Which version do you prefer?
In his latest album, Shadows in The Night, Bob Dylan sings ten songs to God. For Dylan, singing is the most authentic form of prayer. The songs aren’t his own but come from the Great American Songbook as filtered through Frank Sinatra’s inimitable voice. Why not Dylan’s own songs? And, if not his songs, why Sinatra’s?
To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand Dylan’s aim in the album. Dylan was after an album of allegorical love songs. This tradition started for him with “Visions of Johanna.” In that song Dylan is with the earthly Louise while yearning for the spiritual Johanna. The exact nature of Johanna's Godliness is not clear in the song. She could be God as represented by a female, or a metaphor as in the "Song of Songs" tradition, or one aspect of God, or a private way that Dylan experiences God. It is very likely that Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess influenced Dylan. That complex book is about a muse, a White Goddess, who was a single Goddess behind the various mythological goddesses. In his book Graves argues that “pure” poetry is linked to the White Goddess. That is, however Dylan formed the idea, he sometimes appears to be singing to a woman but in reality is singing also or exclusively to God. Other examples of his allegorical love songs include “Shelter From the Storm” and "Red River Shore."
Therefore, while it’s easy to hear the songs on Shadows in The Night as standard love songs, they are more resonant, closer to Dylan’s intentions, if they are heard as songs to a feminine representation of God.
That in part explains the use of Frank Sinatra’s songs. Sinatra provides a perfect counterpoint to the idea of woman as God because Sinatra could uniquely deliver love songs. That is, his songs were sung to woman as woman. Dylan takes these great love songs and uses them in a new way, expanding them, not just reinterpreting their sound but also their meaning.
Interpreted in this way, the Sinatra songs of romantic longing remain intact but suddenly also include a desperate plea, an intense spiritual longing. These are not the songs of Dylan on a spiritual quest or Dylan in the rapture of religious embrace. These are the songs of a lost God, of Dylan wondering why God has gone. A shadow in the night is a darker shade of what is already dark. These songs long for an absent God.
The album operates by looking at all angles of this longing. In “I’m a Fool to Want You” Dylan berates himself for even wanting God. In “Stay With Me,” just the opposite is true because “every path leads to Thee.” Dylan wants God to be near. “Autumn Leaves” sounds like a whole new song on the album. In “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Dylan begs God to accept him as he is: “Don’t you remember? I was always your clown.” It almost sounds as though Dylan wrote those lyrics. In “Where Are You” Dylan longs for the absent God.
There’s a crucial insight about belief in these songs. Religious belief is dynamic. It changes over time. Dylan believed, but God has abandoned him. And that’s why Dylan is not singing his own songs. The otherness of the songs is a metaphor for the distance he feels from God. He can’t even pray with his own words.
The real brilliance of the album’s song choices stems from the notion that God’s relationship with Dylan is exactly like the relationship between romantic partners. Such a relationship can change over time. Feelings can get close and then sometimes retreat. And so in singing to a gone God, it makes good sense to sing love songs of longing for reconciliation.
Dylan’s is a perfect voice for these songs. As many listeners have noted, his voice sounds fresh and clear. He doesn’t just sing; he begs. There is a plea in every song offered by a voice that has lived. It is a voice weighted down by the accumulated strains of life.
And then there’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” the final song on the album. Dylan sometimes ends an album with a hint about his future direction. If so, it is a sad direction home. In the song, Dylan is envious of the sun because it can “roll around Heaven all day.” The way Dylan sings it, it is a song of someone weary of life, someone who desires death. And yet his is a voice that won’t be stilled. His feet still move on to the next stop on the tour.
This is simply an incredible album.
