When Henryk Wars Took on Hollywood
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Took on Hollywood, Cover of the DVD 'Henryk Wars: A Songster of Warsaw' directed by Wiesław Dąbrowski, photo: Culture.pl, center, henryk_wars_a_songster_of_warsaw.jpg
If Polish popular music can be narrowed down to a few key figures, Henryk Wars is undoubtedly one of them. During the Interwar period, the prolific composer for cabaret, theatre and film became known as the ‘King of Polish Jazz’ – a title which would eventually lead him to Hollywood.
Also considered a ‘Polish Gershwin’ for his talents, Wars even shared an uncanny physical resemblance with the American musician, as both possessed a soft smile and warm, inquisitive eyes. After the lights of the cabarets went out, and war destroyed the world around him, Wars, like Gershwin, found himself in Hollywood, where he would find another musical career – a world away from the decadent Polish interwar cabaret scene.
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The Dance Orchestra directed by Henryk Wars, Warsaw 1933. The photo was published on the cover of the record catalog of the Syrena Elektro record company in April 1933. photo: Zaklad Foto-Forbert / reproduction: Janusz Fila / FORUM
Before the war, Wars was a veritable bastion of Polish popular culture. Steeped in the musical backgrounds of both Warsaw and Lviv, he was responsible for classics of interwar music like Miłość Ci Wszystko Wybaczy (Love Forgives You Everything), Sex Appeal and Lim-Pam-Pom. There was also the jovial and unforgettable Umówiłem Się z Nią na Dziewiątą (I’ve Got a Date with Her at Nine) – sung by an effervescent, grinning Eugeniusz Bodo in the 1937 film Piętro Wyżej (First Floor).
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Though renowned for his impact on cabaret stages, Wars was certainly essential for the transition from silent to sound film as well. In a documentary about his life, Henryk Wars: A Songster of Warsaw, the singer Irena Santor describes him as a ‘pioneer for introducing jazz to Polish film music’, noting that approximately one out of every three films in the Interwar period included his music. That Wars had a substantial impact on Polish entertainment overall between the wars was an opinion shared by the composer Edward Pałłasz, who reiterated that ‘everything he did was of great style’.
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Archival photography by Michal Karski from the film 'Henryk Wars: A songster of Warsaw' directed by Wiesław Dąbrowski, photo: www.polishdocs.pl; Henryk Wars, photo: Michal Karski
Even when war erupted around him, Wars escaped to Lviv, where he established the Tea-Jazz Orchestra – featuring artists like Bodo, Adam Aston, Renata Bogdańska (later Irena Anders) and Albert Harris in concerts across Russia. In A Songster of Warsaw, Anders said she believed she owed her career to Wars, describing him as ‘a charming person, and most of all, he was enormously talented’.
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Wars’s artists merged with those under Feliks Konarski to launch the legendary Polish Parade, which entertained troops fighting their way across the Middle East and Italy. There are even photographs of Wars in uniform directing Polish Parade concerts. The composer would later produce scores for the 1946 Polish-Italian film Wielka Droga (The Great Way), directed by Michał Waszyński.
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The American Dream
Following the war, the glittering lights of the United States attracted Wars and his young family. Rather than returning to a Poland under Russian rule, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1947. Speaking in Wiesław Dąbrowski's documentary A Songster of Warsaw, the composer’s son, Robert Vars, explained that his father was especially ‘drawn to Hollywood’. But times were tough there: as Robert puts it, his father ‘arrived without any acquaintances, and he started with nothing’.
The situation was exacerbated by a two-year musicians’ strike in the city due to the demise of the film industry in favour of television. The older Wars himself explained:
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I tried to offer them my services, [but] no one opened up the studio gates to me.
Aside from the musicians’ strike, no American producer trusted Wars enough to allow him to compose any pieces and develop a Western repertoire. And despite letters of recommendation from the likes of Artur Rubinstein and Ira Gershwin, it proved almost impossible for Wars to prove his talents to producers. Even at a basic material level, much of his musical output from the interwar period – the sheet music and Syrena Record discs – had been shattered and burnt in the war. He thus had very little to demonstrate his talents, which, in pre-war Poland, had been celebrated by millions.
There were also substantial differences between the budding pre-war world of Polish cabaret and film, in which Wars had found his calling as a composer, and the cold, cut-throat attitudes towards composers in late-1940s Hollywood. Though the golden age of film in Hollywood had been undeniably saturated by the musical flairs of Eastern Europe - particularly after so many talented composers fled the region for the US in the 1930s - composers were still seen only as service providers, and often went uncredited in films. Besides this, the very art of forging business contacts required a certain insouciance, a trait Robert notes was lacking in Wars:
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My father wasn’t a Hollywood type, to go for drinks with producers, parties, have martinis. He was a grey-haired, cultural European.
