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George Gershwin

The Gershwin brothers arrived in Hollywood in August 1936 under contract to RKO to supply song and dance numbers for Shall We Dance, the seventh film collaboration of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (who had first met on the set of the Gershwins' 1930 musical, Girl Crazy). It was not their first visit. After launching Girl Crazy, the Gershwins had gone west to work for Fox on the Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell vehicle Delicious. Though money was still plentiful, in the wake of October's stock market crash, the industry was in upheaval. Gaynor, for instance, did not make a smooth transition to "talkies," the New York Sun's critic complaining of her "slightly adenoidal intonation...." While motion picture sound had made strides since 1930, the studios still regarded music as yardage goods to be chopped and arranged according to a director's whim. Gershwin's style was also changing. An interlude from Delicious was expanded as a Rhapsody No. 2 for piano and orchestra in 1932 and, though its aims and mood are different, it was inevitably compared with the Rhapsody in Blue and found wanting. In 1935, Porgy and Bess had opened to a run of a mere 124 performances -- nearly unheard of for an opera (Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe had run for 160), but in Broadway terms a "failure." It began to be said that Gershwin's ambitions as a serious composer had caused him to lose the common touch. To his West Coast agent he shot back by wire, "RUMORS ABOUT HIGHBROW MUSIC RIDICULOUS STOP AM OUT TO WRITE HITS." Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin were in town -- the latter for perhaps the greatest of the Rogers/Astaire films, Top Hat -- when the Gershwins arrived in 1936, and joined them often for poker parties. Among the émigrés, George made the acquaintance of Ernst Toch and played tennis with Arnold Schoenberg while -- incredibly -- considering taking composition lessons from both. To friends he confided the desire to compose a string quartet -- portions of it were already so present to him that he felt no need to write them out. Meanwhile, his popular style had become more relaxed, conversational, and sophisticated, as in the sequence from Shall We Dance in which Fred Astaire spies Ginger Rogers on the promenade deck of an ocean liner walking her tiny dog and commandeers a Great Dane to join her to quirkily insouciant strains, turning amorous as the flirtation succeeds -- a three-minute moment of Gershwin at his most blithely, adorably inspired.