Billy Porter’s Scarlett O’Hara attire at the Oscars thrilled fashionistas and depressed me, so it’s the lead entry in tonight’s illustrated edition.
Gene Nelson, a singer and dancer from Hollywood’s golden age, reminds us that talent isn’t always enough. You need an intangible extra to be a star.
I need a break from politics, so I want to talk about something different, which is star power.
Star power is real, although some stars, like butterflies, have to grow up a bit before you see it. If you go back and watch 1939’s Stagecoach, which was John Wayne’s breakout role after he’d already been kicking around in Hollywood for almost a decade, you see star power. Apparently his good looks notwithstanding, that decade was necessary to bring his wattage to maturity.
Katherine Hepburn also had to grow into her star power. In her early movies, sometimes she was good (as in Little Women) and sometimes she overacted so badly it makes ones teeth hurt (as in Stage Door). No matter the role, though, and no matter the quality of Hepburn’s work, she draws you in. You can’t help but watch her.
Star power affected musical performers too. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire had it. Both were superb dancers and okay singers. Gene was handsome; Fred dorky. In other words, they were like a thousand other talented Hollywood hopefuls but, when they’re in a scene, you watch them.
And then there’s Gene Nelson. If you’ve heard of him (and most of you probably haven’t), it’s because of his role as Will Parker in 1955’s Oklahoma. And if you do remember that movie, you probably remember Gene for this one song and dance (which is really more singing than dancing):
Even that limited number showcases Nelson’s virtues: Handsome; decent singing voice; elegant figure; and superb, athletic dancer. And when I say athletic, I mean it: [Read more…]
In 1927, Irving Berlin wrote Puttin’ on the Ritz. In the 90 years since then, this song about style has never fallen out of fashion.
In 2009, I first posted about the fact that Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz has had a dazzling run, not just in American popular culture, but in world popular culture. That is, unlike many older songs that one can find hidden in corners on YouTube, Puttin’ on the Ritz has enjoyed a life extending far beyond amateur musicals and eclectic collectors of old songs. It lives on at the heart of popular culture.
Irving Berlin came to America with his parents and his seven brothers and sisters in 1893, when he was only five. The family settled in New York’s Lower East Side, which at that time was the most densely populated spot in the world.
Life was terribly hard for the family in the New World. Berlin’s father, a cantor (a career that hints at Berlin’s musicality), ended up working for meager pay as a kosher butcher. By the time he was 8, Berlin was on the streets helping out his family by hawking newspapers, although he still attended school sporadically.
When Berlin was 13, his father died. Berlin quit school and, in addition to continuing to sell papers for pennies, became a singing waiter wherever he could find work. Berlin was bathed in the rhythm and vernacular of America’s most dynamic community. Given his innate musical gifts, it should come as no surprise that, within a few years, he had moved on to songwriting.
Berlin managed to eke out a living writing a variety of rather primitive “ethnic” or “dialect” songs. These popular songs relied on stereotypical rhythms and accents from America’s immigrant and black communities. There were Yiddish songs, Black songs, Russian songs, German songs, and Irish songs, to name just a few. All would be offensive today but, in the first decade of the 20th century, they were an important way to integrate various ethnic groups into the vast American melting pot.
In 1911, Berlin had his first major hit, with a Black ethnic song: Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Berlin, with his unique ability to target what Americans wanted to hear, essentially took a march and ragged it up. Here’s the Billy Murray recording that made Irving Berlin a songwriting star. By the way, as you listen, you can easily hear the self-consciously Black dialect Murray affects:
By the 1930s, Alice Faye, with help from Don Ameche and Tyrone Power had erased entirely the song’s ethnic sensibilities. It was now an all-American song, with the lyrics existing as the only remaining hint of its faux black origins:
But I’m getting sidetracked. This is a post about Puttin’ on the Ritz. [Read more…]
To make classic Hollywood musicals today, you’d need serious trigger warnings to cover everything from gun violence, to misogyny, to rape and kidnapping.
I’ve always adore classic Hollywood musicals. However, when talking to a friend about some of Fred Astaire’s best dances, it occurred to me that most Hollywood musicals, if they could even be made today, would have to have trigger warnings interpolated on a regular basis. You see, when you really pay attention, it turns out that there’s some pretty ugly stuff going on in ostensibly sunny, happy musicals.
As a public service, I’ve gone through some of my favorite dance sequences and taken the necessary steps to protect you should you ever watch them.
Trigger Warning: Simulated gun play and mass murder with top hat, white tie, and tails, not to mention tap shoes and a cane:
Trigger Warning: Simulated sword play, assault, and violent death:
The headlines are so depressing I’m shying away from processing everything enough to write about it. I’m hoping that a little Fred and Ginger will fortify me:
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.”
There 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?
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:
Oh yeah, yeah!
You listen to me just once.
Oh sure, sure!
I told you a million times
You never wanna listen to me
So I said it.
So you heard it
So you’re mad.
So this–It’s the last time I ever
Go to a party with you!
Fred: Will you put that in writin’?
Well you’re always
Fred: Like what?
You always humilate me,
Didn’t your mother never teach ya no manners?
I ain’t never had no mother.
We was too poor.
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?
So I used.
Oh, so there, you admit it.
I ain’t admittin’ nothin’!
I’ll give ya one more chance.
Do ya love me or don’t ya?
No I don’t!
I want a direct answer.
Listen, kid, there’s one thing about ya I can’t understand—
How could you believe me when I said I loved you
When you know I’ve been a liar all my life?
You’ve had that reputation
Since you was a youth.
You must’ve been insane
To think I’d tell you the truth.
How could I believe you
When you said we’d marry?
Why, you know I’d rather hang
Than have a wife.
I know I said I’d make you mine.
Now wouldn’t youse know
That I would go for that old line?
How could you believe me
When I said I loved you
When you know I’ve been a liar?
You sure have been a liar.
A double-crossin’ liar.
A double-crossin’ liar.
All my doggone cheatin’ life?
You said you would love me long.
And never would do me wrong.
Stop bending the suit!
Faithful you’d always be.
Why baby, you must be loony
To trust a lower-than-low, two-timer like me.
You said I’d have everything.
A beautiful diamond ring.
Ha ha ha.
A bungalow by the sea.
A bungalow yet.
You’re really naive to ever believe
A full-of-baloney phony like me.
Boy, I sure must’ve lost my head.
You ain’t lost nothin’ you never had.
What about the time you went to Indiana?
I was lyin’.
I was down in Ala…bam.
You said you had some business
You had to complete.
What I was doin’
I would be a cad to repeat.
What about the evenin’s
You was with your mother?
I was rompin’ with another honey lamb.
To think you swore
Our love was real.
Baby, leave us not forget
That I’m a heel.
How could I believe you
When you said you loved me?
When you know I’ve been a liar.
A good-for-nothin’ liar.
All my good-for-nothin’ life.
(Jane starts kicking and hitting Fred while they continue to dance)
You know you’ve been a liar.
I know I’ve been a liar.
A double-crossin’ liar.
A double-crossin’ liar.
All your good-for-nothin’ life!
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:
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).
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.
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?
…and we deserve some beauty in our lives:
Because they weren’t top billed, many people forget that Fred & Ginger were together in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, when Ginger was the bigger star. It’s a wonderfully fun movie, with beautiful location shots from Rio, gorgeous costumes, wild music and great dancing. Here’s Ginger in a great solo piece: