As Janet and I continue our front row view of films that include some variety of nightclub scene featuring – as Rosemary Clooney might put it, “girl singers” – we are also keeping an eye on how much of this material is appearing in an expanding archive referred to these days as, The Great American Songbook. This chapter of Ladies of the Nightclubs introduces two songs that appear on that list. Chances are, much of America will recognize the melodies courtesy of high school bands marching through any half-time of any game, Anywhere, USA, and maybe at this year’s annual Rose Parade:
Dinah (1923). Music by Harry Akst; lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young
Some of These Days (1910). Music and lyrics by Shelton Brooks
I remember the first time I heard both of these Great American Songbook tunes. It happened one guilt-ridden morning when I was in 4th grade. I’d coughed my way into staying home from school to watch “The Morning Movie” on Channel 7. The featured film was MGM’s 1936 musical, Rose-Marie starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. By this point, the film had been out of reach for 22 years and, according to some folks, was just another old movie. Well, it wasn’t as old as my parents! All of “Hollywood” was new to me then. So were movies on TV. And TV itself! The truth was that I had become obsessed with these screenings of MGM movies and had fallen in love with the studio’s very glamorous resident soprano, Jeanette MacDonald. Since that fateful morning, the great melodies of Dinah and Some of These Days have never left my imagination and the film has proven to be a popular favorite on the Turner Classic Movie channel.
In 1936, red-headed superstar Jeanette MacDonald was at the peak of her beauty and box office appeal. The previous year she had co-starred with newcomer baritone, Nelson Eddy in the hugely popular musical, Naughty Marietta. The film’s director, W. S. Van Dyke knew how to shape Miss MacDonald’s comic abilities and arched manner into a persona that MGM would continue to exploit. The studio settled on the 1924 Broadway musical hit, Rose-Marie as her next film and again teamed her with Eddy and director, “One Take Woody” Van Dyke. Rather than build a Canadian forest in Culver City, the studio took a risk and decided to transport its stars and crew to location sites around Tahoe City and Emerald Bay.
The scene takes place in a low-brow saloon somewhere up in the desolate hills of Quebec. It’s even farther north than Jefty’s Place – that antler-covered combination lounge and bowling alley where we watched Ida Lupino smoke her way through a few great tunes including Again and One For My Baby. Even more remote than that. Jeanette plays the role of a high-toned Canadian opera diva, “Marie de Flor” – whose brother “Jack ” (Jimmy Stewart) is on the lam having just killed a Mounted Policeman. He needs her to slip past the reporters and the Indians and slip him enough cash to flee to China.
No sooner does Marie step off the ferry when her guide, “Boniface” – described as an untrustworthy half breed – runs off with her purse and the money she’s scraped together to get Jack on a fast boat to the Orient. Now literally up a creek and without a paddle, Marie hears music coming from a rowdy saloon. “Belle” (Gilda Gray), the girl singer inside, is grinding her way through a piece of honky-tonk. Maybe Marie can land a singing job and recoup some cash before the Mounties nail her brother! Let’s hope the old codger at the piano knows something from Madama Butterfly.
“What’s it gonna be, toots?” says Joe (Jimmy Conlin).
Marie shrugs. The proprietor told her to give ‘em something hot and that he doesn’t pay the singers. If the patrons like you, maybe they’ll toss some change. Joe points to a pile of sheet music. It’s all popular stuff, including Belle’s shimmy numbers. Marie thumbs through the selections. No. No. Don’t know it, never heard of it. She stops at Dinah.
“Is this hot?”
Joe perks up. “Oh! Nothing hotter!” He starts to play.
At the time of the film’s release, audiences would have been recalling several favorite recordings of Dinah and getting the joke about Classical singers and their disconnect from contemporary music.
“Could you put it up a key, please?”
“That’s the only key I know!”
She clears her throat, steps to the side of the piano and faces the noisy crowd. Joe keeps vamping the intro. What is she waiting for?
