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Girl Crazy (1943)

Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, a dance choreographed by Busby Berkeley, an appearance by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, an early appearance from June Allyson, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland doing what they do best? Who could ask for anything more!

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 musical “Girl Crazy” is transformed plot-wise, but many of the songs are kept, most notably “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” Fascinating Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me,” all songs that have become standards.

Danny Churchill (Mickey Rooney) is the playboy son of a wealthy publisher who is sent out west to an all boys agricultural and mining school (not that we see much agriculture, mining, or school…just horse-riding and singing). There is, however, one girl present. The granddaughter of the dean (Guy Kibbee). She is Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), who is in charge of the school’s mail and drives the rickety car.

She is not, however, impressed by the east coast playboy, though he is more than impressed with her. He has to prove his love and prove that he’s not a quitter at the school and save the school from closing down by attracting applicants…by staging a musical rodeo. They thus manage to get the “let’s-put-on-a-show” plot line into the story.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were amazing and seem to be able to do pretty much anything. Mickey Rooney sings and dances and plays the piano with Tommy Dorsey and does physical comedy and is a wonder to behold. He also has a sweet chemistry with Judy Garland. It seems like in so many of Judy Garland’s movies, she is pining away for her wayward man, it is nice to see things reversed with Rooney trying to win her.

Judy Garland was twenty-one in Girl Crazy and she looks fresh, alive and lovely. She had a hard life and in many of her later movies you can see it on her face, but in Girl Crazy she still looks as if she has the whole world before her as she enters womanhood. She just about glows.

She also could seemingly do anything: comedy, drama, sing, dance, etc. She always had a good sense of comedic timing, but could then turn around and rip your heart out with a song. In Girl Crazy, the song is “But Not For Me.”

The musical “Girl Crazy” in 1931 is the musical that made Ethel Merman a Broadway star. Judy Garland’s role was played by Ginger Rogers, but Ethel Merman introduced “I Got Rhythm”and blew everyone away. In the movie, the song becomes a Busby Berkeley choreographed western extravaganza with Garland, Rooney, Tommy Dorsey and many others. It’s a rousing way to end a film.

I’m always rather in awe of Judy Garland’s dancing. It’s not that she’s Cyd Charisse or even Eleanor Powell, but she always gives the appearance of total ease and rightness. It’s a joy to watch her dance and she always makes it look good. So often, now, I feel like singing and dancing is all about making it look like the performer is working hard, but Judy Garland looked as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

My sister and I have often talked about how comedians and people with good physical comedic timing often seem to be able to dance. It’s not that they are the most technically proficient, but that they have a physical lightness and adroitness that translates well to dance. Judy Garland has that same ability. For me, not only could she never sing too many songs, but she could never dance to much.

This is my contribution to “The Judy Garland Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To see all the posts for this blogathon, click here.

Judy Garland breaks one’s heart.

Mickey Rooney fails to make an impression on Judy Garland.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

away-1“They can’t take that away from me…”

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.”

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George Gershwin

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.

I looked up the song and found that the best way to introduce myself to Gershwin’s work was to get my hands on a collection of his songs, sung by Ella Fitzgerald: Oh, Lady, Be Good! – Best Of The Gershwin Songbook. I read a book by Michael Feinstein called The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, which also proved an excellent way to get started.

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.

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Jerome Kern

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.

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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.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Music

 

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Mary Martin and Ethel Merman – Medley on TV in 1953

download (2)In 1953, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman sang a medley on live TV, reprising not only their greatest hits, but also summarizing the entire history of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway from the early 1900s to 1950.

It took me a little while, but I think I’ve accounted for all the songs that they touch on during the 12 minute medley (some of which they only sing for a few seconds). If I missed any songs, please let me know! I’ve tried to provide the exact time on the video when they sing each song and also indicated who sings which songs, though I have not listed reprises of songs. Near the end, there is overlap, as both Ethel Merman and Mary Martin take turns singing various songs while the other sings “Tea for Two,” then they both sing “Tea for Two” together.

