This weekend we're spending some time with Judy Garland, who half-a-century ago - June 22nd 1969 - was found dead in the bathroom of her rented London mews house. We're focusing on late Judy not the child star phase, so, if you're expecting "Over the Rainbow", you can find my thoughts on that song here. We started with what Jonathan Last called my "beautiful, funny, sad" essay on the third Mr Judy Garland, Sid Luft. To close out the weekend here's the story of what became, as "Over the Rainbow" was to her youth, the great anthem of the mature years:
It's a smokey poky joint after closing, chairs upturned on tables. But the musicians are still around, and an aspiring singer, enjoined by the pianist to "Take it, honey, c'mon...", rises from the bench and starts to sing, moving among the players...
According to the American Film Institute, that's the eleventh greatest screen song in movie history. You don't really notice it unless someone points it out, but the director, George Cukor, shot the number in one fluid shot. It's a very different feel from the way musical films of the day inflated even intimate numbers, and certainly beyond the capacity of, say, La La Land. The number itself, however, had a far less smooth glide path to take-off. Its story begins a decade-and-a-half before Cukor director that scene. In 1941 the composer Harold Arlen was working with Johnny Mercer on the film Blues In The Night, for which they wrote the song "Blues In The Night", which would be enough for mere mortals. But Arlen cooked up another pretty good tune and Mercer put words to it:
I've seen Sequoia
It's really very pretty
The art of Goya
And Rockefeller City
But since I saw you
I Can't Believe My Eyes...
And that killed the tune stone dead. Go on, try it: Sing those words to the melody Judy's singing up above. It was cute-ish, after a fashion - although, when you get to the middle section, Mercer's not exacting some kind of revenge on the music:
You've got that ooh-la-la
That old je ne sais quoi
I feel like shoutin 'Ma!
Just my size!'
Arlen and Mercer were just at the beginning of a pretty good run through the Forties: "My Shining Hour", "That Old Black Magic", "Come Rain Or Come Shine", "One for My Baby (and one more for the road)"... But this time Mercer blew it: "I Can't Believe My Eyes" is a shallow lyric that doesn't say what the music says. Arlen alluded to it decades later, while careful to avoid mentioning the culprit by name:
I wrote a song with a pretty goddam wonderful lyric-writer. He brought me a lyric that didn't have any strength. Sometimes a lyric depletes a melody, just as a poor melody can deplete a good lyric.
"I Can't Believe My Eyes" never made it into the picture. Twelve years on, Arlen and Ira Gershwin had agreed to write the songs for a musical remake of the old Janet Gaynor/Fredric March film A Star Is Born. It would be remade yet again as a rock(-ish) musical in the Seventies, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (the less said about that the better) and then once more with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper just last year. The 1954 version was supposed to be Judy Garland's "comeback": she'd not made a film since MGM had canceled her contract four years earlier. Her new man, Sid Luft, was producing it at Warner Brothers. He'd hired the distinguished playwright Moss Hart for the script and the great George Cukor to direct, and Cukor wanted Cary Grant to star in the role of Judy Garland's mentor and husband, whose own star is eclipsed as Judy's rise. But Grant turned it down because (according to Cukor) "Judy Garland was a drug addict". The director then proposed Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, but Jack Warner nixed both. So James Mason was hired (and our late friend Kit Carson's uncle Jack for the third-billed role).
So Harold Arlen went round to Ira Gershwin's pad to work on the score. The house was on what was then the most glamorous street in Beverly Hills, 1021 North Roxbury Drive, next to what had once been the home of Ira's late brother George (1019 North Roxbury, where Rosemary Clooney was then living and would for the next half-century). Ira's secretary Lawrence Stewart sets the scene:
Harold Arlen arrives about two-thirty in the afternoon with his old tan briefcase under his arm... Gershwin moves to a cat-clawed green armchair nearer the piano, where he sits with Calliope, the Siamese, on his lap and pets her abstractedly as he smokes a cigar. He puts his glasses upon his forehead, leans back and closes his eyes, as he moves his hands in tempo with the music.
They wrote a couple of numbers, and then they turned to what Moss Hart called "the dive song" - because that's where it was going to be sung: in some basement nightclub after hours, with a just a small jazz combo. This was the score's designated Big Song and, as it was Judy's comeback picture, the Big song had to be Big!!! It had to land. Arlen noodled around on the keyboard and then started to play something.
And from the kitchen or the hall or some such Ira's wife Leonore called out:
Sounds like Gershwin to me!
I suppose she meant well, although with Lee Gershwin it wasn't always easy to tell. But Arlen froze. This was George Gershwin's old piano he was playing. George had died, not yet 40, in 1937, and a big part of Ira Gershwin the lyricist had died with him. Ira would write only very occasionally after that, usually when some good friend - Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Burton Lane - twisted his arm and dragged him into it. But, even more than those other composers, Arlen in particular felt the ghost of George. And here he was in the house next door to George Gershwin's, with George Gershwin's brother, playing George Gershwin's piano, and being told by George Gershwin's sister-in-law he was writing a pretty good imitation of a George Gershwin tune. Not an Arlen tune, but a Gershwin tune. I like a Gershwin tune - how about you, Harold?
So Arlen immediately abandoned his "sounds like Gershwin" composition and, for want of anything better, segued into that old trunk melody Johnny Mercer had wrecked twelve years earlier. As Lawrence Stewart put it, "When Ira heard this music he was instantly on the alert."
"Play it again," he instructed Harold. The composer did and Ira Gershwin sat back, eyes closed.
At the end, he leaned forward and whispered to the man at the piano: "'The Man That Got Away'."
"I like," replied Harold.
Ira attached great importance to titles and usually had great difficulty finding them, so this one came surprisingly easy. If you're about to object "Shouldn't it be 'The Man Who Got Away'?", well, no. Ira was thinking of the fisherman's traditional plaint: "You should have seen the one that got away." You had him, just for a while, but you couldn't quite reel him in. As I write in my book A Song For The Season (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available right here), Ira preferred what he called "the left-field or circuitous approach to the subject preponderant in Songdom" -ie, love songs:
Required to approach said preponderant subject less circuitously, the lyricist fell back on the lamest of lame clich├ęs. 'There have,' wrote Wilfrid Sheed, 'seldom been dumber words to anything than those of the young Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" and "The Man I Love".' Very true:
Someday he'll come along
The Man I Love
And he'll be big and strong
The Man I Love...
We'll build a little home
Just made for two
From which I'll never roam
Who would? Would you?
That's it? How could anyone do that to that music? Who would? Would you? But Ira, unlike Cole Porter, eschewed passion, no matter what George had going on in the music.
The fishing origins of the title suggest that Ira has latched on to yet another twee, amusingly literate angle on "the subject preponderant" - like "They All Laughed" or "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" - that will allow him to do the usual "circuitous" avoidance of having to say "I love you". Instead, in this, the last great lyric of a 35-year career, Ira Gershwin finally tackles "the subject preponderant" head on, and with real feeling:
The night is bitter
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
And suddenly you're older...
It took hours for those lines to emerge that day round the piano with Harold Arlen. Ira was always a slow writer. Stalled on "Embraceable You", he once holed up in a New York hotel room to emerge triumphantly 48 hours later with "Come to poppa, come to poppa, do" - which I don't think is worth the minibar tab, never mind the NYC room-occupancy tax, bellboy's tips, and all the rest. Like the proverbial angler, Ira had a hard time reeling this one in. He'd correctly figured that the main theme sounds better with the rhyme scheme AABB than with the ABAB form of Johnny Mercer's original:
I've seen the table
That held the Declaration
And Betty Grable
In my imagination...
Bitter/glitter and colder/older serves the tune much better. But Ira had a hard time getting there. Originally he started out with:
There's just no sleeping
Your eyes are red with weeping
Though you know better
You're waiting for that letter...
Which is like the torch-song version of "The Man I Love"'s vapidities. But he pushed on."Good riddance, goodbye", for the first five notes of the release, took half-a-day to come up with. And there were a lot of notes to fill: "Arlen is no 32-bar man," observed Ira in his book Lyrics On Several Occasions, and it's true. "The Man I Love" is 62 bars. It's not a blues in the twelve-bar "Well, I woke up this morning" sense, but it's blues-infused, and it obliged Ira Gershwin to write with a rare emotional directness:
The road gets rougher
It's lonelier and tougher
With hope you burn up
Tomorrow he may turn up
There's just no let-up
The live-long night and day...
When they'd finished, they knew they had something special. At which point Arlen announced he was going to Palm Springs for the weekend. Ira Gershwin didn't like the sound of that: for one reason or another, he wanted to keep the song under his hat for a while, and he knew Judy Garland, Sid Luft and Moss Hart were all in Palm Springs, and Arlen was almost bound to run into one or all of them. So Ira made Harold swear not to breathe a word about the song.
