Poet T.S. Eliot was born in Saint Louis 125 years ago today. He professed that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” His genius for making that immediate connection with readers earned him great success.
Here is a recording of Eliot (aka “Old Possum”) reciting an excerpt from that work:
While Eliot was fond of cats, four years ago it came to light––through the unpublished poem below––that he had a certain good-natured contempt for cows.
Of all the beasts that God allows
In England’s green and pleasant land,
I most of all dislike the Cows:
Their ways I do not understand.
It puzzles me why they should stare
At me, who am so innocent;
Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —
It’s positively truculent.
I’m very inconspicuous
And scarlet ties I never wear;
I’m not a London Transport Bus,
And yet at me they always stare.
You may reply, to fear a Cow
Is Cowardice the rustic scorns;
But still your reason must allow
That I am weak, and she has horns.
But most I am afraid when walking
With country dames in brogues and tweeds,
Who will persist in hearty talking
And stopping to discuss the breeds.
To country people Cows are mild,
And flee from any stick they throw;
But I’m a timid town bred child,
And all the cattle seem to know.
But when in fields alone I stroll,
Oh then in vain their horns are tossed,
In vain their bloodshot eyes they roll —
Of me they shall not make their boast.
Beyond the hedge or five-barred gate,
My sober wishes never stray;
In vain their prongs may lie in wait,
For I can always run away!
Or I can take sanctuary
In friendly oak or apple tree.
©The Estate of T. S. Eliot
Few artists create something so wholly original that they themselves become their own genre. This is certainly true of the Marx Brothers. The family of Jewish immigrant entertainers came from the vaudeville stage tradition – which included sight gags, one-liners, and musical and dance numbers – yet the brothers remain utterly unique, even among the vast variety inherent in vaudeville. There is a certain serendipity in these geniuses developing their craft at a pivotal moment in emerging media. The Marx Brothers were able to perfectly bridge an old-fashioned stage routine with the relatively newer medium of talking film, bringing an otherwise antiquated form of entertainment into the modern age seamlessly.
Part of their genius lies in their audacity, and it is the manic chaos they created that keeps their work from becoming dated. The films were made mostly in the 1930’s and 1940’s although, other than the occasional plot device, the gags are almost sui generis, entirely detached from any current outside events or influences. By creating these exaggerated characters, and playing them consistently in each film, they create their own world, which can be picked up and dropped into any time and any place. This creates a timelessness to their work and is the reason the films still play just as well today as ever. Part of this success was the fortuitous timing of talking films, but only these four brothers possessed the right kind of mad genius and grounded talent to have seized upon it so well.
The brothers were essentially born into show business, and were each musical from the start. In fact, their original act (including brother Gummo, who soon quit to fight in World War I) was primarily a musical one. Billed, in various incarnations, as The Four Nightingales or The Six Mascots, they played theaters, concert halls and other venues throughout the country as a vocal group. In response to audience behavior and events outside one particular venue Groucho began to incorporate off the cuff one-liners into their act, which immediately became more popular with audiences than the act itself. Eventually, the brothers morphed from a musical act with occasional comedy into a comedy act with occasional music. The Marx Brothers formula as we now know it was born, as was the classic line-up of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
Musical numbers remained a constant element of the formula. Groucho was an accomplished guitarist, studying the instrument for most of his life. But Groucho’s contribution to the musical numbers in the films was mostly as a comedic vocalist. He did not demonstrate the flashy virtuosity of Chico’s piano or Harpo’s harp, but his numbers became centerpieces of the films and some of the most memorable moments.
Two of his best-known numbers appear as a medley in 1930’s Animal Crackers, where Groucho plays the famed Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.
“Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” create a mock grand musical number complete with company chorus that heralds the arrival and celebrates the exploits of the famed African explorer. As always, Groucho’s unique dance moves are as graceful as they are ridiculous.
This fact I emphasize with stress,
I never take a drink unless –
I hate a dirty joke I do
Unless it’s told by someone who –
Knows how to tell it.
The Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg penned “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from 1939’s At the Circus became one of Groucho’s signature songs, and one which he continued to sing for the remainder of his life at appearances. (The occasional songwriting team of Arlen and Harburg wrote several songs together, most notably “Over the Rainbow.”) Continue reading →
It’s the holidays – that all-encompassing term we use to describe this time of year when we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice or whatever else you wish to add to your holiday list. The more the merrier. But when it comes to popular music, Christmas is by far the most significant holiday of the season. Christmas music is more than a genre of popular music; it has become an entire industry unto itself. Christmas songs cover virtually all aspects associated with the holiday, from the specific to the seasonal at large. From sacred songs about the birth of Jesus to silly songs about snowmen and Santa, to songs about winter weather or winter romance. Virtually every culture that celebrates Christmas has their own offering to the genre, from finding humor in ethnic stereotypes such as “Donde Esta Santa Clause” or “Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey,” to specific regional American subcultures like Alan Jackson’s “Honky Tonk Christmas” or James Brown’s “Santa Clause Go Straight to the Ghetto.”
“Christmas” is a feeling bigger than the specific day and, as a federal holiday, the atmosphere created by the general public discourse this time of year is inclusive for all Americans to enjoy. This is as true with music as with anything. One certainly does not need to be a Christian – or religious in any way whatsoever – to enjoy Dean Martin crooning “The Christmas Blues” or Charles Brown pleading his baby to “Please Come Home For Christmas” or The Ronettes inviting you to take a “Sleigh Ride,” or Judy Garland’s heart-wrenching “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis – one of American cinema’s greatest moments. Somehow, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Holiday” just lacks the same punch. Continue reading →
Legendary dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, producer and director Gene Kelly was born 100 years ago today. Although his career included several dramatic roles – including a memorable performance as a reporter based on H.L. Mencken in 1960’s Inherit the Wind – Kelly is best known for his immense contribution to that uniquely American art form – the musical comedy.
The musical was nothing new in the 1940’s and 1950’s when MGM was producing epic classics in all their Technicolor majesty. Ever since the dawn of sound recording in film, our first instincts were to sing – starting with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing away the 1930’s cheek to cheek right up through the Kelly-helmed masterpieces of the genre including Anchors Away (1945), An American in Paris (1951) and the inimitable Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which takes place during those transitional years from silence to sound. Not even bad weather, it seems, can keep us from singing on film.
Often times, in fact, the songs themselves weren’t even new. Continue reading →