Betty Comden and Adolph Green: Almost Improvisation
Interview by Tina Daniell and Pat McGilligan
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, ever bracketed as a team, stand with a select few at the summit of the musical film and, with the exception of one nonmusical outing (Auntie Mame, in 1958), are among the handful of screen-writers to express themselves purely through that form. Though they were active in motion pictures for only fifteen years, and are credited on just ten produced features, they are generally recognized as being responsible, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for writing the scripts and often the lyrics for some of Hollywood's most exhilarating and enduring musicals.
They met while performing skits in a Greenwich Village troupe that also included Judy Holliday. Their first Broadway smash, On the Town, with Leonard Bernstein's musical score, led to an MGM contract in 1945. At MGM, they flourished and, rare among screenwriters, they have no horror stories to tell. The fabled Arthur Freed unit sustained and nurtured their talent. They specialized in "catalogue musicals" created whole-cloth from MGM's ownership of a composer's entire backlist and in close collaboration with old New York theater-world pals Gene Kelly and director Stanley Donen.
They reached their acme with the film version of On the Town (1949), the radiant Singin' in the Rain ("perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time," opines Leonard Maltin in his TV Movies and Video Guide ) in 1952, the buoyant "backstage" musical The Band Wagon, and the more worldly-wise It's Always Fair Weather (1955). Their story lines were always bright and inventive; their dialogue witty and sophisticated; their world, innocent and unreal, nonetheless sparkling with humanity.
They do not claim to be very "personal" writers, but their work is suffused with their affection for show business and for their beloved New York City. Typical of many, latter-era screenwriters, they did not stay in Hollywood ery long at any given point. Keeping up residence in New York City, they divided
their time between Broadway and the movie studios. They haven't written a film in over twenty-five years, though they have acted colorful small parts in quite a few in recent years (Adolph Green in My Favorite Year, Betty Comden as Garbo in Garbo Speaks ). Indeed, in 1989, Green was the unlikely star of Alain Resnais' comedy I Want to Go Home, about an elderly has-been cartoonist (with a script by syndicated cartoonist Jules Feiffer).
We spoke in Betty Comden's apartment near Lincoln Center where she and Adolph Green would convene for work sessions.
Betty Comden (1919–) and Adolph Green (1915–)
Greenwich Village (Walter Lang). Performers (of their own revue material).
Good News (Charles Walters). Script.
The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters). Story, script.
On the Town (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen). Script, lyrics, adapted from their musical play.
Take Me out to the Ball Game (Busby Berkeley). Lyrics.
Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen). Story, script.
The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli). Story, script
It's Always Fair Weather (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen). Story, script, lyrics.
Auntie Mame (Morton DaCosta). Script.
Bells Are Ringing (Vincente Minnelli). Script and lyrics, adapted from their musical play.
What a Way to Go! (J. Lee Thompson). Script, songs.
Television credits include "I'm Getting Married, Stage 67" and "A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Mobil Summer Showcase."
Plays include On the Town; Billion Dollar Baby; Bonanza Bound; Two on the Aisle; Wonderful Town; Peter Pan; Bells Are Ringing; Say, Darling; A Party (a.k.a. A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green); Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping; Fade Out—Fade In; Hallelujah, Baby; Applause; Lorelei; On the Twentieth Century, Singin' in the Rain and The Will Rogers Follies .
Books include Comden and Green on Broadway and Off Stage (Comden).
Academy Award nominations include story and screenplay for The Band Wagon in 1953, and story and screenplay for It's Always Fair Weather in 1955.
Writers Guild awards include nominations for The Barkleys of Broadway, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather; and awards for Best-Written American Musical for On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and Bells Are Ringing .
I know that you began as cabaret performers. Why did you start writing together? Why did you choose a career as writers? Did writing give you something that performing could not?
Green: Well, at least you didn't start by asking us to say something funny. People always seem to expect us to be funny.
