On HOW LITTLE WE KNOW: AN ESSAY FILM ABOUT HOAGY CARMICHAEL
By Ian Garwood
Published in [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014
(The original voice script for this audiovisual essay)
NOTE: “One of the interesting things for me was realising how working with the images and sounds required a reworking of the script as I’d originally envisaged it, so this, for me, is the point of publishing the original script: to see how the words were adapted to the images/sounds, even in such a ‘wordy’ example of the audiovisual essay as mine” [IAN GARWOOD]
It’s the aftermath of the first action scene from Howard Hawks’ second World War melodrama To Have and Have Not, made in 1944. An American tourist has been killed in a Martinique bar by a stray bullet during a shoot-out between the island’s Resistance fighters and the Gestapo. The Gestapo chief, Renard, comes in to take away the usual suspects, including, it turns out, the films’ protagonists, played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. As Renard begins to hold court, the camera lifts away from him to reveal the wider space of the bar. This movement brings into view, in the bottom right of the frame, the bar’s resident pianist, Cricket, played by the real-life musician and songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.
Cricket is a figure significant enough for the camera to retreat back until he is included in the frame. On the other hand, this is not an establishing shot that prefaces closer views of Cricket – within this shot, the view of him remains obstructed by bars and there are multiple obstacles – inanimate and human ones – between him and the shot’s focal presence, Renard. After the shot, the magnetism of the star characters wins out, the film returning to a position where the leads’ unimpressed reaction to Renard’s grandstanding can be registered. To Have and Have Not would not be itself if it saw Cricket’s inclusion in the frame as an invitation to zoom in closer on his character at this point.
Hoagy Carmichael played similar supporting musical figures in ten other movies between the late 30s and mid-50s. Neither a bit player nor a lead, his characters were always noticeable presences but never truly centre stage. They would have to accept background or sideline positions in the drama and in the frame at times. Even at those moments when the camera seeked them out, his characters generally fulfilled the role of the onlooker, rather than the instigator of dramatic action. His characters observed a lot of fights but were not likely to throw a punch, let alone shoot a gun themselves. In To Have and Have Not, his commitment to his station, as barroom pianist, is taken to extremes: he does not even move from his piano stool as that first shoot-out erupts around him.
Carmichael was the most prolific performer of the barroom pianist character type in Hollywood Cinema of this era. This didn’t always entail him playing the piano or working in a bar, but it did involve him displaying a recurring pair of character traits: on the one hand, as I’ve suggested, his characters are marked by low levels of intervention in terms of confronting his films’ major dramatic conflicts; on the other, they are unusually knowledgeable. The knowledge takes two key forms – a factual awareness of the events that have taken place in a film’s fictional world; and a social knowledge, which allows his characters to understand how the world in which they find themselves works.
The familiarity of his characters with their worlds is conveyed economically to the viewer by their habitual possession of nicknames. Butch, Chick, Smoke, Happy and Jingles are some of the names given to his characters. Krin Gabbard suggests that the nicknaming is of a piece with the infantile quality of Carmichael’s film performances, as he sees them. But I see the fact the characters possess a nickname, known freely by other characters, as more decisive than the connotations of the name itself. In To Have and Have Not, Carmichael’s character is called Cricket and – tempting as it might be – it’s difficult to assign this a symbolic value. He’s too present to function simply as a chirruping presence in the background to signal the film’s exotic, tropical locale; and he’s not intervening enough to act as a voice of conscience to the film’s protagonists – there are plenty of other characters on hand to do that. Instead, the fact that this nickname is used by everyone he encounters simply suggests a character who is well-known and deeply-rooted in this space; it also helps to define the aggressive individuality of the film’s two leads, by contrast. In their first extended exchange, they give each other the nicknames Steve and Slim – their real names are Harry and Marie. These are deliberately impertinent acts of naming designed to goad each other and suggest their strength of character – there is no such antagonism implied when Harry and Slim address Carmichael’s character as Cricket – it’s just the name he goes by.
