Sammy Lerner: The Guy Who Wrote the Popeye Theme

Sammy Lerner (1903-1989) was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter with many credits you well know! Born in Romania, he immigrated with his family to Detroit when he was seven. In early adulthood he moved to NYC to break into show business, writing songs and special material for vaudeville performers like Sophie Tucker. It’s also commonly given that he contributed lyrics to the Ziegfeld Follies, although I find no such credit for him at IBDB.

Lerner made his biggest splash in the movies, after talkies came in. His first well-known credit is the English lyric for “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It”) sung by Marlene Dietrich in the English version of The Blue Angel (1930). 1931-32, he wrote several musical comedy shorts for Paramount: The Jazz Reporters (1931) with Charlie Davis and His Orchestra; and Musical Justice (1931); Knowmore College (1932); and The Musical Doctor (1932), all with Rudy Vallee and Mae Questel. This relationship with Paramount extended to Fleischer Studios, which created their cartoons, and this resulted in his best known songs. For Betty Boop in 1932 he co-wrote the songs “Sweet Betty” and “Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-a-Doop Away”. And in 1933, he wrote his greatest creation, the irresistible “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man”. With Irving Caesar and Gerald Marks he co-wrote “Is It True What They Say About Dixie”, first used in the Eddie Cantor movie Ali Baba Goes to Town in 1937.

From 1936 through 1938 he worked primarily in England, where he wrote the songs for the movie musicals Gangway and Rhythm Racketeer, both 1937. His song “No One Can Like the Drummer Man” was used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1938). Returning to Hollywood, he hit the ground running, contributing songs to Blondie Meets the Boss; Charlie McCarthy, Detective; and the musical Laugh it Off, with Johnny Downs, Constance Moore, and Marjorie Rambeau. In 1940, there was La Conga Nights with Moore and Hugh Herbert. The next year he contributed three songs for Dietrich in Rene Clair’s The Flame of New Orleans. 

With Caesar and Marks he contributed to the songs in the 1943 Broadway show My Dear Public starring Willie Howard, and Nanette Fabray. Lerner and Marks also wrote the songs for the 1948 musical Hold It! starring Red Buttons, Johnny Downs and Buddy Rogers.

The title song for the movie Intrigue (1947) with George Raft and June Havoc is one of his last original Hollywood song credits.

To find out about the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.