Though Saul Chaplin was a notable composer and film producer, it was his work as an arranger and music supervisor that made him a key figure of the Hollywood musical. "He's one of those fellows behind the scenes that has made so many fine musicals work," said Gene Kelly. Among the films Chaplin scored were three for which he won the Academy Award: An American in Paris (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and West Side Story (1961). He did the vocal arrangements for Al Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946), Judy Garland in Summer Stock (1950) - including her famous rendition of "Get Happy" - and Crosby and Sinatra in High Society (1956). His own compositions include the standards "Until the Real Thing Comes Along", "Please Be Kind" and the song which first brought fame to the Andrews Sisters, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon".
Born Saul Kaplan in Brooklyn, New York in 1912, he was educated at the NYU School of Commerce, but after graduation became pianist with a Dixieland dance band, the Pals of Harmony. In the mid-Thirties he co-led a band with Sammy Cahn, and in 1935 the pair collaborated on their first song hit, "Rhythm is Our Business", written as a theme song for the Jimmy Lunceford band. The pair were in demand as special material writers for vaudeville and night-club acts and had further Hit Parade songs with "Shoe Shine Boy" (introduced by Louis Armstrong in the Cotton Club Revue) and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (both 1936), "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" (1937, its melody based on a Yiddish popular song by Sholom Secunda) and "Please Be Kind" (1938, written for a Vitaphone short and banned by NBC radio because of the line, "This is my first affair. . .").
In 1939, encouraged to move to Hollywood, the team wrote both the script and songs for a Republic "B" movie, Rookies on Parade, then were signed as song-writers by Columbia, contributing to such low-budget fare as Two Latins from Manhattan, Two Blondes and a Redhead and The Redhead from Manhattan. Two years later they split up, Cahn forming a song-writing partnership with Jule Styne and Chaplin becoming a composer-arranger at Columbia Studios, working on several of their perky "B" musicals starring Ann Miller.
Chaplin maintained fond memories of those days. "For heaven's sake, don't leave out Ann Miller," he told the historian Max Wilk, "That's my real distinction - I have done more films with Ann Miller than anyone alive. My life from 1940 to 1959 was Ann Miller, because when she moved to MGM, I did too!" Chaplin's Miller musicals at Columbia included Time Out for Rhythm (1941), What's Buzzin' Cousin (1943), Carolina Blues (1944) and Eadie Was a Lady (1945) and, though minor, they were distinguished by Miller's dazzling tap dancing and the skilful orchestrations, such as the sensually pulsating "Take a Chance" in Hey, Rookie (1944).
Cover Girl (1944), starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly (who was to become a lifelong friend) was Chaplin's first major musical, and his work included the arrangement of the celebrated "Alter Ego" dance. For the enormously successful The Jolson Story, Chaplin not only provided vocal arrangements but had a surprise song hit:
The producer felt that Larry Parks, as Jolie, needed something to sing at his parents' anniversary party. Jolie said he knew a tune that would fit - an old semi-classical Russian waltz written by J. Ivanovici. He hummed it and it sounded great, so I knocked out some lyrics in about 45 minutes. As "The Anniversary Song", it was supposed to be a little throwaway thing, but it sold over a million records and has become a standard!
In 1949, when MGM were in need of a vocal arranger for On The Town, Gene Kelly suggested Chaplin, who was signed to a contract and stayed at the studio for nine years. Most of Leonard Bernstein's music for the stage version of On The Town was jettisoned for the film and Bernstein, worried about how the remaining music would be used, sent a wire to MGM, part of which read, "Only Saul Chaplin is authorised to adapt the music I wrote for the stage version of On The Town".
In October, 1949, Chaplin was divorced from his first wife Ethel Schwartz (their daughter Judy is the wife of Broadway producer Harold Prince), and in 1968 he married Betty Levin.
In 1951 he won his first Oscar for his work with Johnny Green on An American in Paris for which he adapted and arranged the climactic ballet sequence:
There was a discussion about whether to do a 17-minute ballet, and I remember what finally sewed it up. There was a picture called The Red Shoes that had a 17-minute ballet and
that was doing very well. That settled it. As long as they could do it, we certainly could do it, only do it better.
George Gershwin's brother Ira considered Chaplin's adaptation of Gershwin's suite "overblown", but even he admitted the sequence was "beautiful and fascinating".
When a duet was needed for Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter to perform in Two Weeks With Love (1950), Chaplin remembered a vaudeville number from his youth and made an arrangement for them of "Aba Daba Honeymoon" that became the hit of the film. For Summer Stock (1950), he composed the ballad "You Wonderful You", and when a number was needed for six dancers in Kiss Me Kate (1953, with Ann Miller), he suggested a song that had been cut from another Cole Porter musical, "From This Moment On". Seven Brides for Seven Brothers brought Chaplin his second Oscar. For High Society, "I unearthed one of Cole Porter's old songs, `Well, Did You Evah?', and Cole wrote a new set of lyrics for Crosby and Sinatra, though I'm proud to say I had a word or two in there, with his approval".
He was promoted to Associate Producer on Les Girls (1957), on which he helped the ailing Cole Porter put together a coherent score, followed by Merry Andrew (1958) and Can-Can (1960). I first met Chaplin in 1963 when he was in England to work with Judy Garland on I Could Go On Singing, and found a genial and generous gentleman whose personality belied the toughness he must have had to deal with studio temperaments. I mentioned to him how much I admired his arrangements for the 1951 remake of Roberta, titled Lovely To Look At, in particular his ballet arrangement of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays". A few weeks later I received acetate copies of the studio pre-recordings from Chaplin's own collection.
I met him again four years later on the set on his production Star!, where we watched in admiration as Julie Andrews executed in one take a formidably complicated routine to "Burlington Bertie". "Julie Andrews and Judy Garland are the most totally professional stars I have ever worked with," Saul said. "They both pick up a melody or routine immediately with a facility that amazes."
After his departure from MGM, Chaplin had two of his greatest successes with West Side Story (1961), and The Sound of Music (1965). He spent two years on the production of That's Entertainment Part 2 (1976), a sequel to the successful compilation of musical extracts, this one featuring Kelly and Astaire dancing together in new linking sequences. Afterwards Saul Chaplin said the most frequent question asked in letters was, "Why don't they make pictures like that anymore?", to which he would answer, "Cost". He ended his autobiography, The Golden Age of Movie Musicals and Me (1994), on a hopeful note:
I hope that the next phase in the development of movie musicals will combine what was outstanding about the earlier films with the best features of today's, including the startling new audio and visual technologies that are constantly being developed. Musicals will then regain their rightful glory. In the meantime, there is an enormous audience out there waiting.
- Tom Vallance