Tag Archives: Cole Porter

Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award). Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the naïve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool


Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question


Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson


Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.

Awesome Awfulness

Original poster: 'Beauty and the Beast.' Barry Sullivan's character is called Beauty in the picture; she's the beast.

Original poster: ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In the picture, Barry Sullivan’s scarfaced character is called Beauty; Joan Crawford is the Beast.

Since I have, of late, kept things on a fairly high plane, today I’d like to roll about in the muck a little, just to keep things honest. A while ago, I posted “Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures” (Part I and Part II) and a piece called “Howlers,” about bad dialogue in high-minded trashy pictures; today, I thought I’d show some cruddy scenes from cruddy pictures. In fact, they’re all from terrible pictures that I can never get through in one sitting, but I like every one of these scenes for a variety of reasons.

The first four clips are overtly camp, which is a form of humor I don’t usually go for. Generally, I’m more likely to endure camp than to laugh at it. And even the sort of camp that does make me laugh — “The Fountainhead,” for instance — wears out its welcome in a big hurry. In small doses, however, I find certain kinds of camp very funny.

So let me start with the camp and get it out of the way. I like these scenes a lot, but believe me, I’m not proud of myself.

Queen Bee

You don’t need to know anything more than Joan Crawford is playing a bitch. Well, it’s the fifties and that’s all she played in that decade. All the evil that surrounds her is in reaction to the monkey-tricks she’s pulled on the other characters before the picture started. She’s plenty crazy when she comes sailing into this, her first scene — but she gets a whole lot crazier before the ninety-five minute picture is over. “Queen Bee” (Columbia, 1955) is written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, who wrote the far superior Crawford melodrama, “Mildred Pierce.” But that was ten years earlier, when they were both younger and had more sense.

“Now I’m ready for people”; “Hello to both of you” . . . God, isn’t that bad writing? Who talks like that? Not even Joan Crawford talks like that. In the scene immediately following this one, Fay Wray, who plays the demented Sue McKinnon, says to another character, “It pleasures me to see you.” In a later scene, Barry Sullivan also says “It pleasures me” about something he likes. Perhaps it’s a common Southern expression, but I’ve never heard it outside of this picture. It doesn’t put me in mind of Southern hospitality; it makes me think of blowjobs. The young woman is Lucy Marlow: Columbia Pictures expected big things from her . . . and didn’t get ’em.

Here’s another clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s shorter and, in its own way, funnier than the previous one. Is there anything more vulgar than Joan Crawford when she gets high-tone? “Mildred Pierce” worked for her because even as she climbed the social ladder, we never were expected to think she had class or sophistication — only that she could hold her bourbon. In “Queen Bee,” she’s supposed to be sophisticated, sexually alluring and mean as a rattlesnake bite . . . She does rattlesnake tolerably (though unimaginatively); the first two are far beyond her extremely limited powers of impersonation, but she slugs away at it with all her might and main. Result: camp.

Give that sound effects man an Oscar! Best too-loud slap ever.

In this one, Joan Crawford goes all Citizen Kane on the cups and dollies. The dialogue she has to work with is terrible, but she doesn’t do it any favors.

And one more clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s the best rotten dialogue in the whole picture. Just look at her act . . . she pivots twice in a single scene. Nobody in real life ever pivots: only bad actresses pivot (in auditions, they also kneel, but only if their knees crack on the descent — I don’t know why). Joan Crawford is not content to be merely a bad actress: she pivots twice. Is she acting or figure skating? It’s hard to figure . . . did she know how bad she was? Did she think what she was doing was good? Or merely marketable? Or was she intentionally camp? My instinct tells me the choices she made were a combination of ambition, selfishness, superstition, stupidity, hard work and bad taste. But whatever it was, it led to some hilarious performances.

“You’re like some fancy kind of disease!” Well, he didn’t say he hated her. That’s John Ireland, poor bastard.

Sunday Drivers

I don’t think these next two clips count as camp — they’re just damned silly, and they both come from crummy mid-high-minded trashy pictures about, of all things, the picture business. Both of them involve public menaces behind the wheel of a car; both make unintentionally hilarious use of process shots; both are from glamorous pictures directed by Vincent Minnelli. The first is from “The Bad and the Beautiful” (Metro, 1952). Lana Turner is behind the wheel. She’s just been jilted by Kirk Douglas. Get this crazy broad off the road.

