Henry Koster and his Hollywood Musicals
(originally written Oct. 26, 2014)
One of the least written about directors in Hollywood was Henry Koster, who pulled Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy, directed over fifty movies, and throughout the 1930s to 1960s, entertained millions of people. This paper reflects on Koster’s life and showcases two of his musical films that he directed, Spring Parade and Inspector General. The paper will explore the similarities of these two musical films to other musical films of that time period, like The Golddiggers of 1933, Top Hat, and Singin in the Rain. This will be achieved by analyzing the musical film genre elements, specifically Altman’s folk musical (Altman “The Folk Musical” 273), Feuer’s self-reflective components, such as myths of spontaneity, audience, and integration (Feuer 31), and Dyer’s utopian world (Dyer 20).
Henry Koster was born Herman Kosterlitz in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1905, and his maternal grandfather was a famous opera singer. Koster’s uncle opened a movie theater when Koster was young. Koster grew up in the theater, joining his mother when she played the piano there. By the age of 17, Koster had achieved success in writing short stories, which led him to being hired by a Berlin movie company as a screenwriter. Around 1928, Koster found out that he had a flair for writing comedies (Atkins 1). By the time Hitler came into power, Koster had already directed two films. Koster’s Jewish background became an issue when the Nazis started persecuting the Jews. After punching a teller in the bank because he could not get access to his money, Koster left for France in 1933. Later, he moved to Budapest, Hungary, upon the request of Joe Pasternak. There, he married Kato Kiraly and directed several films for Joe Pasternak. Joe Pasternak was a producer for Universal Pictures in Europe. (Koster “Henry Koster A Life in Movies”)
Henry Koster immigrated to the United States with Joe Pasternak and Felix Jackson, a screenwriter. They were dubbed the “three German-speaking emigres” (Horak 74). They weren’t the only ones who immigrated to the United States in the film producing business. According to Asper, during 1933 to 1941, many German filmmakers, producers, directors, technicians, and actors that had Jewish blood, were “blacklisted by the National Socialists” and came to the United States (Asper etal, 134).
However, Universal Pictures was undergoing bankruptcy at that time, but Pasternak and Koster managed to produce Three Smart Girls with Deanna Durbin. Koster coached fourteen-year old Deanna Durbin to sing and act in that movie (Koster Biography). That movie became a success and helped Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy. Koster produced a total of six musical films with Deanna Durbin, who literally grew up on the stage. By 1938, Deanna Durbin had become “America’s sweetheart, with over 300 fan clubs” (Asper etal, 135). One of those musicals was Spring Parade which was released in 1940. In June 1941, when Pasternak left for MGM, Koster went with him. However, due to World War II, Koster was considered an enemy alien and had to stay confined to his home during that time. After the war, he resumed his career, and among other films, directed the musical Inspector General with Danny Kaye in 1949.
Spring Parade is a 1940 musical film that was “a remake of Fruhlingsparade, a film Joe Pasternak had produced for Universal in Vienna and in Budapest” (Horak 74). The original film was written by Ernst Marischka and directed by Giza von Bolvary, based on a story by Ernst Neubach. After some adjustments by Felix Jackson and Bruce Manning, the American version became Spring Parade (75). The music was composed by Hans Salter and Charles Previn, with words by Robert Stolz.
At the time of its release, Austria had become an occupied country, but the movie depicted a prewar Vienna, with gay dancing and luxurious ballroom scenes. In the opening scene of Spring Parade, Ilonka (Deanna Durbin) was a Hungarian peasant girl who marched with her goat to the village to sell him, singing “It’s Foolish but it’s Fun,” which gave a sense of spontaneity and youthful exuberance. The simple way that she was dressed and the country scene she marched through gave a sense of a folk tale. We wonder what will happen next. Ilonka tried to sell her goat, but for extra money, ended up dancing the “Czardas” dance with Gustav (Misha Auer). This fast paced dance showed not only rivalry between the two dancers, as she competed to win, but folk dancing, as everyone danced along with them. This also tied into the folk musical theme (Altman, “The Folk Musical” 273) and also into the intensity component of Richard Dyer’s utopian world (Dyer 16).
