NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock thumbs Lincoln’s nose at the censors

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The following is my entry in The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, being hosted at the blog Coffee, Classics, & Craziness from Aug. 11-13, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of their favorite films by the famed director!

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Great entertainment and cinematic art happen so rarely in the movies that we’re usually grateful to get just one or the other. But after over thirty years in the business, director Alfred Hitchcock seamlessly combined both, in a little number called North by Northwest (1959).

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This movie also combined two of Hitchcock’s favorite motifs, the innocent man in dangerous circumstances and the cool, icy blonde. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is constantly on the go between martini sessions. One day at a restaurant luncheon, he makes the worst move of his life, simply by summoning a bellboy to send a wire to his mother. This gesture is misinterpreted by some very bad men who are on the lookout for a CIA spy named George Kaplan.

With that fatal gesture, the bad guys abduct Thornhill, and against his loudest protests, he becomes George Kaplan. Along the way, Thornhill/Kaplan is helped (or at least he thinks he is) by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a certain female of platinum hair and behavior.

To tell any more would spoil the fun for any first-timer. Just be on the lookout for some of these signposts: An opening sequence (featuring great titles by Saul Bass and a memorable theme from Hitchcock vet Bernard Herrmann) that gets your blood pumping before the story kicks in. Hitchcock’s inevitable cameo appearance (shortly after his credit). A drunk-driving scene that ought to be shown in every driver’s-ed class through eternity. A man and a knife. A man alone in a field, save for a crop-dusting plane. The most intense auction scene ever filmed. A trip across Mount Rushmore, literally. And oh, that glorious closing shot, putting one over on the 1959 movie censors.

Here are a few more kickers to amaze your friends at trivia time. The movie’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, came up with the movie’s famous high points first and then worked with Hitchcock to build a movie around them. Cary Grant, whose role was that of a fairly youthful bon vivant, was 55 years old when he made this movie. And the woman who played his mother (brittly witty Jessie Royce Landis) was 10 months younger than Cary Grant.

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Finally, let us not neglect two of Hitchcock’s most slithery villains, fey Martin Landau (with his “woman’s intuition”) and droll James Mason (whose dialogue fairly swan-dives off his tongue). All of these elements make North by Northwest a delight, either to study in film class or enjoy with other moviegoers.

Here’s a terrific trailer for the movie, narrated by The Master himself:

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Interview with movie songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, Nov. 1987

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Jay Livingston (at piano) and Ray Evans.

If you’re an old-movie or -TV fan, chances are that you’ve heard Jay Livingston and Ray Evans — or at least some of their work — even if you haven’t heard of them. Their compositions include “Que Sera, Sera,” “Mona Lisa,” and the themes to the TV shows “Bonanza” and “Mr. Ed,” among countless other songs. 26 of those songs have sold at least a million copies each, total record sales on their songs have exceeded 250 million, and they won three Oscars for their work.

With all of that, Jay Livingston (1915-2001) and Ray Evans (1915-2007) remained down-to-earth and amenable, plugging away at songs for charities and the like right up to Livingston’s death in 2001. When I interviewed them at Livingston’s Bel-Air, CA. home in Nov. 1987, I couldn’t have asked for two more gracious and outgoing interview subjects.

And they had a lot to talk about — how they met, their work with Bob Hope, their “almost-” songs for directors Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, and how Jay came to sing one of TV’s most famous theme songs. But since the interview was taking place at Christmastime, I started off by inquiring about their most famous holiday tune.

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ME: How did your Christmas song “Silver Bells” come about?

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JAY: We were under contract with Paramount at that time, for ten years, and we went into work every day for them. One day, we got an assignment to write a Christmas song for the movie The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope. Well, we were under yearly options at Paramount, and we had to have a hit every so often or we couldn’t stay there.

So we said very definitely, “We can’t write a hit Christmas song,” because all the songs you hear at Christmas are very old, when you think about it. But they were adamant about having a Christmas song. So we went back and wrote a song called “Tinkle Bells,” about the tinkly bells you hear at Christmas. So that, we thought, was the end of that — it’ll be in the picture and you’ll never hear it again.

I went home that night, and my wife said, “What did you do ‘in school’ today?” I told her, and she said, “Are you out of your mind? ‘Tinkle’ has a bathroom connotation, you can’t do that!” So I went back in and said to Ray, “We can’t use that song we did yesterday.” But he didn’t want to rewrite it.

RAY: No, I’m very lazy. Besides, “tinkle,” I never thought about that! But of course, it’s a lousy title, anyway. I’m surprised we even thought of that.

JAY: So we wanted to start with a brand-new song. But we kept coming back to “Tinkle Bells,” and we stole from it. We finally ended up with every note we used in “Tinkle Bells,” and we made “Silver Bells” out of it. And now…

RAY: Now it’s sold close to 100 million records. It was written in 1951, and every year it sells 2 to 3 million records. Nashville has given it a new lease on life, and they still re-release the old versions.

ME: How many cover versions have been made of it?