There was exactly one international movie star who appealed equally to grunts in German, American, and British uniforms during World War II. Born on December 27, 1901 in Berlin at 9:15 PM, Marlene Dietrich spoke English in an accent all her own, with traces of German, schoolgirl British, and a sexy lisp. Acting in movies, performing in clubs, and doing one-woman shows in big West End theaters, she glowed in Der Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternburg, 1930) prior to a long Hollywood career working with von Sternburg again and later with Hitchcock, Welles, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, and other Hollywood professionals. (Of Welles, she told aspiring actresses, "you should cross yourself when you say his name.") She played opposite Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy, and took pride in having slept with three Kennedy men: Joe Sr, Joe Jr, and JFK. She lived to a grand old age and died in Paris on May 6, 1992, spoiling the birthdays of Tony Blair, George Clooney, and Professor Martha Nussbaum.
When Rodgers and Hart wrote that "the most beautiful girl in the world / isn't Grabo, isn't Dietrich," the songwriters confirm that Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich ran one-two in virtually all international blonde bombshell competitions in the fourth and firth decades of the twentieth century. Garbo (“I want to be alone”) had the reputation of a recluse and the silence of the lovers on Keats's Grecian urn. Dietrich, on the other hand, never could resist donning a man's top hat and sitting on top of the piano singing a sexy song in her hoarse voice and irresistible lisp. Dietrich sang in three languages (she does Piaf-like French ballads well) with a voice that made up in sheer sexual horsepower what it lacked in vocal range and power. Ich bin von kopf bis fus auf liebe eingestellt is even better in German than in the English version that begins “Falling in love again, / Never wanted to, / What am I to do, / Can’t help it.” She made that song seem autobiographical, the story of the female enchantress who can't blame herself for leading men like lambs to the slaughter. Anyone else singing the song sounds like an imitator. Of how many singers and songs can this be said? Not many.
Lorenz Hart rhymed “Dietrich” with “sweet trick” in “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” which I believe is a waltz but which I heard Sinatra sing at an incredibly fast tempo in a television concert in the late 1960s. Dietrich had major affairs with Sinatra, Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, and Edward R. Murrow, and was bi-sexual. There is a rumor that she went down on Tallulah Bankhead at a party. In the dictionary of slang that Oxford University Press published, the phrase that most fascinated her was "cock holster," denoting the mouth in the act of oral sex though she could think of other apt uses for the phrase. In 1930 she measured at 35-24-33.
Marlene's natal chart reveals a lusty Capricorn with hard-working Virgo rising. Behind the scenes swift Mercury and blonde Venus play games of cache-cache inspiring all who watch to imitate the frolicking gods of Olympus. Dietrich's Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are in Capricorn, her moon in Leo. This is consistent with her talent for arousing attention, her ability to communicate desire mixed up with wickedness and danger, and her hard-boiled complexity. She can sound sardonic or melancholy, jaded or contemptuous, and this adds a layer of depth to her poker-faced personality. Her eyes say she's seen it all and a lot of "it" was shitty. :Dressed in a man’s suit, tie, and shirt with French cuffs, she holds an unlighted cigarette between forefinger and thumb, waiting for you to light her with your Lucifer. And you will.
The Geneva School of astrology holds that when your mid-heaven is in Taurus and the constellations are in their proper order, the chances are that you will grow to a height of five feet six inches, if you're a woman, and that is exactly how tall Marlene was, and blonde, with lush lipstick that she needed to renew after every kiss she bestowed. Her cards (the Chariot, the Moon, the Knave of Swords, the Nine of Wands) reinforce the impression of a woman of rare beauty and charm. A palm reading indicates a fluency in languages, an appetite for sex, and a pair of shapely legs. The yin in her chart outweighs the yang by a healthy margin. But there is enough stellar ambiguity to make her the object of desire of males across the sexual spectrum. She is a role model for dominant women and an icon of veneration among the submissive. It is said there are two kinds of men. One kind favors Garbo, the Swedish goddess, who played Anna Karenina; the other goes for Dietrich, who would be terribly miscast as Anna Karenina. But you had to live in the twentieth century to grasp all the implications of this statement.
The greatness achieved in the career of Marlene Dietrich implies what Frankfurt School astrologists call a "fifth house dominant personality." I do not know what this means, but it sounds right. As a young woman Dietrich starred as a sultry seductress, the cabaret singer who turns the starchy professor into a lovesick bum in Blue Angel. She is Circe mixed with Carmen, radiating confidence. She demands at least as much from a man. “Give me the man who does things, does things to my heart, / I love the man who takes things into his hands and gets what he demands.” Ein Mann, ein richtige Mann! The strong and silent type, under a big palm tree. She'll see what the boys in the back room will have and tell them she cried, and tell them she sighed, and tell them she died of the same.
Several notable aphorisms have been attributed to the charming, alarming Blonde Venus: "Most women set out to change a man, and when they have changed him they do not like him." "A country without bordellos is like a house without bathrooms."" In America, sex is an obsession; everywhere else, it's a fact."
Dietrich is the ultimate sex symbol because in any relationship with her the forces of Thanatos are constantly threatening to create a crisis that the forces of Eros must confront. That raspy, intimate, seductive, threatening voice challenged or dared the manliness of any man: you’d pretty much have to be John Wayne to impress her, or Gary Cooper in his prime. Tyrone Power thought he would double-cross her in Witness for the Prosecution. He thought wrong. She could do a “ducky” English accent. During the war she transcended the conflict: Allied and Axis soldiers alike responded to Dietrich’s rendition of “Lilli Marlene.” And she retained her status as a sex symbol well into her 70s. Her appeal is enhanced by her power to do harm or to witness destruction without blinking. In Touch of Evil, she read Orson Welles's palm and knew his future was a blank card. And she kept a straight face while telling him.
Marlene Dietrich added something vital to every movie she was in, from a second tier Hitchcock effort to Judgment at Nuremburg, where, as Spencer Tracy’s confidante, she stands for nothing less than Germany herself, a magnificent blonde who once owned a brothel. -- DL
Back when the word "blog" did not exist, or maybe it did but I didn't know from it, I got the plum of an assignment from editor Richard Snow of American Heritage. Actually it was I who sold him on the idea at a luncheon meeting at Volare, an old Italian resturant on West 4th Street that Richard favors. With an assist from management, which obligingly played "The Best is Yet to Come" and "Witchcraft," "You Make Me Feel So Young" and "Come Fly with Me," I told anecdotes about Sinatra and must have done so well enough because I got the green light for a long piece -- up to ten thousand words -- on the old blue-eyed boy. I did it under the title "Frankophilia: Why Sinatra is our Greatest Singer, Period." I've long wanted to reprint this piece, with certain revisions and augmentations as would inevitably occur, but in the meantime I wondered whether it might be available on line. I found this link, which gets you to the first three or four paragraphs at least.
Maybe there's a way to get further. I will keep looking. If not, and in the meantime, here's my opening. I can't resist adding or changing a sentence here or there. If there is an audience for this I will post more from the piece -- and use the occasion to revise and augment -- so let me know, dear reader, whose wish is my command.
Byline: Lehman, David Volume: 53 Number: 6 ISSN: 00028738 Publication Date: 11-01-2002 Page: 30 Type: Periodical [American Heritage]. Language: English
BY DAVID LEHMAN
AT ZITO'S BAKERY ON BLEECKER STREET, a Greenwich Village institution, there are two framed photographs on the wall behind the counter. One is a picture of the Pope. The other is a picture of Frank Sinatra smiling broadly and holding a loaf of Zito's bread.
Directly after every baseball game the Yankees win at Yankee Stadium, the public-address system plays Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York." When the Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves in the sixth and final game of the 1996 World Series, capping an improbable comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit, it seemed as if everyone in the stadium was singing along, swelling the final chorus: "And if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere, / It's up to you, / New York, New York." The aging Sinatra -- he was in his sixties when he recorded "New York, New York," the last of his blockbuster hits -- does amazing things with the initial And in the lines just quoted, twisting and turning the word as if it contained not one but three or four syllables; the voice seems to go down a valley and come back up a hill on the other side. The gesture is inimitable though it also invites imitation, and watching a Sinatra fan trying to duplicate the effect can be very entertaining. Here it was the instrument of joyous release. Here you had a crowd approaching 60,000 people getting into the act. It was a great moment of New York solidarity, and it was also in its way an expression of Frankophilia, the populace's love for the greatest of all popular American singers.
