In recent days, I've been commenting on Turner Classic Movies' pitiful descent into what I called on Tucker "the humbug of woke". In order to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's or Stagecoach or My Fair Lady or Gunga Din or Psycho, you first have to sit through a panel discussion from the hacks and mediocrities who have succeeded the great Robert Osborne as the face of the channel in which they explain what's "problematic" about the film. This is TCM utterly betraying its mission.
I was particularly sad to see a harmless little trifle like Swing Time (1936) conscripted into this grim pantheon. As I said on Thursday's Clubland Q&A, the only thing that's "problematic" about Swing Time is that our popular culture is so totally crapped out there is nobody in Hollywood today who could do what they did in that movie. No one could write the songs Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields turned in in nothing flat; no one could routine them like Fred Astaire and his longterm choreographer Hermes Pan did; and no one could dance them like Astaire and Ginger Rogers did - even with CGI. And no one could hold all the elements together like RKO producer Pandro Berman did as merely one of a zillion balls he was juggling that week.
We've featured a lot of movie songs in this space, but to date only one motion picture has supplied two Songs of the Week: Both "Pick Yourself Up" and "The Way You Look Tonight" come from Swing Time - how problematic is that? Now we make it a hat-trick with a third Swing Time number. The Fred & Ginger pictures had plots in which everyone knew they'd be getting together but you had to spend ninety minutes watching ever more convoluted obstacles being thrown in their path. So the songwriters were obliged to invent a new sub-genre of non-love song in which the protagonists explain to each other why this thing is a total bust. George and Ira Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" is one such example, as is this week's song. Here's how Astaire & Rogers introduced it to the world, during an interlude during a snowy drive in the countryside. He's pretending not to like her, or she's pretending not to like him. Or both. No matter:
A Fine Romance
With no kisses
A Fine Romance
My friend, this is...
On the original sheet music Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields called their number "a sarcastic love song". That's never going to be competitive with "The Way You Look Tonight", which is what I called an über-standard - one of those half-dozen songs ("It Had To Be You", "The Very Thought Of You") that represent the heights of the popular catalogue, the ones that will still be around when everything else has fallen away. But from Kern & Fields even a "sarcastic love song" is still pretty choice. As I write in Mark Steyn's American Songbook:
By the mid-1930s, Kern, composer of Show Boat and much else, was the dean of American songwriters. Richard Rodgers used to say that he had one foot in the old world and one in the new. That's to say, Kern wrote gorgeous ballads, and in his days with P G Wodehouse fun comedy numbers, but he had no great interest in swing, and his occasional forays into more vernacular forms can sound faintly condescending: 'Can't Help Lovin' That Man Of Mine' bears the marking 'Tempo di blues'.
But, after Wodehouse, most of his collaborators were younger men who were a little in awe of the founding father of the American musical. He was so admired by his lyricists that, in a sense, they wrote to him – to his preferred style. Even Johnny Mercer, a master of hipster slang and jive talk and southern charm, chose a more restrained formal voice when he worked with Kern: 'I'm Old Fashioned', 'Dearly Beloved', 'You Were Never Lovelier'.
The exception was Dorothy Fields, who came to the composer fresh from a string of pop hits with Jimmy McHugh ('I Can't Give You Anything But Love', 'Sunny Side Of The Street', 'Exactly Like You'), and drew out of Kern a quality you don't find in his other collaborations.
Jerome Kern is the composer of "Ol' Man River" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "All The Things You Are" and much else, but three-quarters of a century after his death the most performed and recorded Kern tunes are the ones he wrote with Miss Fields, beginning with their very first hit, "I Won't Dance". The songs he wrote with Fields are unlike anything else in the Kern catalogue – and (to return to that Richard Rodgers assessment) with both feet planted firmly in the New World. "Dorothy wrote so many good songs with Jerry," James Hammerstein told me years back. "I think 'I Dream Too Much' is just bewitching; some of the funnier ones - 'A Fine Romance', 'Bojangles Of Harlem', that whole score is marvelous. 'Pick Yourself Up' is one of his better 'up' tunes."
