Oscar Hammerstein II
One of the most successful and controversial figures in show business and Broadway lyricist for such classics as Oklahoma!, The King and I, and South Pacific, Oscar Hammerstein II talks to Wallace about sentimentality, racism, religion, and politics.
Guest: Oscar Hammerstein II
WALLACE: Good evening. Tonight we go after the story of a great figure in American show business. He's Oscar Hammerstein, the Second, who has helped to write more hit musicals than anyone in the history of our theatre, including the Rogers and Hammerstein classics "Oklahoma", "Carrousel", "The King And I", and "South Pacific" which has just been made into a Hollywood film.
WALLACE: If you're curious to know why Oscar Hammerstein believes his musical plays are serious commentaries on life, if you'd like to hear the social and political convictions that go into his work, and if you want to know why Mr. Hammerstein prefers sentiment to sophistication, warmth to worldliness, we'll go after those stories in just a moment. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Parliament.
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WALLACE: And now to our story..... Oscar Hammerstein is a gentle, kindly man who writes sentimental love stories for the stage, like "Oklahoma", "Carrousel", and "South Pacific". Set to music by Richard Rogers, these shows are among the most vivid and successful works done in the American theatre and Rogers and Hammerstein have probably made more money than any two men in the history of music.
WALLACE: Oscar, an article about you in Holiday Magazine once said this, it said that you are possessed of a vague humanitarian fervor, that way back in 1924, Alexander Woollcott reviewed one of your shows and said that its message was, quote:" That we should all have faith and be very, very good", end quote. And Holiday concludes that your present credo is just about as vague. What do you think of that criticism?
HAMMERSTEIN: What's vague about that? There's nothing vague about having faith and of course the play that Alex Woollcott was reviewing was one of my earlier efforts and during those earlier efforts I very often may have spilled over a little bit in sentiment.
WALLACE: That was "Gypsy Jim", I believe.
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, "Gypsy Jim", I thought it was and I think he whatever he said about that we deserved. But, I would like to talk about sentiment for a moment if you'll let me in contradistinction to sophistication.
HAMMERSTEIN: The sophisticate is a man who thinks he can swim better than he can and sometimes drowns himself. He thinks he can drive better than he really can and sometimes causes great smash-ups. So, in my book there's nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we're sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love. I couldn't be anything but sentimental about these basic things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a "poseur".
WALLACE: Well, Oscar, this article that I have reference to was written by a man by the name of Kenneth Tyler. He says that you and Richard Rogers are so infatuated with your, quote, "Love for trees and earth and the simple life that you forfeited the civilized virtue of mature wit and urban irony."
HAMMERSTEIN: Well maybe I have. I'm not very interested in urban irony. I'm not that kind of man, I'm not ironic, I'm not very urban. I love trees. I hope I'll never stop loving them. Trees, green meadows...who cannot love them? Doesn't Kenneth Tyler like those? I imagine he does, I know Kenneth Tyler. I think he's a very witty and sound critic himself.
WALLACE: Let me put it in this -- Let me come to it this way if I may. I said before that you have written tuneful, attractive musicals. I believe that you feel that you have had something to say above and beyond the music and the glitter, and the girls and the men, and the costumes. In each of your musical plays, I wonder if I could ask you to capsulize in as few seconds as you can do it effectively, what you were trying to say for instance, in "South Pacific"?
HAMMERSTEIN: Mike, may I put a little preamble to this discussion? I'd like to say that I've never nor has Richard Rogers sat down and said now what've we got to say in the next one and picked a story. We've always chosen a story that we found attractive, and then we've gone ahead and written it. And I think, when a writer writes anything about anything at all, he gives himself away and what he has to say comes out incidental to his motive for writing and entertaining and arresting musical shows.
WALLACE: I see...I see...Now then, to "South Pacific".
HAMMERSTEIN: Well "South Pacific" had two love stories in it. In fact, it has two love stories in it and they both concern in a different way "race prejudice". Nelly Forbush, the Navy Nurse is in love with a Frenchman and when she finds out that he was once married to a Polynesian woman and has two Polynesian no half Polynesian children, she runs away. She's shocked by it and she's awakened later when she fears he's dead, and then suddenly she realizes how unimportant was her prejudice, how important it was that she loved him and how much she wants him back, no matter what kind of children he has.
HAMMERSTEIN: And the other love story is about a young Marine who falls in love with a Tonkanese girl on the island and after rejecting her as a wife, although he loves her, he then concludes after he's lost her that if he comes out of the war alive, he will come back here and marry her. Well, what we were saying was that just what Nelly says in her one of her last scenes, "All that is piffle." All that is all this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that's really important.
