Several years ago during an interview with the great Hollywood composer John Green ("Body and Soul," "Raintree County") in his Beverly Hills home, we were interrupted by a call for Green from Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin! Sitting there listening while Green said "Irving this" and "Irving that" into the phone was, it seemed then, a little like overhearing a conversation between Moses and God.
Irving Berlin is the definitive American popular composer, a melodist and lyricist of astonishing longevity. "Irving Berlin's America," a 90-minute taped tribute airing at 9 tonight on Channel 26, pays rich homage to Berlin's genius and the prominent role his songs have played in American life for about 75 years. However, no matter how good the special was, Irving Berlin would deserve better.
The last major song-writing survivor of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley's most lustrous and creative eras, Berlin is never seen in public now, and does not appear in any newly taped interviews or numbers on this special. However, he does appear in a few old clips, singing his songs with a proud boyish gusto that makes the thinness of his singing voice an irrelevant detail.
The finale of tonight's show is an undisputable stunner first seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Berlin, standing center stage, sings his "God Bless America" while flanked by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America who join in the chorus. This little old man, this little old ham, pouring his heart and what there is of his voice into the anthem he wrote for love of country, is high-tide schmaltz and yet wonderfully moving. His folksy presence is such that it could almost be your Uncle Harry standing there thwonking out the tune. But it isn't anybody's Uncle Harry. It's everybody's Uncle Irving.
Sandy Duncan narrates the special, for which writers James Arntz and JoAnn G. Young contributed several of those cavalcade-style generalizations that condense decades into pat cliche's. "The '50s were a good time for America," "The nation was jittery; it needed some reassurance" and so on. But then a running commentary on Berlin and his country almost has to be on that level. Berlin ballad such as "Remember" or "Always" is clarity and poetry so basic and universally accessible that it rises beyond sophistication.
Others contributing reminiscences about Berlin include Cab Calloway, Ginger Rogers (still mystified that the public remembers her best for the Astaire-Rogers musicals; what a dope!), Donald O'Connor, Bob Hope (talking mostly about himself), Alice Faye, Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters and Ronald Reagan, who says, among other well-chosen and impeccably spoken words, "God bless America and God bless Irving Berlin."
Director Glenn DuBose tries some tricks that don't always work. A clip of Fred Astaire doing "Puttin' on the Ritz" is intercut with hardship scenes from the Great Depression; the effect is to make Astaire look like an uncaring fop. Later, Bing Crosby's singing of "Count Your Blessings" is played under scenes of the good life in the '50s that include a "Price Is Right" display of department-store merchandise. This cheapens, rather than enhances, the song.
The broadcast of "Irving Berlin's America" will be interrupted two or three times for those malicious pledge breaks tonight, but the program contains enough treasures to make the pain endurable. Naturally, it is stated at one point during the program that Irving Berlin's talent is a "God-given one." Considering the scope and the durability of that talent, it is hard to imagine it having originated from any other source. We've got the sun in the morning and the moon at night, and, almost as important, we'll always have Irving Berlin. Always. Remember?