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.”

Americans used to have guns without shame

Fred and RitaThere are very few bad Fred Astaire movies, but there are a few. You’ll Never Get Rich definitely falls into that category.  Even Rita Hayworth, who is at her most lovely, cannot save this pathetic wreck of a movie.  The plot is convoluted, which is normal for an Astaire movie, but the movie makes the fatal mistake of casting Astaire as a cowardly, dishonest man.  Nobody expects a macho Fred, but nobody wants a quivering, cowardly, lying Fred.  The dancing is lovely, though, and TiVo means that you can just fast forward to the good parts.

There was one scene in the movie, however, that merited watching.  I’ll try setting it up as briefly as possible:  An unwitting Rita Hayworth opens the morning paper to discover a false headline saying she was engaged to Astaire.  She believes (erroneously) that Astaire planted the headline.  Hayworth’s fiance, a Captain in the Army, then calls her and, when he learns the headline is a lie, heads over to her apartment while wearing his civilian clothes.  Astaire also heads for Hayworth’s apartment to berate her, since he believes (erroneously) that Hayworth planted the headline.  The Captain reaches Hayworth’s apartment first.  When he, Hayworth, and her roommate hear Astaire banging at the door, Hayworth shoos the Captain and her roommate into the bedroom.  And here’s where this mess of a plot momentarily gets interesting.

Once in the bedroom, the Captain says something along the lines of “I’ve got a great idea to prank this guy.”  He then turns to the roommate and (I quote) asks, “Have you got a gun?”  Without so much as a blink, she replies “It’s in that drawer.”  He opens the drawer and grabs a large revolver.  Armed with his gun, the Captain bursts into the living room, pretending to be Hayworth’s outraged Southern brother demanding that Astaire marry his “sister.”  Astaire rabbits out of the room.  In the next scene, an agitated Astaire is telling his boss, who’s the real culprit behind the newspaper headline, about the threat to his life.  His boss says, “Buy yourself a gun.”

Can you imagine any Hollywood movie today showing a woman having a revolver just hanging around in her vanity drawer?  Can you imagine a gun being used as a playful joke in a happy musical?  And can you imagine that a Hollywood movie would show someone terrified of being attacked getting advice from a colleague to “buy a gun”?  It’s inconceivable (and I know what that word means, too).

And while we’re on the subject of guns, Charles C. W. Cooke notes that everything the Progressives tell you about the necessity for gun control laws is a lie.  Since all the elaborate registration requirements and background checks currently on the books don’t prevent mass shootings, small wonder then that Second Amendment supporters suspect that increased registration requirements are simply a predicate to gun confiscation or otherwise criminalizing gun owners.

I did mention, didn’t I, that the dancing is lovely?

How could you believe me when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?

By now, you already know about the 2007 tape of Obama speaking which was released yesterday in full, rather thane expurgated form.  In it, Obama affects a vaguely black accent; says that blacks are born victims; falsely accuses the U.S. government of abandoning Katrina victims because they were black (and please remember that whites were overrepresented amongst the dead, not that it matters to the dead), and lavishes praise on Rev. Wright, whom he calls the guy who “counsels me” and a “great leader.”

The response from the Obama camp was swift:  Hey, don’t listen to him when it makes him look bad!


The moment I read that, all I could think of was an Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane song from Royal Wedding.  Not only is the title on the money (“How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar Like Me”), but Astaire’s lyrics could be Obama talking:

Intro:

Dialogue

Fred:
Oh yeah, yeah!

Jane:
You listen to me just once.

Fred:
Oh sure, sure!

Jane:
I told you a million times
You never wanna listen to me

Fred:
So I said it.
So you heard it
So you’re mad.
So what?

Jane:
So this–It’s the last time I ever
Go to a party with you!

Fred: Will you put that in writin’?

Jane:
Well you’re always
Makin’ cracks
Makin’ cracks!

Fred: Like what?

Jane:
You always humilate me,
Humilate me.
Didn’t your mother never teach ya no manners?

Fred:
I ain’t never had no mother.
We was too poor.

Jane:
Say, what’s the matter with you lately?
You used to tell me you loved me.
You used to treat me like a high-class dame.
Well usen’t ya?

Fred:
So I used.

Jane:
Oh, so there, you admit it.

Fred:
I ain’t admittin’ nothin’!

Jane:
I’ll give ya one more chance.
Do ya love me or don’t ya?

Fred:
No I don’t!

Jane:
Quit stallin’!
I want a direct answer.

Fred:
Oh…
Listen, kid, there’s one thing about ya I can’t understand—

Singing

Fred:
How could you believe me when I said I loved you
When you know I’ve been a liar all my life?