WALLACE: Does that express your view as far as you're concerned with miscegenation. Inter-marriage between races is perfectly sensible?
WALLACE: In "The King And I"?
HAMMERSTEIN: In "The King And I", I think "The King And I" is best symbolized by the number in it, "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you" as the nurse from the governess from Wales talking to the little Siamese kids whom she'd grown to love and who'd grown to love her. And there is no There again, all race and color had faded in their getting to know and love each other.
HAMMERSTEIN: Also, "The King And I" was a struggle within the man who was trying to be a liberal and had been born a conservative, had been born with a conviction that the absolute power of a king should not be questioned. And yet, something had given him an interest in Western Democracy and this governess who had come here was the champion of that and really in a way destroyed him by deepening his doubt about his power.
HAMMERSTEIN: "Oklahoma" has no particular message except that it has a flavor which infects the people who see it. It's gaiety, Oklahoma is youth and irresponsible and not very intellectual, haughtiness in life.
WALLACE: Actually, perhaps your most forceful musical was one which did not do as well as some of the others have. That was "Allegro", produced back in 1947. It's about a small town boy who becomes a successful doctor in Chicago and then he leaves Chicago in disillusionment. Why was that story so important to you? What lies beneath that story?
HAMMERSTEIN: I think that story is important to me because it was the nearest thing to autobiography I've ever written. It was not a true autobiography of me as far as the facts are concerned but there were many things in the story of "Allegro" which reflected reactions I'd had to life as I grew up. The discovery of death when my Grandmother died at an early age, the boy in "Allegro" had the same experience and later when his Mother died when he was fifteen. I was fifteen when my Mother died.
HAMMERSTEIN: The discovery that after you're successful, whether you be a doctor or a lawyer or a librettist, there is a conspiracy that goes on in which you join, a conspiracy of the world to render you less effective by bestowing honors on you and taking you away from the job of curing people, or of pleading cases, or writing libretti and making you putting you on committees. If you're a doctor, you're suddenly running a hospital instead of tending to the sick directly. You're better off if you remain a doctor. I'm a fine one to talk because since I wrote "Allegro", I think I'm on more committees than I was then, and I get drawn into these things and can't help myself.
WALLACE: Well, I would like to quote from a lyric in "Allegro". One of the characters says this, he says: "Our world is for the forceful and not for sentimental folk but brilliant and resourceful and paranoiac gentle folk. The men who rule the airways, the denizens of din, the girls who dig for gold and won't give in for tin". These then to you are the people who inherit the earth?
HAMMERSTEIN: Oh no. These are the words of three characters I'm expressing. I'm interpreting three characters who are singing these words ironically after certain episodes in the play. I would like to point out that these words are not very sentimental.
WALLACE: That's true and I would like to point out that "Allegro" in view of its lack of sentimentality somehow, did not do as well as the ones which occasionally have been accused of being slightly sentimental, such as, "South Pacific" or.....
HAMMERSTEIN: Oh well, I think "Allegro" was accused of being too sentimental and even being a "soap opera" by some of the critics. It had its sentimental moments but that particular lyric is not very sentimental.
WALLACE: Oscar, you told our reporter earlier this week that in "Allegro" you were saying something more about a sickness that infected modern society as a whole. Now have you outlined what that whole sickness is or is there more in your mind?
HAMMERSTEIN: No, I think the sickness is trying to do too much, availing ourselves of all the inventions, the improvements in communications, of all the things we're able to do and being able to do them, we do them all and we should just be content not to avail ourselves to such an extent of modern science.
WALLACE: Of course, in addition, I understand, in addition to wanting to stay off committees, in addition to trying to belong to yourself by doing the job which you want to do best, I understand that you're in some sense, anyway, a non-conformist. You hate cocktail parties, you hate large parties, you are a homebody, you keep regular hours. You're for that reason perhaps slightly "atypical" in show business. Are you afraid that there are certain aspects of show business that might taint you if you were to lend themselves to if you were to lend yourself to those activities?
HAMMERSTEIN: No, I'm not afraid of that at all, but I grew up in a family, which was a theatrical family, but all of us went to bed early. My father, my uncle, my grandfather, all went to bed early and I've not liked late nights.
WALLACE: And the cocktail parties
HAMMERSTEIN: Well cocktail parties I hate, because you've got to stand up. Nobody gets a chance to sit down at a cocktail party.
