When the studios needed a charismatic blonde to play a determined but desperate woman heading straight to the final curtain – Gladys George was the ideal choice. She is the doomed “Madame DuBarry” in MGM’s lavish Marie Antoinette (1939), the hard-boiled owner of a speakeasy in The Roaring Twenties (1932), the ultimately tragic heroine of Madame X (1937), the frustrated widow “Iva Archer” in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and a washed-up vaudevillian who’s really been hitting the bottle lately in The Hard Way (1943). Eight years later as “Jessica Howard” in Lullaby of Broadway, Gladys plays a used-to-be Broadway star working her old song sheets in a Greenwich Village watering hole. Jessica has a serious problem with the bottle. Just look at her! Tonight she’s on someone’s lap singing, “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone”.
Six decades later, Gladys George is far from gone and is becoming increasingly more familiar due to the growing availability of her films and frequent broadcasts on the Turner Classic Movie channel. In short, Gladys George is being talked about more than ever.
Janet sent me to YouTube to watch the clip of Gladys singing “Please don’t talk about me” in Lullaby of Broadway. I’ve known this song since the 2nd Grade – I learned it from a cartoon. Should we consider it for Ladies of the Nightclubs? Once I hit play, I realized this was all new to me – I’ve never seen the film, never knew she sang the song. I’m in love. Gladys is wonderful. She’ll be as old as Norma Desmond in a few months. She’s kept her figure, the hair and makeup are perfect, the gown and gloves totally work. The voice has deepened and the song has been set in a low key. In fact, the same key as for baritone Bill Roberts when he records the song in 1955 for a Warner Bros. cartoon, One Froggy Evening. (Bill who?)
Some night over cocktails – say, at any of the nightclubs featured here on this site – mention “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone”. See what happens. If there is a connection, it’s likely to be with this 1955 animated short from Warner Bros. The song is one of eight tunes included in the almost seven-minute film created by director Charles M. (“Chuck”) Jones and scene inventor Michael Maltese. The impact is all about context.
The story involves a demolition project – the J.C. Wilber Building – and the pudgy worker removing the lid of its cornerstone with a crowbar. Once exposed, he sees a small rectangular box, pulls it out, opens the lid and finds several papers. The text is in Gothic font: “Know all ye present – that this building was dedicated on April 16th, 1892….”
At the same time, two eyes peer up from the box and scan left to right. It’s a frog! He steps onto the open lid, checks-out the worker, reaches back inside to pull out a shiny top hat and cane, then breaks into a high-stepping cakewalk while singing, “Hello, my baby! Hello, my honey! Hello, my ragtime gal!” The man looks toward us. An overlay of dollar $igns streams toward an old and vacant vaudeville house. Outside, leaning against its dilapidated box office is a small cardboard sign: THEATER FOR RENT.
[Cut to the Opening Night] The man, now dressed as a big impresario, has invested his life savings into the debut of his All-singing/All-dancing frog. What with free admission and free beer – the theatre is packed. Behind the closed curtains, the frog does one final run-through of the great ragtime favorite, “Won’t you come over to my house (and play like you’re my little girl)?” His voice has never been better. Let’s go. Curtain up!
The croak is loud. Dry. But it sails clear to the back row. The once curious crowd turns into an angry, tomato-throwing mob.
Destitute, in the dead of winter – the very-odd couple is reduced to sitting on a park bench. The good news is that the frog’s ever increasing repertoire now includes Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville – ! But an on-duty cop refuses to believe the man’s explanation about which of them is actually disturbing the peace. [Cut to the “Psychopathic Hospital”] The frog, always with a suitable song for every occasion, clings to the bars on their cell window and bursts into – what else? – “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone.”
Time passes. The man – his suit now in tatters – is seen heading toward the cornerstone of a busy construction site – the Tregoweth Brown Building. Underneath his arm is the small rectangular box. We can hear the frog practicing. The box is a little echo-y, but the lyrics are clear. “Makes no difference how I carry on. Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone!” [Cut to the year 2056] The Tregoweth Brown Building is coming down. A worker from Acme Building Disintegrators – dressed in a sort-of protective space suit and see-through helmet – has just vaporized the lid of its cornerstone, dated 1955. He sees a small rectangular box and a scroll tied with a pink ribbon. Out pops a frog with a shiny top hat and cane….
One Froggy Evening was declared “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in 2003 and granted preservation by the National Film Preservation Foundation. In other words, it will be around forever – playable on whatever device is most up-to-date and best preserves the film’s artistic integrity. A major component of that eternal package is the sterling baritone of Bill Roberts – the voice of the character who came to be known as “Michigan J. Frog”. Mr. Roberts’ only other recorded vocal appearance happens in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. In the background, singing “A Picnic in the Park” – it’s the unmistakable full-throated voice of the man who stumbled into Fame and Immortality through a cartoon. Though the whole story has yet to be told, this singer’s incredible vocals will “carry-on” and be talked about and talked about forevermore.
Click on the photo to watch Gladys George and Michigan J. Frog singing “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone (Oh, honey!)” ––
Again, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone” has caught yet another 21st Century wind due to frequent screenings of The Women – MGM’s pivotal comedy from 1939. Likewise honored by the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2007, the film is available now on both DVD and Blu-Ray. The Women unites two of its leading female superstars – Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, along with Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and a sorority of top-notch character actresses including Mary Boland, Marjorie Main, Lucille Watson, and dozens more.
The scene is a luncheon-for-five at the home of glamorous socialite Mary Haines (Shearer). Sylvia (Russel) and Edith (Phyllis Povah) know that Mary’s terribly attractive husband, Stephen (a successful broker on Wall Street) has been carrying-on with some “beazle” named Crystal Allen (Crawford) – a shop girl at the perfume counter at Black’s! Poor Mary. “How can we eat her food,” says Sylvia, “knowing all about her husband?”
The phone rings. “It’s Mr. Haines,” says the housekeeper. Mary rises from the table, walks past Sylvia, leans-in and sings the title line – “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone” – and heads to the phone. Stephen tells her he won’t be home for dinner and might not make it later-on for the theatre and… What will she tell the girls? What will they talk about – behind her back, of course – then? Anything really nice? Mary might have quoted another line from the song: “Not to talk at all is my advice!”
ALSO SEE: Meeting Jeanette MacDonald in “San Francisco”