Striking a Chord with “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A post a few days ago on the hit 1928 film “Lilac Time,” starring Colleen Moore and Gary Cooper mentioned that there was a corresponding smash popular music recording from the movie.  That was “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” considered the film’s theme song, with the music composed by Nathaniel Shilkret and lyrics written by L. Wolfe Gilbert.  The sheet music was published by Leo Feist, Inc. of New York, one of the biggest publishers of popular sheet music in the world.

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This piece of sheet music, one of 2 million sold at the time, from the Homestead collection is for one of the first movie theme songs, “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time” from the 1928 smash hit, Lilac Time.  Colleen Moore, the biggest box office draw of the time, played Jeannine.

Composer Nat Shilkret was one of the best-known figures in popular music during the 1920s and his Victor Orchestra, the in-house ensemble for the Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA-Victor in later years) produced many best-selling recordings.

Born in the Queens borough of New York City on Christmas Day 1889, Shilkret was a child prodigy on the clarinet and shared a piano teacher with famed composer George Gershwin.  While in his teens, he played in the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Philharmonic.  He joined Victor in 1915, but didn’t receive credits until early the following decade.  His various bands performed popular material and what has been called “symphonic jazz,” including Gershwin’s famed “Rhapsody in Blue” and “American in Paris.”

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Composer Nat Shilkret was a major figure in American popular music and lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert was coming off a huge success with the first movie theme song, “Ramona,” released earlier in 1928.

Shilkret composed the score for the synchronized soundtrack for “Lilac Time” as well as for “Jeannine.”  Active on radio from mid-1920s, Shilkret moved to Hollywood a decade later to work in the film industry and he also published music until his retirement in 1958.  He lived until his early nineties, passing away in early 1982.

The lyricist for “Jeannine” was L. Wolfe Gilbert, born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1887, though his family migrated to the United States when he was an infant, settling in Philadelphia and then New York, when he was a teen.  A singer who made the rounds in vaudeville, Gilbert began songwriting by 1912 and became a success.

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Leo Feist, Inc. was one of the biggest sheet music publishers in the world.  This is an ad for other Feist works at the back of the sheet.

Gilbert’s New York Times obituary stated that he and writing partner Mabel Wayne’s theme song for the smash Dolores del Rio film Ramona was the first movie theme song.  While del Rio recorded the tune, megastar crooner Gene Austin’s version ruled the pop charts at #1 for two months.  With that stunning success, Gilbert teamed with Shilkret to pen “Jeannine.”  He remained active in music until the mid-1940s and died in 1970 at the age of 83.

Hot on the heels of its predecessor theme song, “Jeannine” became a sensation, selling two million copies of sheet music and the recorded version by Austin topping the charts.  Another recording, by John McCormack, was also a big seller and there were later versions by Louis Armstrong, Nelson Riddle, Jackie Gleason, and many others.

The images shown here are from the Homestead collection’s copy of the sheet music, including the front cover showing Moore and Cooper and the first page of the score.

To hear Austin’s 1928 version of the tune, check out this YouTube link.

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