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The Lost Musicals, Hollywood Edition: Comden and Green’s "Wonderland"

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Wonderland isn’t technically lost — it was never made, but I found a rare script for this would-be film musical in the Betty Comden Papers. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were the two halves of the longest-running writing partnership in Broadway history. They met in 1933 at New York University and first worked together in the late 30s, writing sketches for the comedy group the Revuers, in which both also performed. They continued writing lyrics and scripts together until Green’s death in 2002. They are known for their lyrics to great Broadway shows like On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Bells are Ringing. 

Comden and Green also made their mark in Hollywood, where they were contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and wrote screenplays for six film musicals, all produced by MGM’s legendary movie musical impresario Arthur Freed. One of these (On the Town, 1948) was an adaptation of their own stage musical, another (Good News, 1948) was an adaptation of a stage musical by DeSylva Brown and Henderson.

The four original screenplays by Comden and Green are a series in which Wonderland might have been the fifth entry.

The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) was the final teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers — a backstage story about a dance team and off-stage couple. Oscar Levant co-stars as Astaire’s wise-cracking best friend. Comden and Green wrote the story and screenplay, but the songs were by Ira Gershwin and Harry Warren, with one exception — the extraordinary reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” a Gershwin/Gershin song they'd previously performed 12 years earlier in Shall We Dance

Their next film is the undisputed masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain. It's too well-known to describe it in detail here, so I’ll just point out a few elements — another show biz story, this time in Hollywood, another feuding couple, another charming wise-cracking rapport between the hero and his sidekick (Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor). Most significantly, it was an original story by Comden and Green, built around the songs of a particular writing team — in this case, their boss at MGM, Arthur Freed, and his former partner, Nacio Herb Brown.  

Their next film, The Band Wagon, was another triumph, another show biz story, another feuding couple, and another original story built around the existing songs by a song-writing team. In this case, the songs were those of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse were the stars, but in this one the wise-cracking friend was a wise-cracking couple, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as married song-writers — modeled after Comden and Green themselves, with an in-joke about how they were constantly — and mistakenly — assumed to be couple as well as a writing team. 

Their next film, It’s Always Fair Weather, was an unusual musical — following the fortunes of three army buddies (Gene Kelly; Dan Dailey; and one of Broadway and Hollywood’s greatest choreographers who'd done remarkable work on The Band Wagon, Michael Kidd) who come home from WWII in 1945 and vow to meet again 10 years from that day.

Initially, the reunion is a dismal failure — Kelly has become a sleazy boxing promoter; Dailey a narrow-minded, uptight ad man; and Kidd a vulgar, boring hamburger-stand proprietor. It seems they have nothing in common anymore, but over the course of the story, the three re-kindle their friendship as they help one another sort out their messy lives.

Comden and Green did their usually clever lyrics, and Kidd and Kelly choreographed some impressive numbers — Kelly did one on roller-skates, his love interest Cyd Charisse dances in a boxing ring with a chorus of boxers, and perhaps most memorable is the famous "trash can" dance (I can’t explain — you have to see it.) However, composer Andre Previn wasn’t quite up to the standard of Gershwin, Freed, Brown, Dietz, and Schwartz. Although the film was less successful at the time, some consider the cynicism in the story ahead of its time. Others still find it distasteful. And Dolores Gray’s spectacular camp number “Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks” is not to be missed. 

Fans of Comden and Green’s screenplays may wish that they’d written more movies. Wonderland would have been one more. Comden and Green wrote it in 1955 or 1956, but it was never made. Here’s the rundown: Johnny Conway and Hal Benson are a Hollywood writing/producing team who have convinced their boss to purchase the catalog of songwriter “Noel Walters” (a thinly veiled Cole Porter — the songs in the film were from the Porter cannon) to write a film biography of him. 

The script opens with our heroes Hal and Johnny mapping out the possible plot structure for this film, with benchmarks such as rags to riches, early struggles, a loyal wife, eventual success, too busy for a wife, success that turns out to be hollow and empty, a reuniting couple, and writing the biggest hit yet.

Highly fictionalized composer bios were de rigueur at MGM and Warner Brothers in the 40s and 50s. George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, 1945) got this treatment, as did Jerome Kern (Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946); Rodgers and Hart (Words and Music, 1948); Kalmar and Ruby (Three Little Words, 1950); Gus Kahn (I’ll See You In My Dreams, 1951); and Sigmund Romberg (Deep in My Heart, 1954). Perhaps the most outrageous fiction of all was Night and Day, the 1946 bio of Porter himself.