WALLACE: Let's come now if we may to the charge about sentimentality. Let me quote another couple of lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein. This one comes from "Carrousel" "..when you walk through the storm keep your chin up high and don't be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark." And in "The King And I." ..."whenever I feel afraid I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I'm afraid. Make believe you're brave and the trick will take you far you may be as brave as you make believe you are." In a sense Oscar is this not the same philosophy as that of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
HAMMERSTEIN: Maybe it is, I don't care. It's a philosophy I believe in. Both those songs I heartily endorse and wouldn't change a word of either one. I think it's quite a thought that if you whistle to keep up your courage, you'll find that actually you have courage. I think this is important. I think it's got a kind of profundity about it, even.
WALLACE: May I ask you about your own religious convictions?
HAMMERSTEIN: Well, in answer to that I'd like to tell you a little story. Something happened to me about a year ago, while we were rehearsing the TV version of Cinderella. It was a Sunday I was late for rehearsal, the streets were not very crowded, and I ran against the lights.
WALLACE: You were jay-walking.
HAMMERSTEIN: I was jay-walking, ran across eighth avenue and fifty-seventh street. When I was half-way across the street I heard a voice calling to me and it was a policeman, and I thought well, here it is, I'm wrong he's right. I can't defend myself I have to take a bawling-out. When I reached the curb, he came over to me, he was a young cop and he didn't bawl me out at all. He said "Aren't you Oscar Hammerstein?" I said "yes." He said, "Well, I want to tell you how much my family, my wife and I and my kids enjoy all your songs. We have a record an album record of Carrousel and we've worn it thin, we can hardly hear it anymore, it's scratchy but we love it and I want to thank you." And I thanked him for telling me so and I felt very good and I started to go and he said" Just one thing. Do you mind if I ask you a question?" and I said "no." "He said are you religious?" and I said, well I don't belong to any church and then he patted me on the back and he said "Ah, you're religious alright." And I went on feeling as if I'd been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that's religion -- I'm religious, and it is my definition of religion.
WALLACE: Let's come back a moment to "Allegro." With irony and distaste, as you've pointed out, you wrote "Our world is for the forceful, the brilliant, the resourceful." Now if any man is on top of the world today it's Oscar Hammerstein. Haven't you had to be forceful, resourceful, tough to make the millions of dollars that over a period of years you have undoubtedly made?
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes. I think you have to be all things. I don't think that you should try to be always gentle, always tough, it depends on the situation. One of the things you have to be is honest with yourself I think, and I'm not always honest with myself, but I try very hard to be, and I think it's taken a lot of toughness on my part. One of the tough things has been to endure failure. And I've endured a lot of it.
WALLACE: Your grandfather -- Oscar the First. Is described this way in the biography by Vincent Sheean. He said he was fiercely self-centered, ferociously ambitious, avid for fame and power. Is that an accurate --
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes it is. He also had almost idealistic worship of grand opera as an art and as a sort of abstract beauty. He wanted more than anything to provide grand opera for the public and he wanted nothing for himself in the way of money -- He squandered lots of fortunes on opera. This was the soft side of him and the good side.
WALLACE: But you don't feel that you inherited the ferocious ambition or the fierce self-centeredness of your grandfather.
HAMMERSTEIN: No not ferocious or fierce.
WALLACE: A prominent sociologist psychologist, Erich Fromm, Oscar, charges that our capitalistic system with its fierce competitiveness, its materialism is perhaps basically sick, and he suggests that we should seek a kind of modified socialism. How does that strike you?
HAMMERSTEIN: Well, I thought that we were living in a kind of modified socialism. For sometime now I think that the income tax is a socialistic measure. I think that though Mr. Fromm may be right, I think that his words could be applied to any other system that the world has ever discovered -- it is competitive.
WALLACE: Do you think that we are sufficiently socialized, Oscar?
HAMMERSTEIN: As far as I can see we are, I'm not looking for any more radical socialistic advances.
WALLACE: You are an active liberal.
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, I guess I am.
WALLACE: You're active in The Fund For The Republic.
WALLACE: You're -- a United World Federalist and active in that. What connection if any does this have with the bulk of your work?
HAMMERSTEIN: Well, I think it must have a connection, because it expresses my feelings, my tendencies, just as my work does. As I've said before a writer gives himself away if he's writing honestly.
WALLACE: Well, would you agree that most of our writers and directors on Broadway and television in Hollywood are liberal and that there is a liberal complexion to their work.
HAMMERSTEIN: I think I would, yes.
