Published in 1974, “Dancing in the Dark, Words By Howard Dietz” is the autobiography of the man who was head of publicity at MGM from its inception in 1924 till well into the 1950s.
However, if I read this book expecting to get inside stories about MGM during the golden years, I was mistaken. The contents are episodic and related more to Howard Dietz’s songwriting career – which is fine with me, but it was very disappointing that there was so little emphasis on his work for MGM.
Howard Dietz (1896-1983) came from an advertising background. The agency he worked for had Samuel Goldwyn as a client. Goldwyn needed a trademark for his company and according to Dietz,
“Leo the Lion with the Latin “Ars Gratia Artis” (art for art’s sake) was my idea.”
Dietz then worked for Goldwyn who later sold the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. A new studio was created when Marcus Loew of the Metro Company and Louis B. Mayer amalgamated, forming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
(I never understood why Goldwyn’s named was retained in the title of the new company.) Goldwyn of course went on to a very successful career as an independent producer.
Of Goldwyn, Dietz said, “A large percentage of the many jokes attributed to Goldwyn was true. His secretary came to him and asked if she could destroy files from ten years back. Goldwyn said, “yes, but keep copies.”
Dietz joined MGM as director of advertising and publicity. One of his major successes was coining the phrase that MGM had “More stars than there are in heaven.”
Dietz said that he learned a lot from producer Hunt Stromberg about film exploitation, with advice to theatre owners on promoting a picture eg
“Hire an elephant from a nearby circus and have him parade through the town….!”
He ran a competition to rename Lucille le Sueur in Motion Picture Magazine. The winning name was ’Jane Crawford’, but they settled on JOAN.
He is also famous for the slogan which re-introduced audiences to a back from the war Clark Gable in ”Adventure” –
“ Gable’s back and Garson’s got him!”
His dept. wrote synopsis of every current movie , and biographies of the stars under contract.
Dietz was a New Yorker and he was based in his home town as MGM had a big office there .
So he was able to pursue his other talent – lyric writing. Teamed with former lawyer, Arthur Schwartz , they wrote some memorable songs such as ‘Dancing in the Dark‘, ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan’.
From 1922 to 1963, he wrote 16 Broadway shows, mostly with Schwartz, though in 1922, the great Jerome Kern asked him to write with him on a show called Kind Sir.
Alan Jay Lerner called him “The Astaire, the Chevalier, the Molnar, the Lubitsch of lyric writers.”
Dietz and Schwartz wrote The Band Wagon songs for Fred and Adele Astaire in the 1920s.
Great songs like ’Triplets’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Louisiana Hayride’.
Thirty years later when the The Band Wagon film was made , the two song writers got together again and came up with ‘That’s Entertainment’.
The quality of Dietz’ s lyrics speak for themselves :
”It might be a fight like you see on the screen,
A swain getting slain for the love of a queen,
Some great Shakespearean scene,
Where a ghost and a prince meet,
And everyone ends in mincemeat!……..”
Several of the songs in the Astaire Band Wagon were interpolated from other Dietz and Schwartz shows. ‘Triplets’ and ‘By Myself’ were from a show called “Between The Devil” .
When Dietz was involved in the Band Wagon film, I like how he inserted a reference not in the original lyric – “MGM has got its Leo, but mama has got her trio…..”
Most musical fans love Astaire and Jack Buchanan doing ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan‘ – this song was written for Clifton Webb in the 1929 revue, “The Little Show”. And yes, Clifton Webb could sing!
Oscar Levant, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray.
’I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.‘. Jack Buchanan and Fred Astaire.
Fred Astaire did a quiet, reflective version of Dietz/Schwartz’s ‘By Myself’. And Judy Garland gave it a completely different interpretation in “I Could Go On Singing.”
He had Howard Strickling as his assistant at MGM and however much time he was spending on his Broadway shows, his bosses at the studio must have been happy with his output because he was made Vice President in charge of publicity in 1942.
He also hosted MGM Theater of the Air from 1949 to 1951. 60 minute versions of MGM films were broadcast and archive.org has about a dozen of them.
Howard Dietz saved copies of every public campaign for every MGM film he worked on. Now if I could only access the New York Public library where his papers are archived.
And the second hand copy I got of this book is signed by Mr. Dietz!