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“You Couldn’t Be Cuter” – Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields

1344342170-mI like to sing to my cat. I’m not sure she appreciates it; she usually just stares at me with her big eyes. But I keep singing, because I can’t help it. I have this urge to sing to someone and only my cat is relatively receptive to this. The sad truth is that, unlike in movies, people are not willing to sit still while you serenade them for a few minutes…even if you do sound like Dorothy Lamour, Doris Day or Ella Fitzerald (which I do not, alas).

But still, I defiantly sing on!

The latest song I have had in my head is “You Couldn’t be Cuter.” The music was written by Jerome Kern (of Show Boat fame) and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who wrote the lyrics for Kern’s songs in Swing Time). It was written for Irene Dunne to sing in the comedy The Joy Of Living. She plays a Broadway singer who evidently doesn’t know how to enjoy life until Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. come along. Has anyone seen it? I never have, but I usually enjoy Irene Dunne, so I am curious to check it out sometime.

Irene Dunne seems to have appeared in a number of Jerome Kern musicals: Roberta (with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), High, Wide and Handsome, Show BoatSweet Adeline. Since Jerome Kern represents a transitional figure between European Operetta and American popular music, perhaps it isn’t surprising that her voice turned out to be well suited for his music. He wrote some of the loveliest melodies of all the great American composers. Can you imagine Irene Dunne singing George Gershwin? Not as well…though I’m sure she must have at some point or other.

Anyway, Irene Dunne was not generally a recording artist and so when “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” was first heard on radio, it was performed by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra and it became a hit.

And where would we be without Ella Fitzgerald. She sang this song as part of her Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook.

I am not sure who the vocalist is, but this version is done by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2016 in Music

 

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Swing Time (1936)

031-ginger-rogers-and-fred-astaire-theredlistAlthough it’s not a Christmas film, Swing Time always made me think of Christmas, mostly because of the snow. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers share a comic/romantic song in the snow and during their many forays into gambling and dancing through New York City nightclubs one can see through the windows the falling snow. Like an enchanted land.

Of the ten movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, Swing Time is my favorite. It is the sixth film they made at RKO and contains some of their most beautiful dances and some of composer Jerome Kern’s most lovely songs, complete with witty lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The plot may be flimsy, but the music actually furthers the plot and provide a continuity almost separate from the plot. And it helps that it is directed with a light touch by George Stevens.

John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a hoofer engaged to a rich society girl (Betty Furness) and needs to make his fortune in New York before her father will allow him to marry her. But Lucky’s real talent is gambling. As long as he has his lucky quarter, he can’t lose and he plans to gamble his way to a fortune. Accompanying him to New York is Pop (Victor Moore), a fellow sharpie who’s better at magic tricks with cards and coins than he is at gambling.

But once Lucky is in New York, he runs afoul of Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and they have a little mix-up in the street over Lucky’s lucky quarter. Lucky is much more favorably impressed by Penny than she is by him and he follows her to her work place, where she is a dancing instructor, and asks to take lessons. Initially, he pretends to be hopelessly maladroit, but after he gets her inadvertently fired, he turns around and demonstrates to the proprietor (Eric Blore – always a delight) how much Penny has “taught” him. Now Penny really is impressed with him (or at least his dancing) and the two of them agree to team up dancing at night clubs.

Penny and Lucky having a misunderstanding in the snow

Penny and Lucky having a misunderstanding in the snow

What follows is a series of comic difficulties, misunderstandings, crossed-lovers, witty songs and gorgeous dances. There is a bandleader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who is a rival for Penny’s affections. Lucky begins making it big as a gambler, but is afraid to win too much, because then he’ll have to return to his fiance and he’s fallen in love with Penny. Meanwhile, Penny has fallen in love with him and can’t understand why he is aloof.

The plot is pretty weak, but what gives it sophistication are the cast, the music and the dances. Jerome Kern wrote some of his most lovely melodies, perhaps most famously “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s an unabashedly romantic song, but given a comedic setting. Lucky sings “Lovely…Never, never change – Keep that breathless charm – Won’t you please arrange it? ‘Cause I love you – Just the way you look tonight” while Penny stands unseen with her hair in a lather of shampoo (supposedly either whipped cream or egg whites).

Because this is Astaire and Rogers’ sixth film together, their dancing is at its best here. Rogers, if you watch their films in order, grows more assured and more graceful through the films and Swing Time is the height of their collaboration together (Along with Shall We Dance and Follow the Fleet – those two not their best films, but some of their best dancing). With “Pick Yourself Up,” they give the impression of complete spontaneity, but it is also during the dance where Penny first warms to Lucky and shows her excitement and the future possibilities between them. Her entire change of attitude happens during one dance and you can see it develop on her face. In “Waltz in Swing Time,” they give sophisticated, gorgeous polish without losing the joy. With “Never Gonna Dance,” heartbreak, disappointment, pleading. It’s really their most emotionally sophisticated dance together.