WALLACE: We spoke about this yesterday with a militant dissenter from this trend -- Ayn Rand, who is the author of The Fountain Head and the recently published Atlas Shrugged. She's an advocate of absolute free enterprise and individualism and she said this; she said "The public is being brainwashed, by the so-called liberal or leftist philosophies which have a strangle hold on the dissemination of ideas in America, and she said this is causing intellectual stagnation and paralysis in this country. "In a moment I would like your reaction to that. And we'll get Oscar Hammerstein's answer in just sixty seconds.
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WALLACE: Now then Oscar, Ayn Rand said the public is being brainwashed by the so-called liberal or leftist philosophies which have a strangle-hold on the dissemination of ideas in America. She said this is causing intellectual stagnation and paralysis in the United States. As a liberal what do you think about her charge.
HAMMERSTEIN: Well as a liberal in the first place I object to her adding gratuitously the word "leftist," right next to liberal, because you can be a liberal without being a leftist, and many, and most liberals are. I think it's fine that there is a Miss Rand who comes out stoutly for the conservative. I think it's fine that we have all kinds of thinkers in the world and writers. I admit that the majority of writers in this country are on the liberal side. I think it's natural for writers to be interested in experiment, in progress, and to have a tendency not to stand still. But we need her to hold us back and I think she needs us to pull her forward.
WALLACE: Well, let me ask you this though. The fact of the matter is that the public does rarely get anything but a liberal view point from Hollywood or from television, from Broadway and I think possibly that the charge can be safely made that there is a certain intolerance of conservative ideas among liberals.
HAMMERSTEIN: I think so too.
WALLACE: What's to be done about it?
HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, just be yourself, that's all. Let the liberal be as liberal as he pleases. I don't think that this is a part of a movement. I don't think all the liberals have got together in Hollywood and New York and said let's be very liberal and brain wash the people and make them think as we do. I think if you're a writer, you write what you think, and you write what you feel. I don't think that the public is being brainwashed. I think if the public shows any tendency to want more of Miss Rand there will be a Miss Rand trend and there will be more writers who are of her ilk. I think this can be left alone, this whole problem.
WALLACE: Earlier this week in a conversation you were searching in your mind for an analysis of Republicans and Democrats and you said this Oscar. You said "There is a big difference between people who become Democrats and people who become Republicans."
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, that's a difficult question Mike. I find in my own case that I try very hard to be a Republican just for the sake of switching, just for the sake of telling myself I'm not a party man and I don't want to be, but somehow or other I always wind up voting Democratic, and I've tried on the one hand you may say well what's the difference between a Republican and Democrat not so much, and yet I suspect without being sure of what it is that there is a deep cleavage -- something very fundamental -- not to really offer you a specific explanation but in groping for an explanation, I confess for instance that when they talk about balancing the budget this bores me.
HAMMERSTEIN: I have an idea that the more liberal democratic tendency to borrow and owe money -- is healthier for us. I don't think many great big corporations have a balanced budget. They all owe money, they all go ahead and progress with borrowed money. The United States can borrow money, because we have the greatest security in the world the greatest wealth, we haven't ever come near to being bankrupt and when this -- this money is borrowed and we haven't balanced the budget I have a feeling that the people in the lower income bracket get the most out of it. But I'm no economist -- this is merely a guess.
WALLACE: You used to know a man quite well, a man by the name of Paul Robeson.
WALLACE: What do you think of Paul Robeson?
HAMMERSTEIN: Well, Paul Robeson was in Show Boat, he sang Old Man River, in the revival and in the English Company, and I knew Paul very well and I used to admire him --I haven't seen much of him lately, which is nothing deliberate on my part, because although I suspect my political opinions are widely divergent from his, that would not bother me if I had occasion to work with him again or see him or have lunch with him.
HAMMERSTEIN: I don't accuse Paul Robeson of being a Communist. I don't know whether he is or not, but many people think he is and let's assume that he is. It troubles me to sit as a judge upon Paul, because I think of myself and try to wonder how I would feel if I were the son of a minister, a Phi Beta Kappa student at Rutgers, an All American tackle, a tall handsome man, a singer, an actor, an athlete and could not live in the same hotel with the other members of my theatrical troupe --I would be good and sore and I don't know what I might do.
WALLACE: Oscar I thank you for coming and taking this half hour out of a weekend -- spending it with us. I wish you all good luck with the film version of "South Pacific," which I understand you to believe to be one of the best motion pictures ever made so I
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, I do indeed.
WALLACE: Thanks so much. They say that in any highly competitive field nice guys finish last. Oscar Hammerstein works in one of the toughest fields of all, show business. Gentle, kind, sentimental, he is certainly the exception that proves the rule.
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WALLACE: Next week we go after the story of one of the most spectacular and controversial figures in show business, 'til next week for Parliament, Mike Wallace, good night.
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