Few people, and fewer nonathletes, know what it feels like to bring 60,000 cheering fans to their feet. Sinatra had that power. It was (and still is) his voice that thousands of men hear coming out of their mouths in the shower. His is the voice of cities: "New York, New York" at Yankee home games (and in the closing credits of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam). "My Kind of Town" at Chicago's United Center, where the Bulls of Michael Jordan held court and which Sinatra officially opened with one of his last live concerts. And "Chicago" ("that toddlin' town") in the Chicago Cubs' venerable Wrigley Field.
In each case it is not precisely the song itself but the Sinatra version of the song that has established itself as our public voice, the surrogate voice of the man in the street, the fan, the voice of heroes but also of losers, mutts, and sobbing drunks. He owns a great many songs. Thus we have records like Keely Sings Sinatra (2001), featuring Keely Smith singing "My Way" and "It Was a Very Good Year," and Tony Bennett's Perfectly Frank, which includes "One for My Baby" and "Angel Eyes." A favorite CD of mine, Blue Note Plays Sinatra (1996), consists of jazz treatments of Sinatra songs. There's Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with "Come Rain or Come Shine," Freddie Hubbard with "All or Nothing at All," Dexter Gordon with "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Cannonball Adderley with "Dancing in the Dark," Sonny Rollins with "I've Got You Under My Skin," The Three Sounds with "Witchcraft" and "It Was a Very Good Year," Jacky Terrasson with "I Love Paris," Miles Davis with "It Never Entered My Mind," Ike Quebec with "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," Bennie Green with "This Love of Mine," and Joe Lovano with "Angel Eyes." In what sense are these Sinatra songs? Except for "This Love of Mine," for which he wrote some of the lyrics, Sinatra wrote none of them, but he sang them so well that they are forever associated with him. Seldom can a performing (or interpretive) artist lay claim to such an almost authorial relationship to material someone else composed.
In the Hollywood version of Guys and Dolls (1955) Marlon Brando plays Sky Masterson and Sinatra plays Nathan Detroit. Conventional wisdom has it that both are miscast, because Masterson has to do more singing and Brando does not have the better singing voice. I happen to like Sinatra's performance as Nathan Detroit, who runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." It's a persona he would relish in the first of the Rat Pack movies, Ocean's Eleven (1960), a comic caper in which Sinatra and company (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, et al.) conspire to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. In Ocean's Eleven, Angie Dickinson, playing Sinatra's estranged wife, tells him that he "could never love a woman the way you love danger." What he leads is "not a life, it's a floating crap game."
What he leads, too, is a talented band of guys who love pleasure, gambling, women, drinking, singing and laughing at each other's jokes and stunts -- and who have the joie de vivre, or the manic-depressive stamina, to film during the day and do a night club act at night. Viva Las Vegas. It was, you might say, all an act, but you'd be equally justified to call it a way of life. A life of high ambition -- in more than one genre and by more than one standard, a popular as well as a critical one. Habitual defiance of expectations. Living the lows, taking the blows. A glass of Jack Daniel's on the rocks "or whatever gets you through the night" and then up and at 'em. Wall Street opens with an aerial view of lower Manhattan in early mornig, and the voice of Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon," and though I know that others -- such as the first men on the moon -- associate the song with other places or activities, hearing it me think of that street of dreams that begins at a river and ends in a graveyard.
