Friday, November 24, 2006

The Life of Dick Haymes

The Life of Dick Haymes: No More Little White Lies
By Ruth Prigozy
University Press of Mississippi

State Fair was the only Rogers & Hammerstein musical originally conceived and produced as a motion picture. It was a hit, seeming to assure a long Hollywood career for featured co-star Dick Haymes, a former vocalist with the Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James big bands. It was not to be. Ruth Prigozy chronicles the long disintegration of the one-time golden boy’s career in The Life of Dick Haymes.

Haymes was frequently compared with Sinatra, his predecessor as the male vocalist with the Dorsey band. Both saw their careers take-off as independent acts as an unintentional consequence of the American Federation of Musicians union’s ban on member recording in 1942. As Prigozy explains the rise of Haymes and his contemporaries:

“all began their rise to success as independent vocalists in this period. They didn’t need musical backup—as they proved—performing a cappella with such groups as the Song Spinners and the Mills Brothers substituting for musicians.” (p. 53)

Eventually Hollywood would beckon, seeing Haymes contracted to the 20th Century Fox studio, which successfully paired with Betty Grable, the wife of his friend and former boss Harry James for two reasonably successful musicals. His best remembered picture from his Fox contract (or from any studio) would be State Fair. Prigozy argues Haymes did not take an active interest in his film vehicles, until he movie career was effectively over. After Fox, he landed at Universal for two forgettable films that hastened the downward trajectory of his film career, although Up in Central Park, the first film under Haymes’ contract, had some potential according to the studio’s publicity plans. Prigozy summarizes its story: “The plot concerns Boss Tweed’s rigging of a mayoral election by hiring disembarking immigrants to vote in the name of persons who were dead or otherwise unable to make it to the polls.” (p. 104) Hard to imagine such things happening today . . .

Haymes next home was Columbia for a pair of even more forgettable pictures. His time there was most notable for his introduction to his next wife, Rita Hayworth, whose tempestuous relationship would lead to some of the worst publicity of Haymes career. Prigozy takes issue with Hayworth biographers who have not been kind to Haymes, particularly Barbara Leaming, author of a 1989 biography. Prigozy protests:

“Leaming does not use even one source remotely friendly to Haymes and relies on gossip columnist Earl Wilson’s remark, ‘Dick plainly did all the thinking and talking for her,’ to conclude that he was conspiratorial, manipulative, and controlling husband.” (p. 133)

Prigozy does her best to rehabilitate the Haymes image, taking issue with many reports of Haymes’ abusive behavior, and emphasizing his generosity. She describes an incident after Haymes final recording session with pianist Loonis McGlohan when Haymes volunteered to sing at small gig the pianist was called to play at the last minute.

Haymes was scarred by a chaotic childhood, suffered from alcoholism, and was plagued by what might be called chronic irresponsibility. Prigozy is clearly sympathetic to her subject, and her account of his life is highly readable. Her book will be of interest to both scholars of the big band era and the golden age of Hollywood. However, despite Prigozy’s skill as a biographer, it is hard not to lose patience with Haymes. He had many gifts, but failed to live up to his early promise.