Saturday morning in Palm Springs, and Arlen heads to the Tamarisk Country Club and the first people he sees, just about to tee off, are Sid and Judy. And so Harold joins the Lufts and a hole or two later, just as Sid's putting, Harold finds himself whistling a phrase from "The Man That Got Away". Some 20 yards away, Judy has an odd feeling: she recognizes that she doesn't recognize whatever it is he's whistling. So she asks, "What is that, Harold?"
"Oh, it's nothing," he says.
But a hole or two further on he finds himself whistling another phrase from the song, and Judy, by now suspicious, demands: "What are you whistling, Harold? Is that for A Star Is Born?"
He murmurs no, no, nothing could be further from his mind. But on the 18th hole he whistles it again, and Sid Luft lobs his ball 320 yards into the sand trap, and, while he's digging it out, Judy drags Harold back to the clubhouse, sits him down at the piano, and forces him to play that damn tune he's been whistling all day.
And so he does. And she's delighted.
And, when Sid gets out of the sandpit, she calls him in to hear it. And he loves it. And Sid wants Moss Hart to hear it, so they all go round to Frank Sinatra's place, where Moss Hart and my old chum Kitty Carlisle are staying (Kitty and I used to introduce the "Lost Musicals" at the Barbican in London a zillion years ago). And there they run into a slight hiccup, because, somewhat remarkably, there's no piano at the Sinatra compound. But next door is the old Jolson pad, where Joley's widow Erle now lives with the screenwriter Norman Krasna, who'd just finished White Christmas. So off they go and Arlen plays it again, and the Lufts love it, and the Harts love it, and the Krasnas love it, and pretty soon half of Palm Springs has heard it, and "The Man That Got Away" has become the song that got away - from Ira Gershwin. And, while Arlen is still wondering how he's going to explain all this to his writing partner, Moss Hart wanders back to the Sinatra house and calls Ira to rave that the new song is going gangbusters "out of town".
It didn't go so gangbusters when Judy Garland got to the studio
For his part, George Cukor felt that she sang it "too loud", but, given that her husband was the film's producer, he couldn't figure out a way to tell her that that wouldn't cost him his job. But, as he forcefully complained to Hugh Martin, "Can't you do anything to stop her yelling it?" If you've heard part two of our tribute to him, you'll know that Hugh, the composer of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", was the vocal arranger on A Star Is Born and felt that she should sing it a tone down. Judy arranged a run-through in the lower key, gave a lackluster performance, and then sneered at him before the full room, "Admit it, Hugh. You're wrong. You're so f**king wrong about the lower key." And, being a rather shy and retiring fellow, he replied, "I don't know why you bother asking me, Judy. I'm always so f**king wrong." And she said, "You got that f**king right." And so, in front all the musicians and everyone else, Hugh picked up his arrangements, walked out the studio door, got into his car, and it wasn't until he was far from Hollywood and driving through the Rockies that he switched on the radio and heard she'd fired him from the picture.
It was that kind of a movie. And maybe because he didn't like her vocal performance it took Cukor a while to figure out how to film it. They shot it three different ways, months apart, before he finally, notwithstanding the "yelling", got what he wanted:
After turning in a film lasting three-and-a-quarter hours, George Cukor himself wound up being removed from the picture. But, with its release still some months away, one afternoon Ira Gershwin got a phone call from Frank Sinatra, who'd been thinking about the song since Judy and Sid and Harold all showed up on his doorstep looking for Moss Hart and a piano. Frank explained that he'd like to record "The Man That Got Away". Ira pointed out that the instance of "man" in the title "usually limits the rendition of a song to female vocalists". But Sinatra was the first male vocalist at ease with the vulnerability of the more overwrought sections of the distaff repertoire: he enjoyed singing female songs and he actively sought them out. So he pointed out to Ira that, aside from switching a few pronouns, all that was needed was a modification to the ending:
Ever since this world began
There is nothing sadder than
A one-man woman looking for
The Man That Got Away...
The lyricist considered the matter and, with Frank hanging on the line, Ira improvised:
Ever since this world began
There is nothing sadder than
A lost, lost loser looking for
The Gal That Got Away...
Frank liked the line and wrote it down. "His excellent recording resulted, and 'The Gal That Got Away' got away with it," wrote Ira, while primly noting that "a sex transilience of this sort is unusual".