Most of Kern's best "up" tunes were written with Dorothy Fields. But it didn't come easy to him. When Fred Astaire first heard the score for Swing Time, he had a problem. As he told Miss Fields, "Can't this guy write anything hot?" Dorothy sympathized, and Fred came round to the house and tapped his way up and down the living room and up and down the stairs and eventually Kern got with the beat. Astaire wanted to do a number paying tribute to the styles of great black dancers, and the writers obliged with "Bojangles Of Harlem": Needless to say, that's what's now "problematic" to the woke wankers of TCM.
The plot was the usual hooey, but it was lightly worn: Astaire plays a chap who turns up so late for his own wedding that his father-in-law-to-be tells him to get lost and not come back unless he's got twenty-five grand and thereby demonstrated he's a solid citizen. Looking for the quickest way to come up with the cash, Fred runs into a dance instructress, played by guess who. Complications ensue, but so does song and dance. Astaire and Rogers always got the best songwriters – Irving Berlin, the Gershwins – but you could certainly argue that Kern & Fields delivered the best of all the Fred-&-Ginger scores. In the grand tradition, the New York Times reviewer failed to hear any merit in it. Over to you, Frank S Nugent:
Right now we could not even whistle a bar of 'A Fine Romance', and that's about the catchiest and brightest melody in the show. The others - 'Pick Yourself Up,' 'Bojangles in Harlem,' 'The Way You Look Tonight,' 'Waltz in Swing Time' and 'Never Gonna Dance' - are merely adequate or worse.
"Pick Yourself Up" "adequate"? And "The Way You Look Tonight" "worse"? Eighty-five years on, Swing Time's score contains some of the composer's hottest numbers in every sense – his most performed compositions, and songs with a sensibility utterly different from the broad arioso ballads and charm songs he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein, Otto Harbach and others. For "A Fine Romance", Kern ordered Miss Fields, twenty years his junior, to go off and come up with "a sarcastic love ballad", and, for one of only two occasions in their decade-long collaboration, Dorothy wrote a complete lyric and gave it to her composer to set. Jerome Kern usually wrote the music first, and Dorothy Fields, like most lyricists, preferred it that way. Lyric writers tend to be more sensitive to the contours of tunes than composers are to the requirements of words. But Kern was having such difficulty getting jazzed up for Astaire that, for both "Fine Romance" and "Pick Yourself Up", Miss Fields went home and wrote the entire lyric cold. "Pick Yourself Up" never ceases to amaze me. By which I mean not only that she wrote something so rhythmic and propulsive straight out on a piece of paper, but also that Kern looked at the lyric and somehow heard it as a wildly swinging polka. Hey, why not? For the second song, he eyed the text, and musicalized it brilliantly. Notice how the increasing exasperation of the lyric is matched by the higher notes at the end of each line:
A Fine Ro-mance
With no kis-ses
A Fine Ro-mance
My friend, this is...
All really effective funny songs have seriously great tunes, and this one's no exception. For the second section, as Fields' text gets even drier, Kern's music gets more romantic:
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes...
Then back to the main theme:
A Fine Romance
You won't nestle
A Fine Romance
You won't wrestle...
Kern and Fields' pal Ira Gershwin had a little motto we like to quote in this space:
Once you've it
Dorothy Fields does. She declines to rhyme the word "romance" until the end of each chorus and, when she finally gets round to it, she bats it out of the park every time:
I might as well play bridge with my old maid aunts
I haven't got a chance
This Is A Fine Romance...
I've never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants...
You're just as hard to land as the Île de France...
You never give the orchids I send a glance
No, you like cactus plants
This is A Fine Romance...
By the way, in the first part of the chorus it's a fine RO-mance, but in the last line it's a fine ro-MANCE.
