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During the movie Same Time, Next Year, which was the topic of my last post, Alan Alda’s character sits down at a piano a few times, and one of the songs he plays is “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone perform that song in decades, but I do remember when it was a big hit. That was in 1950, and in that era, novelty songs, as they were called, often made it to the charts and sometimes in a big way.

The one Alda played was written by a committee: Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts (a pseudonym for bandleader Al Trace). Like many popular songs, it was an expansion of an expression, the title, that already existed in popular culture. The lyric went, in part:

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
baked a cake, baked a cake
If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
Grandest band in the land
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
And spread the welcome mat for you

Oh, I don’t know where you came from
’cause I don’t know where you’ve been
But it really doesn’t matter
Grab a chair and fill your platter
And dig, dig, dig right in.

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The first and iconic recording of this song was made by Eileen Barton. The tune arrived on the Billboard magazine chart in March 1950 and stayed for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 1. A recording made that same year by Georgia Gibbs was on the Billboard chart for six weeks. The best-known performance of the song, with good reason, was by Ernie in an encounter with the Cookie Monster in 1969 during the first season of Sesame Street. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

Another of Al Hoffman’s collaborations, this one with Jerry Livingston and Milton Drake, was the nonsense song “Mairzy Doats,” which the trio composed in 1943. The song has been recorded, and has charted, many times. The Merry Macs, a popular harmony group, took it to Number 1 in March 1944. According to Drake, the inspiration for the song was an English verse he heard his young daughter singing: “Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters.” (Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.)

You can hear the Merry Macs’ hit recording by clicking HERE. This song was a particularly good fit for the wack-a-doodle bandleader Spike Jones, and you can hear his recording by clicking HERE.

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Although its premise and denouement seem cynical to me, I found Same Time, Next Year (1978) to be an engaging and entertaining film, and an especially apt showcase for the talents of Ellen Burstyn and Allen Alda. The romantic comedy is so apropos for Burstyn, in fact, that she starred on Broadway with Charles Grodin in the stage version in 1975 and won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance.

The principal characters in this story are Doris and George, two married people who meet by chance in 1951 at an inn in California, wind up in bed together, and decide to repeat the encounter on the same weekend every year — and they do so for 26 years. Doris, who lives in the San Francisco area, is at the inn because she is supposed to attend a religious retreat nearby; George, who is from New Jersey, is an accountant in town to see a client. In the play by Bernard Slade, Doris and George are the only two characters; in the film, there are other actors, but their roles are only incidental. It’s not an easy thing for two actors to carry a film by themselves, but Burstyn and Alda succeed utterly.

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At each meeting, they express and act on their passion for each other, but they also discuss their lives at home, what’s best and worst about their spouses, what’s going on with their children, of whom there are a total of six. Unlike the folks who usually turn up in this kind movie situation, neither Doris nor George claims to be in a failed marriage; in fact, both seem to genuinely like their partners. As the meetings go on — separated in this film by black-and-white images of the historical and cultural events that shaped life in those decades — Doris and George both evolve in their appearance, their mode of dress, and their outlook, and these changes don’t always blend harmoniously. But still they go on meeting, until tragic changes in George’s life force a decision — an “up or down vote,” to use the parlance of the Beltway — by both of them. As I suggested at the beginning of this post, I am repelled by the way this story line glibly accepts the deceit that was necessary for this relationship to continue. Still, I can’t help but applaud the skill with which both actors kept the story compelling and made the transitions in these characters believable.

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ALAN ALDA

I don’t think I’ve ever disliked Alan Alda in a role, his role in the 1988 film “A New Life” is no exception. But this film has the added advantage of having been written and directed by Alda, so it is shot through with his wit and his sense of timing.

In truth, “A New Life” is a piece of fluff, but the combination of Alda and his art with a cast that includes Hal Linden, Ann-Margret, and Veronica Hamel give the fluff enough substance to keep it interesting.

Alda plays Steve Giardino (who makes up these names?), a Wall Street trader whose gearshift is perpetually in overdrive. Among the things he neglects are his wife, Jackie, played by Ann-Margret. Jackie finally has enough — or, more accurately, not enough — and she and Steve split. Both are disoriented in the single state, and Steve is further confused by his stock-market colleague Mel Arons (Hal Linden), a profligate who tries to prod Steve into a similar way of life. Jackie eventually takes up with a much younger and overly attentive sculptor, Doc (John Shea), who is a waiter in real life. Steve settles in, or so it seems, with a medical doctor, Kay Hutton (Veronica Hamel). The truth in this movie is that stable relationships are not easy to come by, and both Steve and Jackie will have more work to do.

HAL LINDEN

This is a delightful ensemble, as the names of the actors promise. Linden is especially entertaining as a kind of Mephistopheles figure to the confused and somewhat naive Steve.  “What are you making such a big deal about happiness for?” he asks Steve. “Look at me. I trade all day against guys who would cut my heart out of an eighth. I drink too much, I eat rich food, I make love to women half my age. You think I’m happy?”

(He grins) “That’s the advantage of being shallow.”

Fans of such Alda-esque dialogue will find it throughout this film.

Look for Alda’s daughter, Beatrice, in the limited role of Steve’s adult daughter, Judy.

Ann-Margret and Alan Alda on the set of "A New Life"