“Surrounded by assassins!”

August 28, 2014

Durante 1Two crossword puzzles that I recently completed had clues that referred to Jimmy Durante. In one, the solution was Durante’s surname; in the other, the solution was his nickname, “Schnozzola.” Designers of crossword puzzles seem to assume — accurately, for all I know — that theirs is an aged audience. But for the annual rebroadcast of Frosty the Snowman, few people today would ever hear Durante’s voice. My guess is that few people under forty years of age know who he was. This is a natural consequence of the passage of time and of changing tastes in entertainment. Durante was a talented jazz pianist, comedian, and all-around showman. He also set a standard for humility, decency, and generosity.  He probably was one of the most recognizable stars of his time, and his “time” lasted for fifty years.

Durante 4

I wonder how many people who see the 1992 film Scent of a Woman catch the reference to Durante. In that film, retired and blind army Lt. Col. Frank Slade, who is bent on suicide, is forced off the ledge, as it were, in a violent struggle with a prep school student named Charles Sims. When the climactic scene winds down, the exhausted Slade, played by Al Pacino, mumbles in a hoarse voice, “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?” Even before that line was appropriated for Pacino’s Oscar-winning role, it had been appropriated to express profound ideas about life and death — and particularly about the transition from one to the other. But it didn’t start out that way. Far from originating in deep thought, the line was written and made famous by the antithesis of deep thought, Jimmy Durante. It’s on the order of Groucho Marx’s trademark tune, “Hello, I must be going.” Durante sang the lyric as early as 1931 in a long-forgotten movie, The New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford. He sang it to Monty Wooley in the 1942 film version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. And he sang it again in the 1944 film Two Girls and a Sailor.  In that case, as on many other occasions in his long career, he used it as an introduction to another of his compositions, “Who will be with you when I’m far away?”

To see Pacino deliver the line and Durante sing it to Monte Wooley, click HERE.

To see Durante’s performance in Two Girls and a Sailor, click HERE.

Durante 2



2 Responses to ““Surrounded by assassins!””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I’m grinning away at the very best line in that second video, the one that’s buried deep in the middle. “You know, there’s a million good-looking guys, but I’m a novelty.” I remember Mr. Durante, of course, but I remember him even more clearly now, and I thank you for that!

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    Durante wrote a lot of his own material, and it was often quite smart — even sophisticated. Two of his lyrics I especially like:

    I’d work for Washington for a dollar a year,
    but I’ve gotta get paid in advance.
    They say the gold is safe in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
    Well, it’s safer in the pocket of my pants.
    I did it once before; I pulled ’em out of a hole,
    then they gave me a song and dance.
    I’m not a mercenary guy, and just to show my merit
    I’ll take a half a dollar now, the rest when you can spare it.
    I’d work for Washington for a dollar a year,
    but I’ve gotta get paid in advance.


    I’m Jimmy, that well-dressed man,
    an international sort of Dapper Dan.
    When it comes to designin’ clothes,
    I’ve got it all over Schiaperell’.
    I’m a regular fashion blue plate
    with a choice of two vegetables —
    one for each lapel.

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