Biographical / Historical
With the possible exception of Irving Berlin, no one has contributed as much material to the canon of American popular song in the 20th century as Harry Warren (1893-1981). Warren was born in Brooklyn, New York, December 24, 1893, to Italian immigrant parents. His birth name was Salvatore Anthony Guaragna. By the time he graduated from grade school, he was known as "Harry Warren". He legally changed his name in 1938. He was educated in the public schools of New York but had no formal musical training. He taught himself to play the organ and piano and also sang in the church choir. Both Warren's sister and brother were performers so the theatrical world was not unknown to him. He worked as an actor and assistant director for the Vitagraph film studio in New York and played mood music for actress Corinne Griffith. During World War I, Warren served in the United States Navy at Montauk Point, New York. For a few weeks after the war, he worked as an insurance examiner for The Travellers Agency.
In December 1918, Warren married Josephine Wensler (1897-1993). Their first child was a son named Harry Warren, Jr. (1920-1937). In 1920, Warren became a song plugger for the music publishing firm of Stark & Cowan. Warren continued writing and in 1922 along with lyricist Edgar Leslie produced his first song hit, "Rose of the Rio Grande." From that point on, Warren composed a continuous stream of hits introduced by such artists as Paul Whiteman and others. By 1925, a second child, Joan (1924-1991), nicknamed "Cookie", was born. Warren continued his success with such songs as "I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Me)," "In My Gondola" and the very popular 1928 hit "Nagasaki."
By 1929, Warren was the director of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). He held that position until 1933. He also served on the ASCAP Board of Directors. During this time Warren worked with various musicians including Gus Kahn, Bert Kalmer, and Harry Ruby. In 1930, he wrote his first motion picture score for the film Spring is Here. Al Jolson asked him to compose a song for the show, Wonder Bar (1931). During the 1930s, Warren composed three other Broadway shows, Sweet and Low (1930), Crazy Quilt (1931) featuring Fanny Brice, and Laugh Parade (1931) starring Ed Wynn.
In 1932, Warren was hired by Warner Brothers Studios to help write songs for the Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler film 42nd Street (1933). Along with lyricist, Al Dubin, Warren wrote such hits as "We're in the Money" and "The Shadow Waltz". Warren continued composing memorable songs for motion pictures such as Gold Diggers of 1933, The Singing Marine (1937), and Footlight Parade (1933). Gold Diggers of 1935 included Warren's first Academy Award winning song, "Lullaby of Broadway". Warren made cameo appearances in a few films during his stay at Warner Brothers. He and lyricist Dubin can be seen in 42nd Street, Go Into Your Dance (1935), and A Very Honorable Guy (1934). He also appeared in a Vitaphone short entitled Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer.
Warren left Warner Brothers for 20th Century Fox in 1940. At Fox he helped compose the scores for such motion pictures as, Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), and The Gangs All Here (1943) that included the Carmen Miranda standard, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat". During this period, he worked with lyricists Ralph Rainger, Mack Gordon and Leo Robin, and others. Hello Frisco, Hello (1943) garnered Warren his second Academy Award for the song, "You'll Never Know". While at Fox, Warren composed "Chattanooga Choo Choo" a song that became the first gold record in the history of the recording industry.
In 1945, legendary musical film producer Arthur Freed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer courted Warren for his MGM production unit. Freed quipped that Warren would have the office right next door to his--and he did. For Warren the offer to write music at the studio that practically invented the movie musical was irresistible and he left 20th Century Fox for MGM. He joined Freed in writing the songs for Yolanda and the Thief (1945) starring Fred Astaire and Freed's protégée Lucille Bremer. The film was directed by the incomparable Vincent Minnelli. His next high profile score was for The Harvey Girls (1946) composed with renowned lyricist Johnny Mercer. The picture starred Judy Garland and John Hodiak. Directed by George Sidney, it was a major success, due in part to Warren's tuneful "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe". This song brought Warren his third and what would be his final Academy Award.
While at MGM, Warren worked with lyricists Mack Gordon, Ralph Blane, and others. In 1948, he and Blane composed the song score for Freed and director Rouben Mamoulian's ambitious film adaptation of Eugene O'Neills stage play Ah Wilderness entitled Summer Holiday (1948) starring Mickey Rooney and Gloria DeHaven. This is reported to have been Warren's favorite film assignment, but the film was not an unqualified success. Warren remained at MGM until the 1950s composing for such films as The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), starring Astaire and Rogers, Summer Stock (1950), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and his final film for MGM, Skirts Ahoy! (1952), starring Esther Williams and Vivian Blane. After leaving MGM, Warren wrote the score for the Bing Crosby film, Just for You at Paramount. Warren also served on the Board of Directors for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Warren went on to write the music for two Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin films, The Caddy (1953) for which he composed "That's Amore", Artists and Models (1955) and for three Jerry Lewis films, Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), Cinderfella (1960), and The Ladies Man (1961). Warren also composed instrumental pieces one being a "Mass in Honor of St. Anthony".
Warren returned to Broadway in 1956 with the musical Shangri-La, based on the novel Lost Horizon. The show was not a success and closed after fewer than thirty performances. He composed the title song for the Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr film, An Affair to Remember (1957); this song brought him his last nomination for an Academy Award. The song was later used in the motion picture Sleepless in Seattle (1993) starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
During the 1950s, Warren started his own music publishing company, Four Jays Music Corporation. After writing the songs for The Ladies Man, Warren retired from films but continued to write for piano, even composing the song for the Miss Oklahoma Pageant. His last film effort was to compose one song for the motion-picture Rosie (1968). During the last years of his life Warren composed and ran his music publishing business, but remained largely forgotten as the man who had composed a great deal of America's musical heritage.
With the resurgence in the appreciation of the movie musical in the early 1970s, the tunes composed during Warren's heyday were back in vogue, brought on in a large part by the phenomenal success of MGM's That's Entertainment! (1974). In 1980, he was asked to compose the musical numbers for an upcoming movie musical entitled, Manhattan Melody but it was never produced. 1980 brought the Warren name back to the marquees of Broadway with the David Merrick production of 42nd St.. The full budgeted big Broadway musical used the basic storyline from the 1933 film and drew upon the whole of the Warren and Dubin catalogue for the score. The production proved to be wildly popular, running in excess of five years on Broadway. Warren died in California on September 22, 1981. He was interred in the Sanctuary of Tenderness at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles beside his wife and son. After Warren's death, his daughter Joan "Cookie" Warren Jones administered the music publishing company until her death in 1991.