Ira Gershwin's right: Sinatra's record, to a great Nelson Riddle arrangement, is indeed "excellent". I'm not sure one can say the same about that "lost, lost loser" modification. But "The Gal That Got Away" entered the Billboard charts in July 1954, followed by Judy Garland's own version in August. Frank got to Number Twenty-One, Judy to Number Twenty-Two. If there was any rivalry between the two, it had vanished by the end of September, when Sinatra attended the premiere of Judy's movie and was effusive in his praise. So were the critics. Time reported that Arlen and Gershwin had given Miss Garland "one unforgettable lump in the throat, 'The Man That Got Away'. Her big dark voice sobs, sighs, sulks and socks them out like a cross between Tara's harp and the late Bessie Smith." As he had done fifteen years earlier with "Over the Rainbow", Arlen had given Garland a song that her fans would call out for at every concert for the rest of her short life.
Still, Riddle's arrangement for Sinatra is, I think, far superior to Skip Martin's on the Garland record. Frank and Judy were fast friends for life, and he was there for her when a lot of others weren't - which was more demanding than you might think. As I wrote in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade:
Between bust-ups and reconciliations, Judy was finding consolation elsewhere. She'd go round to Sinatra's pad and hector Frank into having sex with her. He would plan a quiet night sitting in his orange mohair sweater reading Bennett Cerf, only to look down and find Judy trying to pull his pants off. One night her TV producer, Bill Colleran, was at her place watching the show when he noticed her hand on his crotch. "I can't," he protested quaintly. "I'm married." Judy flounced across the room and sighed, "Nobody wants to f**k the legend."
But Sinatra respected her professionally and, perhaps out of deference to her claim on the song, for the rest of her short life he didn't return to "The Gal That Got Away" as often he might have. After her death, however, "The Man That Got Away" languished. In Britain in the Seventies, the camp comic Larry Grayson used a fabulous thumping vamp of its main theme as the signature tune for his TV show - a joke I doubt very few of his millions of fans got, but a splendid jest nonetheless. But in the wider world the song seemed to be having a bit of difficulty until in the late Seventies Sinatra paired it with Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" for a killer saloon-song medley he would sing almost every night for his last two decades on stage. His pianist and musical director Vincent Falcone, Jr tells me the story of that great arrangement in one of our Sinatra centenary audio specials, so I won't reprise it here. But I would like to note a very rare Sinatra live performance of the song during Judy Garland's lifetime.
It was This is with Quincy Jones and the Count Basie band on the "Hollywood Palace" TV show in 1965, with Frank backed by Quincy Jones and the Count Basie band. They've slowed down the Nelson Riddle arrangement, and it's on its way to becoming a saloon song:
No more that all-time thrill
'Cause you've been through the mill
And never a new love will be the same...
The next passage - around "But fools will be fools" can be especially tough for a singer, as the vocal line and the harmony seem to part company, and it's very easy to find yourself adrift while almost atonal chords are flying all around you. Frank and the Basie band get through it, and he's so on top of all the drama, all the storytelling. Sinatra could be very tentative on TV, especially in ballads, because there are so many technical considerations with the medium and he hated having to do retakes. But on live TV he was often more relaxed. And on this broadcast, after a magnificent set ("Fly Me to the Moon", "Please Be Kind", "Too Marvelous for Words", "Everybody Has a Right to be Wrong") he got just a wee bit too relaxed and made one mistake - but it's a doozy. In an otherwise peerless rendition, he botched Ira Gershwin's rewritten ending and reverted to the female original:
Ever since this world began
There ain't nothing sadder than
A one-man woman...
Uh-oh. You can hear a little something in his voice - he knows he's gone astray - but there's nowhere to go, so he concludes Sapphically:
...a one-man woman looking for
The Gal That Got Away...
And he takes a pause before starting the leisurely out-vocal and you can see on his face that he knows he's blown it. It starts at about 11-45 below, as Frank introduces "one of the great Judy Garland songs":
The poor chap's devastated. It's still a great performance, but I like to think that's just God's way of reminding even the greatest star that "The Gal That Got Away" is still "The Man That Got Away", and his old friend's song. If you're a singer, you're always being asked to sing other people's songs, and Judy Garland had a great line when invited to sing "I've Got You Under My Skin" or "Mack the Knife" or any other thing indelibly linked to another performer: "That song has been sung."
And so it is with "The Man That Got Away": That song has been sung.
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" - in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy special Steyn Club member pricing.
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