In the film, Ginger gets two choruses and Fred the last, before Ginger slams the car door and drives off, exasperated. To be honest, Miss Rogers' phrasing is a bit seesaw-y, and I regard Astaire's vocal on his Number One record with Johnny Green as far superior:
But even then it's not the whole story. Miss Fields actually wrote four choruses, although very few singers sing more than three and a fair bit of line-trading occurs as boy and girl vocalists pick the rhymes that suit them best. A lot of the text fixes the song precisely in the era of its birth. The hard-to-land Île de France was the first great luxury liner of the 'tween-wars era. It made its maiden voyage in 1927 and by 1936 was famous enough to be name-checked in two enduring songs of that year. "A Fine Romance" was one; the other was "These Foolish Things":
The park at evening when the bell has sounded
The Île de France with all the gulls around it
The beauty that is spring's
These Foolish Things
Remind me of you...
Oddly enough, the French lyric (which you can hear me sing here) dumps the Île de France for a newer model:
Ce vieux billet, chérie, qui me rappelle
Les nuits à bord du Normandie, si belles
La lampe qui repose
Ces petites choses
Me parlent de vous...
The Normandie was commissioned in 1935 and was faster than the Île de France. It was also larger, and therefore presumably even harder to land. But, alas, it doesn't rhyme with "romance".
Less redolent of period is:
A Fine Romance
My good fellow
You take romance
I'll take Jell-O...
Jell-O dates from 1845 and is still around. Posterity has smiled less favorably on another product cited by Miss Fields:
We two should be like clams in a dish of chowder
But we just fizz like parts of a Seidlitz powder...
A Seidlitz powder came in two parts: one wrapped in blue paper, one in white. You took it for indigestion and it had mild laxative properties.
This couplet was up to the minute:
True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has
We don't have half the thrills that 'The March Of Time' has...
"The March Of Time" , a weekly cinema newsreel melodramatically narrated by Westbrook Van Voorhis ("The Voice Of Doom"), had been launched the year before "A Fine Romance" was written, and was already a sensation. But, as Westbrook Van Voorhis liked to say, "Time ...marches on!" It certainly does. "The March Of Time" is gone, and the Île de France and Seidlitz powders, too. But "A Fine Romance" lives on, in versions from Sinatra to Ella and Louis to a very creditable Marilyn Monroe:
Plenty of the newer singers do it, too. I love the tone of Stacey Kent's voice, and am rather partial to this take:
Would you like to hear Dorothy Fields singing her lyric? Here she is back in the Seventies at the 92nd Street Y in New York:
And, just in case you think the song is so lyric-led an instrumental recording would be mostly pointless, well, there are a lot out there. Here's one I used to play on the radio a fair bit - by a brace of fiddlers from opposite worlds, Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli. First, Sir Yehudi, playing it the way the composer would have been partial to hearing it - and then M Grappelli, to settle the vexed question of whether Kern can swing:
Back in 1936, Miss Fields wrote some words you may not have heard that Kern put to a melody equally unfamiliar. They were on an unreleased Astaire record, and then sat in a vault for over half-a-century until Michael Feinstein put them down on CD and out into the world. This is the previously unknown verse to "A Fine Romance":
I don't need a moon, a nook
A tune for violins
Here with you, I need a book
And tons of aspirins
You must remember me
I seem to be the stranger on whose knee you sat
This great love
Your love I'm speaking of
I've got it up to here my dear, and that is that
A Fine Romance
With no kisses...
It's a competent verse, but you don't really need it. The moment you hear the first words of the chorus, you get the situation – and it's universal enough and familiar enough that, even though most of us either don't know the Ile-de-France or have only vague residual memories of a ship from yesteryear, the thrust of the song is so strong the occasional anachronistic image only adds to its potency. This song's a keeper:
I've never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants
I never get the chance
This is A Fine Romance
- and it is, still going strong after 85 years, and hopefully impervious to the vandalism of TCM.
~You can read more on Dorothy Fields in Mark Steyn's American Songbook, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn Store. And, if you're a Mark Steyn Clubber, do remember to enter your promo code at checkout for special member pricing.
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