RAY: I would say at least 200. It’s crazy, but lovely crazy.

ME: How did you two happen to meet and start writing together?

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Jay and Ray, circa 1940’s.

JAY: I grew up near Pittsburgh, and I took piano lessons there and went to the University of Pennsylvania. At the end of my freshman year, I met Ray at a fraternity, and he said the band he was playing sax with was going to Europe, and they needed a piano player. Well, I jumped at that. I auditioned for them, and they said, “Fine.”

RAY: So we got a job playing dance music on a ship. Then, we played on that same ship every year.

JAY: Then in my junior year, they graduated and I said, “I want to have the band,” so I took over. The last two years, we traveled all around the world. They liked us because we knocked ourselves out to do it right. There were a lot of older people on cruises, and these other bands just played jazz — which we played, too, but we also played waltzes, rhumbas, tangoes, and the “businessman’s bounce,” that fast tempo that old people like.

RAY: So on our last trip on the Hudson River, I said to Jay, “Let’s stay in New York and write songs.” We were very naive, thinking that you write a song and the next day, you’re a big hit. It took eight or ten years before we really hit — but through lots and lots of lucky breaks, we finally ended up in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, where we got a 10-year contract and where a lot of our hits were written. We also got a lot of help during that period from Olsen and Johnson, who were big stars on Broadway with Hellzapoppin’.

JAY: This sounds easy and quick, but we’re talking about a period of about a year, where we began to meet people. Our first song was for PRC [a Poverty Row movie studio], which made pictures in a week.

RAY: We met Martha Tilton there, who was a big jazz singer, and that led to Paramount in ‘45.

ME: How have you managed to stay together for so long?

JAY: Well, it worked, and you don’t mess with success. I saw what happened to Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin. They did a big Broadway show, and they came out here and did a picture for Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis, with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Then they had a fight and broke up, during our first few months at Paramount. And I thought, “Oh, they’re both so talented.” So you figure, if the chemistry works, don’t mess it up.

RAY: And I don’t compose — Jay composes, and we both work on the lyrics. So it’s really been a partnership of going back and forth. Why break up if things are going well?

ME: How do you come to write a song? Is there anything that inspires you?

JAY: No, you can’t wait for inspiration. We wrote very few pop songs — we almost always wrote on assignment. They’d say, “We need it next Thursday,” so you sit down and do it.

RAY: You’re given a script and you know what you have to say, so you say it in the most singable way possible.

JAY: A lot of pop songwriters say to me, “How do you do that?” And I say, “It’s a lot easier than what you do, because we know what we have to do.” You have to write something the singer can sing — if he has a short range, you have to be careful of that. If the story takes place in 1890, you have to have a sound like that. And the story point’s always there — “I’m gonna love you,” “I’m gonna leave you,” whatever it says.

RAY: Whether you’ve written a hit song or not is for somebody else to decide. But if you’ve done what you’ve been asked to do, you have that working for you.

JAY: We’ve sat down to try and write a hit song, and it never really worked. The songs that we wrote for the pictures just stood out on their own.

ME: Have you ever been able to figure out if a song was going to be a hit or not?

RAY: Almost never. When we wrote “Mona Lisa,” the picture that had it was terribly unimportant, and actually, that song was the B-side of what the studio thought would be a hit. When we wrote “Que Sera, Sera,” we thought, “Doris Day sings that too fast — no way.” So go figure.

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Doris Day, singing “Que Sera, Sera” too fast for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

ME: How closely do you work with the performers who do your songs, such as Bob Hope?

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JAY: Very closely. Bob Hope tells us what he needs. He says, “This line doesn’t work, and I want to say this here.” That’s why I like working with him. I hate it when a producer just says, “I don’t like it.” If you don’t know what he doesn’t like, what are you going to do? At Paramount, we always worked closely with the artists to teach them the songs.

ME: How did you come to write your TV themes?

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JAY: For “Bonanza,” my brother worked at NBC with a guy named Fred Hamilton. They were doing a pilot named “Bonanza” with four unknowns. It could not have been more unimportant — it was nothing.

RAY: But they wanted a short song, with kind of a marching beat, to depict the Old West.

JAY: So we wrote the “Bonanza” theme in one afternoon and got paid very little for it, but the deal was that if it got on the air, we would get paid more. At first, we had two “Bonanzas” in it, [singing] “Da da da dum, da da da da dum, bonanza, bonanza…” And Fred Hamilton called and said, “Would you take one of those ‘Bonanzas’ out? It sounds like ‘La Cucaracha.’” So we said, “Sure, we don’t care.”

They put the show up against the Number One show on the air, “Perry Mason.” When they had the premiere party at Chason’s, I thought, “You poor souls.” It took off from there, and I guess that’s our most-performed song. I was in Shanghai and heard it in a department store.

RAY: I was in Uruguay and heard it in Spanish.

ME: What about “Mr. Ed”?

