American composer Jerome Kern was trained at home by his mother, then went on for formal study at the New York College of Music and at Heidelberg University. Gravitating to the lucrative fields of operetta and popular music, Kern wrote his first hit song in 1905, and seven years later composed his first Broadway score for the now-forgotten The Red Petticoat. Public recognition of Kern's skills accelerated after he contributed several new songs to the pre-packaged British musical The Girl From Utah (1914). With his close friends Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, Kern became a leading light of New York's Princess Theatre, which eschewed the pomp and spectacle of the European operettas in favor of small casts, "intimate" stories, and well-integrated songs. Kern's biggest Broadway success of the 1920's was Show Boat, though when it was first filmed in 1929 the producers threw out most of Kern's songs because they were already "too familiar" to the audience (subsequent filmizations of Show Boat in 1936 and 1951 not only restored the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein score, but also -- in the case of the 1936 version -- added two new tunes to the manifest). In addition to the film adaptations of Kern's stage shows, including Sunny (1941) and Roberta (1935), the composer has written several scores expressly for the screen, beginning with his orchestra accompaniment for the silent 1916 serial Gloria's Romance. He wrote the songs for the 1936 Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time, including the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight," and also labored on the solo Astaire vehicle You Were Never Lovelier. Kern's movie assignments ranged from the celebrated (Cover Girl (1944), Centennial Summer ) to the disappointing (High Wide and Handsome, One Night in the Tropics). In 1941, he won his second Oscar for "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which was the highlight of the otherwise negligible Lady Be Good (1941). Though well known for being helpful and solicitous to up-and-coming composers like George Gershwin, Kern had his darker side -- especially when insisting that radio orchestras play his songs exactly as written or face legal action. Kern had just inherited Annie Get Your Gun from the too-busy Rodgers and Hammerstein, and was busy fashioning songs to suit the style of star Ethel Merman, when he died suddenly at the age of 60 (he was succeeded on Annie Get Your Gun by Irving Berlin). Jerome Kern was portrayed on screen by a grey-templed Robert Walker in the 1946 biopic Till the Clouds Roll By.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- One of America's preeminent songwriters, composed first Broadway score for The Red Petticoat (1912).
- Biggest hit on the Great White Way was Show Boat (1927), which was such a huge success that the 1929 film version omitted most of his songs on the theory that they were too familiar to audiences; subsequent Hollywood treatments, in 1931 and 1956, restored the full score.
- Fred Astaire danced to Kern's music in several films, including 1936's Swing Time, in which he partnered with Ginger Rogers to Kern's Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight," and 1942's You Were Never Lovelier.
- Encouraged talented young composers such as George Gershwin.
- Died while writing songs for Annie Get Your Gun; Irving Berlin inherited the project.
- The 1946 musical Till the Clouds Roll By was an idealized account of his life.