The American Christmas Songbook: “Silver Bells” (1950)

In the summer of 1950, Paramount Pictures approached Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, a songwriting duo with a knack for writing hit numbers for films and theme songs for television series (Bonanza and Mr. Ed). Paramount was working on the film The Lemon Drop Kid, which is set in New York City in the days leading up to Christmas. Thus, the studio felt the picture needed a Christmas song, and they wanted it to be sung by the leads Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. Initially, Livingston and Evans were less than enthusiastic. In a 2005 interview recorded for NPR, Evans recalled: “…[w]e figured–stupidly, thank God–that the world had too many Christmas Songs already.”¹ They were also nervous that another flop would result in Paramount terminating their contract, which was up for renewal.

Their inspiration came from a little bell that sat on one of the gentlemen’s desks. It reminded them of the bells rung by men dressed as Santas on street corners collecting donations for the Salvation Army.² Their original title for the song was “Tinkle Bells,” as their tiny bell made a tinkling sound when rung. When Livingston shared the draft with his wife, she encouraged them to consider replacing “tinkle” to avoid awkwardness with the word’s euphemistic usage. Heeding Mrs. Livingston’s wise advice, they changed the title, reworked some of the lyrics, and delivered “Silver Bells” to the studio. The number was simply staged by director Sidney Lanfield, with the cast standing in a choir-like formation and singing it straight through.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Image courtesy of Penn Libraries (University of Pennsylvania).

Filming on The Lemon Drop Kid wrapped up in August of 1950. In October of that year, ahead of the film’s premier, Decca released “Silver Bells” as a single with vocals by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, backed by an orchestra conducted by John Scott Trotter. By December, it had become a smash hit, causing Bob Hope and fellow producers to worry that the bland scene in the forthcoming film would be a disappointment to audiences. Hope arranged for his friend, comedy writer Frank Tashlin, to come up with a more elaborate staging of the number, and the cast and crew returned to the lot to re-shoot.³ The result is a scene that, though peppered with some regrettable racist humor, made “Silver Bells” an instant holiday classic.

It is easy to see why “Silver Bells” is so appealing. The tune is catchy and easy to sing, with lyrics full of sentimental descriptions of Christmastime in an urban setting. The genius of Livingston and Evans’ composition is that the verse and chorus, when sung together, create a nice counterpoint. They also created a counter-melody to give the chorus some variety when it is repeated. Thus, “Silver Bells” can be arranged many different ways. In addition to the Bing Crosby recording, some other notable tracks have been offered by Doris Day (single, Decca, 1950), Johnny Mathias (Merry Christmas, Jon Mat Records, 1958), and the recently deceased Jim Nabors (Christmas, Columbia, 1972). For something a little different, enjoy this heavy metal cover by Twisted Sister (from Twisted Christmas, Razor & Tie Recordings, 2006). No matter how hard you like to ring them, “Silver Bells” chimes in as a favorite entry for many in the great American Christmas songbook.


¹https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5068947

²Evans refers to the bell on the desk in his 2005 NPR interview, while Livingston referred to the Salvation Army’s Santas in a 1988 interview with American Songwriter Magazine (July-August 1988).

³http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/453448%7C453708/The-Lemon-Drop-Kid.html

The Archivist’s Nook: “A Wonderful Tonic” – A Wartime Hollywood Romance

Wedding photo, 1936.

“My Sweetheart, today is your birthday. There is so much to say that I am not going to attempt to use words and paper and pencil. I think you know how I feel about our separation – and the war which caused it – and my prayers and hopes for our future.”

Thus begins a letter sent from the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, Canada to an address in Los Angeles, California. The author was Hollywood director and screenwriter John Farrow, who was wishing his wife, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, a happy birthday. Despite the challenges of distance and wartime censorship, the pair continuously worked to maintain regular contact on all topics, both good and ill.  

We have highlighted the life and career of Farrow in a previous post, but his relationship with O’Sullivan was but one of many topics covered. The Australian-born director and Irish-born actress married in 1936. They welcomed their first child, Michael, three years later in 1939. Almost immediately after his birth, the couple and their newborn experienced several years of separation and long-distance communication.

Sunday News, Oct. 1, 1939.

In August of that year, O’Sullivan traveled to the United Kingdom to film her latest feature. Unfortunately, the clouds of war were gathering on the Continent, and she soon found herself trapped in Britain. Her husband frantically sought safe passage for her return home. Both Farrow and MGM Studios worked to secure a flight or ship back for the actress, but passage was difficult as the uncertainties of the new conflict produced repeated cancellations. Ahead of one of the many canceled return trips, Farrow wrote to his wife:

“This letter is arriving by the plane that is bringing you back. To use the local vernacular – am I glad. I never realized before how much of a part you play in my life. In fact you are my life and I am thoroughly miserable without you.”