Jane:
You’ve had that reputation
Since you was a youth.

Fred:
You must’ve been insane
To think I’d tell you the truth.

Jane:
How could I believe you
When you said we’d marry?

Fred:
Why, you know I’d rather hang
Than have a wife.
I know I said I’d make you mine.

Jane:
Now wouldn’t youse know
That I would go for that old line?

Fred:
How could you believe me
When I said I loved you
When you know I’ve been a liar?

Jane:
You sure have been a liar.

Fred:
A double-crossin’ liar.

Jane:
A double-crossin’ liar.

Fred:
All my doggone cheatin’ life?

Jane:
You said you would love me long.

Fred:
So what?

Jane:
And never would do me wrong.

Fred:
Stop bending the suit!

Jane:
Faithful you’d always be.

Fred:
Me?
Why baby, you must be loony
To trust a lower-than-low, two-timer like me.

Jane:
You said I’d have everything.

Fred:
Get her.

Jane:
A beautiful diamond ring.

Fred:
Ha ha ha.

Jane:
A bungalow by the sea.

Fred:
A bungalow yet.
You’re really naive to ever believe
A full-of-baloney phony like me.

Jane:
Boy, I sure must’ve lost my head.

Fred:
You ain’t lost nothin’ you never had.

Jane:
What about the time you went to Indiana?

Fred:
I was lyin’.
I was down in Ala…bam.

Jane:
You said you had some business
You had to complete.

Fred:
What I was doin’
I would be a cad to repeat.

Jane:
What about the evenin’s
You was with your mother?

Fred:
I was rompin’ with another honey lamb.

Jane:
To think you swore
Our love was real.

Fred:
Baby, leave us not forget
That I’m a heel.

Jane:
How could I believe you
When you said you loved me?

Fred:
When you know I’ve been a liar.

Jane:
A good-for-nothin’ liar.

Fred:
All my good-for-nothin’ life.

-Dance Sequence-

(While Dancing)
Fred:
Hey!
Yee-hoo!
Hey!
Hey!

(Jane starts kicking and hitting Fred while they continue to dance)

Fred:
Ooh!
Ow! Ooh!

Jane:
You know you’ve been a liar.

Fred:
I know I’ve been a liar.

Jane:
A double-crossin’ liar.

Fred:
A double-crossin’ liar.

Jane:
All your good-for-nothin’ life!

What Occupy could have looked like — if Hollywood organized it in 1933

I am reading a delightful book about Fred and Adele Astaire, one that offers a little insight into a long-vanished world.  Along the way, the book mentions Eddie Cantor.  That reference reminded me of a song I always liked:  We Can Build A Little Home, from 1933′s Roman Scandals.  As was the case for all Eddie Cantor movies, it was a nice little bit of fluff, with silly songs, and pretty girls (including Lucille Ball, in her first film).  The premise is that Cantor is a sweet, naive young man who lives in a corrupt town, run by rich plutocrats.  The latter seek to evict the solid, working-class citizens, so as to profit from their properties.  Homeless, a whole neighborhood ends up camped out on the streets.

In other words, it’s a complete “Occupy” scenario.  But while Occupy quickly degenerated into a sleazy, disease-ridden, parasite-ridden, drunk-ridden, alcohol-ridden, violent street orgy, 1933 Hollywood envisioned a much sweeter way of protesting:

Just Because — Fred & Ginger

I was reading the news — none of it good — and desperately felt the need for a little joy and beauty.  This number, from the 1936 movie Swing Time, beautifully brings together one of America’s great popular music composers (Jerome Kern) and two of the most elegant, exciting dancers who ever set tap to the floor (Fred & Ginger).

Coffee Time — old Hollywood style

One of the lesser known gems of MGM’s great musical era is a 1945 Fred Astaire movie called Yolanda and the Thief, with Fred as the thief and Lucille Bremer as Yolanda.  (Lesser know, probably, because it was a huge box office bust with end-of-the-war audiences.)  The plot is paper thin, but the visuals are glorious.  It’s a technicolor wonderland.  The songs and dances, although little known, are also delightful.  “Coffee time” is one of my particular favorites and I was surprised to learn, through this video, that it’s also got some unique choreography.

Coffee Time – Fred Astaire dancing in 5/4 time – Yolanda and the Thief – Stereo from Mark on Vimeo.

Cyd Charisse’s favorite dance — and mine

I’m a huge fan of Hollywood musicals, and one of my favorite numbers has long been “Dancing in the Dark,” from the Band Wagon (with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire).  Turns out it was her favorite too.  Here it is for those of you who haven’t seen it before or haven’t seen it recently:

Those were the days, weren’t they, When Hollywood still knew how to entertain?