  • 1946 – “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Broadway Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin) – [Ethel Merman: 0.13]
  • 1949 – “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” from  Broadway South Pacific (Rodgers and Hammerstein) – [Mary Martin: 2.13]  
  • 1909 – “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (Gus Edwards, Edward Madden), seems like ultimate nostalgia song – [Ethel Merman: 3:28]
  • 1905 – “Wait Until the Sun Shines, Nellie” (Harry von Tilzer, Andrew B. Sterling), Mary Martin sang this song with Bing Crosby in Birth of the Blues in 1945 – [Mary Martin: 3.43]
  • 1921 – “The Sheik of Araby” (Ted Snyder, Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler), popular around the same time as Rudolph Valentino – Ethel Merman: [3.58]
  • 1926 – “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” (Harry Woods), Lillian Roth was known for this song, it also inspired the restaurant chain, Red Robin – [Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: 4.20]
  • 1912 – “My Melancholy Baby” (Ernie Burnett, George A. Norton), also sung in Birth of the Blues – [Mary Martin: 5.05]
  • 1913 – “You Made Me Love You” (James V. Monaco, Joseph McCarthy), Al Jolson, Judy Garland both remembered for this song – [Ethel Merman: 5.42]
  • “1927 – “Mississippi Mud” (Harry Barris), Bing Crosby introduced this song while with The Rhythm Boys – [Mary Martin: 6.16]
  • 1923 –  “I Cried for You” (Arthur Freed, Abe Lyman, Gus Arnheim) – [Ethel Merman: 6.45]
  • 1918 – “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (John Kellette, James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent) – [Mary Martin: 6.49]
  • 1917 – “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (Harry Carroll, Joseph McCarthy adapted from Chopin’s Fantaisie- Impromptu) – [Ethel Merman: 6.54]
  • 1935 – “I’m in the Mood for Love” (Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields), Frances Langford introduced it in the movie Every Night at Eight – [Mary Martin: 6.58]
  • 1931 – “I Love a Parade” (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler), in movie Manhattan Parade – [Ethel Merman: 7.03]
  • “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” (Lew Brown, Sidney Clare) – best I can find, it was written in 1926, though Ricky Nelson seems to have made int his own after 1953 – Jolson sang it in 1926 – [Mary Martin: 7.07]
  • 1925 – “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” (Ray Henderson, Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young), Jolson best known for this song, he also sang it in The Singing Fool, his follow-up to The Jazz Singer – [Ethel Merman: 7.11]
  • 1929 – “I Got a Feeling You’re Fooling” (Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed), introduced in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 – [Mary Martin: 7.16]
  • 1928 – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” (Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields) – [Ethel Merman: 7.21]
  • 1928 – “I’ll Get By (As Long as I Have You)” (Fred E. Ahlert, Roy Turk), Billie Holiday best known for recording it – [Mary Martin: 7.25]
  • 1950 – “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin), Ethel Merman introduced it on Broadway in Call Me Madam, also in 1953 movie adaptation – [Ethel Merman: 7.30]
  • 1949 – “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein), Mary Martin introduced song in South Pacific on Broadway – [Mary Martin: 7.34]
  • 1934 – “I Get a Kick Out of You” (Cole Porter), introduced by Ethel Merman in Broadway musical Anything Goes – [Ethel Merman: 7.44]
  • 1936 – “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Cole Porter), introduced in movie Born to Dance by Virginia Bruce – [Mary Martin: 8.08]
  • 1938 – “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (Cole Porter), Broadway musical Leave It To Me! was Mary Martin’s Broadway debut, where she introduced the song – [Mary Martin: 8.36]
  • 1930 – “I Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), Broadway musical Girl Crazy, Ethel Merman’s Broadway debut, introduced song, musical also made Ginger Rogers a star – [Ethel Merman: 9.38]
  • 1924 – “Indian Love Call” (Rudolph Friml, Herbert Stothart), Broadway operetta Rose-Marie, immortalized on screen by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in 1936 movie adaptation for everlasing lampooning – [Mary Martin: 10.23]
  • 1925 – “Tea for Two” (Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar), Broadway musical No, No Nanette – another standard that feels like the ultimate nostalgia song – [Ethel Merman and Mary Martin: 10.23]
  • 1933 – “Stormy Weather” (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler) introduced by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne also known for song in 1943 movie of the same name – Ethel Merman: [10.47]
  • 1932 – “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart), introduced in 1932 film Love Me Tonight by Maurice Chevalier – Mary Martin: [11.10]

The amazing thing is that there was still more Broadway history to go. In 1953, Mary Martin had still not essayed Peter Pan (1954) or The Sound of Music (1959) and Gypsy (1959) was still in the future for Ethel Merman, as well.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in Music

 

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