In other ways, the lack of side associated with Cricket’s character, his very ordinariness, serves to highlight the specialness of the leads. The hotel bar, echoing that in Casablanca, is a public space where opposing groups fence warily. Cricket is a constant witness to the intrigues that occur there. In a narrative in which we learn almost nothing about the prehistories of the main characters, Cricket knows more than most. So Cricket’s band are central to the space of the bar and Cricket is himself central to the band. But this puts Cricket in position to support the forceful expression of the leads’ characters rather than allowing him centre stage for himself. This happens obviously in the first number, when Cricket invites Slim to take over the singing of ‘Am I Blue’. But the prioritising of attention to Slim over Cricket has already been signalled more subtly – look at the way Slim delays the closer shot of Cricket’s first musical performance that might have been expected after his piano playing alerts Harry’s attention. Throughout, the individual magnetism of the leads is contrasted to the more modest activities of Cricket who asserts his personality and creativity only within the confines of a group.
A small exception to this is the mini-narrative detailing Cricket’s writing of ‘How Little We Know’. Outside of the movies, Hoagy Carmichael was most renowned as a songwriter – his 1927 composition ‘Star Dust’ is one of the most recorded songs of all time. ‘How Little We Know’ is advertised as a Carmichael song – co-written with Johnny Mercer – in To Have and Have Not’s title sequence. Maybe this is the narrative strand in which the individuality of the character and performer are given space to shine?
The viewer is made aware Cricket is composing this song, on his own, midway through the film. However, this process is introduced as one with which Cricket is struggling. His playing of the song’s melody on his piano attracts Slim’s attention, but when she asks him ‘what’s the name of that tune’, he replies ‘hasn’t got a name yet, I’ve just been fooling around with the lyrics – they’re not so hot either’. He proceeds to sing an introductory stanza that is written from the perspective of someone lamenting the lack of romance in his life (the first lines capture the moping tone: ‘I run to the telephone whenever it rings/I can’t be alone, it’s one of those things’). Despite Slim’s approval, he reiterates that he is still trying to find the right lyric. He continues to play the song instrumentally after Harry comes in and has a needling discussion with Slim that ends with Harry asking Cricket to make sure she gets on the plane out of Martinique. After Harry has gone, Cricket takes up the melody on his piano again, while Slim comments ruefully, ‘well it was nice while it lasted’. Cricket replies, ‘maybe it’s better this way, Slim’.
It’s a catchy tune – Harry whistles it en route to the pick up of a Resistance fugitive and Slim is heard humming it before it is heard in its completed version. When that time comes, it becomes clear that the original first stanza has been discarded. Instead, the song begins with a line reminiscent of Cricket’s earlier words to Slim: ‘Maybe it happens this way’. The lyrics of the song are now in the first-person plural, rather than singular, and are noticeably more worldly-wise, whilst still romantic, than the original stanza. Slim sings it as a cool musical reiteration of the declaration of love she has just made to Harry and the lyrics fit the temperament of their relationship. In fact, the playing of the tune underneath Harry and Slim’s earlier terse conversation and the approximation of Cricket’s spoken line at that point to the first line of the completed song, suggest that Cricket drew inspiration from that exchange, causing him to replace the original lyrics with more s, ophisticated ones.
In this way, the process of writing ‘How Little We Know’ is cast as a collaborative effort between Cricket, Harry and Slim, even if the latter pair remain unaware of the fact. The songwriting process associated in the film with ‘How Little We Know’ is consistent with Cricket’s overall characterisation: as a figure who draws inspiration from his interactions with others and whose activities (musical and otherwise) serve to support the leads (through her performance, Slim turns ‘How Little We Know’ into her and Harry’s song). Cricket may be able to provide the soundtrack for Slim and Harry as they exit the hotel, but his integration within a group makes it appropriate that he does not go with them. The band are left to close the film, and Cricket’s final action is characteristically effacing and collegial. It consists of a nod towards a fellow musician that acknowledges the collective effort that has generated the musical support for the now departed leads.
Ian Garwood is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. His research interests include storytelling processes in the fiction film, the sensuous aspects of film narration, the film and television soundtrack, Bollywood, Classical Hollywood, American Independent Cinema and German cinema. His work combines an interest in cultural and production contexts with a dedication to close textual analysis. In 1999, Ian completed his PhD on ‘Popular Music and Characterisation in Narrative Cinema’ at the University of Warwick, supervised by Professor Richard Dyer. Since September 2000 he has been a lecturer at University of Glasgow’s School of Culture and Creative Arts, where he convenes the Sound and Moving Image Research Group, a collective interested in the study and practice of the soundtrack in different audio-visual media. Ian’s recent monograph on The Sense of Film Narration is published by Edinburgh University Press (2013).