Comden: Yes, they ask us and then they sit back and wait . . . sometimes for a very long time.
Green: But to answer your questions about writing and performing, they went together, rather than one instead of the other.
Comden: We started at the Village Vanguard, as performers, as part of this group called The Revuers that included Judy Holliday. You had to pay royalties for material, and we didn't have any material of our own, so we like to say we chipped in and bought a pencil and started to write so we would have something to perform. The writing and the performing started at the same time. We didn't think of one as separate from the other.
Green: We've combined, somehow, both careers, and made them not choices or conflicts, but all part of the same thing.
But one did become dominant .
Comden: It did.
Why is that? Were there economic factors?
Comden: Not at all. While we were still in the Revuers, the idea of On the Town came up. [Composer] Leonard Bernstein was a very old friend. He got us the job because he knew our material thoroughly and thought we would be marvelous to write the book and lyrics. It was our first chance at Broadway.
Green: After we had made good as writers and had a distinguished success, we decided this was our calling—to write musical theater.
Comden: We also acted in On the Town —every night and two matinées a week. In the second show [Billion Dollar Baby in 1945] there were no parts for us—we didn't write everything with the idea that there had to be two good parts for us. And then shortly after that we went to Hollywood and wrote our first movie [Good News in 1947].
We wanted to keep writing. But we never consciously decided to stop performing. And we do still perform to this day. We go out and do our evening of entertainment, called A Party . We love to perform!
Your specialty, in theater and films, became musical comedy. You may have become writers by happenstance; but did the fact that you became specialists in musicals, was that at all accidental? Or has musical theater always been your ruling passion?
Comden: We were expressing ourselves. We performed musical material—and out of that grew the longer form, if you like, of doing a full show instead of these little satirical sketches down at the Vanguard. It was a natural progression. We always loved music and musical theater. We're crazy about Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan. Those are people we love. And music in general—serious music of all kinds—is a big part of our enthusiasms.
When you came to Hollywood under contract in 1947, how did you adjust?
Green: We had to uneasily adjust to this other world we knew nothing about, and then gradually make it a way of life and work. As such, it became very satisfying. It didn't take us that long to feel a part of some kind of family, at MGM, in the Freed unit. And Arthur Freed—I don't know what it was like in the other units [at MGM]—was outstandingly appreciative of talent.
Comden: He collected a terrific group of people around him, mainly people
he brought out from New York. There was Alan [Jay] Lerner, Vincente [Minnelli], [designer-producer] Oliver Smith, Gene [Kelly] . . . all kinds of people.
Green: One person we had close connections with was Roger Edens. Roger was a very important part of the Arthur Freed unit. He was Arthur's associate
producer on many pictures, and later, when he left MGM, he became a producer himself of pictures like Funny Face . He was a pianist, a terrific musician, a wonderful arranger. He was greatly responsible for Judy Garland's early years at MGM; in fact, he wrote "Dear Mr. Gable" for her. Because Arthur realized his worth, Roger would be in on the earliest story discussions with us.
Comden: He was a complete coordinator of all the departments.
Green: He oversaw the sound and music of every film. He helped mix the picture and supervise the recording sessions. He was on the set most of the time and was very active in the filming.
Comden: As we would finish sections of the script, we would meet with Roger, read and discuss things, and have him as somebody to bounce off of.
Green: Of course, we were also fortunate to have a guy [at MGM] as ambitious as Gene [Kelly], who had real feelings about the dance and the movies.
Comden: Not just as a performer. Gene was a star, but he was also a director and choreographer.
Green: And of course, [directors] Stanley [Donen] and Vincente [Minnelli]. They were all people of outstanding taste and intelligence and feeling for show business.
Comden: Gene and Stanley are old friends of ours. With them we have a lot of the same frame of reference. They knew our nightclub act very well. They knew our kind of humor, our craziness. . . .
Green: All four of us would laugh at many of the same things. . . .
