Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” — a joyous walk through almost a century of music at home and abroad

My recent post about the best flash mob ever reminded me of a post I did in 2009 about Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” a song that lives on and on, around the world. Today seems like a good day to expand upon that post.

Irving Berlin composed “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in 1929. Although he wrote it about blacks in Harlem who dressed up for a night on the town, the American public first saw it in 1930, when Harry Richman sang it with arch “high class” inflections while plump chorines bounced and trotted woodenly behind him:

Fred Astaire also recorded the song in 1930, and his staccato presentation put a lasting imprint on people’s perceptions of the song:

In 1937, Clark Gable, as part of his delightful turn as a two-bit vaudeville player, turned in a wonderfully camp and charming version of the same song. Indeed, this is my favorite version of the song:

By 1946, Fred Astaire once again was “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” this time on film, as opposed to just a sound recording:

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the divine Ella Fitzgerald brought her particular brand of music to the song:

In the mid-1970s, Michael Jackson — Michael Jackson! — along with his brothers tackled the song (it starts at about the 1:20 marks):

Also in the 1970s, there was a delightful version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Sadly, I can’t track down any video of that segment.

The 1980s saw Taco’s somewhat boring, and very creepy, un-PC version (complete with black-face performers). As I recall, it was a surprise hit.

In addition, in 1988, The Mighty Diamonds did a reggae version:

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” made an appearance in the 1990s, as the theme music for Nintendo’s Super Hunchback:

Rufus Wainwright, a millennial heart-throb did a version sometime after 2000. If only he could carry a tune…. I recommend no more than 10 seconds of this one. I include it just to show how eternal Irving Berlin is:

More recently, Club des Belugas, a cutting edge NuJazz group in Germany, fired up Puttin’ on the Ritz a few years ago with a remix of Fred Astaire’s 1946 version:

The endlessly cool Herb Alpert did a version last year:

2013 was a good year for “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” since Robbie Williams recorded it too, with the original 1929 lyrics:

And then, of course, there’s the “best flash mob ever” version, from Moscow, in 2012, with love:

How does one account for the enduring, world-wide popularity of this 85-year-old song? I think my teenage son put it best. After watching the flash mob, he turned to me and said, “You know, Mom, that’s a really catchy tune.”

Boys in the movies

Almost exactly a year ago, I did a post I entitled Manly men, Girly men and Peter Pan. In it, I tried, ineffectively, I admit, to figure out America’s cultural trends regarding men. There’s the manly trend, exemplified by the Marines and much admired in certain romance novel genres; the Peter Pan trend, which sees boys remaining in perpetual adolescence, something manifest in the infantile clothes young man wear, with the falling down pants, backwards caps and unlaced shoes; and lastly, there are the girly men, who claim to be heterosexual, but who are so feminized a new word has been created for them: metrosexuals.

As for me, I like manly men, although I can tolerate a few metrosexual touches, such as remembering to put the toilet seat down or helping to tidy up after dinner. Perhaps another way of saying that is to say that I like manly men with good manners.

Because of my preference for men, I’m not much of a fan of modern movie stars, all of whom I find too boyish to be attractive. I got over my boyish star phase when I was 11 and had a mad crush on David Cassidy. Then, when I was 12, I read Gone With The Wind and discovered Clark Gable, both of which made me a lifetime fan of men, as opposed to boys. (And do keep in mind that one of Rhett Butler’s distinguishing features amongst Scarlett’s many admirers is the fact that he is a man while they are boys, even when they are boys who go off to fight and die.)

Think about it: if you’ve been lusting after Clark Gable for your entire life, what’s the likelihood that, as an adult, you’re suddenly going to switch gears and find attractive a little weenie like Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom or Leonardo DiCaprio. Although all are nice to look at and DiCaprio is, I think, a real actor, they simply don’t exist in the same testosterone universe, and that’s true no matter how much the latter try to buff themselves up. Gable was a man, the others are mere boys.

I’ve always thought that the boy phenomenon in Hollywood originated with James Dean, although it didn’t become the only game in town until the 1990s. (There were leading men before the 1990s; now there seem to be only leading boys.) However, I’ve run into another theory, this one cropping up in Jeanine Basinger’s completely enjoyable book The Star Machine, which examines the way in which the studio system created stars. With regard to the changes in the star system once World War II began, Basinger posits that it was the deficit of grown men, and the necessary rejiggering that the studios had to do that created the legion of hairless boys in lead roles:

The first and most pressing need for the [studio] machine [when the War started] was to find new male stars. Hollywood immediately set to work to develop other stars to replace the actors who had gone to war. The top priority for what the machine wanted in a man was simple: one who was available. That was going to be older men, star look-alikes, foreigners who had escaped to America, guys who were 4-F, or young and boyish-looking fellas. Some male movie stars had legitimate deferments from combat. John Wayne was thirty-five years old in 1942, and this put him at the ceiling for draftibility (the cutoff was age thirty-five). He was also a married man with four underage dependents. Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire were over forty. William Powell was forty-nine, Bogart was forty-two, and Tracy was forty-one. These men did their part, but they were too old to be drafted into active service. New movies to star those who stayed behind were immediately put into the works. Handsome men with accents — and in a war story an accent was an asset — were groomed: Philip Dorn, Helmut Dantine, Paul Henreid, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Arturo de Cordova. When Gable enlisted [a manly man thing to do], all the studios created Gable look-alike: John Hodiak, Lee Bowman, John Carroll, James Craig. But the main fodder of the star machine as World War II hit the studios in the pocketbook was the last group — the young, boy-next-door type. The all-American man was about to become a 4-F kid.

After the boys of World War II, the “leading man” would never be the same. The teen idol was born with the retooling of American manhood into a younger, thinner, more sensitive-looking guy. The effect of World War II on shaping the “new hero” as a “sensitive” male has never been fully explored. [Here Basinger adds this footnote, with her own emphasis: We've still got him. He's basically taken over: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt (who has since transferred himself into the "man" category by muscling up and buzzcutting his hair), Orlando Bloom. Once the "boy star" emerged, he would not go away.] *** When the men went to war, the boys took over. (pp. 467-468.)

Isn’t it ironic that the most manly war in modern American history should leave as its legacy the “boy-ification” of American culture?