A Catholic of Note: A Story of Beloved Songs and Faithful Composition

COMMENTARY: The story of the Guaragna family embodies the puzzling paradox of Italian history.

Catholic composer Harry Warren
Catholic composer Harry Warren (photo: via https://indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow/files/2015/02/harrywarren1.jpg)

In the mid-19th century, Antonio Guaragna left his home in Calabria to find a better place for his family. He was part of a tidal wave of more than 4.5 million Italians who came to the United States between the years 1876 and 1924.

If you’ve never heard of the Guaragna family before, you’re not alone. Their story, though, embodies the puzzling paradox of Italian history. For one among Antonio Guaragna’s offspring would make a name for himself, but not for the Guaranga family name, and even in making a name for himself, it is only through his music that this child of Antonio Guaragna is best known.

If this all sounds confusing, it is also par for the course when it comes to Italian history, which has produced a plethora of men of extraordinary accomplishments in virtually every field. Dante, Michelangelo, St. Thomas Aquinas, da Vinci, Galileo, Verdi, Puccini, Marconi, Raphael, Toscanini, Caravaggio and Botticelli constitute a very small sample of Italy’s great contributors to the world.

The list would also include great saints, such as Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, as well as a litany of saintly popes.

And yet, as Luigi Barzini states in his bestselling book, The Italians (1964), “Italy instinctively neutralized all the men who tried to foist moral greatness on their countrymen.” The many geniuses who are now venerated posthumously were often persecuted, derided, exiled or even executed during their lifetimes.

Living conditions in Italy, and especially in Antonio Guaragna’s home province of Calabria, did not reflect the achievements of these heroes. Yet, while Antonio may not have been one of Italy’s greatest geniuses, this Italian had common sense enough to know when enough was enough — and the heroic courage to follow through on what he knew.

He first moved to Argentina, where he quickly discovered that conditions there were actually worse than they were in his native village of Cassano allo Ionio. He then sailed to New York, where he gained employment as a bootmaker; and with this new work, he also gained the wherewithal to start a family.

On Christmas Eve 1893, Salvatore Antonio came into the world. He would take his place among the 11 children born to the Guaragna family. He was known to his parents and siblings, affectionately, as “Tuti.” Things may have been better in Brooklyn, New York, for them, but prejudice against Italians was fierce. In order to assimilate themselves more easily into an alien world, the family changed its name to Warren.

And so, Salvatore Antonio Guaragna become Harry Warren. At an early age he showed considerable aptitude for music. Since his parents could not afford music lessons, he taught himself how to play his father’s accordion.

He ultimately taught himself to play the piano. And he eventually played well enough to provide music for silent movies. This is no easy feat, for the pianist must look away from the keyboard to observe the changes on the screen and then instantly transpose them to music. Talent was required; originality was a necessity. It was a steppingstone in the long and productive career of Harry Warren. But it was not until 1918, when he joined the Navy, that he began writing songs.

Between 1918 and 1981, the former Salvatore Guaragna wrote more than 800 songs, of which 500 were published. He was the first songwriter to write primarily for the movies. His songs have been featured in more than 300 films.

He composed the music for the first blockbuster movie musical, 42nd Street, choreographed by the indefatigable Busby Berkeley, with whom he would collaborate on many other musical films. One of his more memorable songs, I Only Have Eyes for You, is listed in the 25 most-performed songs of the 20th century.

Warren was nominated for 11 Oscars and won the Academy Award for “Best Song” three times. Among his more familiar tunes are: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, You’ll Never Know, The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Shadow Waltz, You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me and Lullaby of Broadway.

Warren’s last song, That’s Amore, was featured in the 1953 movie The Caddy and sung by Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti). Martin sang the same song to introduce the 1987 motion picture Moonstruck, which centered on the trials and tribulations of an Italian family. The movie also featured music from Puccini’s opera La Bohême. Warren was modest about his own compositions. About Puccini he said, “Now there’s a composer.”

Harry Warren stated that he was proud of his Catholic musical heritage. He wrote a Catholic Mass entitled, Mass in Honor of St. Anthony. It was not until 1980, however, that the Mass was performed.

With Harry Warren in the audience, Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles did the honors. Ever modest about his accomplishments and his lack of name recognition, he used to refer to himself as “Harry Who?” His music was sung, but his name remained unsung.

It is a strange irony. His name should have been as familiar to audiences as other notable songwriters such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Henry Mancini. Nonetheless, Harry Warren remains, to the vast majority of people, as “Harry Who?” He was, indeed, a noteworthy Catholic as well as a proud Italian.

There have been some attempts to bring Harry Warren’s name out of obscurity.

In 1981, shortly after Warren’s death, a repertory company in Brooklyn named its performance space “Harry Warren Theater.” The troupe successfully petitioned the city to name the street that runs alongside their theater as “Harry Warren Way.” In 1997, recognizing that their beloved songwriter’s name remained hardly more recognizable than that of Salvatore Guaragna, it staged a revue of Warren’s works called Harry … Who?

In his history of Italy, Barzini was hard on his compatriots. He dearly loved his native land, but committed himself to an honest portrait of his country and its citizens:

“In Italy no one can afford to delude himself. The most obscure and unambitious individual will be derided, swindled, betrayed if he does not clearly know his way about. The lower the condition the more vulnerable he is and the quicker he must recognize the real rules governing life in order not to prosper but to survive.”

On the one hand, it seems that Harry Warren, like his father before him, knew “his way about” — for his obscurity belied his successful ambition to delight and entertain the world with wholesome and enduring music. On the other hand, there remains the question about whether Warren, like so many Italians in Barzini’s view, had deluded himself in the end. Today, for many in the world, Harry Warren remains “Harry Who?”

It is my modest hope that this brief article will allow more people to recognize an extraordinarily talented and accomplished Italian Catholic. The name Harry Warren warrants being a household name.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular contributor to St. Austin Review.