Comden: The film version of On the Town was the first thing they directed, so it was comfortable for us. We knew we all understood each other. Particularly, for Singin' in the Rain, we put things in the script that might have puzzled a lot of other directors, but knowing us as well as they did, they knew exactly what we wanted. And largely because of them, we had the happy experience of being authors who saw up on the screen what we had written.
What kind of place did writers occupy within the MGM system?
Comden: Well, we were very lucky, because in the Freed unit we were treated very well. I think writers have always suffered a great deal in Hollywood—have had their work rewritten by other people, and so on. We usually did not have that happen to us.
Green: From a creative viewpoint, generally we've been very lucky. In those days we finished the script and it went in front of the camera, instantly.
Comden: We had an office in a big administrative building that they used to call "The Iron Lung." It was a bleak office and we went to work every day about nine o'clock. People always think you go to Hollywood, whee! Playing tennis! Wow! But we worked very hard. All the writers worked very hard. And we worked evenings, too. Almost around the clock.
Green: No one was at us with the whips, but it was a good idea to get the
job done and do it right. Since we loved the movies, we were always aware of the fact that we were writing for movies . We felt the responsibility of it, I think, all the time. We didn't think: "Oh, we'll dash this off and they'll fix it up."
Comden: We always wanted it to be really good.
Green: We were naive enough to think it would be filmed. As it turned out, almost every picture we did, did get filmed.
Comden: No other writers were ever assigned to our pictures, either. We were wonderfully protected by Arthur Freed.
Did musicals have the same stature and standards in Hollywood as on Broadway?
Comden: At that time, a high standard. The Freed unit made marvelous movies and there were other big musicals also being done at MGM. Musicals were big moneymakers then. They had a certain amount of prestige—when they were good.
Did you miss the cultural whirl, the theater world, of New York?
Comden: We never moved out to California to live on a permanent basis. We would go out there and write a picture and then come back East.
Green: We would be there for a number of months—
Comden: —then we'd come back and do a show here.
Green: We could've stayed out there and made all kinds of deals, but we never did, by choice.
Comden: Because we wanted to keep writing for the theater.
Green: And because we lived in New York.
Did you feel that Broadway was more exciting or prestigious work for you, or did you not make that distinction?
Comden: Most people thought the theater was more prestigious in those days, but happily we divided our time. We didn't always, at the beginning, get to do pictures that we were cuckoo about.
Green: We got to like them, after a spell, the early things we wrote.
Was there much creative exchange between MGM writers?
Comden: Not that I recall.
Green: At any rate, not with us. We went inside our office and worked. We might have lunch with Gene [Kelly], or Gene and Stanley [Donen], or Roger [Edens]—just the people we were working with or those people who were our close friends. Then we'd go back into our office and work. We really worked very hard.
Were the members of the Freed unit, the writers, considered interchangeable, or did MGM have you on hand for certain specific strengths or kinds of stories?
Green: We never got to discuss any of that, not analytically.
Comden: You would just get a call and come out to do a movie. We usually didn't know what it was beforehand, specifically.
Did you ever pick the project or suggest a project to Freed that you wanted to write?
Comden: It didn't work that way. We writers just weren't in that position.
Did doing film musicals present any kind of unique structural or creative challenges?
Green: We love films, we've always loved films. We grew up on them.
Comden: We knew the musical structure. We understand almost everything about movies, I think. Certainly musical movies. Adolph is an expert on movies in general. And we both grew up with silent movies, remember. They were a big influence on us. So we were steeped in film. The form didn't present any real problems to us.
Were there movie writers you admired—say, writers of musicals?
Green: We used to think more in terms of movies, not musicals, and not even, I'm afraid, movie writers; we would think more in terms of directors than writers, actually.
Comden: Or the actors. Like [Fred] Astaire. It was wonderful to write a couple of pictures for Astaire, when as kids we had worshipped him.
Green: I dreamed of writing a picture for Fred Astaire!
Did you not feel admiring at all of any Hollywood writers?
