Sunday, April 18, 2010

Puttin' on the Ritz

In 1929 (twelve years before the US entered WWII), a Jewish man with the unfortunate last name of Berlin wrote a pop song called "Puttin' on the Ritz," which was featured the next year as the title song for a musical starring then-popular vaudeville and Broadway performer Harry Richman (playing a song promoter named Harry Raymond) in his very first movie role, and a 20-year-old Joan Bennett in her seventh.

This was originally filmed in two-color Technicolor, but only black-and-white copies survive today. The lyrics are slightly different from what you may be used to (assuming that you're familiar with the song at all).
Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lennox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and colored collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending ev'ry dime
For a wonderful time

If you're blue and you don't know
Where to go to,
Why don't you go where Harlem glitz,
Puttin' on the Ritz!

Spangled gowns
upon the bevy
of highbrows
from down the levee,
all misfits,
puttin' on the Ritz!

That's where each and every Lulubelle goes,
every Thursday evening with her swell beaux,
rubbin' elbows.

Come with me
and we'll attend
their jubilee
and see them spend their last two bits,
Puttin' on the Ritz!
This referred to a fad, popular at the time among residents of Harlem, of putting on their best clothes and parading up and down Lenox Avenue.

Update (3/10/2012): Two years after this originally appeared, storeinchitown pointed out something I'd missed. In my transcription, in the second verse, I typed "highbrows" - it was a term I was familiar with. But the line should read:
Spangled gowns
upon the bevy
of high browns
from down the levee,
all misfits,
puttin' on the Ritz!
"High browns" refers to the lighter-skinned blacks who shop owners would hire every so often; I've heard the term before, but you just... OK, I just forget about little bits of racism like that.

It also explains the next line, "...all misfits" - he isn't making fun of the people watching them, but of the darkies putting on airs, like they're as good as us white folks.

The original song just gets worse every time I hear it.

It would reappear in 1939 in the movie Idiot's Delight adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and starring Clark Gable.

This was the only film where Gable ever performed a dance number. And fortunately, after the success of Gone With the Wind that same year, they didn't ask him to sing much, either.

(If you noticed the dancer second from the left edge of the screen was barely in step and not doing the same arm movements as the other chorus girls, that's because she was holding up her top = you see the strap break right about the 24-second mark.)

Around that time (but I'm not sure if it was 1938 or 1944 - many of his live albums from that period were collections of two or more shows), Benny Goodman started performing the song as a clarinet solo. (I couldn't find an embeddable version, and didn't want to pay for it, so the link takes you to the Google player.)

According to Wikipedia:
The song is in AABA form, with a verse. According to John Mueller (in the 1986 "Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films") the central device in the A section is the "use of delayed rhythmic resolution: a staggering, off-balance passage, emphasized by the unorthodox stresses in the lyric, suddenly resolves satisfyingly on a held note, followed by the forceful assertion of the title phrase." The marchlike B section, which is only barely syncopated, acts as a contrast to the previous rhythmic complexities. According to Alec Wilder, in his study of American popular song, the rhythmic pattern in "Puttin' on the Ritz" is "the most complex and provocative I have ever come upon."
For the 1946 film Blue Skies, Berlin revised the vaguely racist lyrics to the version most people are familiar with, and it was performed by the always-brilliant Fred Astaire. (Some of the other videos on this page get extremely grainy on full-screen, but not this one.)

Have you seen the well-to-do
Up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air

High hats and narrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

Now, if you're blue
And you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where fashion sits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin' on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper

Come, let's mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umb-er-ellas
In their mitts
Puttin' on the Ritz
Astaire then performs an extended tap-dance number, after which he ends the song. Possibly for time, or possibly because he was out of breath at that point, they chose not do Berlin's last two verses.
Tips his hat just like an English chappie
To a lady with a wealthy pappy
Very snappy
Puttin' on the Ritz

You'll declare it's simply topping
To be there and hear them swapping
Smart tidbits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Arguably the most famous version was performed in Young Frankenstein by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle (it was also included in the 2007 Broadway musical of the same name).

