

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. Thanks for the very interesting article, BC. I knew his "funny name", but knew nothing about his songwriting or acting. Can't believe all the great songs he wrote.

  2. Here's a fun Hoagy Carmichael tune, sung by Jane Russell -

  3. It's clear that you really understand Hoagy and his era.
    Congratulations and thanks.
    The Best Years was his finest hour, I think.