Green: We found out about writers. We got to meet them. We found out about their craft from them. We did not know much about writers [at first]. We were moviegoers. Films!
Comden: Directors, we knew. That's always been the case. The names of writers, to this day, are not the ones people know. I'm not saying this is good, but it happens to be a fact. Movie directors and the stars are what you tend to know about.
Can you compare and contrast working with Vincente Minnelli, and [as co-directors] Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, for me?
Comden: Let's see, we did two pictures with Vincente—The Band Wagon and Bells Are Ringing . Vincente was a highly visual director. It was very important to him where an ashtray was placed; it could not be an eighth of an inch out of the way. He was a great designer of sets and costumes and—
Green: —a terrific sense of humor—
Comden: —with a real feeling for story and character. A wonderful director, a perfectionist.
It's hard to contrast them, isn't it? Stanley and Gene were also the choreographers as well as the directors. But because they were in charge of the entire project, they were naturally involved with visual design as well.
Green: Singin' in the Rain is beautiful to look at.
Comden: Stanley and Gene were terrific storytellers and they were also great with the actors. They too had a terrific sense of humor. With them we had an advantage because we had known them from so far back that we had a kind of shorthand with them and understood each other very well.
You say a "shorthand"—were your scripts too subtle perhaps for other directors?
Green: I wouldn't say subtle so much as foreign to other directors. Possibly they wouldn't know what we were talking about.
When you had script conferences with Stanley and Gene, what was being discussed? Was it more in the nature of structure rather than characterization?
Green: More structure, yes.
Comden: Not specific lines, but if they were going to change a number—put one number in instead of another—then of course there'd have to be a different lead-in to the scene. We had to stay very close in touch on those things.
Green: Occasionally we'd read our pictures to the stars that were going to be in them. Arthur loved to have Astaire come in and have us read the script to him.
Did Astaire make suggestions?
Green: Not one!
Comden: No. He just enjoyed watching us. He loved to hear us read.
Green: He'd say, "Gee, how am I going to do that, or anything near that?"
Comden: Fred didn't do any writing.
Green: Fred never presumed to be creative in that department.
Comden: But the ones he was creative in, he was very creative.
Green: Very creative indeed! (Laughs .)
Did you have your first conferences with the directors after you had a start on the story, or would they come to you and say, "I would like to do a period piece about the coming of talkies . . ."?
Green: It's a long and complex process, what happens with each director, and something we don't want to go into, not because we're hiding anything, but because the creative beginnings are very fuzzy.
Generally, are not the other people reacting to what you propose? You propose, they dispose?
Comden: We'd write something and then come in and present a certain amount of it to the producer and the director.
Green: In the case of Singin' in the Rain, we were sitting around a lot with Stanley, who:wasn't at the moment doing anything, and we were running old movies, things of that sort, saying, "Gee, how about doing this?" Stanley was in on the genesis, in that sense, worrying along with us both, as friends, and hopefully as a future co-director with Gene of whatever evolved.
How did that picture, for example, get centered around the end of the silent era? Did you have to do a lot of research on the subject?
Comden: We knew the subject pretty well. We didn't have to do any research on it.
Green: We were aware of the silent stars that did not make it to talkies. John Gilbert—one scene [in Singin' in the Rain ] is based on, it seems to me, His Glorious Night , in which he said, "I love you, I love you, I love you . . ." over and over to the heroine—and was laughed off the screen. It was tragic. He was a great star.
Comden: Also, for Singin' in the Rain, we were handed the catalogue of [Nacio Herb] Brown and Freed, which were written for that period—'29, '30, '31. We listened to all of those songs and suddenly realized that they would fit best into a story about that period.
Typically, would you stay around for the filming or for rewriting on the set?
Comden: Often we were there when the picture started, and then we went back to our New York life and to writing in New York. We wrote a couple of added scenes for Singin' in the Rain in the East, and we would get called up for a line, occasionally. We were lucky to work with directors we were very comfortable with, so that once we had left we knew the script was going to be wonderfully handled.