Sinatra, who wanted the role Brando got in Guys and Dolls, did go on to record Sky Masterson’s best song, “Luck Be A Lady,” triumphantly in 1963. He performed the song often in concert afterward, and you may catch a snatch of it during a vodka commercial set at a gambling resort. It is the pure sound of bravado -- it does justice to this high point in Frank Loesser's songwriting career. But the linkage of Brando and Sinatra at the top of the ticket in Guys and Dolls marks a confluence too rich to go unremarked, because Sinatra is to singing what Brando is to acting: a method actor, who doesn’t just sing a song but lives it. He inhabits a song as Brando inhabits the roles of Stanley Kowalski, the rebellious biker in The Wild One, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and Don Corleone.
Sinatra has, one may say, narrative ability. He turns a song into an intimate, seemingly autobiographical short story, usually a love story as told from the heights of romantic excitement (“I’ve Got the World on a String”) or the depths of romantic despair (“I’m a Fool to Want You”). At an academic conference devoted to Sinatra at Hofstra University in November 1998, the year of his death, the singer Julius LaRosa (who sang on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show in the 1950s -- and was famously fired on the air for allegedly lacking humility) chose Sinatra’s version of “I Get a Kick Out of You” to illustrate the singer’s narrative approach. “He sang the song not as it is written, not as a band (or dance) song, but as a song with a story to tell,” LaRosa said. On another occasion, LaRosa remarked that Sinatra could “turn a thirty-two bar song into a three-act play.”
To be continued. . .
There’s an old French saying,
“the whole of a man’s mystery
rests in his hat,” and if you
translate it into American
you get Sinatra smoking
and singing “Memories of
You,” “I Thought About You,”
“You Make Me Feel So Young,”
and “You Brought A New
Kind of Love to Me,” all
from the same 1956 session,
I love that voice and have since
the summer I was eight and
my friend Ann and I sang “Love
and Marriage” on Talent Night
at the bungalow colony when I’m
down there’s nothing like you,
birthday boy, singing “All of Me”
to lift me up and when I’m in love
I jump out of bed in the morning
singing “It All Depends on You” and
your voice comes out of my mouth
-- David Lehman (12 / 12 / 97)
from The Daiy Mirror (Scribner, 2000)
Max Steiner composed some exciting suspense music for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’s 1946 movie of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It is very effective, and so, in its way, is the swinging number Lauren Bacall and band perform at the casino run by racketeer Eddie Mars: And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine (music Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence, lyrics Joe Greene). The lyric locates us in noir central: “She’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted valentine.” But my favorite musical moment in The Big Sleep is subtle enough that you might not notice it the first time around. Bacall (as one of the notorious Sternwood sisters) and co-star Humphrey Bogart (as detective Philip Marlowe) are bantering in a restaurant. In the background, a piano player is playing two great jazz standards: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz) and Blue Room (music Richard Rodgers, lyrics Lorenz Hart). At first you might think that what you’re hearing is just tremendously appealing café music. Only later do you realize that the two songs themselves have captured, in a whimsical fashion, the structural meaning of the scene.
The Big Sleep will culminate in the image of two lighted cigarettes in an ashtray as the words THE END appear on the screen. It’s a fitting image for the romance of Bogart and Bacall, who like to smoke and drink and make witty repartee in a roadhouse café. The by-play between the two romantic leads is utterly charming, but it is also, for much of the picture, utterly incongruous because incompatible with the story-line. The movie needs them to be lovers, the audience expects them to flirt, to link, and to clinch, and this duly happens, but at considerable violence to the logic of the plot, which puts their characters on the opposite sides of a quarrel.
Though this duality may threaten the coherence of the picture, it makes the scenes between Bogart and Bacall doubly entertaining. The dialogue is full of double meanings and playful digressions. In the restaurant scene with the piano soundtrack, the two are nursing their drinks. They employ an extended racetrack metaphor to communicate their sexual interest. She: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.” He invites her to take a stab at summing him up. “I’d say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.” He: “You don't like to be rated yourself.” She: “I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?” He: “Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.” She: “A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”
The ostensible purpose of the encounter is for Bacall to pay Bogart off – to pay him for the work he has done and get him to drop the case. Thus: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan. Once this plot requirement is out of the way, Bacall and Bogart get down to the real cinematic purpose of their being there: to tease and flirt and advance their budding romance. And now the piano player plays Blue Room, which idealizes the successful outcome of such a romance. Lorenz Hart’s lyric stars you and me and the prospect of our betrothal and a subsequent time ever after when “every day’s a holiday, because you’re married to me.” It’s a song second perhaps only to Tea for Two (music Vincent Youmans, words Irving Caesar) as an idealized fantasy of marriage so beautifully innocent it almost brings tears to your eyes.
