Saturday, May 15, 2010

Music Post--Cole Porter Edition

There are a lot of similar type posts here getting bunched up together, which is the result of a confluence of various things I am doing at the moment and am also interested enough in to think about being in fact similar, combined with the inability I seem to have at the same time to come up with anything to say about fresher and more timely subjects. I know the internet scarcely needs another paean to the music of Cole Porter, which besides belongs to a time that, while it had its considerable charms, is rapidly receding into the distant past, and whose sensibilities are not terribly pertinent to the realities of the contemporary mental environment, which ought to be of more interest to any man who has not mastered it enough to comfortably see over, around, and through it; it is not my intention to give a paean. The fact is, I have been reading a book of his lyrics and seeking out some of the earlier recorded versions of the songs on the internet, and wanted to do a short and hopefully enjoyable post about these while they were still near the front of my mind. Since it looks like I may have missed that phase of life wherein one has a career in which his talents and position develop and change in an interesting and successful manner over some course of years, I have become of late more interested in the mechanics of this development in capable and celebrated people than I probably paid attention to formerly. Cole Porter seems, for a songwriter, to have been an unusually late developer as far as reaching his peak goes. In the first place, he wrote somewhere around a hundred to a hundred and fifty songs before coming up with any of the ones he is remembered for today, that being I believe "Let's Do It", at which point he was already 37, which in recent decades especially is ten years past most songwriters' prime. Porter was not unemployed and waiting around hoping to get a foot in the door before this, but had been professionally writing for Broadway shows and revues since his mid-20s, in addition to the 5 full musical shows and a dozen or so football/school spirit ditties he had written and had performed while he was at Yale. Almost all of the songs from these years have been forgotten however, as have most of the 800 songs--only half of which ever ended up being published/performed in his lifetime--that he wrote altogether. The lesson in all this I suppose is, keep working. Of course Porter had obvious musical talent from an early age, and there doesn't seem to have been a ton of controversy that he belonged in the business even before he became hugely successful, and it still took him a fairly long time to really put it together. So maybe the lesson is to give up and put your finances in order, the better to be able to offer support to somebody who might actually be able to do something inspiriting with his life.

I think it's time for a song. I like to keep it obvious, to start anyway, so how about Artie Shaw's version of "Begin the Beguine"? Artie Shaw just died a couple of years ago at age 94, one of those people you were astounded to find out had actually still been alive. He was a holy terror where women were concerned back in the 40s, a mixture of studliness and indifferent cruelty that you don't seem to see much of anymore. He retired from music at a fairly young age and turned to writing novels, which, if they weren't great, seem to have been respected. He lived and presumably died as a real artist. Here is Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell's tapdance to the same number in the film Broadway Melody of 1940. Fred Astaire is a guy I didn't appreciate much when I was younger because I assumed that even if he was the best of all the white male dancers, he still must have been comparatively terrible beside any black person. It may sound insane, but this is what I perceived the psychic atmosphere I grew up in to be. Since real dancing was supposed to come from the soul and be a natural expression of one's coolness--i.e., it did not seem possible that lessons, say, would be of any use--I knew for myself from an early age that even attempting to get on the dance floor would be hopeless and just serve to invite ridicule which I was not emotionally equipped to receive with grace, so I never danced.

But I have a lot of songs that I want to do, so I can't keep going on these asides. Some of the earlier songs of which no recordings exist had amusing lyrics which I may sample from, such as 1930's "Say It With Gin": "Don't say it with candy,/Don't say it with flow'rs./Don't give her something high-brow to read,/Maybe she doesn't know how to read...In case to make you sweetie fall,/You find you're unable,/Our gin is guaranteed to put her under the table..." There is a whole subgenre both in Porter and other songwriters of the era of sort of Prohibition-resistance tunes, the heartfelt fervor of which is one of the many signs to me that I may have fit in better with the spirit of America's past than it's present. Of course as I have said before, if I had been alive in the 20s I probably would have been stuck out in Kansas or somewhere where everybody enthusiastically supported the policy.

Fred Astaire, "Night and Day". This seems to be considered by most historians the greatest Cole Porter song. I like it too, though it is not my favorite.

Bob Hope, "You've Got That Thing". Nice clip, though unfortunately doesn't include the best verse: "Since you first blew in like a boisterous breeze/I have often wondered, dear,/Why gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees/The moment that you appear?/Your fetching physique is hardly unique,/You're mentally not so hot;/You'll never win laurels because of your morals, But I'll tell you what you've got..."

My favorite Porter song is "Anything Goes." The Ella Fitzgerald version that was a staple of the dances at my college will probably always hold the first spot in my soft heart for sentimental reasons, but this one, where Cole Porter himself actually appears to be doing singing, is also great, has some different (and funnier) lyrics, and reveals a whole other, and almost certainly truer, more 30s-inflected aspect of the song.