It all sounds so pleasant and easy .
Comden: (Laughs .)
Green: Easy, in retrospect. In the case of Singin' in the Rain, we had endless conferences the first month and a half. We were tempted to go up to the front office and say, "Here's your money back. . . . The whole thing's off. We can't write this goddamned thing."
What was the problem?
Green: The picture. (Laughs .)
Comden: The whole thing.
Green: And then we solved it.
Comden: When a thing is really good, it seems inevitable, it seems natural, and it seems easy.
Green: When Betty and I are at our best as writers, the quality that seems to come across is spontaneity.
Comden: Almost improvisation.
Green: Which is not improvisation. It's very tough work.
When you were at your best, then, was it because there had been a lot of tough work and revision, or because something had come up that was perfect, just a moment, between the two of you?
Comden: Any of the above.
Were there no creative frustrations?
Comden: Some, of course.
Green: Endless! (Laughs .) But there always are.
Comden: And there are limitations. And many departments. It's a collaborative process, after all, so there are always adjustments and negotiations. That's inevitable in any collaborative art form.
Did you feel the encroachment of television, in Hollywood in the fifties, and realize at the time that it was changing everything?
Green: It was just beginning to creep in.
Comden: We used television as a subject in the last MGM movie we did—It's Always Fair Weather . We were well aware of the dreaded tube.
Green: We were also very aware of the fact that divorcement had taken place between studios and theaters, and that's what finished off the studios, actually. More than television.
Comden: They no longer could own movie chains, so it was the breakup of the big studio system.
Green: People were let go by the dozens. It was no longer a necessity to have the staff that had been there forever as part of the studio family.
Comden: MGM had this superb musical department, wonderful people—[composer-arranger] Conrad Salinger, Lenny Hayton [who scored the music for Singin' in the Rain ], [music director] Johnny Green—along with completely perfect costume departments and 'scenery departments. All at your disposal. You knew whatever you wanted, you could get at days' notice. Now that was over. All the departments ceased to exist.
Bells Are Ringing was, in fact, the last picture of the Freed unit. Did you know it at the time?
Comden: I don't think we knew we were doing the last thing; we were just doing it.
Green: We were no longer under contract, in any case.
Comden: MGM had bought the play and brought in Judy Holliday to star in it, which was something we wanted very much. This was totally different from the other movies we did which, apart from On the Town, were original stories for the screen.
After Bells Are Ringing, you went back to Hollywood a couple of times to work on scripts for pictures that were never made?
Green: There was really only one.
Comden: There were two—Wonderland and Say It with Music . They couldn't cast Wonderland .
Green: Oh, yes. That was the Cole Porter catalogue. We wrote a wonderful script (laughs ), but—
Comden: It just didn't get made. We got more focused on living in New York and raising families and writing more for the theater. I don't think we made a conscious decision. It just sort of happened. And more and more time went by.
Which are your favorite pictures?
Comden: Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon . Those two. Is that fair to say?
Green: We feel those two are very special.
Comden: And a picture we're very proud of is It's Always Fair Weather . We wrote the screenplay and an original score with Andre Previn. Again, Gene and Stanley directed, so we had those close creative connections. It's a movie that got wonderful notices. But it came out at a time when the musical era was fading away, and although it got great press, it didn't get the kind of treatment that the other movies had gotten.
That picture was a sort of departure for you, in that you set out to do something different, more serious and to an extent downbeat .
Comden: We didn't think of it that way.
Green: We just got an idea we liked: Three guys meet during the war, they think they'll be friends forever, and years later, when they're reunited for a day, they have to deal with a lot of disillusionment, in the others and in themselves.
Comden: It just seemed like a wonderful theme—the corrosive effect of time. What ten years can do.
Green: The sense of failure in each one, the defiance towards the others.
Comden: That's more serious.
Comden: Under- and overtones. (Laughs .)
Was there at all a downside to having been at MGM for so many years?
Green: Well, as the years have gone by there has been a big downside in that we don't own any of our pictures. That's a helluva downside.
Comden: In those days we didn't think about it because we had a contract and worked for a salary, or a set amount per picture. We had no further rights on the pictures. A lot of people think Singin' in the Rain made us rich, but we don't get a penny out of it.
I had assumed you made money from the Twyla Tharp Broadway presentation. Did you have any input at all?
Comden: We don't want to talk about that. (Laughs .) How's that?
Green: Since we didn't own any rights on that picture, it could be sold to anyone.
Did writing together, as partners, come easily for you, at first?
Comden: We never questioned it. It just grew—sort of. At first it grew out of our writing material for the Revuers, out of necessity and then finding out that we could write and that we had lots of ideas and fun writing. After we wrote On the Town, it began to seem natural. I guess we always knew we were meant to be writers.
You know, things weren't planned or thought out [in our career]. I don't remember making decisions. Things kind of happened to us. They rolled over us and we kind of went with them.
When you write together, is one of you the junior partner and the other the senior partner?
Comden: It's really quite even. We often say that at the end of the day we don't know who contributed what idea or what line. That's quite literally true.
In some collaborations, people have quite different personalities or approaches. Are your backgrounds and personalities so similar, then?
Green: I think it's based on mutual enthusiasms and things we discover that are shared in our backgrounds that sort of light us up.
Comden: Our frame of reference is very similar. We are on the same wavelength and it is sort of instant radar, working out things between us. We find it very easy to work together.
Who is the walker and who is the sitter?
Comden: In the old days I used to hold a pad and do the actual writing down. Now, I use a typewriter—
Green: I pace about—
Comden: I have a carbon, an old-fashioned thing, but it's good to have a carbon, so we each can have a copy at the end of the day. That's the sort of modus operandi. Not very thrilling.
How many drafts do you work on before you're satisfied?
Green: How do we know?
Comden: You never know. It varies wildly.
Green: Of course.
Comden: You think the first time you write it, it's pretty good. (Laughs .) Then you just begin to work on it. . . . And there's always the contribution of the directors, and how the thing is shaped for certain specific performers or actors. And then just getting the script into as perfect shape as possible.
Do you differentiate at all between yourselves in terms of relative strengths or contributions?
The better joke in the tough situation?
Comden: Not really.
Is one of you better at characterization, and the other at structure?
Comden: We're both perfect at everything. (Laughs .)
One a specialist in male characters, the other at female roles?
Green: No, we're both bisexual (chuckles ), writing-wise, that is.
So, you find yourselves interchangeable?
Comden: In terms of the work, yes (chuckles )—our wardrobes, no.
When you reach a block, or an impasse, do you have any tricks or habits that stimulate your ease of mind?
Green: Weeping. (Laughs .)
Comden: Clutching other peoples' lapels. Bemoaning our fates. (Laughs .) There's endless hours of just staring at each other. Endless! Sometimes weeks!
Sharpening your pencils? Going for a long walk?
Comden: Sometimes at the very beginning of a project, when we can't get going, we don't begin at the beginning. That's one little technique. We pick a scene somewhere along the line where we hope we already know the characters, and just write some dialogue. That often gets us moving.
An insignificant or a crucial scene?
Comden: It's hard to say. I think in The Band Wagon the first scene we wrote was on the train where Fred Astaire is going back to New York to do this play. He's a forgotten article, and two businessmen are sitting in a smoker discussing him, this has-been. We started with writing that dialogue between the two businessmen. We didn't know what Fred was going to say. In fact, he doesn't say anything until the very end of the scene—when he lowers his newspaper, lets them know he is there, and walks out.
Green: That stayed in the script.
Comden: It was the sort of thing that might never be in the movie, but it just gave us somewhere to start. We found that a very difficult movie to write, as they all are.