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Still from the film 'Piętro Wyżej' (One Floor Up), directed by Leon Trystan, 1937, pictured: Eugeniusz Bodo & Józef Orwid, photo: Jerzy Gaus / Filmoteka Narodowa / fototeka.fn.org.pl
For seven years, Wars struggled to make ends meet, with the family becoming poorer and poorer. Wars eventually debated whether to make the heartbreaking decision to abandon his musical career altogether to become a clerk, as he could speak English fluently – but this was a decision his wife Elżbieta warned him against. In A Songster of Warsaw, she recalled that she told him ‘you’re a composer, and you’ll remain a composer’.
Yet, in 1950, Vars joined the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), with Ira Gershwin as his sponsor. And in 1952, after working as a copyist, Wars scored his first break at Universal – but this was a break which turned out to be less successful than the composer had hoped. Wars despised the management of the production, as the music director was unprofessional, employing two composers for a single film.
Two years later, however, Wars became friendly with John Wayne, who hired him to compose for westerns and cowboy films. The first was the 1954 Seven Men from Now, for which he received favourable reviews in Hollywood Reporter and Variety. As Wars described this beginning to his American career:
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For a while, I did a whole series of westerns, cowboy films. They even tried to stuff me into the so called ‘western pigeonhole’.
His American work appears under an anglicised variant of his name, Henry Vars – but the composer still often went uncredited in production details, with the music instead attributed to the picture’s music director.
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Wars’s friendship with Wayne did prompt a wealth of further opportunities, however: from the 1950s to the 1970s, Wars wrote music for productions under Columbia, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox and MGM, working on around 60 films and TV shows. His songs were performed by Jimmy Rogers, Bing Crosby and Doris Day. One of his most successful international hits was the 1961 Speak to Me Pretty, performed by Brenda Lee, which reached number three in the UK Singles Chart in May 1962. Another was Sleep, My Child – perhaps a 1948 variant of his pre-war hit Ach Śpij Kochanie.
One of Wars’s American classics was Over and Over and Over, sung by Margaret Whiting, which reportedly ended up selling more than half a million copies. That song also gained popularity in Poland after Wars returned to his homeland to record a performance with Anna German in 1967.
Whilst he was back in Poland that year, Wars allegedly also recorded jazz suites for Polish Radio and conducted at the Warsaw Philharmonic, whilst also performing at the Polish Television and the Polish Film Chronicle. And even back in the States, Wars established contacts with the Polish composer Bronisław Kaper and actress Pola Negri, who were also based in Los Angeles.
A Polish jazz musician & a dolphin
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Pamela Franklin and Luke Halpin greet dolphin in a scene from the film 'Flipper's New Adventure', 1964, photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Getty Images
But Wars’s greatest success in Hollywood – and a far cry from his gorgeous pre-war songs, which practically dripped with the luxury of cabaret culture – was his music for a film and television series about a dolphin. Flipper and Flipper’s New Adventure were produced in the 1960s, followed by the series Flipper, produced from 1964 to 1967.
It was this dolphin-based enterprise that would earn Wars his biggest royalty payments, particularly as Flipper is still dearly loved today. As the composer once put it, chuckling to an interviewer:
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They offered me a film with completely different content – namely, the adventures of a dolphin. It was called ‘Flipper’. The film was a great success – that was a misfortune, because they packed me into an animal pigeonhole!
Wars’s last credited work came with the 1971 film Fools’ Parade, starring James Stewart and George Kennedy. Wars also attended cultural events at the Jasna Góra Catholic Church in Los Angeles and drew caricatures. He was aware of the new renditions of his pre-war hits, saying:
Listening to these wonderful interpretations, all the emotions awake in me anew. These are like completely new songs to me.
Wars died on 1st September 1977, whilst listening to work by his beloved Karol Szymanowski – a composer who had taught him in his early years. But the music did not stop there: in the early 2000s, Wars’s wife discovered hidden scores of music in a cabinet in their garage. On 5th October 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
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Even though Wars had tasted resounding success in Hollywood, Wars never forgot his background and the brilliant career he had established in the 1920s. His grandson, accepting the Knight’s Cross on the late artist, described it as an act to ‘welcome my grandfather back home to his beloved Poland’.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jun 2019
Sources: ‘Henryk Wars: A Songster of Warsaw’, directed by Wiesław Dąbrowski (2007), Telegraph, DW