Another recurrent theme in the Cole Porter ouevre was the use of communists as comic fodder, as in the song "I Still Love the Red, White & Blue" (not to be confused with the Toby Keith song): "A bunch of Bolsheviks, one day,/Were working out an easy way/To make this hellish world a perfect heaven,/And among that thickly bearded clan/To discuss the five-and-ten-cent plan/Was a pure American girl of thirty-seven./The leader rose and said to them,/'Is this the flag you love?'/As he waved a scarlet banner to and fro,/To which they all, with great success,/ Pronounced the Russian word for 'Yes'/Except the American girl, who cried 'No.'" This was from "Gay Divorce", which is the same show that gave the world "Night and Day" This number didn't make it into the movie version however.

Besides Fred Astaire, the main immediate beneficiary of Cole Porter's genius was Ethel Merman, a famously unusual talent who by the time I came along unfortunately had become considered a joke. She must have been something of a show-stopper in the 1930s however, since she was repeatedly cast as the lead on Broadway in Cole Porter musicals, of which the main problem as far as marketability went was that its core audiences were perceived as being too limited and too sophisticated. A lot of the songs associated now primarily with people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were originally performed by, and in some cases written for, Ethel Merman. I admit, I am not quite sure where I stand in my feelings for Ethel Merman. Her voice really is odd, and is not exactly beautiful, though it has a ringing quality that I do like. While there isn't much footage of her on Youtube when she isn't 100 years old, you can find some of her old recordings of these songs on various internet music sites, and there is a poignancy and 1930s roughness in them that is not delectable in some of the slicker versions that came out a couple of decades later. So I'm more interested in her than I was before. Here are a couple of clips of her singing with Sinatra from a 50s TV show, I'm guessing early 50s even, because Frank is still looking pretty lean. "I Get a Kick, etc..." and "You're the Top". I had also always imagined Ethel Merman as being about four feet tall, but seeing as she seems to be about the same height as Frank Sinatra, this evidently was not the case.

"You're the Top" inspired some great parodies at the time, which were happily reprinted in the book I was reading: "You're the top!/You're Miss Pinkham's tonic./You're the top!/You're a high colonic./You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use./You're the breasts of Venus,/You're King Kong's penis,/You're self-abuse..."

A German Expressionism inspired dance to "I've Got You Under My Skin".

Two classics from the film "Rosalie", sung by Nelson Eddy. The title number and "In the Still of the Night".

"In July 1936, dance director George Hale said at a press conference held during auditions (for "Red, Hot and Blue") that 'no bad-looking babies were wanted...Watch me come up with swell-looking bimbos...The hard type is out...So is the languid type...Men like fresh, sweet girls--peppy, talented, and untheatrical.'" This is essentially true, though I probably could have developed a weakness for languid types if necessity had prodded me to it.
Ethel Merman in 1934. She's definitely a sassy one. I'm not going to put myself out so far as to say I'm sweet on Ethel Merman, because I may be in an unreliable psychological condition, but I am intrigued.

A 1930 recording of "Love For Sale". Porter reputedly often referred to this as his favorite among his songs.

Ethel Waters, "Miss Otis Regrets", 1934. Now that I'm hearing the older versions of all these songs the snazzier postwar recordings seem to be almost out of context.

"So Near and Yet So Far", from the film You'll Never Get Rich (1941) Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. I only looked this up because there was a more than usually striking photograph of Rita Hayworth in the section of the book on this movie. I knew she was a celebrated bombshell of the time of course, but having never seen any of her films, I hadn't realized that she danced (the commenters on the dancing videos point out that her mother was Mexican, to which Latin origin her dancing abilities are attributed). This is going to sound odd, but she has really beautiful arms, which for some reason I always take especial note of when I see it.

I'll close off the main body of the post here with the famous Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters "Don't Fence Me In" from 1944. I suppose I know it isn't really much compared to the high German tradition, and I know some people care a lot about that distinction, enough to determine the kind of personal and professional relationships they are willing to enter into, but I have to concede to myself that I can never attain that level of discrimination, and consequently have always liked this song.

I know there is way more stuff on here than anybody would ever go through and look at, but perhaps somebody will drop by and pick and choose something based on his or her individual taste, you never go. It will be a good reference page for me if nothing else. That said, I couldn't let the subject go without seeing what some of the notorious sirens of this site had to do with Cole Porter. The inimitable Gertrude Lawrence, as it turns out, was actually in several of Porter's early (late 20's) shows. She turns up on celluloid singing a tune called "They All Fall in Love" from a 1929 movie called The Battle of Paris. Judy Garland didn't seem to do many Porter songs during her best years. In 1948 she starred in The Pirate, a musical for which Porter, by then 57 years old, wrote most of the songs, which don't rank with his best material. Although Judy Garland was still only 26 at this time, she unfortunately had already embarked on her campy period, though to be fair so had everyone else, the decade after the war ended bringing a serious drop-off in the overall quality of musical productions both for stage and film. So nothing from her here. Then the poor, but still super dreamy Lennon Sisters seem to have been kept a great distance from any Cole Porter material whatsoever, with its myriad suggestions of drinking, staying up all night, sophisticated (for the Lawrence Welk audience) wordplay and topical subjects. Now that I've gotten onto them though I have found a doozy that I'm going to have to have to put up in the next post.

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