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JAY: Al Simon from Filmways [which produced the series] called us up and showed us the pilot — which had another guy, not Alan Young. They said they needed a song for a talking horse, so we wrote “Mr. Ed.” Now, Filmways was a very cheap outfit — they’d take a lot of film scores to Rome and score them there very cheaply. They hired an Italian opera singer to sing “Mr. Ed.” When they came back, Al Simon said, “Boy, that opera singer was terrible. But we like the way you sang it, Jay — would you come down and sing to that track we made in Rome? Then in a few weeks, we can take it off and put another singer on it.”

So I said okay, because I didn’t want to lose the song. But when we were writing it, I said to Ray, “I sure feel sorry for the guy who has to sing this, because there’s no place to breathe in it.” And I got stuck with it! You sing, “A horse is a horse,” and your breath is gone. So I just sang a slight “h” and got through it. And my version is the one that’s been on all these years — they never took it off.

RAY: That song got another shot in the arm two years ago. Two right-wing ministers in Ohio were burning rock-and-roll records. They happened to play the “Mr. Ed” song backwards, which we never had, and they said, “Oh, there’s a message from Satan.” So that gave the song a new lease on life.

ME: I once read that you’d been commissioned to do a pop song for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

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JAY: That was an assignment for a title song. The studio loves title songs, because every time it’s played on the air, it plugs their picture. We were called “The Title-Song Kings” at Paramount, because we wrote some outlandish title songs. We even wrote one for When Worlds Collide: “When worlds collide and mountains tumble, I’ll stop loving you.”

We were in New York when they asked us to write one for Vertigo, and we said, “No, we’re too busy and we’d just look silly.” Then Alfred Hitchcock met us and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve got to help me. The studio doesn’t want me to call this picture Vertigo because they think nobody knows what ‘vertigo’ means. If you’ll write a song that explains it, that will help us a lot.”

So we wrote, “Down and down I fall from the heights, I get dizzy from the heights of my love.” And just for fun, I asked the singer, who had sung it about six times by this time, “Do you know what ‘vertigo’ means?” He said, “It’s an island in the West Indies, isn’t it?

RAY: It didn’t become a hit song, let us say that. It wasn’t used in the picture, anyway — just for exploitation purposes.

ME: How did you come to do a cameo appearance as yourselves in Sunset Boulevard?

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JAY: Billy Wilder, the director, wanted a song for the scene where William Holden leaves Gloria Swanson and goes to this party on New Year’s Eve. He wanted a song called “The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues,” about the people in show business who haven’t made it. He said, “I want it to be authentic. I want you to mention Schwab’s Drugstore and things like that.” We said, “But no one will know what that means,” and he said, “I don’t care, I want it right.”

So he filmed us playing our song in the movie, and then as a protection, he had us playing about ten seconds of “Buttons and Bows” [from Bob Hope’s The Paleface] at the end. Then he previewed it in Chicago, and he told us, “We had to take it out. Nobody knew what Schwab’s Drugstore was.” So we ended up playing ten seconds of “Buttons and Bows” in the picture.

ME: What are your feelings about contemporary pop music?

JAY: Two things stopped us a lot in our career. One was when the background composers decided to write songs for movies. They’re great musicians, but most of them don’t know how to write a song. That’s why, when you see the songs nominated for Academy Awards, you don’t recognize them. None of them were hits. They’re written cerebrally, and a song is something you have to feel.

RAY: We were the last of the standard songwriters, and then rock came in, and suddenly our type of music no longer existed.

JAY: Now, rock music isn’t so bad. It’s not our style, but you hear some pretty good things. One advantage they have over us is that we had censorship. In “Golden Earrings,” we wrote, “Let this pair of golden earrings make you mine tonight.” They said that “Make you mine tonight” was a dirty line, and we had to change it. That’s hard to believe in this era.

RAY: To me, music has gone downhill. My line is, if Cole Porter or George Gershwin were alive, they’d be penniless. There would be no place for their music to be heard.

JAY: Pop stars make a lot of money now with their songs, which we didn’t, but our songs last. Their songs come and go like a meteor, and next year, they’re gone. Our songs are recorded all the time, 20 or 30 years later.

ME: Are there any songwriters you admire in particular?

JAY: Johnny Mercer was our guru. He was the best lyric writer ever. And we love all the giants — Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Today, Billy Joel writes some wonderful songs.

RAY: Stephen Sondheim writes some great things for Broadway. And Burt Bacharach, who’s about halfway between rock and Cole Porter — he’s had one hit after another.

ME: How does it feel to have made such an impact with your music?

JAY: It’s a very big satisfaction.

RAY: Songs transcend any international boundary. Authors don’t have that impact, politicians don’t have it, but songs can do it. I was in Afghanistan before the Russians moved in, and there was a band there playing “Mona Lisa.” They couldn’t read music, but they’d bought Nat King Cole’s record of it and learned the music. Things like that, you can’t buy for a million dollars.

JAY: I was in Salzburg, and a man at a castle was washing windows — and he was singing “Que Sera Sera.” And that’s a bigger kick than money.