By 1936, both Dinah and Some of These Days had become permanent Pop/Standards and were well-known internationally. Dinah had been introduced on Broadway in 1923 by comic singer Eddie Cantor. The sheet music became available and was sold across the country. Ethel Waters recorded Dinah for Columbia Records in 1925. It was a huge success and jump-started the singer’s legendary career. The song’s saucy lyrics about an erotic connection to a girl named “Dinah” are made even more enticing in Waters’ ever vibrant recording. Prior to the filming of Rose-Marie, six other recordings were in circulation from major artists including Lucille Hegamin (who began as a singer at Woolworth’s in their Sheet Music Department), Cliff Edwards (the voice of “Jiminy Cricket”), Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers, Fats Waller, and Benny Goodman.
Everybody knew Dinah. Except for Canada’s most famous opera star, Marie de Flor. Back at the piano, Joe is getting super frustrated.
“When are you gonna start?!”
“I’m waiting for them to quiet down,” she says.
“Oh, come on! Forget it. Let’s go!” He starts to sing softly — “Dinah. Is there anyone finer…”
Marie jumps in, “…in the state of Carolina? If there is and you know her, show her to me. Dinah. With her Dixie eyes blazin’…” (At last! She’s found the rhythm.) “…how I love to sit and gaze-in to the eyes of Dinah Lee.”
It’s a typical night at the tavern. Marie sings through a cloud of smoke, a few drunks stumble over to the poker table, couples dance across the floor, two guys in suits (outsiders, no doubt) stand in front of her talking a business deal. But she keeps plugging through the song, smiling her best 8×10 glossy smile as though playing to the last row at the Royal Opera House – and there are only a few measures left. “But if Dinah, ever wandered to China, I would hop an ocean liner, just to be with Dinah Lee!’
“This is silly!” says Marie, totally deflated. The adored diva has hit rock bottom – not a dime in sight. Joe tells her to pay no attention to the mugs out there and then hands her the sheet music to Some of These Days. An image of the very popular and risqué vaudevillian Sophie Tucker is on the cover. Sophie was a Bad Girl.
Joe’s suggestion? “Just put a lot of pep into it.”
It doesn’t take Belle long to get it that this uppity wannabe in her matching outfit is not exactly the Some of These Days–type. And what does she think they’re running here? A funeral parlor? But Sergeant Bruce (Nelson Eddy) would know Marie de Flor’s voice in a million. Turns out, he’s her biggest fan! What the hell is she doing up here? Bruce has dropped in for a quickie before taking off to find the Mountie killer – John Flower.
Flower – de Flor – Flower – de Flor. Could there be a connection? One thing for sure, Marie de Flor is a little thin for up here.
Belle crosses to the piano, gives Joe the high sign, and picks up the song an octave lower from the red-headed nightingale. “You’re gonna miss your baby, Ba-by, some of these days!”
Gilda Gray is best remembered for having introduced the “shimmy” in 1919. Certainly she was not the first woman in history to shake her shoulders and boobs in a skin-tight dress, but she accumulated plenty of screen time doing it. And no high-toned broad in a designer scarf was going to butt-in on that reputation now.
Marie decides to out-shimmy her. To get down! She bombs. No one notices, no one cares. She eases her way toward the door. Sergeant Bruce catches her eye and smiles.
Marie looks away quickly, turns her chin to the moon, and bolts into the night. Bruce follows her, of course, saying, “You mustn’t feel discouraged by what happened in there. One thing about Belle though – if she ever got lumbago, she couldn’t sing a note.”
This was not the first time film director W.S. Van Dyke had guided Miss MacDonald through an outburst of Image-busting. In their previous collaboration, San Francisco – as the preacher’s daughter from Benson, Colorado, “Mary Blake” – Jeanette displayed her very shapely figure in a skin-tight gown with a 3-foot train of ostrich feathers as she belted-out the film’s title song. It is Jeanette MacDonald’s great sense of humor that dominates the scene and compliments her pseudo-jazz variations.
MGM’s decision to write-in a nightclub scene for their No. 1 Classical soprano, hand her a couple of popular uptempo standards by two sets of unrelated writers, and then stage them in the equivalent of a Last Chance Saloon – is the essence of “creative license”. But Jeanette MacDonald is at her comic/tragic best, “Dinah” and “Some of These Days” got engraved into the Great American Songbook, and Rose-Marie remains an intriguing first encounter.
COMING: Part II – Jeanette MacDonald is “Nina Maria” – Cabaret Spy