“My Funny Valentine” was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the musical “Babes in Arms” in 1937. Oddly enough, the song did not make it into the 1938 film adaptation with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (they passed up having Judy Garland sing that song!), but has since become a standard. And since today is Valentine’s Day, here are a number of interpretations of this lovely song.
It began with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger in Shall We Dance. Fred Astaire was singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and I thought it was beautiful. I wanted to know who wrote it and where I could hear more songs like it.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard such songs. I grew up watching musicals, but as a child I found all “slow” songs boring. I wanted dancing, comedy and funny, upbeat music.
More accurately, it really all began after my grandfather died. One thing that happens when you lose a person close to you is that you don’t know what to do with yourself. Do you sit and cry? Think? Try to forget? Is it okay to do an enjoyable activity? Is that a betrayal? If you have immediate work to do, all the better. But I didn’t have pressing work and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I wanted to watch a movie. But I didn’t want to watch just any movie.
This was because my grandfather was such a good man. He was kind, gentle, strong, and always there for you; and it felt wrong to watch the kind of movie he never would have watched. So I watched a musical. And another musical. And another. It all began with a rediscovery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’d never before appreciated what a genius Fred Astaire was. Or Ginger Rogers. In truth, it was the beginning of my love, not just for Astaire, Rogers and The Great American Songbook. It was the beginning of my love for old movies.
But the song that started it all was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The music was by George Gershwin and the lyrics by his brother, Ira Gershwin. It was the last completed film by George Gershwin before he died at 38 years of age. Ira was devastated, as was Fred Astaire, who had known Gershwin for many years.
But at the time of first hearing the song, I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that there was something both touching and enduring about the song and the lyrics: “The way you wear your hat – The way you sip your tea – The memory of all that – No, no, they can’t take that away from me.”
Many people – including Fred Astaire himself – did not care for the fact that the song was sung briefly, on a ferry boat no less, with no dance. However, I rather like the setting for the song and there is something poignant about the fact that they do not dance at that moment. How the movie messed up was by not having them dance together at the end of the film to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” instead of the rather bizarre pseudo-ballet they have instead, with the imitation Ginger Rogers, Harriet Hoctor and very little dance between Astaire and the real Rogers. The lack of a dance, however, did not prevent the song from becoming popular.
Since then, I’ve moved on to Jerome Kern (and the sublime 1936 film Show Boat), who has remained an especial favorite, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (one of the great lyricists of his day), Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren… They are composers who wrote songs that – no matter how trite the plot of the movie or musical – transcend and endure.
The Great American Songbook refers to popular songs (often overlapping with jazz songs) that were composed during the 1910s-1950s and have since been considered standards. They are mostly romantic songs, 32 bars, but the variety and emotional range is amazing. I was once reading about Byzantine art. I don’t remember much about the book, but the author talked about how great intensity of feeling and brilliance can be achieved when artists mine an art with very specific, confined rules. It’s not that one cannot break rules (not all songs were 32 bars), but the very confinement can yield greater intensity and creativity.
The other thing that fascinated me about the standards is how they blend African-American music, Jewish music (most of the composers were Jewish and Cole Porter used to say that his goal was to write “Jewish tunes”) and European operetta with American vernacular. I never used to know much about American music (I mostly studied western classical music in high school and college), but I have come to the conclusion that it should be given much more general attention. In fact I have the somewhat radical idea that American music AND movies should be taught in American schools. There is so much to learn and appreciate and it has been one of the best ways for me to look at the American melting pot, racism, prejudice, the blending of traditions, creativity and resilience…and simply what it was like to be alive then.
I’ve wandered from my original point. But perhaps that is my point. To see what can start with a movie and a song! They can’t take that away from me…
This post is part of The Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Ruth of Silver Screenings and equally wonderful Kristina of Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts for Days 1, 2, and 3.
Fred Astaire introduces “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance(1937). The plot is a little shaky, but the songs are sublime. In this scene, Astaire and Rogers have just married, but are planning on an immediate divorce. This plan, however, unaccountably makes them sad.
And one of several of Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations. She sang one version with Louis Armstrong, but this version is from her Gershwin Songbook.
“I’m Old Fashioned” was introduced by Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier (1942). In a manner of speaking. It was really introduced by Nan Wynn, who dubbed for Rita Hayworth’s singing voice (she dubbed Hayworth’s voice in several films). I’ve always wondered what Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse really sounded like when they sang, since they were invariably dubbed. Vera-Ellen was always dubbed, but I heard her sing on the 1944 Broadway Cast Recording of Connecticut Yankee and I can see why they never let her do her own singing (listen for her, here). Her voice could possibly pass as an Ado Annie, but does not match the image created by her dancing.
Jerome Kern has always seemed to me to be one of the most hummable, lyrical and deceptively simple composers of his era. He’s rarely flashy and “I’m Old Fashioned” seems like a quintessential song from him. Gorgeous, gorgeous melody. Fred Astaire did complain during the making of Swing Time that Kern’s music rarely swung (as Duke Ellington put it, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing”), but for me the beauty of his melodies is high compensation.
As JazzStandards notes, many songwriters loved Fred Astaire as a singer. He introduced more hits than nearly anyone else, by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin. He didn’t have a voice like Bing Crosby, but, and I wish I could remember in which book I read this (it might have been Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography), he sang a song exactly as the song was written and when one wishes to study the songs of these composers, there’s no better singer to turn to than Fred Astaire. An intelligent interpreter of song.
I used to be rather lukewarm about Rita Hayworth’s dancing. It’s hard to put my finger on why. I don’t feel the same feeling of flow; every move feels a bit like a discrete move rather than one continuous whole. Like it’s not coming easy and she’s very conscious of her dancing. But maybe it’s just me. And I’ve been warming to her dancing. But in any case, it is still a gorgeous, extraordinarily romantic dance. One of Fred Astaire’s most romantic.
The music in the background is provided by Xavier Cugat’s Orchestra.
And now for the lady who has introduced me to nearly all the great songs by the great composers. It would feel incomplete without her.
I’ve not traditionally been as big a fan of the saxophone as an instrument and I’ve been a bit intimidated by John Coltrane. However, I’ve been listening to his ballads recently and have become enchanted. His version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is my favorite so far.
I think what’s been challenging for me is that John Coltrane is not someone I just put on in the background. I have to really listen and hear and when I listen and hear, there is so much depth and richness in his ballads.
Cassandra Wilson is a jazz singer I have only recently become aware of, because she’s a contemporary singer and my knowledge of contemporary performers is lacking. However, I’ve been reading about jazz and trying to become acquainted with the jazz of the present era. Her version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is quite a bit more up-tempo. JazzStandards writes that “Wilson reinvents the song, taking it from melancholy ballad to frenetic love letter.” She shows that even Jerome Kern can be exhilarating.