Ilonka won the money and had her fortune told, which was like a story within a story. This fateful paper directed her path throughout the movie and provided an idea to the film audience of what was to come next. Ilonka accidentally traveled to Vienna in the baker’s hay wagon, where she ended up sitting up front with Latislav Teschek (S.Z.Sakall), the friendly, older baker. Koster’s camera snapped shots of the wagon traveling from day into night, and then the camera zoomed into the well-lit lavish ballrooms, where the well-dressed Viennese danced gaily to the Strauss waltz. This was similar to the utopian feeling in Top Hat when Dale and Jerry danced together with the other dancers at the end of the movie. Ilonka continued that feeling of gaiety, by singing in an operatic voice all the way to the bakery. Richard Dyer says this about utopia “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfillment’, point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism”(Dyer 20). This feeling of escapism and wish fulfillment were obvious here.
Ilonka ended up working for Mr. Teschek, the baker, who also had two young, mischievous nephews. This relationship placed the movie into a folk musical realm. According to Altman, “The mere presence of multi-generational relationships – and particularly the presence of children – tends to bend the fairy tale musical in the direction of its folk counterpart..” (274)
Ilonka’s fortune-telling paper said that she would go to Vienna and meet an artist and she believed this. She already was in Vienna, and the reader wondered how was she to meet the artist? One day, the marching band passed by the bakery and Ilonka and the baker’s assistant, Jenny (Anne Gwynne), looked on from their room upstairs. There was a sense of gaiety as the local people arrived and waved to the band marching by. The onlookers represent the audience in this number. Harry, a soldier, beat the drum in the band and looked up and waved to Jenny, but Ilonka thought that he was waving to her. Harry wanted to take Jenny out, but she was seeing a wealthy count. Jenny was the image of the woman using her charms and beauty to snag a rich man in this film, similar to The Golddiggers of 1933. Jenny’s wealthy suitor provided her with wealthy gifts, and she spurned Harry for the nobleman.
Through a mix up, which happens often in comedies, Ilonka and Harry went out on a date. Ilonka sang spontaneously with the orchestra, the song “When April Sings,” which integrated into the movie because it showed us her feelings for Harry. This tied into the self-reflective myth of spontaneity (Feuer 32) and myth of integration (35). Spontaneous moments like these were similar to those seen in Top Hat. One example was when Dale and Jerry sang and danced “Cheek to Cheek.”
The audience learns that Harry likes to compose music and Ilonka was now convinced that he was the artist from the fortune-telling paper, and that he was the one that she would marry. When Harry tried to write a song, Ilonka helped him by stopping the orchestra so that they could play his song. It was a waltz with a catchy tune, similar to the Strauss waltz heard earlier in the movie. The audience, represented by the people there, danced to Harry’s waltz, which later became the “Waltzing in the Clouds” number at the emperor’s ball. This was a backstage moment, as we witnessed their efforts in perfecting the musical composition. This tied into the self-reflective component of myth of audience (Feuer 36). This was similar to the “myth of audience” scene in Singin in the Rain when they were showing the silent film “Dueling Cavaliers” as a preview to the screening audience.
When Ilonka slipped the note with Harry’s waltz into the emperor’s salt sticks, Mr. Teschek was blamed for it, because the emperor's staff thought that he did it, and he was jailed. Ilonka found out what happened, and her sense of righteousness made her visit the emperor to tell him the truth. Meanwhile, Harry had spurned Ilonka after the baker’s nephews had told him a lie about her. When Ilonka confided in the emperor, this formed a moment of transparency, yet she didn’t want to admit that she loved singing. The spitting of the hand that she shared with the emperor gave us a sense of folk traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation. Ilonka’s visit with the emperor caused Mr. Teschek to be released from the jail and to be promoted to the emperor’s baker. Ilonka wanted to leave town, because Harry had spurned her, but Mr. Teschek convinced her to accompany him to the ball.
