It’s 1944. Louis B. Mayer has wooed Albert Lewin back to MGM to direct The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lewin has kept his distance from Mayer for the past eight years – since the day the studio’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, died of pneumonia. Lewin headed the script department and was Irving’s right-hand-man. The two were literary eggheads; workaholic companions with a gene for converting text into images that moved. They viewed Mayer as evil walking.
As news broke of Thalberg’s death, Lewin grabbed his coat and sped off the studio lot. It was MGM itself that had just expired. Lewin headed straight to Paramount Studios and signed-on to produce True Confession starring Carole Lombard. Mayer went on to complete the last of Irving’s projects – including Maytime, The Good Earth and Marie Antoinette. But come 1944, MGM’s artistic pre-eminence among the Big Five studios was looking a bit up-for-grabs. Louis needed a master showpiece, of the Thalberg & Lewin caliber, such as Grand Hotel – high gloss, volatile, agitated and delirious. Mayer never forgot that Al Lewin’s greatest ambition was to direct The Picture of Dorian Gray. So, he sweetened-up the proposal: Lewin would also write the screenplay. The role of “Sybil Vane” went to eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury.
“Look, Al – it’s a smutty book. Keep the bastard censors away from me. Give the girl a song.”
Done! As long as Lewin keeps the script under two hours, he can do almost anything. First up, transform “Sybil Vane” – Oscar Wilde’s back alley Shakespearean – into a tavern singer, an “Ingenue” headliner working in a rowdy joint down by the wharf. [Sounds familiar? See: “Veda Pierce” – Lounge Lizard or High Toned Viper?] So – what pop songs were on Billboard back in 1886? Anyone? What might the fresh-faced Mr. Gray have listened to while out for a night of serious slumming?
Enter Herbert Stothart – for twenty years MGM’s resident music director and Thalberg’s preferred collaborator. Among Stothart’s great commercial assets is a keen ability to link other composers’ material to his own compositions and then lay down a grid of themes and key-related tracks to keep characters and plot lines well connected. At the 1940 Academy Awards, Stothart grabbed the Oscar for Best Original Score – The Wizard of Oz.
Stothart’s musical narratives enliven The Unknown. Lewin’s production is packed with magic and mysticism – from tons of vintage furnishings to an illuminated quatrain from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. As Dorian voices his wish to remain forever young and that his portrait should reflect the burdens of life, Stothart’s accompaniment draws us into an atmosphere of longing and nostalgia. Later on, Sibyl will exclaim, “It’s that cat! I thought I saw its eyes move.” Indeed. Bastet is previewing the coming attractions.
Stothart’s overture introduces dominant themes that will be shuttled throughout the film. His own song-without-words, Youth, is a rapturous meditation on the fleeting nature of physical beauty. The second, by Chopin – Prelude for Piano, Op. 28, No. 24 in D Minor (“The Storm”) is dark and foreboding, its final notes resounding in the depths of Hell. The third is a wistful ballad copyrighted in 1903, (Goodbye) Little Yellow Bird. And never mind that it postdates Wilde’s story by 17 years! Stothart deemed it perfect for Lansbury and found a way to link it to Chopin’s Prelude. In any event, historical accuracy was never MGM’s strongest suit. Though we don’t know who debuted the song, it must have been circulating as a rubber-stamped not-for-sale cue sheet among artists on the music hall/variety theatre circuits. But at some point between August and October 1905, “Little Yellow Bird” was appropriated into a short-lived Broadway ‘play with music’, Easy Dawson, starring determined comedian, Raymond Hitchcock. Adding the song was a response to opening night critics who thought the show needed a little goose.
Hitchcock tapped his attractive Armenian wife, Flora Zabelle – a familiar operetta soprano and “Floradora” type. She was cast as “A village flirt”. In other words – eye candy, a shiny object, a divertissement. Her reason-to-be was to pause the plot, open her parasol and work the footlights with a catchy tune that encouraged audience participation. “Little Yellow Bird” suited her talents and sustained the company a few more weeks.