In the same letter, however, Farrow tells his wife that he wishes to heed the call to service. He would find an opportunity to follow this call, after O’Sullivan managed to return in late September. With the US not yet involved in the conflict and himself being a British subject, Farrow traveled to Vancouver in November 1939 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy. O’Sullivan remained behind in Los Angeles, taking care of their infant son and continuing her acting career.

In the coming years, Farrow would move around during his assignments with both the Canadian and British navies. He was stationed at various times in Ottawa, Nova Scotia, and Trinidad. Despite where he headed, his wife wrote to him frequently:

“My Dearest, what a wonderful treat I received last night. Two letters from my sweetheart….I can tell you I enjoyed every word. And after I finished reading them do you know what I did? I took all your letters, now a lovely big heap, and read through them too.”

The family reunited during a visit.

While O’Sullivan and Michael did manage to visit him – during one visit, John warned Maureen that she may be swamped by fans – the couple maintained most of their contact long-distance during his service. In addition to notes of affection, Farrow discussed his take on wartime events, O’Sullivan’s contract negotiations with the studio, and even explained the importance of mothers to young Michael. However, for Farrow, the most “wonderful tonic” for his melancholy at being apart happened to be his wife’s voice during their weekly phone calls:

“My sweetheart, wasn’t it fun to talk together. But for so long! I forget to reverse the charges so probably a month’s pay will go to the phone company. We are extravagant and must really discipline ourselves to a limit of say – 10 minutes. Yes? But anyway I have no regrets. It was so nice.”

Farrow would continue his service with the Canadian and British navies until he was invalided due to a contraction of typhus fever in January 1942. Throughout the remaining war years, he would be intermittently called back to service, while working on such wartime features as 1942’s Wake Island. A film for which Farrow received an Oscar nomination for direction.

A note Farrow sent to O’Sullivan.

While the separation of the war years weighed heavily on the couple, O’Sullivan and Farrow would remain married until his passing in 1963. They had seven children together over the following years, and remained active in both Hollywood and Catholic circles.

O’Sullivan, who donated the John Farrow Papers to the CUA Archives in 1978, kept the letters her husband sent her during the war years. Nestled between materials on his film career and involvement in religious societies, the wartime correspondence with his wife highlights a personal side of the famed director’s life that mattered deeply to him.

 

The Archivist’s Nook: John V. Farrow – Hollywood Catholic

Farrow married actress Maureen O’Sullivan in a lavish wedding ceremony September, 12, 1936. John Villiers Farrow Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

Roman Catholic convert, author, and Hollywood movie director, John Villiers Farrow, combined zest for adventure, appreciation for family, and a longing for faith. He was born on February 10, 1904 in Sydney, Australia. His father, a soldier in the Australian Army, survived the First World War, although his mother died at a young age. Farrow went to sea as a youth and was somewhat of a roving adventurer before reaching San Francisco, California, in 1923. By 1927, he was in Hollywood, where nautical expertise and nascent writing abilities resulted in work as a film script consultant and technical adviser.

Farrow worked for several Hollywood studios before leaving to write for a number of movies in England. He also visited French Tahiti in the South Pacific, where he wrote a Tahitian language dictionary and a novel Laughter Ends. Returning to Hollywood in 1933, he was arrested on a false passport and expired visa and given five years probation (he became an American citizen in 1947). He continued writing and published Damien the Leper in 1937, which went through multiple reprints and was translated into several languages. He later wrote Pageant of the Popes, and a biography of Sir Thomas More. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: John V. Farrow – Hollywood Catholic”

The Archivist’s Nook: Have You Been Served?

Archives Stacks
The stacks, epicenter of all reference questions.

Tucked away on the northern reaches of campus, one may expect the Archives to receive little in the way of visitors. One may imagine us as a group lost amongst stacks of record boxes, shunning outside contact. However, our little space is frequently called upon by University staff, students, and faculty, as well as scholars from across the country and world. Researchers as varied as middle school students to Yale professors to PBS documentarians grace us with visits and inquiries. But what do they ask of us and how do we handle reference questions?

Whether via phone, email, or letter, the CUA Archives receives a variety of reference questions from a spectrum of inquirers. As one can imagine, calls and email requests pour in from University offices, students, and alumni regarding the history of CUA or the broader Brookland neighborhood. But more than anything, as indicated in an earlier post, our collections dealing with the history of American Catholicism as well as labor history are a major draw for scholars outside the campus community. These two source bases provide a wealth of research material for scholars of American religious and labor history, not to mention those curious about genealogy or Catholicism in general. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Have You Been Served?”