Dyer has named five utopian solutions: Abundance, energy, intensity, transparency, and community (26). The oppulence of the palace and the ball scene, where Ilonka sang Harry's song “Waltzing in the Clouds” (a song written by Austrian born Robert Stolz), gave a sense of a utopian world, very similar to those scenes in Top Hat. In Top Hat, the abundance was evident in the posh hotel rooms, the well-dressed characters Dale, Jerry, and Madge, and Horace, and their luxurious Italian retreat. Also, the utopian feeling continued when Jerry and Dale were alone with the wedding cake and danced in an extravagant last dance. In Spring Parade, Ilonka was dressed in an elegant gown, and after she was invited to perform for the emperor, ended up singing in her operatic voice. Harry conducted the music and they performed together with the orchestra in front of the “audience” attending the emperor’s ball.
Besides the abundance seen in the emperor ’s kingdom, another utopian feeling was the intensity that Ilonka showed for Harry with her actions in trying to help him. Transparency occurred when Ilonka confided to the emperor the truth about the salt sticks, and finally, there was a sense of community when the emperor and Harry worked behind the scenes to bring Ilonka to sing Harry's waltz at the ball. This utopian feeling was similar to Top Hat, where the abundance was observed in the elegant clothing and rich lifestyle of Dale and Jerry. The feeling of intensity occurred when Dale slapped Jerry because she thought he was a married man, and when Jerry pursued Dale to Italy. The moment of transparency came through when the truth about Jerry was revealed, and finally, the community feeling in Top Hat occurred when Madge and the others tried to look for Dale and Jerry in the boat.
THE INSPECTOR GENERAL
The other musical movie that Koster directed was The Inspector General which was loosely based on a classic folk tale titled “Government Inspector” and was written by Gogol in Russia, in the 1830s.
This fairy tale began outside Brodny, a French occupied mythical town. The rags to riches theme was portrayed here, and the main character, Georgi (Danny Kaye), was an illiterate gypsy man who traveled with his friend Yakov (Walter Slezak). Although Georgi plays a major role in this movie, the original folk tale did not have him as a major player. This 1949 film came during a time in Hollywood when “MGM musicals of the 1940s began to create natural audiences that would spontaneously gather around the impromptu numbers of an Astaire or a Kelly” (Feurer 31). These natural audiences were evident in the opening scene when the gypsies, Georgi and Yakov, tried to sell their golden elixir from their wagon to the local people. Yakov showed Georgi’s head on a platter, which was shocking to the people, but we found out that he was alive and pretended to be dead. The audience went “backstage” with him after he drank the elixir and tried to get rid of it, but ended up swallowing it. Georgi then performed on stage, and the country folk watching his act became the audience, as he interacted with them. These were self-reflective moments in this scene, with evidence of spontaneity and audience. For example, Georgi sang the song “Friend, are you aware that you’re losing your hair?” then broke out spontaneously into an operatic song, trying to convince the people to buy the “Golden Elixir.” The people chased Yakov and Georgi when they found out the truth from Georgi, that it was furniture polish. Yakov was angry with Georgi's actions, and this resulted in Georgi separating from Yakov and journeying to Brodny alone.
The mistaken identity theme was evident here when the corrupt mayor of Brodny believed that Georgi was the Inspector General in disguise. The film audience saw the mayor’s mistake and went along with Georgi’s crime; he had accepted this lie. A complex matter of a gypsy becoming an Inspector General could become a disastrous result. However, in this movie, they simplified it, just like in Top Hat where they simplified the complex relationship of Dale and Jerry when she thought that he was married. This simplification could also be compared to Singin in the Rain, when Don had to deal with converting his silent film the “Dueling Cavaliers” into the “Dancing Cavaliers” a sound picture, which was a complex undertaking, but they made it appear simple and easy.
In The Inspector General, when Georgi was in his room, he tried to figure out what an Inspector General did, and this turned into a spontaneous song “Arrogant, Elegant, Smart” where his three “heads” talked to him, and represented the arrogant, elegant, and smart side of him. Koster did a wonderful job using special effects to superimpose the heads of Danny Kaye above his body. At the end, Georgi complained that they didn’t care about him, and they crooned, singing him a lullaby song. The magical moment was a result of not only the special effects and the music, but the witty lyrics written by Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye’s wife. This song was integrated into the narrative, as Georgi tried to understand and fit into his new role as Inspector General.