In 1982, a synth-pop version of the song was recorded by a man whose parents had given him the first name of Taco, and it was his only American hit. Perhaps because Taco was living in Holland at the time and had been born in Indonesia, he didn't understand that including performers in blackface might not be greeted well by the American audience. MTV forced him to re-edit the video to remove the controversial scenes.

It's been performed numerous other times, by an assortment of bands from Shiny Happy Guns (covering the Taco version on their first album) to the Jackson 5 (covering the Astaire version as part of a medley in their 1977 TV show).

But no matter who performs it, for me, Peter Boyle's harmonies will always be a vital part of the song.


Anonymous said...

typical. why do liberals go straigt to calling people racists every time?

Nameless Cynic said...

You know, funny thing there. I specifically said "vaguely racist" for a reason. It's not straight-forward "yo, nigger" racism. It's more of a passive-aggressive, smug-superiority type of attitude - essentially coming out and saying "let's go watch the ashen-skinned folks pretend to have money and throw it all away." Somebody you can feel More Important Than.

In the end, this isn't really "direct" racism, but classism. However, the societally-enforced classes of the participants are rooted in race, so it amounts to the same thing.

Rebecca said...

The reply above contains two fallacies, a myriad of grammatical errors, and no real substance to the comment. Anonymous above was absolutely asinine. Why comment at all?

thetoymaker said...

I love the Fred Astaire version, there is also a funny Bertie and Jeeves version if you are interested.

Is it "Narrow collars" or "Arrow collars"? Don't know, just asking.

Nameless Cynic said...

Good question. That depends entirely on where you get your lyrics. I thought it sounded like "narrow," and that contrasts well with "high hats" in the first half of the line, so I went with it.

And historically, the "Arrow collar" referred to the detachable collar. Arrow shirts with attached collars were started in the early 1920's, and the "Arrow Collar Man" ads were discontinued in 1930. And since the Berlin rewrite is from a decade and a half after that, I'm pretty comfortable with it.

storeinchitown said...

It's actually "bevy of high browns crom down the levy" in the original lyrics, referring to the light-skinned black women who were employed at the bigger Harlem nightclubs like the cotton club. This song keeps appearing on my pandora station in its original form and I couldn't believe how racist it was. Ah well.

Nameless Cynic said...

Holy Christ, you're right! I completely missed that one in the original lyrics. Good catch.

I'm going to make that correction (now, two years down the road) in your honor.

Ramon said...

I find it laughable that people here don't recognize the racist lyrics inherent in the original song. Its lyrics were smug, elitist and condescending towards working class blacks in Harlem who wanted to dress well in public.

Nameless Cynic said...

Well, yes. In fact, if you check the comments above, I said exactly that. I don't see why you think "people here" don't see that. I guess you just feel like you need someone to feel superior to...

Chris said...

This song is indeed about racism and snobbery, but not at all in the way the comments here take it. Berlin, a Jewish immigrant driven out of Belorussia in a pogrom with his family as a child and directly acquainted with racism and persecution, is mocking the white well-to-do who go slumming in Harlem in their costliest finery to show off and have a laugh at what they - the slumming rich - slurred as high browns and Lulu Belles putting on airs.

Nameless Cynic said...

In the rewrite, that would be correct. However, let's go to a slightly more academic source:

"In the original version it told of the ritzy airs of Harlemites parading up and down Lenox Avenue. For the 1946 film, the strutters became well-to-do whites on Park Avenue. The patronizing, yet admiring satire of the song is shifted, then, and mellowed in the process. The change may have had to do with changing attitudes towards race and with Hollywood's dawning wariness about offending blacks."

Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films. page 267; John Mueller (1986)

bloggers said...

It should be "Arrow" collars, not narrow. (See

Nameless Cynic said...

That's a question we don't have the answer to: different versions of the sheet music go different ways with it.

Since the original lyrics read "colored collars," the initial intent was changed to make it mean "fashionable." And "Arrow Collars" would fit that concept.

If you consider "HIGH hats and NARROW collars," it's contrasting size descriptions. Of course, he follows that up with "WHITE spats," so it's not a recurring theme.

Essentially, we'll never know, so you can use whichever version makes you happy.

Anonymous said...

Because it is demonstrably, undeniably racist? Goofy moron