After the show closed, Chicago music publisher Sol Bloom (later the Democratic Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs) wanted to memorialize his experience of Flora Zabelle and her ditty on the canary in the gilded cage. So, he ordered a special edition of the sheet music and exploited her image on the cover. Herbert Stothart knew the sentimental ballad and so did a lot of other folks who attended the New York premiere of Dorian Gray in March 1945. Lewin created three scenes for Angela and her song, each at the popular pub – The Two Turtles.
Pay no attention to its crunchy floorboards! Thirsty patrons at The Two Turtles hammer their way through bags of free nuts the whole night long–get used to it. But the smashing stops when songstress Sybil Vane arrives onstage. Tonight she is working her way around the tables with that much requested house-favorite, Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird. It has fast become a tradition for the crowd to join-in at the final chorus with (something in the neighborhood of) 4-part harmony. And in spite of its location, Two Turtles boasts the latest in special effects – like – Sibyl’s new shade of fake snowflakes, Sporting Pink. Check out this fancy new customer in the black cape and silk topper. Might be a producer! High tenor, for sure. The Innkeeper/MC quickly notices the gentleman’s gaze is fixed upon Miss Vane. “I’d gladly introduce you, sir,” he says to Dorian, “but she’s proud! She won’t speak to anybody.” [Cue the pianist.]
“The snow was very plentiful and crumbs were very few / as a weather-beaten sparrow through a mansion window flew. Her eye fell on a golden cage, a sweet love song she heard / sung by a pet canary there – a handsome yellow bird. He said to her, ‘Miss Sparrow, I’ve been stung by Cupid’s arrow. Will you share my cage with me?’ She looked up at his castle with its ribbon and its tassel / and in plaintive tone said she ––”
[Two verses later, the crowd joins in.] “Good-bye, little yellow bird. I’d gladly mate with you. I love you, little yellow bird. But I love my freedom, too. So, good-bye, little yellow bird. I’d rather brave the cold – on a leafless tree – than a prisoner be – in a cage of gold!”
Sybil is locked in a trance with the gentleman at Table 1. The lively exit music startles her back into reality, she runs off. Again, the owner approaches the beguiling Mr. Gray. “She’s taken with you, sir. Say the word and I’ll take you backstage.” No, he replies. Dorian envisions a close encounter of the wilder kind.
Between 1949–50, audiences in Japan, West Germany, and Austria were seeing The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time. The film was still in circulation throughout the U.S., but not as an official Re-release which would have included new prints and publicity materials. What did become available were three different issues of the sheet music to “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird”:The 1st image was published in 1949 by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. Inc., New York. Notice the name of Dan O’Brien with the composer and lyricist. The 2nd image was published in Sydney, Australia by J. Albert & Son. The 3rd image shows the publisher as Francis, Day & Hunter, Ltd. 138/140, Charing Cross Rd., London, WC2
Fast-forward to 9:00pm, Sunday, 27 October 1985. By now, Angela Lansbury is in her second season and 28th episode as detective/author Jessica Fletcher in the incredibly popular CBS series, Murder, She Wrote. Tonight’s chapter, “Sing A Song of Murder” – is exceptional TV. Angela will be singing “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird” – but in the guise of her nearly-identical British cousin, the veteran music hall performer, Emma MacGill. Not only is it Lansbury’s first opportunity to perform dual roles, but an even more rare opportunity to reprise a song from another point in her career, in a different media, in a similar performing environment, sung in the same key and vocal range, and with a number of parallel plot details created by the program’s prolific screenwriter, Peter S. Fischer. “Emma MacGill” (based on Angela’s mother, actress Moyna MacGill) is a respected headliner at the Mayhew Music Hall – now on its last legs. Emma is certain that someone wants to see her dead, someone who wants to take over the Mayhew and turn it into a Rock venue. Someone has already attempted to run her over. Emma decides to fake her own death and get her cousin Jessica over to London to figure it all out.
[Spoiler alert: Someone does get murdered, but not Emma. Jessica solves the mystery, the Mayhew Music Hall is back in business – for now. Emma makes another appearance in Season 4, Episode 6 – It Runs in the Family. She is accused of murdering a long-ago beau, Lord Geoffrey Constable – some old bird who has left her enough money to gild just about everything.]