The sense of community came through when they all sat down to dinner, and Georgi was very hungry. Maria, the mayor’s wife, had affections for Georgi and made it a point to sit with him. There was a mise-en-scene moment when Danny Kaye placed all the food in front of him and devoured it, while everyone at the table gazed at him in silent wonder, including the film audience. Another community scene was when Georgi and Liza left with the wagon and returned with the organ. Everyone in Brodny cheered when they saw them with the organ. This community feeling was also witnessed in Singin' in the Rain when Don, Cosmo and Kathy sang together the “Good Morning” song and put their heads together and came up with a solution to the “Dueling Cavaliers.” The three of them had formed a community.
Except for the opening scene, most of the music in The Inspector General was not on stage, but was spontaneous, as Georgi often broke out into songs at whim, like when he was marching away from Yakov toward Brodney. Another example was when he was in the mayor’s kitchen, and he played the carrots as if they were flutes, then sang “Happy Times” to Liza, the maid. There is also a romantic relationship between these two, which also is a component of the folk musical.
The musical numbers were integrated into the story, and included Danny Kaye’s singing and dancing. Henry Koster took advantage of all the little details of Danny Kaye’s performance, zooming in on his facial expressions, as well as using the costumes of that period. The costumes were colorful and there was a utopian sense of escape. Although this movie was not all utopian, as there were some evil moments in it, it had scenes of utopia in it. There also wasn’t as much abundance, as in Top Hat, but in the “Gypsy Drinking Song” that Georgi sang at the ball, where all the people danced to the music, it was similar to Dale and Jerry’s dancing in Italy with all those dancers. Also, in the “Gypsy Drinking Song,” Georgi was dressed in a uniform and danced around, inviting the other singers to sing (Zumm-shtock-shtock-hahaha) which was very entertaining, spontaneous, and hilarious and at the same time, had us wondering if he would drink the poison. The people at the ball were both his audience and performers. This was a scene filled with the self-reflective components of spontaneity, audience, and integration (Feuer 32). There was spontaneity in the musical number “Gypsy Dancing Song,” which was integrated into the narrative, as well as the attendees of the ball who turned into the audience. Georgi was at his top form here, and the magic of the moment was apparent when this illiterate gypsy not only sang and danced well, but also spontaneously played the violin well.
Yakov’s behavior made him appear to be the villain, and he repeatedly committed evil acts by lying and stealing and trying to murder Georgi. Also, the mayor was another villain as he had intentions on killing Georgi. These two villains played into the folk musical feel of this movie. Although Spring Parade was a folk musical, it did not have an obvious villain, except when the baker was taken away and jailed and there was an undercurrent of evil in that scene, represented by the emperor’s staff.
An interesting development in The Inspector General was the background music, which moved the story along. When something in the story was light hearted, a piccolo would play in the background. When the mayor and his men at the ball were waiting for Georgi to drink the poison, there would be a drum roll. There was no orchestra playing this music. It was all unseen and in the background. All these instrumental musical effects that Koster used set the mood of the story and integrated with the narrative.
When the real Inspector General was imprisoned and Georgi was expected to sign his death sentence, Georgi could not do it. Instead, he told him the truth, that he could not read or write and that he was not the Inspector General. Because of his honesty, he was rewarded by the real Inspector General the title of mayor. This moment of transparency was similar to Spring Parade when Ilonka confided to the emperor, and in Singin in the Rain when Lina lip synced in front of the audience and the curtains were pulled open to reveal Kathy actually doing the singing.
Koster’s two musical films Spring Parade and The Inspector General used folk musical elements, as well as the three components of self-reflective films that showed spontaneity, audience, and integration. These two films also depicted utopian worlds that allowed people to escape into gay Vienna and the mythical Brodny. This paper showed that these elements of the musical film genre seen in Spring Parade and The Inspector General, were similar to those seen in the musical films Top Hat, and Singin in the Rain. Also, Jenny’s interest, in Spring Parade, to the wealthy count, was similar to that seen in The Golddiggers of 1933, where female beauty was used to attract wealthy men.
Henry Koster was part of the “three German emigres” team that successfully pulled Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy, through musicals like those listed in this paper, and he also went on to direct dozens of more great films for thirty years. His contributions will remain a legacy in Hollywood musicals.
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