The Big Sleep needs the two songs in the background, and not simply because they are in exact counterpoint to the course of the conversation between Bogart and Bacall. A soundtrack of popular songs by Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Irving Berlin, and the other great masters of the thirty-two bar song is as necessary in noir movies of the 1940s as the city streets, the silhouette in the window, the Mickey disguised as a highball, and the night spots the characters frequent, from Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca (1942) to Eddie Mars’s casino in The Big Sleep, where beautiful costumed girls check Bogart’s coat, offer to sell him cigarettes, and vie for the privilege of delivering him a message.
Nor do the songs suffer from being relegated to background music, shorn of lyrics. The solo piano renditions of I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan and Blue Room insinuate themselves in your consciousness. If you don’t recognize them, fine; if you know them, so much the better. When you listen to an instrumental version of a song whose lyrics you know and like, what you’re hearing is a metonymy of the song: a part standing for the whole. The text is not altogether absent if you the listener can supply it. (When the septuagenarian Frank Sinatra went up on the lines of The Second Time Around the audience helpfully sang them). But to make my point about the interdependence of Hollywood films and popular songs, let me offer this montage:
-- -- What better way to convey the faithful consistency of “iron man” Lou Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman who long held the record for most consecutive games played, than with Irving Berlin’s song Always? In Pride of the Yankees (1942), the song does double duty as the musical affirmation of Gehrig’s loving fidelity to his wife, Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright.
-- Johnny Mercer’s lyric for Tangerine (music Victor Schertzinger) extols the charms of a vain and fickle Latin beauty. To the strains of this song, Barbara Stanwyck plays the ultimate femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), who conspires with insurance man Fred McMurray to eliminate her husband. In a flashback in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the same song plays on the car radio when Stanwyck, playing a neurotic heiress this time, flaunts her father’s wealth to betray a friend and seduce Burt Lancaster. The great Jimmy Dorsey big band version of this song features Bob Eberle’s romantic solo followed by Helen O’Connell’s brassy satirical retort.
-- As David Raksin’s theme for Laura (1944) plays in the background, the homicide detective played by Dana Andrews becomes obsessed with the murder victim, a beautiful dame (Gene Tierney), whose picture hangs on the wall. Laura obligingly returns to life -- the corpse in the kitchen belonged to somebody else – and whenever in future we need to summon her up, we need only hum Raksin’s theme. Johnny Mercer added his lyric to the music months after the movie was released.-- To Have and Have Not (1944) is notable for being the first movie pairing Bogart and Bacall. It’s the one in which the foxy young actress seduces the hardened skeptic by teaching him how to whistle: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The song she “sings” in the movie’s nightclub scene is How Little We Know (music Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics Johnny Mercer). There are three things to keep in mind about the scene. 1) It is the composer who is playing the piano. 2) The song is an under-appreciated gem in the Carmichael – Mercer canon; I like it almost as much as Skylark. 3) It is said that the young Andy Williams enhanced the voice coming out of the throat of Lauren Bacall. (4) Jacqueline Bouvier loved the song, and during her junior year in Paris, she wrote out the bridge in English and in her own French translation for the benefit of one of her French hosts.
-- In The Clock (1945) office worker Judy Garland meets soldier Robert Walker on a two-day leave in New York City. At the moment they realize they are falling in love, the piano player in the restaurant is playing If I Had You (music Ted Shapiro, lyrics James Campbell and Reginald Connolly).
