July 24, 2015
Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.
It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice
I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.
Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still a child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.
Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.
Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.
When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.
One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.
Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.
Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
August 28, 2014
Two 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.
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.
March 26, 2013
I have always associated “September Song” with Jimmy Durante, who recorded it for an album in 1963. I like Durante’s version because it has a touch of melancholy that doesn’t come through with quite the same effect when the singer is Bing Crosby or Sammy Davis Jr.
Come to find out in Ethan Mordden’s book Love Song that the song was written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson specifically for another entertainer who had no singing voice — namely, Walter Huston. Huston played Peter Stuyvesant in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday and he more or less insisted that he should have a solo in the show. Weill and Anderson accommodated him, devoting only a couple of hours to writing the song. The show was designed to criticize the New Deal by portraying Stuyvesant as corrupt and dictatorial in his rule over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century. The musical closed after about six months, although it was the basis for a later movie. The song didn’t attract too much attention until Walter Huston’s version of it was used in the 1950 movie September Affair. After that, it was recorded by many male and female vocalists, ranging in type from Ezio Pinza to Tex Ritter. Among the females who recorded it was Lotte Lenya, who was twice Kurt Weill’s wife and the love of his life — after his music.
The composer and the singer are the subjects of Mordden’s book, which is subtitled The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, although Mordden devotes at least as much attention to Weill’s sometime collaborator Bertolt Brecht as he does to Lenya.
Pretty much everything in this book has been reported before, but Mordden brings to the story a knowledge of music and 20th century culture, and a sharp wit, that makes this a worthwhile profile of three fascinating figures — the trio who, among other things, brought the world The Threepenny Opera.
Weill was Jewish and totally absorbed in music; Lenya, who was born Karoline Blamauer, was flirty and unfettered. They separated and divorced once, but remarried and never really lost their mutual devotion. They became enamored of each other in Berlin during the hiatus between the two world wars, or during the pause in the one great war, depending on how you look at it.
This was the period of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, a part of German history perhaps not well known to Americans — certainly not to me. Mordden shares his own understanding of the uproarious time with its inept government, dead-on-arrival economy, and non-conformist arts scene, an odd recitative to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
It was in the Weimar incubator that Weill and Brecht hatched The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s book lampooning the milieu in Berlin at that time. The show appeared in 1928 and is regarded as a classic, but the nascent Nazi crowd thought it smelled of socialism. Eventually, Nazism drove Weill, Lenya, and Brecht out of Germany. Weill and Lenya went first to Paris and then to New York where the artistic and personal freedom they experienced for the first time had a trans-formative effect on their lives.
The couple hadn’t planned to stay in the United States, but they did stay, and both became American citizens. It may have been inevitable, at least for Weill, because he had long had an interest in using American themes in his compositions.
Weill was prolific and versatile; his work included cantatas, orchestral pieces, chamber works, and film scores, but he is best remembered for what he wrote for the stage, including the musical plays Johnny Johnson; Street Scene – ostensibly an American opera; One Touch of Venus, which introduced the song “Speak Low”; and, of course, Knickerbocker Holiday and The Threepenny Opera.
Lenya’s career as an actress and singer had its ups and downs. After Weill died in 1950, she became the central figure in a revival of his work. She recorded many of his songs. In 1952, she sang in Leonard Bernstein’s concert version of The Threepenny Opera at Brandeis University; that led to a New York production that ran for 2,706 performances. Lenya won a Tony Award for her performance, even though the show ran off Broadway.
In 1966, she created the role of Fraulein Schneider in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, believed to have been inspired by Weill’s work, and she had highly visible movie roles in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and From Russia with Love.
Brecht, with whom Weill worked on several projects, settled in East Berlin where, Mordden writes, he was a “stooge” for the Communist regime. “Oathed to the extermination of oppression,” Mordden writes, “Brecht allied himself with the most oppressive regime of the century, and he lived by recognizing no one’s rights but his own.’’
Brecht comes across as a character who many found magnetic but who was offensive in many respects, including his abusive treatment of actors and his substandard personal hygiene.
April 21, 2011
January 4, 2010
An obscure public-access channel on our Comcast system showed “The Sin of Mr. Diddlebock” last night — an historic film in the sense that it was Harold Lloyd’s last.
Lloyd was such a genius at film comedy that I’m not sure anyone can be said to have surpassed him. This is not a good example of his work, and yet — because it’s Harold Lloyd — it’s worth watching anyway. Lloyd was coaxed out of retirement by Preston Sturgess, who wrote and directed this movie, but the two men fought bitterly throughout the production. In fact, there are two cuts of this film — the Lloyd version and the Sturgess version, the latter titled “Mad Wednesday.”
In what is probably the only instance of its kind in film history, Sturgess opens this 1947 sound film with a scene from Lloyd’s 1925 silent feature “The Freshman” in which the water boy on a college football team gets into the game and scores the last-minute winning touchdown. Lloyd charged Sturgess $50,000 for the use of that clip.
“The Sin of Mr. Diddlebock” ostensibly picks up the story of the same character — though with a different name — as he takes a job “at the bottom” of an advertising agency with the promise that he will get an opportunity to move up and express his bright ideas. Twenty years later, he is at the same job in the basement bookkeeping department when his boss hands him a watch and about $2,000 in savings and shows him the door. Out on the street, Diddlebock meets a panhandler and agrees to have a drink with him — the first drink of Diddlebock’s life. This is the occasion for a hilarious scene in which the bartender played by Edgar Kennedy — a wonderful comedian — mixes an original and potent concoction to make the maiden voyage memorable. You can watch that scene at THIS LINK.
Under the influence of the drink named in his honor, Diddlebock unwittingly stumbles through a series of adventures that end with him owning a horse-drawn cab complete with driver, and a penniless circus complete with 27 hungry lions.
The resolution comes complete with a dose of Lloyd’s trade-mark, nail-biting high-jinx on a ledge many stories above a city street.
Besides Kennedy, the cast includes Margaret Hamilton, Franklin Pangborn, and Rudy Vallee. The film — juvenile and clumsy at times — is not in the same class of the earlier work in which Lloyd was more prolific and more financially successful than Chaplin or Keaton. But Sturgess’s dialogue shows some of the old flair and Lloyd, at 54, is still able to pull off that boyish exuberance.
There is a sequence of scenes in this movie in which Lloyd and other actors work closely with a lion. Some of these scenes are quite physical, and they reminded me of a story Jimmy Durante once told on the David Susskind TV show. Durante said he did a routine with an elephant in the Broadway production of Billy Rose’s “Jumbo,” which was later a movie in which Durante also appeared. In the stage show, Durante did a stunt in which he lay down on the stage while the elephant used its foot to crush a cinder block that was next to Durante’s head. According to Durante, Frank Buck — the big-game hunter — came backstage after one performance to meet the cast. He mentioned the scene with the elephant and told Durante, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars. You can never trust an elephant.” Well, Lloyd and his colleagues trusted a lion a lot more than I would — I don’t care how well fed, sedated, trained, or elderly the animal might be.