All set to churn out the standard plot, Hal and Johnny interview Noel Walters and he tells them that 1) He was born on Park Avenue and had no early struggles, 2) His first show was an instant success and 3) He’s had no marital drama — he’s never even been married! So the boys are stuck writing his life story without any drama — and Walters forbids them from fictionalizing his life in any way! 

Without a plot, Hal and Johnny focus on a leading lady. On Walters' recommendation, they’ve signed an unknown British musical star Walters has seen onstage but never met. Iris Fielding arrives with lots of unfortunate misconceptions about wicked Hollywood producers forcing young starlets onto their casting couches, and mistakes Hal and Johnny’s friendliness for lechery. Eventually she realizes her error and they become fast friends, in true Comden and Green style. (Think Debbie Reynolds’ initial hatred of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, or Cyd Charisse’s initial hatred of Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, or Charisse’s hatred of Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather.)

Those examples are romantic relationships, as is this — both Hal and Johnny fall in love with Iris and promptly engage in open rivalry. After the first evening Hal and Johnny spend with Iris when they both fall for her, Comden and Green designed a charming musical sequence that uses a split screen to show us Hal’s and Johnny’s fantasies on each side — each seeing himself being welcomed home in the hallway by Iris as he sings “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” 

After meeting Iris, Hal and Johnny simultaneously come up with the idea for their movie — a new story using the Noel Walters songbook — about an English girl who comes to Hollywood with misconceptions about producers but changes her mind after meeting two nice writer/producers who both fall in love with her and in the end chooses the right one. Both Hal and Johnny expect to be picked and they grow increasingly jealous of one another as they take Iris out on alternate nights. They eventually have a full on flare-up, as Walters returns to town and makes Iris’s acquaintance. 
 

They break up their partnership and each write an ending for the script with himself as the romantic hero and the other as a villain. At a party at Walters’ Hollywood mansion, Hal and Johnny end up rolling on the floor fighting, and the studio boss tells them that both their scripts are lousy. They realize they must reconcile for their careers and force Iris to choose between them, just as they walk in on her passionately kissing Walters. (I must mention the uncanny similarity between this denouement and the surprise twist at the end of a 1949 Warner Brothers musical called It’s a Great Feeling.) The film ends with Hal and Johhny best friends again, as they realize that they can write the film they originally planned — The Noel Walters Story — now that it has a romantic plot.

So here is Wonderland, with all the essential elements of a Comden and Green Freed Unit MGM musical, but it remains a ghost on paper. What happened? In a 1997 interview conducted by Tina Daniell and Pat McGilligan for the book Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, Comden explained why the film was never made:

“They couldn't cast Wonderland… 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.”

Adolph Green, Digital ID TH-17367, New York Public LibraryAdolph Green

I wonder about the casting problems. The relationship between Hal and Johnny is so reminiscent of other male friendships in the Comden and Green films that I couldn’t stop myself from casting it as I read: Gene Kelly as Johnny, Donald O’Connor as Hal, and Peter Lawford as Noel Walters. There’s a wisecracking secretary with lines like, “When I pass on, instead of having a headstone I’ll just have them erect a large stone percolator.” Can’t you just hear Eve Arden saying that? Perhaps Freed was reluctant to do another Comden and Green film after It’s Always Fair Weather hadn’t been up to their old standard of profit, or maybe he just thought they’d run their course. In MGM’s Greatest Musicals: The Freed Unit,  Hugh Fordin states that Freed dismissed the Wonderland script with a single comment: “Déjà vu.”

Freed was intrigued by the new style of musicals on Broadway, notably My Fair Lady, written by another Freed Unit alum, Alan Jay Lerner, who still owed Freed one from the three picture deal he’d signed in the early 50s. That third picture, Gigi, was the Unit’s greatest film. The Freed Unit went out with a bang, but it still went out. By the time the Wonderland script crossed Freed’s desk, the golden age of MGM musicals was winding down. Sadly we’ll never see the fifth Comden and Green show biz movie musical, but it’s nice to imagine it…

To read the script of Wonderland or learn more about Comden and Green, see the Betty Comden Papers, the Adoph Green Papers, and the Comden and Green Papers in the Library's Billy Rose Theatre Division. 

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What might have been...

Fascinating lost chapter! Is there any way to tell from the script how far along Freed let them go? Was it a first draft, or did they take it through any revisions? Had any other writers worked on it? From your description, I would love to have seen Kelly and Frank Sinatra do it.

Sinatra and Kelly would've

Sinatra and Kelly would've been really fun. That draft is the only one and there's no explanatory correspondence! I assume from the "Temporarily Complete" stamp on the cover of the script that it did go through at least a few revisions though.

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