Fred Astaire always did his wooing through dance and in most of his films with Ginger Rogers, he never gets anywhere with her until they do dance. But he doesn’t just woo; he can express his uncontained joy at being in love or even reveal his vulnerability. And Ginger Rogers always responds. A dance between them is like a conversation (am I gushing a bit?).

Penny and her suitor, Ricardo Romero

Penny and her suitor, Ricardo Romero

One of the things I hear a lot is that Astaire and Rogers’ musicals were the ultimate example of the kind of delightful, escapist fluff that was so popular during the depression. But if you look at it, Swing Time is still firmly rooted in that depression. Whereas you can watch Harold Lloyd lose and find multiple jobs in a short period of time in the 1928 silent film Speedy, losing one’s job in Swing Time is no joke for Penny and her friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick – a dryly wisecracking presence).

Lucky and Penny are living high, but it’s still precarious. Fortunes can come and go and there are numerous reversals. When Penny and Lucky first meet on the street, Penny thinks Lucky has stolen a quarter from her and when she calls a police officer to help her, is dismayed when the officer automatically takes Lucky’s side because he is well dressed and she’s a working girl, even though Lucky really has less money than she has.

One controversial aspect of the film is the dance that Astaire performs solo, “Bojangle of Harlem.”It is an inventive and lively dance where he interacts with three of his own shadows, but he performs it in blackface, though in a slightly less offensive, lighter blackface than was often employed. The dance id said to be done in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, perhaps the most famous tap dancer of the day who Astaire knew and admired from their days in vaudeville, though he is also said to be acknowledging John Bubbles, a less known dancer today who played Sportin’ Life in Gerwshin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Composer Jerome Kern is not known for his jazzy music. His specialty was melody. But between Fred Astaire and lyricist Dorothy Fields, they managed to liven him up a little, though there is still very little jazz or swing time actually going on. Dorothy Fields adds considerable pep simply through her witty lyrics. One of my favorite songs is “A Fine Romance,” which Penny and Lucky sing in the snow to express their frustration over their non-starting romance. Rogers’ sings “A fine romance, with no kisses – A fine romance, my friend this is – We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes – But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” Lucky responds by singing that “To love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has – We don’t have half the thrill that the march of time has.”

“Never Gonna Dance” is the climax of the film and actually encapsulates all that has come before. Penny has discovered that Lucky is engaged and feels betrayed by him while he both mourns her loss and makes a desperate plea to win her back. He sings of a “la belle, a perfectly swell romance,” which is a reference to words spoken by them before they earlier sang “A Fine Romance.” But now that it’s over, he’s “never gonna dance, only gonna love you.”  This first clip is the singing part of “Never Gonna Dance.”

This clip has the dance part that comes after he sings. If you listen, you can hear Kern’s music move from “The Way You Look Tonight,” the song Lucky originally wooed her with, to “Never Gonna Dance,” then to “Waltz in Swing Time,” a reference to the dance were they were flying high and back to “Never Gonna Dance.” I think it’s Astaire’s most emotionally vulnerable dance.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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“Pick Yourself Up” – from Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

1083_RS19_S012P120.jpgI’ve read a little bit of debate, though not a pressing amount, on who Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner was: Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen. They’re all wonderful (though Rita Hayworth is a bit stiff for me, like she had an iron bar for a spine when dancing), but they’re also different, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare them

But for utter joy in dancing, no one beats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. No one makes dancing look more spontaneous than those two, so effortless and so fun. You almost think you can get up and do it, too (I never think I can dance like Cyd Charisse).

Swing Time (1936) was their sixth movie together and has some of their very finest dances. The songs were written by Jerome Kern (of “Show Boat” renown) and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who writes some of the wittiest lyrics I’ve heard, like “A Fine Romance”).

In the story, Fred Astaire is a gambler gone out to seek his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart. However, once he gets to New York City, he runs into Ginger Rogers. She is a dancing instructor and he pays for a lesson, pretending to be absolutely awful. They then sing a song:“Pick Yourself Up.” She is disgusted with him, but when she then gets fired by her boss (Eric Blore) he pulls her back onto the dance floor to demonstrate how much she has “taught” him while the incomparably funny Blore looks on.

Part of what made Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire unique is how they used their dances to further the plot. In this case, you can see Ginger Rogers undergo a complete metamorphosis of feelings towards him in only two and a half minutes and it is wonderful to watch her expressions throughout. First she looks exasperated and annoyed, but as soon as he begins dancing there is a complicated mixture of surprise, hope, pleasure and excitement. There’s also hesitancy, as she’s not quite sure where this is going, but gradually changes as she allows herself to fully get into the dance when she realizes the extant of his prowess. By the end, they have become one, demonstrating a complete comfort and ‘rightness’ that is truly unique to them.

In Puttin’ On The Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography, the author Peter Levinson writes about how Fred Astaire always had his dances shot in one long, continuous shot. He never broke it up or wanted the dance viewed from different angles. He felt the dance should be viewed as a whole, with the whole body of each dancer in view at all times.

 

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