-- Somebody puts a coin in the jukebox in the diner and out comes I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me (music Jimmy McHugh, words Clarence Gaskill), triggering the recollected psychodrama in Edgar Ullmer’s strange reverie of an unreliable (unbelievable) narrator in Detour (1945). The movie is a paranoid masterpiece, and the very title of the song goes to the heart of its mystery. The viewer “can’t believe” the events he or she is witnessing, because the narrator is either delusional or a liar or both in some blend. The same song punctuates The Caine Mutiny, where it has a more conventional signification.
-- A drunken Fredric March still in uniform and his game wife Myrna Loy dance to Among My Souvenirs (music Horatio Nicholls, lyrics Edgar Leslie) on his first night back from the war in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Hoagy Carmichael tickles the ivories at the gin joint where the reunited couple have gone with their daughter (Teresa Wright) and returning airman Dana Andrews.
-- Rita Hayworth invites the American male in the form of tightlipped Glenn Ford to Put the Blame on Mame (music Doris Fisher, lyrics Alan Roberts) in Gilda (1946). In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the same red-haired enchantress seduces Orson Welles and coyly sings Please Don’t Kiss Me (same songwriters), a phrase that says one thing and means its opposite. Given the way Hollywood films wink at one another, it’s no surprise that we hear an instrumental version of Put the Blame on Mame in the background when tough-guy Glenn Ford sets out to foil the killers in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
-- The radio reliably pours out love songs in keeping with the plot twists in Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict with a new face who will escape to South America with Lauren Bacall if he can figure out who killed his pal and framed him for the murder. During the course of the movie we hear instrumentals of I Gotta a Right to Sing the Blues (music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler), I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz)\, and Someone to Watch Over Me (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin). “You like swing, I see,” says Bogart. “Yes, legitimate swing,” Bacall counters. When Dark Passage gets serious about the love story, we see a record spinning on Bacall’s record player and the golden voice of Jo Stafford sings Too Marvelous for Words (music Richard Whiting, lyrics Johnny Mercer) and legitimates the romance.
-- In Key Largo (1948), the fourth Bogart-Bacall movie on this list, Claire Trevor plays a washed-up night-club singer and full-time lush in the entourage of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Trevor sings Moanin’ Low (music Ralph Rainger, lyrics Howard Dietz) a capella, her voice faltering, and when she finishes the torch song, says, “Can I have that drink now, Johnny?”
-- Manipulative Anne Baxter supplants Bette Davis as queen of the stage in All About Eve (1951), and the romantic Broadway ambiance of New York City is communicated in background instrumentals of all-star songs by Rodgers and Hart (Thou Swell, My Heart Stood Still), Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (Stormy Weather), Arlen and Johnny Mercer (That Old Black Magic), and Ralph Freed and Burton Lane (How About You?).The last named begins, “I like New York in June.”
The use of Among My Souvenirs in The Best Years of Our Lives is exemplary. Edgar Leslie’s 1927 lyric communicates regret at the passing of time. Trinkets and tokens diligently collected and treasured offer some consolation but do nothing to stop the flow of tears. In the movie, when the U. S. army sergeant played by March comes home he brings souvenirs of the Pacific war as gifts for his teenage son. But like the knife in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” when it has become a souvenir on the shelf after Crusoe returns home from his island, the mementos of the global conflict have lost their meaning. They seem vaguely unreal, lifeless. In contrast, the photograph of his wife that a hung-over March looks at the next morning – another sort of souvenir – has all the meaning in the world for him. And Among My Souvenirs – played on the piano by Hoagy Carmichael, hummed in the shower by a drunken March, and heard as background music -- unifies the whole sequence and endows it with the rich pathos that make the song so durable a jazz standard. I recommend that you listen to Art Tatum play it on the piano or, if you can get your mitts on it, a recording of Sinatra and Crosby doing it as a duet on television in the 1950s.
-- A version of this essay appears in Boulevard, ed. Richard Burgin.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.