The second is from “Two Weeks in Another Town,” which was made ten years later, same director (Minnelli), same producer (John Houseman), same writer (Charles Schnee), same star (Douglas). This one’s about how Kirk takes over an Edward G. Robinson picture in Rome after Eddie has a heart attack. The trouble is Kirk is fresh out of the nut house, so the stress of the shoot gets him all bollocky, then his ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, shows up and pushes him over the edge. So he gets into his sporty little number and goes for a therapeutic little spin around the hills of Rome.

These last three clips are from the mid-sixties. They all have a specific atmosphere that appeals to me. It’s an atmosphere that comes from out-of-touch big studios trying to be hip, trying to appeal to the younger generation and failing completely. For instance, whenever a big studio like Metro wrote hippies into a story, they got it all wrong — in the same way that Noël Coward and Cole Porter, late in their careers, got it wrong when they tried to write parodies of the rock ‘n’ roll tunes that had, virtually overnight, turned them into dinosaurs: they didn’t know the idiom well enough to parody it, and they had too much scorn for it to make the parody agreeable. The studios were the same when it came to the presentation of youth culture in general and hippies in particular. They thought they were appealing to the Pepsi Generation by featuring young characters in their pictures, but then the fogey writers and directors made sure that their teenage and twenty-something characters were invariably selfish, foolish, posturing hypocrites.  And the writers never, ever got the current slang right — they simply were not hep to the jive, daddy-o.

Under the Yum Yum Tree

I don’t think this next clip qualifies as camp, either. It’s technically accomplished schlock. It doesn’t even fall under the cliché “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” because they didn’t make ’em like this back then, either. It’s the peculiarity of it that I find so entertaining . . . I like Jimmy Van Heusen’s tune and Sammy Cahn’s dopey lyric and the choreography that looks like an ad for FDS. I like James Darren’s faux-Sinatra voice. The rest of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (Columbia, 1963) is unspeakable garbage. But, oh, I do like the song. Five years ago, I attempted to show this number to my impressionable three year-old goddaughter when she and her mum were in town for a visit. Mum put a stop to it at once. She didn’t want her little girl polluted with such rubbish. Anyhow, my goddaughter will be eight on August 3 of this year, so I thought I’d drop the offending number into this post, that it may always be available to her, now that she has achieved the age of reason.

Frederick Brisson, the producer of “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” was married to Rosalind Russell from 1941 until his death in 1984. An unprepossessing man, he was widely known as “the Lizard of Roz.” How awful for him.

Made in Paris

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

And speakin’ of awful, howzabout this cherce nugget? It’s “Made in Paris” (Metro, 1966). Have you ever seen this picture? This is the sort of pop-schlock Metro put out in the mid-sixties — and it’s the sort of pop-schlock that almost put Metro out of business for keeps. In the sixties, Metro turned out a lot of this sort of squaresville peek-a-boo crap, then couldn’t understand why people stayed home. Until a few weeks ago, I never even heard of this one — though I seem to remember its photograph was on the side of a milk carton back in the late seventies. My sister-in-law Deirdre is a big Ann-Margret fan, so she almost certainly knows this picture . . . but does anyone else? Anyhow, the picture is awful — so idiotic, it makes the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies look like Preston Sturges by comparison. But this opening sequence has a lot of pizzazz. The streets, as you will see, are strictly Metro backlot — the very streets that Gene Kelly roller-skated on.

I like the fashions by Helen Rose. I like the score, too. I like the Crêpes Suzette. I do not like Chad Everett, but I do like what happens to him. Count Basie, man! Dig that. I love how he’s Metro’s idea of being hip. I’m always glad to see and hear Count Basie, but in 1966, when this picture was released, he was hardly catnip to the younger generation, which the studio clearly hoped he’d be. And take a look at the opening credits, which are a perfect example of mid-sixties Metro. The tune is by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who were definitely hot in 1966, but the hipster who sings it? Trini “Lemon Tree, Very Pretty” López! Notice, too, that the picture features a song by that master composer of pop tunes, Mr Red (“Good night and God bleth”) Skelton. Georgie Stoll, who scored this swingin’ picture, had been at MGM since 1937 . . . ! (Classicists may be amused or dismayed to see in the credits that the production company responsible for this prurient shit had the effrontery to name itself after the Muse of Music, Euterpe, who in ancient times was often called “the giver of delight.”)

Here’s an interesting fact: the last contract player at Metro was none other than Chad Everett. The studio that once boasted “More stars than there are in heaven,” ended up with a single actor under contract, and he was Chad Everett. Cue the last stanza of “The Hollow Men” . . .