In the cases of Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon—the two you mentioned—was the difficulty enhanced by the fact that partly what you were starting with, from the studio, was a blank page, a totally original script?
Green: That's the entire difficulty in a nutshell.
Comden: Plus there is a stack of music, which makes it even harder. Both of those are catalogue pictures. In other words, we were handed the song catalogues—in the first case, of Singin' in the Rain, of Freed and Brown, and in the second case, of [Arthur] Schwartz and [Howard] Dietz. All we were told was to write a movie and to get twenty or as many as you could of these wonderful songs into a story.
Green: Nothing about period or locale or people.
Comden: No clues.
The whole concept of a catalogue picture was unique to Hollywood of that period .
Green: There's nothing more difficult. It's like higher mathematics.
Comden: Because you don't have a situation and then write a song that will express it, the way you would if you were doing an original show. You have these songs and you are going to have to fit them all together and have it make sense.
You say a lot of people don't identify the writers of films the way they identify directors. But you yourselves have become fairly well known. They will be known as MGM films, always, but many people also know them as Comden-Green films .
Green: We've been very lucky in that sense. Many of our pictures have been given their first showing in New York—
Comden: —usually at the Music Hall—
Green: —with our names up on the marquee: Comden and Green. We're always mentioned in the New York Times reviews. . . .
Comden: We have not been slighted as writers of films. That's been lucky and, I think, unusual.
Do you see your own personalities reflected in the films? Or were they submerged in the process?
Comden: Not very submerged. I think we were allowed to give free rein to the kinds of humor that we like and the ideas that we enjoy.
The optimism, the good nature, of the films?
Comden: We're very gloomy people! (Laughs .)
Would you say, instinct takes over, and your instinct is to entertain?
Green: The fact that we are performers takes over in our writing and, most of the time, in our thinking. A certain kind of energy seems to come through.
Comden: We know what performers need to perform to register—to be effective.
Is some of that inextricably part of the MGM studio style?
Comden: MGM is such an impersonal entity. We were within a specific unit within this big place, and our unit was itself an unusual one.
Green: That was our world, and though we were interested in the rest of MGM, fascinated by it, we never worked outside of the Freed unit.
Comden: We never worked with any other producers at MGM.
A lot of writers like to communicate something about themselves or their lives through their work. Do you see that in your films?
Comden: Well, there are characters in The Band Wagon that everyone thinks are Adolph and me, though they are a married couple in the film, played by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray—but they are a writing team. We just wanted to put in some of the experiences we had had in the theater and to give it a basis of reality.
Green: Those two characters do reflect something of us.
Comden: Somewhat. But there's another thing about that picture and that's the kind of music we were handed. The Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz score was written mainly for revues of the New York stage—wonderful songs, but they suggested to us a theater background. It isn't that we set out to write about show biz or only draw from our experience. It didn't happen that way. It came out of the nature of the music in the show.
Was it any more gratifying because it did reflect to some extent your own experiences?
Green: We didn't know at that time whether it was satisfying. As usual, we had our backs to the wall.
Comden: And we had to dream up something . We enjoyed just as much working on It's Always Fair Weather, which is a realistic story about three guys, not necessarily of our own background.
Certainly, there are recurrent motifs in your stories—the love of New York City—
Green: Surely. We find that, looking back, the films do represent us and reflect our point of view. No doubt about it.
Do they sometimes surprise you by revealing things to you about yourselves that you regarded, at the time, as just the job of doing your writing?
Comden: We never set out to get across on film something about what we are like as people, or about how we feel about life. Instead it was just get up in the morning and go to the office. Instead it was the problems of a jigsaw puzzle—how to fit the songs into the story we were dreaming up. Work!
Green: You sit down to do a job. By the time it's over, if you're lucky, it's been much more than a job. Yes, you've poured a lot of yourself into it, much more than you knew.
Comden: Something has emerged. Maybe. Glinda the Good Fairy—maybe Godzilla.
Both: But it's you .